Mysticism in general refers to a direct and immediate experience of the sacred, or the knowledge derived from such an experience. In Christianity this experience usually takes the form of a vision of, or sense of union with, God; however, there are also nontheistic forms of mysticism, as in Buddhism. Mysticism is usually accompanied by meditation, prayer, and ascetic discipline. It may also be accompanied by unusual experiences of ecstasy, levitation, visions, and power to read human hearts, to heal, and to perform other unusual acts. Mysticism occurs in most, if not all, the religions of the world, although its importance within each varies greatly. The criteria and conditions for mystical experience vary depending on the tradition, but three attributes are found almost universally. First, the experience is immediate and overwhelming, divorced from the common experience of reality. Second, the experience or the knowledge imparted by it is felt to be self-authenticating, without need of further evidence or justification. Finally, it is held to be ineffable, its essence incapable of being expressed or understood outside the experience itself.

Many mystics have written of their experiences, and these writings are the best source for our knowledge of mysticism. Poetic language is frequently the vehicle of expression. Fire, an interior journey, the dark night of the soul, a knowing that is an unknowing--such are the images or descriptions used for communicating the mystical experience. In the Christian tradition mysticism is understood as the result of God's action in persons, an unmerited grace they receive from union with God. Other religions allow for the human achievement of the mystical states through certain methods of contemplation, fasting, and breathing. Only those whose lives are marked by penance and emotional purification achieve mystical states, however, and the experience itself is always of an Absolute that transcends the human efforts or methods of achieving it.

Modern philosophers and psychologists have studied the occurrence of mysticism. William JAMES suggested that it may be an extension of the ordinary fields of human consciousness. The philosopher Henri BERGSON considered intuition to be the highest state of human knowing and mysticism the perfection of intuition. Today scientists are interested in the ways in which certain drugs seem to induce quasi-mystical states. Recent studies have added to the understanding of mysticism without fully explaining it in psychological terms.

Among the many Christian mystics who have documented their experiences are Saint FRANCIS OF ASSISI; Saint TERESA OF AVILA; Saint JOHN OF THE CROSS; Jacob BOHME; George Fox, founder of the Quakers; and EMANUEL SWEDENBORG. For information on mysticism in Islam, see SUFISM; in Judaism, HASIDISM and KABBALAH; in the Eastern religions, TAOISM, UPANISHADS, VEDANTA, and ZEN BUDDHISM.


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Bowman, M. A., comp., Western Mysticism (1989);
Bridges, Hal, American Mysticism: From William James to Zen (1970);
Butler, E. C., Western Mysticism, 3d ed. (1967);
Capp, Walter H., and Wright, Wendy M., eds., Silent Fire: An Invitation to Western Mysticism (1978);
James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902);
Katz, S. T., Mysticism and Religious Traditions (1983);
Knowles, David, The English Mystical Tradition (1961);
Louth, A., The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (1981);
Morewedge, P., ed., Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism (1981);
O'Brien, Elmer, Varieties of Mystical Experience (1964);
Parrinder, Geoffrey, Mysticism in the World's Religions (1977);
Scholem, G. G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3d ed. (1959);
Stevens, Edward, An Introduction to Oriental Mysticism (1974);
Suzuki, Daisetz T., Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957; repr.1982); Szarmach, P. E., ed., An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe (1985); Werner, K., The Yogi and the Mystic: Studies in Indian and Comparative Mysticism (1989).

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