Book Club Channel
21st Century Mystic: A Q&A with Carl McColman
What is "the contemplative call"?
If we take Karl Rahner seriously—and I do—then we need to ask, "how do I give myself to God in such a way that Divine Love could be truly manifest in my life?" You don't become a mystic by deciding that's what you want to do, like someone decides to get a new tattoo. Mysticism is a gift from God. But how do we prepare ourselves for the gift of God's loving presence? The answer lies in contemplation, another fancy word from history that basically means "waiting on God." As John Milton put it, "They also serve who only stand and wait." That's the heart of the contemplative call: which is the call to seek God, not so much in the things we do (as if we can somehow earn God's grace), but by simply being the creatures God intended us to be. Contemplation is a very gentle form of spirituality. It's really about learning to recognize the hidden signs of God's love, already present in our lives, signs we generally miss because we are so busy.
Do you have to join a church, or some other group?
The contemplative call comes from God, not from this or that institution. God's call to each of us is unique. So I don't believe joining a specific church, or monastery, or prayer group, is required. But I also think we have to be careful, because the default setting of our society is individualism. Christian mysticism is about love and compassion, which means it is all about community and relationship-building. Love needs to be put into practice, to be shared with others. So it is more than just "me & God." For some people, that "more" may mean a traditional church life, for others it might mean an alternative community like a house church or a neo-monastic community. If you look at history, the mystics and contemplatives were always experimenting with new forms of community, creating new channels by which they could share the love of God with others. I think the mystics of our generation will bring a similar creativity to their faith.
Why is silence so important?
One of the most mistranslated verses in the Bible is Psalm 65:1—if you look at the original Hebrew, the verse basically says that silence is praise to God. I think this verse gets mistranslated because most Christians—even our theologians and scripture scholars—have such a hard time conceiving of this. We can handle praising God with music, dance, loud voices, and shouts of exultation, but silence? I don't think this is an "either/or" question: yes, let's praise God with music and noise, but also find times of silence, solitude, and drawing within, to—in the words of another Psalm—"be still and know God" (Ps. 46:10).
As for why silence matters, consider another lovely verse: "My thoughts are not your thoughts," says God (Isaiah 55:8)—but usually our minds are so full of our thoughts that God has no room to get a word in edge-wise. So silence, as a tool for prayer, is really an invitation: an invitation to let go of the normal chatter in our heads, and rest in silence where we can seek what the Bible calls "the still small voice" of God. Incidentally, the Hebrew phrase for "still small voice" could also be translated as "the sound of sheer silence" (I Kings 19:12).
Is all this stuff in the Bible?
The word "mysticism" only dates back ro the 17th century, so you won't find that specific word anywhere in the Bible. But the Bible does have much to say about the Mystery of God, and the presence of God, and even the experience of participating in God's nature (II Peter 1:4). All the early mystics were Biblical scholars, so yes, mysticism is very much grounded in scripture.