General Information

Mysticism in general refers to a direct and immediate experience of the sacred, or the knowledge derived from such an experience. In Christianity this experience usually takes the form of a vision of, or sense of union with, God; however, there are also nontheistic forms of mysticism, as in Buddhism. Mysticism is usually accompanied by meditation, prayer, and ascetic discipline.

It may also be accompanied by unusual experiences of ecstasy, levitation, visions, and power to read human hearts, to heal, and to perform other unusual acts. Mysticism occurs in most, if not all, the religions of the world, although its importance within each varies greatly. The criteria and conditions for mystical experience vary depending on the tradition, but three attributes are found almost universally. First, the experience is immediate and overwhelming, divorced from the common experience of reality. Second, the experience or the knowledge imparted by it is felt to be self - authenticating, without need of further evidence or justification. Finally, it is held to be ineffable, its essence incapable of being expressed or understood outside the experience itself.

BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
Many mystics have written of their experiences, and these writings are the best source for our knowledge of mysticism. Poetic language is frequently the vehicle of expression. Fire, an interior journey, the dark night of the soul, a knowing that is an un - knowing - such are the images or descriptions used for communicating the mystical experience. In the Christian tradition mysticism is understood as the result of God's action in persons, an unmerited grace they receive from union with God. Other religions allow for the human achievement of the mystical states through certain methods of contemplation, fasting, and breathing. Only those whose lives are marked by penance and emotional purification achieve mystical states, however, and the experience itself is always of an Absolute that transcends the human efforts or methods of achieving it.

Modern philosophers and psychologists have studied the occurrence of mysticism. William James suggested that it may be an extension of the ordinary fields of human consciousness. The philosopher Henri Bergson considered intuition to be the highest state of human knowing and mysticism the perfection of intuition. Today scientists are interested in the ways in which certain drugs seem to induce quasi - mystical states. Recent studies have added to the understanding of mysticism without fully explaining it in psychological terms.

Among the many Christian mystics who have documented their experiences are Saint Francis of Assisi; Saint Teresa of Avila; Saint John of the Cross; Jacob Bohme; George Fox, founder of the Quakers; and Emanuel Swedenborg. For information on mysticism in Islam, see Sufism; in Judaism, Hasidism and Kabbalah; in the Eastern religions, Taoism, Upanishads, Vedanta, and Zen Buddhism.

Joan A Range

H Bridges, American Mysticism: From William James to Zen (1970); E C Butler, Western Mysticism (1967); W H Capp and W M Wright, eds., Silent Fire: An Invitation to Western Mysticism (1978); J M Clark, The Great German Mystics (1949); W James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); D Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (1961); J Marquette, Introduction to Comparative Mysticism (1949); E O'Brien, Varieties of Mystical Experience (1964); G Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's Religions (1977); G G Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1959); E Stevens, An Introduction to Oriental Mysticism (1974); D T Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957); R C Zaehner, Mysticism (1961).


Advanced Information

As recognized by all writers on this subject, whether they claim direct personal mystical experience or not, both the definition and description of the mystical encounter are difficult. It is clear, however, that mysticism is not the same as magic, clairvoyance, parapsychology, or occultism, nor does it consist in a preoccupation with sensory images, visions, or special revelations. Nearly all Christian mystical writers relegate these phenomena to the periphery. Nearly all Christian mystics avoid the occult arts entirely. Briefly and generally stated, mystical theology or Christian mysticism seeks to describe an experienced, direct, nonabstract, unmediated, loving knowing of God, a knowing or seeing so direct as to be called union with God.


A brief historical survey of Christian mysticism is essential to an understanding of the varied ways in which it is explained and defined. Although the terms "mystery" and "mystical" are related etymologically to ancient mystery cults, it is doubtful that NT and patristic writers were dependent theologically upon these sources. A distinct mystical or mystery theology emerged in the Alexandrian school of exegesis and spirituality with Clement of Alexandria and Origen and their search for the hidden meaning of Scripture and their exposition of the mystery of redemption.

The Cappadocian fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa; leading monastics, especially Evagrius of Pontus (346 - 99) and John Cassian (c. 360 - 435); Augustine of Hippo; and the obscure personage known as Dionysius the Pseudo - Areopagite created the formative legacy for medieval mysticism. The term generally used until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to describe the mystical experience was "contemplation." In its original philosophical meaning this word (Gr. theoria) described absorption in the loving viewing of an object or truth.

Only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with the writings of Richard of Saint Victor and Thomas Aquinas, do systematic descriptive analyses of the contemplative life appear. Late medieval concern with practical and methodical prayer contributed to a turning point in the sixteenth century Ignatian and Carmelite schools (Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross). Spiritual writers from these traditions were concerned primarily with empirical, psychological, and systematic descriptions of the soul's behavior in order to assist spiritual directors.

Protestants generally rejected mystical theology. Despite his acquaintance with medieval mystical writings, Martin Luther cannot be called a mystic, recent attempts to arrange his theology around a mystical center notwithstanding. Some Protestants in most periods retained an interest in the mystical tradition, although they should not necessarily be considered mystics. But mainstream Protestantism has generally mistrusted or been openly hostile toward a mystical dimension of the spiritual life.

In Catholic circles mystical theology was virtually submerged under a tide of enlightenment rationalism in the eighteenth century. A mystical reaction to rationalism and naturalism, aided by the development of psychological science in the later nineteenth century, is still bearing fruit in the late twentieth century. A controversy over the relation of mystical theology to "ordinary" prayer and the Christian striving for holiness or perfection dominated the early decades of the twentieth century.

In general, whereas many Catholic theologians reacted to the challenge of rationalism, naturalism, and modernism with renewed attention to mystical and liturgical spiritual theology, many Protestant evagelicals have responded with a generally rational theology of the letter of Scripture. Others have given renewed attention to spirituality in the 1970s but still prefer a "Reformation faith piety" or "prophetic spirituality" to mystical contemplation, partly because of the rejection of mystery in liturgical and sacramental theology and practice. But contemporary evangelical antipathy toward mysticism is also partly the result of Barthian influence that reduces mysticism (and pietism) to a heretical subjectivity and anthropocentrism that denies the utterly transcendent reality of God.

The Nature of Mysticism

Beyond a general descriptive definition as offered above, explanations of the nature and characteristics of the mystical experience vary widely. Throughout Christian history and especially since the sixteenth century many Roman Catholic authors have distinguished ordinary or "acquired" prayer, even if occurring at a supraconceptual level of love, adoration, and desire for God, from the extraordinary or "infused" contemplation which is entirely the work of God's special grace. Only the latter is mystical in a strict sense, according to this view. Other writers, both Catholic and Protestant, would apply the term "mystical" to all communion with God. In the twentieth century some Catholic theologians (e.g., L Bouyer, A Stolz), in conjunction with the movement for liturgical renewal, have sought to locate mystical theology in a scriptural and liturgical context, emphasizing the believer's participation in the mystery of God's reconciliation with his creatures in Christ, especially in the sacraments.

Many attempts have been made to describe the fundamental characteristics of mystical experience. Traditionally it has been asserted that the experiential union of creature and Creator is inexpressible and ineffable, although those who have experienced it seek imagery and metaphors to describe it, however imperfectly. As noted above, it is experienced union or vision, not abstract knowledge. It is beyond the level of concepts, for reasoning, ideas, and sensory images have been transcended (but not rejected) in an intuitive union.

Thus it is suprarational and supraintellectual, not antirational or anti - intellectual. In one sense the sould is passive, because it experiences God's grace poured into itself. Yet the union is not quietistic, because the soul consents to and embraces the spiritual marriage. Although some authors also stress the transient and fleeting nature of mystical union, others describe it as lasting for a definite, even prolonged period of time. More recent theological and liturgical understandings of mystical theology, unlike the systematic phenomenological and "empirical" manuals of the early twentieth century, define characteristics less precisely and seek to fit mystical theology more centrally into an ecclesial and soteriological framework.

The various stages of the mystical way have also been described in immensely varying manner. Virtually all writers agree, however, that purification (purgation or cleaning) and discipline are prerequisites. Each of the three classic stages, the path of purification, the phase of illumination, and the mystical union itself (not necessarily occurring in a fixed sequence but rather in interaction with each other), may be described as consisting of various degrees or graduations. It should not be forgotten that the monastic life, the standard path of ascetic purification throughout much of Christian history, has served as the foundation for much Christian mysticism. Unfortunately, this foundation has been overlooked by some modern scholars who consider mystics to be individualistic seekers after noninstitutional, extrasacramental religious ecstasy.

Teachings about the mystical union have often brought charges of pantheism upon their exponents. Although most mystics seek to transcend the limits of the (false) self, they have been careful to insist on the preservation of the soul's identity in the union with God, choosing such imagery as that of iron glowing in the fire of unitive love, taking on fire in union with the fire, yet without loss of its properties as iron. Indeed, one should rather stress that, far from losing itself, the sould finds its true identity in the mystical union. Many Protestants have found palatable only those mystical writers who are thought to have limited mystical union to a "conformity of human and divine wills," rather than those who teach an ontological union, a union of essence or being. This distinction is problematical, since the meaning of either "ontological union" or "conformity of will" depends on the presuppositions about human nature held by the author in question.

Those who stress a "prophetic faith piety" or "Reformation" alternative to supposed pantheistic or panentheistic mysticism (e.g., Heiler, Bloesch, in part under the influence of Brunner and Barth) have circumscribed mysticism so narrowly and connected it so closely to Neoplatonism that few mystics would recognize it. They have also broadened the meaning of "prophetic religion" so much that most mystics would feel at home under its canopy.

Scriptural sources for Christian mysticism are found largely in the Logos - incarnation doctrine of John's Gospel, in imagery such as that of the vine and branches (John 15) or Christ's prayer for union (John 17), as well as in aspects of the Pauline corpus. The latter include the description of Paul's rapture into the third heaven (II Cor. 12:1 - 4) or statements such as that referring to a life "hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). In all of these the essential theological presuppositions involve belief in a personal God and in the centrality of the incarnation. For medieval mystics Moses' "vision" of God (Exod. 33:12 - 34:9) and his reflection of God's glory upon leaving Mount Sinai (Exod. 34:29 - 35; cf. II Cor. 3:7) served as proof texts, and the allegorized spiritual marriage of the Song of Solomon, together with the other OT wisdom literature, provided unlimited scriptural resources until the shift from spiritual to literal - grammatical humanist and Reformation hermeneutics took place.

Anthropologically, Christian mystical theology presupposes a human capacity or fittedness for God, drawing especially upon the doctrine of human beings created in the image of God and on the doctrine of God become human in Christ. Christian mystics have traditionally understood mystical union as a restoration of the image and likeness of God that was distorted or lost at the fall from innocence. The image of God, distorted but not destroyed, remains as the foundation for the journey from the land of unlikeness to restored likeness and union. Especially in the fourteenth century German Dominican school (Eckhart, Tauler) his teaching on the image of God in humans was expressed with terms such as the "basic will" or "ground" (Grund) of the soul or the "spark of divinity" in the human soul.

In any case, although it stresses union with God who transcends all human limitations, mystical theology is incompatible with either an exclusively transcendent or an exclusively immanent doctrine of God, the God who transcends also became incarnate in Christ and he is immanent in his creatures created in his image. For this reason many representatives of both the social gospel and neo - orthodox theology have been stridently antimystical.


Christian mysticism has often been portrayed as having modified and imported into Christianity the Platonic (Neoplatonic) doctrine of cosmological emanation in creation from the idea of the One and, in mystical union, a corresponding return to the One. While a concern to relate the Creator to creation both immanently and transcendentally has from the earliest centuries led Christian mystics to make use of Neoplatonic philosophy, equally prominent are those (especially in the Franciscan school) whose theology is Christocentric, ecclesial, and liturgical. One of the most cosmologically sophisticated medieval mystics, Nicolas of Cusa (1401 - 64), drew deeply from Neoplatonic and Eckhartian emanationism but was also profoundly Christocentric. The issue cannot be resolved solely with broad brushstrokes of metahistorical categories such as Neoplatonism.

Of the other issues that have recurred in mystical writings and studies of mystical writings, one of the most enduring is the question of the relation between cognitive, intellectual, or speculative elements, on the one hand, and affective, loving, or supraconceptual and suprarational elements on the other. The negative way that "ascends" by stripping off all cognitions and images until one "sees" God in a "cloud of unknowing" darkness differs from the philosophical systems that claim mystical knowledge to be the human reason (including will, intellect, and feeling) exploring the sphere above that of limited rationalism (Inge), as well as the simple clinging to God in love alone posited by some mystics. Such distinctions, however, are not absolute, and most mystics stress the interrelatedness of love and cognition.

The problem of the objective quality of mystical experience that so preoccupied the psychological - empirical writers of the early twentieth century has become less significant for Christians dealing with mysticism theologically in its scriptural, ecclesial, and liturgical contexts. At the same time, for students of the philosophy of religion the question of objective content has gained renewed attention as nineteenth century naturalism wanes and Western interest in Eastern mysticism and religions grows.

D D Martin
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

M A Bowman, Western Mysticism; A Guide to the Basic Sources; L Bouyer, F Vandenbroucke, and J Leclercq, A History of Christian Spirituality; Dictionnaire de spiritualite ascetique et mystique, II; A Louth, The Origins of Christian Mystical Theology; T S Kepler, An Anthology of Devotional Literature; W James, The Varieties of Religious Experience; F von Hugel, The Mystical Element of Religion; E Underhill, Mysticism; R M Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion; R Otto, The Idea of the Holy; R C Zaehner, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane; G Harkness, Mysticism: Its Meaning and Message; H D Egan, What are They Saying about Mysticism? S T Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis; A Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer; C Butler, Western Mysticism; P Murray, The Mysticism Debate; T Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation; A W Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy; A Nygren, Agape and Eros; F Heiler, Prayer; V Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.


Catholic Information

(From myein, to initiate).

Mysticism, according to its etymology, implies a relation to mystery. In philosophy, Mysticism is either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire. As a philosophical system, Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but as a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite. According to its tendency, it may be either speculative or practical, as it limits itself to mere knowledge or traces duties for action and life; contemplative or affective, according as it emphasizes the part of intelligence or the part of the will; orthodox or heterodox, according as it agrees with or opposes the Catholic teaching. We shall give a brief historical sketch of Mysticism and its influence on philosophy, and present a criticism of it.


In his "History of Philosophy", Cousin mentions four systems, between which, he says, philosophical thought has continually wavered, viz., Sensism, Idealism, Scepticism, and Mysticism. Whatever may be thought of this classification, it is true that Mysticism has exercised a large influence on philosophy, becoming at times the basis of whole systems, but more often entering as an element into their constitution. Mysticism dominated in the symbolic philosophy of ancient Egypt. The Taoism of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tze is a system of metaphysics and ethics in which Mysticism is a fundamental element (cf. De Harlez, "Laotze, le premier philosophe chinois", in "Mémoires couronnés et autres de l'Académie", Brussels, January, 1886). The same may be said of Indian philosophy; the end of human reflection and effort in Brahmanism and Vedantism is to deliver the soul from its transmigrations and absorb it into Brahma forever. There is little of Mysticism in the first schools of Greek philosophy, but it already takes a large place in the system of Plato, e.g., in his theory of the world of ideas, of the origin of the world soul and the human soul, in his doctrine of recollection and intuition. The Alexandrian Jew Philo (30 B.C-A.D. 50) combined these Platonic elements with the data of the Old Testament, and taught that every man, by freeing himself from matter and receiving illumination from God, may reach the mystical, ecstatic, or prophetical state, where he is absorbed into the Divinity. The most systematic attempt at a philosophical system of a mystical character was that of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria, especially of Plotinus (A.D. 205-70) in his "Enneads". His system is a syncretism of the previous philosophies on the basis of Mysticism--an emanative and pantheistic Monism. Above all being, there is the One absolutely indetermined, the absolutely Good. From it come forth through successive emanations intelligence (nous) with its ideas, the world-soul with its plastic forces (logoi spermatikoi), matter inactive, and the principle of imperfection. The human soul had its existence in the world-soul until it was united with matter. The end of human life and of philosophy is to realize the mystical return of the soul to God. Freeing itself from the sensuous world by purification (katharsis), the human soul ascends by successive steps through the various degrees of the metaphysical order, until it unites itself in a confused and unconscious contemplation to the One, and sinks into it: it is the state of ecstasis. With Christianity, the history of Mysticism enters into a new period. The Fathers recognized indeed the partial truth of the pagan system, but they pointed out also its fundamental errors. They made a distinction between reason and faith, philosophy and theology; they acknowledged the aspirations of the soul, but, at the same time, they emphasized its essential inability to penetrate the mysteries of Divine life. They taught that the vision of God is the work of grace and the reward of eternal life; in the present life only a few souls, by a special grace, can reach it. On these principles, the Christian school of Alexandria opposed the true gnosis based on grace and faith to the Gnostic heresies. St. Augustine teaches indeed that we know the essences of things in rationibus aeternis, but this knowledge has its starting point in the data of sense (cf. Quæstiones, LXXXIII, c. xlvi). Pseudo-Dionysius, in his various works, gave a systematic treatment of Christian Mysticism, carefully distinguishing between rational and mystical knowledge. By the former, he says, we know God, not in His nature, but through the wonderful order of the universe, which is a participation of the Divine ideas ("De Divinis Nomin.", c, vii, §§ 2-3, in P. G., III, 867 sq.). There is, however, he adds, a more perfect knowledge of God possible in this life, beyond the attainments of reason even enlightened by faith, through which the soul contemplates directly the mysteries of Divine light. The contemplation in the present life is possible only to a few privileged souls, through a very special grace of God: it is the theosis, mystike enosis.

The works of Pseudo-Dionysius exercised a great influence on the following ages. John Scotus Eriugena (ninth century), in his "De Divisione Naturæ", took them as his guide, but he neglected the distinction of his master, identifying philosophy and theology, God and creatures, and, instead of developing the doctrine of Dionysius, reproduced the pantheistic theories of Plotinus (see ERIUGENA, JOHN SCOTUS). In the twelfth century, orthodox Mysticism was presented under a systematic form by the Victorines, Hugh, Walter, and Richard (cf. Mignon, "Les Origines de la Scolastique et Hugues de St. Victor", Paris, 1895), and there was also a restatement of Eriugena's principles with Amaury de Bène, Joachim de Floris, and David of Dinant. A legitimate element of Mysticism, more or less emphasized, is found in the works of the Schoolmen of the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was, as a protest against a sterile dialecticism, a revival of mystical systems, some orthodox--J. Ruysbroek, Gerson, Peter d'Ailly, Denys the Carthusian--and others heterodox--John of Ghent, John of Mirecourt, the Beguines and Beghards, and various brotherhoods influenced by Averroism, and especially Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who in his "Opus Tripartitum" teaches a deification of man and an assimilation of the creature into the Creator through contemplation (cf. Denifle in "Archiv für Literatur und Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters", 1886), the "Theologia Germanica", and, to a certain extent, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) with his theory of the coincidentia oppositorum. Protestantism, by its negation of all ecclesiastical authority and by advocating a direct union of the soul with God, had its logical outcome in a Mysticism mostly pantheistic.

Protestant Mysticism is represented by Sebastian Frank (1499-1542), by Valentine Weiler (1533-88), and especially by J. Böhme (1575-1624), who, in his "Aurora", conceived the nature of God as containing in itself the energies of good and evil, and identified the Divine nature with the human soul whose operation is to kindle, according to its free will, the fire of good or the fire of evil (cf. Deussen, "J. Böhme ueber sein Leben und seine Philosophie", Kiel, 1897). Reuchlin (1455-1522) developed a system of cabalistic Mysticism in his "De arte cabalistica" and his "De verbo mirifico". We may also assign to the influence of Mysticism the ontological systems of Malebranche and of the Ontologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The romantic Mysticism of Fichte (1762-1814), Novalis (1772-1801), and Schelling (1775-1854) was a reaction against the Rationalism of the eighteenth century. A pseudo-Mysticism is also the logical outcome of the Fideism and evolutionistic Subjectivism of modern Protestants, inaugurated by Lessing (1728-81), developed by Schleiermacher (1768-1834), A. Ritschl (1822-89; cf. Goyau, "L'Allemagne Religieuse, Le Protestantisme", 6th ed., Paris, 1906), Sabatier, etc., and accepted by the Modernists in their theories of vital immanence and religious experience (cf. Encyclical "Pascendi"). (See MODERNISM.)


A tendency so universal and so persistent as that of Mysticism, which appears among all peoples and influences philosophical thought more or less throughout all centuries, must have some real foundation in human nature. There is indeed in the human soul a natural desire for, an aspiration towards the highest truth, the absolute truth, and the highest, the infinite good. We know by experience and reason that the knowledge and enjoyment of created things cannot give the fulness of truth and the perfection of beatitude which will completely satisfy our desires and aspirations. There is in our soul a capacity for more truth and perfection than we can ever acquire through the knowledge of created things. We realize that God alone is the end of man, that in the possession of God alone we can reach the satisfaction of our aspirations. (Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I:2:1; I:12:1; I:44:4; I-II:3:8; "Contra Gentes", III, cc. i, xxv, l; "De Veritate", Q. xxii, a. 2; "Compend. Theologiæ", 104, etc.) But the rational effort of our intelligence and positive aspirations of our will find here their limits. Is there truly possible a union of our reason and will with God more intimate than that which we possess through created things? Can we expect more than a knowledge of God by analogical concepts and more than the beatitude proportionate to that knowledge? Here human reason cannot answer. But where reason was powerless, philosophers gave way to feeling and imagination. They dreamt of an intuition of the Divinity, of a direct contemplation and immediate possession of God. They imagined a notion of the universe and of human nature that would make possible such a union. They built systems in which the world and the human soul were considered as an emanation or part of the Divinity, or at least as containing something of the Divine essence and Divine ideas. The logical outcome was Pantheism.

This result was a clear evidence of error at the starting-point. The Catholic Church, as guardian of Christian doctrine, through her teaching and theologians, gave the solution of the problem. She asserted the limits of human reason: the human soul has a natural capacity (potentia obedientialis), but no exigency and no positive ability to reach God otherwise than by analogical knowledge. She condemned the immediate vision of the Beghards and Beguines (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", nn. 474-5), the pseudo-Mysticism of Eckhart (ibid., nn. 501-29), and Molinos (ibid., nn. 2121-88), the theories of the Ontologists (ibid., nn. 1659-65, 1891-1930), and Pantheism under all its forms (ibid., nn. 1801-5), as well as the vital Immanence and religious experience of the Modernists (ibid., nn. 2071-109). But she teaches that, what man cannot know by natural reason, he can know through revelation and faith; that what he cannot attain to by his natural power he can reach by the grace of God. God has gratuitously elevated human nature to a supernatural state. He has assigned as its ultimate end the direct vision of Himself, the Beatific Vision. But this end can be reached only in the next life; in the present life we can but prepare ourselves for it with the aid of revelation and grace. To some souls, however, even in the present life, God gives a very special grace by which they are enabled to feel His sensible presence; this is true mystical contemplation. In this act, there is no annihilation or absorption of the creature into God, but God becomes intimately present to the created mind and this, enlightened by special illuminations, contemplates with ineffable joy the Divine essence.

Publication information Written by George M. Sauvage. Transcribed by Elizabeth T. Knuth. Dedicated to Thomas S. Charters The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


PREGER, Gesch. der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter (Leipzig, 1881); SCHMID, Der Mysticismus in seiner Entstehungsperiode (Jena, 1824); GÖRRES, Die christl. Mystik (Ratisbon, 1836-42); COUSIN, Histoire générale de la philosophie (Paris, 1863); IDEM, Du Vrai, du Beau et du Bien (23rd ed., Paris, 1881), v; GENNARI, Del falso Misticismo (Rome, 1907); DELACROIX, Essai sur le mysticisme spéculatif en Allemagne au xive siècle (Paris, 1900); UEBERWEG, Hist. of Philos., tr. MORRIS with additions by PORTER (New York, 1894); DE WULF, Hist. de la Philos. médiévale (Louvain, 1900); TURNER, Hist. of Philos. (Boston, 1903).

Mystical Theology

Catholic Information

Mystical theology is the science which treats of acts and experiences or states of the soul which cannot be produced by human effort or industry even with the ordinary aid of Divine grace. It comprises among its subjects all extraordinary forms of prayer, the higher forms of contemplation in all their varieties or gradations, private revelations, visions, and the union growing out of these between God and the soul, known as the mystical union. As the science of all that is extraordinary in the relations between the Divinity and the human spirit, mystical theology is the complement of ascetical, which treats of Christian perfection and of its acquisition by the practice of virtue, particularly by the observance of the counsels. The contents of mystical theology are doctrinal as well as experimental, as it not only records the experiences of souls mystically favoured, but also lays down rules for their guidance, which are based on the authority of the Scriptures, on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and on the explanations of theologians, many of them eminent as mystics. Its rules and precepts are usually framed for the special use of those who have occasion to direct souls in the ways of mysticism, so as to preserve them from error while facilitating their advancement. It must therefore take note of the erroneous systems of prayer, like Quietism or Semiquietism, and of the self-illusion or deception of souls that mistake the powers of darkness for those of light or the promptings of their own self-seeking for Divine communications. It is this part of the science that necessitates inquiry into various phases of occultism, diabolism, etc., into which writers like Görres have gone so extensively. Mystical theology has a nomenclature all its own, seeking to express acts or states that are for the most part purely spiritual in terms denoting analogous experiences in the material order. Usually it does not form part of the ordinary class-room studies, but is imparted by spiritual masters in their personal direction of souls, or inculcated, as in seminaries and novitiates, by special conferences and courses of spiritual reading. Preliminary to the study of mystical theology is a knowledge of the four ordinary forms of prayer: vocal, mental, affective, and the prayer of simplicity (see PRAYER). The last two, notably the prayer of simplicity, border on the mystical. Prayer is often called active or acquired contemplation to distinguish it from passive or higher contemplation, in which mystical union really consists.

Mystical theology begins by reviewing the various descriptions of extraordinary contemplation, contained in the works of mystics and of writers on mystical subjects, and the divisions which help to describe its various phases, indicating chiefly whether it consists of an enlargement or elevation of knowledge, or of absorption in the Divine vision, or, again, whether the cherubic, i.e., intellectual, or seraphic, i.e., affective, element predominates. The objects of contemplation are set forth: God, His Attributes, the Incarnation, and all the Sacred Mysteries of the Life of Christ; His presence in the Eucharist; the supernatural order; every creature of God in the natural order, animate or inanimate, particularly the Blessed Virgin, the angels, the saints, Providence, the Church. In analyzing the causes of contemplation, what may be called its psychology next comes up for consideration, in so far as it necessitates the ordinary or exceptional use of any human faculty, of the senses of the body, or of the powers of the soul. On God's part, grace must be considered as a principle, or cause, of contemplation, the special or unusual graces (gratis datoe) as well as ordinary graces, the virtues, theological as well as moral, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The closing chapter in this part of the science dwells on the fruits of contemplation, especially the elevation of spirit, joy, charity, zeal; on the influences that may contribute to its duration, interruption, or cessation. Here some theologians treat in detail of the preliminary or preparatory dispositions for contemplation, of natural or moral aptitude, solitude, prayer, mortification or self-denial, corporal and spiritual, as a means of soul-purification; these topics, however, belong more properly to the domain of ascetical theology. What strictly comes within the province of mystical theology is the study of the processes of active and passive purification through which a soul must pass to reach the mystical union. Although the active processes are also treated to some extent in ascetical theology, they require special study inasmuch as they lead to contemplation. They comprise: purity of conscience, or aversion even to the slightest sin; purity of heart, the heart being taken as the symbol of the affections, which to be pure must be free of attachments to anything that does not lead to God; purity of the spirit, i.e. of the imagination and memory; and purity of action. It is to these processes that the well-known term "night" is applied by St. John of the Cross, since they imply three things which are as night to the soul in so far as they are beyond or contrary to its own lights, viz., the privation of pleasure, faith as substituted for human knowledge, and God as incomprehensible, or darkness, to the unaided soul. Passive purifications are the trials encountered by souls in preparation for contemplation, known as desolation, or dryness, and weariness. As they proceed sometimes from God and sometimes may be produced by the Evil Spirit, rules for the discernment of spirits are set down to enable directors to determine their source and to apply proper means of relief, especially should it happen that the action of the Evil One tends to possession or obsession.

These passive purifications affect the soul when every other object of contemplation is withdrawn from it, except its own sins, defects, frailties, which are revealed to it in all their enormity. They put the soul in the "obscure night", as St. John of the Cross calls it, or in the "great desolation", to use the phrase of Father Baker. In this state the soul experiences many trials and temptations, even to infidelity and despair, all of which are expressed in the peculiar terminology of writers on mystical theology, as well as the fruits derived from resisting them. Chief among these fruits is the purification of love, until the soul is so inflamed with love of God that it feels as if wounded and languishes with the desire to love Him still more intensely. The first difficulty mystical writers encounter in their treatises on contemplation is the proper terminology for its degrees, or the classification of the experiences of the soul as it advances in the mystical union with God effected by this extraordinary form of prayer. Ribet in "La Mystique Divine" has a chapter (x) on this subject, and the present writer treats it in chapter xxix of his "Grace of Interior Prayer" (tr. of the sixth edition). Scaramelli follows this order: the prayer of recollection; the prayer of spiritual silence; the prayer of quiet; the inebriation of love; the spiritual sleep; the anguish of love; the mystical union of love, and its degrees from simple to perfect union and spiritual marriage. In this union the soul experiences various spiritual impressions, which mystical writers try to describe in the terminology used to describe sense impressions, as if the soul could see, hear, touch, or enjoy the savour or odour of the Divinity. Ecstatic union with God is a further degree of prayer. This and the state of rapture require careful observation to be sure that the Evil One has no share in them. Here again mystical writers treat at length the deceits, snares, and other arts practised by the Evil One to lead souls astray in the quest for the mystical union. Finally, contemplation leads to a union so intimate and so strong that it can be expressed only by the terms "spiritual marriage". The article on contemplation describes the characteristics of the mystical union effected by contemplation. No treatise of mystical theology is complete without chapters on miracles, prophecies, revelations, visions, all of which have been treated under their respective headings.

As for the history or development of mysticism, it is as difficult to record as a history of the experiences of the human soul. The most that can be done is to follow its literature, mindful that the most extraordinary mystical experiences defy expression in human speech, and that God, the Author of mystical states, acts upon souls when and as He wills, so that there can be no question of what we could consider a logical or chronological development of mysticism as a science. Still, it is possible to review what mystical writers have said at certain periods, and especially what St. Teresa did to treat for the first time mystical phenomena as a science. Before her, mystics were concerned principally with ecstasies, visions, and revelations; she was the first to attempt a scientific analysis of the process of mystical union brought about by contemplation. As the contribution to the science and history of mystical theology by each of the writers in the following list has been sufficiently noted in the articles on them, it will suffice here to mention the titles of some of their characteristic works.

Famous Mystics Prior to the Nineteenth Century

St. Gregory I the Great (b. at Rome, c. 540; d. there, 604): "Commentaries on Job"; this book is called the Ethics of St. Gregory. The writings of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite did not reach the West until about 824, when they were sent to Louis the Pious by Michael the Stammerer, Emperor of Constantinople: "Opera". Hugh of St. Victor, canon regular at Paris (b. in Saxony, 1096; d. at Paris, 1141): passim, St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux (b. near Dijon, 1090; d. at Clairvaux, 1153): "On the Canticle of Canticles". Richard of St. Victor, canon regular at Paris (d. at Paris, 1173): "De contemplatione". St. Bonaventure, Minister General of the Friars Minor (b. at Bagnorea, 1221; d. at Lyons, 1274): "Journey of the Soul towards God". The "Seven Roads of Eternity", which has sometimes been attributed to him, is the work of a Friar Minor, Rudolph of Bibrach, of the fourteenth century. St. Gertrude, a Benedictine (b. at Eisleben, 1256; d. at Helfta, Saxony, 1302): Revelations. Blessed Angela of Foligno (b. at Foligno, 1248; d. there, 1309): "Life and Revelations" in "Acta SS.", I, January, 186-234; this work is one of the masterpieces of mysticism. Tauler, a Dominican (b. at Strasburg, c. 1300; d. there, 1361): "Sermons" (Leipzig, 1498). Blessed Henry Suso, a Dominican (b. at Constance, c. 1295; d. at Ulm, 1366): "Exemplar" (Augsburg, 1482). "The Book of the Nine Rocks" is not by him but by a merchant of Strasburg, the somewhat unorthodox Rulman Merswin. St. Bridget of Sweden (b. c. 1303; d. at Rome, 1373): "Revelations" (Nuremberg, 1500). Blessed Ruysbroeck, surnamed the Admirable (b. at Ruysbroeck, 1293; d. at Groenendael, 1381): "Opera omnia", Latin tr. by the Carthusian Surius (Cologne, 1692). François-Louis Blosius (de Blois), Benedictlne Abbot of Liessies (b. near Liège, 1506; d. at Liessies, 1566): "Opera" (Ingolstadt, 1631). St. Teresa (b. at Avila, 1515; d. at Aba de Tormes, 1582): "Opera" (Salamanca, 1588). St. John of the Cross, founder of the Discalced Carmelites (b. at Hontiveros, 1542; d. at Ubeda, 1591): "Opera" (Seville, 1702). Venerable Luis de Lapuente (b. at Valladolid, 1554; d. there, 1624): "Life of Father Baltasár Alvarez", confessor of St. Teresa (Madrid, 1615); "Spiritual Guide" (Valladolid, 1609); "Life of Marina de Escobar" (2 vols., Madrid, 1665-73). St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva (b. at Thorens, near Annecy, 1567; d. at Lyons, 1622): "Treatise on the Love of God" (Lyons, 1616). Alvarez de Paz, S.J. (b. at Toledo 1560; d. at Potosi, 1620): "De inquisitione pacis" in "Opera", III (Lyons, 1647). Philip of the Blessed Trinity, General of the Discalced Carmelites (b. at Malancène, near Avignon, 1603; d. at Naples, 1671): "Summa theologiæ mysticæ" (Lyons, 1656). Jean-Joseph Surin. Venerable Marie de l'Incarnation (b. at Tours, 1599; d. at Quebec, 1672): "Life and Letters", published by her son Dom Claude Martin, O. S. B. (Paris, 1677). Bossuet called her the "Teresa of the New World". Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux (b. at Dijon, 1627; d. at Paris, 1704): "Instruction sur les états d'oraison" (Paris, 1697). Joseph of the Holy Ghost, Definitor General of the Discalced Carmelites (d. 1639): "Cursus theologiæ mystico-scholasticæ" (6 vols., Seville, 1710-40). Emmanuel de la Reguera, S.J. (b. at Aguilàr del Campo, 1668; d. at Rome, 1747): "Praxis theologiæ mysticæ" (2 vols., Rome, 1740-45), a development of the mystical theology of Wadding (Father Godinez). Scaramelli, S.J. (b. at Rome, 1687; d. at Macerata, 1752): "Direttorio mistico" (Venice, 1754). As a description, this is the best treatise of the eighteenth century despite its too complicated classification; Voss has published a compendium of it, entitled "Directorium Mysticum" (Louvain, 1857). Schram, O.S.B. (b. at Bamberg, 1722; d. at Bainz, 1797): "Institutiones theologiæ mysticæ (Augsburg, 1777), chiefly an abridgment of la Reguera. More complete lists (176 names) will be found in Poulain, "Graces d'Oraison" (7th ed., Paris, 1911); tr., "The Graces of Interior Prayer" (London, 1910); and in Underhill, "Mysticism" (New York, 1912).

MARÉCHAUX, Le merveilleux divin et le merveilleux démoniaque (Paris, 1901); MIGNE, Dict. de mystique chrétienne (Paris, 1858); LEJEUNE, Manuel de théologie mystique (Paris, 1897); VALLGORNERA, Mystica Theologia Divi Thomoe (Turin, 1891); BAKER, Holy Wisdom (London, 1908); CHANDLER, Ara Coeli Studies in Mystical Religion (London, 1908); DALGAIRNS, The German Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1858); DELACROIX, Essai sur le mysticisme spéculatif en Allemagne au XIX siècle (Paris, 1900); IDEM, Etudes d'histoire et de psychologie du mysticisme. Lee grands mystiques chrétiens (Paris, I908); DENIFLE, Das geistliche Leben: Blumenlese aus der deutschen Mystikern der 14. Jahrhunderts (Graz, 1895); DEVINE, A Manual of Mystical Theology (London, 1903): GARDNER, The Cell of Self-Knowledge (London, 1910); GÖRRES, Die Christliche Mystik (Ratisbon, 1836-42); POIRET, Theologioe Mysticoe idea generalis (Paris, 1702); RIBET, La Mystique Divine (Paris, 1879); IDEM, L'Ascétique Chrétienne (Paris, 1888); SAUDREAU, La vie d'union à Dieu (Paris, 1900); IDEM, L'état mystigue (Paris, 1903); IDEM, Les faits extraotdinaires de la vie spirituelle (Paris, 1908); IDEM, tr. CAMM, The Degrees of the Spiritual Life (London, 1907); IDEM, tr. SMITH, The Way that Leads to God (London, 1910); THOROLD, An Essay in Aid of the Better Appreciation of Catholic Mysticism (London, 1900); VON HUGEL, The Mystical Element of Religion (London, 1908).

Publication information Written by Aug. Poulain. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

This page - - - - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -

Copyright Information

Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet