Mystery and Mysticism

Not long ago I had an interesting conversation with someone who told me that she had no tolerance for mysticism because it was based on intellectual laziness. She said that it involved glorifying mystery rather than viewing it as merely a gap in knowledge and then working toward filling that gap by the application of reason, observation and experimentation.

This woman was correct in recognizing something that most people do not realize. Most people think of the mystics as those who chase ecstatic experiences. This is far from true. As this woman recognized, mystics differ from non-mystics in their rejection of the notion that the mysteries of life are simply gaps in knowledge. They realize that the really important mysteries of life will not be eliminated by reason or experimentation. They teach us how to love mystery rather than fear it. They teach us humility, tolerance and wonder.

Thomas Merton was the first mystic I engaged deeply. I began reading him as an undergraduate university student and have often said since then that, apart from my wife and son, no one has impacted my life more deeply than he. I still re-read his books regularly, but he quickly led me to others. Within the Christian tradition, the mystics that have most influenced me after Merton include Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart. But beyond them there are many more in other traditions.

The mystics offer us an alternative to faith as beliefs. They teach us how to relate to things which we can never grasp with our minds but which we can know with our hearts. They tell us to hold out for personal knowing and never content ourselves with simply knowing about. Openness to this deeper heart knowing prepares us to move beyond dogma and learn from those of other faith traditions whose construals of Ultimate Mystery may differ from our own but whose deep knowing of those realities will deepen our own.

This is why I think Carl Rahner was right when he said that the Christian of the future would either be a mystic or nothing at all. The future of Christianity lies in moving away from a dogmatic embrace of construals of ultimate mystery. The same is true of the future of Islam and Judaism. Dogmatism divides us and makes us fear or fight those whose construals are different from ours. In contrast, a humble holding of our beliefs that is accompanied by a contemplative knowing of Ultimate Mystery has the potential to be not just deeply nurturing for our souls but healing for our world.

Image by Larry Young                            


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