Like all the other major traditions, Christianity has a rich history of mysticism and a number of renowned mystics whose teachings are read enthusiastically by followers of other religions. But the Christian churches have tended to downplay the importance of their own mystics. Several of the most renowned Christian mystics, including St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart, were openly attacked by the church or threatened with excommunication during their lifetimes. Many leading Christian mystics were also monks who renounced the worldly life to withdraw into study and prayer. This tradition began in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the 3rd century, with a group of monks known collectively as the Desert Fathers. The prototype was undoubtedly Anthony the Great, a Coptic layman who, around the year 270, followed literally the gospel teaching of Jesus, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.” Living as an illiterate desert hermit followed by an informal group of disciples, Anthony never washed or changed his clothes, and died at the age of 105.
During the 4th century, from Upper Egypt to Syria, Palestine, and Arabia, various groups of ascetics formed around an abba, or “father” (from which “abbot” derives). In Syria, some monks went naked and in chains, lived on tall pillars (Stylites); nested in the branches of trees (Dendrites), or foraged in the woods like wild animals (Graziers). In Asia Minor, other monks such as St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379) were literate, upper-class theologians who lived under a set of rules; Basil’s are the first written rules we have.
But over time a number of great Christian mystics appeared who lived among and preached to the general public.
Johanne Eckhart (1260-1328) A German-born Dominican monk better known as Meister Eckhart used the term “Godhead” to refer to the kind of impersonal, transcendent Absolute the Hindus called Brahman, distinguished from God as the personal creator of the universe. This kind of thinking disturbed the Church, and Eckhart was tried several times for heresy. He was finally found guilty, and a papal bull, or edict, was issued against him, but he was never actually punished since he had died shortly before the bull was published.
Nicholas of Cusa (1400-64) His career of seeking reform within the Church generally met with support, including papal appointments, despite the fact that, like most mystics, he accepted the equal validity of all religions. Nicholas was a gifted mathematician, scientist, and linguist.
St. John of the Cross (1542-91) became a monk in the contemplative order of Carmelites at age 21 in Spain. John was associated with fellow Spaniard Teresa of Avila (1515-82), who founded a reformed order called the Discalced (“barefoot”) Carmelites, stressing strict poverty, cloister, and fasting. Their asceticism and independence angered religious authorities to such an extent that John was tortured, found guilty of disobedience, imprisoned, and humiliated. During his imprisonment, he wrote his famous mystical poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” describing the point at which the soul has begun to break away from the separative ego and its material consolations, but has not yet achieved the higher consolations of mystical union with God.
Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416) In her great book Revelations of Divine Love, Julian recounts a series of 16 visions she experienced on a single day as she suffered from a near-fatal illness which she had asked God to send her. The book also contains her meditations on these visions over a period of 20 years. Julian was an anchorite, living in almost total isolation in a cell attached to the wall of the Norman church of St. Julian and St. Edward’s, although she occasionally served as a spiritual counselor to others.
The universality of mysticism, a phenomenon which the German philosopher Leibnitz called the “perennial philosophy,” is sometimes evident in thte language of mystics. Julian, for instance, writes that in one of her mystical visions the Lord showed her “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made.'” This experience of God or creation as being infinitely small (or infinitely large) is also part of Hindu mystical thought, and was succinctly expressed by the visionary poet William Blake in “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.