Mystics for Pleasure

A fundamentalist Protestant Evangelical opens his eyes to the wisdom of earlier times and different traditions - and discovers the Mystics.

"The Pope is Antichrist. Ritualists are idolaters. The Bible is the infallible Word of God. Catholics are beyond redemption".

If you hear someone speaking in those terms you know you are listening to a fanatic and probably a bigot. It is a viewpoint characteristic of some Christian fundamentalists - and it was the kind of view you might have heard me expressing at one time. I could not have imagined that I would one day be writing favourably and enthusiastically about the mystics. They were not known to me in those days but, had they come to my notice, I expect that I would have turned away in disgust. Most, although by no means all, of the people we refer to as 'mystics' lived at a time when being in the church meant being in the Roman Catholic fold. There were some little known alternatives, but they were either hidden or persecuted. The mediaeval mystics lived in the only tradition they knew and, to a considerable extent, they went along with its forms and practices.

By saying 'To a certain extent' I am implying that these people ploughed their own furrow on certain issues. My enthusiasm for them includes an admiration for their courage in many cases, since their writings include elements of rebellion or, at least, divergence from the institutional background that they inhabited. These were not conformists. They lived on the fringes of their religion and adventured into faith in ways that challenge our thinking today. How radical many of them must have seemed in their own age.

Modern Charismatics and Pentecostals will recognise some key features common among the mystics. We read of visionary experiences, of prophetic utterances, and of unlearned insights. I have been surprised at the wariness with which some Charismatics treat the mystics; I have even seen, at one evangelical meeting place, a prepared 'statement of faith' which specifically distanced that denomination from mysticism. They must surely have misunderstood the mystics. The mystics were not some occult sect or semi-pagan spiritual practice. They were adventurous individuals who dared to believe, in the words of the apostle, Peter, that they "ought to obey God rather than men" . Some evangelicals have the same anti-Catholic prejudices that I used to hold, and I hope they'll change. However, it is a great mistake to judge medieavals within the Church of Rome as if they had any real alternative. They lived within what existed and got on with loving God.

I don't campaign for the mystics nor, on the other hand, do I worry about some of the things they said which happen nor to line up with my thinking. I just read them for pleasure.

© Derrick Phillips - 1997