Mystical Theology

A question was posted recently about “mystical theology.” I offer a few thoughts (written in my hotel room) that might be of some use.

My first exposure to Orthodox thought was reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church when I was a college student. A friend gave me the book and urged me to read it. Lossky’s work read like one of the fathers from the pen of a modern contemporary. The word “mystical” in the title was new to me. It was a word that had many associations for me, none of them particularly Christian.

Mystery is an important word within Orthodoxy and fairly common. On one level, the Greek adverb mystikos, is a frequent direction in liturgical books meaning nothing more than “silently” or “quietly.” The priest is directed in the liturgy that certain prayers are to be read mystikos.

In another usage, the Church commonly uses the word mystery where the Latin would say sacrament. Thus it is normal to speak of the “mysteries” of the Church meaning nothing more than the sacraments of the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.

However, Lossky’s use of the word in the phrase, “mystical theology,” gets at a deeper meaning and a more essential part of Orthodox life and thought. “Mystical” theology is a reference to theology not as a set of ideas, but theology as a description (or verbal expression) of a life lived in communion with the living God. But the very fact that the word “mystical” is used to describe this life of communion says much about the character and reality of this life.

It is not unrelated to the article I posted a week or so ago on allegory – a reflection not simply on a literary device – but a literary device that is itself a reflection of the “allegorical” nature of reality. The modern, secular account of reality tends towards a form of literalism: what you see is what you get. In such an account, history, and some general notion of an immutable law of cause and effect, dominate the popular sense of reality. It is this same “literal” sense of reality that underlies both modern liberal theological thought (dominated by various forms of the historical-critical method) and various modern fundamentalist forms of Christian thought. The “allegorical” view that dominates the writings of the Church fathers has a completely different intuition about reality.

What we see is not what we get – what we see is not all there is. The mystical quality of theology is rooted in the belief that the ground of reality is to be found in communion – a reality and experience that is not an inherent part of a “literal” account of reality. If it is possible to have communion with another human being – to have communion with God – and for that communion to be something more than mere psychological interaction – what must be the nature of reality? How do we describe a reality in which such a communion is possible?

Orthodox thought and life begin and continue in the reality of communion. The Christian is “baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” according to Holy Scripture. The union of a believer with these historical/cosmic events in Christ’s life is no mere identification or show of loyalty, nor can the mere intellectual assent to the reality of these events that these events, be described as a “union.” Orthodoxy believes that we are truly and really united with the death and resurrection of Christ: His death and resurrection become our death and resurrection the very ground of our being and our hope.

With these things in mind, all Christianity should be “mystical,” and in many places this is indeed true, at least to some extent. The secularization of the Christian world-view has reduced the importance of communion (true participation) with both creation, other people, and God Himself. In its place has arisen a variety of forensic and relational schemes that only reinforce the loss of communion. A change in the meaning of sacrament (or the almost total loss of sacrament) has been a natural part of this shift.

The loss of “mystical theology” in the understanding of many Christians renders a fair amount of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, to be rather opaque. St. Paul writes (“cries out” would be more accurate) in Philippians:

…that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (3:10)…

Such a plea falls on deaf ears where the understanding of the mystical character of our union with God is lost or diminished. St. Paul’s constant refrain of “in Christ” is an unyielding call to the life of union with God.

Lossky’s intention in writing the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church was to present to the West (and to much of the East) a recovery of this participatory understanding of our life in Christ. Every aspect of the Church’s dogma has had this communion with Christ in mind. Even the doctrine of the Trinity was carefully spoken so that we might better understand the saving union with God given to us in Christ Jesus. It is the very heart of our faith.

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23 Responses to “Mystical Theology”

  1. Dean Arnold Says:

    Is that St. Stephen’s Monastery in Meteora?

  2. Aaroneous Says:

    It is Simona Petra, Mt. Athos.

  3. marshmk Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I certainly agree with you when you write, ““Mystical” theology is a reference to theology not as a set of ideas, but theology as a description (or verbal expression) of a life lived in communion with the living God. But the very fact that the word “mystical” is used to describe this life of communion says much about the character and reality of this life.”

    It seems to me that much of society has lost the awareness of and ability for “mystical seeing.” The consequences of this are destructive of life, relationships and the church. I wrote briefly about this in terms of the Episcopal Church, http://interruptingthesilence.com/2009/06/16/when-there-is-no-mystery/

    Peace be with you, Mike

  4. easton Says:

    thank you for this, father. when i think of the difference in thinking of a person and acually being with that person, i think how much more layered the person becomes when being with him physically. many times our judgements and what we “thought” the person was like, go up in smoke. i see that difference in what you are describing as mystery and the modern view of only a pychological view.

  5. Jon Neely Says:

    I have to vent here and I certainly do nit want this to be taken personally. I have converted to Orthodox Christianity recently from a non-denominational Protestant background. I also have a degree in Biblical Studies and theology. Whoop de doo, right? As I was laying in my bed last night I was speaking to God in desperate prayer. Imtired of musket, tired of Christianity, tired of God. My conversion to Orthodoxy was my last ditch effort that would enable me to be saved from me. I was baptized and chrismated 3 weeks ago and my life has been hell ever since. My marriage is on a cliff and I still battle the same crap that I did 12 years ago when I first became a Christian. I’m at a loss. I don. Even feel like going to church anymore. Why should I? Nothings changed and only gotten worse in some cases.

    Another issue that im having as of late is how everyone that I read within the orthodox church writes so complex with gobs and gobs of abstract thought. Has anyone ever heard the aycronym “KISS – keep it simple stupid”? A lot of us don’t give a rip about complex theological thought! Where are the writers that write from practicality?! Where are the writers that allow the reader to engage on a personal level and identify? Knowing or better yet expounding on complex theological ideas doesn’t mean squat if one can’t live the life, love God and their neighbor. I’ve begun to hate theology because that is the talk around the table rather than the matter of the heart, our sin and how to kill it through Christ. 12 years and no success at all. I still suck and I’m tired of sucking. Where are the real teachers instead of the academics puffing their breats with their vast knowledge? You want to we people change? KISS. Touch the depths of their heart with words of wisdom and instruction rather than an academic vainity of words.

    Keep it simple stupid – no offence to you Father but this is for everyone who writes. The Protestant church to their credit has this concept well at
    hand. The Protestant church would do well to learn from Orthodoxy, yet the opposite is also true, the Orthodox church would do well to learn from the Protestant.

  6. Jon Neely Says:

    Quite disappointing. I had left a long comment on here that didn’t post for some reason or another.

  7. Paul J Says:

    Thank you for this post, Father. It helps clarify the word, and the reality, for me.

  8. Burning Hearts Says:

    Thank you for this post Father.

    I recently bought Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church having spent a good 40 years in the superheated arid deserts of the denominations.

    Chapter Six gives a good account of what Communion in Church and in the Person of Christ, really means — a view that has largely been edited out of Western Christianity.

    Having spent a life sharing his created existence as a defacto pantheist (with the mosquitos and mice, to quote Lossky) and in the false comforts of modernity, the Incarnation presents man with stark choices indeed — diametrically opposed.

    It is always by Grace, never on account of our origins (whatever they may be) that we are brought into Fullness.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Jon,
    Deeply sorry you’re having a tough time and will definitely hold you in my prayers. As to the blog, I certainly believe in keeping it simple – but, oddly, you’ve tuned in on a week where some of my thoughts were perhaps a bit more abstract, though, in terms of where I am right now, they are quite practical. There are articles (there are over a 1000 on the site) that might be of more interest. Your post was hung up in the spam filter for a reason I don’t know, and I’ve cleared it (I’ve been on a plane all day and unable to do anything with the blog).

    But the sorts of things you are describing, it seems to me, need your local priest, rather than a blog. Were you in my parish I’d want you to come right in. Many times very difficult things follow our Baptism or chrismation. The first few months after my chrismation were among the darkest in my life, for a variety of reasons, some fairly private. But I made it through that and things slowly began to bear the fruit that I had hoped for in my conversion. But because what has been given to you is real, it is not instant (almost nothing instant is real). God’s grace has been given to you. Go to your priest – seek encouragement. Weep if you need to. I did and still do from time to time.

    May God give you strength. May my writing be less of an annoyance. Forgive me.

  10. Yokhan J N Says:

    Jon,

    May God’s abundant love and grace grant you inner peace. Orthodoxy does work, otherwise I would have given up Christianity (and any belief in God) altogether, at least I thought of that several times. I was baptized and chrismated last year, so still too “young” to give any opinion. However, to certain degree I can relate to your experience, so I hope mine can be of some encouragement. I was an ordinary church-goer back in Protestantism, without any theological degree etc, however I did notice the gulf between ideals and unability to conquer sins/passions. It was indeed frustrating. I knew of many committed Protestants who really struggled too.

    Now being Orthodox (for a short while), the struggle remains (and should be, i.e. podvig), yet the significant difference is that I have been feeling more and more peaceful and at home. One key point for me is the realization in my subconscious mind that God indeed is loving, even the fire of hell is the love of God (painful to those who hate Him). I do regret many things, but I take comfort in God’s ability to transform even the worst into good for His glory. I was skeptic (at least subconsciously) about His willingness to love this sinner but am grateful for His assurance I have been finding in His Church.

    Theology in Orthodoxy is not academic knowledge. “A theologian is the one who truly prays”, so we are told. Those “theologies” outside the Church are, more often than not, speculations, unlike Theology taught by Saints through their confirmed Theosis experience. I am not qualified to talk about theology, but if I am allowed to express my foolishness here, I feel that Orthodox Theology is so organic and holistic, compared to those outside the Church which are so dry and dead. I am not trying to bash non-Orthodox here, but from my experience, I got headache when trying to learn those “theologies”, while I often feel refreshed and marvelled at the clarity and beauty of Orthodox Theology.

    Without trying to simplify your problems, mine might be much less than yours, if I am allowed to suggest, beside praying to God, always ask for Theotokos, your patron Saint and all Saints’ intercessions. May be you already have been doing that, keep doing so, and also “eat” more of God’s grace by attending Church services and partaking Holy Mysteries. Surely you should listen to your priest rather than my unworthy opinion. If only my experience can be of any good for you, that’s my prayer, if not please forgive my nonsense. I truly hope we (as I am much worse than you, just that I am “luckier”) can enjoy God’s grace more and forevermore.

    “Under thy tender compassion we run, O Theotokos, reject not our prayer in our trouble, but deliver us from harm, Only Pure, Only Blessed One.”

  11. Yokhan J N Says:

    Father, bless!

    Father Stephen, thank God and thank you for this website. I have been reading your writings for quite a while, getting many blessings from it, and forwarding the links to my friends. Again, many thanks.

    Pray for me
    the sinner

  12. James the Brother Says:

    Jon,

    I am touched by your sharing your honest feelings. After being protestant for over 60 years I was Chrismated last June. Interestingly as others have stated, it seemed I was immediately thrown into a wind tunnel.

    Yes, at times the theology or theological discussions appear very abstract versus waking up to a new day of reality. Paradoxically I, have found refreshment in the simple notion of what it means to being in continual and gradual movement toward being in communion with God. I can live and thrive within that notion. In the protestant world I actually had a higher level of frustration in trying to “figure out” what the scriptures really meant living with the charge to get it right.

    My experience in no way can be overlaid on what you are experiencing. I do know that now I have entered a time of refreshment and couldn’t go back.

    May God bless you and keep you from all satanic darts that are being hurled at you.

  13. handmaid leah Says:

    Dear Jon,
    your write: “Nothings changed and only gotten worse in some cases.”

    Believe it or not – that is good.
    We all have stuff to process, to get rid of in some cases – like our pride which is a hard one for me and perhaps even just the opportunity to keep our mouths shut (which I am not doing right now and probably should) and we all have stuff to acquire – the fruits of the Holy Spirit come to mind.

    I think in essence your question is “how?”

    Well, there are many answers to this – perseverance in prayer, obedience to your Spiritual Father, just loving your neighbor (the first on that list is your wife) and to have faith that God is presenting you with opportunities to live your Christianity. Placing situations and people in your path who are going to give you the chance to actually LIVE your faith in God.

    Often these are the folks who bring out the worst in us… Glory be to Jesus Christ!
    By way of practical and simple advice: take one small thing – for me it is not replying instantly to something – good or bad that is said – or to just be obedient to my family when asked to do something for them- the ol’ “will you fix me something to eat” even when I am occupied or preoccupied with something else – its a little thing to do but, my adult son (who is fully capable of cooking) is also the bearer of the image of Christ, and my neighbor- I take it that Jesus Himself is asking – in which case obedience becomes much easier and my heart softer… So pick one thing that you know you can do and work on it.

    Count it all joy- Orthodox Christianity is lived.

    with prayers and love,
    Leah

  14. Prudence True Says:

    Jon,

    Orthodoxy is not at all complicated unless we dive into the depths of its theology. For generations of Orthodox Christians there were no deep dives into the Orthodox theology, and still aren’t – they call us cradle Orthodox. We swam in the large Orthodox ocean feeling our way all along. Then we raised our children in the same Orthodox ocean in the same way. But now with many newly discovering Orthodoxy, there is a trend toward deep dives into theology.

    My thought for you, Jon, is to live the Orthodox Faith in it’s simplest form for a decade or two. Then take a dive into the theology of the Faith – or not. The heart of the Orthodox Faith is in the heart, not the in the manuals.

    Prudence

    Prudence

  15. NW Nikolai Says:

    Jon,

    Many years!

    This past year has been the best of times and the worst of times, yet we have found what we’ve longed for, and even after baptism/chrismation the challenges seem to have grown. My household and I fully entered the Church on Jan. 9th of this year.

    The details aren’t important, I just want you to hear that you are not alone in what seems to be your desperation. Also, several posts back I recall thanking Father Stephen for writing with simplicity concerning some of the deep issues we encounter in Orthodoxy, so there is an ebb and flow as we learn. I think we can keep it simple in prayer and participation.

    May the Lord bless you and keep you!

    Nikolai

  16. Karen Says:

    Jon, the several years leading up to my becoming Orthodox (I’m from an evangelical protestant background, with a B.A. from a major Christian college) and the first year and a half afterwards have been among the most difficult years of my life and of my marriage. We did not emerge from those struggles without help from several sources addressing them on all levels (from the spiritual to the medical/physical). My heart goes out to you and your wife. From experience, I say don’t give up. What is worth having is worth fighting for–a good relationship with God, myself, and my spouse topping that list.

    God is speaking to you through all this struggle, and you have a real enemy working to thwart your hearing (though he’s no match for the Lord). If you’ll indulge me a word from my own experience, part of your struggle may be that you’re confused about your part in the combat. It is not to learn to “kill your sin through Christ” as you put it. As I understand it, our job is to embrace the truth about ourself and about God as God gives us grace to do so, and then to bring all that we are in our poverty to Him and let Him feed us with Himself. (I have found Fr. Stephen’s posts, “It is But a Small Thing” and “Salvation by Showing Up” helpful practical how to advice in this regard.) This most basic reality of authentic human existence is the meaning of the Eucharistic Liturgy. We have to let Him love us as we are toward health. That requires not academic theological knowledge or ascetic achievement, but something much harder–a little childlike vulnerability and humility, a willingness to recognize both our inherent unworthiness of God as well as the unspeakable value He has placed on owning us (in all our unworthiness) as His own, the unspeakable beauty of His love! The answer is not to try to kill your sin and clean up your act, but more to let God in to your deepest pain and to be willing to open yourself up to the Reality of His abiding and all-merciful Presence. Hang in there. God is faithful and good–may He speedily show you the way of escape from this temptation and grant you grace for the journey.

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  19. Burning Hearts Says:

    St. John the Damascene tells us that nature always acts according to its properties. A fragmentated Church with its multi-layered complexity, will tend over time to become more, not less opaque. Historically, we note how the iconoclasts did not liberate themselves from the excesses of the papists.

    Modern systems theory would tend to agree with St. John. To quote R.A. Hahn `the systems approach posits that different levels are simultaneously at work, each having manifestations and consequences in others. Thus an event is not molecular or psychological or social etc., but all three at once, that is, molecular and psychological and social etc. Each level pertains to an aspect of a common event’. In other words, the same reality exists in all, despite the complexity of the ‘mesh’ (Rethinking `illness’ and `disease’. Contrib. Asian Studies 1984; 18: 1 23).

    The Orthodox Church views the transformation of man as taking place not in complexity but in the unified simplicity of the King’s body. Man is called to participate ‘in the porphyry of his body … not as a garment or a fourth person but as a body united to God and abiding without change, as well as the divinity by which it has been anointed’ (‘Disputatio cum Pyrrho’ P.G., t. 91, 337, quoted in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky).

    According to the Damascene, it is the incarnation that gives the flesh the ineffable grace of being able to penetrate the Divinity. St. Maximus’ example of iron penetrated by fire is both timely and appropriate. Becoming fire it remains iron by nature, but as iron it cuts, as fire it burns..

    Orthodoxy theology can be observed, but it is best lived. The human hand raised the young girl, but the Divine restored her to life. Human feet walk on the water, but the Divine made the water firm. (‘De Fide Orth., III, 15’, 1057A, quoted in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky)

  20. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    You said, “Orthodox thought and life begin and continue in the reality of communion. The Christian is “baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” according to Holy Scripture.”

    It was by understanding Orthodox teaching on baptism that I could defend paedo-baptism. In the water, which is not mere water as Prot. evangelicals would say, but rather is God’s blessed creation because of the Incarnation, we receive the very life of God. As it says it Scripture, “who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” So baptism is not a mere intellectual assent to a reality that already occurred but is the REALITY ITSELF.

    You go on to say, “The union of a believer with these historical/cosmic events in Christ’s life is no mere identification or show of loyalty, nor can the mere intellectual assent to the reality of these events, be described as “union.”

    In many Protestant circles, making a decision for Christ is the focal point of one’s salvation. Thus it is within this context that people are asked, “Did you ever commit your life to Christ?” or “Did you ever accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” If the person can think of a time when they did this, then they should feel that their salvation if secure, regardless of the life they have lifed afterward. Granted, this is the OSAS camp and not all Protestants’ beliefs. Nonetheless, this view does not take into account true union with Christ. How understandable then, that holy mysteries do not exist, and the very Lord’s Table is only symbolic.

    You summarize by saying, “Orthodoxy believes that we are truly and really united with the death and resurrection of Christ: His death and resurrection become our death and resurrection, the very ground of our being and our hope.”

    It is the beauty of Orthodoxy in this very sense, that we are truly united with Him by participating with Him in His very nature, that is theosis, that has convinced me of the erroneousness of imputational theology. In this view, God sees us AS IF we have lived the righteous life of Christ, thus rendering real and actual unity insignificant. In Reformed soteriology, the doctrine of Imputed Righteousness is crucial and must be confessed and believed in order for one to be considered a child of God. From this view it is believed, therefore, that even our good works after regeneration are tainted with evil.

    I cannot tell you how freeing it is to have the bandages unraveled – not unlike Lazarus, “unbind him and let him go!.” That Christ has taken on flesh in the Incarnation and raised it up to be in union with Him, REALLY AND SUBSTANTIALLY, not vicariously or merely symbolically, has brought a fuller meaning to our Christian hope for me.

    So much of Orthodoxy is life lived and experienced, resulting in the mind in the heart. I’ve much to learn of the nous and its implications, but this I know, I can look forward to a much richer, fuller, journey within Orthodoxy.

    My priest has opened the way for me to be chrismated either on Lazarus Sat. or Holy Saturday. I have been praying about this matter and confess it feels like getting married all over again! The jitters, the occasional doubts, the worry that I could be making a mistake, the excitement of joys yet experienced, the desire for endless possibilities – truly an internal conflict of opposing feelings. I have experienced such ambivalence on other occasions just prior to making a major decision that could alter the course of my life significantly.

    I ask for your prayers, thst Christ’s peace would abide with me at this time. I do not take becoming Orthodox lightly.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Darlene,
    May God keep you and complete the good work He has begun!

  22. James the Brother Says:

    Darlene,

    Great post and you answered the question about your progressing toward Chrismation. From previous posts, I am happy that it is drawing nigh.

    God bless you and continue to fill your faith.

  23. Yannis Says:

    It just meant to ask “Is simplicity best? or simply the easiest”?

    In any case, its best, for all intends and purposes to let it be gone with the wind.

    In fact letting it just be might be the very best:

    “…whispers words of wisdom…”

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