HEALING INFLUENCED BY MYSTICAL PRACTICES

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HEALING INFLUENCED BY MYSTICAL PRACTICES

Christian mysticism refers to the development of mystical practices and theory within Christianity.  It has often been connected to mystical theology, especially in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

The attributes and means by which Christian mysticism is studied and practiced are varied and range from ecstatic visions of the soul’s mystical union with God to simple prayerful contemplation of Holy Scripture

Mysticism” is derived from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal”, and its derivative mystikos, meaning ‘an initiate’. In the Hellenistic world, a “mystikos” was an initiate of a mystery religion.   “Mystical” referred to secret religious rituals and use of the word lacked any direct references to the transcendental.

In early Christianity the term “mystikos” referred to three dimensions, which soon became intertwined, namely the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to “hidden” or allegorical interpretations of Scriptures.  The liturgical dimension refers to the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist, the presence Christ at the Eucharist. The third dimension is the contemplative or experiential knowledge of God

That part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of a direct and transformative presence of the Christian God.

Some would argue that “presence” is more accurate than “union”, since not all mystics spoke of union with God, and since many visions and miracles were not necessarily related to union. He also argues that we should speak of “consciousness” of God’s presence, rather than of “experience”, since mystical activity is not simply about the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly about  …new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.  It has also influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge.

The root of the notion of “religious experience” was even traced back to a German theologian Friedrich Schleremacher, who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of “religious experience” was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique. It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.

Related to this idea of “presence” instead of “experience” is the emphasis on the transformation that occurs through mystical activity:   This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic’s part and—especially—on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.

Other critics point out that the stress on “experience” is accompanied with favoring the atomic individual, instead of the shared life on the community. It also fails to distinguish between episodic experience, and mysticism as a process, that is embedded in a total religious matrix of liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals and practices.

The privatization of mysticism – that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences – serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress.

Mystical experience is not simply a matter between the mystic and God, but is often shaped by cultural issues. For instance, in the late Middle Ages, miracles attending the taking of the Eucharist were not simply symbolic of the Passion story, but served as vindication of the mystic’s theological orthodoxy by proving that the mystic had not fallen prey to heretical ideas, such as the Cathar rejection of the material world as evil, contrary to orthodox teaching that Christ took on human form and remained sinless. Thus, the nature of mystical experience could be tailored to the particular cultural and theological issues of the time.

The idea of mystical realities has been widely held in Christianity since the second century AD, referring not simply to spiritual practices, but also to the belief that their rituals and even their scriptures have hidden (“mystical”) meanings.   The link between mysticism and the vision of the Divine was introduced by the early Church Fathers, who used the term as an adjective, as in mystical theology and mystical contemplation.

In subsequent centuries, especially as Christian apologetics began to use Greek philosophy to explain Christian ideas, Neo-Platonism became an influence on Christian mystical thought and practice via such authors as Augustine of Hippo and Origen.

Jewish spirituality in the period before Jesus was highly corporate and public, based mostly on the worship services of the synagogues, which included the reading and interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the recitation of prayers, and on the major festivals. Thus, private spirituality was strongly influenced by the liturgies and by the scriptures (e.g., the use of the Psalms for prayer), and individual prayers often recalled historical events just as much as they recalled their own immediate needs.

Of special importance are the following concepts:  (a) Da’at  (knowledge) and Chokhmah (wisdom), which come from years of reading, praying and meditating the scriptures; (b) Shekhmah,  the presence of God in our daily lives, the superiority of that presence to earthly wealth, and the pain and longing that come when God is absent;  (c)  the hiddenness of God, which comes from our inability to survive the full revelation of God’s glory and which forces us to seek to know God through faith and obedience;  (d)  “Torah-mysticism”, a view of God’s laws as the central expression of God’s will and therefore as worthy object not only of obedience but also of loving meditation and Torah study; and (e) poverty, an ascetic value, based on the  apocalyptic expectation of God’s impending arrival, that characterized the Jewish people’s reaction to being oppressed by a series of foreign empires.

In Christian mysticism, Shekhinah became mystery, Da’at became gnosis, and poverty became an important component of monasticism.   The Christian scriptures, insofar as they are the founding narrative of the Christian church, provide many key stories and concepts that become important for Christian mystics in all later generations: practices such as the Eucharist, baptism and the Lord’s Prayer all become activities that take on importance for both their ritual and symbolic values. Other scriptural narratives present scenes that become the focus of meditation: the Crucifixion of Jesus and his appearances after his Resurrection are two of the most central to Christian theology; but Jesus’ conception, in which the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, and his Transfiguration, in which he is briefly revealed in his heavenly glory, also become important images for meditation. Moreover, many of the Christian texts build on Jewish spiritual foundations, such as chokhmah, and shekhmah.

But different writers present different images and ideas. The Synoptic Gospels (in spite of their many differences) introduce several important ideas, two of which are related to Greco-Judaic notions of knowledge/gnosis by virtue of being mental acts: purity of heart, in which we will to see in God’s light; and repentance, which involves allowing God to judge and then transform us. Another key idea presented by the Synoptics is the desert, which is used as a metaphor for the place where we meet God in the poverty of our spirit.

The Gospel of John focuses on God’s glory in his use of light imagery and in his presentation of the Cross as a moment of exaltation; he also sees the Cross as the example of agape love, a love which is not so much an emotion as a willingness to serve and care for others. But in stressing love, John shifts the goal of spiritual growth away from knowledge/gnosis, which he presents more in terms of Stoic ideas about the role of reason as being the underlying principle of the universe and as the spiritual principle within all people. Although John does not follow up on the Stoic notion that this principle makes union with the divine possible for humanity, it is an idea that later Christian writers develop. Later generations will also shift back and forth between whether to follow the Synoptics in stressing knowledge or John in stressing love.

In his letters, Paul also focuses on mental activities, but not in the same way as the Synoptics, which equate renewing the mind with repentance. Instead, Paul sees the renewal of our minds as happening as we contemplate what Jesus did on the Cross, which then opens us to grace and to the movement of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Like John, Paul is less interested in knowledge, preferring to emphasize the hiddenness, the “mystery” of God’s plan as revealed through Christ. But Paul’s discussion of the Cross differs from John’s in being less about how it reveals God’s glory and more about how it becomes the stumbling block that turns our minds back to God. Paul also describes the Christian life as that of an athlete, demanding practice and training for the sake of the prize; later writers will see in this image a call to ascetical practices.

The texts attributed to the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest post-Biblical texts we have, share several key themes, particularly the call to unity in the face of persecution and internal divisions, the reality of the charisms,  especially prophecy, visions and Christian gnosis, which is understood as “a gift of the Holy Spirit that enables us to know Christ” through meditating on the scriptures and on the Cross of Christ. (This understanding of gnosis is not the same as that developed by the Gnostics. who focused on esoteric knowledge that is available only to a few people but that allows them to free themselves from the evil world.) These authors also discuss the notion of the “two ways”, that is, the way of life and the way of death; this idea has biblical roots, being found in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Torah.  The two ways are then related to the notion of purity of heart, which is developed by contrasting it against the divided or duplicitous heart and by linking it to the need for asceticism, which keeps the heart whole/pure. Purity of heart was especially important given the real threat of martyrdom, which many writers discussed in theological terms, seeing it not as an evil but as an opportunity to truly die for the sake of God—the ultimate example of ascetic practice. Martyrdom could also be seen as symbolic in its connections with the Eucharist and with baptism.

.Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian humanist, argued that reason is the most important aspect of human existence and that gnosis (not something we can attain by ourselves, but the gift of Christ) helps us find the spiritual realities that are hidden behind the natural world and within the scriptures. Origen, who had a lasting influence on Eastern Christian thought, further develops the idea that the spiritual realities can be found through allegorical readings of the scriptures, he focuses his attention on the Cross and on the importance of imitating Christ through the Cross, especially through spiritual combat and asceticism. Origen stresses the importance of combining intellect and virtue in our spiritual exercises, drawing on the image of Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites through the wilderness, and he describes our union with God as the marriage of our souls with Christ the Logos, using the wedding imagery from the Song of Songs

Inspired by Christ’s teaching and example, men and women withdrew to the deserts of Sketes where, either as solitary individuals or communities, they lived lives of austere simplicity oriented towards contemplative prayer.  These communities formed the basis for what later would become known as Christian monasticism.  Mysticism is integral to Christian monasticism because the goal of practice for the monastic is union with God.

Kathy Kiefer

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