The word mystic presents a similar problem to the word contemplation. It’s not particular to Catholics, or even Christians. And among Catholics, mystic is understood in different senses. What does it mean to be a mystic, according to the Catholic Church? How did the Carmelite saints view mysticism? Is mysticism for a chosen few, or for everyone?
First, let’s look at the history of the word mystic. Mystic comes from a Greek root meaning “hidden” or “concealed.” In the time of Christ and the early Church, many people in Eastern Europe, which was then under the influence of Hellenistic (Greek) culture, practiced mystery religions. Practitioners were initiated into spiritual secrets through private rites.
Mysticism and the Mass
Early Christians adopted the word mystical to refer to the Eucharist, and the Greek culture influenced the development of the liturgy. When converts were preparing to enter the Church, they left Mass before the Eucharistic prayer. They did not observe the consecration until they were baptized and ready to receive Communion themselves.
Last week, catechumens were admitted to the Eucharist for the first time, at the Easter Vigil Mass. But, as we know, they were welcome to attend the entire Mass before their initiation was complete, even though they could not yet receive the Sacrament. Witnessing the consecration of the Eucharist is no longer reserved to those who are fully initiated into the Church.
Visions and locutions
In popular parlance, a mystic is someone who experiences supernatural communication with God (or a pagan deity, etc.) through visions, locutions, or altered states of consciousness. So, if we hear that a woman is a mystic, we might suspect she is receiving private revelations. When non-Christians hear the word mystic, they may think of a Buddhist monk in meditation.
Compare this idea with the definition of mysticism from Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary: “The supernatural state of soul in which God is known in a way that no human effort or exertion could ever succeed in producing.” In this definition, the “secret knowledge” of the mystic is not knowledge about future events or new doctrines, but knowledge of God Himself.
True mysticism is knowledge of God Himself
Fr. Hardon continues:
There is an immediate, personal experience of God that is truly extraordinary, not only in intensity and degree, but in kind. It is always the result of a special, totally unmerited grace of God. Christian mysticism differs essentially from the non-Christian mysticism of the Oriental world. It always recognizes that the reality to which it penetrates simply transcends the soul and the cosmos; there is no confusion between I and thou, but always a profound humility before the infinite Majesty of God. And in Christian mysticism all union between the soul and God is a moral union of love, in doing his will even at great sacrifice to self; there is no hint of losing one’s being in God or absorption of one’s personality into the divine.
This definition coincides perfectly with the Carmelite view of mysticism. St. John of the Cross in particular cautioned against seeking revelations of any kind. He wrote that “one act done in charity is more precious in God’s sight than all the visions and communications possible” (Ascent of Mt. Carmel 2, 22, 19).
The trouble with private revelations
St. Teresa of Avila taught that such communications from God were common, and could do no harm to people who were humble and obedient. At the same time, she and John both taught that the Devil often used visions and locutions to deceive people. Even more often, people would subscribe ideas to God that their minds actually created. (See Ascent 2, 29, 4-5.)
Since it is so easy to be deceived by oneself or the Devil, the Carmelite saints taught, it’s best to pay little attention to supposedly divine communications. If God sent them, we can’t prevent them from bearing good fruit when we calmly ignore them out of caution. We should keep our focus on a life of prayer and virtue.
“It should be kept in mind that a person must never follow his own opinion, nor do or admit anything told to him through these locutions, without ample advice and counsel from another” (ibid., 2, 30, 6). Any tendency to avoid the counsel of a competent priest or Church authority is a sign of a false revelation.
The Beatific Vision and the transforming union
If we go back to Fr. Hardon’s definition of mysticism, it’s clear that a person can be a mystic without any “messages” for oneself or the world. The goal of the Christian life is intimate union with God. John the Apostle says of our life in heaven, “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The vision of God transforms us. This is true of the highest state of the spiritual life on earth too, which our saints call the transforming union.
If you reach the final stages of the spiritual life, you will be a mystic, whether or not you ever receive locutions or visions, in the sense we usually think of them. It is the vision of God, the intimate knowledge of His character, which only He can grant, that creates the true mystic. God reveals Himself to the one who lovingly follows Him, in order to transform her into His perfect bride. That divine intimacy, rather than private revelations, should be our goal.
Note: Thanks to blogger Michael Seagriff for letting me guest post on his blog Harvesting the Fruits of Contemplation today. If you have found my blog through his site, welcome!
7 thoughts on “What is a mystic?”
Connie, this is the best explanation of true Catholic mysticism that I have ever read. You have such a gift for explaining these complex and confusing topics so that everyone can understand them. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Patricia. All I did was read and and explain a little about what others said. Praised be Jesus Christ!
I agree with Patricia! Thank you Connie, this was a very helpful and lovely post!
I’m glad I could help, Trish. Happy Easter to you.
Thank you for the reminder that any phenomena like locutions, revelations, and so on are not necessary for a Catholic understanding of “being a mystic.”
Also, it’s so wonderful to meet new definitions and explanations like those of Fr. Hardon — that mysticism corresponds to a “supernatural state of soul in which God is known in a way that no human effort or exertion could ever succeed in producing.”
I think Fr. Hardon’s view sounds like the view of others that I’ve read on this topic. To me it sounds as if, for Fr. Hardon, “mysticism” is just the same as “contemplative prayer.” Perhaps we don’t need to “reach the final stages of the spiritual life” and enter into the transforming union to be considered mystics, either? In this view of things, we may need only enter into contemplative prayer, even in its beginning stages, and then we are “mystics.”
My reason for suggesting this is that I suppose Fr. Hardon’s view corresponds with Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Francis de Sales, and John of the Cross… For Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP, mysticism is synonymous with contemplation. St. Francis de Sales wrote “a description of mystical theology, which is no other thing than prayer” (and all of prayer for him must tend to contemplation). And St. John of the Cross also identifies contemplation and mysticism (“mystical theology”) in Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, c. 8, n. 6, Dark Night, II, c. 5, n. 1, and Spiritual Canticle, st. 27, n. 5 and st. 39, n. 12.
Do you think this is a correct way to understand Fr. Hardon? =\
Ben, thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right–contemplation starts much sooner than the transforming union. Supernatural contemplation begins in the third or fourth of St. Teresa’s seven mansions (depending on which author you go by). If we persevere, we will almost all reach that stage. Then we will be mystics. Yes, I would say that a mystic is a person who has experienced some level of true (supernatural) contemplation.
This is a very helpful message.