4. Christian Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life


Christian Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life

Conducting the Lesson


If participants are not familiar with Christianity, listen to the ‘Fundamentals of Christianity’ interview on the Elijah website prior to the lesson.

Lesson opening:

Discussion: How can religion change the lives of believers? Are religious practices ‘transformative’? What might be the mechanisms by which a person is changed by religion? Will participating in rituals change other parts of a person’s life? Is a ‘spiritual’ quest more likely to change a person? If so, what might the change look like?

Christianity emphasizes personal transformation. Ask students to pay particular attention to this concept as they view the video.

View the video.

List the terms:

Kenosis, Henosis, Theosis. Briefly discuss the meanings of the terms and the idea of them as stages in a spiritual journey.


What are the theological implications (and difficulties) of the term ‘theosis’ and in what way is it specifically Christian?

Text study:

Karl Rahner

Pseudo Dionysius

The Story of St Bernard

Each text will be accompanied by a specific set of questions. It may be relevant for all participants to see all three texts or to select one or be allocated one.



Spirituality in and Beyond the World

Prof Philip Sheldrake: For me, ‘spirituality’ is a word we use as the core of Christian practice. Spirituality isn’t an option within Christianity but is the way in which I seek to live out my following of Christ, my discipleship in the world in which I find myself. That practice of trying to live that life out in a principled, value-laden way but also a way that is necessarily fed by the worship-life of the community and also by my own spiritual practice is what I understand by ‘spirituality’. Within that, I think some people are led through their spiritual practice, through their attempt to practice at depth their religious commitment, are led through that experience and through their encounter with the Divine to an immediacy of presence that I would call ‘mystical’.

Br Laurence Freeman: So, here is religion. Here is spirituality. The different practices, which we should be very open and tolerant about. The mystical is where they all lead. So there are distinctions between these types and forms but they are all connecting points as well. They are all connected.

And so, I’ll use three Christian terms that I think must relate to terms or ideas in all our traditions.

One is Kenosis. Kenosis, which means emptying, is the ascetical aspect of religion. It is the practices and obligations, the discipline aspect of it, that we take seriously and we love – not because they are ends in themselves, but because they purify us, they train us, they give us the habit of taking the attention off ourselves.

Then the next stage – these are three stages but they also overlap –  is Henosis. Henosis is union. It is the feeling of being simple, of being integrated, of being holy, beginning to be one. If we become one with ourselves, we overcome our conflicting desires, then we begin to feel more one with other people. So this experience of unity is not, in this understanding, the final goal but it is an essential stage.

And finally, in Christian language, Theosis, which is divinization. Divinisation, is where our life becomes completely united with, absorbed with, one with the love of God. We become one with the love, which we have experienced. It’s love and the unity that love gives.

Prof Philip Sheldrake: Spirituality, it seems to me involves some kind of quest for the sacred – for many of us that is named as ‘God’. Spirituality is healthy if it somehow affirms not merely the reality of the Transcendent but also that human life and the world in themselves are sacred. Within the Christian economy it matters because we see human existence and the created order as an outflowing of God’s love, ultimately, as an expression of God’s own being, which is love.

Br Laurence Freeman: We believe that the mystical experience is a ‘grace’, a gift (Philip: In our language, a ‘grace’), not something the ego can try to aim for. In the Book of Revelation there’s a description of the Heavenly Jerusalem and it says in the Heavenly Jerusalem, there is no Temple,(that’s right)  because God is the light. So, there’s no religion in Heaven. In the fullness of human life, in theosis, or union with God, what we call religion and spirituality have been transformed or totally absorbed, so they don’t exist.

Prof Philip Sheldrake: That’s outside history, though, I think. It’s outside context, that contingency.

Br Laurence Freeman: We are talking about something that is trans-historical in historical terms.

Prof Philip Sheldrake: What I am trying to do here, what I was trying to suggest was the way we use these terms, or seek to make sense of these terms or attempt to live within these terms, in contingent, particular historical circumstances, i.e. as an embodied human person living with other embodied human persons in various forms of human community.

What may or may not happen beyond time, and outside the historical process, what is the ultimate destiny of humanity, this is where we are into the apophasis. [The Book of] Revelation provides various metaphors and images but in the end THAT IS NOT IT.

The Place of Silence

Br Laurence Freeman: Wittgenstein: ‘If it can’t be said, it should be consigned to silence.’

Prof Philip Sheldrake:  Yes, or Augustine, ‘If I have said it, I have not said it, because it is ineffable.’ So there is this funny tension in our tradition between attempts to portray a future and the realisation that all our attempts whether they are conceptual-intellectual, whether they are imagery, pictures, whether they are through music and art, whatever they are through, in the end it is NOT IT but it is what I have and it is where I am.

Br Laurence Freeman: Questions open the mind and keep us seeking the truth. The ‘Truth’ is not an answer but it is an experience of reality.

Br Laurence Freeman: If you go to the very beginning of the Christian theological tradition, in the 2nd Century, ‘We can never know God as an object, we can only know God by sharing God’s own self-knowledge’. They say, ‘God became human so that human beings might become God.’ That’s a very provocative statement. I think if a Christian, a Catholic, were to write that today, originally, he’d probably get into trouble but it’s a constant refrain of the early teachers of Christianity.

Prof Philip Sheldrake: I think we all agree that in some sense our mystical traditions brought us to the edge of the describable, the edge of the definable, the edge of language. Laurence used the word ‘silence’, that in the end, they draw us into silence, which is perhaps closer to Truth, ultimate Truth. It’s a recognition that what is ‘true’ is ultimately always beyond our control, always beyond our conception. So whether we want to use the word ‘silence’ or whether we want to use the word ‘unsaying’ or ‘being apophatic’, ‘the way of denial’, that’s something that the mystical-spiritual tradition seems to offer.

Dr Piotr Sikora: ‘Apophatic’ means that all our thoughts, all our images must be negated. We should not be attached to any of our ideas of God.

Br Laurence Freeman: In the Christian tradition, you have St Bernard, although some people might say he is not a full mystic, who called the first Crusade, and it’s very difficult to reconcile that with his writings, which do have a beautiful, mystical quality and then you realise he was calling for the Crusade.

Dr Piotr Sikora: The question about spirituality and openness and tolerance can be tackled on two levels and we somehow confuse these levels. One level is the level of the social view of the world – whether the Holy War is acceptable, good or bad – and I think the example of Bernard is an example on this level – and the other level is the level of personal openness to a close neighbour. I think we should ask whether Bernard was prepared to kill, himself, another person. To explore this question profoundly, we must keep these levels a little bit separate, because broad social conceptions are much more historically conditioned than personal encounters, face-to-face with other people.

Therese Andrevon-Gottstein: It’s a history and also in a certain historical context. For example, it was fine that war was permitted and it was legitimate – it was not a good thing but it was very acceptable in all societies, so you can find mystical people in very authentic spiritual ways going to war and preaching war, also, and now we cannot countenance that.

If you take the example of the famous story of St Ignatius [who] wanted to kill Muslim man on the way [to] Spain because he spoke about the Virgin Mary not respectfully, to kill, but after 30 years, I am sure that he was not the same man. The capacity not to be fixed, the capacity of evolution, of self-criticism is a very important point. The mystical ways could be more to live on because they can have the capacity to change.

Prof Philip Sheldrake: St Ignatius in his head said, ‘We come to a fork in the road. If the Muslim on his donkey goes to the right, I kill him, if he goes to the left, God can clearly mean me to let him go.’ So he prayed for guidance, and the Muslim went to the left. And that became an elementary lesson in discernment.

New Holiness

Br Laurence Freeman: What interests me is Simone Weil’s idea of a ‘new holiness’ and a ‘new holiness’ she says, is appropriate to the conditions of our own age. And the ‘new holiness’ that she speaks about should have this new consciousness of universality, which Bernard or Frances or the holy people of the past could not have because they didn’t have the historical, geographical knowledge, scientific knowledge, psychological knowledge of modernity. So it would seem to me that we are moving into a new era of spirituality in which the universal consciousness opens up a new potential for mysticism or for spirituality to affect world events.

Br Laurence Freeman: Meditation creates community and there’s a deep paradox in that because meditation is about solitude, so it makes us understand and explore the meaning of ‘solitude’ not as a way of withdrawal but as a way of encounter and a deep friendship, in fact. So my work is partly to help to restore contemplative dimension to the Christian tradition, to the apophatic and the cataphatic, to Martha and Mary.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias: In the Eastern Orthodox tradition those involved in mystical expression and prayer are removed from the world and do not participate. There are ways to leave the world and its ways and live in a life of austere ascetism and spiritual discipline. So those who want contact have to journey to them. They do not join into the world and come into contact with others.

Dr Ruben Habito: In relation to what Laurence said about the need for a new holiness, which involves a consciousness of universality, having in mind my part of the world that I now live, in Texas, a part of the United States called ‘the buckle of the Bible Belt’. A good many of them are convinced they have the answer, and Christ is the answer. One of the underlying questions is in what way can the spiritual path or the mystical path be one that would open such persons to that universal consciousness?

Prof Philip Sheldrake: Karl Rahner [1904-1984], a mid 20th Century, German Catholic theologian who was particularly interested in spirituality and mysticism, towards the end of his life, said of Christians, that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or nothing at all. What on earth did he mean by that?

First of all, for him ‘mysticism’ was not an esoteric specialism learnt by a few amazing initiates who now have this new gnostic knowledge that they clasp to their bosoms. For Karl Rahner, ‘mysticism’ was the core of the spiritual life of religion and therefore was essentially democratic. This goes back to something in the Christian tradition – I hesitate with an Orthodox Metropolitan there – a 6th Century anonymous Syriac monk writing in Greek whose name is not known but who is known as Pseudo Dionysius.

Pseudo Dionysius, whoever he was, wrote a number of interesting works, one of which was called Mystical Theology in English. He didn’t only talk about the dialectic between the cataphatic, that is to say the way of affirmation and imagery, of definition, and the apophatic, the way of unsaying, of silence, of denial, as a dialectic, that is to say that they are not alternatives but they necessarily feed off each other – God both reveals Godself in the created order, hence we are able to say some things about God in the cataphatic way, we are able to give God tentative names; but because we know that God is not those names, we  must also return to God through a road of denial or actually of unsaying – not so much silence, but a deconstruction of all the things that we have had the temerity to assert about God. God is ultimately beyond what we can say. That’s the first thing [Pseudo] Dionysius says. This process of being drawn into the mystery of God is the call of every Christian without exception. This process of being drawn through listening to the scripture – both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures – and also participating in worship and liturgy. So it is something about the life of the community. It is about everybody. So the mystical way is, if you like, the trajectory of every Christian life for Dionysius.