Bishop: Mystic or Gnostic?

by Bishop Joensen | October 15, 2020

Bishop William Joensen

St. Teresa of Avila, one of four women doctors of the Church, is one of the wisest and most trustworthy guides we can consult to learn the way of prayer and the authentic workings of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, I would go so far to say that any account of prayer that is not in harmony with hers is not to be trusted.  Her description of the exceptional mystical graces afforded her is always joined to a more down-to-earth, unvarnished account of her own frailty and her great attachment to the humanity of Jesus and the saints.  Though she was favored with ecstatic experiences that drew her into the upper realm of God’s self-revelation, she never lost touch with the need to be vigilant against the tendency to pride, or to avoid thinking of oneself as somehow above and beyond the Church.   

She knew the need to practice obedience to those whom the Church appoints as pastors, confessors, and spiritual directors.  SheSaint Teresa of Avila quickly sensed which priests could discern the genuine promptings of the Holy Spirit versus the work of unholy spirits—spirits who would inflate our belief that we are “special” persons entitled to act subjectively as authority figures in our own right.  While God blessed her with many mystical favors, St. Teresa teaches us that we must beware the tendency to think ourselves as somehow above it all, free to dismiss the counsel of persons who help us “keep it real,” and avoid going off into some self-isolating, spiritual la-la land.  In other words, she is a true mystic who avoids the recurring tendency within the Church toward gnosticism.  Here I will try to contrast what it means to be a ‘mystic’ versus a ‘gnostic” as briefly as I can, because I think that one of the dangerous side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that afflicts us is the rise of a sort of gnostic attitude WITHIN the church, let alone outside the company of the faithful.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI contrasts encounters we have with the Risen Lord in Mass and the celebration of sacraments, or in unique moments where we know God has broken into our lives in ways similar to what Mary Magdalene or the apostles experienced, from properly mystical experiences.  In a mystical experience, “the human spirit is momentarily drawn aloft out of itself and perceives the realm of the divine and eternal, only to return then to the normal horizon of its existence.”  A mystical experience helps us slip beyond the normal limits of space and our own habits of mind.  But it should not fool us into thinking that we can disregard the God-given significance of our bodies (as occurs in the medically activist, transgender mindset that would prey on those whose felt identity is in tension with their natural sex). 

Nor should we neglect the ways in which we are obliged to take care of the Body of Christ--whether it be the neighbor next to us, or those whom God has appointed pastors and teachers.  The prophetic Spirit never prompts us to disregard the precepts of the Church, to pit our subjective freedom against the grace-enabled freedom that comes to us from doing what the Church does when it worships, professes faith, or practices charity. The Holy Spirit is an agent of belonging and unity, in contrast to the preference to always do things “my way.”  The unholy spirit tempts us, Pope Francis observes, to prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people” (see Gaudete et exultate n. 37). 

The unholy spirit pits faith against reason; in contrast to a secular gnosticism that trusts only scientific knowledge and dismisses faith, an inverted form of spiritual gnosticism exalts faith to the extent that it casts good sense and the natural virtue of prudence aside. 

The unholy spirit urges us to be gnostics, rather than set on the path that, by God’s mercy, might lead us to become mystics.  A gnostic attitude pits “my” experience of Jesus against the unfolding story of what St. Teresa and God’s friends discovered at much personal cost, and selflessly hand on to us.  Gnostics regard their own vision of reality to be perfect; one telltale sign of a gnostic tendency, says Pope Francis, is when “somebody has an answer for every question,” and where the need to be clear and sure conceals a need to control, to bend reality to our theories—including those of conspiracies and hidden agendas.

St. Teresa humbly submitted her account of her spiritual life and insights to her own wise guides and judges.  Foremost among them was St. John of Avila.  Upon critically reviewing her manuscript, St. John wrote her a letter commending her teaching on prayer, including her description of interior and exterior communications from God.  St. John deciphers authentic communications that come from God which arrive in times of need, to strengthen us in time of temptation or doubt, or warn us of approaching danger.  Such genuine favors are always consistent with Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Church.  But he cautions:  “Visions, whether imaginary or corporeal, are the most deceptive”; they should never be desired and should be actively resisted.  “We should beg of God not to allow us to walk by sight, but defer the revelation of Himself and His saints until we reach Heaven.”  We should prefer the ordinary way available to all God’s people, cultivating humility, for even then we will be kindled in our love and affection for God, and our willingness to bear life’s sufferings as penance—which is the opportunity afforded us all in the midst of a pandemic.  We are to worship Christ, especially in the Blessed Sacrament, more than any comfort or consolation, including those that attend visions, for these are too easily hijacked by the father of lies, the gnostic prince of darkness, disruption, and division.

Jesus at one point said he came to bring, not peace, but division (see Luke 12:51). Yet he admits division only as a transforming, purifying step to genuine communion, rather than the retreat into shallow cliques of like-minded people to whom we turn in person and in chat rooms when we are challenged to make sacrifices for love’s sake, to admit we don’t have all the answers.  We do well to listen respectfully to persons with whom we disagree. We know that we, as much as anyone else, need ongoing conversion of mind and heart.  We don’t want to be gnostics, let alone self-made mystics, prophets, visionaries, or spiritual experts.  God wills to reveal his face to each of us, for sure, but not so that we can stand apart from or over others.  By our humility, our docility to our Church’s pastors and doctors such as St. Teresa, along with our steadfast seeking of unity over division in the midst of social and political strife, we will be favored to reveal our Savior’s face to others, which is the only recognition worth desiring in the first place.   


Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.