Mystics Invite Us to Imagine

Selected excerpts by Bernard McGinn (August 2018 eNews)

[M]ystics invite us to imagine and even to explore an inner transformation of the self based on a new understanding of the human relation to God. For some mystics this understanding is rooted in extraordinary forms of consciousness, such as visions and ecstasies, which most of their readers will not have shared. Other mystics, however, insist that such special experiences are only preparatory and peripheral, and perhaps even harmful if one confuses them with the core of mysticism understood as inner transformation. For believers the writings of the mystics present ideals and models for their own deepest aspirations, but even for nonbelievers…mystical texts have a fascination that resides in their ability to manifest important aspects of the human condition. Like great poets and great artists, the great mystics are examples of extraordinary human achievement who challenge and inspire even those who may not share their commitments. Reading the mystics puts us in touch with some of the most profound mysteries of the human spirit.

[The mystical life] is essentially a process, an itinerary or journey to God, not just a moment or brief state of what is often called mystical union, important as such moments may be. A proper grasp of mysticism requires an investigation of the ways by which mystics have prepared for God’s intervention in their lives and the effect that divine action has had upon the mystic and those to whom he or she has communicated the message.

God does not become present to human consciousness the way that an object in the concrete world is said to be present. Encountering God is much more like meeting a friend or loved one, and many Christian mystics have used intensely personal language in their writing, especially in their descriptions of their relation to Jesus. But God is not just another person—“person” as a limited category of the created world cannot contain or define the God who is both the source of the cosmos and infinitely beyond it. This is why speaking of God’s presence is at bottom another strategy for saying the unsayable—and why so many mystics have wrestled with the paradox that God is found in absence and negation more than in presence, at least as we usually conceive and experience it.

One thing that stands out in the accounts of all the Christian mystics is that their encounter with God transforms their minds and their lives. God changes the mystics and invites, even compels, them to encourage others by their teaching to open themselves to a similar process of transformation. This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic’s part and—especially—on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.

Almost all mystics insist that on the path to God it is necessary to employ both love and knowledge, the two forms of spiritual activity essential to the human subject. Since the New Testament identifies God as love (1 Jn 4:8), Christian mystics have generally given loving a higher role than knowing in attaining God. Although God is Truth, the divine nature remains incomprehensible to every finite intellect, so knowledge always reaches a limit in its search for God. God, however, is always lovable, at least to the extent that a finite spirit can continue to love the Infinite Spirit. Human experience of loving another, nevertheless, can grant a new kind of awareness that is not conceptual but interpersonal, the knowledge that the lover has of the beloved.

The above are excerpts from Bernard McGinn, ed. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. NY: Random House, Inc., 2006.

July 07, 2018 by Bernard McGinn
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