Redefining mysticism

Curlew River

St Teresa of Ávila, by Peter Paul Rubens In the final chapter of his book on Teresa of Ávila (see previous post ), Rowan Williams discusses the nature of “mysticism”.

He begins by pointing out that St Teresa would never have used the term “mysticism” in the sense it is used today. For Teresa, “mystical” knowledge of God meant “the sort of knowledge of God that is obscure to the intellect”, rather than referring to a particular type of ecstatic experience. As Dr Williams observes:

Mysticism has come to be opposed to the rational and institutional aspects of religious life, and it is very frequently regarded as a form of experience common to all religious traditions and representing a level of unity in the religious apprehension of reality deeper than the merely historical and linguistic diversities between faiths. (p.144)

This is not Teresa’s understanding of “the mystical”. Her experiences of the mystical were “lived out within the historical…

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