Practical mysticism

December 23, 2007

St_dionysius If the term “practical mysticism” sounds like an oxymoron to you, then you’re not alone.  For centuries, Christian mystics have been thought of as the lunatic fringe of the Church.  Usually imagined as wild-eyed John-the-Baptist types, Christian mystics have been relegated to the “interesting, but impractical” category in church history.

But with a new wind of the Spirit blowing across the Church today, mysticism is finding a new and practical place in the life of the Christian communion.  Some examples include —

  • The ancient-future connection that the late Robert Webber called to the attention of evangelicals.
  • Neo-monastic communities have revived the practice of a common life together in devotion and service.
  • The daily office — Phyllis Tickle calls it The Divine Hours — is now observed by growing numbers of evangelicals, not to mention Catholics and Orthodox adherents.
  • The restoration of ritual to evangelical life through adaptation of ancient liturgies such as The Great Thanksgiving, and other ancient readings and worship work.
  • Spiritual formation, rather than just education, is finding new proponents in evangelical life.
  • Charismatic gifts — such as tongues, private prayer language, prophecy, discernment, et al — are finding greater acceptance among previously “cessationist” denominations.
  • Prayer practices such as meditatio and centering prayer have seen a resurgence in the last 30-years.
  • Deeper Life conferences, in the Keswick tradition, owe much to the early mystics and their yieldedness to God.
  • Revivalism — most notably in the first and second great awakenings, but recently in the Toronto blessing and the Brownsville revival — has a definite mystical flavor with those under the Spirit’s influence repenting, confessing, crying, falling down, barking like dogs (Great Awakenings), and mostly having their lives transformed.

The list goes on, but all of these experiences and expressions have their roots in the ancient mysticism of the early Church.  It is only in the past 200 or so years as the Enlightenment took center stage, that the phenomena of the mystical experience came into serious question.  Even the radical reformers, of which my Baptist denomination is an descendant, expressed themselves in highly mystical doctrines of “new light” and “soul competency.”

Today’s mystics may not wear flowing robes and live in the desert, but they do have a renewed longing to know God personally and powerfully.  Expressions of devotion may change, but the object of that devotion does not.  Mystics say with the Greeks of John’s Gospel, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”