What Is Mystical Theology?

When I was thinking about converting to Christianity, I heard about something called mystical theology, and it made me nervous.

Whenever I hear the word mystic (or some variation of it) I tend to assume it’s associated with something silly from the New Age movement.

But I went ahead with my conversion anyway, and then I bothered to learn about what mystical theology actually was.

Imagine my relief when I learned it wasn’t New Age nonsense!

So, what is mystical theology?

Mystical theology is the science that treats actions and experiences as irreproducible states of being. They which cannot be created or reproduced by human efforts or industry without exceptional cases of Divine Intervention. It is the study of being when one is close to God.

In other words, mystical theology is about understanding the unique value of a life lived close to God.

You know how a handmade item has something special about it that can’t be reproduced by a machine?

The same is true for life lived close to God. It has a certain specialness that is absent from a life lived the same way and without God.

Mystical theology is about understanding that specialness.

What Is Mystical Theology Concerned With?

Mystical theology encompasses all extraordinary forms of prayer. This extends to higher forms of meditative contemplation as well. It includes all types, private revelations, visions, gradations, and unions as well. These practices allow a mystical union to develop between God and one’s soul.

Mystical theology the science of all that is extraordinary in the relations between the Divinity and the human spirit. It follows from asceticism, which acknowledges the necessity of the cultivation of virtues for living the perfected Christian life. So the difficulties of asceticism ensure that only a small subset of monks ever develop a specialized knowledge of it.

A Video Overview of Mystical Theology

Christendom is divided into three large groups: The Orthodox, Protestants, and the Catholics. These three groups value different things and, consequently specialize in different topics. Catholics value their scholasticism, and this has led them to produce quite an extensive theology. Protestants value evangelism, and the bulk of conversion work is undertaken by Protestants.

The Orthodox specialize in mysticism, and it is for this reason that monasticism occupies a position of much greater value within the Orthodox churches than in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Protestants tend to disregard monks altogether.

So the greatest experts on Christian mystical theology are all to be found within the Orthodox Church. The video linked to here contains one of the more famous thinkers from among the Orthodox, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, sharing his introduction to the mystical theology of the Orthodox churches.

How Is Mystical Theology Studied?

Mystical theology is driven by doctrine and by experimentation. Practitioners experiment with a variety of methods for achieving closer communion with God. During the process, they record the reults of their efforts and measure their reproducibility. When their efforts have been deemed successful, they record the methods they employed and begin to teach those to others. If a teaching is repeatedly demonstrated to be sound, then it makes its way into church doctrines.

In this way, mystical theology translates the esoteric knoweldge of those mystically favored into sound guidelines for others. Their experiences are then combined with Scripture, teachings of the Church Fathers, and theologians to perfect Christian practice.
Its rules and precepts are usually framed for the special use of those who have occasion to direct souls in the ways of mysticism, so as to preserve them from error while facilitating their advancement.

It must therefore take note of the erroneous systems of prayer, like Quietism or Semiquietism, and of the self-illusion or deception of souls that mistake the powers of darkness for those of light or the promptings of their own self-seeking for Divine communications.

It is this part of the science that necessitates inquiry into various phases of occultism, diabolism, etc., into which writers like Görres have gone so extensively.

What Jargon Does Mysical Theology Use?

Mystical theology has a nomenclature all its own, seeking to express acts or states that are for the most part purely spiritual in terms denoting analogous experiences in the material order. Usually it does not form part of the ordinary class-room studies, but is imparted by spiritual masters in their personal direction of souls, or inculcated, as in seminaries and novitiates, by special conferences and courses of spiritual reading.

Study of mystical theology begins with recognition of the four forms of prayer. The forms are: vocal, mental, affective, and simplicity. Of these, the last two are the most important forms in question. In this field,pPrayer is often called active or acquired contemplation. This is done to distinguish it from higher contemplation, in which mystical union is really to be found.

What Are the Relevant Topics?

A mystic theologian begins his practice by studyign the works of those mystic theologians who came before him. These studies often concern unorthodox methods of contemplation and descriptions of the levels of communion. Emphasis is placed on the transition from one level to another and the type of knowledge acquired immediately before elevation.

Orther objects of consideration include: God, His Attributes, the Incarnation, and the Sacred Mysteries of the Life of Christ. His presence in the Eucharist; the supernatural order; every creature of God in the natural order, animate or inanimate, particularly the Blessed Virgin, the angels, the saints, Providence, the Church. In analyzing the causes of contemplation, what may be called its psychology next comes up for consideration, in so far as it necessitates the ordinary or exceptional use of any human faculty, of the senses of the body, or of the powers of the soul. On God’s part, grace must be considered as a principle, or cause, of contemplation, the special or unusual graces (gratis datoe) as well as ordinary graces, the virtues, theological as well as moral, the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The closing chapter in this part of the science dwells on the fruits of contemplation, especially the elevation of spirit, joy, charity, zeal; on the influences that may contribute to its duration, interruption, or cessation. Here some theologians treat in detail of the preliminary or preparatory dispositions for contemplation, of natural or moral aptitude, solitude, prayer, mortification or self-denial, corporal and spiritual, as a means of soul-purification; these topics, however, belong more properly to the domain of ascetical theology.

Mystical Theology and the Pure Soul

What strictly comes within the province of mystical theology is the study of the processes of active and passive purification through which a soul must pass to reach the mystical union.

Although the active processes are also treated to some extent in ascetical theology, they require special study inasmuch as they lead to contemplation. They comprise: purity of conscience, or aversion even to the slightest sin; purity of heart, the heart being taken as the symbol of the affections, which to be pure must be free of attachments to anything that does not lead to God; purity of the spirit, i.e. of the imagination and memory; and purity of action.

It is to these processes that the well-known term “night” is applied by St. John of the Cross, since they imply three things which are as night to the soul in so far as they are beyond or contrary to its own lights, viz., the privation of pleasure, faith as substituted for human knowledge, and God as incomprehensible, or darkness, to the unaided soul. Passive purifications are the trials encountered by souls in preparation for contemplation, known as desolation, or dryness, and weariness.

Discerning the Devils

Spirits can descend from both God and the Devil, so rules for their discernment are established through mystical theology. Mystical theolgoy is also the primary source method of obtaining knowledge required to interact with spirits. Practitioners are trained to recognize the source of these spirits and to oppose them when necessary. Exorcists are mystical theologians who have specialized in spiritualism.

These passive purifications affect the soul when every other object of contemplation is withdrawn from it, except its own sins, defects, frailties, which are revealed to it in all their enormity. They put the soul in the “obscure night”, as St. John of the Cross calls it, or in the “great desolation”, to use the phrase of Father Baker. In this state the soul experiences many trials and temptations, even to infidelity and despair, all of which are expressed in the peculiar terminology of writers on mystical theology, as well as the fruits derived from resisting them. Chief among these fruits is the purification of love, until the soul is so inflamed with love of God that it feels as if wounded and languishes with the desire to love Him still more intensely.

Views of the Mystical Theologists

The first difficulty mystical writers encounter in their treatises on contemplation is the proper terminology for its degrees, or the classification of the experiences of the soul as it advances in the mystical union with God effected by this extraordinary form of prayer.

Writers of mystical theology often encounter difficulties in choosing the correct terminology to use. Communion between one’s soul and God has levels, and theologians need to clearly define these levels. This is often difficult because the levels are abstract.

Ribet in “La Mystique Divine” has a chapter (x) on this subject, and the present writer treats it in chapter xxix of his “Grace of Interior Prayer” (tr. of the sixth edition). Scaramelli follows this order: the prayer of recollection; the prayer of spiritual silence; the prayer of quiet; the inebriation of love; the spiritual sleep; the anguish of love; the mystical union of love, and its degrees from simple to perfect union and spiritual marriage. In this union the soul experiences various spiritual impressions, which mystical writers try to describe in the terminology used to describe sense impressions, as if the soul could see, hear, touch, or enjoy the savour or odour of the Divinity.

Ecstatic union with God is a further degree of prayer. This and the state of rapture require careful observation to be sure that the Evil One has no share in them. Here again mystical writers treat at length the deceits, snares, and other arts practised by the Evil One to lead souls astray in the quest for the mystical union.

Finally, contemplation leads to a union so intimate and so strong that it can be expressed only by the terms “spiritual marriage”. The article on contemplation describes the characteristics of the mystical union effected by contemplation. No treatise of mystical theology is complete without chapters on miracles, prophecies, revelations, visions, all of which have been treated under their respective headings.

The History and Future of Mystical Theology

It is difficult to record mysticism’s history because doing so requires one to articulate the experiences of huamn souls. This is not easily said, and it is less easily done.

The most that can be done is to follow its literature, mindful that the most extraordinary mystical experiences defy expression in human speech, and that God, the Author of mystical states, acts upon souls when and as He wills, so that there can be no question of what we could consider a logical or chronological development of mysticism as a science.

Still, it is possible to review what mystical writers have said at certain periods, and especially what St. Teresa did to treat for the first time mystical phenomena as a science. Before her, mystics were concerned principally with ecstasies, visions, and revelations; she was the first to attempt a scientific analysis of the process of mystical union brought about by contemplation.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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