Authentic Mysticism According to Evelyn Underhill  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In her introduction to Evelyn Underhill:  essential writings (Orbis 2003) Emilie Griffin summarizes five traits of genuine mysticism that can be discerned in the work of the great Anglican spiritual director and writer.  Hat-tip to Carl McColman.


  1. Christian mysticism is active and practical. Even a Carthusian hermit takes responsibility for living his contemplative life with honor, dignity, and personal integrity. Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Christian contemplatives, the life of silence is embedded in a network of community relationships and responsibilities of some form. True mysticism does not fly from such obligations, but embraces them and seeks to meet them well.
  2. Christian mysticism is spiritual and transcendental, rather than magical. The authentic mystic does not seek supernatural power for the purpose of controlling earthly circumstances, but rather seeks to surrender to the will and calling of Divine Love. By doing so, one does not abdicate the need to be engaged with the earthly dimension of life (see #1), but rather abandons all things to Divine Providence, whether “good” or “bad.” Both pleasure and suffering are held lightly and viewed in the light of eternity.
  3. Christian mysticism is centered in love. It is not centered in experience, or in shifts of consciousness, or even in miracles or healing — no matter how worthy such spiritual matters might be. For the authentic mystic, all the phenomena of mysticism is always subordinate to the essential fact and yearning for ever-unfolding intimacy and immersion into the dance of Divine love. Such love is the heart of the Trinity and the key to Divine-human relations.
  4. Union with God in authentic mysticism transforms the mystic for ever richer levels of life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says of his followers, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Mysticism is a portal into such abundant living. Like all things of God, it is never an end to itself — if it were, it would cease to be an icon and instead become an idol. Mysticism points beyond itself to the life of kenosis and theosis: self-emptying in order to participate in the Divine nature.
  5. As a result of such loving union, the authentic mystic becomes unselfish. Just as normal human moral development moves us from ego-centric to ethnocentric and finally world-centric stages of care, so the mystical life makes love of God and love of neighbor real by anchoring love of self in ever-widening circles of concern. An unselfish mystic is not contemptuous of the self, but rather loses interest in self-aggrandizement because of the deep love for and interest in others: love that is, of course, expressed in concrete, practical ways.

John Chrysostom's Christmas Sermon  

Posted by Joe Rawls

St. John Chrysostom’s Christmas Homily
Behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.
Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Ongoing Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor  

Posted by Joe Rawls

During this Advent season, we of course ponder the wonder of  God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Maximus the Confessor, the great seventh-century Greek theologian, suggests that we can allow Jesus to become incarnate within us in a metaphorical yet very real way.  This concept is explored by Brock Bingaman in his comprehensive essay "Becoming a spiritual world of God:  the theological anthropology of Maximus the Confessor."  It is chapter 9 in The Philokalia:  a classic text of Orthodox spirituality, Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds.  Oxford, 2012.


Along with Maximus's teaching on the incarnation as the key to understanding all things, as an act of divine love, as a trinitarian work, and as the self-emptying of Christ, is the idea that the incarnation continues to occur within believers.  In the First Century of Various Texts on Theology, The Divine Economy, and virtue and Vice, Maximus asserts that the "divine Logos, who once for all was born in the flesh, always in his compassion desires to be born in spirit in those who desire him".  Maximus goes on to explain that the Logos becomes an infant and forms himself in the believer through the virtues.  The Logos reveals only as much of himself as he knows the believer can accept.  The limited manifestation of his own greatness in each believer is not due to his lack of generosity, but is based on the receptive capacity of those who long to see him.  "In this way", Maximus continues, "the divine Logos is eternally made manifest in different modes of participation, and yet remains eternally invisible to all in virtue of the surpassing nature of his hidden activity."

In another philokalic text, where Maximus speaks of a balance of dispositions and an inner unity that reflect the holiness of the divine image and likeness, he explains that this is how one participates in the kingdom of God and becomes a translucent abode of the Holy Spirit.  Through grace and free choice, the believer's soul becomes the dwelling place of Christ:  "In souls such as this, Christ always desires to be born in a mystical way, becoming incarnate in those who attain salvation."  Thunberg argues that Maximus's teaching on Christ's presence, birth, and embodiment in the virtues demonstrates that human perfection has two sides.  First, it includes restoration, integration, unification, and deification; and second, it includes divine inhabitation in human multiplicity.  This double emphasis is found whenever Maximus reflects on the theme of Christ's ongoing incarnation in believers and is based on Maximus's late Chalcidonian theology with its emphasis on communicatio idiomatum and perichoresis (or the sharing of attributes and the interpenetration of the divine and human natures in Christ).  Thus Maximus understands that the incarnation of the Logos and the deification of humanity are two sides of the same mystery.