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Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


In dealing with Thomas à Kempis and medieval mysticism, I discussed in the last article what mysticism really is. I described it as most fundamentally a doctrine that teaches the desirability and possibility of direct and immediate union with God, which union with God is the epitome of the godly and pious life.

How to Attain Fellowship with God

We are back now to what we described earlier as being the essence of mysticism: “a deep sense of union with God in the inmost depths of the soul.”

The Middle Ages developed a lengthy process through which one had to pass in the attainment of that deep sense of union with God. It is worth our while to go through these steps to try to see what the mystics were talking about. The process had five distinct steps, although two things must be remembered about these five steps: one is that all five were not always necessary, nor did all agree on exactly these five which I shall mention. The other is that the order might differ from one mystic to another. But this is generally the ladder one had to climb to reach union with God.

The first step was called “awakening.” A man or a woman would come to the awareness that, while he or she had been “religious” in an external and ultimately meaningless way, this was far from genuine religion. More was required. Study, reading devotional materials, looking into what others had said would show one how he or she was missing the very heart and core of true religion and what had to be done about it. It was like a lifelong attendee at church suddenly realizing that the outward worship of God is not enough. Something more had to be there. This was surely true if, in addition to such an outward form of religion, one lived an essentially worldly life. To acquire what was missing and how to attain what was missing was part of the “awakening.”

The second step was called “purgation.” I guess we would be inclined to call this “conversion,” although it was often carried beyond the boundaries of what we consider conversion to be. Purgation involved freeing oneself from one’s former way of life. If one was a soldier, one ought to leave the army. If he was worldly, one ought to abandon his worldliness. If one’s interest in spiritual things was minimal and peripheral, he ought to rid himself of all that formerly distracted him and concentrate solely on spiritual things. This step, in the Middle Ages, often included selling all one’s possessions and living a life of poverty. It included renouncing marriage to live a celibate life. It included entering a monastery where the external world could not intrude and where all one’s life could be devoted to spiritual things. It was a “purgation” of one’s former life. It was often radical, extreme, but absolutely necessary on the ladder to union with God.

The third step was “illumination.” Different ideas were meant by this term. Sometimes it referred to a period in which one gradually came to the awareness of what was involved in coming to true union with God. It was a sort of study of the devotional life. It could be a study of something extremely complicated, as all aspects of a genuinely devotional and pious life were explored, understood, and put into practice. At other times, by illumination was meant brief and occasional glimpses of the transcendent glory of a true union with the divine. It was not that union itself; it was a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable blessedness that awaited one who attained to it. It was intended to prepare one for the next step, the most difficult and agonizing of all.

That next or fourth step was usually called “the dark night of the soul.” This is an interesting step. It was considered absolutely essential, and without it no union with God was possible. It was somewhat patterned after the Scripture’s emphasis on the believer’s personal knowledge of his sin, which is expressed in a broken spirit and a contrite heart. It had the overtones of a genuine part of the believer’s life. But it was also taken over by revivalism(much of which is sheer mysticism anyway). It was a period of intense suffering of soul in which the darkness of sin, guilt, and hell dragged one lower and lower into depths of despair, hopelessness, and utter awareness of one’s unworthiness and damnworthiness. The deeper and more intense that it was, the better and more likely to lead to God. The Puritans made a great deal of this aspect of the Christian’s life and they were followed by others. But oftentimes this period was such a “dark night” that it manifested itself in convulsions, long periods of rigidity of the body, unconsciousness, and screaming and hollering in terror because of visions of demons and the fires of hell. Of all the steps it was the most difficult.

The final step was the union with God Himself. As I mentioned in describing mysticism, this step is really indescribable. It is totally a matter of feeling. The mind does not function in any sense of hearing, reading, studying, mastering intellectual propositions. This step is beyond thought. It is beyond, far beyond, all knowing, all understanding, all thinking. It is transcendent, unreal (when by “real” is meant anything pertaining to this world). It is beyond the five senses because it is direct, immediate (without means), intense, all-absorbing union with God Himself. It is to be swallowed up in and engulfed by the brilliant light of the infinite ocean of the divine being. It is pure and unalloyed joy. It is to be oblivious to anything and everything except God’s engulfing and consuming love. It is the apex of the Christian life. It is the ultimate of all that is right and good and genuinely pious.

This union with God could be so complete that, because some mystics emphasized union with God via union with Christ, the very marks of the nail holes in Christ’s hands came into the hands of the mystic. Such a one was so closely absorbed into Christ that the hole in Christ’s side made by the soldier’s spear came into the side of the mystic. The blood which Christ spilled in the dust of Gethsemane now rolled off the brow of one who had been completely absorbed by Christ, and thus by God. These were called the “stigmata” of union with Christ, which many mystics claimed to bear.

It is not difficult to see that such mysticism could become an outright pantheism. And it often did. Pantheism is that terrible heresy, the ultimate expression of the devil’s lie, “Ye shall become like God.” Pantheism identifies God and the creation and speaks of man as the highest expression of the divine essence. The whole notion of union with God is only a small jump from such pantheism.

The Attraction of Mysticism

The attraction of mysticism is great and not easy to resist. Especially when the church of which one is a member falls into dead orthodoxy or confessional carelessness, the spiritual lack of a fervent and heartfelt religion weighs heavily on the soul of a believer. When worldliness lays an icy grip on the lives of the people in church (there is a close relation between dead orthodoxy and worldliness), then those who are concerned for themselves and others to walk a life of obedience to Christ search about for an alternative to the spirituality of their own church home.

There is a fervency in religious matters, a zeal for holiness, a delight in walking in covenant fellowship with God that characterizes mystics, which makes one lacking these things envious of what mystics possess.

One who understands that the deepest reality of the godly life is walking with God, as Enoch and Noah walked with Him, can easily be enchanted by the claim of a mystic that he has attained this goal.

And when mysticism tends to put all the emphasis of religion on emotions and feelings, few of us would deny that there is an attractiveness to this which tugs at our souls. To think about theological problems is often hard work and, so it seems, spiritually dry toil. To master doctrinal propositions may be intellectually stimulating, but it does little or nothing to experiencing what true religion is all about. Heavy tomes on Reformed dogmatics are far less able to nourish our spiritual life than devotional writings or biographies of unusual people who have had moving spiritual experiences. “It doesn’t do anything for me!” is the plaintive cry of one who has just listened to a doctrinal sermon. And what is meant is that the preacher has not moved us emotionally either to weeping or to hallelujahs. A “feel good” religion is the thing of the day, in which all the emphasis falls on the word “feel.”

How wonderful it is if we can expect in our lives to be guided by special revelations, dreams to direct us in our problems, visions to solve our difficulties, and a voice of God heard in our inner souls to tell us of His love.

These things and more drove the mystics in whatever age they appeared.

That there is an emotional aspect to true religion can never be denied. We are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts—and love is intensely emotional. We are to be sorry for our sins—and sorrow is heavily emotional. We are to rejoice in the Lord always—and rejoicing is an emotional thrill. 

To put it a little differently, religion is experiential. Of that there is no question at all. The Lord has ordained that the eternal life which He defines as the knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent is an experiential knowledge. It is not the knowledge of a textbook on solid geometry. It is not even the knowledge of Abraham Lincoln which one gleans from Catton’s biography. It is an experiential knowledge, very similar to the knowledge a man has of his wife when he has lived with her in love for thirty years.

God gives us the gift of salvation so that we experience the rich blessedness of salvation, and experience it over against the horror and hopelessness of our own personal hells. The Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are the children of God.

It is this experiential aspect of religion which the mystic wishes to retain or recover, but goes about recovering it in a wicked and unbiblical way.