The Reformers and Mystics—WOW!
While the Reformation was possibly the biggest and most consequential turning point for the Church in history, many assume that the entire ecclesia (Church) was apostate until Martin Luther showed up with a hammer and nail at the Whittenburg Church, where he confronted the popes and bishops in the Catholic church with his 95 theses. But there were many during that time—within and outside of the official Church structure—that were displaying the works of the Lord.
John Wycliff—He argued that the English people deserved to have the Bible in their native tongue. As this was before the printing press, even getting a copy in Latin, Greek or Hebrew was not easy. The result of the lack of access to God’s word was that the people were utterly dependent on the bishops to tell them what the Bible said, and at times the Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible that was most used) misinterpreted the Greek to prop up Catholic doctrine (see Erasmus below).
“As Wycliffe pointed out, the ecclesiastical establishment had considerable vested interests in not allowing the laity access to the Bible. They might discover that there was a massive discrepancy between the lifestyles of bishops and clergy and those commended – and practiced – by Christ and the apostles.”
He became an outcast because he was a threat. If the people discovered the true teachings of Jesus and the apostles, they would turn on the bishops. Wycliff is a profile on courage and truth in the face of persecution. His legacy is honored by the fact that the Bible is translated into native tongues all over the world in his name. (see https://www.wycliffe.org) Erasmus—He was a humanist, which meant something completely different 600 years ago. In his time, a humanist was somebody who was looking backward to a more authentic time. As a believer, he challenged the status quo. He was a contemporary and friend (with disagreements) of Luther and echoed the idea of the priesthood of the believers. “Why confess sins to another human being, asks Erasmus, when you can confess them directly to God?” Like Wycliffe, Erasmus spoke at a time when the Church forbade the average man to read the Bible. “Scripture should and must be made available to all, in order that all may return ad fontes, to drink of the fresh and living waters of the Christian faith, rather than the stagnant ponds of late medieval religion.” Ad fontes means back to the fountainhead. The idea was that the bishops and popes, who had control over Christendom, had departed from the source—and Erasmus called for “a direct return to the title-deeds of Christianity – the writers of the early church and, supremely, the New Testament.”
He became an outcast because he, too, was a great threat to the status quo of the Catholic church to its monopoly over theology. Catherine of Siena—It is easy to dismiss Catherine as possibly delusional. It would not be uncommon for one who barely eats to be given to hallucinations. Today, it seems that every other day someone is claiming to have gone to heaven or claiming a direct line to God’s voice. Whereas they profit from book sales and notoriety, Catherine sacrificed herself and was willing to “a thousand times, if I had the lives…do as the Holy Spirit inspires me.” And she bore much fruit in her mere 33 years. Catherine attracted many followers due not only to her visions but her devotion to the poor and sick as well as her commitment to self-denial. “In 1370, she experienced what was called ‘mystical death’—four hours during which her body seemed lifeless, as she was elevated to ecstatic union with God.” It was after this experience that she felt compelled by the Spirit to confront political issues where there was compromise. Understand, at this time, the Church and State were often the same entity, or at least very closely aligned, and sometimes mortal enemies. Popes controlled lands and peoples. In 1377, she had another visitation that lasted five days. From that, she wrote Dialogue, “her crowning work.” As believers, we have great difficulty understanding the three-in-one triune nature of God, even if we believe in it. She was able to see the three as one and address God that way.
O eternal Trinity! O Godhead! That Godhead, your divine nature, gave the price of your Son’s blood its value. You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea: the more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you…You, eternal Trinity, are the craftsman; and I your handiwork have come to know that you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son. O abyss! O eternal Godhead! O deep sea! What more could you have given me than the gift of your very self?
Her greatest joy was to take the Lord’s supper, “wherein she frequently ‘tasted the depths of the Trinity.’” On the one hand, I take great issue with how the Catholic Church misused the Lord’s supper, using it as a tool or a weapon against enemies by denying it; on the other hand, I deeply appreciate the fact that they valued communion at that time far more than most believers today. It was a truly sacred experience.
Catherine was also a powerful evangelist, preaching to large crowds, “large numbers of those who heard her, or even saw her, were converted.” She believed that the 1 Corinthians 12 gifts were for all believers, not just the “spiritual elite.” The bishops who believed in the power of the Spirit felt that the common believer was not qualified to move in the gifts; they could not be trusted. She was one of the first to identify the 12 spiritual gifts as most mystics before her used Isaiah’s list of seven in Isaiah 11. She died very young. “No longer able to eat or even to swallow water, she lived in Rome until her death in 1380 at the age of thirty-three.” The former Christian artist Rich Mullins often sang about longing for the next life. He died very young, just like Catherine. There are some who simply were not meant for this world.
Bonaventure—“Describes having himself personally wrestled with the Holy Spirit” to experience Him at a deeper level beyond intellect. Richard of St. Victor’s concept of the Trinity was intriguing. One must love another to move from self-love. But two together can become self-love of the two, therefore there must be a third. I see this as a model for church life. If a church ceases to reach out, it becomes an example of self-love. True love always wants to expand and bring more souls in. Hildegard of Bingen—” understands her mid-life awakening as a personal Pentecost event.” Should we not constantly seek a fresh Pentecost experience? “Gertrude (of Helfta) describes the Holy Spirit as ‘sweeter than honey,’ [through whom] all the power of the heavens is established.” These people were more than just examples, but leaders. They were able to expand their ideas as leaders in monasteries. Hildegard was a fighter and started two convents. Of course, when anyone possesses a great spiritual gift, that gift attracts people. But Hildegard also expressed godly character and a deep love for her spiritual daughters.
The mystics were not concerned with power or position but were hungry for God, and that was attractive to others. They became leaders of not just monasteries but movements.
Cautionary lessons from mistakes and excesses
One concern would be accountability. With whom were they processing their revelations? Do we develop theology from studying the Scripture or from supernatural visitations whereby divine beings explain the Scriptures to us?
I am very wary when someone says that “God told him” what a passage means. A very famous prophet in America tells how “God” told him that the reason Lot’s wife looked back was because she was an intercessor and loved the people so much. Again, these were the people that wanted to abuse Lot’s gu