The word “mysticism,” although its first appearance occurs in the writing of Dionysius the Areopagite, dating from the late fifth century, early sixth century of the Christian era, is something whose content has always been present in the history of Christianity. It later came to be used more as a noun, around the seventeenth century, in France. In fact, mysticism proper encountered not a few difficulties in establishing its citizenship in theological circles, especially Protestant ones. There is great suspicion in these circles about an experience that provokes altered states of consciousness detached from ethics and praxis.

However, it is an intuition present since the beginnings of Christianity that the openness of the human spirit to the Absolute tends, in its own dynamism, toward an unattainable horizon, toward the fullness of being and good, which mobilizes human intelligence and freedom and is present in every cognitive or volitive act as a condition of its own possibility. This infinite horizon, to which the human being is structurally oriented, is God Himself, experienced as near and immediate, grounding the hope of reaching Him.

From an adequate Christian conception of creation, always and totally oriented toward salvation, the Ultimate to which man is constitutively oriented is the God who gratuitously takes the initiative of salvation and freely communicates Himself. In every act of knowing or willing, the dynamism of the spirit surpasses the known or desired object, turning to this infinite horizon. The experience of God is more properly an experience of being oriented (feciste nos ad te) toward God and always happens in the experience of concrete knowledge or will. In this experience lies the secure basis for discourse about God. Otherwise, there is always the danger of imagining Him incorrectly.

In any case, it must include a specific intentionality, directed toward the Radical Meaning, or the Ultimate Reality of history, which confers a definitive meaning to the one who undergoes this experience and to all the reality that surrounds them. This is the intentionality of faith, directed to God, revealed and active in Jesus Christ.

This experience has its origin in God Himself. It is not a mere product of human interpretation or a creation of man. There is no true experience when it is fixed on the particular, but only in relation to the totality of existence that cannot be controlled by man. Authentic spiritual experience does not consist of a simple accumulation of sensations. Whenever the human being confronts their particular experience with the totality, they open up to the spiritual dimension. Thus, every truly human experience is open to the transcendent and, therefore, to the spiritual.

It is not the human being who directs and conducts their experience with God. Rather, it is the trust and reception of the mystery that makes the experience possible. They are invited to participate in the same exemplary or archetypal experience of Jesus, living with Him, through Him, and in Him the mystery of total surrender into the hands of the Father. Human experience is truly fulfilled when it transcends in God, who is infinitely greater than anything men are willing to experience.

This section of the Encyclopedia aims to address this issue of mysticism and spirituality. The following entries will seek to delineate the boundaries and differences between religious experience and the experience of God; the foundations and possibilities of a theology of spirituality; the models of mysticism in the Western tradition; the history of spiritualities in Western Christianity, as well as the great figures that stand out in this history; finally, the contours that the Christian spiritual and mystical experience presents in the popular communities of Latin America, with their own identity and profile, will be exposed; and to conclude, some emerging issues in the area of mysticism, which make it one of the most lively and dynamic areas of theology today, will be raised.

In Western thought, speculative reflection on mysticism grew through philosophy towards a properly theological thought. This was built, in turn, based on the data of Scripture, from the doctrine of grace and the spiritual life elaborated by the Christian tradition. And thus it provided a solid basis for theology to engage in this field with its own instruments. However, it cannot be denied that even philosophers rigorously faithful to their epistemology had to agree that this reflection must be supported by the concordance of testimonies relating to authentically recognized religious experiences.

It seems, therefore, that the definition of mysticism as cognitio Dei experimentalis, that is, the knowledge of God through experience, remains valid today as it did yesterday. If, in a second moment, mysticism can be approached and reflected upon by theology in more intellectual terms, activating thinking, this does not mean nor does it eliminate in any way and to any extent this first experiential level, fundamental for there to be what is recognized as mysticism, that is, an experience of the mystery of the completely Other, a knowledge of this Other through experimentation. An experience, therefore, of the God who is holy mystery but who, while remaining hidden, allows Himself to be experienced and known.

God reveals Himself as the Radical Meaning of human life. If every religious experience is an experience of the Sacred, certainly the mystical experience understood as an experience whose greatest objective is the union with God as mystery and grace is an experience of Meaning, which requires the whole person, in a consciousness that apprehends, assimilates, and interprets the experience, not contenting itself with the affective and cathartic sensation it provokes.

Since Christian theology is intellectus fidei ‚Äď that is, faith seeking understanding ‚Äď it has constantly accepted, over these more than 2000 years of Christian history, a bold challenge: to try to elaborate rigorous reflection and enunciate principles on something that fundamentally falls within the experiential, the unspeakable, and the ineffable as mysticism.

Maria Clara Bingemer, PUC-Rio, Brazil