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The Need for Mysticism

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.

References:
[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
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