John Wesley the Mystic

During my recent class sessions in spiritual direction we have studied many saints who had mystical encounters with God. From Italy, Spain and France, we have learned about the movement of the spiritual journey throughout time and beyond borders. One person I didn’t immediately expect to see on the list was the founder of my tradition within the Christian faith, the Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley.

After taking the course in United Methodist History during seminary to even studying the Methodist movement in England, I’m not sure I had ever encountered Wesley listed among the great mystics. Certainly his name has appeared among those who contributed to the movement of Christian spirituality, but not exactly as a mystic. This could be due to the Protestant reluctance to using the rather “Catholic” term of mystic. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Either way, I was delighted to hear the Franciscan Sister lecture on the life and contribution of the Wesley’s in class. In fact, one of the books we are reading titled Christian Mystics by Ursula King lists John as a full subject and his brother Charles as a side note.

It was nice to be reminded that John read the early church fathers among many other saints that I have recently studied in my class. It was from Wesley’s study of mysticism and specifically Anglican divine William Law, that he “determined to be all-devoted to God, to give him all my soul, my body, and my substance.”

For Wesley, religion belonged to the heart, which is similar to many of the mystics I have been reading. Throughout Wesley’s writings, he defines holiness as a habitual state of the soul. Discipleship was costly to Wesley, it requires transformation, discipline, and perfect love.

547c02d8c9e536dd6504874debb56118.jpgIn Wesley’s sermon On the Holy Spirit, he wrote, “Christ is …Immanuel, God with us, and in us…. and he will show them his glory; and, at present, he will dwell in their hearts by faith in his Son.” Christ is in us. God dwells in our hearts. This is a theme that Wesley includes often in his writings.

Author Urusala King, writes that “a mystic is a person who is deeply aware of the powerful presence of the divine Spirit: someone who seeks, above all, the knowledge and love of God and who experiences to an extraordinary degree the profoundly personal encounter with the energy of the divine life.”

This sounds like John and Charles Wesley in my opinion.  They can take their place among the spiritual greats and mystics of the history of Christianity in my book (or at least my notes).

Perhaps none of this is new to you and you have always used the term “mystic” to describe the Wesley brothers. Maybe it’s new. Studying the history of Christian spirituality that includes the great reformer Martin Luther, the founder of the Quakers George Fox and even John Wesley along with the many Catholic mystics was a wonderful awakening of the whole “catholic” movement of the Spirit of God for me. I think I always thought in these terms, but to study them together in this ecumenical class setting is a wonderful and beautiful continuation of the movement of Christian spirituality.

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