"We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete."

1 Jn 1:3-4


Because we, with our western, post-enlightenment world view - tend to think linearly, and because some of the concepts which the mystics talk about are so abstract at times, it is necessary to lay it out as a linear progression so that we can start with the familiar and build towards the more unfamiliar. However, the four stages of the classical Mystic Way - purgation, illumination, the dark night of the soul, and divine union - don't necessarily occur in that order, nor do you necessarily experience the full effect of one and then the full effect of another. It is possible for God to move you from one to the other skipping over the intermediary steps, or He may draw you through all four phases in steadily deepening cycles. Rather than being like a road which you progress along in a linear fashion, first seeing one phenomenon, then another, and another, the mystical life is more like being in the middle of an ocean: you're floating around and experiencing various currents and undertows and weather conditions, and the important thing is keeping your intent fixed on the goal (Divine Union) and knowing how to respond to the particular situations that are arising. You don't need to know how to get from one state to another, or which state is going to happen after the one you're in, or even how you are going to attain your final goal. The key to progressing in the mystic life is understanding where you are right now and knowing how to position yourself to avoid the traps of the enemy and receive everything that God wants to do with you in that phase. So, even though they will be discussed in linear fashion in order to provide a somewhat orderly context for things, keep in mind that your mileage and experience may vary; you may experience all of the things which will be discussed here, or none of them. Either way, you will be walking securely with God so long as you keep your will focused on loving God and responding fully and generously to Him.

This teaching is a synthesis of my own experience and the experiences and teachings of some of the greatest mystic writers in Christian history. It is by no means exhaustive or authoritative. For a more thorough treatment of the material introduced here, I suggest the book Fire Within by Thomas Dubay.


History of the Mystic Way


For the first 12 centuries of Church history, this state of 'divine union' was the common goal of all Christian practice. It was regarded as the consummation of one's walk with the Lord, and while varying opinions existed regarding the attainability of this state in this life, it was believed that it was a grace available to all of God's children. According to the sources I have read, a common method of prayer during the first 12 centuries (especially in religious communities) was called "lectio divina" - literally, "divine reading". This practice involved reading scripture at progressively deeper levels of meaning. The first level was called meditation, and simply involved reading or listening to the scriptures and reflecting with the mind on their meaning. These reflections led to what were called 'affective prayers' - spontaneous acts of worship in response to the revelation of the Lord within the text. Over time reflection and affective prayer simplified to a state of resting quietly in the loving embrace of the Lord. This state was referred to as contemplation, and was understood to be initiated, conducted, and consummated purely by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. In this state the Lord bypassed the mind, will, and emotions, and communicated directly to the spirit, illuminating and transforming it into the likeness of Christ. The acts of meditation, affective prayer, and contemplation were interwoven and might all take place in a single period of prayer. The continued exposure to the transforming presence of God in contemplation was understood to draw one to deeper levels of maturity, culminating in 'divine union' or 'spiritual marriage' in which the spirit is so closely bound to God by love that the two can neither be separated nor distinguished from one another.


The Enlightenment

Beginning in the 12th century, however, the systematization of theology and prayer began to remove this organic evolution of prayer towards contemplation from common Christian experience. Although still considered the pinnacle of Christian experience, divine union was increasingly presented as being difficult to attain outside of some focused, ascetic environment. Despite the writings of mystics like Brother Lawrence and Bernard of Clairvaux who taught the universality of contemplative experience, contemplation came to be considered a grace reserved for a very few people, rather than an organic development of an average person's prayer life. Lacking the spiritual intimacy and transformative presence of Christ provided by the contemplative dimension of prayer, the sacraments and liturgies of the church declined into dead formalism - having the appearance of godliness, but lacking the power to restrain sensual indulgence. Thus began the slide of the church into the moral degeneracy that moved Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg chapel in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately John Calvin and Martin Luther, having been handed a distorted understanding of the place of contemplation and divine union, didn't include it as part of their understanding of the Christian life, and so the church which they birthed never really made a place for the pursuit of mystical spirituality, preferring instead the highly intellectual and self-centered actions of the purgative way. The widespread spiritual impotence and immaturity of the modern Protestant Church can probably trace its causes back to that decision.


Reformation & CounterReformation

The Reformation triggered two responses within the Catholic Church - one from below, the other from above. The first was the appointment of St. Ignatius of Loyola - the Father General of the Jesuit order - to be responsible for the purification of the Catholic Church from the pagan elements which had reputedly caused it's moral downfall. To this end, he wrote a book called "The Spiritual Exercises" which was an attempt to modernize the practice of contemplation. Unfortunately, it was limited largely to the practice of deriving principles from scripture and applying them through sheer willpower, steeled by ascetic discipline.

The response from above was a revival of true contemplative spirituality within the monastic communities in the latter half of the sixteenth century through the writings of Teresa de Avila and John of the Cross. Teresa taught of the necessity of beholding the Lord in prayer (the classical definition of contemplation) for inner transformation. The deepening knowledge of one's sinfulness provide by this 'beholding', and the accompanying revelation of the unchanging love and grace of God produced three major works in the soul: a deep humility; an overwhelming love for God besides which all created things and temptations lost their allure (referred to as 'detachment'); and a deep love for one another springing from the revelation of God's heart for all of His children. John of the Cross' teachings were similar, but focused more on the stages of purgation from sin and surrender to God experienced by a soul undergoing sanctification. Their teachings rapidly became the authoritative works on contemplation and mysticism within the Catholic Church.


Death of the Mystic Way

In 1662 a young Spanish priest named Miguel Molinos, steeped in the mystical traditions of Teresa de Avila and John of the Cross began to popularize their teachings on contemplative piety and practice. In 1675 he published a book called "The Spiritual Guide" which was a compilation of his teachings. It is very similar in flavor and style to Guyon's "A Short and Simple Method of Prayer", teaching that life itself is one continual act of faith and love to God. Within six years it had gone through twenty editions and had been translated into every major language of Western Europe. Molinos himself had become one of the most influential clerical leaders in all of Rome. His teachings sparked a widespread revival in contemplative practice throughout Italy.

At this point, however, Molinos ran afoul of the Jesuits; more accurately, of Jesuit devotional practice. The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius relied heavily on vocal prayer and external discipline - which historically had merely been starting points for a believer's prayer as it grew towards contemplation. Molinos' teachings indicated that as one advanced in the state of contemplation those external disciplines were no longer necessary or useful. In 1682 the Archibishop of Naples wrote a letter to the Pope expressing his concern at the growing departure from these disciplines on the part of Molinos' followers, who came to refer to themselves as Quietists. The Jesuits backed this letter with accusations of heretical teachings within Molinos' book and in 1685 he was summoned before the Inquisition. In 1687 his work was condemned as heretical and all followers of his teachings ordered to cease on pain of excommunication. The term 'Quietist' became synonymous with 'heretic'.

In 1688 in France, King Louis XIV , assisted by the Jesuits, jailed Jeanne Guyon - a sort of French counterpart to Molinos whom God had drawn into Divine Union and was using to revive mystical spirituality in that country. Though released, she was jailed a second time in 1695 and her teachings condemned as heretical and quietistic. Following her indictment all mystical teachings considered to be akin to Quietism - including the classic works by John of the Cross and Teresa de Avila were covered in a pall of disrepute, basically killing off all pursuit of the mystical life within the Catholic Church.

This is why we never hear teachings on the deeper life in Christ and the mystical pursuit of the Lord. There was never any established place for it in the Protestant church, and it was outlawed in the Catholic church almost 300 years ago. Strains of it have been kept alive over that period of time by groups like the Moravians and the Quakers, who have hung onto the writings of the mystics and walked in them as best they could. In fact, those groups have had incredible influences on the face of modern Christianity. The Little Flock in China, the Quakers, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, and the Methodists all owe their very existance to the life which pseudo-underground groups like this preserved and breathed into them.


Rebirth of the Mystic Way

Over the last hundred years or so is that God seems to be reviving mystical experience in the Body of Christ as a whole. The Pentecostal outpouring, the Charismatic Revival, the Latter Rain, etc. are all starting to recover bits and pieces of this mystical way which was once commonplace throughout the Body of Christ. If you go back into the writings of the mystics you can find incredibly pointed descriptions of many of the supernatural phenomenon associated with the illuminative way which match the experiences of people in the charismatic and pentecostal movements. The last four years or so have finally seen all of these experiences finally come together, properly centered on the centrality and supremacy of Christ and the love of God for His people. What is unique about the time we are living in is that the kinds of phenomenon associated with infused contemplation aren't just happening to cloistered religious shut up in their cells in a monastary somewhere; entire congregations are just getting sucked up into this incredible revelation of the love of God for them. I believe that God wants to raise up a company of people who love Him so much and so passionately that they won't get sidetracked by phenomenon like so many Charismatic groups have. They will be so in love with Him that they will be willing to corporately enter into the spiritual crucifixion of the Dark Night of the Soul and lose absolutely everything so that they can be fully united to Him, and then be released en masse as an army of people married to Him in the Spirit, living the true resurrection life of Jesus Christ and furthering His own purposes in the Earth.

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