What do the mystics offer to the contemporary world?
There are many things, but from my experience and conversations, I’d like to pick out just one, which is the way that they help to bring together the head with the heart.
I’m an academic teaching theology, and I’m often aware of the way that theology, for all its benefits, fails to meet students at the point of their heartfelt desire to find meaning and truth in what they study. The ideas and concepts can be intellectually stimulating, but they have no bearing at the level of who I am and what I need.
'Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee'
In contrast, when it comes to reading the mystics, I find that the theological insights are both intellectually rich and offer a way to integrate the life of the mind with the heart. Take Augustine, for instance. In his Confessions, he begins with the famous statement, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’
But the Confessions at the same time is a philosophical book about the relationship between matter and spirit and the idea of God. The question for Augustine is how to bring together his love for philosophy, the life of the mind and his emotional and inner life of the heart. There are two conversions in the book, the conversion of the mind in his experience of reading the books of the Platonists and the conversion of the heart in his meeting with Christ in the garden of his house.
The heart and the head finally come together. Any of the mystics could be given as examples of this holistic process of integration. The mind is affirmed, but so is the heart. Many of the divisions of our world are addressed by this quest for integration, not only the division of the heart from the head, but also the division of theory from practice, of faith from reason and of the inner world from the outer world and of the individual from the community. Clearly, the mystics can’t solve all these problems, but their vision is at least one part of the solution.
Curious to find out more ?
Dr Edward Howells, associate tutor in Christian Spirituality at Ripon College Cuddesdon (UK) shares his reflection on the Christian mystics and what they offer to the contemporary world. He will be joining Prof Bernard McGinn (now retired Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and mystics expert) in the series Into the Mystics, which will explores 10 major Mystics, starting 23 January.