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Towards an Inclusive Global Family: Recovering the Forgotten Contributions of Christian Mystics

Author: 
M. Darrol Bryant, Centre for Dialogue & Spirituality in the World’s Religion, Renison University College/University of Waterloo

            I came late to an engagement with the mystical traditions.  If mystics were mentioned in my undergraduate and even graduate studies it was mainly to dismiss them.  Mystics were often charged with irrationality and obscurantism as products of an “overheated mind.”  They didn’t fit the mode of rationality that characterised so much of Christian thinking over the ages.  But I continued to bump up against these figures – Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila – in my courses in the history of Christian thought.  What was I to make of them?

            Things began to change for me as I recalled two things.  First, there was the oft-repeated remark of Krister Stendahl, one of my teachers at Harvard Divinity School.  He would often say that Christian thinking is “poetry plus not science minus.”  It was a reminder of the variety of ways of articulating Christian thought found among Christian thinkers.  And with the mystics you were encountering language that sought to give expression to the inexpressible.  It is not language that competes with modern science; rather it is language that seeks to direct our attention to their experience of the ineffable divine.   This is the second thing that I realised.  The divine always exceeds the capacity of words to capture the truth of the sacred.  But words can point us in the right direction.

            There is a wonderful Buddhist tale that makes this point.  One version goes as follows:  “…truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky.  Words can be likened to a finger.  The finger can point to the moon, but the finger is not the moon. It is necessary to look beyond the pointing finger or words to its experiential ground: the ineffable divine.”

            Wayne Teasdale makes a related point when he writes:

“The West has never been at home in mysticism.  It has had great mystics and its greatest theologians…have been touched by mystical experience…but the structure of its life and thought remain basically rational and logical…. Today we are discovering the disastrous limitations of this mode of thinking… Concrete, intuitive thought has been neglected…  If the world is to recover its balance it has to rediscover the feminine mind: …concrete, symbolic, synthetic, imaginative, and intuitive.”[1]

Here we will follow this lead and turn to three women Christian Mystics to tease out their contributions to an inclusive global family. But rather than seeing their contributions in conceptual and rational terms, we will seek to understand them in their own intuitive and experiential terms.  For we need to come to understand that mysticism is the Way to intimacy with the divine.   It is the way of the heart and articulates its experience of the divine in symbolic and intuitive terms. 

            We begin with Hildegaard of Bingen (1098-1179), then turn to Julian of Norwich (1342-1423) and conclude with Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).  Each has contributed to the Christian grammar of the spiritual life.  And, like other Christian writers they affirm that life is to be seen as from God, in God, and to God or the Sacred.  Unlike other Christian writers, they seek to unfold the inner spiritual meaning and dynamics of the human quest for the divine.

II. Hildegard of Bingen:

Divine Creation and Cosmic Christianity

            Let me place the following over our too brief encounter with Hildegaard of Bingen in these words:  God hugs you.  You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” 

            Hildegard was a remarkable figure.  Born in Germany, she entered a monastic community at eight.  She became a “renaissance woman” three hundred years before the Renaissance.  She became an Abbess, heading her community and challenging bishops and Popes.  She was a visionary, an artist, a mystic, an administrator, a writer, a visionary theologian and a composer of songs.  She wrote books and corresponded with the leading figures of her time.   She traveled little, except for her four preaching tours in Germany. 

            Hildegard’s writings grew out of her visionary experiences that began when she was a child and continued throughout her life.  As an adult she experienced a command to write about her visions, something that she resisted.  But she finally began to share something of her experience.  Those took the form of paintings – whether by her or another is a matter of dispute – and words that appeared in her Book of Divine Works.[2]

For Hildegard, the divine was in all things.  It was the dynamic at the heart of creation.  It was at the centre of her cosmology. This is what she wrote: 

I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life… with wisdom I have rightly put the universe in order.  I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I glean in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars.  With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life.  The air lives by turning green and being in bloom.  The waters flow as if they were alive… And thus I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power.  For I am life.  I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made.  I breathe life into everything… For I am life, whole and entire… I am life that remains ever the same, without beginning and without end.  For this life is God.    Divine Works

She dictated her visions to a scribe and secretary.  Here she is not offering a theory of the universe, but giving expression to her experience, to her visions.  She also characterised the soul in a unique way: she regarded it as “the green life force of the flesh.”  As an Abbess she quarrelled with Bishops and won.  She minded the gardens that fed her community and became known as a healer for her knowledge of herbs and natural remedies.  From her we receive a vital vision of a cosmos enlivened by the divine.  As she wrote, “All creation is a song of praise to God.”

She was unique for her times.  Her works were read and approved by Popes.  She was a remarkable woman.   After her death, her works were neglected, but in the 20th century she enjoyed resurgence, in part due to the then Catholic thinker, Matthew Fox.   In 2012 she was made a Doctor of the Church.

III. Julian of Norwich: The Living Trinity & God as Mother

As we turn to Julian of Norwich let me put these words before us:  “All shall be well, & all shall be well, & all manner of things shall be well.  For there is a force of love moving through the universe that holds us fast and will never let us go.”

Born just four years before the Black Plague (1346-1353) that devastated Europe, we know little about Julian of Norwich.  Even her name comes from the Church in Norwich, England where she was an anchoress.  An anchoress was someone who “withdrew from the world” and lived in a tiny dwelling – an anchorhold or small cell – attached to a Church. They devoted themselves to a life of prayer.  They often became known for their wisdom and lay people turned to them for advice and counsel.   People often came to Julian.

When Julian was thirty, she became very ill.  A priest came to administer “Last Rites.”  As he was intoning the Last Rites –  to prepare her for dying by absolution from sins, relief from suffering through anointing, and the final Eucharist – he held a crucifix over Julian who then experienced several visions.  She recovered and then wrote the short version of her Showings or what would later in an expanded version become known as Revelations of Divine Love.  For much of her remaining life, she reworked and expanded her account of the meaning of these experiences. 

It was the first mystical writing in English and centuries later was regarded as “the most profound and difficult of all medieval mystical writings.”  I don’t find her so difficult, but I do find her profound.  But it takes time to understand what she was trying to do.  In the 20th century Julian gained some notoriety for writing of God as Mother.  Julian has a vision of the Living Trinity, one that is intimately connected to our life and experience as human beings.  Listen to Julian:

I contemplated the world of all the blessed TrinityI saw and understood these three properties: the property of fatherhoodof motherhoodand of lordship in one God.  In our almighty Father, we have our protection and our blisswhich is ours by our creationand in the second person, in knowledge and wisdom we haveour restoration and our salvation, for he is our Mother, brother and saviour; and in our great Lord the Holy Spirit we have our reward and gift for our living and our laboursurpassing all that we desire in his marvellous courtesyhis great plentiful grace.  For all our life consists of three: in the first we have our being, and in the second we have our increasing, and in the third we have our fulfilment.  This first is nature, the second is mercy, and the third is grace….[1]

 Or again,

I saw and understood that the high might of the Trinity is our Father,

and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother

and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord…

the second person of the Trinity is our Mother…

working in us in various ways…he reforms and restores us…

and, through the gifs of grace of the holy spirit we are fulfilled…

Notice Julian’s words here:  what “I saw” and “understood.”  This was her vision and her experience.  It was not just a bright idea or an argument but an insight.  For Julian, the trinity is our experience of being made/born, being re-made and redeemed as our life unfolds, and being fulfilled by the spirit.   

And also notice that when she speaks of the motherhood of God, she always says HE.  Why?  Because Julian is here speaking of Jesus.  Here what Julian calls “the property of mothering” is de-gendered and turned into nurturing and caring.  It gives us a very comforting image of Jesus far different than that of the Christ of the Last Judgment that appears on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.

She then sees a correspondence between the human soul and the Trinitarian structure of divine life.  But here comes the big surprise!  This is what she says: …as truly as God is our Father…so truly is God our Mother…                   

This, in Julian’s words is that “…Force of Love moving through the universe that holds us fast and never lets us go.”  Julian is recognised as a Saint in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions.

IV. Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle & Union with God

     Let me begin our brief journey with Teresa of Avila with these words: “May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be….a child of God.”  

     Unlike the writings of our two previous mystics, the Interior Castle is a model of practical advice.  When one opens the Interior Castle one is immediately in the presence of a wise woman speaking to other women about the challenges and joys that lie ahead on the journey to God. 

     Listen to her:  Teresa “the practical mystic” is the author of the Interior Castle and she writes,

“I was told…that the nuns of Our Lady of Carmel need someone to solve their difficulties concerning prayer, and as…women best understand each other’s language and also in view of their love for me, anything I might say would be particularly useful to them.”

     Teresa of Avila was born in Spain.  She entered the Cistercian order when she was twenty.  But she was dismayed by the laxity that prevailed.  She early on sought to reform her order. 

     From childhood she had visionary experiences, but she later came to doubt their authenticity.  Her spiritual advisor assured her of their authenticity – they were from God.  She was then encouraged in her efforts of reform.  It was also her spiritual advisor who encouraged her to write about her inner experience and her spiritual journey.  She became a close friend of the much younger Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) and together they worked to reform the Order and return it to its focus on contemplative prayer. 

     The Interior Castle is intended to be practical and to aid her sister contemplatives in their own spiritual journeys.  The Interior Castle is the inner life of the spirit.  Insight in spiritual matters does not come easily, and one finds oneself encountering many states and stages on the way to the soul’s “spiritual marriage and union with God.”

     That guidance looks like this as she unfolds the Seven Mansions of the Interior Way:

1. Entry: an awareness of one’s self as a child of God coupled with an awareness of sin or missing the mark.   A prayer of humility marks entry into “our beautiful & delightful castle” as it brings “self-knowledge” which is essential to this stage and to the whole journey.

2. Persevering: is the second mansion and it is the stage of persevering in the ups and down of the life of prayer and meditation.  It takes time to cultivate an inner disposition of quiet and peacefulness.

3. Walking in Fear:  This too is part of the journey within the Interior Castle… Here one finds one’s self afraid, alone and full of fear.  It too is part of the story,

4. Understanding in the House of Consolation: here we begin to gain “understandings that exceed mere concepts.”  Here understanding is spiritual, intuitive, and contemplative (beyond conceptual).  Here “we cannot express these consolations adequately in rational terms.” The way of prayer and meditation is not only striving, but letting go and receiving.

5. Uniting with the Will of God: here we begin to unite our will with that of God, making God’s purposes ours.  The image Teresa uses here is marriage: a loving relationship.

6. Stage of Greatest Favours & Greatest Trails: here we are closest to the goal yet most fearful that all will be lost.  It is that moment that her friend, St. John of the Cross, called the “dark night of the soul.”

7. Spiritual Marriage:  the deepest or innermost room of the soul’s journey to God is what Teresa calls “spiritual marriage” or “divine marriage.”  When it comes, or if it comes, it is not the result of one’s striving, but a gift from above.  This union of the soul should NOT be confused with “our senses, our faculties, or our passions” having attained to union.  Rather, this is something deeper, more spiritual, and beyond our capacity to adequately describe.   In Teresa’s words:

He has been pleased to unite Himself with His creature

in such a way that they have become like two

who cannot be separated from one another:

even so He will not separate Himself from her.”

Like Hildegard and Julian, Teresa’s writings grow out of her visionary experience. They give voice to what is beyond our reasoned capabilities: the ineffable divine. 

Teresa’s efforts led to the creation of the Discalced Carmelites or Barefoot Carmelites.  I want to conclude by sharing a story of my one encounter with the Carmelites.  It was nearly a decade ago that I was invited to be part of a summer program of the Elijah School of Wisdom in Israel.  The program brought together a group of twenty Israeli Jews and Muslims along with four faculty members: one Jewish, one Muslim, one Buddhist and one Christian.  During the program we visited various religious communities including the Discalced Carmelites on Mount Carmel in Haifa.  The community there had dwindled to six women.  They were European, African, & Asian.  We met them through a screen.  And they were remarkable.  Good humoured, articulate, and so alive.  I asked them if they still read the Interior Castle. “Yes, daily!” they exclaimed.  “It was a continuing part of their daily life of contemplative prayer.”  And a fascinating conversation unfolded…  It was a remarkable moment for me and a witness to the enduring contribution of Teresa.

V. Some Concluding Comments

Here I have sought to share something of what I call the mystic Way.  It is a way that is rooted in experience, presence, awareness and/or consciousness rather than doctrine, or abstraction.  Mystics seek to explore the inner spiritual depths, the meeting place of the human and the divine.  Mysticism is a Way to intimacy with the Ultimate ground of all things; it is the way of the heart.  Mystics are found in all traditions both East & West.  Their findings comprise the spiritual heart of the human quest, but are expressed in the languages of particular traditions.  Mystics always tell us that their words are inadequate to express their experience and simply direct us towards the realities they have experienced or glimpsed.  The challenge is how to read/understand the glimpses of insight and inspiration that they offer  us.  Here we have looked at three Christian mystics, all women. Their writings grew out of their visionary experience.  And there words sought to convey something of the light that illumined their Way. [1]

I have come late to an appreciation of their ways. We are just in the early stages of recovering this neglected aspect of Christianity and relating it to living as one all-inclusive global family.


[1]See Wayne Teasdale, Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to His Interspiritual Thought  (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2003).   See also Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2001). 

[1] See Mathew Fox, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1987).

[1]See Julian of Norwich, Showings (the first title given to Revelations of Divine Love) (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

[2]See also M. Darrol Bryant, Religion in a New Key, 3rd edition (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Prtess, 2016) and M. Darrol Bryant, ed., Ways of the Spirit: Celebrating Dialogue, Diversity & Spirituality (2013), Ways of the Spirit: Voices of Women (2013), and Ways of the Spirit: Persons, Communities, Spiritualities (2015) all available from www.pandorapress.com