Mysticism can broadly be defined as the human phenomenon of relating to God through direct experience, rather than through knowledge, arrived at through the embrace of unifying love.
The possession of mysticism is seen as a gift, and is accepted not as the way that most human beings usually relate to God. Augustine’s mystical vision at Ostia is one of the most influential accounts of mystical experience in the Western tradition, and a subject of persistent interest to Christians, philosophers and historians. It is unquestioned that the thought of Augustine had a significant effect upon persons who were mystics in later centuries. It is their style of mysticism – especially that of the Spanish mystics such as John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila - that has become the criterion for assessing mysticism.
Is it reasonable, therefore, to assess Augustine by a criterion that did not exist in his day? Certainly, Augustine was not a mystic of the style of John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola, but was he nevertheless a mystic? Whereas the writings of these medieval Spanish mystics tended to be aglow with exuberant religious emotion, Augustine restricted himself to colder intellectual and philosophical terms. Even so, if, broadly described, the characteristics of mysticism generally defined as being the possession of a most penetrating intellectual vision into things divine, and a love of God that was a consuming passion, then Augustine merits consideration.
The question as to whether Augustine was a mystic, therefore, is a problem of a definition of terms as well as of summoning acceptable evidence from his writings. In that the problem of the definition of terms has already been introduced (albeit briefly) above, let us now look for evidence of mysticism in Augustine’s writings. The primary source quoted in this regard is his personal narrative in his Confessions, especially the mystical vision that he and his mother, Monica, shared at Ostia (Book 9), and what seems to be a reflection on that experience in Book 10. As well, in Book 7 he uses seeing in himself in his “soul’s eye” an “unchangeable light.” He describes being taken up, through a series of stages from body to soul, from sensation to reason to a perception of light and of the unchangeable.
The paradox of mysticism to Augustine was that such dramatic episodes occurred only for some people and only as an initiation to the transcendent realm and to God’s presence. But they were not a necessary prerequisite for what really mattered, which was bringing the soul into a permanent association with God. The late Augustinian scholar, John J O’Meara judiciously concluded that perhaps Augustine, like many others, possessed a certain mystical vein that might have become much more manifest had the circumstances of his life been different, i.e., if he has not been called into the busy life of sacramental ministry, and if instead he had been able to retain his desired lay life of Christian study and reflection.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery about Augustine and Ostia (the place of his ecstasy), click here.