What follows is an eclectic, and perpetually incomplete, list of famous mystics from the world's major religions, with brief bios on each. We will add to this list over time. 'Mystic' is defined here as any spiritual seeker whose focus is on a personal, direct spiritual experience, as opposed to dogma or philosophy. We've also included some seers and philosophers who focused on studying energies and other subtle forces. We have made a special effort to include as many women mystics as men.
Also be sure to check out the Women Mystics page at Mommy Mystic, the Historical Biographies Section at BellaOnline, and the Women Mystics category of the associated Amazon store.Christian Mystics
Joan of Arc
St. Anthony the Great
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Theresa of Avila
St. Bridget of Sweden
Rabbi Isaac Luria
Hannah Rachel Verbermacher
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc is known as both a Catholic saint and an
official national heroine of
In a meeting with a garrison commander serving the prince, she reportedly predicted a military reversal in another town that occurred later that same day. This was enough to convince the commander to escort her to the prince. In a private conference with the prince, she reportedly also convinced him of her clairvoyant abilities by correctly answering questions he posed to her that there was no other way for her to have answered. At her insistence, he provided her with armor and weapons and allowed her to travel to the military front.
At the age of 17, Joan led the French troops to several victories � something they had not experienced for some time. She quickly became a legendary figure amongst both the soldiers and the French population, and was known for both her clairvoyance and her religious piety and purity. Only a year later she was captured by French allies of the British, and convicted of heresy in a Catholic trial believed to have been rigged by the British. She was burnt at the stake at the age of 19. According to witnesses, she repeated the names of Jesus and several saints until the moment of her death.
Twenty-five years after her death, Joan was retried by the official Catholic Inquisitor and declared innocent. She was canonized as a Saint in 1920, with her seeing abilities named as the requisite miracle any Catholic saint must manifest.�St. Anthony the Great
��������� St. Anthony the Great, often referred to as the �Father of All Monks�, was one of the �Desert Fathers�, a diverse group of third century Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert. These mystics sought to replicate Jesus� own spiritual insights through meditation, seeing, dreaming, and austere living.
According to the biography later written about him by Athanasius of Alexandria, at a young age Anthony sold all he had, gave it to the poor, and withdrew to the desert. He lived in complete solitude on the edges of the desert, meditating, fasting, and praying. He experienced profound spiritual trials, some in dreams and others in waking visions, including attacks by demons who attempted to lure him from his ascetic practices.� Many artists, including Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dal�, have depicted these trials in their paintings.
��������� �St. Anthony did not emerge from his solitude until 20 years later, radiant and wise, much to the amazement of the local villagers who spread tales of him far and wide. As he became famous, people began to travel great distances to seek his advice and counsel. Some of these were fellow desert hermits, and a loose commune began to develop around him. During this time many miracles, such as curing the sick and restoring sight to the blind, are attributed to him. At some point St. Anthony feared that the attention paid to him would cause him to fall into pride, and so he left the community. His fellow hermits beseeched him to return to them, which he did for a time before asking to live alone once more. When he felt his death was near he called two of his closest disciples to him and asked them to bury him in secret.
��������� The example of St. Anthony, and the fellowship of hermits that developed around him, is credited as forming the roots of Christian monasticism. His disciples and those of other famous desert hermits began to formalize the organization and practices of the ascetics. In the sixth century, St. Benedict used their precepts as inspiration for his Rule of St. Benedict, which later became (and remains) the preeminent guide for Christian monastic life.St. Francis of
St. Francis of
St. Francis was born in the 1180s, and according to
biographical accounts was a charming and playful child. It was not until his
mid-twenties that his spiritual aspirations surfaced, triggered by two major
illnesses and prophetic dreams warning him away from a military career. The
decisive event was a mystic vision he experienced inside a church near
St. Francis�s love of nature was more than a personal proclivity. He believed in the holiness of all creation, and saw in each plant, animal and other natural phenomenon proof of God�s power and beauty. He believed appreciation of nature was appreciation of God, and that demonstrating compassion towards all God�s creatures was a sign of divine humility. One well-known legend tells of him preaching lovingly to a group of birds, and of them listening raptly to him for hours. Another tells of him taming a wild wolf that had been troubling his community, and urging the townspeople to feed the wolf rather than hunt him. Stories such as these were popular topics for Renaissance artists, making St. Francis one of the most painted religious figures in history.���St. Theresa of
St. Theresa of
In her autobiography, Theresa describes the ascent of the soul towards God in four stages: �devotion of the heart�, revolves around devout contemplation of the passion of Christ; this produces the �devotion of peace�, a state of profound inner quiet, followed by �devotion of union�, in which an individual is transported by spiritual bliss into absorption with God, and finally the �devotion of rapture�, in which one is fully absorbed into God�s power, alternating between ecstatic light and unconsciousness.
St.Theresa worked with
Medieval Christian mystic Margery Kempe (1373 � 1439) had fourteen children, ran several home-based businesses including a brewery and a grain mill, and dictated the first autobiography by a woman written in English. Her spiritual journey began after the birth of her first child, when by her own admission, she went �mad� � many contemporary historians believe she suffered a severe case of post-partum depression. After weeks of destructive behavior, with her family about to give up on her, she experienced a profound spiritual vision, in which Jesus came to her and said "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?" By her own account she immediately came to her senses, and from that moment forward became devout, continuing to experience powerful visions for the remainder of her life.
Margery was confident and outspoken regarding her spiritual views, especially when confronted with hypocrisy, and would not hesitate to chastise local townsmen or even priests for their moral failings. This often did not go over well, and several times during her life she was accused of heresy. She always managed to prevail, partly due to her witty tongue, but also because she had extensive knowledge of her faith and its precepts, and few were willing to deny her spiritual strength.
After her fourteenth child, she convinced her husband (based on a vision) that chastity was in the best interest of both their spiritual lives, and embarked on a series of pilgrimages to visit sacred spots and saints throughout England and Europe. During these trips she began to experience her hallmark mystic state � intense bouts of crying out of compassion for the lost souls she encountered.
Margery�s travels and visions form the basis for most of her autobiography, although her family is woven in and out of the story. A dying adult son or his wife most likely recorded the first version of her autobiography, which is regarded today as an important record of women�s everyday spirituality in medieval times.St. Bridget of
St. Bridget (1303 � 1373), the most beloved and well-known Swedish saint, is unusual among medieval mystics, and especially among Catholic Saints, for having had a husband and children. In fact, she had eight children before founding a new religious order, and writing a book based on her spiritual visions that became one of the foremost spiritual texts of its time.
As a child, Bridget had many spiritual experiences, and her wealthy parents provided her with an impeccable religious education. She was married at thirteen, as was customary, and became a spiritual counselor and guide to her husband and their children � one of her daughters grew up to become a saint as well (St. Catherine of Sweden). She was known for both her charity and her impressive theological knowledge, and earned great respect among leading religious thinkers of her time.
After twenty years of marriage, she and her husband
embarked on a pilgrimage to a sacred site, and soon after he fell ill and died.
She devoted the rest of her life to her writings and the founding of a new
religious order, still in existence today as the Brigittines.
In The Revelations of Saint Birgitta, she describes her spiritual visions, several
of which involved the nativity of Jesus, and which became a popular source for
religious artists. In the Brigittines order, she
placed great emphasis on both scholarship and charity, believing knowledge and
actions were the true measure of a spiritual life. She spent her last years in
Rabbi Isaac Luria
Rabbi Isaac Luria was a sixteenth-century Jewish scholar and mystic credited with developing the foundation for modern-day Kabbalah. He believed his visions and dreams were one of the primary methods through which God revealed mystic truths to him about the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (roughly corresponding to the Old Testament).
Although born in
After years of strict meditation and study, Rabbi Luria began to experience visions and dreams of several Jewish sages and prophets, most notably the prophet Elijah. According to later accounts by his students, every night his soul ascended to Heaven, where he was taught the deepest secrets of the universe by angels, prophets, and deceased former Rabbis. Through his visions, dreams and other mystic insights he received his knowledge of creation, and developed his view of the Tree of Life, the primary Kabbalah model for the cosmos and the human psyche.
In one of his dreams, Luria
received instruction to move to
��������� Hannah Rachel Verbermacher,
also known as �the maiden of Ludmir� was a
nineteenth-century Hasidic Jew popularly known as the only female Hasidic Rebbe, or religious leader, although she was never
officially accorded that status within her lifetime. She was born in the
��������� As Hannah approached her teens and showed little interest in marrying or traditional female occupations, her father began to doubt his decision, and attempted to interest Hannah in a suitable young man, and limit her Torah study. After this attempt went awry, and following the death of her mother, Hannah experienced a deep depression followed by a religious dream in which she was told that she was in fact destined to live alone and study the Torah for life. She refused all attempts to tell her otherwise, and shaped an unusual life for herself as a spiritual counselor to many people, mostly women, within her community.
��������� The religious leaders in the
Bodhidharma was a fifth-century Indian
Buddhist monk who traveled to
��������� Bodhidharma found the monks physically weak and too tired or restless from their constant scholastic endeavors to meditate well, which he considered the foundation of the Buddhist path. He instituted a series of physical exercises based on his Indian yoga and martial arts training to prepare the monks� minds and bodies for meditation. Because many military leaders retired to the Shaolin Temples, over time their physical training was also incorporated into these exercises to form the basis for Shaolin wushu, popularly known as kung fu. All of the subsequent wushu traditions stressed the importance of total mind, body and spirit integration.
Yeshe Tsogyal was a Tibetan princess who through her relationship with Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Buddhism, became an enlightened Buddhist teacher in her own right, and the most revered female figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Yeshe was born in the latter half of the eighth century, and lived well into the ninth. Many traditional Buddhist legends are associated with her birth, including that she was born painlessly, and that a sacred spring and pond burst forth near her birth site.
As a young adult, Yeshe became a
spiritual consort to Padmasambhava. Consortship is a formal teacher/student relationship
practiced within some Tantric Buddhist and Tantric Hindu sects in which the
student�s spiritual progress is accelerated through many occult forms of
empowerment, including sexual practices. �Sacred sex�, as it is sometimes
translated, is used to speed the increase of spiritual energies within the
student, and to awaken his or her awareness of divine love. Although Padmasambhava is reported to have had many such consorts, Yeshe is his most famous. She eventually initiated her own
spiritual consort, and continued the lineage of consortship
Yeshe had a magical memory, and thus Padmasambhava entrusted her with secret teachings and
empowerments, referred to as �termas�. She hid these termas around
Padmasambhava was an 8th century Indian
Buddhist master credited with introducing esoteric Tantric Buddhism to
��������� Due to his fame, Padmasambhava
was invited to
��������� Tantric Buddhism is considered the �fast path� to enlightenment, because it teaches practitioners to utilize all of the energies and drives of human nature to advance. Just as Padmasambhava embraced both the heavenly and the hellish realms in his path to Buddhahood, Tantric Buddhism teaches seekers to exclude nothing from their own path. In some sects, this means that instead of renouncing sex, material possessions, or alcohol, often rejected by other Buddhist schools, the Tantric practitioner strives to discover the power and essence of existence through these exact activities, and in fact through any life activity. However, in many sects the associated practices are symbolic only, designed to aid the student to overcome all aversion and desire within their own awareness.Sukhasiddhi
Sukhasiddhi was an eleventh-century Indian sage revered by a Tibetan Buddhist lineage as a founder and �dakini� � a magical being devoted to aiding others on the pathway to enlightenment. Within this lineage, Sukhasiddhi is regarded as proof that anyone may attain spiritual enlightenment, regardless of gender, age, education, social position, or life conditions. She is also seen as an embodiment of kindness and generosity, as her own spiritual journey hinged on two acts of kindness.
��������� The first such act resulted in her being thrown out of her own home by her husband and six adult children at the age of fifty-nine. The family lived in extreme poverty, and one day, when they had only a pot of rice left to eat, the husband and children split up and went in search of food. While they were away, a beggar with even less to eat came to the door and asked Sukasiddhi for food. Thinking that her family would soon return with more, she gave the poor man the rice. When her family returned, they were enraged, and cast her out.
��������� Destitute, Sukhasiddhi decided to head to an area known as the home of many great saints and teachers, as she had always been devout. She managed to acquire a bag of rice on her way, and made beer from it, selling it upon her arrival. With the funds, she acquired more rice, and soon became a local beer merchant. One day, the spiritual student and consort of a powerful Buddhist master came to her to buy beer for him. When the student told Sukhasiddhi who the beer was for, Sukhasiddhi insisted she take her best beer for free � her second pivotal generous act.
��������� The student returned to her teacher and told him what had transpired. He sensed immediately that Sukhasiddhi was a profoundly spiritual soul, and told his student to bring her to him for instruction. Sukasiddhi arrived, overwhelmed with gratitude and devotion. The Buddhist master gave her instruction in meditation and then performed four �empowerments� - Buddhist initiations and blessings to speed her spiritual progress. On the spot, without ever meditating or any formal spiritual practice, Sukhasiddhi attained enlightenment. She was now sixty-one years old.Mugai Nyobai
��������� Mugai Nyobai was a 13th-century Japanese Buddhist nun credited with becoming the first Zen Buddhist Abbess. Although exact details of her life are sketchy, it is believed that she married and had a daughter at a young age. Once her husband died and her daughter was grown, she began to visit local Zen monasteries, seeking audiences with the Zen Masters there. One day, she shaved her head, gave up all her belongings, and showed up at the doorstep of one of these monasteries, determined to live the rest of her life as a nun.
��������� According to legend, she meditated and practiced for many years without attaining enlightenment. Then one day, she was carrying a bucket of water from the river back to the monastery, and gazing at the reflection of the moon in the water. Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket fell out, spilling water everywhere, and dissolving the moon�s reflection. In that moment, she realized that all of her ideas about herself and reality were nothing but false reflections like that moon, being held together like a bucket by her own ego. She released all her delusions and attained enlightenment.
��������� When the master of the monastery died,
he named her his successor, but this met with some resistance. She prevailed
and was eventually accepted. A famous statue of her exists in
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,
known to the world as Mahatma Gandhi (Mahatma means
�great soul�) is legendary for his leadership in the non-violent protests that
eventually drove British occupiers from
All of these activities were based on Ghandi�s firm belief in the power of ahimsa, or complete non-violence. Principles of ahimsa are outlined in classic Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sacred texts, and Ghandi preached that it was the most powerful concept in the world. For him, ahimsa was not simply refraining from destructive actions, but a total state of being in which he sought not to harm others in thought, word, or deed. True ahimsa requires a constant acknowledgement of the oneness of all being, in order to see that violent thoughts, emotions, and acts are actually affronts to ourselves as well as others.
Ghandi adopted celibacy at age 36 as part of his practice of ahimsa. He believed that in his own life, sexual desire and jealousy had led to his darkest moments. In his autobiography, he describes the struggles he had with lust and jealous rages early in his young married life. He believed that sex itself was not evil or destructive, but that the powerful emotions it released distracted him and many others from experiencing pure love. He therefore felt it was his obligation as both a spiritual and political leader to adopt celibacy as part of his larger quest for higher wisdom.Ramana Maharshi
Ramana Maharshi was a twentieth-century Indian mystic revered by both Easterners and Westerners. He practiced what he called �self-inquiry� � a method for analyzing our mind in order to cut through the layers that usually block us from experiencing the universality of our awareness. Ramana�s legacy began at the age of sixteen, with his own experience of this spiritual death. Sitting alone in his room, he was spontaneously and inexplicably seized with an overwhelming fear of death. Rather than panic, he laid down on the floor and resolved to find the root of this fear. He began by questioning, �who is it that dies?�,� and immediately experienced what it would be like for his body to die. He then asked himself, �when the body is gone, what remains?� He continued this process through layer after layer of egoic identity, eventually realizing a level of his being that was not transient, and therefore immune to death. He saw in that moment that his perception of himself as an individual was nothing but the result of a particular type of thought � the �I-thought�. From that moment forward, Ramana was never subject to the delusions of ego again, and knew himself as universal awareness at all times.
Soon after this experience, Ramana ran away from home to a sacred mountain he had long felt a pull to. He stayed there his entire life � some fifty-odd more years � and eventually students began to gather around him. Although he never showed much interest in institutionalizing his teachings, his students built a center for him, and he received thousands of visitors, many of them prominent Indian statesman and Western seekers. He lived a simple life, and often taught through silence rather than lecturing. Those who saw him spoke of the grace he emanated, and the profound transforming effect it had on them and their lives.�Ramakrishna
Ramakrishna was one of the most significant Hindu leaders
Ramakrishna believed the purpose of all the world�s religions was to facilitate our direct, personal experience of God, and that the ultimate purpose of our lives was complete union with God. To that end, he sought out teachers and information on many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Tantra, and several different yogic sects of Hinduism. He worshipped within each of these paths in his own way, and proclaimed them each different methods to achieving the same end. To Ramakrishna, the root of all these paths was love, and he viewed devotional spiritual practice as the fastest and most powerful route to spiritual truth.
Monks and householders alike came to visit Ramakrishna and benefit from his teachings, including prominent Indian leaders and philosophers. Within his presence, all reported feeling overwhelmed and transformed by his grace. They describe waves of love emanating from him during his divine trances, leaving them unable to resist their spiritual impulses. His most dedicated students came from all levels of Indian society, and after his death went on to teach and found organizations in both the East and West to spread his teachings, many of which still exist today.Mirabai
��������� Mirabai was
a 16th century Hindu mystic and teacher famous for her devotional poems
and songs. From a young age, Mirabai demonstrated
profound religious fervor, particularly for the Hindu deity
husband died at a young age, and his family ordered her to commit suicide, as
was customary for young widows. But Mirabai refused,
saying Lord Krishna had ordered her otherwise. Eventually, she escaped her
family and moved to the holy city of
composed countless poems and songs in devotion to
��������� Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet associated with Sufism, a mystic sect of Islam focused on divine union with Allah through meditation, dance, and other mystic practices. His poems have become widely known, making him one of the foremost Persian poets of all time.
association with Sufism began when he met Shams-e Tabrizi,
an Iranian Sufi mystic and teacher who, according to legend, was seeking and
praying for someone who could �endure� his company. A voice in his head said, �what will you give in return�, to which he answered �my
head�. The voice then told him of Rumi, then known as
Jalal ud-Din of
��������� Rumi went on to compose many volumes of devotional poetry about Allah�s love, and on seeking spiritual union with that love directly. Rumi's major work is Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), a six-volume poem about spiritual unity with the �beloved�, the illusion of separation from this source, and Rumi�s longing to experience reunification. Rumi believed poetry, music, and dance were all direct doorways to the divine, and he founded the Mevlevi order of Sufis, famous for their Whirling Dervishes. These Sufi initiates spin in a sacred dance called the Sema, meant to generate a spiritual ascent to Allah.Rabia Basri
��������� Rabia Basri is one of the most well-known female Islamic saints,
and had a profound impact on Sufism, a mystic sect of Islam. She was born in
the seventh century in
��������� After her father�s death several years later, Rabia and her remaining family were assaulted by robbers, with Rabia captured and sold into slavery. Her spiritual longing had already awoken, and she made the best of her situation by praying and meditating most of the night, after her duties were done. Legend has it that one night her master came upon her praying fervently, and was awestruck by the light she emanated. Horrified that he had enslaved such a spiritual being, he released her.
��������� She went into the desert and became an ascetic, studying with the Sufi master Hazrat Hassan Basri. Word of her devotion and spiritual power began to spread, and people traveled for miles to study with her. She never married, which is highly unusual within all sects of Islam, particularly for women. She insisted that she only had love for Allah, and wished to devote all her attentions to worship. She was one of the first Sufis to introduce the idea of Divine Love, which later became a major Sufi precept. Many famous quotes are attributed to her, including her answer to the question �do you hate Satan�, to which she responded, �My love of Allah has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating any save Him."
One of the world�s most famous seers is Nostradamus, a sixteenth-century clairvoyant who served as
official counselor to Catherine de Medici, queen consort of King Henry II of
Nostradamus appears to have drawn on many mystic sources while developing his divination methods. His works demonstrate some familiarity with Kabbalah, Sufism, Hermetic magic, astrology and Christian mysticism. Nostradamus entered a meditative state to develop his predictions, gazing at a flame, water in a bowl, or other divination tools of the period. He says of his methods, �I emptied my soul, brain and heart of all care and attained a state of tranquility and stillness of mind which are prerequisites for predicting.�Hippocrates
Hippocrates, often called the �Father of Medicine�, lived
Although Hippocrates is considered the founder of modern Western medicine, his own system for assessing health and disease is more similar to ancient Eastern mystic methods than to current conventional ones, and in this sense his methods are an example of �energy medicine�. He emphasized the importance of balancing forces within the body by managing both internal and external elements. His system was based on the four humours, or bodily fluids; each humour corresponded to one of the four elements of fire, earth, water or air, as well as to one of the four seasons. Later physicians also associated the humours with particular foods, organs, emotions, energies, and, in the case of medical astrology, planets and signs. Disease was believed to be caused by an imbalance of humours, and thus diagnosis involved assessing a patient�s diet, environment, and temperament in order to locate the source of the imbalance. Treatment consisted of draining the body of surplus humours, or of increasing humours through foods, herbs and contact with natural elements.
The four humours, and similar theories, were the cornerstone of most Western medicine until the eighteenth century, when advances in laboratory techniques enabled the birth of bacteriology. From that point forward the focus of treatment gradually shifted towards the eradication of single disease causes, and away from a holistic assessment of a patient�s bodily health, energy and lifestyle.Black Elk
Most Native American tribes are very private about their religious rituals, and few medicine men have revealed much detail about themselves. One prominent exception is Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux who lived from 1863 to 1950, and who agreed to speak to two American authors towards the end of his life in hopes of preserving Lakota traditions. The result was Black Elk Speaks, a best-selling narrative of his life, and The Sacred Pipe, a description of several Lakota ceremonies. In Black Elk Speaks, he describes the vision he had at nine years old that marked him as a future medicine man. In it, he says he �saw in a sacred manner� and traveled to the heavens, where he witnessed multi-colored horses emanating lightening and thunder, and many other spirit animals important to the Lakota. He met five patriarchs of the universe, and saw himself as the sixth, with the power to both heal and destroy on behalf of his people.
��������� Black Elk lived a fascinating life,
participating in the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, witnessing the aftermath
of the 1890 massacre at
��������� In mid-life, Black Elk converted to Catholicism and was authorized to perform Catholic rites within his tribe. Some Lakota believed he converted solely to appease local officials, while others (including his daughter) believe it was sincere. In any case, in his narrative Black Elk doesn�t seem to see any contradiction between his Catholicism and his role as a medicine man, and speaks of both traditions as expressions of Wakan-Tanka, or �the great spirit.��Helena Blavatsky
Helena Blavatsky, often referred
to as Madame Blavatsky, was a Russian-born mystic and
theorist who emigrated to the
Madame Blavatsky was a
controversial figure, partly because she displayed ambition and independence
unusual for a woman of her time, and partly because details she provided about
her life were later disputed. Her occult interests began in childhood, when she
experienced several mystic visions. At seventeen, she ran away from a brief
marriage, and spent ten years traveling the world, including to
Upon emigrating to
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