In our contemporary society, the word "mysticism" or "mystical" often evokes the vision of an irresolvable puzzle. It should come as no surprise therefore that the mystical is often shunned if not outrightly feared. After all, if a mystical thing is an unknowable thing, then to speak about it is to speak in ignorance, and to give oneself to ignorance is at very least dangerous.
My goal however is to define mysticism in a way that does justice to the classical Christian view, and correct our contempoary fallacy. First, I would like to give an accurate definition of the term mystical, and second I would like to address the overconfidence within our contemporary mindset that has led to the rejection of the mystical.
A definition of mysticism that is acceptable to those who have a more ancient perspective differs considerably from that described above. The mystical is not simply that which cannot be explained, it is rather another kind of knowledge. It is a knowledge that is the result of participation. The clue that opens up mysticism to us is the concept of "paradox".
The word paradox comes to us from two Greek words, "para", meaning along with, sorrounding, or along side of, and the word "doxa", which means truth, correct, dogma, or praise. The term "paradox" puts those two concepts together, and it gives us the idea of two truths moving along side by side, but not intersecting, at least not within our field of vision.
Here is a list of just a few of these paradoxes or mysteries:God is infinite as Trinity, yet God is finite in the man Jesus Christ.God is sovereign over all, yet man freely chooses without coercion.God saves persons, yet man must save himself.The eucharist bread is real bread, yet it is the real body of Christ.
One could go, and many have gone, to great lengths to defend each of these claims, and that is fine and good, yet at the end of the day none of those explanations result in a complete intersection of these truths. The intellect cannot be the final say on these matters of paradox, there must be more. There must exist another faculty that enables us to understand paradox as mystery. The mystical tradition tells us that it this faculty is participation in a mystery with our whole being.
The Overconfident Mind
The claim that more than the mind is needed however strikes deep at the contemporary psyche. In fact, the acceptance of the inability of the mind to resolve paradoxy is a direct attack upon our present day sensitivities. We, after all, have been trained to believe that it is the proper use of our academic learning and reasoning capabilities that will enable us to sort our way through any subject.
We have been taught from early on that if we study the history, the context, the politics, and the physical science of a matter, and use all the correct rules for inquiry, can arrive at an answer to nearly every imaginable question.
Consider the contemporary approach to biblical exegesis. The accepted methodology to study the biblical text is to examine it grammatically, historically, and contextually, and then to inquire of the text by asking the standard who, what, why, where, when, and how questions, then to individually draw a conclusion. Having done this, the exegete may look at others, but mostly to see if they agree with him, because he after all, he extracted the truth by following the right steps. The problem that this fails to address is the individual's own limitations due to preconceived errors that shaped the inquiry, and his overall limitations of understanding. Not to mention that there are spiritual matters that only reveal themselves to those spiritually mature. How can one tell if a view is more mature than one's own, if we are limited to our own tools of inquiry?
Participation in Mystery strikes the contemporary mind where it is weakest because it exposes our intellectual limitations. A paradox or mystery throws us into the realm of believing and putting our trust in that which cannot be fully seen by us. In other words, it requires another kind of knowledge, one called faith.
By the way, those who tell themselves that they rely on pure reason are in delusion. The fact is that the reason that logic remain constant cannot be explained by any thing other than a mystical reality. In other words, we have no reason to believe that the laws of logic will hold from one moment to the next, unless there exists a force that created them and that can keep them from change, and while that force cannot be studied logically, logic nevertheless depends on it. Thus, logic is mystically faith dependent. In summary, the mind and its intellect is not enough.
Recovering that which was lost
Having defined mystery as the result of paradox and faith, and having pointed out the limits of logic and reason, it must be said that the only way for a person to be able to attain to the fullness of truth is not primarily by logical analysis, but rather by a kind of knowledge that is obtained by participating in mental, spiritual, and physical realities. The road to truth may begin with the intellect but it finds its fullness in the mystical. We come to the knowledge of the mystery of God, by accepting that he is beyond our knowing, and at the same time experiencing Him everywhere and in all things, especially the mysteries (sacraments) of the church. We come to the mystery of God knowing that nothing happens that is beyond his control, yet under our own control we will as He wills. We come to the knowledge of the mystery of God by the leading of others who have been mystically mature and seen what we cannot see, and by striving to live as they lived.
Christianity and salvation are a life made up of participation in the mystery of God.
We must no longer settle for a spectator or mental activity Christianity. Mystical, and classical Christianity is an activity that engages our whole being, namely the mind, the spirit, and the body.
Salvation can no longer be viewed as the acceptance of a set of facts, namely that God is no longer angry at me because Jesus has sucked up the Father's anger, but rather salvation is made of the reintegration of the human person to wholeness, uniting a person's mind, spirit, and body to such a degree that he can participate in the life of God through Christ.