Mysticism as a strategy

What I hope I have shown by this brief survey of what has come to be known as the Christian mystical tradition, starting from the Fathers, and looking at it from the perspective they suggest, is that mysticism is not some settled concept, with a clear definition; rather it is the name for a religious strategy: in origin the name of a particular religious strategy that belongs to early modern Europe (though already under way in late medieval Europe—we cannot now go into the argument as to where the caesura between ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ occurs, though this case is part of the argument for seeing the twelfth century as more decisive than the fifteenth or sixteenth). It is a strategy to which there may well be analogies in the histories of other religions: but we shall not discover that by confining our attention to ‘mystical writings’, we shall need to cast our nets much more widely. Briefly, I would say that something like what is called comparative mysticism may well have a role in comparative religion, but that both of these need to see themselves as part of a much wider attempt to compare different historical cultures: religions cannot be abstracted from the cultures in which they answer people’s social and spiritual needs (that does not mean that religions cannot pass from one culture to another: they evidently can, but we must not suppose that there is some ‘essence’ of religion that can be isolated, which is that which has passed from one culture to another—the situation is much more complex than that, and the question of religious identity not so easily solved), nor can ‘mysticism’ be abstracted from the religions that foster deep, prayerful commitment. ‘Comparitive mysticism’ is too easy, and unhistorical: it simply lulls us into thinking that we can regard as fundamentally significant (‘mystical’ has never lost the connotation of what really matters, what is ultimately powerful) what appeals to the individualized consciousness of the West—religious literature that aspires to the form of poetry, devoid of dogmatic content or ritual expression.

Fr Andrew Louth. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition—New Edition (Oxford, 2007). From the Afterword of 2006, p. 213.


  1. I’m afraid I don’t know what Louth means by “mysticism” if he dates it as late as the 12th century. Setting aside the question of pre-Second Temple Jewish mysticism, gnostic influences, and Persian influences, what does he make of 2 Corinthians 12:2-4?

  2. Oh, I should have put in the paragraphs just before, as well.

    Louth’s Afterword is something of a reevaluation of the trajectory of his book, which wasn’t substantially revised for the second edition (I think only corrections were made). Essentially, the point is that Christianity is by nature mystical, tracing Patristic usage of the terminology to primary referents of scriptural and liturgical and experiential, all three in conjunction being the revelatory/transformative vehicle (“the chariot of fire” if you will). But in the middle ages (in Latin Christianity especially) one sees the development of a discrete approach to the experiential third that sets the first two aside, especially the second with its emphasis on dogma and orthodoxy, so that suddenly we are faced with an entity that can, for lack of a better term, be labeled “mysticism” rather than simply Christianity proper. (I don’t think the same mechanism obtains in Judaism, and don’t recall him mentioning it in that context, either.) So, “mysticism” is only one leg of the Christian tripod proper. That’s what he was getting at with that usage. I’ll post some more on that when I get home this evening, and have the book at hand.

    In essence though, the “mystical” in Christianity and Judaism is part and parcel of their nature, part of the full and proper and orthodox expression of each. It’s only in the improper abstracting of certain aspects of each that we’re confronted with this unorthodox thing called “mysticism,” cut loose from its moorings in the holistic context of the faith itself. Note how the “mystics” in Judaism and Eastern Christianity are not individualized, speaking from their own experiences as authorities, but are immersed in their scriptural and dogmatic (whether Rabbinic or Patristic) context as part of the whole, not these kind of free agent types that people modernly think of mystics. So that’s what he was getting at.

    For that Afterword alone, the book is worth the purchase price.

  3. Iyov, this should clear it up a bit (From Louth, ibid., pp 210-211):
    It is in this context [of the separation of the meaning of the word ‘mystical’ from its former and traditional meaning identical with ‘sacramental’] that we need to see the emergence of the ‘mystical’, which provides the currency, as it were, for a challenge to the power of the priesthood. For the late Middle Ages saw an astonishing flowering of what we—though not the men and women of the Middle Ages—call ‘mystical’ literature; that is devotional literature that envisages devout individuals establishing access to the reality of God, sometimes through sacraments (even to the extent of being able to bypass priestly power over the sacrament), sometimes by discovering within oneself a point at which one is immediately present with God, a point that makes contact with God, a point at which God is born in us. But this is more than a growth in lay devotion, it is, in fact, a claim to power, to a power that can rank with—and challenge—the power of the priest. This is perhaps particularly clear in women’s spirituality of the period: women, excluded by their sex from the priesthood, find in themselves, in their dreams, in their bodies hidden signs—mystical signs, particularly of Christ’s wounds—that establish access to a divine power to rival that of the priesthood. Such claims do not always challenge the reality of priestly power—mostly they do not—but they claim an equivalent power: the most famous woman making such a claim was St Catherine of Sienna. The mystical is now thoroughly individualized, and from the late Middle Ages onwards, there is a conflict between the mystical and the institutional—the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century, for instance, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross—in there own day suffered at the hands of the institutional Church. At the beginning I indicated three senses of the word in the Fathers: scriptural, liturgical and a third meaning referring to the hidden reality of the baptized life of the Christian. That last meaning was important for the Fathers, but fitted into the context provided by the other two. At the end of the Middle Ages, the two basic meanings have fallen away, and into their place has stepped—alone, now, without any context—the hidden life of the individual Christian, and not any individual Christian, but one who, in that inwardness, can find contact with the divine, and offer evidence of that contacts as constituting a source of divine, or religious, authority in itself.

    The meaning of the mystical has now been completely transformed: it refers primarily to access to divine power on behalf of the individual, to the authority of felt power, manifest in evident signs of divine presence. It is the custom to play down the physical effects of mysticism and concentrate on ‘mystical union’, which from the sixteenth century onwards comes to mean something, never very clearly defined, but distinct from mere ‘moral’ union, which signifies simply (!) conformity with God’s will. But complete absence of such ‘physical’ phenomena is, in fact, quite rare. And it is now that we begin to find the word ‘mysticism’ used. [unquote]

    See what I mean, lima bean?

    The paragraph quoted in my post above is actually the next to last in the Afterword. I’ve previously posted the last paragraph, as well.

    I hope that clarifies things. As I described above, Fr Louth is discussing “mysticism” as an abstracted and not entirely organic development, something mostly separate from, though partly dependent upon, what came to be described as “mystical” elements of Christianity. Indeed, it’s entirely accurate to call a Christian life “mystical” when properly understood: a life lived according to the revelation of God’s will. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, for Judaism.

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