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The Christian Mystic Tradition

For those who have not been exposed to Christian mysticism, the phrase "Christian mystic" may seem like a contradiction of terms. This is hardly surprising, as a common understanding of the word "mystic" falls more in line with witchcraft and the occult than Jesus and the Trinity. However, it may surprise these people to learn that the practice of mysticism is an integral part of the Christian tradition, and as such, may be beneficial in your quest for Catholic spirituality. This is so because, despite the aforementioned misnomer, mysticism can simply be described as a direct spiritual experience of god. Those who are known as Christian mystics strive for a union with god through the living of a contemplative life, in which they open their heart to have a dialogue with God. This means that not only are mystical practices inherently Christian, they can also strengthen your Catholic spirituality by strengthening your relationship with God.

The history of Christian mystic practices stretch back many centuries, with some suggesting that the first instances of Christian mysticism can be found in the Bible itself. Though the words "mystic" or "mysticism" are never mentioned in scripture directly, the primary focus of the Christian mystic, the unity between the believer and god, may be seen several times. Begun in the Jewish tradition, mysticism can be seen to correspond to Catholic spirituality as Jesus notes his union with God the father in human form in John's Gospel. From these times, the tradition of the Christian mystic endured through the centuries, with various early church leaders commenting on the importance of the unity between believer and God.

For the Christian mystic, the desired unity between believer and God may be achieved through the method of contemplative prayer. This concept, though mentioned as early as the 4th century, is seen more prominently in a 14th century writing by an unknown Christian mystic entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing." In it, the writer states that one who is seeking god will not find him through the faculties of the mind, but in quiet contemplation. This work serves as the template for modern Christian contemplative thought and Catholic spirituality, and has been said to have influenced many great mystic thinkers of the middle ages, as well as today. Though many great minds in the Catholic tradition have described contemplative prayer, there is a noticeable absence of explanations as to what this type of prayer actually consists of. Even canonized mystics who were strong in their Catholic spirituality, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, seem to describe the concept in analogies and parables. This may be because the effect this type of prayer has on the human soul cannot adequately be expressed in words.

Perhaps the best example of contemplative prayer coming together with Christian mystic teachings to strengthen Catholic spirituality is a method of reading scripture known as the Lectio Divina. The ground work for what is known as the Lectio Divina or, divine readings, comes from the 3rdth century theologian Origen, who implored his readers to seek the secret meaning of divine text. The practice took shape over the next several centuries, culminating with the work of Guigo II, a Carthusian Monk, who reinforced this Christian Mystic teaching in a step by step guide to performing the Lectio Divina in his 12th century work: "The Ladder of Monks: a letter on the contemplative life." In this work, Guigo II separates the practice of performing the Lectio Divina into four stages, they are: Reading, praying, mediation, and contemplation. The desired effect of this process is to attain the mystic concept of union with God. After the scripture has been read, the believer is meant to ruminate on it, eventually letting all thoughts and feelings go before God.

In today's world, it may not be uncommon for a Christian unfamiliar with Christian mystic teaching to cast a crooked eye when confronted with its concepts. However, this is likely to be based primarily on misunderstanding. Christian mystic teachings such as contemplative thought and meditation have long since been a part of the Christian tradition, and may be a great way to strengthen Catholic Spirituality.

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