There are two words in Catholic tradition that are very often misunderstood. These words are mystical and contemplative. They are misunderstood because they are frequently used in common English to mean something different, but only subtly different, from the Catholic sense. The confusion is important because it obscures important Catholic truths.
In common English, mystical, mystic, or mysterious means something strange or hard to understand. “A mystic” seems like one who delves into recondite matters in ghostly or spooky ways. To speak of Christianity as “mysterious” leaves one with the idea of initiation into secret rites or knowledge that defies rational understanding.
But this is subtly different from what Catholics mean by “mystery.” In biblical language, “mystery” (from the Greek musterion) means something previously hidden which has now been made known. (Romans 16:25) The paradigm case of “mystery,” according to St. Paul, was God’s decision to reconcile Jews and Gentiles through the death of Christ. (Ephesians 3:9) This is a matter we could not have known apart from revelation, but it hardly counts as irrational or impossible to understand.
This is the sense in which we speak of “mysteries of the Rosary.” I have known new Catholics confused by the talk of these “mysteries.” They want to know, “What’s so mysterious about the Annunciation, or the Visitation?” The question shows a misunderstanding of the word “mystery.” Biblical “mysteries” are not spooky imponderables, but beautiful truths we know only because God has revealed them.
There is also a deeper sense of “mystery” in Catholic tradition. These are things we know only from revelation, but whose inner nature is also hidden from us. This would include the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity, transubstantiation, and sanctifying grace. We know by divine authority that these dogmas are true, but we cannot see how. But again, this does not mean that these truths are irrational or known through some sort of spooky illumination.
Misunderstanding of “mystery” leads to a related confusion regarding the words “mystic” and “mysticism.” Outside the Catholic family, historians and scholars sometimes use the word “mysticism” to mean any religious experience that purports to convey direct experience of the absolute. So one might hear about “Hindu mysticism,” “Buddhist mysticism,” Jewish mysticism,”” Islamic mysticism,” or “Christian mysticism,” as if there were a common experience shared across these varied traditions. One gets the impression that any powerful religious experience, particularly of a distinctly non-rational or intuitive character, counts as “mystical.”
This may be the way that some historians and sociologists use the word, but it does not do justice to what Catholics mean by “mystical” or “mysticism.” In Catholic tradition, the “mystic” is one who seeks more than intellectual knowledge of God. She seeks an experiential knowledge, but not just any experience. St. Paul prays:
that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
The Catholic “mystic” is one who has been given a deep and abiding awareness, an experiential knowledge even, of the truths of the Catholic faith. The singular mark of this experience is love. The saints are its exemplars. It’s an experience that may be found in the darkened corners of far away monasteries, but it may also be found in the most mundane settings, like dinner parties. (Luke 10:38-42)
This brings us to our next word: contemplative. In common parlance, “to contemplate” just means to think deeply or carefully about something. The ancient Greeks (like Aristotle) urged “contemplation,” meaning a consideration of philosophical truths. Because of this, some people think a Christian “contemplative” is one who sits around thinking all the time about religious or philosophical truths. But this is not what Catholic tradition means by “contemplative.”
In Catholic tradition, true contemplation is a supernatural gift. The pagan Aristotle may experience a purely natural contemplation, a deep intellectual view of the truth. The Christian contemplative experiences something greater, something that cannot come by human effort but must be given by God. St. Teresa of Avila, the great master of the contemplative life, writes:
Do not think that this recollection can be obtained by the work of the understanding, by forcing yourself to think of God dwelling within you, or by that of the imagination . . . What I mean is quite a different thing . . . It takes place only when God sees fit to give us this grace. (Interior Castle)
Christian contemplation, like mysticism, does not require (though it does not exclude) extraordinary states like visions, levitation, or trances. The essence of contemplation is an infused love and knowledge of God and of the truths of the faith. Sometimes we find great contemplatives in strange and exotic places, having extraordinary experiences. But we find them as well in homes and parishes, schools and businesses, among clergy and laity.
Catholic tradition promises profound and supernatural experience of God. The words “mystical” and “contemplative” refer to that experience, to something within reach of every Christian. At heart, they promise something we could only know of by revelation, something we can only experience by God’s grace. But they do not require us to renounce the intellect, to affirm the irrational, or to seek gnostic enlightment from strange and extotic rites. All they require is our openness to God’s grace in the sacraments, a willingness to renounce ourselves and follow Christ.