Summer 1991, Vol.43 No. 2, pp. 104-118

John Farrelly :
      Notes on Mysticism in Today's World

Contemporary men and women who are seeking religious experience are showing
renewed interest in the spiritual insights of both Eastern and Western
forms of mysticism which reveal the divine mystery or the Sacred.

John Farrelly, OSB, teaches in the fields of foundational theology and systematic theology. He has given workshops on spirituality and has written on topics of spirituality for several publications, including Monastic Studies and the forthcoming New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality.

IN the West there has been a renewed interest in mysticism in recent decades. For many this comes from a sense of the encircling darkness where the light of traditional faiths had been shed, a sense that science does not have all the answers, and a desire to have an experiential basis for insight beyond normal everyday and scientific knowledge. It also comes from greater awareness of religious traditions of the East and a sense that there are answers here important to our living the mystery of life. This turning to the East has been particularly evident in those who are not aware of the rich mystical tradition of the West, but even many who are aware of this tradition acknowledge that there is a special need today for certain religious insights characteristic of Asia.

Not all of this renewed interest in mysticism has been sound. Some Westerners in their quest for psychic and mystical experiences have turned to drugs. Some have accepted forms of Gnosticism, that is, quasi-religious searches for a psychological sense of wholeness, without being open to the way in which God has actually been revealed or to the real world around them. And some have sought mystical experience in ways divorced from genuine religious belief and moral life (e.g., by meditation techniques of Hinduism or Zen as though these by themselves could assure mystical experiences.)

We can agree that a restoration of a genuine mystical tradition is essential in our time of rapid change if people are to find their way forward (or respond to the Way) and to gain an adequate meaning in their lives in the midst of events swirling around and within them. In the past perhaps people could live simply by another's discernment, particularly that of their religious tradition; but in our pluralistic age they must live more by their own discernment. And so they must develop a capacity for discernment, one that depends on an inner purification and openness to truth even when this is painful -- elements emphasized by any genuine spiritual or mystical tradition.

What then is mysticism? That this is a deceptively simple question is shown by the disagreements rampant among those who discuss it. In these brief notes on mysticism in today's world, I write as a Christian, but as one who thinks that mysticism is not restricted to Christians. I will dwell primarily on some elements of an interpretation of Christian mysticism, and then ask all too briefly how Christians can acknowledge and interpret mysticism in other religious traditions.


For Christians, mysticism is understood best through a study of those men and women who are very widely acknowledged to be Christian mystics. This list certainly includes saints and others, such as Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), Augustine (d. 430), Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Meister Eckhart (d. 1329), Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556), Teresa of Avila (d. 1582), John of the Cross (d. 1591), and, in our own time, Thomas Merton (d. 1968).(1) Not all saints are mystics, nor are all mystics saints.

Mysticism refers primarily to an experiential awareness or knowledge of the divine mystery or the Sacred. Christian mysticism is such knowledge based on Christian faith, trust and love, namely on that surrender of mind and heart to God who has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This trust in God's love for us and response to God and to our neighbors is one that finds its model in Jesus Christ. All Christians have access to some experience of God that comes from the proclamation of the Gospel, that witness of the lives of other Christians, the sacraments and, above all, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes to the Christians at Rome: "You received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, 'Father!' The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom 8:15-16). Mystical experience designates an experience in prayer that is a further development of the relation to God that is found in all Christians who genuinely believe and seek to live in accord with this belief. It is a kind of knowledge of God, but not that found in an intellectual analysis of what is believed. It is a kind of experience, but not that which we have access to through our senses or emotions. It goes further than these.

Mystical experience, then, it paradoxical. We can show this through recalling the way two saints have spoken of this experience. St. Augustine recounts in his Confessions an experience that he and his mother, Monica, had as they were speaking together about God shortly before Monica's death:

Rising as our love flamed upward towards that Self-same, we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and stars shine upon this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marvelling at Your works. And so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to that region of richness unending, where You feed Israel forever with the food of truth; and there life is that Wisdom by which all things are made . . . . And while we were thus talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant attain to touch it . . . .(IX, x, 24)
Here, Augustine speaks of an experience of God through analogy with the sense of touch. This 'touch' is not by flesh but by the human spirit of the divine Spirit, or rather the human spirit's being touched by God. It is a transient experience, an experience that is received rather than something we can achieve on our own, an experience that is a gift, one that is ineffable or that can be conveyed to others only by suggestion rather than directly, and one that does convey some mysterious and transforming knowledge of God.

Gregory of Nyssa, a representative of Greek Christianity, also speaks of a mysterious knowledge of God that is given to the Christian who has, not by human effort alone but with the help of the Holy Spirit, responded to God by faith, turned away from sin and sought to practice virtue. This process is a journey that one begins through baptism and through being awakened by a dart from God's love; its basis is desire for union with God; and it involves a continuous passage from where one now is. Gregory describes this process by the image of the life of Moses, who first knew God in the burning bush, but later knew God more intimately in the cloud:

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light but now he is seen in darkness . . . .When . . . Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says, "Moses approached the dark cloud where God was" (Ex 20:21). (Dupré and Wiseman 55-56)
This is not an intellectual knowledge, but one that comes to the soul pierced by the desire of beauty, goodness and union with God. God can be revealed to such a one in the darkness 'by the fact that He gives the soul some sense of His presence, even while he eludes her clear apprehension, concealed as he is by the invisibility of his nature;' Gregory of Nyssa writes in his Commentary on the Song of Songs (Dupré and Wiseman 46).


From these two examples, we may note several characteristics of Christian mysticism. The paradoxical experiential knowledge of God proper to it is of God as transcendent and personal. It is a knowledge that is more the fruit of desire and love than intellectual study. Two traditions are represented by Augustine and Gregory, though this distinction is not absolute, but rather a matter of emphasis. The former is called "kataphatic" mysticism, while the latter is called "apophatic." The one describes this knowledge more in terms of light, while the latter describes it more in terms of darkness and 'not-knowing.'

Secondly, mysticism can refer to the whole way of life in which this knowledge is found. As such, it has classically been described as having stages. The first of these was frequently called the 'purgative' way, i.e., one characterized by persons' turning away from sin in repentance and by active practice of the virtues and asceticism. By asceticism here we mean effort to act counter to the roots of sin in ourselves and thus be more in control of such passions or inclinations within us that lead to sin. The second was called the 'illuminative' way, a stage in which persons' practice of the virtues of the Christian life was more prominent than the turning away from sin; their prayer was characterized by a greater simplicity and affectivity and the beginnings of mystical prayer, and they had experienced what John of the Cross called "the night of the senses;" that is, a passive purification of the heart beyond that which they were able to achieve, under grace, by their active efforts.

The third stage was called the 'unitive' way and was characterized by passage though profounder purifications both internal and external ("the night of the spirit"), profounder prayer that was more passive or subject to God's presence, even though this be in the darkness of faith. The union such mystics experienced was described at times as a 'mystical marriage.' There is much that we are not mentioning in this sketch of Christian mysticism, such as the diverse experiences of God found in mystics and the place of Jesus Christ in their lives and experience. We should note that many of the mystics were very active people, and that they generally acknowledged that the criterion of their lives and prayer was more their charity or fraternal love and submission to God's will than experience in prayer.


In recent Christian reflection on mysticism, several themes emerge. Mystical experience is distinguished from the extraordinary manifestations (e.g., visions, ecstasy, levitations) found in some of the saints and with which it has sometimes been confused. It is mediated by God's initiative and grace and the human person's return in faith and love to God through transcending, though perhaps never fully, the self at its superficial and illusionary levels (including the 'shadow' in Jungian terms) and through being in touch with and accepting a deeper and hidden self open to God.

Such transcendence has been studied by those pioneering theologians Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, and is now being clarified by studies of human transcendence that come from developmental psychologists and Carl Jung. Mysticism is currently being related to the process of human life as a whole. This return to God is one that must include rather than bypass love for our neighbors and efforts to transform a world marked by serious injustices. It must also make time and space for God; for silence, aloneness, spiritual reading and varied forms of prayer in our hyperactive and cluttered lives. There is an ordinary mystical way to which many are called in the midst of the world, where the apparent naturalness of life itself offers that purifying darkness of which John of the Cross spoke and mediates God in this darkness.

Abbot John Chapman in Spiritual Letters, notes an experience characteristic of religious people of our time:

In the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries most pious souls seem to have gone through a period in which they felt sure that God had reprobated them . . . . This doesn't seem to happen nowadays. But the corresponding trial of our contemporaries seems to be the feeling of not having any faith; not temptation against any particular article (usually), but a mere feeling that religion is not true....The only remedy is to despise the whole thing, and pay no attention to it -- expect (of course) to assure our Lord that one is ready to suffer from it as long as he wishes, which seems an absurd paradox to say to a Person one doesn't believe in! But then, that is the trial. Faith is really particularly strong all the time. (139)
Finally, it is recognized that some of the classical mystics were influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition in ways that shifted the priorities of scripture. In the quotation from Augustine given above, we see that his mystical experience reflects a return to God through the stages of being that had come from God's creation and through the Word made flesh who makes this return possible. This is at times called the 'exitus-reditus' model and is influenced by the philosopher Plotinus' understanding of the stages of creation emanating from God and our return to God by, as it were, going back through these stages to God, to complete this 'circle.' However, the early Christians viewed their return to God not primarily on the model of creation but on the model of redemption. That is, they expected to return to God through responding to the way in which God was offering them salvation. And God was offering this through the second coming of Jesus at the end of history, to which they looked forward. The first meaning of salvation was what Jesus would do when he came again (see, e.g., Rom 5:9; 1 Cor 15:22-23). He would come as Son of Man who would save his followers from death, Satan and judgment and unite them with God and with one another in the Kingdom of God. Thus they understood their return to God as centered on God's coming to them from the future fulfillment and liberation of history that Jesus has already won and would bring definitively when he came again. Jesus has already gone into the fullness of his kingdom through his death, resurrection and exaltation. And he is already exercising in part that saving action that he will preeminently exercise when he comes again. For example, he has sent his Holy Spirit as the energy of the age to come to his disciples to be in them as a community and as individuals. And through the eucharist he shares with us even now a foretaste of the messianic banquet. The exalted Lord speaks with the church through his disciples' proclamation of the Gospel, and he is in the midst of his people. He calls us to share his pasch so that we may share its fruitfulness both now and hereafter.

The Father's presence to Christians is mediated not primarily through creation but through the crucified, risen and exalted Jesus who is to return at the end of history and who already offers us -- as from the future kingdom -that salvation that will be fully ours only then, God's presence also mediated through the Spirit who is sent even now to abide in us and lead us to the fullness of Christlike love. Thus, as opposed to interpretations of Christians' relation to God in ways that diminish their commitment to history, a completely Christian spirituality and mysticism accepts history and its tasks. In accord with a theme dramatically underlined by liberation theologians, Christian mystics resolutely face the future rather than revert to a primordial past; they seek to instill in the present values of the Kingdom or world to come -- values that already in part liberate and fulfill our past and our present. We will have further opportunity below to recall some elements of the Trinity's relating to us in this context.


If one accepts the view of mysticism indicated above, how can one evaluate mystical experiences found in other religious traditions? Many Christian theologians in our time recognize that it is in accord with Christian tradition to recognize both the reality and the God-given or graced character of some mystical experiences in other religious traditions. In "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions;' the Second Vatican Council itself asserted that the Church

has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines [of non-Christian religious traditions] which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. (paragraph 2)
In our brief space here, I will simply borrow for our own purposes the largely concurring major findings of two eminent western professors of comparative religion who have studied this question, the late R.C. Zaehner in Concordant Discord, and Raimundo Panikkar in The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Mankind.

Zaehner and Panikkar find that there are at least three major forms of spiritualities and mystical experiences that cannot be identified with one another. One of these Zaehner calls 'cosmic consciousness' (what Panikkar calls the way of immanence), and this is found preeminently in India, but elsewhere too, e.g., in early Taoism in China, Shintoism in Japan and varied forms of animism. This is exemplified in a poem on the origin of all things in the primitive religious document in India, the Rig Veda. This poem asserts that there is a primordial energy that gives rise even to the gods:

Then neither Being nor Not-being was,
. . .
That One breathed, windless, by its own energy:
Nought else existed then.
. . .
In the beginning this [One] evolved,
Became desire, first seed of mind,
. . .
By the emanation of this the gods
Only later [came to be].
                                                (Zaehner 68-69)

This poem suggests that mystery surrounds the origin of this emanation and that "Only he who is its overseer in highest heaven knows./ [He only knows,] or perhaps he does not know." What is primary in this sense of the Sacred is this energy immanent in the world from which all or virtually all arises, though there may be an "overseer in highest heaven."

A fuller treatment and evaluation of Panikkar and Zaehner can be found in James Williamson's Christianity and Other Religions: The Approaches of Raimundo Panikkar and Robert C. Zaehner. Williamson notes similarities between Panikkafs forms of spirituality and Zaehner's forms of mysticism, but unfortunately he uses only works of Zaehner that are earlier than Concordant Discord, and so for him these similarities are not as marked as they appear to me.

In the Upanishads, this mysterious One also seems central. Brahman, that initially signified the sacrifice, came to signify the power immanent in the sacrifice and then the power immanent in the world as the preeminent principle. There are quite diverse interpretations of ultimate reality and religious experience in India -- some dualistic, some nondualistic, and some a qualified dualism. But Panikkar suggests that,

the central message of the Upanishads interpreted in their fullness . . . is advaita, i.e., non-dual character of the Real, the impossibility of adding God to the world or vice versa . . . For the Upanishads, therefore, the Absolute is not only transcendent but both transcendent and immanent all in one. (36)
The point of religion was for one to come to realize this, to come to a living awareness that Atman (the deepest self in the individual) is Brahman, somewhat "as rivers flowing [downwards] find their home/ In the ocean, leaving name and form behind" (Zaehner 85). The mystical awareness to which religious practices were to lead one was this consciousness of union with an Absolute that is immanent, and a consciousness in which there is a sense of the dissolving of the individual self into this ultimate Absolute or Self. It is not a sense of personal union in which both the individual self and the Absolute retain their own identities. Some similar consciousness seems to be present in early Taoism (Zaehner 215ff.) and elsewhere, though we do not have space here to examine this.


Both Zaehner and Panikkar find that there is a certain kinship between this spirituality and a Christian spirituality based on the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Triune God. These non-Christian spiritualities speak of this Absolute through realities of creation that Christian theologians have noted as having a certain appropriateness to what is distinctive of the Holy Spirit. We note that in the Judeo-Christian scripture, there are many symbols of the Holy Spirit that are drawn from natural or immanent and dynamic phenomena, such as wind, flowing waters, the hovering of a bird, and movement interior to the human heart toward union with God and the human community. Christians believe that while the Spirit is personal and infinitely transcendent -- in essence or perfection, rather than spatially -- to all things created, this same Spirit is given to dwell immanently in human beings and lead them to God. Panikkar points out that pantheism is a danger for the spirituality of immanentism in India and elsewhere, but that a profound teaching about the Holy Spirit could affirm much not all -- in this spirituality, and save it from the distortions to which it is susceptible.

We in the West are helped by these insights of Hinduism and other non-Christian religions to recover riches of Christianity that have not been given the prominence they deserve. In the church we have depended for unity perhaps too much on the Word preached and represented by the official teachers in the church; now we are more aware that we must depend much more on the Holy Spirit present in all believers for such unity, without neglecting the Word. In our ecologically conscious age, it is important for us to recover an awareness of the immanence of the sacred as well as its transcendence. And in our age, more aware of how much the West has undervalued women and their distinctive contributions, a greater awareness of the Spirit's dynamism and immanence helps us to restore a virtually lost balance.(2) But, analogously, in our future-oriented age, much of the East has to learn to integrate its emphasis on the immanence of the Absolute more with the future than with a primordial past. The Christian belief that the Holy Spirit is sent to us from Christ gone into the fullness of his Kingdom helps here.


Another form of mysticism or spirituality is identified by Zaehner as the 'mysticism of isolation,' and by Panikkar as 'apophatism or silence.' They find this primarily in Gautama Buddha. Zaehner notes that between the time of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, the belief in the transmigration of souls had taken root in India. Through belief in karma, it was thought that what survived was one's works. Associated with this was the possibility of an endless series of deaths, rebirths, and deaths again. This appalled many people, Gautama among them, and he sought release. He rejected mystical consciousness as described in the Upanishads, because this depended on contact with the outside world.

This must be ruthlessly suppressed, for salvation does not consist in cosmic consciousness, but in excluding the cosmos and all its works from consciousness. It is Nirvana, the "blowing out" of the flame of desire, disgust with the world, total detachment, the cessation of becoming, the stilling of passion, wisdom, an awakening to an abiding reality, seeing things as they really are. (Zaehner 86-87)
Gautama was skeptical about the Upanishads' metaphysical reflections on the Absolute and the self, and abstained from these questions, simply offering his followers the Four Noble Truths: i.e., life is suffering; desire is the source of suffering; the extirpation of desire is the way to liberation; and the Noble Eight-fold Path is essential for this. After his own enlightenment, Gautama's temptation was to leave all the rest of human beings to their own ignorance; but through compassion he overcame this temptation and taught others the way to deliverance.

Later forms of Buddhism diverged among themselves. Many of these forms were contextualized by myth, devotion and folk religion, and so there is a kind of personal sense of transcendence here. But much of the meditation of the Buddhist monks seems apophatic. A form of Buddhism that emerged in Chinaand later in Japan as Zen Buddhism -- was deeply influenced by Taoism, so much so that, in contradistinction to Gautama, its "Absolute" became identified with the "Buddha-nature" in each person and thus immanent in the world. The meditation that characterized the mysticism of both original Buddhism and Zen was entered into by satori or enlightenment (to which different forms of Buddhism offer different paths) and seems centered on impersonal 'Being'. Though at times it is called 'Non-Being', this designation is more existential than metaphysical, one that seeks to deny that it is any specific thing.


Raimundo Panikkar associates this with a spirituality of the Father, the First Person in the Trinity, because it is associated with a "wordlessness" or silence. The way to enlightenment is through a rejection of reasoning or 'logos'. I would suggest that it is associated by a kind of appropriation with the ways the First Person is both the 'ground of being' and the source of the Holy Spirit. This latter relationship is one that is unnamed (unless one calls it 'spiration') and one that has analogies with the way the good gives rise to desire or love. Buddhists seem to center apophatically on the Absolute both as the ground of being and Nirvana, as nameless source and nameless goal.

Zaehner finds analogies between such mysticism and certain experiences that Christian mystics describe -- experiences that are gained through detachment and that seem centered on Being or the depths of the soul and that relate one to eternity and give one an inner peace and imperturbability. The Buddhist tradition can bring forcefully home to people of the West the need of accepting a dialectical moment in our pilgrimage of desire, namely, one in which we face the fact that nothing of this world can fulfill the infinite longing of the human heart. Of course, this is also emphasized by Christian mystics, and in a special way by John of the Cross. Such an experience is a way-station for most Christian mystics. It is not one in which one should settle down as the ultimate point of arrival, though it is a temptation for some to do so. What is dominant in Christianity is a Trinitarian mysticism or spirituality of personal union of love, described at times by spousal metaphors. In accord with the early Christian belief that the Father sends the Holy Spirit from the fullness of the future kingdom into which Christ has entered, the Father's call through the good which God is and offers us, is one that integrates history rather than dissociates us from it. This context has much to offer Buddhists in our age of historical consciousness to enable them to relate their deep centering on the Absolute as Nirvana to the tasks of history.(3)

A 'personal union' spirituality or mysticism, the third type both Zaehner and Panikkar identify, is characteristically of Christianity (and, in their own ways, in the more emphatically prophetic religions of Judaism and Islam), but it is not found exclusively there. For example, Zaehner notes that in early Confucianism and "particularly in the Book of Songs the existence of a personal God who is the Lord of Heaven is taken for granted," though in Neo-Confucianism God ceases to be personal at all and becomes rather "the principle of rationality that informs all nature" (252). It is particularly in the Bhagavad-Gita that one finds a spirituality of personal union. In this very important document, there is a religious consciousness that goes beyond the immanentism of much of Hinduism and the apophatism of Buddhism, because there is a sense (whether this is a psychological or ontological sense is another question) of Deity (Vishnu) taking on a human form in Krishna and expressing God's personal love for human beings and an invitation to a union with God that is personal. In Christianity, of course, this personal union spirituality is specifically Trinitarian.

In conclusion, we can see the appropriateness of the title of Zaehner's study of the mysticisms of world religions: Concordant Discord. One cannot reduce these varied mysticisms to one form; they are diverse. However, there is a relation between them, so that they are not simply absolutely disparate. In fact, Panikkar argues that they can be interrelated appropriately only in a Trinitarian spirituality that acknowledges and integrates these differences. Our Christian spirituality must move from being excessively christocentric and personalistic to embrace dimensions of a Trinitarian spirituality our Western culture has on the whole obscured. We all need those forms of spirituality that have not been characteristic of our culture. Perhaps, as we have noted, Asia has to discover a religious sensibility or mysticism that orients us, as Christian mysticism does, more to the future than to a primordial past, and more to Deity as both transcendent and personal than as simply immanent and/or impersonal.

  1. For a recent anthology of Christian mysticism, see Louis Dupré and James Wiseman, OSB, eds. Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism (New York: Paulist Press, 1988). Also see Harvey Egan, SJ What are They Saying about Mysticism? (New York: Paulist Press, 1982) and William Johnston, SJ Christian Mysticism Today (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984).

  2. I have reflected on this in "Feminine Symbols and the Holy Spirit," in John Farrelly, God's Work in a Changing World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), 49-76.

  3. An interesting perspective on this can be found in Hans Küng "God's Self-Renunciation and Buddhist Emptiness: A Christian Response to Masao Abe" in Buddhist Emptiness and Christian Trinity: Essays and Explorations, eds. Roger Corless and Paul Knitter. (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).


Chapman, Abbot John. Spiritual Letters. London: Sheed and Ward, 1959.

Panikkar, Raimundo. The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Mankind. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973.

Williamson, James. Christianity and Other Religions: The Approaches of Raimundo Pnnikkar and Robert C. Zaehner. Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University, 1989.

Zaehner, R.C. Concordant Discord. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.