Mysticism: The Bridge Between Religion and Evolution

I have always been attracted to mystical theology. God is simply an inexhaustible mystery of love who draws me into the wonder of life. I feel at home among the mystics. Many of the psalmists and prophets were mystics who spoke of God’s deep relationship with us: “O God, You search me and You know me O Lord, You know my resting and rising, You discern my footsteps from afar” (PS 139). Jesus of Nazareth was a mystic, deeply united with the one he called “Abba.” He drew his strength and wisdom from the deep inner source of divine life. The early Fathers of the Church, such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine were mystics as well. Their theological writings emerged from long periods of contemplation and bore the vibrancy of the mystical mind searching for truth. “I was searching without,” Augustine writes, “but you were within.” Mysticism is a word originally associated with the mystery religions or mystery cults which abounded in the Greco-Roman world. Eleusinian, Dionysian and Orphic mysteries attracted a myriad of devotees to their esoteric rites and ceremonies. The mystic was one who was initiated into the privileged knowledge of divine things and in an oath of secrecy swore to be silent, or literally to keep his or her mouth shut (muein) with regard to the ceremonies of the rite.

The very term “mysticism,” in its etymological meaning, suggests the limits of language, derived from the Indo-European root mu (imitative of inarticulate sounds). From this root are derived the Latin mutus (mute, dumb, silent) and the Greek verb muein (to close the eyes or lips), from which come the nouns mysterion (mystery) and mystes (one initiated into the mysteries) as well as the adjective/substantive mystikos (mystical, mystic). The word mysticism passed into Neoplatonism where it became associated with shutting the eyes to all external things, a practice which was central to Neoplatonic meditation. Both Plotinus and Proclus used the verb muein to signify the closed eyes of one who is rapt in profound contemplation. In the Christian world, the word mystikos was used in reference to the Scriptures, sacraments, and the spiritual life. The first Christians to use the word mystikos were the Alexandrians, Clement and Origen, who applied it to Scriptural exegesis and the discovery of the allegorical sense of the Scriptures.

Mystical theology was integral to theology until the rise of Scholasticism in the Middle Ages. Knowledge and love were entwined in the path to God. Cistercian mystics, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, said that thinking is a form of loving (amor ipse notitia est). The Franciscan theologian Bonaventure was influenced by the affective theology of Augustine and Bernard and claimed that theology requires participation of the knowing subject in spiritual realities, being open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and advancing in the spiritual life. For the mystics, thinking is a habit of affection, a leaning of the mind toward the heart. In the first book of his commentary on the Sentences, Bonaventure speaks of doing theology by searching the depths and bringing hidden things to light. The theologian’s role, he indicates, is to plumb the secrets and depths of Scripture which is the primary source of theology. Nature too is a prime source of theology because all life flows from the mouth of the triune God. The very act of creation discloses the depth of divine mystery and the role of the theologian is to search the secrets and depths of nature.

Searching the depths and bringing hidden things to light” defines Bonaventure’s theological method of perscrutatio, a deep penetrating search, unveiling the hidden mysteries. The theologian is like a treasure hunter—like the seeker of pearls—who fathoms the unsuspected depths of the divine mystery, searches out its inmost hiding places, and reveals its most beautiful jewels. When God expresses something of the divine mystery it is then left to the theologian to search it out or penetrate it insofar as one allows oneself to be inhabited by the wisdom of God which alone brings all things to light. Hence the task of theology depends on the internal disposition of the subject who alone can explain it; there is no purely speculative conceptual determination. Rather, theology is to make God manifest so as to orient one toward an encounter through love. For Bonaventure, theology is a bending of the heart toward the mystery of God who is, at once, overflowing goodness and the hidden depth of our existence. God cannot be limited to intellectual study alone, he thought; rather, the real task of theology belongs to the life of the Spirit and grace. According to Emmanuel Falque, “Love becomes a conceptual determination at the junction of theory and practice” so that “any strictly theological truth, one that has its roots in God, will no longer be content with its unique objective determination. . . . Knowledge through love is the only thing that puts in motion whoever comes to know them.”

While medieval philosophers saw the intellectus as the basis of mysticism; and mystics were advised to hush the busy ratio (mind) in order to gaze quietly, a modern mystic, Teilhard de Chardin, set reason at the center of the mystical. Here the mystical act involves the synthesizing work of the mind as it gathers facts and strives to form them into a wider synthesis. Teilhard’s mysticism is intellectually creative because it is the power of the mind or thought that pushes evolution forward toward greater complexity and unity. One begins with a world that is not understood and comes to know God at the point where experience lights up the fire of knowledge. Mysticism sets reason at the center of the mystical. Mysticism is not a matter of contemplating a truth already established but lay in the very act of discovery. That is, the mystic creates a new truth because the knower is a unifier. The mind searches its depths by extending beyond itself. “Each time the mind comprehends something, Teilhard wrote, “it unites the world in a new way.” To think is to unify, to make wholes where there are scattered fragments; “not merely to register the fragments but to confer upon them a form of unity they would otherwise (that is, without thought) be without.” Thinking is a spiritual act. To think is to take a long, deep, hard look at reality where the knowing process becomes more than the vision itself, as Bernard Lonergan described. Thinking requires use of the intellect, as well as judgment, consciousness, and connectivity to the object of thought. It is not a mere accumulation of information but the synthesizing of information into ideas and insight. Thinking is the work of the spirit, not only the human spirit but God’s Spirit; it is the dynamic engagement of the mind with the world as we know it. The mind creates by perceiving the phenomena of reality and, in doing so, continues the fundamental work of evolution. Each time the mind comprehends something it unites the world in a new way. Teilhard said: “To discover and know is to actually extend the universe ahead and to complete it.”

Of course, discovery of the world is ultimately self-discovery, and openness of the self to the infinite, is openness to God. The mystic who plunges into the depths of the divine mystery enters into the mystery of the soul: the outer world and inner world become one and the same world. Thomas Merton was one of the most prominent mystical writers of the 20th century, constantly in search of self and God. The “I” is not a finished product or the result of God’s creative activity, he thought; rather the “I” is the very process of God’s creative action. In his New Seeds of Contemplation Merton wrote: “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.” We pray for our discovery by seeking God. Prayer is that deep silent encounter in which the innermost center of our being which continuously stretches toward that which is not yet seen or fully known. What Merton discovered through his own searching was the entanglement of God’s life and our life: “God utters me like a partial thought of himself,” he wrote. Hence the only path to God begins with self-discovery.

This true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent. . . .We must be saved above all from that abyss of confusion and absurdity which is our own worldly self. The person must be rescued from the individual. . . .The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.

Theology cannot be reduced to intellectual thought alone; it is not a set of doctrines or formulas. God reveals Godself not as a thought or an idea but in the concrete person of Jesus Christ. The very nature of revelation is an invitation to relationship with God. When theology is forced to obey the principles of rationality it ceases to be the logos of God. True theology is not so much about doctrine but about the fountain of life, the source of life we name as God. Without the experience of God, theology is empty and useless.

If theology is going to have anything to say to the world today, searching for God is necessary. Theology can only breathe new life if it returns to the search for the infinite within. Without the inner journey, God remains incomplete and the world remains in darkness. God is not an idea to be proved or even believed, but an awareness of immediate experience. One who experiences God is changed to the core. We experience God in the finite, in matter, as the depth of matter or the overflow of our existence. To become aware of this overflow is to experience transcendence; God is not outside us but the depth dimension of our very being. The “self,” according to Carl Jung, is an ongoing, dynamic conjunction of opposites. He wrote: “One should make it clear to oneself what it means when God becomes man. It means nothing less than a world-shaking transformation of God.” God and human are to be united in human consciousness as the depth meaning of history, both personal and collective. This historical process is at once redemptive of the divine ground and of human consciousness. Becoming aware of God and opening up to the divine reality is the healing of self and world.

Merton had a similar experience. His breakthrough into a level of Christ consciousness on the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in downtown Louisville, changed him profoundly: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” As he entered into higher levels of integrated consciousness, he realized the narrowness of Christianity and the mediocrity of monastic life. The more one is reconciled inwardly on the level of Christ consciousness, the more one lives by the life of the whole. In his last conference in Bangkok, Merton sought to explore the Christ mystery in a global context, saying, “What we are asked to do at present is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.” Only in union with Christ, who is the fully integrated Person, can one become trans-personal, trans-cultural, and trans-social. Teilhard de Chardin similarly wrote: “If I am to be All, I must be fused with All.”
Mystical theology cannot be institutionalized; it cannot be constrained by formulas or canons. The mystic does not have the answer before the question; rather, the whole of life is living into the questions themselves. Maybe that is why Jesus asked questions without providing any definite answers; to know God is to experience God, not as an object of the subject but as the very Self searching for truth. Being surpasses doing; to be is to become, to be on the way toward that the fullness of life. God is a divine depth to be searched and fathomed by one enkindled by the fire of love. The theologian is the deep sea-diver of divine things. To be a theologian is to be committed to the depth of divine mystery.

We cannot evolve toward more life unless we are searching for life itself, the transcendent wholeness of life, which is God. Mysticism is essential for a sustainable future and the advance of evolution toward more life. Only love can pull the heart into the unimaginable depths of God and draw us higher into the higher realms of overflowing life. A crisis of mysticism is a crisis of love; and a crisis of mystical love is a frightful future.

One who is living in search of the ever-deepening mystery of God is constantly moving in the depths of divine love. There are no fixed rules or boundaries; there is the experience of life itself. As the twentieth century mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote:

In mysticism that love of truth . . . .leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools.

We need theology in the 21st century, not a well-honed argument for the existence of God, but the deep search into the mystery of God. The theologian must be committed to deep diving into the uncharted depths of divine mystery, ready to encounter the ever newness of God’s creative love. This is no time for nostalgia, for Latin Masses or papal monarchies. If religion is to thrive in the 21st century, the Church must be a training ground for mystics. Nothing else will suffice.


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” in Hymn of the Universe, trans. Simon Bartholomew (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 36.

King, Teilhard’s Mysticism of Knowing, 36.

King, Mysticism of Knowing, 36.

King, Mysticism of Knowing, 35.

Ibid., 38.

Carl Jung, “Answer to Job,” Collected Works 11, para. 631; Cited in Todd, “Teilhard and Other Modern Thinkers on Evolution, Mind, and Matter,” 6.

Thomas Merton, quoted in James Forest, Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 216.

Thompson, Jesus as Lord and Savior, 250-71; ibid., “The Risen Christ, Transcultural Consciousness, and the Encounter of the World Religions,” Theological Studies 37 (1976): 399 – 405.

Teilhard de Chardin, Heart of Matter, 21.

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 24.

View print-friendly version View print-friendly version
Posted in


  1. Kay on July 29, 2023 at 6:38 am

    For me, the Mystic lives the discovery of the next question. Answers are not the driving force cuts the unrequited longing for the hidden, deeper questions.

  2. Gail Waring on July 27, 2023 at 10:36 pm

    Wow, so many images and words touch me! Amazing, Ilia! Gratitude for you.

  3. Mark R. Turner on July 26, 2023 at 11:17 am

    For me the “uncharted depths of the mystery of God” is experience and telling about it in language is more of a sign pointing toward the ineffable. Poetry often seems more appropriate than theological treatise, though I love and am indebted to the theological works which have pointed the way for me. Still, we must express in more ways than verbiage and heed the prophetic in the other arts. Much more encouragement should be given to artists in all forms to “dive deep” into the Spirit and Truth for manifestations revealing God; to discover inspiration rather than settle for superficial “decorating” of the status quo. In this I must emphasize the important difference between the living-breathing artist and AI art.

  4. Jackie Solem on July 25, 2023 at 8:57 am

    Great description of the Path forward in love, especially in light of what AI is presenting as the future of humanity. I treasure your integration of science and religion as the mystical path of love and inner transformation. Thank you, Ilia❣️

  5. Steven E Rafferty on July 24, 2023 at 5:58 pm

    Well said Joe!

  6. Steven E Rafferty on July 24, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    Oh My! Thankyou Ilia for a very outstanding article. I’m going to ponder and go deep in your words to encounter the Spirit for a divine kiss.

  7. Joe Masterleo on July 21, 2023 at 9:11 pm

    Our culture has largely moved toward being informed and energized politically, economically, militarily, commercially, and technologically — all of it egoic. It’s past being spiritually motivated, with the visionary no longer in the mix, no longer consulted to leaven a culture, keep it between the rails. They’re in another territory, and their visions come as strange to the people who are axially dislocated, with no spiritual literacy or vocabulary. It’s what happens in a late culture, toward the end of it, when the accent has been misplaced. Jesus saw this pattern millennia ago in his day, and spoke of same as a harbinger of his return. Historian Spengler saw it as well, that our culture is in the state of early Rome, running amok, having no spiritual links to what it’s doing. Most social movements and religious groups are still in-groups, walled-in, talking of love with their lips, not not steeped in it from the heart. The key is in the individual now, activating the spirit within himself, catching fire in unitive consciousness, teaching others how to kindle and awaken to same in solitude, building bridges that others may cross one soul at a time toward a more hopeful future.

  8. Di Shearer on July 21, 2023 at 7:21 pm

    I love this metaphor of Deep Sea Diving. And I love the way you bring these esteemed teachers together, Teilhard, Merton and Jung. I love the clarity of your piece and the way it exemplifies what you are suggesting as true mysticism and the unifying processes this entails. Thank you.

  9. George Marsh on July 21, 2023 at 7:12 pm

    I missed the derivation, or attention to the meaning, of the word “transcendence.” My dictionary points to the idea of being above and beyond. Yet I infer that Ilia uses the word to mean “immanence,” or being within. The realm of God is within us, said Jesus, and we are temples of the Holy Spirit, said Paul. Other than this verbal problem, I loved this essay. God, Love Infinite, lives within God’s creatures; or, seen otherwise, God’s creation lives, moves and is within God, not identical but intimately related.

Leave a Comment


Related Posts

Hearts as temple

The Humility of God

This month I returned to my roots in Franciscan theology in order to write a book chapter on Early Franciscan mysticism.  I revisited the world of Francis of Assisi who was…

Embracing Connection: Wireless Signs and the Spirit of Togetherness

Trinity and Personhood

I have been teaching a graduate course on the Trinity this semester and it has impelled me to think anew about the Trinity and what the implications of the Trinity…

eternal glowing light in sky horizon, Spiritual divine power

Death Anxiety and the Cross

This week Christians around the world celebrate the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus was simply horrific, the worst of what humans can do to…