Masked Mysticism

Everyday Suffering, Everyday Sanctity

Christian mysticism can be defined as the experience of direct, personal encounter with the God of love. It is an immediate experience, one that transcends all rituals and dogmas. It goes deeper than all “signs,” whether verbal or sacramental, to attain what they only hint at or point toward. Christian mysticism requires purification, a heightening of the senses and of the spirit. It is not the fruit of abstract reflection or of intellectual intuition. It is a gift of God, but one often associated with the practice of contemplative prayer.

Over centuries of Christian history, such experiences of God increasingly became the domain of a small elite. Mystics’ lives were consecrated to the pursuit of holiness and to preparing themselves for the reception of this gift. Such a vocation was itself considered a “state of perfection.” The earliest mystics of the church were the desert fathers and mothers. In later Western Christianity, this role was assumed by contemplative communities like the Carmelites, Carthusians, and Trappists, but there remained individual, if sometimes idiosyncratic, “fools for Christ.” Gradually there developed classical texts, designed to guide souls in their experience of God. These included The Ladder of Perfection of St. John Climacus (c. 569–c. 649), The Ascent of...

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About the Author

Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.