Christian mysticism has plenty of critics. Rationalists dismiss it as only so much fantasy, while postmodernists and new agers don’t so much criticize contemplative Christianity as simply ignore it in their rush to embrace everything from Asatru to Zen — but if pressed on this issue, I imagine many would simply equate mysticism with the rest of Christianity, denouncing it as sexist, elitist, homophobic, hierarchical, and so forth. But wait, there’s more: students of mysticism have to watch their back from within the Christian community itself. From ultra-traditionalist Catholics to ultra-evangelical Protestants, many Christians denounce mysticism as egocentric, anti-authoritarian, and (worst of all) too accepting of non-Christian faiths and spiritual practices.
Given these realities, imagine how delighted I have been to have two books brought to my attention this week, both of which offer sympathetic and positive presentations of Christian mysticism from authors who belong to communities that are traditionally unsupportive if not downright hostile to mystical Christianity. The first book, published last year, is Miracle Workers, Reformers and the New Mystics, by John Crowder. On the back of the book its subject is listed as “Charismatic Interest.” Indeed! Oftentimes, the most vocal Christian critics of Christian mysticism come from the charismatic community. The author is an Alaska-based itinerant revivalist. Charismatic to its core, the book calls for a revival of “supernatural experiences” within the ordinary Christian life, and profiles numerous wonder-workers throughout the history of the church to bolster its argument that this is something God wants. Among those many miracle workers are figures squarely within the mystical mainstream: Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, George Fox, Brother Lawrence, Jan van Ruysbroeck, and John of the Cross. While I am a bit wary of the book because of its emphasis on supernatural wonders, I was heartened when I flipped through it and came across a passage that describes Christian mystics as:
those who flourished between the 14th and 17th centuries whose lives were marked by deep, contemplative prayer. In fact, the truest definition of a Christian mystic is one who lived a life of deep, extensive prayer. They were not all known for miracles and healings as much as intense prophetic experiences and, primarily, for intimacy with God.
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. On the strength of those three sentences alone, I’m willing to give this book a try. And even if I end up disagreeing with the author’s theology, I remain thrilled that a charismatic is offering such a positive representation of the mystics for today’s Christian reader.
Meanwhile, from just about as opposite the ideological continuum as you can get, comes Carolyn Myss, a well-known medical clairvoyant and darling of the new age world, whose brand-new book is called Entering the Castle: An Inner Path to God and Your Soul. The castle that Myss invites you to enter is Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle — one of the most sublime of western mystical classics, and about as orthodox Catholic/Christian as you can get (Teresa is one of only three women regarded as a “Doctor of the Church,” meaning that her writings carry a teaching authority officially recognized by the Catholic hierarchy). Myss was raised Catholic, and while I don’t think any of her work is necessarily anti-Catholic, as a clairvoyant her message has pretty much stayed beyond the pale of church dogma. While I don’t think Entering the Castle is by any stretch a submission to Catholic orthodoxy, it invites secular spiritual seekers (who, in my experience, are often as resistant to Christian teaching as they are eager to embrace just about any other wisdom tradition) to give the wisdom of mystical Christianity a fair chance. I think she was wise to enlist Ken Wilber to write the foreword; since Wilber’s integral theory has been far more congenial to mystical Christianity than most other writers who, fairly or not, get pigeonholed as “new age” voices.
From my perspective, I am sure that there will be plenty of times in reading both of these books that I will argue with the authors (in different ways, of course). Well, so be it. I’m just delighted that representatives from camps that have tended to either attack or dismiss Christian mysticism are at least engaging with it in a positive manner. As a devotee of contemplative Christianity, I’d so much rather have those who disagree with me be in dialogue with me, rather than just rejecting or ignoring me.