Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Mystical Renewal

One year ago this month, I started this blog, not knowing if anyone would read it.  While the number of people reading this blog isn't huge, I think there has been enough traffic to this site, and corresponding positive feedback, to verify something that I have suspected for awhile now: There is a desire among Lutherans, and members of similar traditions which arose at the time of the Reformation, to explore spiritual practices that have been minimized in our churches, even though they are a good and helpful part of our Catholic heritage.

In short, I will describe that desire as a hunger for mysticism.

Mysticism has become a dirty word in certain Protestant and Lutheran circles because there are uses of the word which are contrary to our beliefs, including some uses which are contrary to Christianity altogether. 

Mysticism can mean spiritual beliefs which blur the lines between the Creator and the created, and spiritual practices which lead to a belief that the best place to find God is by looking into yourself.  I'm not talking about that kind of mysticism.

Mysticism can also lead to a mindset which focuses on what we do for God, instead of what God has done for us.  I'm not talking about that kind of mysticism, either.

When I am talking about mysticism, I simply mean an awareness, through faith, of God's presence in our lives.  I believe that kind of mysticism is fully compatible with Christianity, as well as Lutheranism.  In fact, I would say that not only is that kind of mysticism compatible with our faith - it is necessary for our faith to be sustained.

The beliefs and practices I have written about on this blog have been related to that form of mysticism.  For example, the Jesus Prayer, lectio divina, and the daily rhythm of prayers and readings (found in the Rule of St. Benedict, and included in the lectionaries and daily prayer services in our Lutheran worship books as well as the Book of Common Prayer) help us to give thanks to God our Father, focus our attention on Christ and him crucified, and enhance our awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in and around us.

After all, Martin Luther himself had a profound mystical experience (commonly referred to as the "tower experience") after engaging in a period of meditation on Scripture, akin to lectio divina

“The words ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness of God’ struck my conscience like lightning. When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified. If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish. But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ [Rom. 1:17] and ‘the righteousness of God’ [Rom. 3:21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy. My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ. These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me. The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower.”

(From Luther's Works Volume 54: Table Talk).

(The tower of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg where Luther was a monk).

So, thank you for accompanying me on my journey into blogging this past year.  With God's grace and help, I look forward to further exploration of the kind of Christian spiritual practices and beliefs which might help our awareness of God's presence in our lives. 


  1. Can one be a mystic and stay true to the Lutheran Confessions? I believe it says that God does not work apart from word and sacrament. In fact that is one part of the Lutheran confessions I struggle with the most.

  2. Paul, I don't recall the Confessions saying that God only works through Word and Sacrament - those are the primary ways God is revealed to us, but I would be surprised if that kind of limit is placed on God. If you know of the reference, let me know so I can take a look at it. Anyway, here is a link to an excellent article which summarizes Luther's relationship with mysticism - he rejected some mystical traditions, but was influenced by others (the article is by a profession in the Wisconsin Synod - not normally a tradition I look to for theology, but I think we can safely assume that WELS professors take the Confessions very seriously). So, I think that the answer is "yes", mysticism can be consistent with Lutheranism.

  3. Thanks I will give it a read.
    I would be interested in your take on the below passages. You can reply here or email me

    .Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extoled as Spirit without the Word and the Sacraments." ( Smalcald Articles Part III, Art. VIII, 10).
    Likewise, we reject and condemn the error of the Enthusiasts who imagine that God draws men to Himself, enlightens them, justifies them and saves them without means, without the hearing of God's Word and without the use of the Sacraments." Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article II.

    1. Word and Sacrament are the epitome and center of how God in Christ acts in our life on earth. As Lutherans, we must take the greatest care to preserve the integrity and faith hearing of the Word/distribution of the sacrament. When these are at the center of the life in Christ, it stands to reason that some of the grander mysteries and complexities of "Gottesdienst" both in our lives and throughout history, become more apparent.

      Thus, awareness of the mysteries of God, the saving work of Christ Jesus, and our unity with each other can manifest *only* as a result of Word and Sacrament, not apart from them. Smalcald III, VIII:10 was in response to Karlstadt and the "Enthusiasts," who rejected infant baptism, misunderstood the Lord's Supper, and dismantled good and reverent parts of church life such as art, music, and crucifixes.

      In summary: the cited Smalcald reference should not be read as a summary dismissal of all mysteries in religious experience, but rather as a needful response to poor doctrine and its resulting practical errors.

  4. Good article on Luther and mysticism. Will take a few readings before I get it.

  5. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

    Regarding the two passages from the Book of Concord which you cited, what they criticize is the idea of that a person can be converted outside of Word and Sacrament. I do not think they are condemning the Christian form of mysticism as I have defined it - an awareness of God's presence - as long as that mystical awareness is preceded by God's regeneration of that person through Word and Sacrament. The enthusiasts, who were latter day gnostics, believed that they had a direct pipeline to God - "they boast that the Spirit has come into them without the preaching of Scriptures" (No. 6 in that same part of the SA which you cited). Once someone been baptized, heard the Word, received communion, etc., they have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, enabling that mystical awareness of God's presence to occur in a believer. The "tower experience" I quoted seems to be an extraordinary example of that in Luther's own life.

  6. I agree. "Mystical" experience is part of living out and exploring more deeply the life and identity that are given to us in Baptism and nourished by the Sacrament of the Altar; not something that can either be separated from that life or placed in opposition to those means.

  7. Thanks, John - I was hoping I was on the right track in my interpretation of those Confessional statements.

  8. I was born into and baptized Lutheran and subsequently Confirmed in the Church. I've always been a mystic at heart and a questioner of everything. The led me away from the Church as its beliefs and ideals just don't conform to any form of sensibility. Through my journey I attended a Bible College studying Theology, became an Assistant Pastor of a Pentecostal Church, left that Church and converted to Judaism and studied Hasidut and Kabbalah in depth, left Judaism and currently sit on my own philosophical meanderings knowing that we all know absolutely nothing. Much of my family is still Lutheran and my experience with Lutheranism is "sola-scriptura" which I was always taught precludes any mystical philosophy. The Church is a cold dead edifice of theological jargon that has no power to inspire nor breath any life into the world which is why it is declining. People by and large do not perceive any relevance in Church and the scare of Hell is an outdated tactic lost on the modern mind. So I say all of this because your blog is a tiny glimmer of some hope in all of this. I appreciate what you have written although I know the Lutherans collectively will reject this type of thinking. I hope you will inspire others and make inroads into the Church that will bring about a new reformation of the spirit of the Church itself.

  9. I am also a lifelong Lutheran, artist and mystic at heart, and I have of late been moved by the writings of the early mystics, like John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Meister Eckhardt, etc. and feel drawn away from the battling of words in the Church towards the light of the inner life.

    My life in the Lutheran Church has always had a connection to mysticism...think of the Presence of Christ received at Communion, and in the beauty of the music and art.

    Now at this stage of life, I find debates of text and reason for exclusion of humanity from God's Love, Grace and Presence untenable. I think the Christian Church will revive when the mystical wisdom and practices are renewed in all of its people, and I admire Jason's journey, and I think our theological jargon empty without connecting mind to heart. I agree that this sight can bring more towards the light.

    I have found the work of Father Richard Rohr enlightening, and felt led this morning to research Lutheran mysticism, and voila, happily led to this site.

    Thank you for your work, it is beautiful and vital.

  10. We should have lots of sex. Hey, i am looking for an online sexual partner ;) Click on my boobs if you are interested (. )( .)

  11. Thank you! I needed someone I could relate with mysticism in the Lutheran Church, that I could communicate with, discuss and learn from and with! Truly a blessing. I sure wish there was a site on Facebook for Lutheran Mysticism. It would be my favorite. I found you by chance searching and wondering how it fit in with Lutheranism as I was a Catholic and it was part of my life that I miss as an ex-Catholic.