Ian Morgan Cron

Are You a Christian Mystic?

Sunlight on Footworn Stairs in Assisi

In 2006, I went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy to immerse myself in the life and teachings of St Francis of Assisi. It was a magical three weeks. Every morning during my stay, a mist enshrouded the city, and I felt like each well-worn stone yearned to speak of the sacred events it had witnessed over the millennia. It’s no wonder they call Assisi “a particle of paradise.”

A few days into the pilgrimage, a friend introduced me to an 80-year old, Catholic priest named Father Arcadius. Arcadius looked like an Old Testament prophet. He was dressed in a frayed and dusty cassock with a rope belt and sandals with soles made from recycled car tires. His grey beard had grown down to the middle of his chest, an explosion of white hair crowned his head, and his eyes were an arresting blue.

For years, Arcadius had been a hermit living in the Apennine Mountains until God called him to a ministry of walking across Europe and the Middle East to hear the confessions of pilgrims who were visiting shrines.

Yes, I said walking.

He estimated that over his thirty years of ministry he had clocked tens of thousands of miles on foot, carrying no money or extra clothing but relying on the charity of others to survive.

I spent several amazing hours sitting on the steps leading up to the Church of San Damiano speaking with Arcadius about my life with Jesus. At the end of our time, I asked for his blessing and for any final wisdom he could give me about how to move deeper into the heart of God. Without pause, he grabbed my forearms, gazed piercingly into my eyes, and said, “Become a mystic!” Not quite what I expected.

Drop the phrase word ‘Christian mysticism’ into a conversation among a group of Jesus followers, especially among our more conservative brothers and sisters, and you will get a wide array of reactions. Some correlate it with New Age spirituality; others associate it with creepy psychic phenomena that have little to do with “normal” Christian life; others, however, will speak reverently about a transcendent experience of God that occurred in their past that made them wonder if for only one brief and beautiful moment they themselves were mystics.

So, what really makes someone a mystic? In the simplest sense, a mystic is someone who has a lived experience of Jesus in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. They have experienced Jesus, and through contemplative prayer and meditation, continue to encounter Jesus in such a way that they gain a new perceptive appreciation for the urgent immediacy of God in all things. (This is but one of several thousand definitions of this term. Trust me, I will hear about it’s shortcomings!)

Contrary to what many think, however, these God-encounters are not always seismic events, like those experienced by St Francis or St Teresa of Avila. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (a theologian we desperately need to revisit), would argue that these unmediated encounters with God are often so delicate and subtle that most people do not even know that what they have experienced is mystical in content.

So, let me take the “mist” out of the word mysticism; make it something less opaque and more accessible.

Have you ever found yourself inexplicably capable of forgiving someone who has deeply wounded you?

Have you ever been surprised by your ability to maintain a spirit of faith, hope and joy in the face of crushing circumstances or perhaps even in the face of unspeakable horror?

Have you ever spontaneously laughed out loud at the absurdity of life?

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sense that everything in your life is a gift?

Have you ever been given the gift “seeing the inner splendor” of something in creation?

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the sound of wind moving through a stand of trees or by the sight of a markless snowfield illuminated by moonlight?

Have you ever received the Eucharist and felt tears of gratitude well up from your soul?

If your answer is yes to some of these questions, then welcome to the fellowship of “everyday mystics”, as Rahner would call them.

I do admit that some mystical encounters with God are more dramatic than others. Several years ago, a group of dear friends went on a hiking trip on a beautiful fall day with a friend who was in the early stages of dying from bone cancer. His gait was already becoming slow and unsteady, but he managed at one point to get ahead of us. As my friends emerged from a patch of undergrowth, they found our dying friend on his knees weeping, with hands raised in worship, before a single bush whose autumn leaves were aflame with breathtaking red and orange leaves. He had been graced with seeing that the “earth is crammed with God”, and these men who were witnesses to this moment were brought to silence.

Karl Rahner famously wrote that “the Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”  I would like to be part of a conversation about how post-evangelicals/emergents might begin to think about articulating our own mystical theology (a required course in many Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican seminaries.) Without one, I believe our ability to help people who yearn to make contact with their own transcendality will be impaired.

PS: If you can, come to the Big Tent Christianity Conference in Raleigh, NC, September 8-9. Its going to be a time filled with rich conversations, and perhaps we’ll all experience the “urgent immediacy of Jesus” together.

(I originally published portions of this post in an article for the 2009 Catalyst Conference. It has since been updated and expanded on.)

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  • 33 Responses to “Are You a Christian Mystic?”

    1. Yep..I’m a mystic. I’d never thought of it that way until today. Thanks, Ian.

    2. Kenny Payne

      Nice article. I really enjoyed your book Chasing Francis. Hope to read more in the near future….

    3. Thanks, Ian. I like Richard Rohr’s juxtaposition of being a mystic vs. being a consumer: according to Rohr, a mystic is one who needs less and less to be happy and a consumer is one who needs more and more to be happy. I like the idea of actually depending on God more each day, not just talking about it. God proves that God is faithful over and over again if given the opportunity, and a mystic is able to see this faithfulness in increasing measure.

    4. Yes and thanks for pointing to Karl Rahner. Sounds like a deep resource.

    5. I’ve always “secretly” wanted to be a mystic; to experience more of what I didn’t understand about God and to be closer to him just breathing that at some over-charged conference.

      Based on some of your examples, I smiled and thought, “Hm, guess I’m a mystic.”

      It’s certainly not something talked about much and maybe because no one really defines it and so, like my childhood church and it’s thoughts on the Holy Spirit, we dismiss it based on our lack of understanding or grossly exaggerated assumptions.

      Still, I sigh. I simply want to “be” with Him all the time and able to hear Him whenever He whispers. We’re doing pretty good, I’d say.

      Love the quote above, “a mystic is one who needs less and less to be happy and a consumer is one who needs more and more to be happy.”

    6. All I can say is…WOW!! I want to continue to become a mystic too! This is what it means to go into the depths and mystery of our amazing God! Thanks for sharing.

    7. Ian, challenging thoughts, certainly the type to lead people toward becoming mystics.

    8. Interesting speculation, and several of the encounters you listed have indeed occurred in my life. It’s a wonderful reminder that God’s Spirit does dwell within, continually transforming my life and renewing my mind (Romans 12: 1-2).

      Yet I must wonder whether some Christians (whether “conservative” or “liberal”) tend to overemphasize mountaintop-type experiences, at the expense of considering how the Spirit guides us (mostly through His written Word) in everyday life: jobs, family relationships, church participation and volunteer work, and even in our hobbies and leisure.

      What does Scripture say about balancing “mystical,” mountaintop-type experiences with real life? Jesus shows us implicitly by example; He would depart the crowds to pray to His Father, though of course His mission was unique, slightly different from His people’s. And Paul and other apostles teach more explicitly about how to be “mystical,” that is, transformed in miraculous ways that could be only from God, even when life doesn’t seem all that incredible.

      “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)

      That is so encouraging and God-centered, even when I’m not able to do overtly Spiritual things like Go On a Pilgrimage, explore Church history, or Do Ministry. Doing dishes, loving family and friends, putting up with annoyances at your church, or writing a simple blog comment, can glorify God just as much as the more overtly Spiritual things. Praise Him for His sovereignty!

    9. Cassie Gilmartin

      Thanks for letting mysticism out of the box, Ian. I think many clerics are afraid of it. It may be an interesting part of the history books, but in today’s world where is the line between mysticism and mental health issues? I agree that we need to work on how to articulate our mystical theology.

      I once cared for the toddler son of a conservative rabbinical student. He arrived everyday with his daycare backpack and a little yarmulke on his head. In every way he seemed like any other 18 month old. But when he laid down, and the tiny yarmulke fell off his head, he realized it in a fraction of a second. He would agitate until it was back on his head and would hold it there with great urgency to show its primary importance. I asked his mother about it. She said that to them the yarmulke was a symbol that God is always with us but in a higher realm. She held her hand about an inch above her son’s head to indicate higher, but close. I was amazed that this child, at the very beginning of his walk through life, could be so cognizant of his connection with his Higher Power… (This was where my theology was at the time as I was a newbie on the road to healing from the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family).

      Since then, I find that seeing the “urgent immediacy of God in all things” is most often as far away as taking the time to recognize the circumstances as such. At the pace in which we live, it can be easy to forget we are creatures living in the Creator’s creation. For me, inviting Jesus to be present in the moment, however feeble the language may be, will inevitably provide new insight…some great, some small, but always life-giving.

    10. Excellent article. I’ve never been a mystic or even been interested in the subject until recently. Thanks for taking some of the mystery out of ‘mysticism’. It’s does seem like a subject that’s terribly misunderstood.

      Few people realize what a mystic Jesus was. He often did odd things like disappearing and re-appearing, walking on water and working miracles. While these things are obviously mystical, I appreciate your reflections on the simple, less dramatic things of the deep spiritual life that becomes a moment by moment communion with God.

      If you’re interested in hearing a little more on the subject, you might check out this post on my website:

      http://mobileintensiveprayerunit.blogspot.com/2010/02/traveling-in-spirit.html

      Thanks again!

    11. [...] Internet and I just came across this link from Mike Morrell to a post by Ian Morgan Cron titled, Are You a Christian Mystic? Check out the piece. You might be surprised to find out that you’re a mystic [...]

    12. I would say that this is actually articulating part of the gift of prophecy. People with a prophetic gift are often able to see the majestic in the mundane–to see deeper into a matter’s nuances than other people typically do.

      What’s always important to remember is that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Revelation 19:10)–it never exists for its own sake; it never exists to exalt the person with the gift or call attention to him/her, but to exalt Jesus in all things, “that in everything, he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18).

      It doesn’t mean there’s something inherently special about the gift of prophecy or mysticism, above other giftings–but it’s a very necessary one.

      PS–my life was also changed at St. Francis’ tomb.

    13. Ian, I think you’re on something with this and am glad that you’re going to be at Big Tent to keep drumming up interest in the notion of contemporary, non-magical, mysticism. I myself won’t be able to be there, but have a vested interest in topic.

      I’ve commented on it myself, especially some ways in which mysticism and emergent church don’t always mesh quite 100%.

      If there is any curiousity about the subject, you may want to give a peek to
      http://theimageoffish.com/2010/05/17/the-holy-spirit-and-us/

      Hope to see you around,

      -C

    14. I very much appreciated this post and your de-mystification of mysticism. My only concern is that talk of being or becoming a mystic can be simply to attach another label to ourselves which is the exact opposite of what mysticism is about. What is mystical experience other than the deep experience of grace? The only difference between the mystic and anyone else is that they return the glory of grace to its source in humility, in which silence their capacity to hear and see is ever deepened.

    15. BOB

      Are you sure that it`s God or is it all just in your head.
      http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104291534

    16. [...] you a Christian Mystic? Posted on August 17, 2010 by Michael Ian Cron asks, Are you a Christian Mystic?, this is a really good read and I highly encourage you visit his blog to do so.  And Yes, I am a [...]

    17. CMT

      The paradox is self-labeling as mystics is probably the most dangerous practice one could get engaged with. Way too self-referential to keep asking in front of a mirror…

    18. The day I said to myself “I am a mystic,” was the day that I truly understood what freedom in faith felt like. It still brings joy to my heart every time I think of it.

      I am a mystic.

    19. Earth’s crammed with heaven
      And every common bush afire with God.
      Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

    20. Great post Ian.

      I think that when folks look for “mountaintop” experiences, they’re looking in the wrong direction, don’t you? Mystics of many different religions (certainly including Christians) seem to find that deep and powerful connection to G-d deep inside themselves – not on an exterior mountaintop. And it is that deep connection and discovery that seems to be at the heart of what most folks call “the mystic”.

      Seems like a quiet turning inward is the way we can approach the desire for a more mystical connection. I agree with you regarding the easy “accessibility” of this sort of experience, but think that by dropping the word “mystic” from our quest, and instead deeply following the instruction of Jesus to love G-d with our every fiber, we’re most likely to actually fall into that Grace.

      I’ve a book that I’ve recently published, and while it’s not explicitly “about” mysticism, the mystical experience is at the heart of the story. I’d like to throw that out to your readers as a potential snapshot of a journey that pulled me past experiences that folks would refer to as mystical.

      Thanks again for taking the time to put this good stuff out there.

      Neil Hanson
      http://neilhanson.com

    21. loved this Ian – thx!
      and to Kimberly ~ followed in your steps in acknowledging myself who i am ~ a mystic ~ with the same response ~ thank you!

    22. Well written. There is too much mysticism surrounding the term mystic. I see the Lord from time to time in unique ways. I think he speaks in creative ways to get our attention, but in ways consistent with Scripture (which btw contained lots of bizarre experiences).

    23. Loved this piece. It’s funny…many Christians think Christian mysticism is a bad thing, but then if you ask them about an experience they have had with god, many will give you a mystic’s perspective.

      Semantics maybe?

    24. Ayrian Stone

      Absolutely! I lost my childlike experiences of Jesus for a long season, because I categorized them as my ‘imagination.’ I didn’t know Jesus was waiting for just the right moment to step again into my life in a very real, personal way. Call it subjective experience…call it crazy. I’m just so thankful He’s real and abides in me! Thank you, Ian, for explaining Christian mysticism so beautifully.

    25. alice

      thank you for posting this – i am a mystic – have had so many experiences with the divinity in so many different ways and as a result am constantly changing how i view life. we all the ability to walk in the way of the mystic but so few are willing to go down that path. thank you once again.

    26. Ramona

      Finding your website brought me peace of mind in knowing I don’t have to look to the 1500s to find people that have experiences such as mine. I didn’t even know for sure there was such a thing as a Christian Mystic in today’s world until I googled it and found you. If we let Him in, God will take each of us on a ‘walk” with him. Each person’s walk will be filled with different sights and sounds as it is personally designed for that individual by the highest force, The Force, of the Universe, our Father.

      Like Alice, I believe that there likely are many others that experience the calling. But, our culture actually encourages us to run in a direction that will take us away from God. This is the chase for material things. If more would listen and follow His call, then it would be easier for all of us to be open to giving recognition to the fact that our Father has called us and to walk towards Him.

      Ramona

    27. Diane

      After meditating today, I received the message to read about Christian mysticism. I never dared to think that I was a mystic before. Perhaps that is what I am, and why I don’t fit in, pretty much anywhere. Once I begin to speak about God and my deep love of Christ, the personal encounters with the Lord I have had since childhood, I am fairly alone in the conversation. Nevertheless, God continues to call, to pull, beckoning to come closer and closer. Now approaching 60, it no longer matters that few have the same experiences/encounters. I am at peace. Thank you for letting me share. I would love to be in contact with those who have posted.
      Diane in Buffalo, NY

    28. james

      so far the most sensible explanation i have found on the net.

    29. Yes. I have known almost my whole life I was a mystic but had no guidance what-so-ever until I went to an house of prayer and was taught how to seek the Lord in such a way as to understand more deeply the gifts I was given and the experiences I have been through. This wonderful place has had to shutter its doors and I am once again in the wind.

    30. LINDA WILSON

      I HAVE BEEN EXPLORING CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS KNOW. THIS IS A WONDERFUL ARTICLE. VERY AFFIRMING AND INFORMATIVE. THANK YOU! PEACE AND BLESSINGS!

    31. Ereebi

      Beautiful lines, Praised be to God in all His creatures.

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