Perspectives on John: Mysticism

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Some weird guy with bad hair and teeth

For years I’ve been a fan of fantasy fiction, reading everything that I could get my hands on from Knights of the Round Table to JRR Tolkien to modern writers like Terry Brooks and David Eddings. Many of the ideas in this genre remain the same regardless of the author: there always warriors, maidens to be rescued, great deeds to be done, and magic. So many things remain the same in the style of literature that sometimes it almost seems like you’re reading the same book over and over. Yet, each author seems to find a different way to spin those similarities. No matter the story or setting, one character consistently shows up for just about every author: the mystic.

The mystic is normally the person with the wild and crazy eyes, their physical appearance completely unkempt, and their demeanor one of distance and mystery. They tend to live in remote places, caves and out-of-the-way cottages in the woods. They are almost always alone, preferring the solitude of their thoughts and the opportunity to study those things that seem to be beyond the realm of others.

What do you think of when you hear this word Mystic? Does it bring to mind all of the things that we’ve just talked about? Do you have some vision of a weird hermit living off in a cave? For many of us, the idea of the mystic is the idea of someone who is out of touch, someone who is perpetually lost in a spiritual Neverland. Mystics, however, live among us today, are worshiping with us in church today, and lead lives that look no different from yours or mine.

So just what is a mystic?

Mysticism Defined

While these things seem far-fetched, the truth is there is a reality behind this idea of the mystic. As long as there have been people who have wondered about things beyond the physical world there have been mystics. From the shamans of the most ancient of civilizations to mystery religions of antiquity and through the Jews, Greeks, Romans, and into today, there are those who have always sought the divine in their cultures. This idea of mysticism has long been a part of the Christian experience, going back to the earliest texts in Christianity and seen in the practices of the faithful. Christian experiences in the early church were developed around the Eucharist meal, seen as a spiritual, and for some, a literal connection to Jesus of Nazareth, whom they worshiped.

Christian writers have been trying to expound on this idea of mysticism from the earliest known expressions of Christianity. Catherine Keller talks about this idea of mystery and wonder in relation to our ideas about God. She notes that when we give this mystery the name God it’s almost as if we have given up on the mystery itself. For most people, we bring so much baggage to our ideas about God and what that word God means that we lose the mystery. We are so inundated with our presumptions that we cannot see beyond them.[i]

Rudolph Otto sees the mystical as something we experience as a community. He writes,

“There is only one way to help another to an understanding of it. He must be guided and lead on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind until he reached the point at which ‘the numinous’ in him perforce begins to stir, to start until life and into consciousness.”[ii]

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth-century monastic writes, “…do not try to understand God, for God is beyond all understanding.”[iii] And modern existential theologian Paul Tillich writes, “…entering the sanctuary means encountering the holy. Here are the infinitely removed makes itself, near and present, without losing its remoteness… The holy transcends this realm; this is its mystery and its unapproachable character.”[iv]

Of all the writers of mysticism that I have studied, Evelyn Underhill strikes me as having the best balance between being a student of it as a discipline and a practitioner of the art. According to Underhill, whose works on mysticism in the earliest part of the twentieth century are considered classics, notes that there are four basic guidelines for defining a mystical expression of faith. First, mysticism is rooted in the practical not the theoretical.[v] Mystical experience is a part of normal religious life and cannot be separated from that.[vi] Underhill notes that mysticism, “…is at once an act of love, an act of surrender, and an act of supreme perception; a trinity of experiences which meets and satisfies the three activities of the self.”[vii] These are all considered to be acts that are consistent with the life of discipleship, the following of Jesus.

Second, mysticism is a spiritual activity.[viii] The idea conveyed here is that the mystic is one who recognizes the nature and direction of the practice to be one that is focused and centered on God as the ultimate and absolute being in life. It is seeking participation in what Richard Rohr terms as the “divine dance”, an interactive life with God at the center of our lives and being.[ix] It reaches into the innermost parts of us and draws us to be one with God, an interconnectedness between Creator and Creation that binds our soul to that of the one who brought it into being.

Third, the focus and direction of the mystical life is love.[x] The love that we talk about here is not a superficial, worldly understood love that seeks to gain from the relationship. It is a love that is focused on the being of God and directed toward the presence of God in such a way as to be enveloped in that presence. In Underhill’s words, “Mystic Love is a total dedication of the will; the deep-seated desire and tendency of the soul towards its Source.”[xi]

Finally, mysticism is definitively a psychological experience.[xii] For Underhill, this means that mysticism is a matter of both the conscious and the unconscious mind, a remaking of the entire self of the individual as they move toward the goal of divine interconnection. This is not a new idea as the early church worldview was directed to an introverted attitude, a gazing within to the soul, which was, for them, a living reality. This led them to see the profound and meaningful ways that God interacted with history, life, and the soul of man.[xiii]

An application

With these four characteristics in mind, I would like for us to take a look at the scripture itself. This passage is commonly known as the High Priestly Prayer, invoked by Jesus over the disciples on their final gathering together before the crucifixion. As we walk through this prayer, I want us to put into practice an ancient Christian method of mystical practice called Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. The practice has four parts to it: lectio or reading, where you simply hear the words and begin to focus on one or two main ideas; meditatio or thinking, where you hear the words again and really key in on the word or phrase you noticed before; oratio or address, where you put into your own words a prayer or stirring that comes from the word or phrase; and finally, contemplatio or contemplation, the idea here being that you simply allow your soul and spirit to ‘sit with the thoughts’ and let the Holy Spirit speak through that.

We will read a section of the scripture passage of the day from John 17:20-23,

20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.”

Lectio: What are the words or phrases you hear and gravitate toward?

Meditatio: What do you think about the words or phrase now that you have heard a second time?

Oratio: What prayer do the words and phrases evoke from your spirit?

Contemplatio: Sit with the thoughts and prayer and let the presence of God speak into those thoughts and prayers.

And, discuss…


Collins, K. J. (1993). John Wesley’s Assessment of Christian Mysticism. Lexington Theological Quarterly, 28(4), 299-318.

Eckhart, M. (1981). Meister Eckhart: Selections from his Essential Writings. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.

Keller, C. (2008). On the Mystery. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Martin, F. (1974). The Humanity of Christian Mysticism. Cross Currents, 24(2-3), 233-247.

Otto, R. (1950). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Painter, C. V. (2011). Lectio Divina – The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing.

Piper, O. A. (1953). Mysticism and the Christian Experience. Theology Today, 10(2), 156-169.

Rohr, R. (2016, Sep 29). Join in the Dance. Retrieved from Center for Action and Contemplation:

Sanford, J. A. (1993). Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Song, J. S. (2013). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.

Tillich, P. (2001). The Dynamics of Faith. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.

Underhill, E. (2009). Mysticism. Overland Park, KS: Digireads Publishing.

[i] (Keller, 2008, pp. ix-x)

[ii] (Otto, 1950, p. 7)

[iii] (Eckhart, 1981, p. 99)

[iv] (Tillich, 2001, p. 16)

[v] (Underhill, 2009, p. 59)

[vi] (Piper, 1953, p. 159)

[vii] (Underhill, 2009, p. 61)

[viii] (Underhill, 2009, p. 61)

[ix] (Rohr, 2016)

[x] (Underhill, 2009, p. 62)

[xi] (Underhill, 2009, p. 62)

[xii] (Underhill, 2009, p. 65)

[xiii] (Sanford, 1993, p. 2)

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