Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

15.3: Christianity and Christian Mysticism

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Although there are many denominations within Christianity, at times generating significant conflict between each other, Christianity as a whole has been a profoundly successful and influential religion. Approximately one-third of the world’s population, over 2.2 billion people, are Christian, and it has spread around the entire world. At its heart, Christianity is a simple religion, and those who live a truly Christian life are guided by one simple philosophy: love your neighbor.

    The Foundation of the Christian Faith

    Approximately 2,000 years ago a man named Jesus of Nazareth was born. For 30 years he lived a simple life, but then embarked on a religious crusade that lasted for only 3 short years. At the end of those three years, he was crucified for having challenged the right of the religious and political authorities to lead the people, as well as their decency in so doing. However, he never outright challenged anyone, always teaching love, mercy, and peace. Following his death and resurrection he has been called the Christ (meaning Messiah, or anointed), hence the term Christianity.

    Christians believed that Jesus was no ordinary man, but rather the son of God (Yahweh, the God of Judaism). They also believe that he was born of a virgin, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, although Christians believe in one God, they view God in a Trinitarian way: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Wilkins, 1967). Although Judaic prophecy had foretold of the coming of a Messiah, they do not believe that Jesus was that person. Yet, having arisen out of Judaism, Christians believe much of the Jewish faith, including the importance of the Ten Commandments. However, when Jesus was challenged to identify the most important of the commandments, he surprised those listening:

    “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

    The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

    from Mark, Chapter 12; Holy Bible

    What is surprising about this answer is that Jesus simplified the Ten Commandments even further, emphasizing just two, but those two commandments encompass both the spiritual and the social worlds - love God, and love all people (the famous Good Samaritan parable teaches that all people are one another’s neighbors). Thus, it seems appropriate for us to address the social and psychological aspects of loving and/or caring for other people, as well as for ourselves, as something separate from religious/spiritual pursuits. And yet at the same time, we cannot, and need not, separate our psychological studies from a religious/spiritual context (at least when trying to understand those people for whom religion and spirituality are important daily factors).

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Is it really that simple?

    Christian Mysticism

    Christian Mysticism is as old as Christianity itself, for Jesus led a mystic life (Walker, 2003). Since that time there have been many Christian mystics, but two particular groups stand out: the desert fathers and the women mystics (Chervin, 1992; Clement, 1993; Waddell, 1998). As the Christian faith became legal, following the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great late in the third century, Christianity became caught up in the politics of the empire. Soon enough, a group of spiritual men sought to escape worldly politics and secular distractions by becoming hermits. They traveled out into the Egyptian desert and began monastic lives. In order to be with God, they did not merely seek solitude, but they also sought to eliminate their sense of ego. This was attempted through what we might call contemplative prayer, or simply meditation. However, the sense of ego does not go away easily:

    The ego doesn’t want us looking for God because when we find God, the illusion of being an ego will be destroyed. It will mean the end of our self-centered existence and all of its negative emotions…One cannot see God and continue to live as a separate person. (pg. 49; Walker, 2003).

    Thus, a battle arises between the sense of ego and one’s efforts to immerse oneself in the Deity. This spiritual combat, essentially the battle between good and evil, exists because of our freedom to choose our path in life (Clement, 1993). It was in recognition of this challenge that the desert fathers sought the solitude of the desert. There they were able to pursue the ecstasy of unknowing, that which is beyond the boundaries of any human ability to comprehend or rationalize the experience:

    At one time Zachary went to his abbot Silvanus, and found him in an ecstasy, and his hands were stretched out to heaven. And when he saw him thus, he closed the door and went away: and coming back about the sixth hour, and the ninth, he found him even so: but toward the tenth hour he knocked, and coming in found him lying quiet…the young man held his fee saying, “I shall not let thee go, until thou tell me what thou hast seen.” The old man answered him: “I was caught up into heaven, and I saw the glory of God. And I stood there until now, and now am I sent away.” (pg. 130; Sayings of the Fathers, in Waddell, 1998)

    Although there have been many mystics who were men, including the desert fathers, Meister Eckhart (a favorite of Erich Fromm), and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (see Kirvan, 1996a), there have also been a number of well-known women mystics, such as Blessed Julian of Norwich (see Chilson, 1995), Saint Teresa of Avila (see Kirvan, 1996b), Saint Therese of Lisieux (Kirvan, 1996c), and most famous of them all, Saint Joan of Arc (see Chervin, 1992). Given the patriarchal history of the Roman Catholic Church, and the beginning of mysticism with the desert fathers, it is enlightening to see that so many women were blessed by God’s grace and presence in a profound mystical fashion, and that this was recognized by the Catholic Church (as many of these women became saints). Thus, God does not discriminate based on gender. Indeed, in one mystical experience, St. Hildegard of Bingen (who lived from 1098-1179 A.D.) was instructed to use the majesty of her mystical gift to instruct men in the true meaning of faith:

    …as I was gazing with great fear and trembling attention at a heavenly vision, I saw a great splendor in which resounded a voice from Heaven, saying to me, “O fragile human…Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice…Burst forth into a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation.” (pp. 17-18; St. Hildegard of Bingen, cited in Chervin, 1992)

    Christian Meditation

    The practice of meditation as a form of contemplative prayer has continued to the present day, thanks in part to two influential monks who lived during the twentieth century: Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968) and John Main, OSB (1926-1982). Fr. Merton was a Trappist monk who wrote extensively on the monastic life, contemplation and silence, and connections between Western and Eastern spiritual philosophies (e.g., Merton, 1948, 1951, 1977; Montaldo, 2001; Nouwen, 1972). Always supportive of these various approaches to life, Fr. Merton adopted one of Jung’s objections to Freud’s discounting of religion: the observation that many people in psychoanalysis (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish) had at the core of their dysfunction a religious crisis. Whereas Freud blamed this problem on the failure of religion, Fr. Merton blamed the problem on a failure of faith:

    The real religious problem exists in the soul of those of us who in their hearts believe in God, and who recognize their obligation to love Him and serve Him - yet do not! (pg. 4; Merton, 1951)

    While a monastic life may have allowed Fr. Merton to serve God with all his heart and soul, not everyone can be a monk or a nun. The Benedictine monk John Main sought to offer an easy path to meditation practice for the average person. Having become interested in mantra meditation following his early career in the Far East and his study of the writings of the desert fathers, Fr. Main began leading meditation groups at a monastery in London. He continued these meditation groups in Montreal after establishing the Benedictine priory there, and he also began sharing his interest in meditation through the publication of books such as Word Into Silence (Main, 1980), Moment of Christ (Main, 1984), and The Way of Unknowing (Main, 1989). Following Fr. Main’s death, his devoted student Laurence Freeman, OSB continued teaching Christian Meditation. In 1991, Fr. Freeman helped to establish the World Community for Christian Meditation, with its headquarters in London, England, and he continues to serve as its director. Fr. Freeman has written his own books on Christ as the inner source teaching us about life (Freeman, 1986, 2000), as well as some very practical books on meditation practice and establishing a meditation group (Freeman, 1994, 2002, 2004). Both Fr. Main and Fr. Freeman recommended a simple mantra meditation, using the Aramaic word “Maranatha,” one of the oldest Christian prayers, which means simply “Come Lord.” This simple, yet spiritually deep, form of meditation comes quite easily to those who are willing to pursue this silent path to contentment and being one with God.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    There is a long and ongoing history of Christian meditation. Were you aware of this, or did you think that meditation and Christianity were unrelated? Does it seem appropriate to compare meditation to contemplative prayer?

    This page titled 15.3: Christianity and Christian Mysticism is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.