The attempt of man to attain the ultimate reality of things
and experience direct communion with the highest. Mysticism
maintains the possibility of a relationship with God, not by
means of revelation or the ordinary religious channels, but by
introspection and meditation in conjunction with a purified
life, culminating in the awareness that the individual partakes
of the divine nature. Mysticism has been identified with pantheism
by some authorities, and many pantheists have been
mystics. However, mysticism is not tied to any particular philosophical
or theological perspective.
Mysticism tends to differ from public religion, which emphasizes
a worshipful submission to the deity and the ethical dimension
of life, while mysticism strains after the realization of
a personal union with the divine source itself. The mystic desires
to be as close to God as possible, part of the divine essence
itself, whereas the ordinary devotee of most religious systems
merely desires to walk in God’s way and obey his will.
Historical Survey
Mysticism has emerged as a strain in all of the major religious
systems, both East and West. It tends to have a particular
affinity, however, with some systems. While there is, for example,
a perceptible mystical stain in Christianity, Judaism (Hassidism),
and Islam (Sufism), Western systems that emphasize
the transcendence of a personal all-powerful deity have made
mysticism a secondary concern. In the East, where the unreality
of material things is emphasized, mysticism is a more dominant
form of spiritual life. The Sufis of Persia may be said to be a
link between the more austere Indian mystics and those of Europe.
With the rise of Alexandrian Neoplatonism, mysticism attained
a new level of presence in Europe. Neoplatonism made
a definite mark upon early Christianity, and we find it mirrored
in many of the patristic writings of the sixteenth century.
It was Erigena who, in the ninth century, transmitted to Europe
the so-called writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, the
Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the . . . Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
sixth century Syrian thinker who synthesized Christian theology
and Neoplatonism and thus greatly influenced the mysticism
of the Middle Ages. Erigena based his own system upon
that of Dionysius. This was the so-called ‘‘negative theology,’’
which placed God above all categories and designated him as
nothing, or the incomprehensible essence from which the
world of primordial causes is eternally created. This creation is
the work of the Son of God, in whom all substantial things exist;
but God is the beginning and end of everything. On this system
Christian mysticism may be said to have been founded with little
With Erigena, reason and authority are identical, and in this
he agrees with all speculative mystics. Scholasticism, however,
is characterized by the acceptance by reason of a given matter
that is presupposed even when it cannot be understood. It
seemed to Erigena that in the scholastic system, religious truth
was external to the mind, while the opposite view was fundamental
to mysticism.
That is not to say that mysticism according to Erigena is a
mere subordination of reason to faith. Mysticism indeed places
every confidence in human reason, and it is essential that it
should have the unity of the human mind with the divine as its
main tenet, but it accepts nothing from without, and it posits
the higher faculty of reason over the realization of absolute
Medieval mysticism may be said to have originated from a
reaction of practical religion against the dialectics in which the
true spirit of Christianity was then enshrined. Thus St. Bernard
opposed the dry scholasticism of Abelard. His mysticism was
profoundly practical, and dealt chiefly with the means by which
human beings may attain the knowledge of God. This is to be
accomplished through contemplation and withdrawal from the
Asceticism is the soul of medieval mysticism, but St. Bernard
averred regarding self-love that it is proper to love ourselves
for God’s sake, or because God loved us, thus merging self-love
in love for God. We must, so to speak, love ourselves in God,
in whom we ultimately lose ourselves. In this, St. Bernard is almost
Buddhistic, and indeed his mysticism is of the universal
Perhaps Hugh of St. Victor, a contemporary of St. Bernard’s,
did more to develop the tenets of mysticism, and his
monastery of Augustinians near Paris became a great center of
mysticism. One of his apologists, Richard of St. Victor, declared
that the objects of mystic contemplation are partly above reason,
and partly, as regards intuition, contrary to reason. The
protagonists of this theory, all of whom issued from the same
monastery, were known as the Victorines and put up a stout
fight against the dialecticians and schoolmen. Bonaventura,
who died in 1274, was a disciple of this school and a believer
in the faculty of mystic intuition.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the worldliness of
the church aroused much opposition among laymen, and the
church’s cold formalism created a reaction towards a more spiritual
regime. Many sects arose, such as the Waldenses, the Cathari
(see Gnosticism), and the Beguines, all of which strove to
infuse into their teachings a warmer spirituality than that which
burned in the heart of the church of their time.
In Germany, mysticism made great strides, and Machthild
of Magdeburg and Elizabeth of Thuringia were, if not the originators
of mysticism in Germany, certainly among its earliest
supporters. Joachim of Flores and Amalric of Bena wrote
strongly in favor of a reformed church, and their writings are
drenched with mystical terms, derived for the most part from
Erigena. Joachim mapped out the duration of the world into
three ages, that of the Father, that of the Son, and that of the
Spirit—the last of which was to commence with the year 1260,
and to be inaugurated by the general adoption of monastic and
contemplative life.
A sect called the New Spirit, or the Free Spirit, became widespread
through northern France, Switzerland, and Germany;
and these did much to infuse the spirit of mysticism throughout
It is with Meister Eckhart, who died in 1327, that we get the
juncture of mysticism with scholastic theology. Of his doctrine
it has been said
‘‘The ground of your being lies in God. Reduce yourself to
that simplicity, that root, and you are in God. There is no longer
any distinction between your spirit and the divine—you
have escaped personality and finite limitation. Your particular,
creature self, as a something separate and dependent on God
is gone. So also, obviously, your creaturely will. Henceforth,
therefore, what seems an inclination of yours is in fact the divine
good pleasure. You are free from law. You are above
means. The very will to do the will of God is resolved into that
will itself. This is the Apathy, the Negation, the Poverty, he
With Eckhart personally this self-reduction and deification
is connected with a rigorous asceticism and exemplary moral
excellence. Yet it is easy to see that it may be a merely intellectual
process, consisting in a man’s thinking that he is thinking
himself away from his personality. He declares the appearance
of the Son necessary to enable us to realize our sonship; and yet
his language implies that this realization is the perpetual incarnation
of that Son—does, as it were, constitute him. Christians
are accordingly not less the sons of God by grace than is Christ
by nature. Believe yourself divine, and the Son is brought forth
in you. The Saviour and the saved are dissolved together in the
blank absolute substance.’’
With the advent of the Black Death, a great spirit of remorse
swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, and a vast revival
of piety took place. This resulted in the foundation in Germany
of a society of Friends of God, whose chief object was to
strengthen each other in intercourse with the creator. Perhaps
the most distinguished of these were John Tauler and Nicolas
of Basle, and the society numbered many inmates of the cloister,
as well as wealthy men of commerce and others. Ruysbroek,
the great Flemish mystic, was connected with them, but
his mysticism is perhaps more intensely practical than that of
any other visionary. The machinery by which the union with
God is to be effected is the most attractive. In Ruysbroek’s lifetime,
a mystical society arose in Holland called the Brethren of
Common Lot, who founded an establishment at which Groot
dispensed the principles of mysticism to Radewyn and Thomas
The attitude of mysticism at the period of the Reformation
is peculiar. We find a mystical propaganda sent forth by a body
of Rosicrucians denouncing Roman Catholicism in the fiercest
terms, and we also observe the spirit of mysticism strongly within
those bodies that resisted the coldness and formalism of the
Roman Catholic Church of that time.
On the other hand, however, we find the principles of Luther
strongly opposed by some of the most notable mystics of
his time. But the Reformation passed, and mysticism went on
its way, divided, it is true, so far as the outward theological principles
of its votaries were concerned, but strongly united in its
general principles.
It is with Nicolas of Kusa, who died in 1464, that mysticism
triumphs over scholasticism. Nicolas was the protagonist of
super-knowledge, or that higher ignorance which is the knowledge
of the intellect in contra-distinction to the mere knowledge
of the understanding. His doctrines colored those of
Giordano Bruno (1550–1600) and his theosophy certainly preceded
that of Paracelsus (1493–1541). The next great name in
mysticism is that of Jakob Boehme (1575–1624), a German Rosicrucian
mystical teacher.
The Roman Catholic Church produced many mystics of
note in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including
Francis of Sales, Madame Guyon, and Molinos—the last two of
which were the protagonists of Quietism, which set forth the
theory that there should be no pleasure in the practice of mysticism,
and that God did not exist for the enjoyment of man. PerEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Mysticism
haps the greatest students of Boehme were William Law
(1686–1761) and Saint-Martin (1743–1803).
The Universality of Mystical Experience
It is clear from the statements of mystics that they are not
limited to any given religion or theology. Given the elevation
of the mystical experience over any theological reflection upon
that experience, it has been relatively easy for mystics of different
traditions to relate to each other, often finding a more natural
affinity that with the non-mystic members of their own religious
tradition. It is obvious that they are dealing with an
element in human experience common to all of humankind.
When Meister Eckhart stated, ‘‘If I am to know God directly, I
must become completely He, and He I so that this He and this
I become and are one I,’’ he comes to the same point as the Advaita
Vedanta doctrine of Hinduism, where the jiva (individual
soul) merges with Brahma the creator before absorption in
Brahman, the non-personal divine ground.
Sufism, Islamic mysticism, first arose in the ninth century
among the Persian Moslems, probably as a protest against the
severe monotheism of their religion, but in all likelihood more
ancient springs contributed to its revival. In the Persia of Hafiz
and Saadi, pantheism abounded, and their magnificent poetry
is read by Moslems as having a deep mystical significance, although
for the most part it deals with the intoxication of love.
It is certain that many of them exhibit the fervor of souls
searching for communion with the highest.
The apparent differences between Hindu mysticism and
Christian mysticism are nominal. Although Christian theology
postulates the divine in the form of God as Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit, such distinctions become largely unimportant in
the actual mystical experience. Similarly, popular Hinduism
postulates hundreds of different gods and goddesses, but these
are merely legal fictions to the Indian mystic, melting away in
the totality of higher consciousness.
Because mind and emotion are transcended in the higher
reaches of mysticism, they are seen by mystics as merely ways
of reaching a reality that lies beyond them, a totality of consciousness
without object, beyond the normal human limitations
of individual body, ego, personality, hopes, and fears.
Like Christianity, Hindu Vedanta (inquiry into ultimate reality),
has different schools of theology, ranging from Advaita
(monism or non-dualism, claiming that all is one and only the
divine ultimate has actual existence, all else being illusory) to
degrees of Dvaita or dualism (claiming that there is one ultimate
divine principle of God but that the soul is a separate
principle with independent existence). Such schools are not
really contradictory to the mystic, but rather different degrees
of interpretation of one reality on the way to an actual mystical
experience in which intellectual distinctions vanish.
The Way of the Mystic
In both Eastern and Western mysticism, withdrawal from
the everyday life of a householder is recognized as an aid to
mystical progress, thus both have monastic establishments at
which one follows a life of prayer and meditation. In the initial
stages, self-purification is facilitated by dedicated service to
others, prior to the more secluded life of the contemplative.
Mystics have sometimes been accused of escapism, of retreating
from the responsibilities of everyday life into a private
world, and indeed, the descriptions of the ecstasies of spiritual
awareness often sound rather like a selfish indulgence, oblivious
to the problems of the outside world.
It is clear that the ideal mystic partakes fully of the duties
and social responsibility of life after spiritual enlightenment,
since mystical experience should give deeper meaning to the
reality behind the everyday mundane world. For most individuals,
however, a period of retreat from everyday life is helpful in
disengaging oneself from the fears, desires, and egoism of
mundane existence.
Hinduism places great stress on dharma, the duties and responsibilities
of the individual, which take priority over any desire
for transcendentalism. During this period one would observe
the everyday religious rites and rituals related to the gods
and goddesses of an individual’s life. Later, however, when one
had fulfilled one’s responsibilities, married, begat a family, and
provided for them, the realization that everything connected
with the material world and physical life was transient would
grow steadily, culminating in a hunger for knowledge of what
is eternal.
At such a time, one might seek a qualified guru or spiritual
preceptor and follow an ascetic life, discarding all material possessions,
egoism, hopes, and fears in the quest for a higher spiritual
awareness not subject to birth and death, or change and
decay. Various pathways of yoga facilitated that quest, involving
self-purification, service to others, and refinement of perception
based upon physical health and its spiritual counterpart.
The Hindu emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of a
householder taking priority over the quest for mystical enlightenment
have something in common with Judaism, which does
not seek to separate mystical experience from everyday life. Judaism
is essentially pragmatic in its approach to the spiritual
life and requires that mystical experience be interfused with
daily life and religious observance.
The Jewish mystic typified in the period of eighteenth- to
nineteenth-century Hasidism, was a pious rabbi, living a life of
prayer, study, and meditation within his community and sharing
everyday social life and responsibility. In this respect he resembled
the Eastern teacher around whom a group of pupils
would gather for spiritual teaching and experience.
The Mechanisms of Mysticism
It is clear that the concept of self-purification in mystical
progress involves psycho-physical mechanisms. Fasting, asceticism,
mortification, and intense meditation have profound effects
on the individual nervous system and other aspects of the
body and mind. Very little discussion on this important area
appeared in Western literature until Aldous Huxley published
The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven & Hell (1956). The
starting point for Huxley’s speculations about the psychophysical
mechanisms of mystical experience was his own experiment
in taking mescaline, a psychedelic drug, and unfortunately
this particular stimulus has overshadowed the wider implications
of his discussion.
A more simplistic interpretation of Huxley’s speculations
leads directly to the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, spearheaded
by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, based on the
conviction that by merely taking certain chemical substances
one could have a spiritual experience comparable with that of
the great mystics of history. This was a concept that Huxley
himself deplored in his later years.It is now obvious that the
chemical ecstasy and visions produced by psychedelic drugs are
qualitatively different from the transcendental union experienced
by the mystic who has devoted years to self-purification
of mind, inner exploration, and spiritual perception, and that
unless there is such a purification of the individual, the consumption
of drugs can produce an intense but ultimately shallow
experience. The search for chemical ecstasy was soon abandoned
by its major early exponents, such as Walter Houston
It is now clear that the gradual transformation of the personality
on all levels—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual—involves
specific psycho-physical concomitants. Some of
these may be accessible to scientific inspection. It may also be
possible to evaluate various degrees of transcendental experience,
ranging from emotional euphoria to progressively more
profound areas of higher consciousness.
The modern Hindu mystic Pandit Gopi Krishna, who experienced
a dramatic development of higher consciousness following
a period of intense yoga discipline and meditation, has
Mysticism Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
published his experiences and the perceptions accompanying
them in a series of books, which during the last years of his life
attracted the attention of scientists in investigating the phenomenon.
Paranormal Side Effects
Most religions have reported miraculous phenomena associated
with the path of mysticism, including visions, disembodied
voices, levitation, and gifts of healing. Christian saints
have their miracles and the yogis have their occult powers. It
would seem that with the transcendence of normal mental and
emotional life, there is an area of transcendence of normal
physical law. However, the mystic is warned not to be snared by
such phenomena, since it will activate egoism and pride, common
faults of the beginner on the spiritual path.
A Turning Point in Western Mysticism
Recent studies of Christian mysticism recognize 1200–1350
C.E. as a crucial period in Western mysticism history. The era
witnessed new styles and forms of religion, including reformed
attitudes toward the relation of the world and the church. No
longer was withdrawal from the worldly considered necessary
to experience the mystical. Language styles changed in mystical
poetry, sermons, and hagiography. Most significantly, there
was a growth in the number of mystics, both male and female,
as women began to take on a more influential role in mysticism
during this time. Among these women visionaries was the ecstatic
mystic Angela of Foligno and several great spiritual leaders
of the Beguine movement Mary of Oignies, Hadewijch of
Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete.
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