updated 20.11.2020

What is mysticism?

What mysticism is not

Mysticism is usually defined in a very losse way, as a form of interior piety, or, even, in the words of one student

Stuff too weird to believe

quoted by Michael D. Swartz, ‘Ancient Jewish mysticism’ here

Many early modern Britons would have agreed. The author of the early sixteenth-century tract, The Kalandar of Shepeherds, for example, condemned

You blynde fold derked in the clowde
Of ygnoraunt fumes thycke and mystycall

Mysticism is Not

Mystical theology, though, actually has a far more precise meaning: the tradition of negative theology that takes its name from On Mystical Theology (Peri mustikes theologias) of the sixth-century Syrian or Egyptian monk who claimed to be Dionysius, the first Greek convert to Christianity named in the Book of Acts.

Mystical theology was negative theology: it defined God in opposition to his creation and attempted to approach him by a process of negative ascent: we had to give up (negate) our sensual and rational ways of knowing God before finally abandoning ourselves in union with God who is beyond all understanding. This knowledge is called mystical, because it is impossible to describe it with language. For Dionysius, mysticism was not a personal ascent to the divine, but a process that was worked out through a hierarchy of divine agents – angels, bishops, priests and monks – who were collectively united with God.

What was early modern mysticism?

The popularity of Dionysius’ works in medieval Europe was a function of ecclesiastical politics. In the ninth-century, the Franks supported the iconoclastic position of Byzantium against the iconophile papacy in Rome. During the course of an embassy, the Byzantine emperor, Michael II, presented the Frankish king, Louis the pious, with a manuscript of Dionysius’s corpus of works. His work was translated into Latin, by Hilduin (755-c. 855), who was abbot of Saint Denis just outside Paris, and acted as Louis’s chaplain. Hilduin identified the author of Peri mustikes theologias with St. Denys, who, he alleged, had converted the Franks to Christianity.

Thanks to Hilduin’s identification, Dionysius’s works flourished in medieval and early modern Europe. The modern reception of his work begins with Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1642), who saw the benefits Dionysius might afford France’s absolutist monarchs who were trying to assert their authority over France’s Protestant minority. As confessor to both the Queen-mother, Marie de Medici and her daughter, Henrietta Maria, Berullé suggested that, just like Dionysius’s ecclesiastical hierarchy, kings and queens mediated between Heaven and Earth. In that capacity, monarchs had a duty to emulate Christ’s self-abregation, passivity and annihilation, as a model which their subjects could follow.

These ideas were transplanted to Britain by Henrietta Maria after she married the king of England and Scotland, Charles I, in 1625. Bérulle encouraged the Queen to convert her husband’s subjects to Catholicism by emulating Christ’s kingship. Henrietta Maria encouraged the publication of Catholic mystical literature in Protestant England, and courted Charles’ puritan subjects who, she believed, would be particularly responsive to it.

The most important of these works was the Sancta Sophia, published in 1656 by Henrietta Maria’s Benedictine chaplain, Hugh Cressy, who took the religious name Serenus Cressy, after he entered religious orders.

You are welcome to link to, and cite, this article. Please do not use material from this article without citation. This article represents my current thinking. Full references will be found in my published articles.

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