Mystical spirituality is concerned with one basic question: how can we truly know God? One way of knowing involves learning information about God; it is doctrinal. Another way of knowing leads to union with God; it is mystical. Mystical writing often seems impenetrable and incomprehensible, eluding precise definition, as if it were an unknown and unknowable foreign language. Mystics relish paradox, speak in abstractions and metaphors, and love mystery. They tell us that knowing God is intuitive as well as rational, heart in addition to head, and utterly ineffable. They say that knowledge of doctrine is necessary but not sufficient, for the goal of the Christian life is not knowledge about God but knowledge of God and union with God. Thus mystics remind us that true knowledge of God is not like any other kind of knowledge God is the subject, not the object; the knower, not the known; the one who initiates the relationship. God is the one who reveals himself to believers and the one who unites believers to himself in perfect bliss and harmony.
I began reading Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well after it was recommended to me by Deedra Rich, who is the interim director of the Certificate in Spiritual Formation program at Columbia Theological Seminary. She wanted me to review the book to see if it might be useful as a textbook for the program. It’s written from a reformed perspective — a viewpoint which is not always particularly congenial to contemplation and mystical theology — but I must say the above-quoted paragraph on mystical spirituality is quite perceptive, especially coming from an author who admits “the mystical way is… foreign to my temperament.” The book is a history of spirituality, but it approaches the topic thematically rather than strictly chronologically. So the chapters cover themes or movements within the history of Christian spirituality: the martyrs, the desert dwellers, monasticism, sacramentalism, mysticism, and so forth. So especially for someone who is looking at how the mystical tradition within Christianity fits into the larger picture of Christian spirituality as a whole, I think Sittser is a good place to start.