First Person Mystics: Introduction

Many Christian mystics were particularly drawn to the First Person, the dimension of God that transcends the material world, our five senses, and our capacity for cognition and image-making. The First Person of the Holy Trinity is the Creator, the Father/Mother, the unfettered Mystery of God that has no specific location but is everywhere, both beyond and within us. Jesus called the Creator his Abba. When we go spelunking into our depths as persons, we can detach from all our limited, self-referencing identities, and discover that we are a mystery, one that resonates with the limitless Mystery of God. We discover that God’s vast Mystery stirs within us, inviting us to know ourselves as a limitless, blessed mystery.

Some of the well-known Christian mystics who focused on the First Person include Gregory of Nyssa (330-395), Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500 CE), Maximus the Confessor (580-662), St. Gregory the Great (540-604), St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), Marguerite Porete (d. 1310), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327/8), the author of The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century), St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), and Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

Let’s take a closer look at some of these First Person Mystics:

Gregory of Nyssa (330-395)

If the Holy Trinity is a sacred dance, the perichoresis, and if each Person of the Trinity is a microcosm of the whole, then it is possible to learn something of the whole by lingering in any one of the Persons. Christian contemplatives and mystics do have their favorite doorways into the whole of the...

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Evagrius Ponticus (345-399)

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author, explored First Person mysteries when he researched the Patristic writers called “Desert Fathers” and people such as Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 A.D.) Evagrius a Christian monk had developed the apophatic (without images) theme in his focus on the practice of prayer. He was familiar with Gregory of Nyssa’s writings,...

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Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine shares his experience of the First Person of the Trinity as being beyond all human categories, and yet he unselfconsciously prays to his God as if the Uncreated, Unknown were his Divine Lover. He prays to God, “everywhere You are present in your entirety, and no single thing can contain...

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Pseudo-Dionysius (500 C.E.)

Pseudo-Dionysius is one of the most important ancient teachers of contemplation and is often honored in the Orthodox tradition. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote two groundbreaking books about the unknowable Creator: The Divine Names and The Celestial Hierarchy. Pseudo-Dionysius understood scripture to be a gateway into a deeper kind of knowledge that he called a holy “dazzling darkness.”...

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Maximus the Confessor (580-662)

Another mystical theologian of the First Person Unknowing path was Maximus the Confessor who is known as the father of Byzantine theology. Maximus had studied the Cappadocians, Evagrius, Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius. He spoke of the danger of “passions” by which he meant any inordinate attachment or aversion to things, thoughts or experiences. Again, close attention...

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St. Bonaventure (1217-1274)

St. Bonaventure was an Italian priest who was declared a saint and a doctor of the church. Bonaventure’s apophatic vision was heavily influenced by Plotinus, St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. The goal of the spiritual life is to surrender into the One, the primary being, first, eternal, utterly simple, most actual and most perfect, it is...

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Eckhart (1260-1327/8, A.D.)

Meister (teacher) Eckhart is probably the most famous of medieval contemplatives. He was a Dominican monk, preacher, spiritual director and a daring, colorful writer who played with the paradoxes of the spiritual journey. He is best known for his sermons in Latin and German, all of which seem to break new ground, even though Eckhart...

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Marguerite Porete (d. 1310 A.D.)

The Creator (First Person) cannot be known by words that are fixed to the material world. The Creator can be known only by our intuitive and heart-centered ways of knowing, a mystical path often called the way of unknowing. One of the first women to write of this spiritual journey was Marguerite Porete, a French...

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The Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.)

The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous English author, is a classic text of contemplative prayer. The author presents a way of contemplation that draws us to the First Person of the Trinity, who transcends thought, rituals, memories, images, stories, and reason. The author of The Cloud, probably a cloistered monk, is clear that...

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St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

St. John of the Cross was a spiritual genius, an exacting theologian, a compassionate and wise spiritual director and a superb poet. His best known works include The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. They are all commentaries on his 3 greatest poems:...

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

In the practices of the First Person, Creator, Merton saw profound parallels with the Zen Buddhist meditation. In the 1950s Merton corresponded with the Japanese Zen scholar, Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who introduced Zen Buddhism to the West. In several of Merton’s books, including Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Contemplative Prayer, Mystics and Zen...

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