Desmond Tutu as Christian Mystic

The three-fold division of Christian mysticism (purgation, illumination, and union) is essential in understanding Desmond Tutu’s life. Purgation exemplifies Tutu’s formation as an institutional church leader, illumination exemplifies Tutu’s role as confessor, and union exemplifies Tutu’s elder years as sage.

As Tutu’s life proceeds through purgation, illumination, and union, not only does mysticism describe Tutu’s life; it also prepares him to counter apartheid’s concept of holiness. These three parts of the ancient Christian practice of Christian mysticism, originating in Dionysius, also display Tutu’s maturation in the spiritual life as a saint.

For those who think of Tutu primarily as a political actor on the world’s stage, this notion that Tutu is a Christian mystic, a saint, and a political leader may seem impossible to accept. But it will come as no surprise to others that the church is just as political as secular governments. In fact, Tutu in no small part was discovered by a Christian monk, Trevor Huddleston, whose work was deemed just as political as Tutu’s. My teenage children often laugh when I inform them that Tutu was discovered by a monk. They joke, “Dad, you’ll make Tutu into a superhero, because most superheroes have a monk trainer!”

In some ways I understand my kids’ assessment of Tutu as the quintessential hero, as I would pray at dawn and sunset with him. Serving as Tutu’s chaplain in those years, praying, driving, and even jogging with him, I learned not to talk too much, to allow Tutu to be contemplative in the midst of his hectic schedule. I recall one such trip to St. James Church, a white church in Kenilworth, a suburb of Cape Town. The day before, the church had witnessed a massacre, perpetrated by four black members of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA). Eleven members of the congregation were killed and fifty-eight wounded. Tutu had been called out of morning prayer to make the emergency trip, and as we set off on the journey, I heard him resume his prayers from the back seat. It was at that moment I realized the insight of Tutu’s deep spirituality: the hardest thing for him in the midst of a turbulent world was to keep saying his prayers every day. We all needed such prayer as we approached the driveway of St. James Church.

For some, it may seem strange that prophecy is somehow involved in Christian mysticism. But if you think about it more closely, it makes sense. Tutu explains further, “Those who would speak must do so out of a personal experience of God borne of a life of prayer, meditation, Bible Reading, retreats, and regular participation in the sacramental life of the church, people for whom the spiritual is absolutely central. They must then proceed to say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and speak out of a deep and passionate love for the land and the people.”

Tutu speaks to such potential prophets:

Are you ready to speak up boldly, criticizing evil without fear or favor, ready to bear the consequences? Are you ready for the suffering that is almost inevitable—the taunts that you were mixing religion with politics, that you were unpatriotic, the scurrilous attacks on your integrity, on your person and those you love? Are you ready for the sake of God’s word to risk detention without trial, banning, deportation and even death? It all sounds melodramatic but look at what happened to Bishop Reeves, to Beyers Naude et al. Are you ready to suffer being unpopular. . . . Do you have a sense of humor not to take yourself seriously remembering whatever the evidence apparently to the contrary, that this is God’s world and He is in Charge? If you don’t fill this bill, then count out prophecy.

Photo 18252315 © Danie Nel |

April 04, 2021 by Michael Battle
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.


In 2025, Shalem will be a dynamic and inclusive community, empowered by the Spirit, where seekers engage in transformation of themselves, their communities, and the world through spiritual growth, deep connection, and courageous action.