Philosophy of Mysticism in the Middle Ages
Episode #2 of the course “Brief history of Medieval philosophy”
From the ancient Greek word meaning “to conceal,” medieval mysticism was a set of beliefs surrounding the specifics of feeling a union or presence of God to understand religion and religious experiences. Mystics in the Middle Ages were not so much concerned about transcendental experiences but rather were focused on the presence of Christ during the Eucharist, the allegorical (or “hidden”) meanings of biblical texts, and the experience of the presence of God. Being a mystic meant being a member of a concealed group, with privy access to knowledge that came only through ritual mystic practices and contemplation.
In the first centuries of Christianity, mysticism was regarded as a path to discovering truths about God’s influence on the world. It was not the goal of mystics to achieve a single religious experience as the culmination of their mystic studies; instead, mystical experiences where the presence of God was felt were stepping stones to greater spirituality and religious knowledge. Because mystics studied the hidden, secret ways to connect with God, remove an individual’s burden of identity, and reawaken the divine spirit within each person, they were considered some of the wisest and most holy of men. The practices were sometimes, though rarely, performed by women.
The split between the East Orthodox Christian church and the Western Catholic church created distinct differences in how mysticism was practiced throughout Europe. While Western Catholicism developed a bend toward mysticism as a theological tool, Eastern Orthodox Christians came to define theologians as people who seek and attain this union with God. Mysticism is not strictly a set of Christian practices and experiences, however. All religions incorporate some aspects of connection with the divine in some mystical ways. It has been practiced by religious sects in India, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
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