A turning point in my life took place in an unremarkable manner. In my college years, my best friend approached me in the university library and thrust a book into my hand. “Steve, read this!” He said. The book was Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. The year was 1976. I did as he asked. I understood very little of what I read, though it changed my life.
Interestingly, I did not learn from reading that book what made Orthodox theology “mystical.” It is a term and a description that is widely misunderstood. It is also the most salient aspect of Orthodox distinctives. Sadly, it can be an aspect of Orthodoxy that is unknown to the Orthodox themselves.
The term “mystical” has a mix of meanings in English. For some, it conjures up images of Far Eastern religions, or even of various occult practices. To say, “He is a mystic,” is not generally perceived as a compliment. People often accuse the Orthodox of overusing the word, “mystery.” We hit a wall in the explanatory process and suddenly declare, “It’s a mystery.”
Essentially, the word “mystery” (from the Greek) refers to something “hidden” that cannot be spoken aloud. In Roman culture, it was often used to describe the “mystery religions” in which members were initated into various secrets. There was a deep sense that, whatever was true within the spiritual realm, it was something unknown to most and available to those who were willing to undergo special demands.
St. Paul, in particular, uses the term to describe certain aspects of Christian teaching – indeed – the gospel itself.
“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24–27)
In St. Paul’s use of the term, there is an aspect that will later come to be the hallmark of “mystical” theology. He speaks of something that has been hidden from ages and generations – and specifically identifies it with the phrase, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” If there is a striking and distinguishing characteristic of Orthodox thought, it is the reality of communion, of active participation in the life of God and God’s active participation within our own lives. In Christ, we have a common life with God – He dwells in us and we in Him. This understanding undergirds everything we know as the Church: the sacraments (which are properly named “mysteries”), the doctrines of the Great Councils, every liturgy and service and all prayers. As such, it is accurate to say that Orthodox Christianity is “mystical” (as defined in an Orthodox manner).
Modern Christianity has any number of competing, non-mystical, narratives. Perhaps the most dominant would be the various versions of “relationship” Christianity. I am not entirely certain what precisely is meant by a “personal relationship with Jesus,” though I’ve “been there” and used that language myself back in the day. On the whole, what seems to be meant, is a “relationship” that is similar to the relationships we have with others in our lives: friends, family, etc. I know Him, He knows me. I talk to Him, He talks to me. From an Orthodox perspective, such a description is not so much wrong as it is inadequate.
It is certainly of note that the language of “personal relationship” is entirely modern, with roots in the notions of pop-psychology. It often has elements of individualism in which the Church and the sacraments are relegated to positions of personal choice. “I only need Jesus,” (or words to that effect) set aside the very things which Christ Himself established and gave for the work of salvation. Christ said, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn. 6:53) I have read evangelical commentaries that explain this statement as a demand for accepting a particular aspect of doctrine rather than actually eating and drinking the Eucharist. Our individualized thoughts are made the beginning and the ending of all things.
I do not intend to demean the faith of those who have been nurtured in an individualistic psychology of belief. It is, more than anything else, a symptom of the culture in which we live. Sacraments and mystical participation are alien concepts. They are, however, deeply grounded in the reality of what it means to be human. That they seem alien in the modern world says much about the nature of modernity itself.
Communion, or mutual participation, is not an obscure or rare phenomenon. Rather, it has the misfortune of existing outside the normative conversations of our culture. Marriage is one of the best examples. St. Paul writes:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” (1 Corinthians 6:15–17)
The apostle does not describe the “one flesh” (a profound reality of communion and mutual participation) as the product of a psychological relationship – it is the product of sexual intercourse. Someone might protest, “But she meant nothing to me!” Nevertheless, the result of any sexual relationship is one flesh. Indeed, St. Paul raises the ante on this sin by noting that a Christian engaging in fornication is “joining Christ to a harlot” (because the Christian is already “one flesh” with Christ!) It is of note that this passage uses the term “members” for Christians – a word we have perverted into meaning something like a mild association. Rather, a “member” is a “body part.” We are to Christ as “members” – hands, feet, toes, arms, legs, etc. “Membership,” in the Biblical sense, is a term of communion and mutual participation.
There are many things with which we have communion. Indeed, it is much more accurate to describe our relationship with our culture as communion. It inhabits us, thinks in us, desires in us, etc., with rarely anything that passes for reasoning or choosing. We are its “members,” in the Biblical sense. Orthodox Christian asceticism has as its goal, among many things, the severing of this commercial communion and the deepening of our communion in Christ.
We are not created for “relationships” in the modern sense of the word. We are created and sustained by communion and mutual participation. Coming to understand what this means is a journey into a deeper world (the one that truly exists). It is also a journey out of the shallow delusions of this present age.
God give us grace!