Why study mystical Christianity? by John Yates for Christian Today
As a young Christian I was attracted to the teachings of the classical Christian mystics, men and women whose writings have been widely acknowledged as bearing witness to Jesus across the various strands of Christianity. No doubt you have all heard of St. Francis of Assisi, but how many of you have intimate knowledge of his conversion and later life experiences?
Having referred in a recent writing to some mystical experiences of the great English Christian, Julian of Norwich, I discovered that many of my readers were ignorant of both her and the mystic tradition. This ignorance is a serious loss to the ongoing discipleship of the Church. For this reason, I have outlined below a few essential features of mystical Christianity.
Not a Heresy
Heresy always develops when we take our eyes off the Jesus of the Bible. The writings of these classical mystics are thoroughly Christocentric. Mystics in other traditions seek union with “God” outside of the humanity of Christ. This is the precise opposite of the genuine Christian mystical path, which walks the difficult way of the cross.
An intense experience of suffering is an essential dimension of what makes a Christian into a mystic. For example, St. Francis’ whole life was absorbed in experiences in his own body which left him with the stigmata of Christ as he sought to be total transformation into the likeness of Christ crucified, Julian of Norwich had her visions during a period of prolonged serious illness, Teresa of Avila had a near death experience, and possibly suffered from epilepsy, St John of the Cross suffered imprisonment and torture from rival monastic groups opposed to his reforms.
Like Paul’s who testimony, “the love of God controls us” (2 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 14), the vision of the beauty of God’s love compelled these men and women to be united with the actual sufferings of Jesus. This is biblical, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians chapter 1 verse 24).
The goal of the mystical search is to see Jesus in the Spirit (Cf. Revelation chapter 1 verse 10) so as to become as much like him as possible. Whilst the so-called “beatific vision” of the Lord will not come completely in this life, through day after day humbling under the mighty hand of God (1 Pet chapter 5 verse 6) we can repeatedly be made smaller and smaller so that our spiritual affections become more and more pure and holy like those of Christ.