Christian Mysticism

In that his philosophy gave way to neo-Platonism primarily through Plotinus (204-270 BC), Plato (c428-c348 BC) may be said to be the father of Christian mysticism. Some time before the birth of Jesus there was a renaissance of interest in oriental philosophy in the Mediterranean region which, combined with neo-Platonism, which resulted in a variety of religious practices subsumed under the general term Gnosticism which tended to separate rather than connect the human and divine, which in turn brought it into conflict with the Christian idea of the incarnation.

Although there are some traceable elements of mysticism in the Confessions of St. Augustine (354-430), it was Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo Dionysius) (fl c500) who gave mystical literature some of its key ideas such as the idea of the supreme godhead as the divine dark, the negation of all that surface consciousness perceives. On this basis, Christianity took all that was best in the neo-Platonic and oriental traditions and reinterpreted them in the light of Christ.

Mediaeval mysticism often (perhaps paradoxically) fused human and divine concepts to achieve ecstatic ends: Richard of St. Victor (d1173) articulated four stages: The soul thirsts for god; the soul thirsts to go to god; the soul thirsts to be in god; she thirsts in god's way. This technique reached its poetic height in Dante's (1265-1321) Comedia Divina (which mentions Richard) where his earthly love for Beatrice is translated into a profound and sustained spiritual journey, depicted in the physical idea of ascent from hell into heaven.

St. John of the Cross (in a deeply paradoxical phrase) speaks of the road to God through spiritual negation; because love is absolute, detachment is also absolute. In the Dark Night of the Soul he speaks of three phases: the point of departure is the privation of all desire and complete detachment from the world; the road is by faith which is like night to the intellect; the goal which is good is incomprehensible while we are in this life. As if these elf examinations were not enough, John was imprisoned "For the most serious crimes" by the Spanish Inquisition; he was visited with "Heavenly consolations" and some of his most exquisite poetry dates from that period. He is said to have escaped in a "Miraculous manner".

The most famous English mystic is Julian of Norwich (c1342-c14413) who wrote down her visions in Revelations of Divine Love. In contrast with St. John and many other ascetically-oriented mystics, her appeal lies in her serene joyousness and sunny hopefulness summed up in her famous dictum, borrowed later by T.S. Eliot: "And all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well".


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