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)


  1. It sure is. The Afterword is worth the price of admission really. It’ll be interesting to see how much of the critique in the afterword applies to the book itself.

    What’s interesting about the above quote is that it’s all “Well, duh” stuff for Eastern Orthodox Christians at all familiar with their tradition and the use of mustikos and musterion, the former being simply the adjective for the latter, which refers primarily to the Liturgy and other mysteries (“sacraments” in the Latin tradition). The idea of “mysticism” as an individual endeavour is incompatible with that understanding.

  2. Yes, its certainly a great quote. I happen to have the old edition of the book out of the library at the moment. How long is the afterword, and is there other substantially new material in the new edition? ie is it worth trying to get hold of it?

  3. Hi Macrina! The afterword is 15 pages long. I don’t think any of the text of the book is actually altered aside from some typographical errors, as I recall from the new preface. Fr Louth (he is a Russian Orthodox Priest) describes in the afterword a change that has taken place in his understanding of Patristic mysticism, but I don’t know how much of the individualistic perspective of mysticism that he describes above as incorrect for the Patristic period was included in the text of the book, as I haven’t read it yet. If that was his perspective on it in the text, then the afterword truly describes an about-face on his part in this respect. I definitely think it’s worth owning, though. The afterword could easily stand alone as an excellent introductory article describing the different developments of “mysticism” in Latin and Greek Christian contexts, where (mis)translation played a role in the development of quite different streams of mysticism. It’s a marvelously concise and helpfully corrective essay.

  4. Thanks Kevin. It does sound as if its worth having. I’ve only dipped into the book so far (I did read parts of it some years ago but my memory of it is hazy and my perspective has also changed, or at least sharpened) but I think that that is also worth having. Fr Louth’s perspective has no doubt changed but I don’t get the impression that its an absolute about face.

    I only recently heard that he is a Russian Orthodox priest. Do you know how long he has been Orthodox for? I gather that he was originally Anglican.

  5. You’re very welcome, Macrina. I just found out the other day that he is now Orthodox and a priest, when reading his page on the University of Durham website. I remembered him as Anglican, myself. He indeed appears to have converted from Anglicanism to the Orthodox Church in 1989.

    His book on St John of Damascus is another good one. It’s a great introduction to St John’s writings, both prose and poetry/hymnic. I’m also very much looking forward to spending time on his Discerning the Mystery. I’ve read the preface and introduction (as I usually do when a new book arrives and I’m already in the midst of reading another!) and this one promises to be a very satisfying one, short as it is. It dates to 1983, so prior to his conversion, covering the intersection of philosophy and theology, science and the humanities, rationalism and faith. Though he was Anglican, he was quite a conservative one, as is clear from his other earlier writings, and particularly this book. It’s hard to find an affordable copy, so be patient if you’re going to look for one.

  6. I,too, liked the quotation, but just wondered how this use of the word musterion as liturgy,etc.,develops from its NT use by Paul as a revelation from God that could not be arrived at by reason.Rather like Peter’s understanding of Christ on the Mount not by “flesh and blood”.

  7. Hi Peter. It develops through the connotation of a hidden thing being revealed that would not otherwise be known. This is the same usage of Paul. Marriage (based around the Genesis account and the Divine creation of Man and Woman to be one), the Liturgy (the Divine Offering established by Christ Himself), and so on. So, it’s not so much related to our connotation of mystery as a puzzle to be solved, but rather as something Divinely revealed. I hope that helps!

  8. Thanks Kevin.
    It was your view on mysticism as incompatible with “individual endeavor” that got me thinking. Maybe I’m too tainted with individualism! Was not Peter’s confession a “mystery” given to him and him alone.

  9. This is fascinating, Kevin. I actually took his Discerning the Mystery out of the library as well (together with The Wilderness of God) and I agree that it looks very worthwhile. Unfortunately it will take a while before I’m able to give it much attention. I was looking up his books as he was suggested to me recently as someone whom it might be worth studying with – although any possibilities in that regard are at this point still vague – and a bit complicated – and not likely to happen immediately. A few months ago I read an essay on his on the body in the western Christian tradition – in Sarah Coakley’s volume on religion and the body – and was very impressed but had no idea that he was Orthodox until hearing it recently.

    (By the way, just in case I’m presenting the wrong impression, I’m actually not Orthodox but Catholic, although I tend to feel much more at home with the Greek Fathers than with the Latins, and certainly more so than with the later developments. And am also a monastic, which means that our roots are the people that Saint Benedict refers us back to, namely the desert Fathers, Basil and that theological milieu…)

  10. Hi Peter, Yes, it’s not just my take on mysticism, but that of the Eastern Fathers. I’d really have to recommend the whole book, which traces all this out in more detail. But this acclamation by Peter doesn’t quite fall in the same category as that of, say, a personal vision, like his later experience in Joppa, about unclean/clean foods/people. People seem to think that mysticism is all about signs and visions and personal experiences, when, as Fr Louth and the Eastern Fathers describe, and as is common knowledge in the Eastern Orthodox Church, mysticism is simply a life in Christ.

  11. Ah, so I should call you Sister Macrina! I converted from Catholicism to the Eastern Orthodox Church almost 8 years ago now. The voices of the East rang in my ears. Orientale Lumen oddly enough, sped up the process, but it was really reading St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit followed by (now-) Metropolitan Kallistos’ The Orthodox Church which clinched it.

    Fr Louth’s Discerning the Mystery is definitely one of those books that is worth several readings: an initial one to get the general argument established, then a closer one to pay attention to the details, and an even closer one following the argument in his sources. It looks that deep, really. And judging by the price of this little volume used (on average $70!), it’s a hot commodity.

    I hope your educational opportunity works out for the best. Which may not be exactly how we expect it to, but then that’s why we’re in this: to learn the best lessons under the loving and watchful care of the supreme Teacher. I’ll remember you in my prayers.

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