About ten years ago I had a conversation with an elderly Trappist monk about the book I was writing — a book on Christian mysticism. Hearing that it was intended to introduce mysticism to the general public, he scoffed. “Not everyone is called to be a mystic,” he objected.
“But doesn’t God want us to be in union with him?” I replied. “Well, yes,” he admitted, “we are all called to holiness but not all to mysticism.”
I disagreed with him, and I’m happy to say that no less an authority than the Catechism of the Catholic Church backs me up. In its section on Christian Holiness (#2012-2016), the Catechism has this to say:
Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called “mystical” because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments—“the holy mysteries”—and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.
My friend the monk thought only someone with “special graces or extraordinary signs,” could be a mystic — which is to say, a spiritual genius along the lines of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Ávila. Certainly such singular mystics are the gold standard by which we all understand mysticism: in other words, intimate union with Christ which is embodied in a deeply contemplative life.
But as the Catechism points out, “God calls us all to this intimate union with him” — which means we are all called to be mystics, just as we are all called to be saints. Not all of us are called to be extraordinary mystics, but that’s like saying not every guitarist enjoys the genius of Andrés Segovia or Eric Clapton.
Most people with ordinary musical ability who make the effort to learn and practice the guitar can be good, perhaps great, certainly accomplished. But only a few will be geniuses.
Likewise, we are all called to be mystics, and those who immerse themselves in the life of prayer, contemplation, scripture and the sacraments, may enjoy profound union with God — even if they never approach the spiritual genius of one of the “great” mystics.
What makes a mystic, well, “mystical”?
Mystic and related words come from Greek — from the same word which gives us “mystery” and even “sacraments” (In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, sacraments are referred to as mysteries). But the Greek root word, mueo, also gives us the English word “mute.” So a mystic is not only someone who enters the mystery of God, but also someone whose spirituality is profoundly silent — and even cannot be put into words.
Incidentally, the glossary of the Catechism notes that contemplation is “wordless prayer” — another indication of the mystical relationship between silence and spirituality. A mystic, therefore, in the broadest sense of the word is simply a contemplative: someone who prays, and who prays silently, opening the heart to the presence of God which cannot ever be fully put into words. Thomas Aquinas is said to have dismissed his writing as “straw” after a moment of mystical beholding. Such is the splendor of mysticism.
Of course, mystics of nearly every generation have tried nevertheless to commit the story of their encounter with God in written form, which is why we have spiritual classics from the hand of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, and countless other contemplative guides.
When we read the writings of the mystics, we discover that there is tremendous variety and beautiful diversity in how people receive union with God into their lives. In other words, our job — in our time — is not merely to try to replicate the spirituality of the great mystics of the past, but to immerse ourselves in their wisdom to find inspiration for God to lead us into our unique expression of intimate union with Him.
For further reading:
If you want an overview of great mystical writings, see Bernard McGinn’s The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Three of greatest classics of the mystical tradition include Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Finally, I hope you’ll take a look at my “mysticism trilogy” including The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism, and Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages.