Although most people in the West are familiar with Christian teachings, its mystical element has been largely ignored. One reason for this may be that Christianity as an institution, as distinct from a spiritual path, has become so thoroughly assimilated into our society that it is commonly seen as little more than an advanced ethical code.
Modern Christianity tends to emphasize the importance of performing good deeds and the avoidance of sin rather than the development of the individual, although a notable exception to this is the view held by ‘born again’ Christians, who maintain that Christianity is primarily about opening oneself up to the grace of God.
Christianity is, in fact, an essentially mystical religion – a way to God through Jesus Christ, the ‘Word made flesh’. By guiding and initiating into the truth all those who seek by means of God’s spiritual power, the Holy Spirit, Christ is himself the way to God. ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the light,’ he told his disciples. ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6) The Christian mystic seeks to be united with God through following the way of Christ.
Just as there are many varieties of Christianity, there are many different forms of contemplation practiced by Christians, ranging from reflection on Biblical passages to meditation techniques which are virtually identical to some of those found in the traditions of the East. However, like all other mystics, those within the Christian tradition maintain that God can never be revealed through the intellect.
As St Augustine put it, ‘There is in the mind no knowledge of God except that it does not know Him.’ Thus the most mystical forms of Christian contemplation go beyond conscious thought to a state of awareness similar to that cultivated in, for example, Zen. Described by the Spanish mystic St Teresa of Avila as ‘the suspension of all internal and external powers’, two principal routes – the via positiva and the via negativa – are offered as means to achieving this state.
The via positiva, or positive way, involves concentrating the mind on God’s attributes – such as perfect love, goodness, and so on – in order to acquire a sense of God’s magnitude. Through this kind of contemplation the Christian eventually transcends the limitations of conscious thought and becomes united with God in love and adoration.
The via negativa, or negative way, is the more dominant path in the Christian mystical tradition and was strongly emphasized by Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century Syrian monk whose writings have had enormous influence in Christian mysticism. Followers of this path seek knowledge of God by means of negation, by the non-attribution of any qualities – either positive or negative – to God.
The reasoning behind this is that our ideas of qualities such as love or goodness are so limited that, in attributing these qualities to God, we are limiting Him to our own narrow concepts and breadth of experience. Only by leaving behind all ideas of God’s attributes will the truth be revealed and the seeker be united with God. ‘By not-seeing and by unknowing we attain to true vision and knowledge,’ taught Dionysius.
Although Christian meditation is practiced in many different forms, running throughout the Christian mystical tradition is an emphasis on the mystical power of love. More important than the particular technique practiced is the spirit in which the practice is under¬taken – and this holds true for any form of meditation.