|I am not the first to address the influences of Roman Catholic mysticism, Eastern religions, and the New Age on evangelical churches. Bloggers and writers have cautioned evangelical Christians about blurring theological boundaries and adopting practices incompatible with Reformed faith.1 I join the conversation with a series of blogs that begin with Catholic mysticism. Read along as I wade into these deep waters.
Mystics of various religions believe they can communicate directly with the divine. Philosopher Winfried Corduan defined mysticism as a “personal, unmediated link to the absolute.”2
Christian mysticism is an “experiential, direct, nonabstract, unmediated, loving knowing of God, a knowing or seeing so direct as to be called union with God.”3 It’s a packed sentence, and advocates use as models mystics such as Antony of the Desert, Dionysius the Areopagite, Cloud of Unknowing, Ignatius of Loyola, François Fénelon, Thomas A Kempis, Thomas Merton, Agnes Sanford, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila.
Christian mystics endeavor to reach God by transcending the sin-ladened physical realm and entering dreamlike states. Teresa of Avila is one example.
Teresa of Avila
I read Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle in seminary. The Carmelite nun was a Spanish mystic who led reforms for the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Reformation and Spanish Inquisition. In keeping with monastic traditions, Teresa retreated from the din of everyday life, turned inward, and pursued holiness through the disciplines of meditation, prayer, solitude, and acts of charity.
Toward the end of her life, Teresa prayerfully meditated and saw visions of her soul as a single diamond castle. It had multiple rooms or mansions arranged in, around, below, and above its center where Christ dwelt in all his glory. At its entrance, Teresa saw a grey light filtered through a dense film that reflected her deplorable condition. Demons conducted a reign of terror, and some accompanied her into the castle. She prayed and the light increased as she moved from mansion to mansion. Teresa’s soul was like a suckling child in pursuit of Jesus.
By the fifth mansion, Teresa had significantly detached from herself and lost the ability to think which she believed enabled her to resist sin and the demons. In the sixth mansion, Teresa had moments of rapture and ecstasy, which to her were evidence of union with Christ. Finally, in the seventh mansion Christ intermittently raptured her soul throughout the day – lifting her from her from her body. Here she experienced union with Christ and secret, intimate exchanges with him – like two candles joined as one.4
Teresa gave spiritual encounters standalone authority. The mere suggestion that she should “test the spirit” of her mystical encounters would likely have angered her (1 Jn 4:1, 1 Th 4:13). But then we should not be surprised. People who reject the authority of Scripture have no way to test the spirit, even if they see the need.
In this regard, the great divide between Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholic mysticism begins with their rejection of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, practice, and spiritual experiences. One problem with evangelical churches that incorporate mystical practices is their inclination to give spiritual encounters standalone authority.
In 1515, the year of Teresa’s birth, Luther meditated on Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed . . . a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'” The Reformers later put the SOLAS at the center of Evangelical faith.