When I was thirty, I went on a one-week contemplative retreat, the topic of which was the Christian mystics. I had no idea that going on a contemplative retreat meant spending a week in near total silence. I went on the retreat because of my interest in Christian mysticism, and left with a new discipline – contemplative prayer. This discipline, practiced by the mystics, gave me a new way to pray, to open myself to God’s love, and to experience God’s presence in my life. In the busyness of life, I often forget the lessons I learned on that retreat, and find that I must return to mystic visionaries to remind myself that I, that we all, can have a close, personal, sometimes maybe even exhilarating and ecstatic, relationship with our Savior.
Conversion experiences, “Ah Ha!” moments in which the Holy Spirit touches you, I would call mystic. With that said, Christian mysticism can most simply be understood as the direct experience of God through the Holy Spirit. Mystics seek to directly experience God through physical and contemplative states. God cannot be known by means of reason or the five senses. Instead, the soul experiences communion with God through direct, personal experience, intuition or insight.
Throughout Christian history there have been mystics claiming to have known God through visions or other revelations. Many have argued that these mystics suffered from neurological or psychiatric disorders, which may very well be true. Regardless, I for one find inspiration in their experiences and in the wisdom they gained and subsequently shared with others.
Paul the Apostle remains our most influential Christian mystic. In Galatians 2:20, he describes the spiritual or hidden life of a believer:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul writes of “visions and revelations of the Lord.” He recounts “a person in Christ” who “whether in the body or out of the body” “was caught up to the third heaven,” “into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” While he does not tell us what he heard, he writes of “the exceptional character of the revelations,” of his feelings of elation, and the power of Christ dwelling within him.
Four women mystics played significant roles in medieval early Church history. These women – Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila – were educated, and held considerable political and ecclesiastical power at a time when women had almost no access to an education and had very little power.
Starting at the age of three, Hildegard of Bingen, who lived 1098 to 1179, had visions and felt the all-encompassing light of God. When she was eight Hildegard’s parents gave her to a Benedictine monastery as an oblate. Later in life, Hildegard founded her own monastery, an unusual feat for a woman.
Actively involved with the affairs of Church and state, Hildegard was a powerful woman in the Middle Ages. Much of her influence she exerted through her extensive correspondence with Popes, Emperors, princes, bishops, and saints. She admonished those in positions of authority, denouncing the Church and clerics who sought worldly wealth and power rather than spiritual humility. She denounced heretics, prophesying that heresies signaled the end of the world.
At forty-two years of age, Hildegard had a vision in which God commanded her to “Write what you see,” to record everything she saw in her visions. Of this experience Hildegard wrote,
“I saw an extremely strong, sparkling, fiery light coming from the open heavens. It pierced my brain, my heart and my breast through and through like a flame which did not burn; however it warmed me. It heated me up very much like the sun warms an object on which it is pouring out rays. And suddenly I had an insight into the meaning and interpretation of the psalter, the Gospel and the other Catholic writings of the Old and New Testaments…”
She hesitated to record her visions, saying,
“I saw all this and then – I refused to write. Not out of stubbornness, but out of a sense of my inability, for fear of the skepticism of others, the shrugging of shoulders, and the manifold gossip of mankind, until God’s scourge threw me on a bed of illness. There, finally, overcome by much suffering, I set my hand to write. “
Hildegard wanted her visions to be approved by the Catholic Church. A commission formed by the Pope Eugenius III found her a genuine mystic, whose visions were divinely inspired, and not insane. On the other had, neurologist Oliver Sacks has retrospectively diagnosed her as suffering from migraines.
Over the course of her life she collected her visions into three books in which she described each vision, and then interpreted it. These writings made her famous. But her contributions did not end there, she authored two scientific works, arguably making her one of the first woman doctors and scientists. Although she led a celibate monastic life, she wrote surprisingly vivid, detailed and accurate descriptions of female sexuality. Furthermore, she invented a new alphabet. And she is still well known and respected as a composer of sacred music.
Our second woman mystic today is Catherine of Siena who lived 1347 to 1380. One of twins, she was born the youngest of 23 children. From early childhood, Catherine saw visions and practiced self denial. At seven she vowed her virginity to Christ. When she was twelve her parents wanted to arrange her marriage, but she refused due to her promise to Jesus. At 16, she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries, and lived the next three years in severely austere solitude, silence, prayer and meditation.
After three years, she had a vision in which she entered into a “mystical espousal” where Christ took her as his bride and gave her a ring. At this point, her public ministry began. Catherine’s other significant mystical experiences include her 1370 mystical death, where in a prolonged trance state, she experienced an ecstatic union with God. Later in 1375, Catherine received the stigmata, visible only to herself, she felt the sometimes debilitating pain of the wounds.
Catherine devoted herself to serving the poor and tending to the sick during the Black Plague, proving herself a gifted healer. She also served prisoners, seeking to convert them and save their souls. Catherine combined the visions of a mystic with concern for people and interest in everyday matters.
Catherine led a highly productive and very influential life in her thirty-three years on earth. Like Hildebrand, she corresponded with Popes, royalty and peasants. Unafraid of authority she told both religious and secular leaders how to behave. She proved to be a gifted negotiator, reconciling warring factions. Notably she helped convince Pope Urban VI to return from Avignon to Rome in 1367. She strongly fought the Great Schism, defending Urban VI’s papacy, by writing scathing letters to the French cardinals who fled Rome and elected Clement VII as a competing pope.
Our next mystic is Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived from 1342 to 1416. She spent her life as a recluse in an anchorage in the yard of the Church of St. Julian near Norwich. When thirty years old, she fell seriously ill and believed she was close to death. She prayed, went into a trance, and had a vision of Christ’s suffering. Twenty years later based on this vision, she wrote Sixteen Revelations of Divine. The visions and wisdom she shares in this work concern Christ, God, sin, forgiveness, grace, and prayer.
Julian emphasizes the power of God’s unconditioned love for us in Jesus Christ in Sixteen Revelations. She assures us that, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” She emphasized God’s joy and compassion as opposed to law and duty at a time when the medieval church emphasized an angry punitive God and when the Plague was seen as divine punishment. Julian wrote that, “Where our Lord appeareth, peace is taken, and wrath hath no place… For wrath and friendship be two contraries.” God does not inflict suffering as punishment, but as a means to draw us closer.
Unusual then as well as today, Julian perceived God as feminine, as Mother as well as Father. She wrote, “God rejoiceth that He is our Father, and God rejoiceth that He is our Mother.” She describes the Trinity in the following words:
For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father: for He made us and keepeth us in Him; and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in Whom we are all enclosed; the high Goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in Him we are enclosed, and He in us. We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Ghost. And the Father is enclosed in us, and the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy Ghost is enclosed in us: Almightiness, All-Wisdom, All-Goodness: one God, one Lord.
Finally, I am presenting the Spanish mystic and monastic reformer, Teresa of Avila, who lived 1515 to 1582. Emphasizing experience over dogma communicated with God through prayer, “nothing by an intimate conversation between friends.”
In her autobiography (“Life Written By Herself,” 1565), Teresa describes an angel coming to stab her with a flaming arrow and thereby lighting in her heart the flame of God’s love…
“The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make others experience it who may think that I am lying….”
“With regard to the first — namely, love for each other — this is of very great importance; for there is nothing, however annoying, that cannot easily be borne by those who love each other, and anything which causes annoyance must be quite exceptional.
If this commandment were kept in the world, as it should be, I believe it would take us a long way towards the keeping of the rest; but, what with having too much love for each other or too little, we never manage to keep it perfectly.
It may seem that for us to have too much love for each other cannot be wrong, but I do not think anyone who had not been an eye-witness of it would believe how much evil and how many imperfections can result from this.
The devil sets many snares here which the consciences of those who aim only in a rough-and-ready way at pleasing God seldom observe — indeed, they think they are acting virtuously — but those who are aiming at perfection understand what they are very well: little by little they deprive the will of the strength which it needs if it is to employ itself wholly in the love of God.”
Meanwhile God had begun to visit her with “intellectual visions and locutions”, that is manifestations in which the exterior senses were in no way affected, the things seen and the words heard being directly impressed upon her mind, and giving her wonderful strength in trials, reprimanding her for unfaithfulness, and consoling her in trouble. Unable to reconcile such graces with her shortcomings, which her delicate conscience represented as grievous faults, she had recourse not only to the most spiritual confessors she could find, but also to some saintly laymen, who, never suspecting that the account she gave them of her sins was greatly exaggerated, believed these manifestations to be the work of the evil spirit.
In the cloister, she suffered much from illness. Early in her sickness, she experienced periods of spiritual ecstasy through the use of the devotional book, Abecedario espiritual, commonly known as the “third” or the “spiritual alphabet” (published, six parts, 1537-1554). This work, following the example of similar writings of the medieval mystics, consisted of directions for tests of conscience and for spiritual self concentration and inner contemplation, known in mystical nomenclature as oratio recollectionis or oratio mentalis. Besides this, she employed other mystical ascetic works; such as the Tractatus de oratione et meditatione of Peter of Alcantara, and perhaps many of those upon which Ignatius Loyola based his Exercitia, and not improbably this Exercitia itself.
She professed, in her illness, to rise from the lowest stage, “recollection”, to the “devotions of peace” or even to the “devotions of union”, which was one of perfect ecstasy. With this was frequently joined a rich “blessing of tears”. As the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin dawned upon her, she came upon the secret of the awful terror of sinful iniquity, and the inherent nature of original sin. With this was correlated the consciousness of utter natural impotence and the necessity of absolute subjection to God.
The intimation on the part of various of her friends (c. 1556) of a diabolical, not divine, element in her supernatural experiences led her to the most horrible self-inflicted tortures and mortifications, far in excess of her ordinary asceticism, until Francis Borgia, to whom she had made confession, reassured her. On St. Peter’s Day of 1559 she became firmly convinced that Christ was present to her in bodily form, though invisible. This vision lasted almost uninterruptedly for more than two years. In another vision, a seraphim drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an unexampled, as it were, spiritual-bodily pain. The memory of this episode served as an inspiration in determining her long struggle of love and suffering, from which emanated her life-long passion for conformation to the life and endurance of Jesus, to be epitomized in the cry usually inscribed as a motto upon her images: “Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.”
Activities as Reformer
Teresa founded numerous Carmelite convents practicing her reforms: absolute poverty and renunciation of property, revival of the earlier stricter rules, new regulations like the three disciplines of ceremonial flagellation prescribed for the divine service every week, and the discalceation of the none, or the substitution of leather or wooden sandals for shoes.
The kernel of Teresa’s mystical thought throughout all her writings is the ascent of the soul in four stages (“Autobiography,” chap. x.-xxii.). The first, or “heart’s devotion”, is that of devout contemplation or concentration, the withdrawal of the soul from without and specially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence.
The second is the “devotion of peace”, in which at least the human will is lost in that of God by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given of God, while the other faculties, such as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. While a partial distraction is due to outer performances such as repetition of prayers and writing down spiritual things, yet the prevailing state is one of quietude.
The “devotion of union” is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterized by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, a conscious rapture in the love of God.
The fourth is the “devotion of ecstasy or rapture”, a passive state, in which the consciousness of being in the body disappears (II Cor. xii. 2-3). Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, intermitted sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. From this the subject awakens in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, productive of the trance.
Teresa’s writings, produced for didactic purposes, stand among the most remarkable in the mystical literature of the Roman Catholic Church:
- The “Autobiography”, written before 1567, under the direction of her confessor, Pedro Ibanez (La Vida de la Santa Madre Teresa de Jesús, Madrid, 1882; Eng. transl., The Life of S. Teresa of Jesus, London, 1888);
- Camino de Perfección, written also before 1567, at the direction of her confessor (Salamanca, 1589; Eng. transl., The Way of Perfection., London, 1852);
- El Castillo Interior, written in 1577 (Eng. transl., The Interior Castle, London, 1852), comparing the contemplative soul to a castle with seven successive interior courts, or chambers, analogous to the seven heavens;
- Relaciones, an extension of the autobiography giving her inner and outer experiences in epistolary form.
- Two smaller works are Conceptos del Amor and Exclamaciones. Besides, there are the Cartas (Saragossa, 1671), or correspondence, of which there are 342 letters and 87 fragments of others.
Teresa’s prose is marked by an unaffected grace, an ornate neatness, and charming power of expression, together placing her in the front rank of Spanish prose writers; and her rare poems (Todas las poesías, Munster, 1854) are distinguished for tenderness of feeling and rhythm of thought.
These four women – Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila – continue to inspire and to raise questions as to the cause of their mystical experiences. Were they suffering from the symptoms of mental disorders? Were their visions the result of severe austerities including self-imposed near starvation and sleep deprivation? Or, were their experiences divinely inspired? Could they have been inspired not just, but in some cases two by some combination of these factors.
As a former psychotherapist and as someone who both identifies with the Christian mystics and has struggled with the sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying symptoms of a brain disorder, I believe that mystical experiences can be both divinely inspired and biologically based. God speaks to us, loves us, holds us close to Him, in our illness, in the midst of hardship and suffering, as well as in health and joyous celebration. He is there when we soar high, as well as when we fall.
- A History of Christianity, Vol. I, Beginnings to 1500, Kenneth Scott Latourette
- Hildegard of Bingen, Fiona Maddocks
- Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity, George Thomas Kurian, editor
- Teresa of Avila: An Extraordinary Life, Shirley du Boulay