MYSTICAL THEOLOGY
Catholic Encyclopedia 
AUTHOR: AUG. POULAIN
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. As the science of all that 
is  extraordinary in the relations between the Divinity and  the human 
spirit, mystical theology is the complement of  ascetical, which treats 
of Christian perfection and of  its acquisition by the practice of 
virtue, particularly  by the observance of the counsels. The contents 
of  mystical theology are doctrinal as well as experimental,  as it not 
only records the experiences of souls  mystically favoured, but also 
lays down rules for their  guidance, which are based on the authority 
of the  Scriptures, on the teachings of the Fathers of the  Church, and 
on the explanations of theologians, many of  them eminent as mystics. 
Its rules and precepts are  usually framed for the special use of those 
who have  occasion to direct souls in the ways of mysticism, so as  to 
preserve them from error while facilitating their  advancement. It must 
therefore take note of the erroneous  systems of prayer, like Quietism 
(q.v.) or Semiquietism,  and of the self-illusion or deception of souls 
that  mistake the powers of darkness for those of light or the  
promptings of their own self-seeking for Divine  communications. It is 
this part of the science that  necessitates inquiry into various phases 
of occultism,  diabolism, etc., into which writers like Görres have 
gone  so extensively. Mystical theology has a nomenclature all  its 
own, seeking to express acts or states that are for  the most part 
purely spiritual in terms denoting  analogous experiences in the 
material order. Usually it  does not form part of the ordinary class-
room studies,  but is imparted by spiritual masters in their personal  
direction of souls, or inculcated, as in seminaries and  novitiates, by 
special conferences and courses of  spiritual reading. Preliminary to 
the study of mystical  theology is a knowledge of the four ordinary 
forms of  prayer: vocal, mental, affective, and the prayer of  
simplicity (see PRAYER). The last two, notably the prayer  of 
simplicity, border on the mystical. Prayer is often  called active or 
acquired contemplation to distinguish it  from passive or higher 
contemplation, in which mystical  union really consists. 
 
Mystical theology begins by reviewing the various  descriptions of 
extraordinary contemplation, contained in  the works of mystics and of 
writers on mystical subjects,  and the divisions which help to describe 
its various  phases, indicating chiefly whether it consists of an  
enlargement or elevation of knowledge, or of absorption  in the Divine 
vision, or, again, whether the cherubic, i.  e., intellectual, or 
seraphic, i. e., affective, element  predominates. The objects of 
contemplation are set forth:  God, His Attributes, the Incarnation, and 
all the Sacred  Mysteries of the Life of Christ; His presence in the  
Eucharist; the supernatural order; every creature of God  in the 
natural order, animate or inanimate, particularly  the Blessed Virgin, 
the angels, the saints, Providence,  the Church. In analyzing the 
causes of contemplation,  what may be called its psychology next comes 
up for  consideration, in so far as it necessitates the ordinary  or 
exceptional use of any human faculty, of the senses of  the body, or of 
the powers of the soul. On God's part,  grace must be considered as a 
principle, or cause, of  contemplation, the special or unusual graces 
(gratis  datœ) as well as ordinary graces, the virtues,  theological as 
well as moral, the gifts of the Holy  Spirit. The closing chapter in 
this part of the science  dwells on the fruits of contemplation, 
especially the  elevation of spirit, joy, charity, zeal; on the  
influences that may contribute to its duration,  interruption, or 
cessation. Here some theologians treat  in detail of the preliminary or 
preparatory dispositions  for contemplation, of natural or moral 
aptitude,  solitude, prayer, mortification or self-denial, corporal  
and spiritual, as a means of soul-purification; these  topics, however, 
belong more properly to the domain of  ascetical theology. 
 
What strictly comes within the province of mystical  theology is the 
study of the processes of active and  passive purification through 
which a soul must pass to  reach the mystical union. Although the 
active processes  are also treated to some extent in ascetical 
theology,  they require special study inasmuch as they lead to  
contemplation. They comprise: purity of conscience, or  aversion even 
to the slightest sin; purity of heart, the  heart being taken as the 
symbol of the affections, which  to be pure must be free of attachments 
to anything that  does not lead to God; purity of the spirit, i. e. of 
the  imagination and memory; and purity of action. It is to  these 
processes that the well-known term "night" is  applied by St. John of 
the Cross, since they imply three  things which are as night to the 
soul in so far as they  are beyond or contrary to its own lights, viz., 
the  privation of pleasure, faith as substituted for human  knowledge, 
and God as incomprehensible, or darkness, to  the unaided soul. Passive 
purifications are the trials  encountered by souls in preparation for 
contemplation,  known as desolation, or dryness, and weariness. As they  
proceed sometimes from God and sometimes may be produced  by the Evil 
Spirit, rules for the discernment of spirits  are set down to enable 
directors to determine their  source and to apply proper means of 
relief, especially  should it happen that the action of the Evil One 
tends to  possession or obsession. 
 
These passive purifications affect the soul when every  other object of 
contemplation is withdrawn from it,  except its own sins, defects, 
frailties, which are  revealed to it in all their enormity. They put 
the soul  in the "obscure night", as St. John of the Cross calls  it, 
or in the "great desolation", to use the phrase of  Father Baker. In 
this state the soul experiences many  trials and temptations, even to 
infidelity and despair,  all of which are expressed in the peculiar 
terminology of  writers on mystical theology, as well as the fruits  
derived from resisting them. Chief among these fruits is  the 
purification of love, until the soul is so inflamed  with love of God 
that it feels as if wounded and  languishes with the desire to love Him 
still more  intensely. The first difficulty mystical writers  encounter 
in their treatises on contemplation is the  proper terminology for its 
degrees, or the classification  of the experiences of the soul as it 
advances in the  mystical union with God effected by this extraordinary  
form of prayer. Ribet in "La Mystique Divine" has a  chapter (x) on 
this subject, and the present writer  treats it in chapter xxix of his 
"Grace of Interior  Prayer" (tr. of the sixth edition). Scaramelli 
follows  this order: the prayer of recollection; the prayer of  
spiritual silence; the prayer of quiet; the inebriation  of love; the 
spiritual sleep; the anguish of love; the  mystical union of love, and 
its degrees from simple to  perfect union and spiritual marriage. In 
this union the  soul experiences various spiritual impressions, which  
mystical writers try to describe in the terminology used  to describe 
sense impressions, as if the soul could see,  hear, touch, or enjoy the 
savor or odor of the  Divinity. Ecstatic union with God is a further 
degree of  prayer. This and the state of rapture require careful  
observation to be sure that the Evil One has no share in  them. Here 
again mystical writers treat at length the  deceits, snares, and other 
arts practised by the Evil One  to lead souls astray in the quest for 
the mystical union.  Finally, contemplation leads to a union so 
intimate and  so strong that it can be expressed only by the terms  
"spiritual marriage" (see MARRIAGE, MYSTICAL). The  article on 
contemplation (q.v.) describes the  characteristics of the mystical 
union effected by  contemplation. No treatise of mystical theology is  
complete without chapters on miracles, prophecies,  revelations, 
visions, all of which have been treated  under their respective 
headings. 
 
As for the history or development of mysticism, it is as  difficult to 
record as a history of the experiences of  the human soul. The most 
that can be done is to follow  its literature, mindful that the most 
extraordinary  mystical experiences defy expression in human speech, 
and  that God, the Author of mystical states, acts upon souls  when and 
as He wills, so that there can be no question of  what we could 
consider a logical or chronological  development of mysticism as a 
science. Still, it is  possible to review what mystical writers have 
said at  certain periods, and especially what St. Teresa did to  treat 
for the first time mystical phenomena as a science.  Before her, 
mystics were concerned principally with  ecstasies, visions, and 
revelations; she was the first to  attempt a scientific analysis of the 
process of mystical  union brought about by contemplation. As the 
contribution  to the science and history of mystical theology by each  
of the writers in the following list has been  sufficiently noted in 
the articles on them, it will  suffice here to mention the titles of 
some of their  characteristic works. 
 
Famous Mystics Prior to the Nineteenth Century 
 
St. Gregory I the Great (b. at Rome, c. 540; d. there,  604): 
"Commentaries on Job"; this book is called the  Ethics of St. Gregory. 
The writings of Dionysius the  Pseudo-Areopagite did not reach the West 
until about 824,  when they were sent to Louis the Pious by Michael the  
Stammerer, Emperor of Constantinople: "Opera". Hugh of  St. Victor, 
canon regular at Paris (b. in Saxony, 1096;  d. at Paris, 1141): 
passim, St. Bernard, Abbot of  Clairvaux (b. near Dijon, 1090; d. at 
Clairvaux, 1153):  "On the Canticle of Canticles". Richard of St. 
Victor,  canon regular at Paris (d. at Paris, 1173): "De  
contemplatione". St. Bonaventure, Minister General of the  Friars Minor 
(b. at Bagnorea, 1221; d. at Lyons, 1274):  "Journey of the Soul 
towards God". The "Seven Roads of  Eternity", which has sometimes been 
attributed to him, is  the work of a Friar Minor, Rudolph of Bibrach, 
of the  fourteenth century. St. Gertrude, a Benedictine (b. at  
Eisleben, 1256; d. at Helfta, Saxony, 1302): Revelations.  Blessed 
Angela of Foligno (b. at Foligno, 1248; d. there,  1309): "Life and 
Revelations" in "Acta SS.", I, January,  186-234; this work is one of 
the masterpieces of  mysticism. Tauler, a Dominican (b. at Strasburg, 
c. 1300;  d. there, 1361): "Sermons" (Leipzig, 1498). Blessed Henry  
Suso, a Dominican (b. at Constance, c. 1295; d. at Ulm,  1366): 
"Exemplar" (Augsburg, 1482). "The Book of the Nine  Rocks" is not by 
him but by a merchant of Strasburg, the  somewhat unorthodox Rulman 
Merswin. St. Bridget of Sweden  (b. c. 1303; d. at Rome, 1373): 
"Revelations" (Nuremberg,  1500). Blessed Ruysbroeck, surnamed the 
Admirable (b. at  Ruysbroeck, 1293; d. at Groenendael, 1381): "Opera  
omnia", Latin tr. by the Carthusian Surius (Cologne,  1692). François-
Louis Blosius (de Blois), Benedictlne  Abbot of Liessies (b. near 
Liège, 1506; d. at Liessies,  1566): "Opera" (Ingolstadt, 1631). 
 
St. Teresa (b. at Avila, 1515; d. at Aba de Tormes,  1582): "Opera" 
(Salamanca, 1588). St. John of the Cross,  founder of the Discalced 
Carmelites (b. at Hontiveros,  1542; d. at Ubeda, 1591): "Opera" 
(Seville, 1702).  Venerable Luis de Lapuente (b. at Valladolid, 1554; 
d.  there, 1624): "Life of Father Baltasár Alvarez",  confessor of St. 
Teresa (Madrid, 1615); "Spiritual Guide"  (Valladolid, 1609); "Life of 
Marina de Escobar" (2 vols.,  Madrid, 1665-73). St. Francis de Sales, 
Bishop of Geneva  (b. at Thorens, near Annecy, 1567; d. at Lyons, 
1622):  "Treatise on the Love of God" (Lyons, 1616). Alvarez de  Paz, 
S. J. (b. at Toledo 1560; d. at Potosi, 1620): "De  inquisitione pacis" 
in "Opera", III (Lyons, 1647). Philip  of the Blessed Trinity, General 
of the Discalced  Carmelites (b. at Malancène, near Avignon, 1603; d. 
at  Naples, 1671): "Summa theologiæ mysticæ" (Lyons, 1656).  Jean-
Joseph Surin (q.v.). Venerable Marie de  l'Incarnation (b. at Tours, 
1599; d. at Quebec, 1672):  "Life and Letters", published by her son 
Dom Claude  Martin, O. S. B. (Paris, 1677). Bossuet called her the  
"Teresa of the New World". Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux (b.  at Dijon, 
1627; d. at Paris, 1704): "Instruction sur les  états d'oraison" 
(Paris, 1697). Joseph of the Holy Ghost,  Definitor General of the 
Discalced Carmelites (d. 1639):  "Cursus theologiæ mystico-scholasticæ" 
(6 vols., Seville,  1710-40). Emmanuel de la Reguera, S. J. (b. at 
Aguilàr  del Campo, 1668; d. at Rome, 1747): "Praxis theologiæ  
mysticæ" (2 vols., Rome, 1740-45), a development of the  mystical 
theology of Wading (Father Godinez). Scaramelli,  S. J. (b. at Rome, 
1687; d. at Macerata, 1752):  "Direttorio mistico" (Venice, 1754). As a 
description,  this is the best treatise of the eighteenth century  
despite its too complicated classification; Voss has  published a 
compendium of it, entitled "Directorium  Mysticum" (Louvain, 1857). 
Schram, O. S. B. (b. at  Bamberg, 1722; d. at Bainz, 1797): 
"Institutiones  theologiæ mysticæ (Augsburg, 1777), chiefly an 
abridgment  of la Reguera. More complete lists (176 names) will be  
found in Poulain, "Graces d'Oraison" (7th ed., Paris,  1911); tr., "The 
Graces of Interior Prayer" (London,  1910); and in Underhill, 
"Mysticism" (New York, 1912). 
 
ARÉCHAUX, Le merveilleux divin et le merveilleux  démoniaque (Paris, 
1901); MIGNE, Dict. de mystique  chrétienne (Paris, 1858); LEJEUNE, 
Manuel de théologie  mystique (Paris, 1897); VALLGORNERA, Mystica 
Theologia  Divi Thomœ (Turin, 1891); BAKER, Holy Wisdom (London,  
1908); CHANDLER, Ara Cœli Studies in Mystical Religion  (London, 1908); 
DALGAIRNS, The German Mystics of the  Fourteenth Century (London, 
1858); DELACROIX, Essai sur  le mysticisme spéculatif en Allemagne au 
XIX siècle  (Paris, 1900); IDEM, Etudes d'histoire et de psychologie  
du mysticisme. Lee grands mystiques chrétiens (Paris,  I908); DENIFLE, 
Das geistliche Leben: Blumenlese aus der  deutschen Mystikern der 14. 
Jahrhunderts (Graz, 1895);  DEVINE, A Manual of Mystical Theology 
(London, 1903):  GARDNER, The Cell of Self-Knowledge (London, 1910);  
GÖRRES, Die Christliche Mystik (Ratisbon, 1836-42);  POIRET, Theologiœ 
Mysticœ idea generalis (Paris, 1702);  RIBET, La Mystique Divine 
(Paris, 1879); IDEM,  L'Ascétique Chrétienne (Paris, 1888); SAUDREAU, 
La vie  d'union à Dieu (Paris, 1900); IDEM, L'état mystigue  (Paris, 
1903); IDEM, Les faits extraotdinaires de la vie  spirituelle (Paris, 
1908); IDEM, tr. CAMM, The Degrees of  the Spiritual Life (London, 
1907); IDEM, tr. SMITH, The  Way that Leads to God (London, 1910); 
THOROLD, An Essay  in Aid of the Better Appreciation of Catholic 
Mysticism  (London, 1900); VON HUGEL, The Mystical Element of  Religion 
(London, 1908). 
 
 
Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter

From the Catholic Encyclopedia 
Copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. 

Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.
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