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.
The fruit of such painful submission is conscious union with God in Christ lived out by faith. Mature Christians learn to accept that a sense of the absence of God isn't a failure of love, divine or human, but a state of Fatherly discipline (Hebrews chapter 12 verses 5 to 11). It is the precious "dark night of the soul".
Seeing Beyond This World
Many people have been ill, epileptic, unfairly imprisoned and so on, none of this qualifies them to be a mystic. The mystical "seeing" of God only comes to us as it came to Jesus, through death and resurrection. This involves sheer spiritual submission as sons to the will of God when all seems dark and hopeless, and God seems far away (Mark 15:34). Such experiences are beyond all ordinary human comprehension, they are a special gift of God in Christ made available to all who seek him without concern about cost.
The Bible, with its dreams, visions, and direct revelations from heaven, with its language about a holy anointing which teaches us about "all things" (1 John chapter 2 verses 20, 27), and its relentless expectation of direct encounters with Christ himself, calls us to pay attention to the Lord every moment of every day. It is this spiritual attentiveness that creates a habitual state of being intimate with Jesus instilling mysticism.
Contemporary Christianity has been deceived by into thinking Bible study alone can fundamentally change our lives. It is time to become more mystical people. The neglect of the imperative of Christian self-discipline (Galatians 5:22-23; 2 Timothy 1:7) can be remedied by obedience to a single command: "And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'" (Mark 8:34).
Obey this call and you will see God and become a "Christian mystic".
The Rev Dr John Yates is a retired Anglican minister in Perth and has five children and seven grandchildren. He spends time in praying, mentoring and writing.