The thought of mysticism has endless ability to capture the imagination. The immediate mental picture is of bliss, exalted thought, and insights denied those not privileged to have the gift. There is a certain truth to these concepts, but, as we shall see, the definition of this reality may be far from what appears at first glance.
The medieval mind was perhaps unequalled for imagery, romance, and poetic expression. Until Petrarch began dedicating his poetry to an earthly love, artistic and literary works focussed on religious images. Those in the Middle Ages were frequently illiterate, and undoubtedly uninfluenced by the writings of the great theologians of the period, yet their entertainment, legends, ballads, and so forth painted a vivid picture of God's active presence in the lives of His creatures.
The true mystic will never be understood, and those honoured as saints were likely, then and now, to be remembered more for what they accomplished (or for what their intercession is thought to obtain for their devotees!) than for their mysterious and often troubling focus on the divine. Many a mystic, Francis of Assisi being a prime example, is gifted in expression, yet the fullness of their union with God leaves us puzzled. Total unity goes beyond the senses and the intellect, and the greatest of poets is rendered silent by the inability to fully share the inexpressible.
Christian mysticism sees growth in spirituality as involving an ever deepening, personal relationship with God. The mystic, whose longing for a total bond with the Beloved, is not seeking nothingness, nor to “find the God within.” His Lover is also a Person, albeit one Divine. Since true contemplation is a gift of grace from God Himself, the mystic remains fully (and, perhaps, anxiously) aware that his own accomplishments and efforts cannot attain this union.
Since our emphasis at this site is on delight, it is time to expand the definition! The mystic indeed delights in his Beloved, but this takes him into new realms. The human need for satisfaction of the mind and emotions is ever part of our nature, yet the mystic is dealing with pure spirit, unfathomable intellect, perfection beyond human grasp. He will see the emptiness of the world and the limits of our own perceptions. Thus, the lover's longing, which in itself is a sheer gift of grace, meets with silence. Unchanging, eternal, perfect love surely is the ultimate delight, but the mystic, hampered by the clouded vision of mankind, has both total dedication and the unrequited longing that cannot be satisfied in this world.
Growth in Christian spirituality involves several stages, described as the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. An in-depth treatment of these stages is beyond the scope of this essay, but a brief reference is needed to place the mystic journey in perspective. Where the thought of meditation or prayer brings to mind actions of the mind, body (as in observing quiet), senses, and intellect, the way of the mystic is based on submission of the will. His journey begins with a renunciation of sin, that will, in time, lead to a certain darkness. The mystic sees the Scriptures, the teachings of Christ's Church and the writings of Her mystics, and so forth as divine revelation - and, since they spring from a perfect source, will intuitively realise that there can be no surer path to happiness. His own heightened vision of divine love (of which he usually is unaware) will leave him troubled, because the reality of evil and indifference taps the human sense of futility and emptiness in this world.
The mystic, of course, is totally unaware of his “stage of development”. The growing detachment, so essential to the eventual mystic union, will leave his senses and mind with further emptiness. The will, which alone can choose and love, is assuredly turned to God, yet there is much more to human nature - and that part remains unsatisfied, until the level of detachment is one attained by few. This is a process for a lifetime.
The mystic, who will begin with the self knowledge from which humility is born, but eventually reaches the uncharted paths of that heightened vision that only the divine can inspire, will have continuously advancing awareness of his own nothingness. This “nothingness” is real - and by no means negative, even if it appears so to our post Freudian eyes. If humans are created in the image and likeness of God (that is, with a memory, intellect, and will, and an immortal soul), and Christ Himself could assume human nature, clearly humanity is a great treasure in itself. However, when one has had a glimpse of the Perfect, the limits of human nature are clear to him.
This void naturally is to be filled with that share in God that we call divine grace. Still, when one burns with a love that cannot be fully consummated except in a life beyond this one, the lover naturally will endure trials and the fire of longing that only those who truly love can know.
Looking for the God within, should a mystic fall into this error, would satisfy none of the longing. The divine essence within each creature is very limited. To turn the fire of mystic longing totally within would accomplish nothing - except, perhaps, to lead him to the error of worshipping himself. The constant striving for virtue, whether through prayer or the sacrifices typical of the ascetic life that alone is the bridge to the mystical, aims at pleasing the Creator, with whom the personal relationship constantly grows.
Medieval man would hardly have grasped this concept, but he did understand, in his homely fashion, that God's love cannot be placed in a far off box. The Catholic concept of the “communion of saints” was known, even if all but the scholars would have been hard put to define this. The man of the Middle Ages had a strong idea of there being a life beyond this one - indeed, that awareness was sustenance in a time when life was short and filled with trials. He also would have the idea that all of those who shared in grace (in this life or the next, the only exception being the devils and human inhabitants of hell) merit graces and grieve for sin as a whole. He would not have understood the depth of mysticism, of course, but he would value the mystic for the graces that these chosen ones merited for the sake of all, much as Christ had attained redemption for the sins of all people (with no bounds of time).
The medieval imagination, coupled with the awareness of powers beyond one's self, was hardly confined to divine truths! The occult arts, the wee folk, the goblin and the “beasties” were forces to be reckoned with - and much a part of the medieval viewpoint. Then as now, the key difference between magic and spirituality is easy to overlook. The magic arts, to use one inclusive term, all are directed, in some fashion, at enhanced power for the individual. The intentions are not necessarily evil, but always include knowing, doing, or causing what is beyond normal human ability. Spirituality, by contrast, and in a way that can be frightening to us since the desire for control is so a part of our nature, involves abandonment.
With submission of the will being the key element of mystic union (and one against which we all shall struggle!), abandonment is transformed, in the mystic's vision, from a frightful struggle to a loving union. The mystic's heightened awareness, so incomprehensible to the rest of us, leads to a knowledge that nothing will satisfy him except God. He will have the pain of being unable to take pleasure in the worldly, but his will shall consider these well sacrificed in light of the ecstasy of eternity.
As Saint Augustine wrote in his "Confessions":
"O Lord, do I love Thee. Thou didst strike on my heart with Thy word and I loved Thee.... But what do I love when I love Thee? Not the beauty of bodies nor the loveliness of seasons, nor the radiance of the light around us, so gladsome to our eyes, nor the sweet melodies of songs of every kind, nor the fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices, nor manna and honey, nor limbs delectable for fleshly embraces. I do not love these things when I love my God. And yet I love a light and a voice and a fragrance and a food and an embrace when I love my God, who is a light, a voice, a fragrance, a food, and an embrace to my inner man.... This it is that I love when I love my God...
That same voice speaks indeed to all men, but only they understand it who join that voice, heard from outside, to the truth that is within them. And the truth says to me: "Neither heaven nor earth nor any body is thy God." Their own nature says the same They see that the substance of a part is less than that of the whole. And now I speak to thee, my soul. Thou art my greater part, since thou quickenest the substance of my body by giving to it life, which no body can give to a body. And thy God is the life of thy life to thee....
Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new! Too late have I loved Thee. And lo, Thou wert inside me and I outside, and I sought for Thee there, and in all my unsightliness I flung myself on those beautiful things which Thou hast made. Thou wert with me and I was not with Thee. Those beauties kept me away from Thee, though if they had not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me and break down my deafness. Thou didst flash and shine on me and put my blindness to flight. Thou didst blow fragrance upon me and I drew breath, and now I pant after Thee. I tasted of Thee and now I hunger and thirst for Thee. Thou didst touch me and I am aflame for Thy peace...."