Mysticism, Esotericism, Exotericism, Occultism… Sorting Through the Spiritual Wilderness

A reader posted this recently on my Facebook feed:

I have a question, have you covered the differences between exoteric vs. esoteric spirituality? thanks. huge and vast topic…

My reply: it is a huge topic! But I said I’ll see if I can pull together at least a few thoughts for my blog.

She went on to offer these thoughts:

Please address the spectrum, mysticism’s role and the occult tangent. I look forward to it. I see material on the internet, theosophical, occult…

Yep, there’s a lot here. In the limitations of a blog post, all I can offer are a few basic thoughts. But I hope these might be helpful.

First, a story. When I was 27 years old, I took a job as the bookstore manager of the campus store in Sewanee, Tennessee, at the University of the South. One of the reasons why Sewanee appealed to me: the University included a School of Theology. Even though I did not see myself enrolling, I wanted to be part of a learning community devoted to theology.

Shortly after I arrived there, one day the seminary dean, Dr. Giannini, walked into the store.  I went up and introduced myself. We chatted for a few minutes, and I mentioned that one of my interests included mysticism.

He paused, probably to choose his next words carefully; then he asked me this question. “Do you mean mysticism is the Shirley Maclaine sense, or in the Evelyn Underhill sense?”

“The Evelyn Underhill sense, of course!” I replied, and he smiled. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but we probably talked about Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton.

Over thirty years later, I find Dr. Giannini’s question still quite helpful. It points to the fact that “mysticism” has become a loaded and challenging word, even though as words go it’s not very old (it only shows up in English around 1736); but it lacks a precise meaning and therefore has been used in different contexts to mean different things. For example:

  • The “Shirley Maclaine” form of mysticism would be roughly equivalent to what is known as “new age” spirituality: a non-dogmatic, non-religious spirituality that is based in personal experience and a focus on psychic or extraordinary phenomena;
  • By contrast, the “Evelyn Underhill” form of mysticism centers on the contemplative dimension of Christian spirituality, emphasizing the wisdom teachings of monks and nuns and a recognition that God is present even if un-felt, and that the point behind spirituality is not to have unusual experiences but rather to become more truly Christlike in our thoughts and deeds.
  • Then again, you could also talk about a “Dalai Lama” or “Thich Nhat Hanh” type of mysticism, which is to say a mysticism that is synonymous with the interior life and spiritual practice of eastern religions like Buddhism or Hinduism.

As I write these words, I worry that some people will take offense — that it might seem as if I am saying that only the Evelyn Underhill variety of mysticism is “good” — all those other types of mysticism must be second-rate.

But that’s not what I mean to say at all.

I think it’s helpful to talk about the differences between different understandings of mysticism and spirituality, not because we need to get into a chest-thumping contest to figure out which one is “true” or “the best,” but rather simply so that we can understand just how spirituality and the interior life takes on many different cultural forms, practices and teachings.

In fact — it’s been my experience over the years that people who are truly interested in mysticism, of any “form,” typically have a more generous and open-minded interest in the spirituality and practice of traditions other than their own. I may be anchored in the Christian tradition, but nevertheless I assume I can learn a lot from teachers like the Dalai Lama or Ram Dass or Starhawk or Pema Chödrön.

For that matter, I am sure there are plenty of people whose understanding of mysticism is somewhat of a blend between these different perspectives. They may draw more specifically from eastern forms of spirituality such as Zazen, Vedanta or Transcendental Meditation, or may be mostly interested in secular forms of spirituality like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or may think of mysticism more in terms of communion with nature (think Ralph Waldo Emerson meets St. Francis of Assisi).

All this is to say, that a concept like mysticism can mean a lot of different things to different people.

This is one reason why I tend to focus my work on “Christian mysticism” — to subtly emphasize that the mystical spirituality I write about has more in common with contemplative Christianity than with the psychic adventures of people like Shirley Maclaine or Jane Roberts.

I don’t mean to knock what might be meaningful to other people. This is not about passing judgment, but it is about discernment. Christian mysticism is different in some real and meaningful ways from other types of mysticism you can run into. It’s helpful to try to understanding these differences as simply and clearly as possible.

Mysticism is related to mystery and to a Greek root word from which we also get the word mute. It has to do with silence, with hiddenness, with ineffability (“you can’t put it into words”). I think these qualities tend to show up in all the different varieties of mysticism, from eastern to western to none-of-the-above.

So what makes Christian mysticism unique? Here are three identifying marks:

  1. Christian mysticism, obviously enough, is embedded in Christianity, the tradition of following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. If you have no use for Jesus, or the New Testament, Christian mysticism is probably not going to be your thing. Christian mystics not only talk about Jesus a lot, but most of them are head over heels in love with Jesus — at least in a spiritual sense.
  2. Christian mysticism follows the wisdom teachings of Christian contemplatives, saints and mystics, many of whom were monks and nuns or otherwise embedded in Christian community. Like all mystics from all traditions, there’s no one-size-fits-all Christian mystic; still, generally speaking, mystical Christianity begins with the wisdom of Jesus and the New Testament, picks up steam with the early contemplative instructions from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and reaches high art in the middle ages when great mystics began to write with depth and beauty about their experience of union with God and Christ.
  3. Although not all Christian mystics operate inside the institutional church, pretty much all of them promote a communal understanding of spirituality. Yes, there have been hermit-mystics in Christianity, but they are seen as the exception rather than the rule. “If you live alone, whose feet shall you wash?” asked Pope Gregory the Great. Christian mysticism is a love mysticism, and love requires relationship. “The flight of the alone to the Alone” may sound romantic, but in Christian teaching, love and relationships are the better path to union with God.

This post is getting really long, so let me address specifically the language that my reader asked about:

  • Exoteric and Esoteric: these words basically mean “outer” and “inner” — and are used to describe the relationship between spirituality, mysticism, and organized or institutional religion/community. Churches and other formal communities (like monasteries or fraternal lodges) have an exoteric function, in terms of their external, public practices. Take Catholicism, for example: the Mass, the sacraments, devotional practices like the Rosary, and so forth, are all exoteric  in that they have an external and often public function in the life of the community. By contrast, esoteric spirituality refers to the interior dimension: the realm of prayer, meditation, contemplation, altered or heightened states of consciousness, ecstasies or raptures, and so forth. Mysticism is often associated in people’s minds with esoteric, interior spirituality. Christianity, however, has a long tradition of suggesting that exoteric rites (like the Mass) have an esoteric dimension: you can go to Mass and receive communion, and for one person it’s just a wafer and a sip of wine, but for another person it opens up a profound recognition of oneness with God. Clearly, for the one person, their mystical experience arose from an encounter between an exoteric practice and an esoteric receptivity. But many mystics would argue that even if you don’t “feel” anything when you receive communion (the exoteric ritual), the Holy Spirit is still at work in your heart at a hidden (“mystical”) level. There’s so much more to say here — and this post is already too long. But I think what’s helpful is to see exoteric religion and esoteric spirituality as two ends of a continuum. They are not radically different, like black and white, but rather are linked together in profound and mysterious ways, like the relationship between the body, mind, and soul.
  • Occult: like mysticism, this is a word related to hiddenness or secrets, although occult is of Latin origin, unlike mysticism which has a Greek root. But the history of the words are different: whereas mysticism has a longer association with religious spirituality, monasticism, meditation, and so forth; occultism has for some 400 years now been linked with “supernatural sciences” (or pseudo-sciences, depending on what you believe) such as astrology, cartomancy, alchemy, ceremonial magic, and so forth. Ironically, the word occult has done a better job at maintaining a narrower definition than has mysticism. That’s probably because occult practices have tended to be rejected by the religious establishment outright, whereas mysticism occupies more of a gray area: in some ways mystical theology and teachings are central to Christian spirituality, but in other ways mysticism is controversial (take, for example, how the Catholic television personality Mother Angelica was resolutely hostile to the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer, even though Centering Prayer has impeccable roots as a Christian spiritual practice (going all the way back to the Desert Fathers). Interestingly, you’ll find religious opposition to mystical and contemplative spirituality not only in pretty much all Christian denominations, but also in other religious traditions: not all Muslims accept Sufism, and not all Jews accept the Kabbalah, for example. But where mysticism has an ambiguous relationship with organized religion, occultism tends to be rejected by religious institutions outright. You might find individuals who straddle the line between orthodox religious spirituality and occultism (I’ve known quite a few Christians who read Tarot cards, for example), but that usually only happens on the personal/individual level.
    What makes this so confusing is that occultists often seem to be perfectly happy describing themselves as mystics — which may be one reason why even very contemplatively-minded Christians resist using the words “mystic” or “mystical” even though such words have a long Christian pedigree.
  • Finally, Theosophy is a much more precise word, originally implying a kind of hybrid between mystical theology and philosophy, but eventually become associated with teachers who tend to fall more on the occult side things, such as Emmanual Swedenborg from the 18th century or Helena Blavatsky from the 19th. Indeed, Blavatsky co-founded the “Theosophical Society” so this word now pretty much implies the culture, spirituality and teachings associated with that particular organization. The Theosophical Society promotes a kind of all-religions-are-one spirituality, but most of its core beliefs are more consistent with eastern mysticism instead of western contemplation. Again, I don’t mean to pass judgment here, but I think it’s important to understand the distinctions. However — just to muddy the waters — some of Blavatsky’s followers also became associated with a small independent Christian movement called the Liberal Catholic Church, which integrates theosophical teachings with an esoteric form of Christianity. Confused yet? It’s just another reminder that spiritual practices and beliefs can take many forms!

As I said at the beginning of this post, the subject of how mysticism is related to esotericism and occultism is complex. As a general rule of thumb, mysticism is more comfortable straddling the line between religion and spirituality, whereas occultism typically operates outside the bounds of institutional religion. As for understanding the difference between Christian mysticism and other forms of mysticism, look at the teacher or writer or mystic whose work you are exploring, and see how prominent a role Christ, or other Christian teachers, plays in their work. That’s usually the easiest way to figure out the difference between Christian mysticism and other contemplative spiritualities.

Finally, I can’t emphasize this enough: if you are exploring mystical or contemplative spirituality, try to resist the temptation to be judgmental toward those whose spirituality or beliefs are different from your own. It’s good to be discerning, but being judgmental is generally a waste of time. Plus, you never know when a teacher from some other tradition than your own might have something to say to you that will be just what you need to hear, in order to grow spiritually. Stranger things have happened!

Featured image: the “Flammarian Engraving,” artist unknown, late 19th century. Public domain.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.