12. Christian Mystics in the Middle Ages
"Mystic": a person who claims insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as
by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy.
From (1275-1325) Middle English mystik < Latin mysticus < Greek mystikós, equivalent to mýst (
es) an initiate into the mysteries + -ikos -ic; akin to myeîn to initiate, teach.
To many Western Christians, words like "meditation", "mystic," and "mysticism"
bring to mind Eastern religions, Sufism or New Age belief. However, mystics are part of the
Christian heritage as well, arguably the core of Christian spirituality for some, even today. They
are not Eastern ("Om") mantra mystics. Definition and context are important.
Christian mystics in the Middle Ages were mostly seeking a deeper, direct, personal, meaningful
relationship with God. (Religion had to be personal, less institutionalised or structural; as
Protestants were also experiencing.) They practiced meditation and prayer, and (often)
abandoned worldly positions, belongings and other encumbrances to discipleship or the inner
life. Some travelled and shared their visions. The writings of medieval mystics (especially after
the invention of printing) opened their ideas and practices to increasingly wider audiences.
Certain mystics provoked Church intervention and denunciation. They were different, did not
"conform". Could individuals "know" God in the way they claimed? Should they be controlled?
Were they experiencing Him, or deluding themselves; opening their hearts and minds to forces
of evil, or putting on a "show"? Most likely, there were some in every category. That does not
invalidate what was authentic. If a mystic's visions interfered with the local church hierarchy
they might be accused of Satanic practices and end up being excommunicated or burned at the
stake. The lives of others resonated with the teachings of the Church and were celebrated.
Women visionaries, mystics and ecstatics were often looked upon with distrust. Some worked
from within the framework of the Church, others did not. Marguerite Porete (1253-1310)
renowned for her booklet, The Mirror of Simple Souls, was charged with heresy and burned. It
must be remembered that much of what occurred during the Inquisition was driven by fear, envy
and power politics that dealt uncompromisingly and harshly with non-conformists.
According to Jewish historian Israel Abrahams, "All true religion has mystical elements, for all
true religion holds that man can commune with God, soul with soul. In the Psalms, God is the
Rock of the heart, the Portion of the cup, the Shepherd and Light, the Fountain of Life, an
exceeding Joy. All this is, in a sense, mystical language". The Lord's Supper is another area
where the elements of bread and wine can be held mystically (depending on the individual).
Meditation on God and His Word is good (Psalm 1:2). It is often necessary to disengage from the
demands of daily life to focus to actively listen to the Holy Spirit (Matthew 13:9). Naturally,
mysticism has potential dangers. It can confuse emotionalism and obsession with communion
with God. In its medieval forms, it frequently focussed on intermediate beings, or angels, to
supply the means for communion with God. This bordered on superstition. However, we can
learn a lot from those who commit their lives to praying and sharing their insights (Acts 6:4).
The experiences and writings of some mediaeval mystics can teach us. No doubt there were
some charlatans, but there were others for whom the central purpose of living was to know God.
The majority remained obscure, in monasteries and reclusive orders. Many would have been
regarded as eccentrics. Mediaeval society was predominantly non-urban and travel was difficult.
Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)
Born Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada in Avila, Spain, she was a prominent Spanish mystic,
Carmelite nun and writer during the Counter Reformation. Teresa was the daughter of a Toledo
merchant and his second wife, who died when Teresa was 15, one of ten children. Shortly after
this event, she was entrusted to the care of Augustinian nuns. After reading the letters of
Jerome, Teresa resolved to enter a religious life. In 1535, she joined the Carmelite Order. She
spent a number of years suffering from illness that left her legs paralyzed for long periods.
Teresa was strongly committed to meditation and prayer. She reported a vision of "the sorely
wounded Christ" that changed her life. She also expressed a desire to convert the heathen.
Teresa entered a period of increasingly "ecstatic experiences" in which she came to focus
sharply on Christ's passion. With these visions as her impetus, she set herself to reforming her
order (which had become lax), beginning with her attempt to master herself and her adherence
to the "Carmelite rule". Gathering a group of supporters, she endeavoured to create a more
authentic type of Carmelite. From 1560 until her death, she sought to establish and broaden the
movement of "Discalced" or shoeless Carmelites. During the mid-1560s, she wrote The Way of
Perfection and Meditations on the Canticle. In 1567, she met John of the Cross, whom she
enlisted to extend her reform into the male side of the Carmelite Order.
Teresa sought to heal divisions with Protestant Christians. She also left a significant legacy of
writings, including Concepts of the Love of God, The Interior Castle (an allegorical explanation
of the life of prayer) and an autobiography.
- May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
- May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
- May you use gifts you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
- Prayer is like irrigating and cultivating a garden in dry terrain; be patient and persistent.
- May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
- Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
- Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
- God save us from gloomy saints!
John of the Cross (1542-1592)
John was a major figure of the Counter-(or Catholic) Reformation; a Spanish mystic, a Carmelite
friar and a priest.
Born in Spain in 1542, John learned the importance of self-sacrificing love from his parents. His
father gave up wealth, status, and comfort when he married a weaver's daughter and was
disowned by his noble family. After his father died, his mother kept the family together as they
wandered homeless in search of work.
At fourteen, John took a job caring for hospital patients who suffered from incurable diseases
and madness. Moved by what he saw, in time, he joined the Carmelite order, where Teresa of
Avila (whom he followed) asked him to help her reform movement. John supported her belief
that the Order should pursue a life of prayer.
However, many felt threatened by reform, and some members of his own Carmelite Order
(opposed to reform) kidnapped and tortured him. He was punished for not leaving Avila. This
included being locked in a cell six feet by ten feet. He reported later that he was lashed three
times a week by the monks. His diet was minimal. After nine months, he escaped by
unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only a series of mystical
poems he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of
blankets. He hid from his pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns.
From then on his life was devoted to sharing his experiences of God's love. He had come to
believe that reason alone (as emphasised by the Scholastics) was not enough; what mattered
was the reality of his relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. While some of
John's writings reveal his Catholic origins, it is clear that he sought a close walk with God.
John's life of poverty and persecution could have produced a bitter cynic. Instead it gave birth
to a compassionate man, who lived by the beliefs that "Who has ever seen people persuaded to
love God by harshness?" and "Where there is no love, put love -- and you will find love."
John left poems and books of practical advice on spiritual growth and prayer that are relevant
today. These include: Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, A Spiritual Canticle of
the Soul and The Bridegroom Christ. He was canonized as a saint in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII.
- The soul that desires to surrender to God must surrender entirely to him without keeping
anything for itself.
Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)
One of the most influential mystics of the Middle Ages, Eckhart von Hochheim (a German) was
born near Erfurt in Thuringia and in his distinguished career became a Parisian Professor of
Theology and took a leading pastoral and organisational role in the Dominican Order.
Eckhart wrote "God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore he is
everywhere and is everywhere complete. He is everywhere on account of his infinity, and is
everywhere complete on account of his simplicity. Only God flows into all things, their very
essences. Nothing else flows into something else. God is in the innermost part of each and
every thing, only in its innermost part."
His views about God appear to be more deist than Christian. His views about the incarnation are
more philosophical than evangelical:
In his human life Jesus becomes a pattern for man; and in all that he did and
experienced, above all in his passion and death there is an overwhelming power that
draws man to God and brings about in us that which first took place in Christ, who alone
is the way to the father.
Eckhart was charged with heresy by the church, but was eventually restored.
The church was right to reject certain of Eckhart's statements. Although he studied Scripture for
a deeper understanding of God - to bring life to the soul - he speculated and at times actually
seemed to oppose scripture. For example, whereas the Bible teaches that love is the greatest
thing (1 Corinthians 13), Eckhart taught that solitude is, because in solitude one can "force" God
down into one's own soul. Eckhart's thinking fits well with certain gnostic or New Age ideas, for
he described every creature as both a revelation of God and a part of him, blurring the lines
between God and his creatures. Perhaps we should not take such writings too literally.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard has been called "one of the most important figures in the history of the Middle Ages.
She lived during the era of Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux, the rise of the great
universities and the building of Chartres cathedral in France.
Hildegard was the daughter of a knight. When she was eight she went to the Benedictine
monastery at Mount St Disibode to be educated. The monastery was in the Celtic tradition, and
housed both men and women (in separate quarters). When Hildegard was eighteen, she became
a nun. Twenty years later, she was made the head of the female community at the monastery.
During the next four years, she had a series of visions, and devoted the period 1140-1150 to
writing them down and commenting on their interpretation and significance.
Hildegard's work was investigated by a commission set up by Pope Eugenius III, which found it to
be orthodox. Hildegard urged the Pope to work harder for reform in the Church.
The community of nuns at Mount St Disibode was growing rapidly, and they did not have
adequate room. Hildegard accordingly moved her nuns to a location near Bingen (in Germany),
and founded a monastery. She then travelled throughout southern Germany, Switzerland and
France, preaching. Her sermons deeply moved the hearers and she was asked to provide copies
wherever she went.
Hildegard died on 17 September 1179. Her surviving works include more than a hundred letters
to emperors and popes, bishops, nuns, and nobility. (People of all classes wrote to her, asking
for advice, and one biographer calls her "the Dear Abby of the twelfth century."). She wrote 72
songs including a play set to music. She left about seventy poems and nine books. She also
wrote a commentary on the Gospels and another on the Athanasian Creed. Much of her work has
recently been translated into English.
Hildegard's major works are three books on theology: Scivias ("Know the paths!"), Liber Vitae
Meritorum (on ethics), and De Operatione Dei. They deal with the material of her visions.
Hildegard has undergone a remarkable rise in popularity in recent years, since many readers
have found in her visions, or read into them, themes that seem to speak to many modern
concerns. For example, her writings bring science, art, and religion together; she was involved
in all three, and looked to each for insights that would enrich her understanding of the others.
She used parables, symbols, visual imagery, and non-verbal means to communicate her
messages. She wrote and spoke extensively about social justice, about freeing the
downtrodden, about the duty of seeing to it that every human being, made in the image of God,
had the opportunity to develop and use the talents that God had given him or her. She also
wrote about the natural world as God's creation, demonstrating His beauty and energy;
entrusted to our care, to be used responsibly for our benefit.
Some non-Christian groups (eg pantheists) have co-opted the work of Hildegard to support their
approaches to creation and the environment.
- A human being is a vessel that God has built for himself and filled with his inspiration so that
his works are perfected in it.
- God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.
- O Eternal God, now may it please you
to burn in love
so that we become the limbs
fashioned in the love you felt
when you begot your Son
at the first dawn
before all creation
And consider this need which falls upon us,
take it from us for the sake of your Son,
and lead us to the joy of your salvation.
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
Catherine was the 25th of the 26 children of a northern Italy wool dyer named Giacomo di
Benincasa. Her family belonged to the lower-middle class.
At a very young age she began to spend long periods of time in prayer, and to report having
mystical visions. She consecrated her virginity to Christ when she was seven.
At the age of twelve, her parents sought to arrange a marriage for her, but she begged to be
allowed to remain single. To discourage her from this course, they put her in charge of some of
the family business, hoping this would change her mind. After some years, her father relented;
Catherine joined the Third Order of Dominicans, and spent the next three years 'in the desert' in
a room in her parent's home. During this time, she underwent what she called a 'spiritual
espousal, where she claimed that she had a vision of the Infant Jesus offering her a wedding
band. (Try to see what might have been in her heart in making such a commitment.)
Catherine then began to serve the sick. Many people were attracted by her wisdom. She served
the poor and prayed for the conversion of sinners. She spent much time in prayer. Despite
opposition by local clergy and others, she gathered disciples. When another vision commanded
her to enter the 'public life of the world', Catherine began to correspond with the princes and
republics of Italy. She was consulted by papal representatives about affairs of the Church
(including the impact of the Great Schism, in which claimant Popes were located at both Rome
and Avignon), and began working to repair the damage of civil war and religious factions in Italy.
Catherine's letters, advice, and persistence convinced Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to
Rome, to reform the clergy and administration of the Papal States, and to call for a Crusade to
regain Jerusalem from Muslim control. Catherine travelled to many cities (at a time when travel
was not easy, especially for women) working for peace in Italy and the Church. She wrote
hundreds of letters. She also wrote a book, called The Dialogue, a conversation between the
Eternal Father and the human soul, discussing the whole of mankind's spiritual life. For this
body of work and her service to the Church, she was named a Doctor of the Church.
Catherine emphasised, in her public ministry and private devotions, that the principle goal of
the Christian is to be completely surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Catherine died on 29 April 1380, when she was just 33 years old. She was canonised in 1461.
Since 1939 she has been a patron saint of Italy, along with Francis of Assisi.
- I turn and lean against the most Holy Cross of Christ Crucified, and there I will fasten me.
- No one should judge that he has greater perfection because he performs great penances
and gives himself in excess to the staying of the body than he who does less; neither
virtue nor merit consists therein; for otherwise he would be an evil case, who for some
legitimate reason was unable to do actual penance. Merit consists in the virtue of love
alone, flavoured with the light of true discretion without which the soul is worth nothing.
- Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.
- All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, "I am the way.
- Do not be satisfied with little things, because God wants great things.
- Leave it all to Him, let go of yourself, lose yourself on the Cross, and you will find
- To the servant of God ... every place is the right place, and every time is the right time.
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
English mystic and first known woman writer in English.
Almost nothing is known about Julian, but tradition associates her with St Julian's church,
Norwich (England), near which she lived a solitary life of prayer and meditation. Her fame rests
on her book The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, which she wrote in 1393.
After falling seriously ill, Julian recorded that she received sixteen different mystical revelations
on one day in 1373; in this work, she describes and reflects upon those revelations. She focuses
on the mysteries of Christianity, in particular, the vast love of God and the existence of evil. In
states of ecstasy she claimed that she saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity.
She meditated on these visions for twenty years, concentrating on the love of God, which she
taught supplies the answer to all life's problems and especially to the evil in the world. Her
book contains both the original visions and her meditations on them.
Scholars believe that Julian was influenced by a book on mystical experience, The Cloud of
Unknowing, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half
of the 14th century. The text is a guide on contemplative prayer, typical of traditions in the late
Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly "know" God
is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or "knowledge" about God and be courageous
enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of "unknowingness," at which point it is
possible to glimpse the true nature of God. Critics believe it is a Christian extension of ancient
Greek (pre-Christian) Platonism. God does not expect us to come to Him "mindless".
Julian summed up her doctrine of God in these words:
"And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked nor
ever shall be. And in this love He hath done all His works, and in this love He hath made
all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting."
Other mystics celebrated by Catholic tradition include: Henry Suso (1295-1366) a German
Dominican mystic. He wrote many texts including the "Little Book of Truth"; Birgitta of Sweden
(1302-1373), who was said to have the gift of prophecy and healing powers; Mechthild of
Magdeburg (1208-1282); Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241-1299); Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), who
used Neo-Platonic ideas to approach the "Unknowable God"; and Gertrud the Great (1256-1301).
A Protestant View of Christian Mystics
Evangelicals often confuse mysticism with New Age spirituality; others associate it with creepy
psychic "mysterious" phenomena that have little to do with "normal" Christian living; others,
however, speak reverently about a transcendent experience of God that made them wonder if
for only one brief and beautiful moment they themselves were mystics. "Knowing God" is more
than academic belief. (We should not be afraid of the word "mystic".)
In one sense, a mystic is someone who has a lived experience of Jesus in the power and presence
of the Holy Spirit. They have experienced Him and, through prayer and meditation, continue to
encounter Him in such a way that they gain a new appreciation for the urgent immediacy of God
in all things. Too many Christians barely involve God in their daily lives.
Conservative Protestants often argue that mysticism is not the experience of a Christian. The
Bible teaches that God dwells in all Christians and that we can experience God directly through
belief in Jesus. Christ-likeness is achieved only by dying to self—not by self-effort or by seeking
to emulate Jesus or particular Christians - spiritual truth is discerned/revealed through the work
of the Holy Spirit, who lives in all believers (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
Unbelievers cannot comprehend such things. "The man without the Spirit does not accept the
things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot
understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments
about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: For who has known the
mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16).
A biblical account that an unbeliever might conclude was a mystical experience could be the
apostle Paul's "Damascus Road" encounter with Jesus Christ (Acts 22:1-21), or the experience he
described in 2 Corinthians: "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the
third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I
know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—
was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to
tell" (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
Consciousness of God is part of the common definition of the mystic's experience. By contrast,
"The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" (Romans 8:16).
Much conservative Christian theology excludes the type of relationship with God, who still
speaks, guides, corrects, comforts, reveals, to individual Christians, as part of "walking in the
Spirit"; Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians would argue that this is the "normal" Christian
life. In the final analysis, all experiences must be in line with Biblical teaching. Some
experiences may be subjective, but that is no reason not to accept that the Holy Spirit still
moves in real ways in people's lives. Never forget that genuine Christianity involves devotion to
Christ, being humble and without spiritual pride, refraining from judgment and trusting that God
speaks to the heart of each person in a way and time of His choosing.
Many modern "mystical groups" (sought and celebrated as such) suggest either things that lack
substance, or would appear to challenge Biblical doctrine, which invalidates them. In societies
where the paranormal is part of everyday living, people seek mystical experiences, but these
have nothing to do with Biblical teaching.
In summary, it is important not to confuse modern mystics with the lives of Christ-followers in
the Middle Ages who separated themselves to develop a deeper relationship with God, which
should be the desire of all of God's people (although "experiences" and conclusions still need to
meet Biblical standards and are not ends in themselves).
External forms of Christianity change, but God is eternal. Christian faith wants to know the
unchanging God to whom the Holy Spirit leads us, through our encounter with Christ, the One
behind the beliefs and the words, the One whom beliefs and words cannot describe, who "lives
in our hearts by faith". We want to follow Jesus' example more closely, but go beyond the
religion about Jesus, and deepen our first-hand knowledge of the Father, relationship with Jesus
and intimacy with the Holy Spirit.
How do you pray? When do you sense the presence of God? What are you doing do to deepen
your intimacy with Him?
Does Christian mysticism have a role to play in the church today? What are the boundaries and
Do you keep a journal of your relationship with the Holy Spirit? How can people's experiences
and claims be tested?
What would you do if you believed the Holy Spirit was leading you to reform but those around
you opposed you??
Blainey, G, A Short History of Christianity, Viking, Melbourne, 2011
Lion, A Lion Handbook, 1990, The History of Christianity
Miller, A, Miller's Church History: From the First to the Twentieth Century
Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle (Translated and Edited by E Allison Peers), Dover-Publications,
New York, 2007
MYSTICISM - A SWOT ANALYSIS
- God is a spirit; we are His children; we
are to worship Him in spirit and truth
(John 4:24); it stands to reason that part
of our Christian life will be spiritual in
- Christians are "in the world, but not of
it" (John 17:15); a spiritual dimension
should be normal in each of our lives.
- The patriarchs endured because they
worshipped and followed an "invisible"
God (Hebrews 11:27).
- The Psalmist often spoke of communing
with God day and night.
- Old Testament prophets (eg Ezekiel) had
what can only be described as mystical
experiences (Ezekiel 1
- Peter had what could be seen as a
mystical experience in Joppa (Acts
- The Apostle John experienced the
Revelation of Jesus in similar
circumstances ("in the Spirit").
- When external forms and power relations
in the church dominated "Christianity"
the move of God in the lives of
individuals was positive.
- The Christian life should not be reduced
to "private revelations", opinions; the
focus must always be Christ.
- Over-reliance on visions limits God's
work in human lives to a privileged few;
this misses the point that relationship
with Him through Christ is for all.
- Reliance on visions is not enough; even
Jesus moved between Transfiguration
- Can be seen as "too subjective".
- Needs to be tested for accuracy/truth/
source (evaluate prophecies, 1 John 4:1).
- Cloistering can be "escapism". Jesus
prayed a lot but did not hide.
- Over-reliance on fasting, trances,
ecstasies, stigmata, sufferings for
penance go beyond the Gospel.
- Lack of accountability (where this is the
case) can lead to error, wrong teaching.
- Personal relationship with God, and
experiencing His presence, are possible,
encouraged by the Bible. With
appropriate safeguards, Christians with
special gifts can help lead the church
back to basics and relationship with the
Holy Spirit and present a living/
communicating God to the world.
- God still speaks; we should be actively
listening for Him. What is he saying to
the church today through some he calls
to be mouthpieces?
- The mystical experiences of Middle Ages
Christians were good counters to
dominance by the political church.
- Friendship with the world = enmity with
God (James 4:4); a life of solitude and
deeper relationship with God is laudable.
- Relationship with God, and being able to
live wholly committed to Him, are
arguably preferable to "service"; cf
Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42).
- Can contribute to spiritual growth,
without needing sacraments or priests.
- Those who claim revelations threaten the
status quo - discernment is necessary.
- Often assert they should not be
- May lead to pride on the part of those
who practice over those who do not.
- Can lead to Gnosticism, false doctrines
(cf Galatians 1:18; 1 Timothy 4:1).
- Can produce charlatans, counterfeits (cf
- Threat that those in spiritual authority or
more traditional denominations will rush
- Threatened "establishment Christianity"
("worldly" church) in terms of
questioning who is genuinely Christian.
- Risk that illiterate, poor, oppressed,
superstitious might seek to have
"copycat" experiences. Imagination can
be confused with revelation.
- Can lead to spiritual abuse, division, and
manipulation of others.