(cf. Song of Solomon 5: 2)
Published in Church and Life (1822) 8.9.2011-27.9.2011 No 14 pg2

Evelyn Underhill (1875 – 1941) in the seminal study, Mysticism, wrote in the Preface to her work, that the word ‘mysticism’, is: “One of the most abused words in the English language, it has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthethic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics.

 On the other hand, it has been freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have criticized these things. It is much to be hoped that it may be restored sooner or later to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual life.” (Underhill, E., (1912): x). Underhill’s work, rapidly nearing a century old has not been surpassed for its encyclopaedic breadth of learning; nor has the claim that she made with regard the misuse of the term ‘mysticism’ in her day, been stamped out in our own time. Today if one speaks of mysticism the general response one receives from the lay-person is one of the delving into miracles and the magical. Such notions are not helped by the colloquial use of the term to describe movies of junior wizards and those going in search of a galaxy far, far, beyond our own.


The term ‘mystic’ derives from the Greek word ‘μυστικός’, (‘mystikos’), and is generally translated to mean an individual who has been ‘initiated’ into a religious mystery. ‘Mystery’ in this context means that the religion that the initiate is immersed in contains at its core a Truth that is essentially beyond the human intellect to fully understand. Mysticism is the study of the mystic’s quest to come into a relationship with the Divine Mystery. By this definition, mysticism itself is not peculiar to the Christian religion, for individuals of various religious backgrounds do in fact have religious experiences in their personal search for the divine; and Underhill’s text is replete in its bibliography of non-Christian mystics. But for the sake of managing a discussion on mysticism within the confines of a short space – let us consider using examples of mysticism within the contexts of the Catholic tradition.

In discussing mysticism, the most frequently used definition, is that given to us by the French scholar and Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson (1363 – 1429). As Bernard McGinn concluded in summing up his introduction to Gerson’s Speculative Mystical Theology: “Gerson first put forth his definition of Mystical Theology as cognito experimentalis Dei, that is, “experiential knowledge of God” – one of the most influential definitions of the term ever made”. (Gerson, 1998, xv). Elegant as it is, what does this definition mean? Basically Gerson was attempting to provide his readership with an understanding that the mystic is the person who not only knows God by what he or she is told by a third party, for instance by a preacher, or teacher or parent, but has a spiritual awakening in which they understand themselves to live in the presence of God. One can say therefore that each of us who are capable of having a deep and truly personal experience of God, are indeed mystics. Potentially so. However what separates the mystic from the broader Christian community, is the desire to build on a religious experience, and build a life in a manner of searching, above all, for a union with the object of their desire. A person who travels on a holiday, and goes to a mountain, for instance like Francesco Petrarco on his famed quest to reach the summit of Mount Ventoux, can most definitely have a religious experience, stimulated by the beauty of God’s creation, and the Wonder and Awe of God thereof; but the mystic does not ever leave the Mount. Physically they will travel home; physically they will continue on with their everyday life – but spiritually, they are different, vastly different, and this individual will want to know more about the God of whom they have been given a wonderful glimpse. Thus begins a journey, a journey that St. Bonaventure would describe as an inner journey toward God. The mystic therefore is unlike the adherent of religion who attends the Liturgy because they are fearful of the punishment they believe will fall on them if they do not attend. The mystic of course attends the Liturgy, but they are authentic; they are inspired to love; they are not driven by fear, for where fear exists, love is diminished. (cf. 1 John 4: 18).

The very point of entry for the mystic, in their journey toward God, is from the ego; for it is through the ego, with all of its contained proclivities that the individual begins to shape their soul to be receptive of and for God.

Such is the inner stirring within the soul that the mystics describe what they experience in terms that are very much like a relationship between that of a man and a woman; a bride and the bridegroom. William Harmless in his study, Mystics (2008), quotes a passage from Gerson: “The saints use various names to describe these interior forms of experiential knowledge of God … They speak of contemplation, ecstasy, rapture, liquefaction, transformation, union, exultation. They talk of a jubilation beyond the spirit, of being taken into a divine darkness, of tasting God, of embracing the bridegroom, of kissing him, of being born of God, of obeying his word, of being brought into the divine cellars, of being drunk in a torrent of delight, of running into an odor of his perfumes, of hearing his voice, and entering into the bedroom, and of finding sleep and rest in peace in him”. (Harmless, 2008, p. 5). Gerson’s descriptions of the mystical experience, reach a pinnacle a century later in the writings of St. John of the Cross (142 – 1591), who often compares the mystical quest in rich, poetic literary form, expressing the love that God has for us, and we for God, like the lovers in the Song of Songs.

Quite naturally some find Gerson’s language, and the poetry of St. John of the Cross far too romantic and lurid, but one of the problems that mystics have with expressing their experiences, is that human language itself, is so limiting. How can something that has been given by an infinite source to a finite vessel, ever be contained and understood? The mystics have recourse to those human experiences that equate with the best humanity can be – that is experiences of love. They themselves admit to the inadequacy of such expression; but as we are all limited as beings by virtue of the language that we have been given to communicate with one another; so too in a far greater way, the mystics find themselves frustrated by what they have felt, and by what they cannot fully convey. The act of love expressed in the Song of Songs loses its meaning if the reader admits the Scripture only a facile dimension; the Scripture itself conveys in the very actions of the desire by the spouses – a desire by God for His people, and similarly a desire for the people for God. This desire is at the heart of the Christian, and more specifically, Catholic mystical experience.