Book Preview: What is mysticism?

This blog post discusses elements of the introduction to my forthcoming book due out in April 2019. You can find out more about the monograph here.

The term ‘mysticism’ is often met with scepticism amongst scholars. What exactly does the word mean and how are we meant to use it? Decades of discussions about the validity of different definitions of the term have produced little clarity, while debates about which historical figures deserve the title of ‘mystic’ seem to have contributed very little to our overall understanding.

In order to move past these debates and make sense of a conflicted and confused historiography, the introduction to my book suggests a new framework for use by scholars. In it, I argue that we need to take a very long view of the history of Christian mysticism and its place within Western Christianity to make sense of such a complex issue. I propose that the term ‘mysticism’ should be used as a shorthand for the concept of the ‘mystical element of Christianity’, something that has been a fluid, rather than fixed, phenomenon throughout Christian history.

Rather than attempting to establish a fixed and rigid ‘mystical tradition’ that has characteristics and definitions historical figures have to ‘conform to’ in order to be included, I reject this ‘reading in’ of constructs on to historical figures as unhelpful. Instead, I propose that the job of scholars now is to produce contextualised and historicized accounts of mysticism that are primarily concerned with what writers at the time understood the mystical element of Christianity to be. ‘Mysticism’ thus becomes an umbrella term for this fluid and changing concept within the history of Christianity. A few examples might help to explain this.

In the seventeenth century mysticism was understood through terms like ‘mystical theology’ or ‘mystic divinity’. We thus have a good basis from which to begin decoding what writers in the period understood the mystical element of Christianity to be. We can look to writers such as the English Benedictine Serenus Cressy for an explicit definition:

Mysticall Theology being nothing else in generall, but certain Rules, by the practise whereof a vertuous Christian might attain to a neerer, a more familiar, and beyond all expression comfortable conversation with God, by arriving unto, not only a belief, but also an experimentall knowledge and perception of his divine presence, after an inexpressible manner in the soul; wherein he is taught first to purge himself of all pollutions of sin and worldly lusts, to possesse himself of all Christian vertues, and by such meanes to prepare himself for an union with the heavenly Majesty.

Serenus Cressy, Exomologesis (1653)

From this, we begin to understand that mysticism in the seventeenth century was primarily concerned with experience and cultivating an ‘experimental knowledge’ of God. This was a personal and private ineffable  experience an individual mystic ‘felt’.

Yet if we go further back in time, we find this focus on mysticism as something primarily ‘felt’ began in earnest around the time of Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century. Before this, writers largely understood mysticism to be part of an ecclesial and liturgical system which dealt with knowledge of the mysteries of God and the most profound points of the Christian faith. A writer like Pseudo-Dioysius had much to say about the usefulness of theologia mystica, but very little to say about ‘experiences’ felt directly by the individual.

Bernard of Clairvaux. Print by Cornelis Vermeulen (1644-1708). Bernard was an important figure in the process of mysticism becoming solely concerned with the ‘book of experience’ written by God in the soul of each mystic.

If we leap forward into the twentieth century, scholars like Evelyn Underhill had doubled down on a psychological definition of mysticism as experiences of ‘direct relations with the Absolute’. Underhill also believed that mysticism was a timeless concept with an essence that ran through all traditions and spiritualities (you can read more about my thoughts on this here). This again is a very different understanding from those that had gone before.

Here, then, we have different understandings of the mystical element of Christianity with different emphases and focuses in different time periods. Deploying the term ‘mysticism’ to describe all these engagements can be done, as long as our use of the term stresses the essential difference, rather than sameness, of engagements with the mystical element of Christianity throughout history and is done with an awareness of historical context and generational difference.

My introduction explores this concept in more detail and proposes this could be part of a new ‘constructivist’ approach to mysticism that is grounded in historical context. It looks at important historiographical developments, such as the impact of the ‘Cambridge School’ of intellectual history and the work of scholars like Quentin Skinner, and asks how the study of mysticism can benefit from such developments. It also traces a much more detailed history of ‘mysticism’ through terms like mystikos, theologia mystica, mystical theology and mysticism from early Christianity through to the present day.

Mysticism in Early Modern England is available to pre-order/buy now by following this link.