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3. Christian mysticism

Christian mysticism refers to the human being's direct experience or consciousness of ultimate reality, understood as God within the context of Christian faith. The essence of mysticism is the sense of some form of contact with the divine or transcendent, frequently understood in its higher forms as involving union with God. Mysticism has played an important role in the history of Christian religion, and it has once again become a noticeably living influence in recent times.

In the modern period mysticism has been studied from many perspectives: psychological, comparativist, philosophical, and theological, to name only the most vital. The mystical text has been the subject of new attention sparked by hermeneutical and deconstructionist philosophies. Among the theoretical questions that have been much debated are such issues as whether mysticism constitutes the core or essence of personal religion or whether it is better viewed as one element interacting with others in the formation of concrete religions. Those who emphasize a strong distinction between mystical experience and subsequent interpretation tend to search for a common core of all mysticism; others insist that experience and interpretation cannot be so easily sundered and that mysticism is in most cases tied to a specific religion and contingent upon its teachings. Both those who search for the common core, such as the British philosopher Walter T. Stace, and those who emphasize the differences among forms of mysticism, such as the British historian of religion Robert C. Zaehner, have made use of typologies of mysticism, often based on the contrast between introvertive and extrovertive mysticism developed by the comparativist Rudolf Otto. Studies have criticized the typological approach, but many scholars still find it useful.

The cognitive status of mystical knowing and its clash with the mystics' claims about the ineffability of their experiences have also been topics of interest for modern students of mysticism. Among the most important investigations of mystical knowing are those of the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal and the French philosophers Henri Bergson and Jacques Maritain.

The relation between mysticism and morality has been a topic of scholarly debate since the time of William James, but certain questions have concerned Christian mystics for centuries. Does mystical experience always confirm traditional religious ideas about right and wrong, or is mysticism totally independent of moral issues? The problems regarding mysticism are fairly easy to identify; definitive solutions seem far off.

The role of mysticism in Christianity has been variously evaluated by modern theologians. Many Protestant thinkers, from Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack through Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, have denied mysticism an integral role in the Christian religion, claiming that mystical union was a Greek import incompatible with saving faith in the Gospel word. Other Protestant theologians, such as Ernst Troeltsch in The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (trans. 1931) and Albert Schweitzer in The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (trans. 1931), were more sympathetic. Anglican thinkers, especially William R. Inge, Evelyn Underhill, and Kenneth E. Kirk, championed the importance of mysticism in Christian history. Orthodox Christianity has given mysticism so central a role in Christian life that all theology in the Christian East by definition is mystical theology, as the Russian emigré thinker Vladimir Lossky showed in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (trans. 1957). (see also Index: Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy)

The most extensive theological discussions of mysticism in Christianity have been found in modern Roman Catholicism. In the first half of the 20th century Neoscholastic authors--invoking the authority of Thomas Aquinas and the Spanish mystics Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross--debated whether mystical contemplation was the goal of all Christians or a special grace offered only to a few. The discrimination of the various forms of prayer and the distinction between acquired contemplation, for which the believer could strive with the help of grace, and infused contemplation, which was a pure and unmerited gift, framed much of this discussion. Other Roman Catholic theologians, such as Cuthbert Butler in Western Mysticism (1922) and Anselm Stolz in Theologie der Mystik (1936), broke with the narrow framework of Neoscholasticism to consider the wider scriptural and patristic tradition. In the second half of the century Roman Catholic theologians including Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar addressed key theological issues in mysticism, such as the relation of mystical experience to the universal offer of grace and the status of non-Christian mysticism.


i) Early church.

Although the essence of mysticism is the sense of contact with the transcendent, mysticism in the history of Christianity should not be understood merely in terms of special ecstatic experiences but as part of a religious process lived out within the context of the Christian community. From this perspective mysticism played a vital part in the early church. Early Christianity was a religion of the spirit that expressed itself in the heightening and enlargement of human consciousness. It is clear from the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., Matthew 11:25-27) that Jesus was thought to have enjoyed a sense of special contact with God. In the primitive church an active part was played by prophets, who were believed to be recipients of a revelation coming directly from the Holy Spirit.

The mystical aspect of early Christianity finds its fullest expression in the letters of Paul and the Gospel According to John. For Paul and John mystical experience and aspiration are always for union with Christ. It was Paul's supreme desire to know Christ and to be united with him. The recurring phrase, "in Christ," implies personal union, a participation in Christ's death and Resurrection. The Christ with whom Paul is united is not the man Jesus who is known "after the flesh." He has been exalted and glorified, so that he is one with the Spirit.

Christ-mysticism finds renewed embodiment in the Gospel According to John, particularly in the farewell discourse (chapters 14-16), where Jesus speaks of his impending death and of his return in the Spirit to unite himself with his followers. In the prayer of Jesus in chapter 17 there is a vision of an interpenetrating union of souls in which all who are one with Christ share his perfect union with the Father.

In the early Christian centuries the mystical trend found expression not only in the stream of Pauline and Johannine Christianity (as in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyon) but also in the Gnostics (early Christian heretics who viewed matter as evil and the spirit as good). Scholars still debate the origins of Gnosticism, but most Gnostics thought of themselves as followers of Christ, albeit a Christ who was pure spirit. The mysticism of the Gnostics can be seen in the religion of Valentinus, who was excommunicated in about AD 150. He believed that human beings are alienated from God because of their spiritual ignorance; Christ brings them into the gnosis (esoteric revelatory knowledge) that is union with God. Valentinus held that all human beings come from God and that all will in the end return to God. Other Gnostic groups held that there were three types of people--"spiritual," "psychic," and "material"--and that only the first two can be saved. The Pistis Sophia(3rd century) is preoccupied with the question of who finally will be saved. Those who are saved must renounce the world completely and follow the pure ethic of love and compassion. They will then be identified with Jesus and become rays of the divine Light. (see also Index: salvation)

ii) Eastern Christianity.

The classic forms of Eastern Christian mysticism appeared toward the end of the 2nd century, when the mysticism of the early church began to be expressed in categories of thought explicitly dependent on the Greek philosophical tradition of Plato and his followers. This intermingling of primitive Christian themes with Greek speculative thought has been variously judged by later Christians, but contemporaries had no difficulty in seeing it as proof of the new religion's ability to adapt and transform all that was good in the world. The philosophical emphasis on the unknowability of God found an echo in many texts of the Old and New Testaments, affirming that the God of Abraham and the Father of Jesus could never be fully known. The understanding of the role of the preexistent Logos, or Word, of the Gospel According to John in the creation and restoration of the universe was clarified by locating the Platonic conception of Ideas in the Logos. Greek emphasis on the vision or contemplation (theoria) of God as the goal of human blessedness found a scriptural warrant in the sixth Beatitude: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). The notion of deification (theiosis) fit with the New Testament emphasis on becoming sons of God and such texts as 2 Peter 1:4, which talked about sharing in the divine nature. These ecumenical adaptations later provided an entry for the language of union with God, especially after the notion of union became more explicit in Neoplatonism, the last great pagan form of philosophical mysticism. Many of these themes are already present in germ in the works of Clement of Alexandria, written in about 200. They are richly developed in the thought of Origen, the greatest Christian writer of the pre-Constantinian period and the earliest major speculative mystic in Christian history.

Origen's mystical theology, however, required a social matrix in which it could take on life as formative and expressive of Christian ideals. This was the achievement of early Christian monasticism, the movement into the desert that began to transform ideals of Christian perfection at the beginning of the 4th century. The combination of the religious experience of the desert Christians and the generally Origenist theology that helped shape their views created the first great strand of Christian mysticism, one that remains central to the East and that was to dominate in the West until the end of the 12th century. Though not all the Eastern Christian mystical texts were deeply imbued with Platonism, all were marked by the monastic experience.

The first great mystical writer of the desert was Evagrius Ponticus (346-399), whose works were influenced by Origen. His writings show a clear distinction between the ascetic, or "practical," life and the contemplative, or "theoretical," life, a distinction that was to become classic in Christian history. His disciple, John Cassian, conveyed Evagrian mysticism to the monks of western Europe, especially in the exposition of the "degrees of prayer" in his Collations of the Fathers, or Conferences. Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil, sketched out a model for progress in the mystical path in his Life of Moses and, following the example of Origen, devoted a number of homilies to a mystical interpretation of the Song of Solomon, showing how the book speaks both of Christ's love for the church and of the love between the soul and the Divine Bridegroom.

Perhaps the most influential of all Eastern Christian mystics wrote in the 5th or 6th century in the name of Dionysius the Areopagite, Paul's convert at Athens. He was probably a Syrian monk. In the chief works of this Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology and On the Divine Names, the main emphasis was on the ineffability of God ("the Divine Dark") and hence on the "apophatic" or "negative" approach to God. Through a gradual process of ascension from material things to spiritual realities and an eventual stripping away of all created beings in "unknowing," the soul arrives at "union with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge" (Mystical Theology, chapter 1). The writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius also popularized the threefold division of the mystical life into purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages. Later Eastern mystical theologians, especially Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century, adopted much of this thought but corrected it with greater Christological emphasis, showing that union with God is possible only through the action of the God-man. (see also Index: apophatic theology, via negativa)

Eastern mystics distinguish between the essence of God and divine attributes, which they regard as energies that penetrate the universe. Creation is a process of emanation, whereby the divine Being is "transported outside of Himself . . . to dwell within the heart of all things . . . " (Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, iv. 13). The divinization of humanity is fundamental to Eastern mysticism.

Divinization comes through contemplative prayer, and especially through the method of Hesychasm (from hesychia, "stillness") adopted widely by the Eastern monks. The method consisted in the concentration of the mind on the divine Presence, induced by the repetition of the "Jesus-prayer" (later formalized as "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner"). This culminated in the ecstatic vision of the divine Light and was held to divinize the soul through the divine energy implicit in the name of Jesus. Much of this program can already be found in the writings of Symeon the New Theologian (c. 949-1022), a monk of Constantinople. It reached its theologically most evolved form in Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who defended the Hesychast tradition against its opponents. This rich form of Christian mysticism found a new centre in the Slavic lands after the conquest of the Greek East by the Turks. It experienced a flowering in Russia, beginning with the Philokalia an anthology of ascetical and mystical texts first published in 1782, and continuing to the Revolution of 1917. Eastern Christian mysticism is best known in the West through translations of the anonymous 19th-century Russian text The Way of the Pilgrim, but noted Russian mystics, such as Seraphimof Sarov (1759-1833) and John of Kronshtadt (1829-1909), are gradually becoming better known in the West.

In the Eastern as in the Western Church mystical religion received at times heretical expressions. These trends begin with the Messalians (Syriac for "praying people") of the 4th century, who were accused of neglecting the sacraments for ceaseless prayer and of teaching a materialistic vision of God. Later mystics, both orthodox and suspect, have been accused of Messalianism. Other mystic sects grew up in Russia. The Dukhobors, who originated in the 18th century among the peasants, resemble the Quakers in their indifference to outer forms, standing for the final authority of the Inner Light. They were severely persecuted in Russia and migrated to Canada early in the 20th century. ( S.Sp./B.J.McG.) (see also Index: heresy)

iii) Western Catholic Christianity.

The founder of Latin Christian mysticism is Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430). In his Confessions Augustine mentions two experiences of "touching" or "attaining" God. Later, in the Literal Commentary on Genesis, he introduced a triple classification of visions--corporeal, spiritual (i.e., imaginative), and intellectual--that influenced later mystics for centuries. Although he was influenced by Neoplatonist philosophers such as Plotinus, Augustine did not speak of personal union with God in this life. His teaching, like that of the Eastern Fathers, emphasized the ecclesial context of Christian mysticism and the role of Christ as mediator in attaining deification, or the restoration of the image of the Trinity in the depths of the soul. The basic elements of Augustine's teaching on the vision of God, the relation of the active and contemplative lives, and the sacramental dimension of Christian mysticism were summarized by Pope Gregory I the Great in the 6th century and conveyed to the medieval West by many monastic authors. (see also Index: Roman Catholicism)

Two factors were important in the development of this classic Augustinian form of Western mysticism. The first was the translation of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and other Eastern mystics by the 9th-century thinker Johannes Scotus Erigena. In combining the Eastern and Western mystical traditions, Erigena created the earliest version of a highly speculative negative mysticism that was later often revived. The other new moment began in the 12th century when new forms of religious life burst on the scene, especially among monks and those priests who endeavoured to live like monks (the canons). The major schools of 12th-century mysticism were inspired by new trends in monastic piety, especially those introduced by Anselm of Canterbury, but they developed these in a systematic fashion unknown to previous centuries. The great figures of the era, especially Bernard of Clairvaux among the Cistercians and Richard of Saint-Victor among the canons, have remained the supreme teachers of mystical theology in Catholic Christianity, along with the Spanish mystics of the 16th century. (see also Index: mysticism)

What the Cistercian and Victorine authors contributed to the development of Catholic mysticism was, first, a detailed study of the stages of the ascent of the soul to God on the basis of a profound understanding of the human being as the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and, second, a new emphasis on the role of love as the power that unites the soul to God. Building on both Origen and Augustine, Bernard and his contemporaries made affective, or marital, union with God in oneness of spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17) a central theme in Western mysticism, though along with Gregory the Great they insisted that "love itself is a form of knowing," that is, of vision or contemplation of God.

The great mystics of the 12th century contributed to an important expansion of mysticism in the following century. For the first time mysticism passed beyond the confines of the monastic life, male writers, and the Latin language. This major shift is evident not only in the life of Francis of Assisi, who emphasized the practical following of Jesus and came to be identified with him in a new form of Christ-mysticism, manifested in his reception of the stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ, but also in the remarkable proliferation of new forms of religious life and mystical writing in the vernacular on the part of women. Though female mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen were not unknown in the 12th century, the 13th century witnessed a flowering of interest in mysticism among women, evident in the Flemish Hadewijch of Brabant, the German Mechthild von Magdeburg, the French Marguerite Porete, and the Italians Clare of Assisi and Àngela da Foligno.

Among the important themes of the new mysticism of the 13th century was a form of Dionysian theology in which the stage of divine darkness surpassing all understanding was given a strong affective emphasis, as well as the emergence of an understanding of union with God that insisted upon a union of indistinction in which God and the soul become one without any medium. The first of these tendencies is evident in the writings of Bonaventure, the supreme master of Franciscan mysticism; the second is present in some of the women mystics but finds its greatest proponent in the Dominican Meister Eckhart, who was condemned for heresy in 1329.

Eckhart taught that "God's ground and the soul's ground is one ground," and the way to the realization of the soul's identity with God lay less in the customary practices of the religious life than in a new state of awareness achieved through radical detachment from all created things and a breakthrough to the God beyond God. Though Eckhart's thought remained Christological in its emphasis on the necessity for the "birth of Son in the soul," his expressions of the identity between the soul that had undergone this birth and the Son of God seemed heretical to many. Without denying the importance of the basic structures of the Christian religion, and while insisting that his radical preaching to the laity was capable of an orthodox interpretation, Eckhart and the new mystics of the 13th century were a real challenge to traditional Western ideas of mysticism. Their teaching seemed to imply an autotheism in which the soul became identical with God, and many feared that this might lead to a disregard of the structures and sacraments of the church as the means to salvation and even to an antinomianism that would view the mystic as exempt from the moral law. The Council of Vienne condemned such errors in 1311, shortly after Marguerite Porete was burned as a heretic for continuing to disseminate her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. The council associated these views with the Beguines, groups of religious women who did not live in cloister or follow a recognized rule of life. In the centuries that followed, some mystics were condemned and others executed on this basis, though evidence for a widespread "mystical heresy" is lacking.

The great mystical writers of the late Middle Ages, however, took pains to prove their orthodoxy. Eckhart's followers among the Rhineland mystics, especially Heinrich Suso and Johann Tauler, defended his memory but qualified his daring language. Texts such as the anonymous Theologia Germanica of the late 14th century, which reflects the ideas of the loose groups of mystics who called themselves the Friends of God, conveyed this German mysticism to the Reformers. In the Low Countries, the rich mystical literature that developed reached its culmination in writings of Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381). In Italy two remarkable women, Catherine of Siena in the 14th century and Catherine of Genoa in the 15th, made important contributions to the theory and practice of mysticism. The 14th century also saw the "Golden Age" of English mysticism, as conveyed in the writings of the hermit Richard Rolle; the canon Walter Hilton, who wrote The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection; the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and his contemporary, the visionary recluse Mother Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love is unsurpassed in English mystical literature. Julian's meditations on the inner meaning of her revelations of the crucified Christ express the mystical solidarity of all humanity in the Redeemer, who is conceived of as a nurturing mother.

In the 16th century the centre of Roman Catholic mysticism shifted to Spain, the great Roman Catholic power at the time of the Reformation. Important mystics came both from the traditional religious orders, such as Francis de Osuna among the Franciscans, Luis de León among the Augustinians, and Luis de Grenada among the Dominicans, and from the new orders, as with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. The two pillars of Spanish mysticism, however, were Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) and her friend John of the Cross (1542-91), both members of the reform movement in the Carmelite order. Teresa's Life is one of the richest and most convincing accounts of visionary and unitive experiences in Christian mystical literature; her subsequent synthesis of the seven stages on the mystical path, The Interior Castle, has been used for centuries as a basic handbook. John of the Cross was perhaps the most profound and systematic of all Roman Catholic mystical thinkers. His four major works, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love, constitute a full theological treatment of the active and passive purgations of the sense and the spirit, the role of illumination, and the unification of the soul with God in spiritual marriage.

In the 17th century France took the lead with figures such as Francis of Sales, Pierre de Bérulle, Brother Lawrence (the author of The Practice of the Presence of God), and Marie Guyard. At this time concentration on the personal experience of the mystic as the source for "mystical theology" (as against the common scriptural faith and sacramental life of the church) led to the creation of mysticism as a category and the description of its adherents as mystics. This century also saw renewed conflict over mysticism with the rise of the Quietist controversy. A Spaniard resident in Rome, Miguel de Molinos, author of the popular Spiritual Guide (1675), was condemned for his doctrine of the "One Act," that is, the teaching that the will, once fixed on God in contemplative prayer, cannot lose its union with the divine. In France Mme Guyon and her adviser, François Fénelon, archbishop of Cambrai, were also condemned for Quietist tendencies emphasizing the role of pure love to the detriment of ecclesiastical practice. These debates cast a pall over the role of mysticism in Roman Catholicism into the 20th century, though important mystics continued to be found. ( B.J.McG.) (see also Index: Quietism)

iv) Protestant Christianity.

The chief representatives of Protestant mysticism are the continental "Spirituals," among whom Sebastian Franck (c. 1499-c. 1542), Valentin Weigel (1533-88), and Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) are especially noteworthy. Among traditional Lutherans Johann Arndt (1555-1621) in his Four Books on True Christianity took up many of the themes of medieval mysticism in the context of Reformation theology and prepared the way for the spiritual revival known as Pietism, within which such mystics as Count von Zinzendorf flourished. In England the Anglican divines known as the Cambridge Platonists, the Quakers headed by George Fox (1624-91), and William Law (1686-1761) were important. In Holland a mystical group known as Collegiants, similar to the Quakers, broke away from the Remonstrant (Calvinist) Church. Other mystical bodies were the Schwenckfeldians, founded by Kaspar Schwenckfeld, and the Family of Love, founded in Holland by Hendrik Niclaes early in the 16th century before moving to England about 1550. The religion of the Ranters and other radical Puritans in 17th-century England had mystical aspects. (see also Index: Protestantism)

The cardinal feature of Protestant mysticism is the emphasis laid on the divine element in humanity variously known as the "spark" or "ground" of the soul, the "divine image" or "holy self," the "Inner Light," or the "Christ within." This was one of the essential elements of Rhineland mysticism and shows the connection between medieval and Reformation mysticism. For Böhme and the Spirituals, essential reality lies in the ideal world, which Böhme described as "the uncreated Heaven." Böhme took over the Gnostic belief that the physical world arose from a primeval fall, renewed with the Fall of Adam. His teaching was the main formative influence on the developed outlook of William Law and William Blake (1757-1827).

For Protestant as well as for Roman Catholic mystics, sin is essentially the assertion of the self in its separation from God. The divine life is embodied in "the true holy self that lies within the other" (Böhme, First Epistle). When that self is manifested, there is a birth of God (or of Christ) in the soul. Protestant mystics rejected the Lutheran and Calvinist doctrine of the total corruption of human nature. William Law remarked: "the eternal Word of God lies hid in thee, as a spark of the divine nature" (The Spirit of Prayer, I.2.). "The eternal Word of God" is the inner Christ, incarnate whenever people rise into union with God. By the Spirituals Christ was viewed as the ideal humanity born in God from all eternity. This conception received its greatest emphasis with Kaspar Schwenckfeld, who, unlike Protestant mystics generally, taught that humans as created beings are totally corrupt; salvation means deliverance from the creaturely nature and union with the heavenly Christ.

Protestant mystics explicitly recognize that the divine Light or Spark is a universal principle. Hans Denck in the early 16th century spoke of the witness of the Spirit in "heathens and Jews." Sebastian Franck, like the Cambridge Platonists, found divine revelation in the work of the sages of Greece and Rome. George Fox appealed to the conscience of the American Indians as a proof of the universality of the Inner Light. William Law described non-Christian saints as "apostles of a Christ within." Protestant mystics stated plainly that, for the mystic, supreme authority lies of necessity not in the written word of Scripture but in the Word of God in the self. Fox said: "I saw, in that Light and Spirit that was before the Scriptures were given forth" (Journal, chapter 2). It was especially on this ground that the mystics came into conflict with the established church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

The Ranters provide a good example of the conflict between mysticism and established religion. They held, with Fox and Hendrik Niclaes, that perfection is possible in this life. Puritan leaders under the Commonwealth denounced them for their "blasphemous and execrable opinions," and there was, no doubt, an antinomian tendency among them that rejected the principle of moral law. Some rejected the very notion of sin and believed in the universal restoration of all things in God. (see also Index: antinomianism)


Christian mystics have described the stages of the return of the soul to God in a variety of ways. Following the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal, it can be suggested that Christian mysticism includes three broadly defined stages: (1) the gradual integration of the ego under the mastery of the idea of a personal God and according to a program of prayer and asceticism, (2) a transcendent revelation of God to the soul experienced as ecstatic contact or union, frequently with a suspension of the faculties, and (3) "a kind of readjustment of the soul's faculties" by which it regains contact with creatures "under the immediate and perceptible influence of God present and acting in the soul" (Maréchal, Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics). It is this final stage, which almost all of the greatest Christian mystics have insisted upon, that belies the usual claim that mysticism is a selfish flight from the world and an avoidance of moral responsibility.

i) The dying to self.

The mystics agree on the necessity of dying to the false self dominated by forgetfulness of God. In order to attain the goal, it is necessary to follow the way of purgation: the soul must be purified of all those feelings, desires, and attitudes that separate it from God. This dying to the self implies the "dark night of the soul" in which God gradually and sometimes painfully purifies the soul to ready it for the divine manifestation. (see also Index: death)

Christian mystics have always taken Christ, especially the crucified Christ, as the model for this process. According to the Theologia Germanica, "Christ's human nature was so utterly bereft of self, and apart from all creatures, as no man's ever was, and was nothing but a 'house and habitation of God' " (chapter 15). The following of Christ involves a dying to self, a giving up of oneself wholly to God, so that one may be possessed by the divine Love. Such detachment and purgation were frequently expressed in extreme terms that imply the renunciation of all human ties. Paradoxically, those who insist upon the most absolute detachment also emphasize that purifying the self is more a matter of internal attitude than of flight from the world and external penance. In the words of William Law: "The one true way of dying to self wants no cells, monasteries or pilgrimages. It is the way of patience, humility and resignation to God" (The Spirit of Love, Part 1).

The practice of meditation and contemplative prayer, leading to ecstasy, is typical of Christian and other varieties of theistic mysticism. This usually involves a process of introversion in which all images and memories of outer things must be set aside so that the eye of inner vision may be opened and readied for the appearance of God. Introversion leads to ecstasy in which "the mind is ravished into the abyss of divine Light" (Richard of Saint-Victor, The Four Grades of Violent Love). Illumination may express itself in actual radiance. Symeon the New Theologian speaks of himself as a young man who saw "a brilliant divine Radiance" filling the room. In the path to union many of the Christian mystics experienced unusual and extraordinary psychic phenomena--visions, locutions, and other altered states of consciousness. The majority of mystics have insisted that such phenomena are secondary to the true essence of mysticism and can even be dangerous. "We must never rely on them or accept them," as John of the Cross said in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2.11.

ii) The union with God.

Christian mystics claim that the soul may be lifted into a union with God so close and so complete that it is in some way merged in the being of God and loses the sense of any separate existence. Jan van Ruysbroeck wrote that in the experience of union "we can nevermore find any distinction between ourselves and God" (The Sparkling Stone, chapter 10); and Eckhart speaks of the birth of the Son in the soul in which God "makes me his only-begotten Son without any difference" (German Sermons, 6). These strong expressions of a unity of indistinction have seemed dangerous to many, but Eckhart and Ruysbroeck insisted that, properly understood, they were quite orthodox. Bernard of Clairvaux, who insisted that in becoming one spirit with God the human "substance remains though under another form" (On Loving God, chapter 10), and John of the Cross, who wrote "the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation" (The Ascent of Mount Carmel ii, 5:7), express the more traditional view of loving union. (see also Index: divine union)

iii) The readjustment.

The goal of the mystic is not simply a transient ecstasy; it is a permanent state of being in which the person's nature is transformed or deified. This state is frequently spoken of as a spiritual marriage that weds God and the soul. This unitive life has two main aspects. First, while the consciousness of self and the world remains, that consciousness is accompanied by a continuous sense of union with God, as Teresa of Ávila clearly shows in discussing the seventh mansion in The Interior Castle. Brother Lawrence wrote that while he was at work in his kitchen he possessed God "in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament" (The Practice of the Presence of God, chapter 4). Second, the spiritual marriage is a theopathic state: the soul is felt to be in all things the organ or instrument of God. In the unitive life Mme Guyon says that the soul "no longer lives or works of herself, but God lives, acts and works in her." In this state the mystic is able to engage in manifold activities without losing the grace of union. In the words of Ignatius of Loyola, the mystic is "contemplative in action."


Christian mysticism has expressed itself in many forms during the last two millennia. Three broad types characterize much of Christian mysticism, though these should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Some mystics tend to emphasize one form over the others, while others make use of all three.


i) Christ-mysticism.

The earliest form of Christian mysticism was the Christ-mysticism of Paul and John. Although Christian mysticism in its traditional expression has centred on aspiration for union with God, Christ-mysticism has always been present in the church. In the Eastern Church emphasis was placed on the divine Light that appeared to the disciples at the Transfiguration, and mystics sought to identify with this light of Christ in his divine glory. Symeon says of a certain mystic that "he possessed Christ wholly. . . . He was, in fact entirely Christ." In the Catholic West, with reference to the founding figure of Augustine, it is evident that it is in and through the one Christ, the union of Head and body that is the church, that humans come to experience God. For Augustine the mystical life is Christ "transforming us into himself" (Homily on Psalm, 32.2.2). In the medieval period some of the most profound expressions of Christ-mysticism are found in the women mystics, such as Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich. Luis de León spoke of the theopathic life in terms of Christ-mysticism: "The very Spirit of Christ comes and is united with the soul--nay, is infused throughout its being, as though he were soul of its soul indeed."

With Protestants the attempt to return to primitive Christianity has led to strong affirmations of Christ-mysticism. The early Quaker George Keith wrote that Christ is born spiritually in humanity when "his life and spirit are united unto the soul." The chief representative of Christ-mysticism among the early Protestants was Kaspar Schwenckfeld. For him Christ was from all eternity the God-man, and as such he possessed a body of spiritual flesh in which he lived on Earth and which he now possesses in heaven. In his exalted life Christ unites himself inwardly with human souls and imparts to them his own divinity.

ii) Trinitarian mysticism.

Pure God-mysticism is rare in Christianity, though not unknown, as Catherine of Genoa shows. Christ as God incarnate is the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, and Christian mysticism has, from an early era, exhibited a strong Trinitarian dimension, though this has been understood in different ways. What ties the diverse forms of Trinitarian mysticism together is the insistence that through Christ the Christian comes to partake of the inner life of the Trinity. The mysticism of Origen, for example, emphasizes the marriage of the Word and the soul within the union of Christ and the church but holds out the promise that through this action souls will be made capable of receiving the Father (First Principles, 3.6.9). The mystical thought of Augustine and of such medieval followers as Richard of Saint-Victor, William of Saint-Thierry, and Bonaventure is deeply Trinitarian. Meister Eckhart taught that the soul's indistinction from God meant that it was to be identified with the inner life of the Trinity--that is, with the Father giving birth to the Son, the Son being born, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from both. A similar teaching is found in Ruysbroeck. John of the Cross wrote of mystical union that "it would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed into the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity" (Spiritual Canticle, stanza 39.3). Such strong Trinitarian emphasis is rarer, but not absent from Protestant mysticism.

iii) Negative mysticism: God and the Godhead.

The most daring forms of Christian mysticism have emphasized the absolute unknowability of God. They suggest that true contact with the transcendent involves going beyond all that we speak of as God--even the Trinity--to an inner "God beyond God," a divine Darkness or Desert in which all distinction is lost. This form of "mystical atheism" has seemed suspicious to established religion; its adherents have usually tried to calm the suspicions of the orthodox by an insistence on the necessity, though incompleteness, of the affirmative ways to God. The main exponent of this teaching in the early centuries was the Pseudo-Dionysius, who distinguished "the super-essential Godhead" from all positive terms ascribed to God, even the Trinity (The Divine Names, chapter 13). In the West this tradition is first found in Erigena and is especially evident in the Rhineland school. According to Eckhart, even being and goodness are "garments" or "veils" under which God is hidden. In inviting his hearers to "break through" to the hidden Godhead, he daringly exclaimed, "let us pray to God that we may be free of 'God,' and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal" (German Sermons, 52). The notion of the hidden Godhead was renewed in the teaching of Jakob Böhme, who spoke of it as the Ungrund--"the great Mystery," "the Abyss," "the eternal Stillness." He stressed the fact of divine becoming (in a nontemporal sense): God is eternally the dark mystery of which nothing can be said but ever puts on the nature of light, love, and goodness wherein the divine is revealed to human beings. (see also Index: via negativa)


The study of Christian mysticism presents both the unity of mysticism as an aspect of religion and the diversity of expression that it has received in the history of Christian faith. The mystic claims contact with an order of reality transcending the world of the senses and the ordinary forms of discursive intellectual knowing. Christian mystics affirm that this contact is with God the Trinity and can take place only through the mediation of Christ and the church, whether explicitly or implicitly at work. The claim is all the more significant in that Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are here in agreement.

Without in any way affirming that all mysticism is everywhere one and the same, it can be said that the Christian mystics take their stand with the mystics of other traditions in pointing to "the Beyond that is within." In an age when the claims of established religion are so widely questioned, the witness of the mystics is of particular appeal; but it should be remembered that most mystics have not been rebels against their respective religious confessions. Another great question that confronts the present age is the relation of Christianity to other world religions. If Christianity is to embark upon truly cooperative relations with other religions, it must be deeply imbued with the insight and experience of the mystics. Even if it is to attempt to plumb the depths of its own history, it cannot neglect its mystical dimensions. (S.Sp. /B.J.McG.)


4. Christian myth and legend

Myths and legends number among the most creative and abundant contributions of Christianity to the history of human culture. They inspire artists, dramatists, clerics, and others to contemplate the wondrous effects of Christian salvation on the cosmos and its inhabitants. They conjoin diverse cultural horizons, taking those worldviews bounded by Christian revelation and fusing them creatively with the religious histories that exist prior to and alongside the orthodox Christian world. Even for the less pious and the nonbelievers, the distinctive visions of reality presented in Christian legend or myth and the symbolic actions based upon them have helped to form the fundaments of Western civilization. Pilgrimage to the shrines of legendary saints, to mention but one example, touches economic and political life, military history, visual and musical arts, popular devotion, and the exchange of scientific information. Moreover, the content of the legends and myths themselves has contributed directly to theories about religion, society, politics, art, astronomy, economics, music, and history.


An appreciation of the positive role of myth and legend in culture has been long in coming. Christian theology, taking its lead from Greek philosophy, at first denigrated the value of myth. In constructing the Christian canon and in choosing authoritative interpretations of it, the early church suppressed or excluded myth and legend in favour of the genres of philosophy, history, and law. The opinion expressed in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy only echoes the prevalent Hellenistic view of myth: "Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths" (1 Timothy 4:7). In spite of that, a number of important mythical themes remain central to the New Testament--e.g., Christ as the second Adam (Romans 5:12-14), the heavenly spheres (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and the celestial battle between angels and demons. Still visible, but barely so, in the writings of Paul (Galatians 3:28) is the early Christian theme of the androgyny of Christ and of his spiritually accomplished disciples.

The Apologists from the 2nd to the 5th centuries used legend and myth. Clement of Alexandria employed them as allegories to make Christian concepts intelligible to Greek converts. But Clement (e.g., in his Protreptikos ["Exhortation"]) and other Church Fathers roundly condemned the belief that Greek myths might be autonomous sources of truth. In spite of its ambiguous use of mythic symbols and themes, the history of Christian doctrine testifies to the systematic excision of legendary and mythical elements from Christian orthodoxy. Even folk practices, based on legend, were policed and suppressed. In 692, for example, the Quinisext Council (also known as the Trullan Synod), a precedent-setting episcopal council convoked by the Byzantine emperor Justinian II, prohibited baking bread in the form of the Virgin Mary's placenta, as was the custom on the afterbirth day (that is, the day after Christ's birth). This ambiguous, but ultimately negative, evaluation of Christian myth and legend lingers to this day.

A second cause for the delay in evaluating the positive contributions of myth and legend to religious life is the theories of religion that have flourished since the time of the European Enlightenment. These theories treated myths as infantile projections of the prerational childhood of the human race (projections surpassed by the mature rationalism of the Enlightenment). More intimate knowledge of mythic traditions in Africa, India, Oceania, and the Americas, however, has disclosed the important role myth plays in culture and highlighted the coherence and sophisticated order of myth.

Myths narrate the sacred events that unfolded in the first time, the epoch of creative beginnings. In that primordial period supernatural beings brought reality--in part or in whole--into existence. In that sense, myth relates only those things that have really occurred--that is, those realities that have revealed themselves completely. These realities become the foundation of the world, society, and human destiny. Myths manifest the acts and beings that are sacred, that are completely other than the world encountered in day-to-day experience. Myths are always paradoxical because realities that are other than those of this world have nonetheless established it. The intervention of sacred and supernatural beings accounts for the conditions of the world and humanity today. Myth describes the acts and beings whose appearance shaped material existence in all its concrete specificity.

Legends are episodic continuations of mythic narratives, for they describe the effects of primordial events on history--a history revealed through the imagination and one as fabulous as the primordial mysteries that brought that history into being. Legends must describe history in fantastic terms in order to clarify the significance of the powers that underlie it. The repetitiveness and redundancy of legends emphasize the fact that many different legends spring from the same mythic sources--that is, from the same primordial events and creative powers. But variants of legend are reminders that myths and their outcomes are historically conditioned and questioned. Christian legend contends with the question of what the Christian mystery means here and now, in these particular, everyday circumstances. Because of their local frame of reference, legends vary incessantly, and widely different accounts emerge from diverse locales and periods. Favourite legendary themes are the struggles and miraculous adventures of heroes in the faith. Such accounts edify the faith and bolster the courage of the listener.

There is no complete account of Christian legend and myth, nor is there a full outline of the mythic world engendered by the economy of salvation set in motion with the life of Christ and his disciples. Above all, the theologies of rural populations and oral traditions have been slighted in the study of Christian thought. A historical interpretation of the full mythical and legendary expression of Christianity would probably reveal a surprising adherence to tradition even while it uncovered startling reinterpretations of the Christian message over time. Christian myths and legends exuberantly express the truths of Christian existence, viewed as a religious situation in the social and physical world. The mystery of salvation unfolds when the eternal God dramatically enters the created universe in the form of an incarnate, mortal creature. "Like us in all things but sin," God's presence among human beings is mysterious, and the meaning of this mystery risks remaining hidden and undeciphered. Legends and myths spell out the effects of these salvific secrets not only for human individuals but also for all realms of reality--animal, vegetal, astral, material, corporeal, social, and intellectual. By quickening the listeners' religious awareness of the salvation unfolding around them, the symbols of legend and myth often aimed to further the redemptive effects of the mysteries and wonders they describe. (L.E.S.)


i) The early church.

Early Christianity appropriated mythological motifs and genres from the Greek and Middle Eastern cultures that dominated the Hellenistic Age (c. 300 BC-c. AD 300). Among them was the miraculous birth of a deity; the virgin birth of a god or goddess was a theme common in the mythology of the Hellenistic world. Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of sexual love, for example, emerged from sea foam. Athena sprang, in full battle array, from the head of Zeus, her father. The legend of the virgin birth of Alexander the Great (4th century BC) from his mother, Olympias, whose reputation was not that of a virgin, demonstrated Alexander's divinity. Mithra, the Iranian god of light and of sacred contracts, is described as a divine child of radiant heavenly beams. Mithra was born from the rock of a cave, the birth witnessed by shepherds on a day (December 25) that was later claimed by Christians as the Nativity of Christ. (see also Index: Greek mythology)

Hellenistic Judaism had already reinterpreted many Gentile motifs and set them within a biblical context. From Greek and Jewish sources Christians adopted and adapted some favourite mythical themes: the creation of the world, the end of the paradisal condition and the fall of humankind, the assumption of human form by a god, the saved saviour, the cataclysm at the end of time, and the final judgment. Christians reframed these motifs within their new images of history and their doctrines concerning the nature of God, sin, and redemption. As it spread beyond Palestine and the Hellenistic world over the course of time, Christianity continued to develop mythical themes important to the religious consciousness of converted peoples.

(1) The ages of the world.

One fascinating mythical theme in the New Testament is that time consists of a series of ages. Each age of the world (or kingdom) is dominated by a powerful force or figure. This motif exists throughout the globe with a range of specific cultural meanings. In the 8th century BC in Greece, the poet Hesiod described the ages of the world as four in number and symbolized by gold, silver, bronze, and iron, each age successively declining in morality. In India the four yugas (Sanskrit: "world ages"), symbolized by the four throws of a dice game, also are viewed as descending--though in repetitive cycles--from perfection to moral chaos. Other original schematizations of this theme can be found in the mythologies of Chinese, Polynesian, and American Indian cultures.

By the time the New Testament was written, Jewish apocalyptic writings (symbolic or cryptographic literature portraying God's dramatic intervention in history and catastrophic dramas at the end of a cosmic epoch) had already produced theories of history that reworked Indo-Iranian notions about the ages of the world. Iranian concepts most influenced Christian views of time, history, and ultimate human destiny. The prophet Zoroaster (c. 7th century BC) and his followers in Iran taught a doctrine of the four ages of the world in which each age was a different phase in the struggle between two kinds of powers--light and darkness, goodness and evil, spirit and matter, infinity and finitude, health and sickness, time and eternity. The forces of good and evil battled for the allegiance and the souls of human beings. In the last days a promised saviour (Saoshyant) would pronounce final judgment and announce the coming of a new world without end in which truth, immortality, and righteousness would have everlasting reign. (see also Index: apocalyptic literature, history, philosophy of, Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism)

Drawing on Jewish apocalyptic literature (exemplified in the Book of Daniel), early Christian apocalypse (exemplified in the Book of Revelation) elaborated the theme of the ages of the world as a series of historical periods in which good struggles against evil: (1) from the creation of the world and of humanity to the Fall into sin and out of Eden; (2) from the Fall to the first coming of Christ; (3) from the first to the second advent of Christ, which includes the 1,000-year reign of Christ and his saints and the Last Judgment; and (4) the creation of a new heaven and a new earth in which those who have chosen the good (i.e., Christ) will live in eternity. Within this framework of the mythical history of the ages of the world, Christian apocalyptic re-envisions a number of themes important to Jewish apocalypticism: the Son of man and the great tribulation prior to the judgment of the world; the battle between Christ and the Antichrist, a false messiah or "great liar" who denies that Jesus is the Christ and who pitches the world into moral confusion and physical chaos; and the ultimate triumph over Satan, who appears as a dragon but who no longer deceives the nations of the world.

The theme of the several ages of the world has a long and fruitful life in Christian thought and undergirds many Western concepts of progress toward a better state of existence or of decline toward extinction. Montanus, a heretical Christian prophet of the early 2nd century, claimed that history progressed from an age of the Father to an age of the Son to an age of the Holy Spirit, of whom Montanus was the manifestation. One could fruitfully explore the degree to which such apocalyptic myths underlie not only the religious theories of a multistage history, as propagated by Martin Luther, the early Jesuits, Christopher Columbus (in his Book of Prophecies), and Giambattista Vico, but also the more secular philosophies of history developed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the comte de Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, and Karl Marx.

(2) Messianic secrets and the mysteries of salvation.

New Testament references to the "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (for example, Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10) generated myth and legend. The New Testament emphasis on secrecy and on the mysteries of salvation became fertile ground for the exfoliations of myth and legend. Things hidden from the beginning of the world now blossomed in the signs of the new messianic age. These truths, now come to light, should be proclaimed to the whole world. Through myth and legend Christians transmitted and explored, with the full force of the imagination, the wonders revealed in Christ and the secrets of his salvation.

Esoteric traditions, especially those based on apocalypses and apocrypha (such as the Apocalypse of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Secret Gospel of Mark, and Gospel of Philip) preserve some legends and myths descending from the early Christian centres of Edessa, Alexandria, and Asia Minor. The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus (known also as the Arabic Infancy Gospel) recounts that, one day, Jesus and his playmates were playing on a rooftop and one fell down and died. The other playmates ran away, leaving Jesus accused of pushing the dead boy. Jesus, however, went to the dead boy and asked, "Zeinunus, Zeinunus, who threw you down from the housetop?" The dead boy answered that Jesus had not done it and named another (I Infancy 19:4-11). This and other such narratives describe the "hidden life" of Jesus in the 30 years before his public ministry began. The Acts of Paul and Thecla narrates the story of a friend of Paul who was thrown to the lions--one of which defended her in a manner similar to that of the lion in the story of Androcles, a well-known legend. Other exemplary legends appear in the Acts of the Martyrs and other histories. After Christian theologians defined orthodoxies in terms of Greek philosophy or Roman juridical code, these mythic themes appeared clumsy or tasteless and, in retrospect, heterodox or even heretical. (see also Index: New Testament Apocrypha)

Groups of Gnostics and heretics who based their ideas on alternative mythologies of the economy of Christian salvation furnished exotic Christian myths, legends, and practices. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries these groups often subscribed to theories of dualism: the world of matter created by an evil god (of the Book of Genesis) and the realm of the spirit created by a good god (revealed in the New Testament) were irreconcilably pitted against one another. The many Gnostic sects--among them the Valentinians, Basilidians, Ophites, and Simonians--developed a variety of myths. Valentinus lived in Rome and Alexandria in the mid-2nd century. Valentinian myths describe how the pleroma (spiritual realm) that existed in the beginning was disrupted by a Fall. The Creator God of Genesis, aborted from the primordial world, became a Demiurge and created the material universe. He deliberately created two kinds of human being and animated them with his breath: the hylics and the psychics. Unknown to the Demiurge, however, certain remnants of pleromic wisdom contained in his breath lodged as spiritual particles in matter and produced a third group of beings called pneumatics. The God of Genesis now tries to prevent Gnostics from discovering their past origins, present powers, and future destinies. Gnostics (the pneumatics) contain within themselves divine sparks expelled from the pleroma. Christ was sent from the pleroma to teach Gnostics the saving knowledge (gnosis) of their true identities and was crucified when the Demiurge of Genesis discovered that Christ (the male partner of the feminine Holy Spirit) was in Jesus. After Christ returned to the pleroma, the Holy Spirit descended.

The Ophites (from the Greek word ophis, "serpent") reinterpreted the mythological theme of the Fall of Man in Genesis. According to the Ophite view, the serpent of the Garden of Eden wanted Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, to eat from the tree of knowledge (gnosis) so that they would know their true identities and "be like God" (Genesis 3:5). The serpent, thus, is interpreted as a messenger of the spiritual god, and the one who wanted to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is viewed as the Demiurge. In their rejection of the God of the Old Testament, who gave the Ten Commandments, the Ophites flaunted their sexual freedom from the law and conventionality by extreme sexual license, a trait common to other Gnostic groups as well. (see also Index: sexuality)

The Phibionites in Alexandria were a Gnostic sect described by Epiphanius. They gathered at banquets that became ecstatic orgies. Married couples changed partners for dramatic sexual performances. Sperm and menstrual blood were gathered and offered as a gift to God before being consumed as the Body and Blood of Christ. By such erotic communions they sought to regather the elements of the world-soul (psyche) from the material forms into which it had been dispersed through a cosmic tragedy at the beginning of time. The regathering amounted to salvation, for all things would be gathered up into the one glorious body of Christ. ( L.F./L.E.S.)

(3) The Magi and the Child of Wondrous Light.

The legend of the Magi-Kings was embellished in apocryphal books and Christian folklore. The Protogospel of James and the Chronicle of Zuqnin describe the birth of the Saviour. Like the god Mithra, the divine child is consubstantial with celestial light and was born in a mountain cave on December 25. Such imagery of the Nativity of Christ and the symbolism of the royal visitors may originally have descended from Iranian accounts of the birth of the cosmic saviour, for the accounts seem to owe a great deal to Iranian theologies of light. But the themes have been recast in Christian terms. The Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum relates that 12 Magi-Kings lived near the Mountain of Victories, which they climbed every year in the hope of finding the messiah in a cave on the mountaintop. Each year they entered the cave and prayed for three days, waiting for the promised star to appear. Adam had revealed this location and the secret promises to his son Seth. Seth transmitted the mysteries to his sons, who passed the information from generation to generation. Eventually the Magi, sons of kings, entered the cave to find a star of unspeakable brightness, glowing more than many suns together. The star and its bright light led to, or became, the Holy Child, the son of the Light, who redeems the world. (see also Index: Bethlehem, Star of)

(4) Relics and saints.

The cult of saints gained momentum from the 4th to the 6th century. The bones of martyrs gave stirring evidence of God's power at work in the world, producing miracles and spectacles of the effectiveness of faith. The martyrs had imitated Christ even unto death, and the remains of their holy bodies served as contacts between earth and heaven. On the model of Christ's Incarnation, the bones of martyred saints embodied God's salvific power and thus became the centre of active cults. Relics were installed in special churches called martyria or in basilicas. The tombs of martyrs, on the margins of cities and towns, attracted pilgrims and processions. Legends described the prodigious virtues of martyrs and saints, as well as the dreams or visions that revealed the resting places of still more powerful relics. Each discovery (inventio) promised new and effective signs of divine redemption. Returning from distant places, especially Rome, pilgrims brought relics to their home churches. Thus, during the 8th century, bones and other relics were moved from southern Europe to the north and west. During the Middle Ages especially, deities and cultural heroes became elements of Christian hagiography.

Of all discovered relics the most impressive was the True Cross, found in September 335 (or in 326, according to other accounts). Prompted by a dream, Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, located the place where the Cross lay buried and had the wood unearthed. The power of the Cross, the history of the wood, and the story of its discovery became legendary. In Christian myth this relic of Christ's death dated back to the mortal origins of humanity. Innumerable cures attested to the authenticity of the Cross.

Through the symbolism of the Cross early Christian imagery perpetuated, and at the same time transformed, the myths of the World Tree. The sacred drama of Christ's birth, death, and Resurrection participates in the rejuvenating rhythms of the fecund cosmos. Early Christians identified the Cross of Christ as the World Tree, which stood at the centre of cosmic space and stretched from earth to heaven. The Cross was fashioned of wood from the Tree of Good and Evil, which grew in the Garden of Eden. Below the tree lies Adam's buried skull, baptized in Christ's blood. The bloodied Cross-Tree gives forth the oil, wheat, grapes, and herbs used to prepare the materials administered in the sacraments that revitalize a fallen world. The Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca later depicted the myth of the True Cross in his frescoes in Arezzo, Italy. They portray the death of Adam, fallen at the foot of the Tree that provides wood for the crucifix on which Jesus is slain. But the wood of the Cross becomes the instrument of salvation and the holiest matter in Christendom. Fabulous accounts and fantastic historical episodes surround the Cross. (see also Index: tree of knowledge)

Another 4th-century event, the discovery of Christ's tomb, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, also became a highlight of Christian legend. Like the body of the Saviour, the tomb is a "holy of holies." Its discovery was tantamount to the Resurrection, for its reemergence into the light of day was seen as a restoration of life where before only darkness reigned. The Cross and the tomb were woven together in legend. The desire to regain possession of the True Cross and the Holy Sepulchre eventually fueled the territorial expansion of Christian empires and spurred Christian knights to crusade. (L.E.S.)

ii) The Middle Ages.

As Christianity expanded from the cultural milieu of the Mediterranean area to the north and east, the various converted tribes and peoples did not, understandably, forget their own religious heritages. Just as attributes of the Roman god of war, Mars, had been transferred to Michael, the archangel who is the leader of the heavenly hosts, in the early centuries of the church, so also the attributes of the gods of the Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, and other peoples were transferred to angels and saints during the Middle Ages. For example, St. George, who rescued a maiden after slaying a dragon, became the patron saint of England and one of the most popular saints among the Balts (among whom St. George replaced the god Kalvis, the heavenly smith and dragon slayer).

Nor were saints the only legendary figures important to Christendom. Prester (Presbyter) John, a fabled Christian priest-king of the Orient, became so believable a figure in the Middle Ages that Pope Alexander III dispatched a letter to him in 1177. Similarly, the legend of the wandering Jew, who had taunted Jesus on his way to be crucified, was popular in the 13th century and again, from the 17th century on, in the stories about the wanderer Ahasuerus.

For the Christian medieval world the Holy Grail (the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper) symbolized the truth and knowledge needed to achieve the experience of salvation. Led in search of the Grail by divine grace, the naive hero Perceval inquired directly about the Grail, a question other knights had failed to ask. His simplistic question, put to the ailing Fisher King, revitalized not only the royal body but the entire drooping cosmos. The human condition is rejuvenated by the graceful quest for the truth of salvation. Perceval was superseded by Galahad as the winner of the Holy Grail in later variations, Galahad being viewed as a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea (the member of the Jerusalem council in whose tomb the body of Jesus was laid), who was believed to have gone to Glastonbury, Eng., with the Holy Grail. (L.F. /L.E.S.)

Probably under the influence of Bogomil and Cathar heretical tendencies toward dualism, apocryphal books of Christian legends (such as The Wood of the Cross, Gospel of Nicodemus, How Christ Became a Priest, Adam and Eve, and Interrogatio Iohannis) circulated in both eastern and western Europe. They usually stressed the role of Satan as co-creator of the world or as a being whose fall is responsible for the evil world that exists. The devil plays a major role in legend, and his activity usually exhausts the creative energies of the good God, who falls into passivity.

A number of Christian myths, legends, and works of art were aimed at awakening religious capacities, turning the viewer or listener against repulsive forms of evil, and hastening the effects of the salvation achieved in Christ. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the bestiaries, fables, and cosmic dramas sculpted into Romanesque cathedrals. Christ, the glorious King, and his saintly cohorts confront armies of monsters and demons. Together the two sides show forth the full spectrum of the imaginary world of Christian legend and myth of the day. (see also Index: sculpture, Romanesque art)

Christian legends and myths were also woven into long-lived literary creations: the late medieval chansons de geste yielded to the epic tales, lyric poetry, and songs that conducted audiences into an enchanted symbolic world that paralleled their mundane one. Such are the enigmatic poems of the 12th-century Court of Love and the literature patronized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie, countess of Champagne. Similarly the troubadours of 12th-century Provence creatively refashioned, in Christian terms, the inspirations they received from the Arabic poetry of Spain and the influences of Celtic, Gnostic, and Oriental themes in circulation at the time. These tendencies toward the fantastic in Christian expression reached their literary peak in the works of Dante (1265-1321), whose Divine Comedy depicts the terrifying and attractive visions of Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell in such a way as to quicken the ultimate powers of the imagination and thereby draw the reader toward the effective images of the mystery of their own salvation.

In the place of Charlemagne, a favourite hero of the old chansons de geste, the legendary cycles of the 12th century spawned a new generation of romantic heroes--King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table. Marie, countess of Champagne, sponsored Chrétien de Troyes, the poet who composed five long romances that became the mythic foundation for chivalry. These cycles interweave Christian, Muslim, and Gnostic elements into a singular cosmic vision. Suffering ordeals during their adventures, the knights of the Arthurian cycle (Arthur, the Fisher King, Perceval, and Lancelot) journey through the Wasteland on their heroic quests for the Holy Grail and for the cure that will revitalize king and cosmos. Wolfram von Eschenbach offers the most coherent mythology of the Grail in his Parzival a refinement of Christian legends that draws on the worlds visited by the crusaders and by Italian merchants--Syria, Persia, India, and China. At the conclusion of many of these cycles, the Holy Grail, often in the image of the chalice of salvation in Christ, is transported to a fabulous mythical location in the Orient.

The 12th century also witnessed the rise of a new mythology of Christian history. Joachim of Fiore (1130/35-1201/02) was an abbot of the Calabrian monastery of Fiore and was well-known in the Christian world of his day. On the vigil of Easter and on Pentecost Sunday, God infused him with special knowledge, which enabled him to decode history as a series of divine signs. According to Joachim, universal history has three stages, each age (status) corresponding to a person of the Holy Trinity. The first age, presided over by God the Father, was ruled by married men and propelled by their labour. Jesus Christ presided over the age of the New Testament, an epoch ruled by the clergy and driven forward by the power of science and discipline. The two testamental periods featured the two kinds of people chosen in each, the Jews and the Gentiles. Joachim fascinated the faithful of his day with a prediction that the second age, the age of the New Testament presided over by Jesus Christ, would end in 1260. Then would dawn a new epoch, the third age, presided over by the Holy Spirit, guided by monks and fueled by their contemplation. It was to be an epoch of total love, joy, and freedom. But three and one-half years of cataclysm ruled by the Antichrist would precede entrance to this bliss. (see also Index: history, philosophy of)

Joachim promised that God's mysterious saving power would burst fully into history in the immediate future and would change forever the fundamental structures of the cosmos as well as the social and ecclesiastical world. Joachim's new vision of history generated critiques of the 13th-century church and society. His doctrine of the Trinity was condemned at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1255 Pope Alexander IV suppressed a collection of his written works, and in 1263 the regional Council of Arles condemned many of Joachim's most stirring ideas. His notions of an impending third epoch, in which history would come to complete fulfillment, lived on.

iii) Renaissance magic and science.

Christian legend and myth also found fertile ground in the practices of alchemy. Through the perfection of metals the alchemists sought their own perfection and, indeed, the salvation of all matter. Through the mysterious and great work (magnum opus) of alchemy the alchemist dissolved, then fused, his own physical matter and spirit with the prime matter of the universe. These initiatory experiences of reduction into prime matter made possible the re-creation of individual and cosmos as a single, pure element. Even the philosopher's stone or elixir was reinterpreted so that Christ appeared as the perfect matter produced by the alchemical process--that is, Christ was the stone of all wisdom and knowledge. In the alchemist's spiritual forge, the Stone reemerged from the Matrix, the crucible containing the so-called Bath of Mary, whose amniotic fluids dissolved all impurities. This dissolution prepared one for rebirth as a perfect being. All matter was redeemed by immersion in the fluids of the womb where Jesus took flesh. Mystical union with Christ's death and physical regression to that same uterus where God became matter empowered the Christian alchemist to effect a new fusion of redeemed realities, freed of all impure dross. Scientists secretly continued the alchemical tradition. Among them numbered the foremost pioneers of modern physics and chemistry: Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, and Sir Isaac Newton.

Legends also found their place in the growing science of astronomy. In the Middle Ages it was learned that conjunctions of planets occur every 20 years on a minor scale and every 960 years on a major scale. This theory, described in the Liber magnarum coniunctionum, was advocated by Albumazar (787-886), a disciple of al-Kindi (?-c. 870), a Muslim philosopher who assimilated Greek philosophy to Islam. Roger Bacon used this theory to work out the chronology of great personalities in history and to map the chronological relationship of true prophets (Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ, Mani, and Muhammad), one for every 320 years. Based on observations of a supernova in 1604, Johannes Kepler calculated the "true date" of the birth of Jesus. These calculations revitalized an interest in the legendary Magi, who had followed the great star. Kepler believed that the conjunctions were unnatural events brought about by the miraculous acts of God, who had decided to lodge the birth of his son between the significant zodiacal signs of the Fish (Pisces) and the Ram (Aries).

Rosicrucian announcements of the imminent coming of a new world also propagated the theory that great celestial conjunctions appeared at the births of prophets and saviours. The scientific achievements of Kepler became a foundation for the new secret order reputedly founded by Christian Rosenkreuz, for it confirmed their hopes. The editors of Rosicrucian publications dated the death of their founder to 1484 and fixed the time of the discovery of his tomb as 1604 in order to coordinate the events with the last two great conjunctions of stars.

iv) Christian practice in the modern world.

The 20th century continues to generate important Christian myths and legend-based practices, including pilgrimages made on Marian feast days to holy wells and fairy rings outside the Irish town of Sneem and devotions at the tomb of Christ in Japan, where, according to local legend, Christ ended the long life of missionary travels he began after his mock death in Jerusalem. These acts and the legendary explanations that accompany them detail the impact of Christian salvation on present-day reality. In all the cultures where Christianity has been propagated, myth and legend express the fulfillment of the religious desires and hopes that constituted the religious traditions before contact with Christian revelation. The following examples suggest their variety and vitality.

The healing of sickness is, as it was in the time of the New Testament, a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of Christ in its fullness. In Africa, for example, many so-called Independent Churches creatively reinterpret disease and rites of cure along Christian lines. In Douala, Cameroon, during the 1980s, two healing prophets named Mallah and Marie-Lumière divided their disciples, whom they called the "sick ones of the Father," into groups named for the important categories of illness described in the Gospels: the Blind, the Halt, the Lame, the Deaf, the Epileptic, the Dumb, and the Paralyzed. The disciples evidenced none of these physical symptoms, but they were asked to identify deep within themselves with the affliction described in the Gospel, so that salvation might touch them in their inner being. By becoming sick, they could be healed and thus join the elect. In lengthy sermons the healing prophets reimagined traditional African religious imagery and refashioned it in the light of Christian belief. The experience of their peculiar mystical disorders afforded a basis for social regrouping and for rethinking the past and present. (see also Index: healing cult)

The Christian expression of sacred music and trance is often grounded in legend or myth. In Brazil, for example, Macumba, Candomblé, and other Afro-Brazilian cults have roots sunk deep into the religions of African slaves transplanted to the New World. Afro-Brazilian rites often centre on possession by a supernatural being, called an orixá. The innumerable orixás are ranked in hierarchies modeled on the pantheons of the Yoruba people of West Africa, among others. In Brazil (and in much of Afro-American religious life of the Americas), each orixá is identified with a specific Christian saint. In the Umbanda cult of Brazil, altars hold small plaster images of the Christian saints associated with the orixás. Each one of the saints presides over a domain of human activity or over a disease, social group, geographic area, or craft. For example, Omolú, the god of smallpox, is identified with St. Lazarus, whose body, in Christian legend, is pocked with sores and who heals diseases of the skin. Oxossi, the Yoruba god of hunting, is associated with the bellicose St. George or St. Michael, the slayers of dragons and other demonic monsters. Yansan, who ate the "magic" of her husband and now spits up lightning, is associated with St. Barbara, whose father was struck by lightning when he tried to force her to give up her Christian faith. In the worship site each orixá has its own stone, which is peculiarly shaped, coloured, or textured; arranged in a distinctive position on the altar; and identified as the Cross of Christ. A single saint may be identified with several orixás or vice-versa. Regions vary the saintly identifications and some designations shift over time. Each orixá has its own musical rhythms and sounds. When called by drums, dance, and music, the supernatural being may take over the possessed medium, reveal valued information, and carry out effective symbolic acts on behalf of the community.

European communities continue to be fascinated with the rigorous asceticism of St. Anthony of Egypt, who repulsed wild beasts, reptiles, and other assaults and remained steadfast in the faith. He is considered the patron of domestic animals, and in many parts of Italy, the drama of the feast of St. Anthony, historically associated with the winter solstice, rivals any other feast day of the Christian calendar. To celebrate that festival in Fara Filiorum Petri, a town in the Abruzzi region of Italy, the townspeople ignite enormous bonfires on the night of January 16. Each of the 12 outlying hamlets brings into the main town's square a bundle (farchia) of long poles. Set on end, the bundles are lashed together to form a single tall mass, an act that commemorates the historical union of the mountain settlements as one bonded community. Then the bundles of farchie, 15 or more feet high, are set ablaze. The fire cleanses the community and holds at bay the evil forces of sickness and death. As the fire dies down, young men jump through the purifying flames. Spectators carry remnants of the blessed fire back to their homes, spreading the ashes in their stalls and on their fields.

The birth of Christ is still a focus for traditions of legends and myths that maintain their autonomous existence outside of ecclesiastical institutions. In rural Romania, for instance, on Christmas Eve groups of young carolers (colindatori) proceed from house to house in the village, singing and collecting gifts of food. Often these carolers impersonate the saints, especially John, Peter, George, and Nicholas. The words of their songs (colinde) describe legendary heroes who carry the sun and wear the moon on their clothes. They live in paradisal worlds and subdue monstrous animals in order to leave the world free from harm and ready to renew itself in the fertile acts of spring.

The symbolic reenactments of legend often experiment with alternative social orders and criticize or reverse existing divisions of labour and prestige. In Sicilian-American communities of Texas, Louisiana, California, and elsewhere, the female head of the household dedicates and displays an altar to St. Joseph and thus fulfills a promise made in a moment of need. Normally, in Roman Catholicism, a priest who is a celibate male presides at the liturgy and at devotional services. In this case, however, a woman presides, together with other women who assist her. She prepares fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cakes, fig-filled pastries, pies, and special breads and uses them to decorate a series of tiers stretching from floor to ceiling. She also arranges on this festival altar the figurines of saints, the Virgin Mary, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The construction of this panorama of fruitfulness takes nine days, a period that constitutes a ritual novena of prayer and devout action. Representatives who act in the accompanying ceremony play the roles of the Holy Family and other saints important to the altar display. Re-creating the Holy Family's search for room in a Bethlehem inn on the night of the Nativity, the ritual drama builds toward the moment when the altar-giver opens her home to Joseph and Mary. As Mother Mary prepares to give birth to Jesus, the hostess readies her home, heart, and community so that they may become fit dwelling places for the sacred being. The presiding women play the roles of Magi-Kings bearing gifts of food and hospitality to the Holy Family and their entourage, which includes most of the neighbouring community. A single family can host from 500 to 1,000 people in the feast that terminates the celebration.

Sometimes the new Christian mythologies function as counter-theologies or theologies of resistance to the impositions of Christian culture. They criticize the Christian missionary enterprise even while they embrace aspects of the new religion. For instance, biblical and Christian themes now occupy a large part of the mythology of the Makiritare Indians in the upper Orinoco River region of Venezuela. For them, Wanadi is the Supreme Being of great light and, although one being, he exists in three distinct persons (damodede, "spirit-doubles"). Over the course of creation and human history, Wanadi has sent his three incarnations to earth in order to create human beings and redeem them from the darkness into which they have fallen. In the end, Wanadi, the god incarnate who comes to save humankind, is crucified by mythical monsters called Fañuru (from the Spanish españoles: "Spaniards"), at the instigation of an evil being called Fadre (from the Spanish padre: "father" or "priest"). To all appearances, Wanadi was slain by the Fañurus, but, in fact, he cut his own insides out and allowed his inner spirit (akato) to dance free of his dead, cast-off body. Before Wanadi's spirit ascends into heaven, he gathers his 12 disciples about him and promises that he will return in a new and glorious body to destroy the evil world and create a new earth.

Unlike the orthodox canon of Christian scripture, which was inscribed and closed in the first centuries, authentic Christian myth and legend have arisen anew in all the centuries of the Christian Era. The course of Christian myth and legend can be traced through the whole of Christian history. It offers a record of the spread of Christianity--through the Mediterranean, eastern and western Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas--and highlights the diversity of cultures brought into contact with the Christian message of salvation. The diverse religious hopes, heroes, and rites of these cultures continue to shape reinterpretations of the life of Christ and his saintly followers.

Legend and myth constitute a record of critical reflection on Christian reality in all its dimensions--social, political, economic, doctrinal, and scriptural. No social class or geographic region can lay exclusive claim to Christian myth and legend; they fill the stanzas of royally sponsored poets, the visions of utopian philosophers, and the folklore of rural populations. Indeed, many ideas widely held about the workings of salvation (especially regarding the saints, angels, the devil, and the powers of nature) find their origin in legendary episodes rather than biblical text. Through myth and legend, diverse local communities across the globe have creatively absorbed into their rich religious histories the message of Christian salvation and, through the same fabulous means, they have evaluated the impact of Christian temporal power on their world. 


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