Do Mystical Experiences Have Value?
The Roman Catholic tradition is rich with claims of mystical experiences, from the Dark Night of John of the Cross and the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, to the Marian visions of Sister Lucia dos Santos and the stigmata of Padre Pio, to name just a few- Catholicism has a long standing mystical tradition. Interestingly we do not find a strong tradition of mysticism in Evangelical circles. Certainly one could cite the Charismatic movement, but this is still a fairly small segment of Evangelicalism and is not at all exemplary of either the history or greater modern expression of the Evangelical world. There appears to be a profound distrust of "experiences" for most Evangelicals- and not without good reason. If we look again to our Catholic brethren we find that many times the mystical experiences become solidified almost as dogma, and any attempt to resist embracing that dogma is met with sneers and jeers from fellow Catholics. Imagine the uproar should a Catholic state he or she rejects entirely the claims made for Fatima. Get the picture? Evangelicals (rightfully) look upon such apparitions and experiences with suspicion and credulity. Unfortunately, this has also meant that Evangelicals have resisted any concept of the mystical life or of experiences as having any significant impact or use in the relationship of the soul to Christ.
There are, again, good reasons for regarding experiences with some degree of care. Let's take the example of John Wesley. His Aldersgate experience, while certainly bringing much benefit, also brought much turmoil. So much so that the doctrinal teachings he developed as a result of his experience were in a state of flux, and he despaired that his teachings had potentially led souls astray. In fact, his experience had such a profound impact on his life that he even doubted his own salvation simply because he could not maintain the emotional "high" the mystical experience afforded him. This is not at all to suggest that Wesley's mystical experience was invalid in some way, nor that it had no value. It clearly was of deep value for him and continues to be so for others today. It does, however, point out that we must handle such experiences with great care- something Wesley did not do so well.
Mystical experiences need not be misleading if we approach them with a healthy dose of Scripture and reason. Instead of being swept away by the experience, examine it through the microscope of Sacred Scripture. Ask such questions as:
- Does it glorify God or myself?
- Does it deny, either implicitly or explicitly, any of the historic creeds of the faith?
- Does it in any way encourage the re-defining of doctrine?
- Does it purport to present a "new" truth, or a special revelation?
It is also important to keep in mind that such experiences are for the individual- not for the church or seeker. They do not prove anything to anyone else. Let me explain. I attended a meeting at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. There was a time of music, prayer and worship, during which I had the profound experience of the presence of God. The entire room was transformed and seemed to glow. I could feel the Holy Spirit's presence in every fiber of my being and had to struggle to hold back tears. I'm hardly an emotive person, so for me this was profound. What did my experience prove to anyone outside myself? The answer is nothing. In fact, others with us did not share the experience. It did, however, serve as a powerful witness to the truth of Sacred Scripture to me.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them."- Matthew 18:20 (ESV)
Did I need the experience to believe scripture? No. The experience was simply a blessing from God, impressing upon me the reality of that promise. I do not seek to reproduce the experience (since that is artificial and leads to seeking experiences for their own sake), but now simply reflect on that moment whenever I am praying with others or in public worship. I know, both intellectually and experientially, that He is absolutely there. It does not prove it to others, but certainly makes my witness to the veracity of scripture much stronger. My experience was in no way superior to Scripture, nor equal to it, but simply a confirmation of it.
Christians can embrace their "mystical" experiences if they adhere to these common sense principles. God speaks to us primarily through scripture, sometimes through others, sometimes by impression, and when He desires it, through experiences that reach in to the soul and touch it in such a way that one can never again doubt the value of an encounter with God. In this sense they are of amazing value.