I was recently re-reading Steven Ozment’s fantastic book The Age of Reform 1250-1550 – An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (Yale, 1980).
Chapter Three contrasts two general forms of Catholic mysticism. Ozment identifies these two “schools” as Christocentric mysticism and Theocentric mysticism. I prefer the terms Incarnational mysticism and Ontological mysticism, respectively.
Christocentric or Incarnational mysticism focuses on the humanity of Christ and by extension the role of the Blessed Mother. Christ is particularly experienced in the “glory of his humility”. It embraces suffering, humility, poverty, and sacrifice. It should come at no surprise that this Incarnational mysticism rejoices in the infancy of Christ and his crucifixion. The Franciscans are the first to come to mind: St Francis, St Bonaventure, St Antony, and more recently St Pio. St. Bernard of Clairvaux is another ideal exemplar of this incarnational mysticism. The holy Rosary and the Stations of the Cross are devotional examples of this incarnational piety.
The other kind of mysticism is the Theocentric or Ontological mysticism. This is the sort of mysticism that seeks union with God through an apophatic method – the via negativa. The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and the late medieval German mystics come to mind. This method is found in the writings of the Carmelites, many Dominicans, and the Eastern Fathers. In the East, it transformed into the hesychast method and necessitated a distinction between the divine essence and divine energies (a distinction thoroughly rejected in the West). While the Incarnational mysticism is volitional, the Ontological is intellectualist with a strong desire to experience the beatific vision. While certainly not opposed to the Incarnation of Christ, this Ontological mysticism has had a tendency to spin out of control (e.g. Meister Eckhart). The spiritual goal is to transcend all created realities and find mystical union with God. The Dionysian “three ways” of purification, illumination, and contemplation are common, as are the concepts of nada and the “dark night of the soul”. St. John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, stand out as examples.
It should go without saying that these two distinctions are somewhat artificial because they are typically combined by all the great mystics. It would be a grave mistake to conclude that St. John of the Cross was anti-incarnational or that St Bernard was not concerned with the Beatific Vision (after all, Dante imagines St. Bernard as his guide to the Beatific Vision).