What’s In a Name? How the Meaning of Mysticism is Encoded in the Word Itself

What’s In a Name? How the Meaning of Mysticism is Encoded in the Word Itself

What is mysticism? Is there a useful definition of this admittedly vague word?

It’s one of those words that means many things to many people. In her classic book Practical Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill offers a rather tongue-in-cheek survey of the many ways people define mysticism: as “a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means having visions, performing conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being ‘in tune with the infinite.'” And that was in 1914 — if anything, the word has even more shades of meaning in our time.

For secularists, mysticism is a pejorative word: it means something impractical, dreamy, unreal. Many people might equate the word with Eastern spirituality, from Advaita Vedanta to Zen. Others may think of mysticism in a very broad way, implying the full sweep of experiential spirituality, covering everything from Wicca to Yoga to Transcendental Meditation. Meanwhile, many conservative or fundamentalist Christians are suspicious of the word; I remember attending a student prayer meeting in my High School where the topic of mysticism came up, and one of the group leaders scoffed, “mysticism begins in mist, ends in schism, and has not God, but ‘I’ in the center!”

But despite what the fundamentalists may think, there really is such a thing as Christian mysticism, which entails a specific approach to Christian spirituality, a lineage of teachers and practitioners, and a body of wisdom that encompasses both theory (what mystics believe) and practice (what mystics do). If it’s a vague topic, that’s due perhaps to the fact that spirituality, in general, is such a personal matter: there are countless ways to be spiritual, and likewise there are many ways to embrace a mystical spirituality. Yet even with that broad understanding, it is possible for us to talk about mysticism in a useful way — and the best way to start is by unpacking the word mysticism itself.

Christians who don’t like the concept of mysticism point out that the word is nowhere to be found in the Bible. That’s true, for a simple and obvious reason: the word mysticism itself is only about 300 years old. The first example mentioned in the Oxford English dictionary dates back only to 1736. The word itself is a product of its time: the eighteenth century was the age of reason, of the scientific revolution, of enlightenment philosophy. So it’s not surprising that “mysticism” originally was often a negative word, implying what is irrational or unscientific about religion and spirituality. Eventually, though, some theologians and philosophers began to use mysticism in a more positive sense, implying the heart of authentic spirituality, at a level deeper than mere dogma or ritual observance.

But while mysticism is a relatively young word, it’s related words mystic and mystical are much older — and all three go back to a Greek word, μυέω (mueo), which means “to be initiated” or “to learn the secret.” It appears just one time in the Bible, in Philippians 4:12, where Saint Paul speaks about learning to live well in any circumstance:

In all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.

We could just as easily translate this verse as “In all things I have been initiated: into fullness and hunger, into prosperity and want.”

But perhaps the easiest way to unpack mueo is by considering two words in English that are derived from it: mystery and mute. Mystery means not just an unsolved puzzle, as in a whodunnit: but rather mystery in an initiatory sense: a spiritual reality or level of consciousness that cannot be put into words. This brings us to mute, which we associate with the inability to speak: but it’s not just mute as in a physical disability, but rather a silence that arises when normal human language simply cannot express what we encounter.

Mysticism (the word) may not be in the Bible — but mystery appears multiple times, particularly in the New Testament. In Pagan mystery religions, a “mystery” was a secret, a secret teaching or ritual that conveyed wisdom or truths to the person initiated into the cult. Part of the culture of the mystery religions was to keep the secrets, well, secret (there’s that sense of “mute” again). But Christianity turns all this inside out. Saint Paul talks about “the mystery of Christ,” not so much as a secret, but as a hidden reality — in Christ, for example, God (and God’s love and mercy) is hidden. Indeed, the Biblical understanding of the very fullness of God includes this quality of hiddenness (see Isaiah 45:15), but the New Testament sense of mystery involves the hiddenness of God being revealed (in Christ, or in the church, or in baptism and communion, and so forth).

This language of mystery shows up in the early centuries of Christianity, particularly in relationship to the sacraments (to this day, Orthodox Christians call the sacraments “the mysteries”). Think about baptism and communion. On the surface, these are simple religious ceremonies: a person joining the Christian faith gets washed with water; while the members of the faith regularly participate in a ceremonial meal of bread and wine. But what makes these actions mysteries, and not just empty rituals, is the spiritual reality hidden within them: in baptism, we are cleansed of our sins and adopted as children of God; in communion, we receive the real presence of Christ’s body and blood as we are fed the consecrated bread and wine. So the sacraments have both an external and an internal dimension: externally, we are washed with water or fed with bread and wine. But internally, we encounter the hidden reality of God, the God who loves us, forgives us our sins, calls us into community, and offers us the glory and splendor of divine union.

In a similar way, the Bible has been understood, from the earliest centuries of the Christian era, as a mystical book, which is to say, a book with an inner or hidden dimension: early Christian scripture interpreters delighted in finding “hints” of hidden spiritual truths in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), such as seeing the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 as a prophetic description of Christ, or seeing the love poetry in the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) as an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church, or God’s love for each of us individually.

By the second millennium of the Christian era, this concept of mystical spirituality expanded from just the Bible or the sacraments to a general understanding of the inner dimension of spirituality. Mystics like Saint Bernard of Clairvaux or Saint Hildegard of Bingen began to write about their mystical (inner) relationship with God, a relationship characterized by intimacy, love, and union. They, and their followers — all the way to the present day — have given us this full sense of a specifically Christian mysticism: a spirituality in which we are initiated into the mystery of God’s love, a love that is hidden within us, that we can’t put into words, and that perhaps is best encountered by remaining “mute” — in other words, in silence.

Next month we’ll take a deeper look at how mysticism is “hidden” in the Bible: both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

Carl McColman
Carl McColman

Carl McColman is a Christian contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader, and spiritual director. He studied Christian meditation at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and trained in spiritual direction at the Institute for Pastoral Studies in Atlanta. He is a professed member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, a community devoted to the practice of contemplation within the context of marriage and family, outside of a traditional monastery. Carl is the author of over a dozen books, including Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality, and The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Read his blog at <a href=""></a>.