Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
The Rhineland Mystics
The Rhineland Mystics

The Need for Mysticism

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Rhineland Mystics

The Need for Mysticism
Sunday, August 2, 2020

We live in a time of both crisis and opportunity. While there are many reasons to be anxious, I still have hope. Westerners, including Christians, are rediscovering the value of nonduality: a way of thinking, acting, reconciling, boundary-crossing, and bridge-building based on inner experience of God and God’s Spirit moving in the world. We’re not throwing out our rational mind, but we’re adding nondual, mystical, contemplative consciousness. When we have both, we’re able to see more broadly, deeply, wisely, and lovingly. We can collaborate on creative solutions to today’s injustices.

I’m glad there’s renewed appreciation in the Christian tradition for people who modeled such wholeness. This week I’ll turn toward my own cultural roots in the Rhineland. These mystics were mostly German-speaking spiritual writers, preachers, and teachers, who lived largely between the 11th and 15th centuries.

You might already be familiar with the Benedictines, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) and Gertrude the Great (1256–1302); the Beguine Mechtild of Magdeburg (c. 1212–c. 1282); the Dominicans, including Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1327), Johannes Tauler (c. 1300–1361), and Henry Suso (1295–1366); and Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). Another Rhineland mystic in recent history who might surprise you was psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961). Jung admits to being influenced by Hildegard, Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa—especially Nicholas’ fascination with “the opposites.” [1]

After the Protestant Reformation, the mystical path was largely mistrusted. Some would even say it was squelched because of Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) emphasis on Scripture as the only source of knowledge about God (sola Scriptura). To be fair, Luther’s contributions led Christians to an early stage “rational” use of the Scriptures as a corrective to Catholic over-spiritualization. Within his own Lutheran tradition, profound mystics arose such as the German shoemaker Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) and the inventor Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772).

In the following centuries, German academic theology flourished, relying almost exclusively on Post-Reformation rationalism. While theological study continues to be an immense gift to the world, one can easily get trapped inside of endless discussions about abstract ideas with little emphasis on experience or practice. In contrast, mystics honor the experience of the essential mystery and unknowability of God and invite us to do the same. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know!

Over the next couple of days, we’ll focus on one Rhineland mystic in particular: Hildegard of Bingen. She was far ahead of her place and time, a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance, who led a monastery north of the Alps. Hildegard combined art, music, poetry, ecology, medicine, community, healing, and early feminism. She preached on her own, stood up to bishops, and was persecuted for it. No wonder it took a German Pope, Benedict XVI, over 800 years after her death to declare her a saint in May, 2012, and then name her a Doctor of the Church on October 7, 2012.

[1] C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, rev. ed. (Pantheon Books: 1973, ©1963), 338.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), DVD, CD, MP3 download; and

“The Rhineland Mystics,” the Mendicant, vol. 5, no. 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015), 1, 6.

Image credit: Motherhood Through the Spirit and Water (detail), c. 1165; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Speak out, Hildegard says. And when you do, when you recognize that inner voice as the voice of God and say what it has taught you, the sickness in your heart will melt away. The fatigue you have lived with for so long that you did not even notice how weary you were will lift. Your voice will ring out with such clarity and beauty that you will not be able to stop singing. To speak your truth, Hildegard teaches us, is to praise God. —Mirabai Starr
Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.