Reading the Mystics

There are many different styles of writing in the Western mystical tradition. Some are very philosophical, some are theological, and some are more literary. Much of the writing seems strange. But there are a few things to keep in mind as you read these texts that might help:

1. A little background reading is not a bad thing. When did the writer live? What were the controversies that the writer was part of? Who likely read the work early on? Who was it intended for?

2. Can you recognize aspects of other mystical, theological, or philosophical systems? Does this look like anything you've seen before?

3. Can you place this within a style of mysticism? Is it, for instance, love mysticism or speculative mysticism?

4. Is the writer addressing other writers?

5. What are the recurring images and words? Identify them (write them down), and note every time they are used. Don't be too literal - many images (e.g., birth, water) can come in many forms.

6. Is there an argument in the work? Is the writer trying to convince you of something?

7. Can you identify terms and ideas that seem to be important? How do they relate to each other? Can you define them? Don't assume that the terms mean what they mean today. For example, "Reason" may mean something completely different than you think it does. And, it may mean something different for different writers.