Human history shows that man has always sought a connection with God that transcends his mere day-to-day experiences. Man wants to know God intimately, deeply, privately — to fill that place within his heart which God created for His own indwelling. St. Augustine perfectly captured this earthly feeling when he said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest with Thee.” Indeed, Augustine’s life (354-386), as told in his Confessions , beautifully reflects the ways in which man experiences earthly restlessness and pursues Divine intimacy.
Jewish mysticism, which dates back to biblical times, has always been a response to that personal quest. Along the way, it is known to have flourished during different times including — in northern Spain — in the twelfth century where, it is interesting to note, St. Teresa of Avila would eventually experience her own inner mystical conversion in the 1500s and ultimately become, in 1970, the first female doctor of the Church.
The study and practice of Jewish mysticism — known to be uniquely powerful — was originally forbidden unless a Jewish male was at least 40 years old. This was considered an age where he would have had enough y ears of Torah study upon which to be firmly grounded in faith since mysticism has a both the potential for the development of good as well as the unleashing of evil.
The Catholic Church affirms this dual possibility of mysticism and approaches the subject of mysticism with caution. She warns against pseudo-mystics as well as the formation of doctrines, such as pantheism, in which false teachings are perpetuated under the guise of mysticism. To safeguard against such corruptions, the Church relies upon the works of such Catholic mystics as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross to help guide the faithful through the different phases towards Divine union.
This paradox of exposing oneself to good or evil in spiritual practices is easy to understand when you consider the many horrors that have occurred, in our lifetime and in the history of civilization, in the name of “God.” This has the potential to happen when ego, if not put fully aside, becomes empowered in selfish and delusional ways. In St. Teresa’s writings on her mystical experiences, her humble attitude towards self is ever-apparent. Early Jewish rabbis would have clearly understood that human ego has a way of polluting the heart. What is meant for our good can bring us harm.
Sadly, mysticism today is often misunderstood and has recently been linked with new-age thinkers as a result of the revelation that Madonna (the pop icon and not the Blessed Mother) practices teachings from the Kabbalah, one of the earlier known works on Jewish mysticism.
Kabbalah (which literally means “tradition” but connotes a “handing down of tradition”), is a school of thought in regards to contemplative prayer and union with God. Studying Elijah was a central point of early Jewish mystics. Reference to the “Chamber” experience appears in Jewish mysticism long before St. Teresa of Avila’s own experience, as shared in Interior Castles .
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross embarked upon their mystical journeys in the 16th century. And as Kabbalah had its beginnings in Spain a few hundred years before the lives of both of these Catholic mystics, there has always been speculation of a connection between those mystical teachings and the spiritual journeys of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Certainly, St. Augustine’s own 4th century journey, literally and figuratively, speaks volumes about man’s interest to heed God’s call for intimacy in the ways brought about by contemplative prayer and the practice of mysticism.
It is always imperative to remember that St. Teresa of Avila called humility “truth,” recognizing it as the required approach for such a transforming spiritual experience. Think Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.”
Does this mean, however, that all who attempt or pursue the mystical experiences of Augustine, Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are successful? No, it doesn’t. In fact, the Catholic Church specifically recognizes that while it is a natural desire for man to search for such a connection with the Divine, the graces needed to accomplish this are given to just a few souls. That being said, the idea that it is both a possibility, and a desirable one at that, makes us search out the meaning of mysticism in our daily lives.
So what is mysticism, really?
Simply put, mysticism is the soul’s desire to be in union with God; it is the contemplative practice in which this goal can be attained. For most of us, the journey towards that experience is life-long and while often unfilled (to the degree in which such Saints as Teresa experienced union with God which is called “spiritual marriage”), it is still satisfying. That is because God rewards those who persevere and there are a great many joys inherent in the pursuit.
The day-to-day practice of contemplative prayer creates a peaceful existence for one’s soul. It is the constant giving of self, and the giving over of one’s will to the will of God, that will bear spiritual fruit. Contemplative prayer, of which the Catechism of the Catholic Church says is an “intense” time of prayer (#2714), the “simplest expression of the mystery of prayer” (#2713) and a “gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (#2715) is the form of prayer used by mystics – modern day and those in our Church’s history.
Catholics have always understood that the earthy passage “matters” and that salvation, given through the grace and mercy of God through His Son, can be lost (Romans 2:2-8, Ephesians 2:8-10, James 2:14-26). Just so, the development of the soul does not occur on its own but does so with a daily commitment to prayer and the pursuit of intimacy with the Creator. Certainly we can also agree that the conscience cannot rightly form on its own. All these things — maintaining, or keeping, the gift of salvation as well as development of the soul and conscience — require an “effort” on our part. The Catechism states that while we may not always be able to spend time in meditation, we are always able to enter into the inner prayer of contemplation (#2710).
Throughout Church history — from Pope Gregory I to Blessed Henry Suso and beyond — Catholic mystics have given examples of ways in which our soul’s longing to connect with God can be fulfilled. Contemplative prayer and the ways of the mystics before us are just a few of the tools we are able to use in answering our call to know, love and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next (Baltimore Catechism ).