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What is mysticism? In his Dictionary of Theological Terms Dr Alan Cairns describes mysticism as ‘The search for a higher initiation into spiritual mysteries, or a higher consecration to spiritual realities, or a union with deity, by a withdrawal from the external world and by means of contemplation. In this way mystics profess to apprehend truths which are beyond the understanding’a. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it as ‘a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different tradition’b. Mysticism has existed within the broad sweep of Christianity for centuries, as well as being found in many other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taosim. Within Christianity mysticism finds its greatest prominence during the period of the Middle Ages, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, and also in the Orthodox Church, in both cases often being closely linked to Gnosticism. People such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and Ignatius Loyala, all active in the Church of Rome during this period were mystics, and promoted mystical practices. Mysticism in the Roman Catholic Church has continued through to the modern era with men such as Padre Pio. The ideas of trances, visions, meditation, ecstatic experiences, contemplative prayer and the professed miraculous ability to survive without food for long periods of time can all be found within the realm of ‘christian' mysticism. The reformers of the 16th century by and large turned away from such ideas and were sceptical of the claims of the Roman Catholic mystics. Yet mysticism has remained prominent within Roman Catholicism, and its practices and teachings are also increasingly found within the Charismatic Movement. One area where this has come to light in recent years is in the practice of a form of contemplative prayer known as Lectio Divina.
1. Lectio Divina in the Middle Ages
Lectio Divina, which is a Latin Term meaning divine reading, is a Benedictine form of scripture reading and prayer. Although its beginnings can be traced to Origin in the 3rd century, it finds its most complete form in the 6th century, with St Benedict and Pope Gregory I. The practice of Lectio Divina begins with a time of relaxation, clearing one’s mind of other thoughts, sometimes accompanied by deep breathing and the repetition of a chosen word of phrase to clear the mind. Already the link which Lectio Divina has with eastern pagan religions is clear for all to see. Four steps are then followed by the participant:
- Lectio – the slow reading of a scripture passage several times over, while listening for the still small voice of a particular phrase
- Meditatio – a reflection on the text that has been read and how it applies to one’s own life
- Oratio – responding to the passage by opening the heart to God
- Contemplatio – a freeing of oneself from one’s own thoughts and opening the heart and mind to hear God speak to us
From even this briefest outline of Lectio Divina it is clear that this is more than simply another method of reading and studying the word of God, but is a mystical practice of contemplation and meditation. The whole concept of freeing ourselves from our own thoughts, of emptying our minds and waiting to hear God speak is inherently dangerous and foreign to Christian teaching. Romans 12:2 says that we are to be ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’. We are to ‘study to shew thyself approved unto God’ and to ‘search the scriptures’. In seeking to understand God’s Word and to know his will the intellect is never detached from the experience. Lectio Divina has more in common in common with transcendental meditation, hypnosis and other eastern mystical practices than it does with anything Christian. Sadly this practice did not die out in the middle ages, nor is it limited today to the confines of Roman Catholicism, but is gaining increasing acceptance in charismatic circles. Pope Benedict XVI made the claim of Lectio Divina, that its recovery will bring a ‘new spiritual springtime for the church’c. We would contend that rather a winter of spiritual darkness and superstition is more likely should there be a revival of such mystical practices.
2. Lectio Divina in the 21st Century
At Louie Giglio’s Passion Conference in 2012, Beth Moore, John Piper and Louie Giglio led the participants in what was essentially a ‘lite’ version of Lectio Divina during the fifth session of the conference. They each took turns to read a portion from the book of Ephesians and then instructed the audience to be silent and listen for God to speak to them. Beth Moore after she had read a portion asked the crowd to ‘pause and be still and ask Jesus to speak his word to us’d. A prolonged period of silence then ensued. John Piper likewise read a portion and asked people to ‘be quiet and ask the Lord to speak’e. At the close of the session Louie Giglio spoke to the audience and asked ‘How many of you heard the voice of God speak specifically, clearly, directly, and personally, to you? Can you just put a hand up? I’d like you to share it. Can you put a hand up for a minute?’f Any doubt as to what was going on in the preceding silences is erased by this question; people were being instructed to listen for, and expect to hear the audible voice of the Lord. Some of those at the conference who ‘didn’t hear’ God speak were left in tears, yet in reality they had no reason to feel such disappointment, for they had been deceived in expecting such an experience. Since that event John Piper has stated his opposition to the practice of Lectio Divina and contemplative prayer however he has still returned to speak at the Passion Conferences in 2013 and 2014.
The approval of Lectio Divina and other forms of contemplative prayer can be found in many charismatic churches; Willow Creek Community church, pastured by Bill Hybels gives instructions on performing Lectio Divina and Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer also promotes the practice of contemplative prayer. It is however a practice which is not supported by scripture and not something which believers should seek after.
3. The rise and rise of mysticism
Lectio Divina is far from the only aspect of Roman Catholic mysticism which is evident within the Charismatic movement today. The deeper experience of God which so many charismatics desire is not borne out of biblical teaching but out of the promotion of mystical and Gnostic practices. Dreams, visions and trances have always been the staple of Roman Catholic mystics; Mel Gibson’s blasphemous movie The Passion of the Christ was inspired by the writings of mystic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich. Today’s charismatics are no less inclined to mystical encounters and experiences. Kim Walker-Smith, worship leader in the Jesus Culture band, and worship pastor at Bethel Church, Redding, California spoke of her mystical experience at their Awakening 2011 conference. She said, ‘I had this encounter, all the sudden I see Jesus standing in front of me and He’s reaching for me like this - like He wants me to come to Him ... Jesus puts me down and He starts stretching out his arms. They’re each going out each way; and it looked like Stretch Armstrong’g. Beth Moore expressed her surprise at being labelled a mystic after having made the following statement; ‘And it was as if I was raised up looking down on a community, as I saw the Church in that particular dimension- certainly not all dimensions, not even in many, but in what we will discuss tonight, the church, as Jesus sees it, in a particular dimension’h. Why she was surprised we cannot tell for these claims are classic mysticism and Gnosticism; claiming to receive a knowledge that would be otherwise unknown. Contemplative prayer, out of body experiences, dreams, visions and trances. The ‘spiritual formation’, taught by men like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard is not a means of growing in grace but an approach more at home in a Roman Catholic monastery than in any bible believing church.
The mysticism that is becoming more common in the Charismatic Movement is dangerous because, like many of the errors in that movement, it looks Christian, it sounds Christian, it uses Christian terminology, and it appeals to genuine believers who have a desire to walk close with God. It is that most dangerous of errors, one that is mingled with truth. Whatever aspect of mysticism we might consider; whether it be Lectio Divina, some other form of contemplative prayer, visions, trances or anything other mystical experience, we must reject it just as strongly as the Israelites were instructed to reject the worship of Baal.
Next: An ecumenical spirit
a Dictionary of Theological Terms, Dr Alan Cairns, Ambassador Productions 1998, p237
c Pope Benedict XVI, International Congress to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation ‘Dei Verbum’, 16th September 2005