Exploring the Roots of Medieval Mysticism

A false spirituality is invading the Church. I first became aware of the seriousness of this when Sue and I attended a week-long seminar on “Spiritual Renewal” a number of years ago. There was no discussion of what Jesus taught about prayer or about the New Testament teaching on a baptism in the Holy Spirit for witness and service. Instead, each person was given a sea shell and asked to look at the shell and meditate on the struggles the little animal must have gone through in escaping the shell. Included in the activities was two days at a retreat center where we were asked to take a vow of silence. We were also required to read a book that included writings of the mystics of the medieval church, including Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and others. Indeed, the medieval mystics were held up as shining lights and models that we should follow in our spiritual journey.

I came away from that seminar, not renewed, but with a profound sense that this was a substitute for the real thing—a replacement for the spirituality of Jesus and the New Testament. Through further research I have come to realize that, although many of the mystics can be admired for their passion and devotion, they cannot be followed in their experiences and doctrines. Theirs was a misguided spirituality rooted in pagan thinking, and those who look to them as models for their own spirituality will also be misguided.

The Origins of Medieval Mysticism
Medieval mysticism arose in reaction to the lifeless, outward forms of the institutionalized medieval church. During the same period evangelical revival groups also emerged for similar reasons. But whereas revival groups, such as the Waldenses and Albigneses, gave their ultimate allegiance directly to Jesus and the Scriptures, the mystics tended to give their allegiance to the pope and the institutional church. This meant that they were more susceptible to non-Biblical approaches to spirituality and this resulted in their adoption of many beliefs and practices that were rooted in pagan mystical religions, particularly Neoplatonism.

Neoplatonism arose in Egypt during the 3rd century through the Greek philosopher, Plotinus, who emphasized and expanded the teachings of Plato and turned Plato’s philosophical system into a mystical religion. Plato had taught that there is a supreme being from which all other beings derive their existence, and he also believed in the immortality of the human soul. Expanding on Plato’s teaching, Plotinus taught that this Supreme Being, whom he called “The One,” was absolutely “other than” this physical world and, therefore, could not be grasped or understood by human knowledge, reason, or speech.

From “The One” had emanated a series of descending entities resulting in a hierarchy of divine beings between “The One” and humanity. Plotinus believed that it was one of these lesser emanations that had created the physical world. The ultimate goal of the Neoplatonist was, through contemplation of “The One,” to ascend through this hierarchy of beings and be united with “The One.” Since “The One” existed beyond all human knowledge and rationale, “The One” could only be encountered in an irrational state of ecstasy (trance) achieved through mystical contemplation.

The noted historian, Dr. Justo Gonzalez, says,

"Neoplatonists believed that if they performed a certain series of progressive steps of contemplation, they would be able to leave behind all the cares and all concerns for physical realities. They thought they could contemplate eternal realities and eventually achieve 'ecstasy.'" Neoplatonists believed that at this point they would be in unity with “The One.”

Neoplatonism became very popular throughout the Greco-Roman world and, as might be expected, many Christians attempted to follow the Neoplatonic route of contemplation. In the 6th century, one of these Neoplatonic Christians wrote a treatise on mystical contemplation and at the top penned the words, “Dyonisius the Elder to His Fellow-Elder Timothy.” By this stroke of the pen this unknown individual, now believed to have been a Syrian monk, claimed his writings to be the work of one of Paul’s earliest disciples, Dyonisius of Athens (Acts 17:34), written to another early disciple, Timothy.

The forgery worked and the works of this individual, now known as “False Dyonisius,” were accepted as the works of one of Paul’s earliest disciples and, thereby, gained much acceptance and authority in the medieval church. So popular became his works that bishops regularly quoted from them and several of the foremost medieval theologians wrote commentaries on them. Thomas Aquinas cited him over 1700 times. It was not until the 16th century that the authenticity of these writings began to be questioned by the Reformers. Today, both Protestants and Catholics recognize these as later documents written by a “False Dyonisius.”

Nonetheless, during the Middle Ages Dyonisius became the primary source and guide for spirituality in the church. As a result, spiritual experiences and revelations through contemplation were exalted and valued while the Scriptures were often ignored and, at times, even banned by the institutional church. Exotic, non-Biblical miracles such as levitations, communion wafers bleeding, statues weeping, apparitions of the saints and the Virgin Mary, etc. were hailed as the great works of God.

Commenting on medieval mysticism and its neglect of Scripture, Hans Kung, the most widely read Catholic theologian in the world today, says,

"These new revelations not only overshadowed the Bible and the Gospel, but also Him whom the Gospel proclaims and to whom the Bible bears witness. It is striking how rarely Christ appeared in all these 'revelations,' 'apparitions,' and 'wonders.' Catholics who followed in the wake of every new 'revelation,' which often turned out to be fantasy or deceit, and indulged their desire for sensation by looking for the latest reports of miracles—and yet who had never once in their whole lives read the Scriptures from cover to cover."

During the Middle Ages Paul was read through the eyes of Dyonisius and turned into a mystic by the medieval church. Paul’s experience of being caught up to the third heaven, which he reluctantly shared in II Corinthians 12:1-6, was interpreted by the mystics as an experience initiated by Paul through mystic contemplation. In fact, as Gonzalez says, “Paul’s entire life was viewed as a process of mystical ascension, and his letters were considered to be guides in that process.”

Within this Neoplatonic, mystical mindset emerged the mystical movement of the medieval church of which the following traits were characteristic.

• A mystical union of the soul with God
• Special forms and techniques of prayer and meditation
• An ascetic withdrawal from the world
• An unhealthy preoccupation with suffering
• The rejection of rational thinking

Characteristic 1:
A Mystical Union of the Soul with God
Like the Neoplatonist, the goal of the Christian medieval mystic was a mystical union of the human soul with God in which the individual would “swim in the wild waves of the ocean of God’s being.” This mystical union could only be achieved in a state of quietness and contemplation, “the quiet dark in which all who love God lose themselves,” as one mystic put it.

Characteristic 2:
Special Forms of and Techniques of Prayer and Meditation
As aids in achieving the contemplative state and mystical union with God, various postures and techniques for prayer and meditation were employed. Some were quite remarkable. Gregory Palamas, a 13th Century monk, stressed quietness and stillness in the pursuit of this union with God. As an aid to concentration, he recommended that the chin rest on the chest, with the eyes fixed on the navel.

Characteristic 3:
A Withdrawal From the World
In its merger with Monasticism, mysticism took on an ascetic character in which withdrawal from the world was emphasized. The monastery and the convent thus became the ideal places where mysticism could be studied and applied. In the monastery, Luther diligently sought to find peace with God through ascetic and mystical practices but was frustrated in these attempts. After finding peace with God through the revelation of the gospel in the Scriptures, he wrote, “If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there.”

Characteristic 4:
An Unhealthy Preoccupation with Suffering
An unhealthy preoccupation with suffering characterized medieval mysticism. Some mystics, such as Julian of Norwich (1342-ca.1416), considered one of the greatest English mystics, prayed to be deathly sick, thinking that through such suffering she could better identify with Christ in His sufferings.

Not having an opportunity to suffer for Christ, as did the early Christian martyrs, many mystics pursued a self-inflicted martyrdom. For example, Henry Suso (d. 1366), a German Dominican mystic who gained fame for his sanctity and devotion, wore an undergarment studded with 150 sharp tacks that, he said, felt as if he were lying in a nest of wasps. He also made a wooden cross to which he affixed 30 spikes and on this he lay every night for eight years. To intensify his suffering, he affixed seven sharp needles to the cross, and for a long time, he daily inflicted himself with two penitential drills. In these exercises, he would tie the cross to his back and beat upon it with his fist until the spikes and needles penetrated the flesh and the blood flowed down to his feet.

This unhealthy preoccupation with suffering, and the belief that it produced a cleansing effect on the soul, gave rise to writings such as The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross (1542–91), a Spanish mystic and close friend of Theresa of Ávila (1515-1584).

Characteristic 5:
The Rejection of Rational Thinking
Medieval mysticism also rejected reason and rational thinking, accessing these as hindrances to the soul achieving mystical unity with God. A work by “False Dyonisius” that gained much fame in the medieval church was a book called Mystic Theology in which he wrote,

"I counsel thee in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation, that you leave the senses and activities of the intellect and all that the senses or intellect can perceive. Having laid your understanding to rest, strain as far as you can toward a union with Him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. So shall you be led upwards to the Ray of that divine Darkness which surpasses all existence."

The parallels with Neoplatonism, particularly in the rejection of reason and union with the Divine, are obvious. Gonzalez describes this work as, “An explanation of basically Neoplatonic mysticism in which the religious life consists in an ascending vision of God."

Mysticism Does Not Align with the Teachings
of Jesus or the New Testament.
Of course, neither Jesus nor Paul advocated the rejection of the intellect or rational thinking. In fact, Jesus said that we are to love God with all our . . . minds (Matthew 22:37). Paul’s mode of operation in fulfilling his call to the Gentiles involved the use of logical thinking as he reasoned daily in the synagogues and in the school of Tyrannus concerning the identity of Jesus (Acts 17:2-3; 19:9-10).

It is the carnal mind that is against God, not the mind per se. The answer is not to reject the mind and rational thinking, but to renew the mind in God’s Word as Paul admonishes in Romans 12:2. God’s Word and Spirit will often transcend human reason, but they will never violate it or seek to eliminate it.

Medieval mysticism is out of touch with Jesus and the New Testament in terms of prayer, as well. Jesus, for example, does not advocate any form of mystical prayer. He does not teach any postures or techniques for prayer and meditation. Neither is there any mention of silence or contemplation. Instead, He emphasizes a relational approach to God in which prayer is simple conversation with a loving, benevolent Being whom He calls Abba, an endearing term used only by children for the father in the Jewish household.

For Jesus, oneness with God is not a mystical union of one’s being with God, but a practical oneness of will and purpose. Not My will but Thine be done, Jesus prayed, showing that, in His incarnate state, union with God consisted of a submission of His will to the will of the Father.

Another point of divergence with Jesus and New Testament Christianity is that Jesus does not call His disciples to withdraw from the world into solitude and contemplation. Instead, He promises a baptism in the Holy Spirit that will empower His followers to prophetically engage the world as His witnesses.

Neither does Jesus teach progressive stages of cleansing through darkness and suffering, as did the mystics. Instead, He emphasizes the Word of God as an agent of cleansing or sanctification. For example, He says to His disciples, You are already clean through the word I have spoken to you (John 15:3). And He prays to the Father, Sanctify them by Your truth, Your word is truth (John 17:17). The New Testament writers echo this thinking as in Acts 20:32 where Paul says to the elders at Ephesus, So, now brethren I commend you to God and to the word of His grace which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Parallels with Eastern Mysticism
Some have also pointed out the similarities of medieval mysticism with religions of the East that also seek a mystical union of the human soul with the Divine through meditation and contemplation. This should not surprise us for there was much travel and trade between India and Egypt at the time Neoplatonism (and Monasticism) had their beginnings in Egypt. This is why Kung says,

"And yet we must realize that mysticism is not a specifically Christian phenomenon. Not only is mysticism older than Christianity; it also comes from far away. Mystical religion had already come into being at a very early stage – in the late Vedan period – in India."

Although many of the mystics can be admired for their passion and devotion, their approaches to spirituality must be read with discerning caution and carefully compared with Scripture. The Reformers and Revivalists of the 16th century did not consider the medieval mystics to be their predecessors but, rather, sought to model their faith and spirituality after Jesus and the New Testament. We would be wise to follow their example.