"Mysticism, viewed from a general perspective, is a reaction against the shallowness of a decadent civilization. It usually culminates when religion is at its lowest, and thus appears superior by comparison. People with an intense desire for spirituality, when civilization appears on the verge of collapse, are attracted toward a philosophy of escape and are repelled by the seeming flaws of the established religion.
Whereas prophetic religion affirms personality, mysticism denies it. The former believes in life, values history and tries to realize ideals and goals. The latter, however, escapes from the world, rejects the natural life and disregards history." (http://bahai-library.com/masumian_mysticism_bahai)
This is by no means an exhaustive study. Neither is it a critique or judgment against the people mentioned in this article. These are merely trends and observations I have made during my cursory research concerning Catholic mystics.
When I read about the lives of religious saints and those who choose to emulate them (followers, disciples, etc.), a picture was painted of sacrificial, devoted people, consumed by the desire to serve their God/god. Mysticism played heavily into the picture as these religious leaders were supposed to have a very special connection with their God/god. In fact, mysticism is so entwined in the life of a Saint, it would be safe to say they wouldn't be a Saint without mystic experiences.
A few years ago I read a book called, "The Book of Margery Kempe" which started me down the road of studying the lives and writings of Catholic Saints, as well as the lives and writings of other religious leaders such as Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism).
For the purposes of this article, I will only write about the Catholic Saints, but someday I might expand it to include other religions. Mystics (regardless of religion) share a common bond in practices.
Being sick in bed last weekend, I ended up watching many documentaries on the Inquisition and witchcraft hunts of the Middle Ages. It occurred to me after watching these films, that many mystics were violent. They might write about spiritual violence, be violent to themselves, or incite violence against other people groups. I know this might sound shocking, but bear with me.
*The writings of these mystics/Saints have been carefully preserved, and you may read some of them for yourself at Sacred Texts. Many church libraries (even Protestant ones) are also beginning to carry them. This website may have all of them: http://www.ccel.org/index/author
Many mystic writings are quite violent on a spiritual and physical level, begging God to allow them to suffer from illness and pain (http://mariannedorman.homestead.com/JulianofNorwich.html).
Some even ask for or describe experiences which sound very much like spiritual rape. The writers describe a desire to be on fire, drowned, or consumed in Christ's love (See: God is NOT Like the Ocean Part 1 and Part 2)
The poem, "Batter My Heart", Holy Sonnet 10 by mystic John Donne, is full of violent imagery (perhaps not so surprising based on the title). In the last line of the poem, Donne asks to be raped by God,
"Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173362)
St. Theresa of Avila describes in her writings, "Interior Castle", being pinned down by an angel, and having her heart pierced with a golden lance over and over, causing her extreme pain,
"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it..." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_%C3%81vila)
That description is highly evocative of a sexual act. There is even a famous statue called, "The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa" by Bernini which...well, draw your own conclusions.
"Within courtly literature, Hadewijch [a Dutch mystic from the 13th Century] writes a lot of love poetry," said Miller, "and it's always a very combative relationship between God and the soul. She uses images of violence, combat, war, destruction and annihilation -- but it is always very exciting and erotic at the same time, because it is a love relationship.
Teresa of Avila's writings exhibit this same eroticism, she said. "There is violence within this relationship to God -- a violence that gives Teresa pain not only in her soul, but also physically in her body. She attempts to resist oftentimes, but ultimately she says, well, you can't fight against God, might as well just accept it because it's going to happen anyway." (http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Theologian+links+mystics,+rape.-a078728668) (My emphasis added)
I will answer "why" the mystics felt they needed this violence in the next part. For now, I want to look at what the Bible says.
Nowhere in the New Testament does God or Jesus describe His relationship to Christians/believers as violent. Violence was done to Jesus who took our place,
"But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5)
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
because our own suffering and good deeds would never come close to being enough the needed sacrifice to pay for our sins against a just God,
"Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Hebrews 9:26)
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." (Leviticus 17:11)
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Instead, Jesus describes Christians as His friends,
"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15).
Paul says Christians are children of God,
"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12)
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:14-17)
Peter tells us we are special to God,
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Peter 2:9).
"But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him." (1 Thess. 5:8-10)
Even in the Old Testament, Abraham was called "God's friend" (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23), and God intervened for Lot and his family (Genesis 18-19) , Noah and his family (Genesis 6-9), Daniel (Book of Daniel), David (Books of Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles), and a host of other righteous people to get them out of violent situations.
Any scenes of rape in the Bible are definitely NOT highlighted as good, holy, or spiritual. They always have negative consequences (see: Genesis 34, 2 Samuel 13:1-22, and Deuteronomy 22, Galatians 5:19-21, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Many of these writings were born from visions and dreams of Jesus, angels, or the Virgin Mary. The Bible exhorts (tells, commands, not suggests) us to test all things,
"Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:20-21).
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1)
Do the Scriptures support the mystics' idea of suffering?
Since writing these articles, I've had several questions about other Scriptures relating to suffering. "Don't these support the mystics' idea of suffering?" some readers have asked.
Romans 5:3-5, "Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us."
"The major theme in the book of Romans is the relationship between Jew and Gentile in God's overall plan of redemption. The audience is Gentile Christians in Rome" (NIV Archeological Study Bible).
Backing up to chapter 4 we read about Abraham being justified by faith (not suffering), and the rest of chapter 5 discusses that faith in Christ (not suffering) saves and reconciles people to God. These sufferings are not self-inflicted or sought after; they are the natural sufferings that come from living and the sufferings of persecution.
Suffering does produce the good qualities outlined in 5:3-5, but nowhere in these verses or chapters is it mentioned or implied that suffering reconciles or unifies us with God. It is not suffering which brings perfection, it is the hope, (faith) in Christ, that comes from suffering, which brings perfection because of Christ, not us.
"Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed."
This passage could have been intended to encourage the persecuted (like the James passage in the main article) or to encourage those going through hard times. However, there is no explicit or implicit suggestion to invite hardships, or that going through hardship purifies us. This passage was meant as an encouragement to endure and not give up being a Christian.
1 Peter 4:1-19,
"Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. 2 As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. 3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. 5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good."
This is a continuation of a thought from Chp. 3:8-22 about suffering for doing good (persecution). Just like the passages from Hebrews, Romans, and James, the author of 1 Peter is trying to encourage his audience to endure and persevere in the face of persecution and trials. When he says "done with sin" and "love covers over a multitude of sins", he is referring to new life in Christ, and forgiveness and reconciliation among Christians.
Philippians 3:10-11, "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; 11 If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead."
The passages on suffering for Christ in Philippians actually begin in Phil. 1:12 and go to 3:14, but in verse 3:17, Paul says, "follow my example". Did Paul outline in this passage, or anywhere in his writings the ideas, concepts, or practices of mysticism or that suffering purifies a person of sins? The answer is "no".
Rather, Paul is talking about knowing Jesus' will (and therefore God's will) and obeying it, and Paul is talking about death to self in order to make one a better Christian. This isn't so much about asceticism as it is about sacrifice your will for God's will. Paul left behind his old, exalted life (verses 4-9) (he had high standing in his community) for a new, persecuted life for Jesus.
And look at verse 9, "... that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith."
Once again, we see in the Epistles that righteousness/holiness/perfection comes through faith in Christ and His sufferings, not ours. A more thorough exegesis on this passage can be found here: http://wideandhigh.com/blog/2007/09/18/philippians-310-11-an-exegesis/
Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
This passage is similar to the Philippians one, and the thing to do is expand it.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:19-21)
Here again, we see that righteousness comes by faith and not by works; here again we read that Paul has died to self (his will) for that of Christ's will. Here again, we do not read about inviting suffering, causing trials, or that those things purify or save us or anyone else.