Mysticism: Why it Matters

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

As Therese of Lisieux lay dying 110 years ago, she offered her sufferings so others might be healed. She had done so throughout her life, committing to making such "small daily sacrifices" as taking the blame for another's misdeeds and pretending not to be in pain as she neared death. As Ronald Rolheiser, OMI notes in a 2006 column, "Small private acts (of mystics) can deeply affect the overall health of the whole world."*

Many saints – including the newly beatified Mother Teresa – have been identified as having visual, auditory and/or unusual, mysterious effects in their experiences with God. But what, exactly is mysticism, and who qualifies?

"When we hear of a mystic we most often think of someone in cloister or a desert dwelling," Sr. Audrey Cleary, OSB, says. "We imagine a holy and probably very unusual or even odd person."

The theology of mysticism

In fact, that was the case during the early years of Christianity. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,** the term has evolved from its Hellenistic origin of secret religious rituals to hidden presences:

In early Christianity the term came to refer to "hidden" allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and to hidden presences, such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist. Only later did the term begin to denote "mystical theology," that included direct experience of the divine. Typically, mystics, theistic or not, see their mystical experience as part of a larger undertaking aimed at human transformation (See, for example, Teresa of Avila, Life, Chapter 19) and not as the terminus of their efforts. Thus, in general, 'mysticism' would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions.

"Mystical prayer is simply the prayer of union with and contemplation of God; it needs no images, words or actions," Sr. Audrey says. "Over the centuries certain individuals were recognized for their grasp of the mystery of God, through the practice of silent prayer. Their lives are known because they or others spoke or wrote about their life of prayer.

"But the fact is that many people of prayer have deep relationships with the Divine which enable them to cultivate a continuing awareness of God during the daily routine. These people are alert to the Holy One and seem to have an extra antenna for noticing the mysterious Divine Presence within and around them. These folks are called mystics."

The private acts of mystics

Fr. Rolheiser writes that mystics have "secrets worth knowing" about the transformative power of prayer. He says we are physically the body of Christ – many people as one body – in the same way as many cells make one human being. Because of that, the actions of one affect the health of the whole.

What happens for health or for disease in any one cell, be it ever so small, eventually affects the health of the whole body. Thus, Christ taught, and the saints believed, that the most private spiritual and moral battles which go on inside one's conscience have an effect for good or for bad on all of humanity. ... Private acts have a profound effect on the whole body, beyond what "we have data on."

What are the antibodies that create a healthy immune system within the body of Christ? If we can believe those who have been doctors of the soul, we create healthy antibodies when we silently suffer for each other, when we pray for each other, when we live out lives of quiet martyrdom and when we emerge victorious in our little battles with what's petty inside of us. ... Mystics have secrets worth knowing. The health of a body depends on tiny processes invisible to the naked eye.

Today's Mystics

"The experience of God's presence can be and is still cultivated in our own world," Sr. Audrey says. Sr. Susan Hutchens, OSB, agrees. "Mystics live and work among us today. They may never be officially recognized by the Church, but we know them by their actions and wisdom." Their actions and wisdom silently nourish the Body of Christ, the whole world. Indeed, our health depends upon them.