I was raised a Methodist in an integrated inner-city church. I became committed to Jesus in a high school Young Life club. I find my theological home in historic Reformed theology, and I am an ordained Presbyterian minister (EPC). I have a Doctorate in Theology, and I teach leadership and spiritual formation at an Evangelical seminary. I love to read the ancient writings of the Church Fathers, Catholics, Orthodox priests, and Celtic Christians. I am a spiritual Neapolitan, a blended-fruit smoothy, a potluck. Hawaiians call it aloha mixed plate. A tradition from the shared lunch of workers in the pineapple plantations: “Welcome. Share. But you get what you get, Brah.”
A mixed plate. It is a difficult concept, because I do not believe that all roads lead to God, any more than all roads lead to Denver. You can move toward or away from any destination. But God has used truth from different Christian persuasions and teachers to draw me to a narrow path. Perhaps this is why I find so much ‘mystery’ in my faith. Perhaps it is the explorer, the wayfarer, in me. Celtic Christians often called themselves, “Peregrinari Pro Christo,” (exiles for Christ.) This illumines one of the core understandings of these Irish and Scottish followers of Jesus: “Life is a journey, a spiritual and actual pilgrimage.”
To this point, when asked about my faith, sometimes I simply call myself a “Christian Mystic.” I got the term first from C. S. Lewis. His definition of Christian Mysticism is simple: “the direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.” Lewis writes,
“Discovering spirituality is like discovering you are in a boat. Mysticism is like pushing off from the dock. Since many leave safe mooring and perish in the waves, this is not to be done in a cavalier fashion – even though it can be exciting to push off into the deep. The issue is not of whether we should push off, for Christians must do so as well if they intend to get anywhere (and that is what boats are for), but rather of where you are going…The Christian casts off from this world as well, but with clear intent to where he is headed, with the best of maps, circumspectly, deliberately. The Christian Mystic arrives, against all dangers and odds. Thus we launch out with fear and trembling, but trust that He who commanded us to do so can calm the waves, and see us through to His real, safe port.”
Christian Mystic. I know this is a title which can be greatly misunderstood. I have learned that there are people who feel the very term “Christian Mystic” to be highly improper, an oxymoron of sorts. For these people, the word “mystic” summons up a wide range of images, touching on individualism, monastic cells, heathenism, eastern religions, and otherworldly spiritual attitudes such as those found in “New Age” philosophies. Mystics seem untethered to them, helium-filled airheads drifting in and out of one experience or another. For me, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Mystic” is related to the New Testament Word, mysterion, which means “secret” or “mystery.” Christianity, while built on rational faith and life in the real world, is supra-rational. Bruce Demarest, Professor of Theology at Denver Seminary, says, “Great Christian realities, such as intimacy with God, spiritual passion, and prayer, must be framed in the mind and experienced in the heart. Christian mysticism, simply put, is the believers direct experience of God in the heart.” (Satisfy Your Soul, 1999). As a Christian Mystic, or Mystical Christian, I want to experience Christ, as if I were living with Him in the pages of the Bible. Chuck Colson notes, “So I no longer distrust the mystical. No, I’ve had plenty of experiences with it.”(Jubilee, 1998).
Richard F. Lovelace, Professor of Church History at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, defines mysticism as “a non-technical term denoting movements stressing Christian experience and encounter with God.” (Dynamics of the Spiritual Life, 1979). For me, in essence, being a Christian Mystic means seeking the Center, Christ, more than the boundaries (who is in or out). It means living each moment expectantly focused on Jesus, open and broken, and waiting for him to guide and direct. It means concretely walking the journey toward Him, with Him, and in Him, too. It means I am resigned to not knowing all of the answers about God and faith. It recognizes that much of God’s work in our lives is a mystery. Richmond Graduate University Theology Professor David Benner concludes, “A mystic is simply a person who seeks, above all else, to know God in love. Mystics are, therefore, much more defined by their longing than by their experience. They long to know God’s love and thereby be filled with the very fullness of God…Christian mysticism is participation in this transformational journey toward union with God in love.” (Spirituality and the Awakening Self, 2012)
I find in my studies that Jesus was a mystic. He describes his own spirituality with statements of real experiences of God. Jesus did nothing except that which his heavenly Father told him to do (John 7:16). He was sent by the Father (John 8:42), and would return to him (John 14:126). He and the Father were one (John 10:30), and his prayer for his followers was that they would share in this oneness of life with God (John 17:21.) His faith walk was one of being with the Father, hearing his Father’s voice, responding to his Father’s guidance. This is unquestionably a mystical spirituality.
The Bible declares: “His ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. His ways are above our ways, and his thoughts are above our thoughts.” Christian mysticism has the sense that God is real and present around us, at work and available. This is practical theology for me–for it sets as my goal the knowledge and experience of the real and living God. It is concerned about spiritual formation, and so bids me to seeks to develop a deep spiritual intimacy with Him. It touches down firmly on God’s amazing love, and his care for the sinner, the poor, and the brokenhearted. Spiritual Mysticism teaches me ways of growing our hearts and lives, and developing an authentic love for all people. I want to find Jesus in everyday life. Christian author and pastor A. W. Tozer notes, “A mystic is a believer who practices the presence of God.” (Pursuit of God, 1948).
Evangelical theologian and President of the American Theological Society Donald Bloesch wrote, “Those who stand in the Reformation tradition will acknowledge that a Christian can at the same time be a mystic, but they will insist that this means a radically qualified mysticism, qualified by faith in the self-revelation of a divine Mediator in human history.” (The Struggle of Prayer, 1988). I am a person with a Doctorate in theology, and I love to read the Bible. It answers my questions, reorients my life, and scratches deep itches in my soul. Everything for me must be weighed in biblical truth and example.
I walk with others on this journey; I must subject myself to many godly Christian men and women who will hold me accountable and keep me grounded. In all of my life, Jesus must remain the Core, the Cornerstone, the Source, and the King of my life. Still, Christian Mysticism asks that I be concerned with more than knowing the letter of the Scriptures, or reciting religious dogmas.
I seek to know the Spirit of the Word, which is to say to live from within the experience of God’s Word at the very core of being. This means meditating on God’s word. I agree with Tim Keller when he says,
“Martin Luther suggested meditation. For example, if you paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer, as Luther counsels, it forces you to concentrate. Almost any method of meditation can focus the mind and then engage the affections so that when you turn to prayer you won’t be distracted. It should go without saying—but I will say it—that what I mean by ‘meditation’ is not any of the contemplative practices that aim at getting beyond words and rational thought into pure awareness of our oneness with God. Biblical meditation, rather, is filling the mind with Scripture and then ‘loading the heart’ (to use John Owen’s phrase) with it until it affects not only the emotions but the entire life.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” A mystic, quite simply, is a lover of God who pursues the Lord from a deep realization that life as a Christian grows as the soul moves toward its fullness and destiny in relationship to God. I want to see God, to load my heart and mind and soul with the Father-Son-Spirit. I seek to be with Him, grafted into Him, listening to His voice, doing what He asks me to do. I want to push away from the entanglements of the world. I want to explore the Jesus-focused spiritual life.
To travel into the world of the Christian mystic with me, one must discard concepts such as ego, pride and spiritual materialism in favor of adopting a sense of humility and hopeful expectation. It is to begin a great and stirring adventure that moves the soul from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God. While orthodox and historic in theology and passionate about personal holiness, for me a Christian mystic is concerned more about pleasing God each day than figuring out perfectly all the rules of faith. I live with a sense of Narnian wonder, “Aslan is on the move!”
Maybe ‘mystic’ is too loaded a term. Perhaps it has been misused, or confused. I may be wrong. Still, it is the best nomenclature I know so far. Indeed, as one begins to experience the Bible as the living Word of God, we pray to be guided from an ego-centric point of view to a mature and deeper sense of God’s presence. Jesus’ message is that the kingdom of God is not out there somewhere, but rather here, within, available to the humble person through faith. It is a personal realization that reaches across time, an imperfect yet shining beacon to every human soul willing to follow. I have so far to go, it seems. I may take wrong turns, or miss some important way-signs. But, none-the-less, I am on the road, one foot in front of the next. All who wish to travel with me, I welcome with open arms. We walk this journey together as exiles for Christ.