On the Mystical Life

In the light of all this, how does my book, written nearly thirty years ago, stand now? I would now see it, not as providing the background for the development of, and understanding of, the ‘Christian mystical tradition’, in some uncomplicated way—as perhaps I originally intended. Rather, I see it now as raising a whole raft of questions about what we are to take the ‘mystical tradition’ to be. In particular, what we find in the Fathers undermines any tendency toward seeing mysticism as an elite, individualist quest for ‘peak’ experiences; rather for them the ‘mystical life’ is the ‘life with Christ hid in God’ of Colossians 3:3, a life which is ecclesial, that is lived in the Body of Christ, which is nourished liturgically, and which is certainly a matter of experience, though not of extraordinary ‘experiences’. One could perhaps make this point by finally reflecting briefly on the transformation of one of the words used by the Fathers in connection with the ‘mystical life’: the word theoretikos. The modern word ‘theoretical’ (and indeed the word theoretikos in Modern Greek) means abstract, hypothetical, speculative—the very opposite of practical and experiential. The modern mystical quest is precisely not theoretical; it is a search for genuine personal experience, as opposed to ‘theoretical’ knowledge. Much modern Christian apologetic exploits this split between the theoretical and the experiential, and presents Christianity as a matter of lived experience, not abstract theoretical matters, among which the dogmatic is often included. In the Greek of the Fathers, however, this split can scarcely be represented in words or concepts. Theoretikos means contemplative; that is, seeing, and knowing in a deep and transformative way. The ‘practical’, praktikos (see above on Evagrios), is the personal struggle with our too often wayward drives and desires, which prepares for the exercise of contemplation, theoria; that is, a dispassionate seeing and awareness constituting genuine knowledge, a knowledge that is more than information, however accurate—a real participation in that which is known, in the One whom we come to know. The word theoretikos came to be one of the most common words in Byzantine Greek for designating the deeper meaning of Scriptures, where one found oneself caught up in contemplation, theoria, of Christ. The mystical life, the ‘theoretical’ life, is what we experience when we are caught up in the contemplation of Christ, when, in that contemplation, we come to know ‘face to face’ and, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘know, even as I am known’ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Andrew Louth, last paragraph of “Afterword (2006)” in his new edition of The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007)