Ask someone without a theology degree to picture a "mystic," and they might imagine a yogi meditating on a mountaintop, the whirling dervishes of Turkey, or a nun living a monastic life of fervent prayer. People slightly more familiar with the word may even be able to name a few of the best-known mystics: Rumi, the 13-century poet and Sufi mystic, or Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish nun known for writing about her mystical experiences (including levitation). All of these examples have one thing in common: They live, or lived, in a place and/or time far removed from anything we can relate to today. Nobody envisions a mystic plodding outside to grab the mail.
According to scholars-and self-described mystics-that's not always the case. What's more, there are, evidently, plenty of self-identified mystics among us today.
So, what exactly is a mystic?
The answer to that question varies according to who's doing the defining, and which religion or belief system they subscribe to. Truth-seeking, and dedication to making a firsthand connection with a higher power, are the consistent themes.
"A mystic is a person who has a direct experience of the sacred, unmediated by conventional religious rituals or intermediaries," Mirabai Starr, author of Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, tells OprahMag.com. Starr has both written about and translated original mystical texts.
Achieving that sacred, or divine, experience requires "transcending established belief systems, bypassing the intellect, and dissolving identification with the 'ego' self," Starr says.
"To qualify as a mystic, as one who has had a mystical experience, or a series of mystical experiences, it really means allowing yourself to let go of your identity and just... being."
"A mystic is someone who has an experience of union with The One-and The One may be God, it may be Mother Earth, it may be the cosmos. That experience is rare, but everyone has them I think, where you momentarily forget that you are a separate ego, personality, self, and you experience your interconnectedness with all that is," Starr continues.
Since the word "mystical" is somewhat subjective here, we'll go with the dictionary definition: "involving or having the nature of an individual's direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality."
That moment of union "may be a full-blown mystical experience like the Christian mystics or the Hindu mystics speak about, where you go into almost a trance-like state, but it doesn’t have to be."
What does a mystic do?
"Anything and everything-that’s the key," says Starr.
"To qualify as a mystic, as one who has had a mystical experience, or a series of mystical experiences, it really just means allowing yourself to let go of your individuated identity and be," she continues.
A mystic may cultivate these experiences through meditation, or what Starr calls "a more contemplative variety of prayer. It's a kind of turning inward and allowing yourself to just abide in a space that makes a welcoming place for the sacred."
Writing poetry is another way that mystics have traditionally made a "welcoming place for the sacred," which Rumi, 16th-century Hindu mystic Mirabai (Starr's namesake), or 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz were famous for.
Those verses often take an almost longing, romantic tone, as in Mirabai's "I Send Letters," which begins, "I send letters to my Beloved, The dear Krishna, But He sends no message of reply..."
"Discursive language engages the intellect and the analytical mind in such a way that it kind of precludes that softening, that heart space," Starr says. "That is where the mystic lives, and where the mystical experience unfolds."
Even if a mystic isn't moved to put pen to paper, simply reading others' poetry can bring them to transcendence.
"Mystical poetry is both an outpouring of the mystic’s own experience, and an invitation for everybody else to enter into that kind of mystical heart space," Starr continues. "All of the mystics across the traditions claim the same thing, which is, 'my experience of union with the beloved is absolutely ineffable.' It cannot be described in words or concepts. And yet, they can’t help but write about it or sing about it, or paint about it!"
Are there Catholic mystics?
Yes. There are academics, members of the clergy, and Catholic church members who believe in the mystics of the past-or even identify as one, themselves.
In a 2013 interview about Christian mysticism, professor and Roman Catholic theologian Bernard McGinn said that "a mystical person would be someone who's committed to the search for a deeper contact with God." A mystic, by his definition, who has "achieved that in a very supreme way."
Perhaps the most famous example of a highly-regarded Catholic mystic who achieved it in a very supreme way was St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish Carmelite nun and author. A polarizing figure during her time as a Carmelite reformer, her own ecstatic religious experiences included accounts of levitation (though modern historians have speculated that she actually suffered from epilepsy). The nun's writings on prayer, particularly The Way of Perfection, are still considered theology classics today.
Modern mystics live among us today, though they don't all write poetry in isolated obscurity-in fact, you can find some of them on YouTube.
Father Richard Rohr, an author and Franciscan friar, writes about mysticism and developing a close relationship to God through prayer. In a June 2019 visit to Oprah's SuperSoul Sunday, Rohr shared his thoughts on how names for a higher power, such as "God" or "Jesus," are "historically limited. The Universal Christ author posits that setting those names aside may open up one's relationship with a higher power.
In an adapted excerpt from Rohr's A Spring Within Us, he says that mystic "simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions at their mature levels agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and even available to everyone."
Who can be a mystic?
According to Starr, a mystic can be a bartender or a bus driver, or a schoolteacher, or a journalist-it's got nothing to do with your external life and everything to do with internal experience.
"A mystic is an ordinary person who does ordinary things and experiences these moments of profound union with The Source, Starr says.
Another sign you may be a natural mystic? An extreme affinity for nature.
"That’s why there's the term "Mother Earth." For a lot of people with mystical inclinations, it’s a felt relationship with the earth, as a cherished loved one, as a relative. It’s about fully embodying our humanity and our relationship with the natural world, but that’s still a mystical experience, because we, our separate ego self dissolves into that vast mystery of The One."
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