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Introduction to Christian Mysticism
Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Goodness of God

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Goodness of God
Thursday, July 18, 2019

Spiritual director and author Carl McColman explores the etymology of the word “mystic” and the difference between a saint and a mystic. Carl is a wise and holy man still among us.

The Greek root for mystic and mysticism is mueo, which means to shut or to close, as in shutting one’s mouth or closing one’s eyes. It comes from the pagan mystery religions. . . . The “shutting” or “closing” quality of mueo implied keeping the secrets or mysteries hidden, locked away in the heart or mind.

The writers of the New Testament adapted this language for Christian purposes. . . . Among Christians, the idea of mystery referred not so much to what is secret as to what is hidden. And topping the list of hidden things is God . . . : as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Truly, you are a God who hides” (Isaiah 45:15). Meanwhile, Jesus, the Son of God, represented the hidden things of God made manifest—and not only in Christ himself, but also in his followers, who were said to be part of his “body.” So, mystery in Christianity involves the hidden things of God made manifest, or revealed, in the hearts and minds and spirituality of those who love God and follow Christ.

In every generation, in every century of the Christian era, men and women have existed who have exemplified this spirituality of manifesting the presence of God, the wisdom and power of God, the love and mercy of God, in their own lives, in their hearts and minds. . . . [1]

While the idea of sainthood came to be associated with almost supernatural levels of goodness, mystics encountered and embodied the presence of God in profound and life-changing ways. And the mystics (at least the ones we know about) shared their encounters with God through poetry, confessional or autobiographical writing, philosophy, theology, and spiritual teaching. The language of the mystics is often deeply beautiful, expressing love of God, communion with God, even union with God (which sometimes got some mystics in trouble with the less spiritually inclined authorities in the Church).

Of course, many mystics have also been recognized as saints, and some authors suggest that it is impossible to be a saint without also being a mystic. But the two words have distinct meanings, at least in popular usage: a saint is someone who is good and holy, while a mystic is someone who knows God, and whose life has been transfigured by this divine presence. Put even more briefly, saints embody goodness while mystics embody love.

There’s plenty of overlap here. But this is one way to understand the distinction.

What makes someone a mystic is less about a top-down kind of approval and more about an organic, broad-based recognition on the part of the people whose lives have been touched. In other words . . . , mystics teach us how to find God, and a great mystic is someone who has been recognized as doing this particularly well. [I, Richard, would suggest that saints are supposedly perfect people, whereas mystics are visibly imperfect people who have been convicted by moments of very real divine union. If we knew the full story, most “saints” are really mystics!]

[1] See some examples of mystics over the centuries: CAC Timeline of Non-Dual Thinkers and Mystics (Updated 2019).

Carl McColman, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints, and Sages (Hampton Roads Publishing Company: 2016), xv-xvii. Learn more about Carl at

Image credit: The Third-Class Carriage (detail), Honoré Daumier, circa 1862–1864, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: [On an ordinary underground train journey in London], all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging—workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. —Caryll Houselander
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