De-Mystifying Mystical Theology: What It is and Why We Need It

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Catholic’s may not kick around the term “mystical theology” much these days, but it is far from a dead science. Spiritual Theology is another popular term for the same discipline, and you may be familiar with some of the folks writing on the topic expansively: men like Dan Burke of SpiritualDirection.com fame, Fr. Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V. and Catholic Stand’s very own David John Torkington. Mystical Theology is a study vital to the spiritual life and the growth of our souls, as with all other branches on the Catholic theological tree.

What is mystical theology?

Mystical theology has been widely interpreted by various traditions. We will aim for the traditional Catholic sense of the discipline here. We are talking about that branch of theology that deals with the intangible experiences of the soul that operate in realms outside of human effort. This includes things like God’s movement in us during prayer, contemplation and even spiritual warfare. For example, if I see visions of Heaven and the Blessed Mother in Eucharistic Adoration, my experiences would best be explored, judged and defined under the province of mystical theology. To quote the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

Mystical theology is the science which treats of acts and experiences or states of the soul which cannot be produced by human effort or industry even with the ordinary aid of Divine grace. It comprises among its subjects all extraordinary forms of prayer, the higher forms of contemplation in all their varieties or gradations, private revelations, visions, and the union growing out of these between God and the soul, known as the mystical union.

Is the study of Mystical Theology necessary?

Catholics have cherished the writings of the great saints for centuries. It is impossible to discourse about the visions of Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment of Spirits or the events of Fatima without impeding the boundaries of mystical theology.

In our spiritual experiences, it is good to know who is at work (God or the enemy), and how. In fact, many souls suffer needlessly in the spiritual life without proper recourse to the tools that mystical theology provides. The Ignatian rules for the discernment of spirits are a vital tool in doing battle with the enemy of our souls and St. Teresa of Avila’s writing on the Interior Castle is a boon for the soul seeking its way to God. As with all theology, mystical theology is a method by which we study God and the things of God. A holy application of mystical theology, as properly understood in the mind of the Church, is an effective counter-stratagem to the spiritual forces that work against us.

The Primacy of the Word of God

Good theology is inseparable from the Word of God. This principle governs our understanding of mystical theology. The Great Mystics immersed themselves in the word of God and had the highest regard for scripture. As St. Jerome so famously said, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ”. And to be ignorant of Christ is to be absent from Christianity and the Catholic faith. Our theology is no good if it does not lead us closer to the truth.

It is this pursuit of truth that has the ability to save us from the mystical dangers. Our struggle is “not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph. 6). God, in his love, has revealed this to us in scripture. But it is also true that He continues to reveal it in His Church and in His people up through the ages. In the saints and mystics we see the work of God delivering souls and countenancing wisdom in prayer. Mystical theology is a foray into the activity of God that is present and active to this day. Does God still speak to us? Or are we left only with the echoes of a sacred word written so long ago?

The answer is that God is still speaking.

But He speaks in a cacophony of voices. He is gentle and respects our free will. So while we may have the propensity to heap up teachers for ourselves, His voice comes to relieve us and to remind us of who we are. But His is not the only subtle voice that demands our attention. Which is why we must judge wisely the spiritual experiences that we have. This is why we must “do” Mystical Theology.

 

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