We can name all these names, and we collectively call them mystics, but is it possible to find some defining thread of meaning and experience that would allow us actually to say what a mystic is? Perhaps if this were possible, it might bring us a step closer , not just to understanding them, but to experience in some way the things which they experienced, to share with them these remarkable insights which go deeper than our own everyday experiences.
One thing is very clear, even from this brief list of names: mysticism is gender-blind. Both men and women were and are regarded as mystics of equal stature. Even in a church whose hierarchy was and is essentially male-dominated, the mystics of the Middle Ages often were women who moved in a man’s world, and still made their mark on history. I think of Hildegard, who in contemporary accounts was described as being small and slight of stature, but who nevertheless negotiated her way through a world dominated by the bishops who were her superiors to gain respect and recognition for her visions and insights.
But if gender is irrelevant to mystic experience, what qualities tie such mystics together? What line binds Pythia to Hildegard, so remote in time from each other? What links the Lebanese Gibran to the Bengali Tagore, who might have been separated by their different cultures, but who nevertheless were each other’s contemporaries? We might say the obvious, and name their devotion to their beliefs. All mystics were on a quest, and this quest took the form of a need, even a passionate desire, to have a contact in some form with a deeper aspect of their faith. For a mystic, doctrine was not enough. A mystic desired something more, something beyond the borders that others had erected around their particular faith. A mystic was – and is – seeking a direct experience of the Divine.
Such a path cannot be trodden by careful route planning, by wondering what we are going to do next, by thinking carefully about the thoughts that might or might not guide us. Such thoughts are only distractions. A mystic does not walk a path. A mystic is the path, and total trust and surrender are the companions along the way. Every movement is a movement made in love, and every gesture is a gesture of love, of love for the inexpressible Divine.
When Julian of Norwich said that ‘all shall be well’, I do not believe that it was an expression of hope. I feel that she made the statement out of total certainty. She knew with every fibre of her being that it would be so, even though the end of her journey was not yet in sight.
Photo: sculpture Teresa of Avila by Fr. Lawrence Lew