Why Read the Mystics?

Why should anyone bother reading the mystics?

Okay, some people would rather spend their lives reading People magazine or playing with their Xbox or simply trolling Ebay for that amazing find. So be it. One of the qualities of lavish grace is that it doesn’t force itself on anyone. So the first and perhaps most important answer to my question is simply, “Because you want to.” But having once established that interest (or desire) is present, still, why bother? Why not just read the Bible (or sacred texts from around the world), or sample the best of contemporary religious writing, or (actually a very worthy goal) moderate our religious study with exploration of science, technology, literature, philosophy, literature and the arts?

Okay, so it makes sense to incorporate the reading of mystical writings with an overall balanced intellectual and spiritual life. Fair enough. But mysticism still can be a wonderful focus for anyone interested in a deepening inner/spiritual life. Meanwhile, in the first sentence of this paragraph I’ve given you a clue to what I see as the two-fold reason why anyone can profit from getting to know the great works of the Christian mystics (or of the mystics of any contemplative tradition, for that matter).

So here’s the two-fold reason why we should read the mystics:

  1. For intellectual formation — to increase knowledge in terms of theology, history, or literature.
  2. For spiritual formation — to nurture one’s own faith and to aid in the process of cultivating an on-going sense of Divine love and presence in your life.

Both of these reading strategies are important, but for different reasons. For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to call the academic study of mysticism the critical approach, and the spiritual study of mysticism the devotional approach.

Critical reading of the mystics involves reading the text for the purpose of increasing knowledge. This may involve either the pursuit of personal intellectual development, or original research for the purpose of making a contribution to the ongoing expansion of human knowlege. When we study the mystics, we study a singular phenomenon in the history of human experience, a phenomenon with religious, social, political, and even evolutionary implications. But whether undertaken for one’s personal pleasure or to support a social or professional goal, critical reading always requires maintaining a distance from the text. The critical reader interrogates the text he or she is studying. Why does the writer say this? What does the writer mean? What does this text reveal about the writer, about the historical context, or about any other issue being researched? Critical reading treats the text as an object, and approaches it in terms of its usefulness. Does reading the text bring enjoyment, or insight, or understanding, or helps to solve a larger puzzle that is being researched? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the text passes the usefulness test. But if the answer is no, then frankly reading such a text would be a waste of time.

We can discover much through critical reading of the writings of the mystics. Again and again, the mystics testify to the possibility of believing deeply in the reality and accessibility of Divine love — and, perhaps more dramatically, in experiencing that very love. Mystics provide an optimistic approach to theology — a healthy corrective to the way that popular religion all too often ends up focusing on the negatives (the “thou shalt nots”). By stressing Divine love over the wrath of God, the testimony of the great contemplatives can help readers to discover spiritual possibilities that take us far beyond the “get saved and live a good life” theology that characterizes the contemporary religious mainstream (and that so many ex-Christians and non-Christians have so sensibly rejected). Of course, mystics have throughout Christian history spoken in accordance with the dominant religious language of their time — which is why mystics like Walter Hilton or Teresa of Avila often sound harsh and overly penitential to a third millennium reader. When we read the mystics with a critical distance, we can more easily avoid being ensnared by such language, remembering that the voice of any given mystic will necessarily reflect the cutural milieu of their day, thereby freeing us to discern what is truly universal in the literature of mysticism.

Devotional reading of the mystics takes us beyond the mere accumulation of knowledge. This method involves reading a text for the purpose of spiritual growth, of deepening our relationship with God and our life in Christ. To read a mystical work this way means to actually enter into the text as a meditative discipline, looking for ways to encounter the Divine Presence within the reading experience. Rather than reading from a critical distance, a devotional reader seeks to be as engaged with the text, as involved with it, as possible. Just a critical reading seeks distance from the text, so a devotional reading seeks intimacy within it. In devotional reading, the text asks questions of the reader. What does reading this book reveal about your beliefs? About your conscious or subconscious assumptions about the nature and character of God? How does this text challenge you as a spiritual person? What gift does this text bring you in terms of your interior growth? Is God using this book to speak to you? If so, what is God saying? Devotional reading treats the text as an ikon — a window through which the the uncreated light of the Holy Spirit may shine.

While any book with some measure of spiritual content can be read in either a critical or devotional manner, the writings of the great contemplatives are particularly rewarding to either reading strategy. Therefore, the richest way to unpack the treasures of the mystics is to practice both types of reading. The mystics certainly deserve to be questioned; their assumptions and unstated beliefs about God, the world, and spirituality ought to be examined critically, not only by scholars but by anyone seeking to understand how God has been experienced by people throughout history. For example, the harsh language of penitential theology needs to be clearly understood for what it is, not only for the pure acquisition of knowledge, but also to unlock the text for devotional purposes. In other words, the critical approach to mystical writings is never enough, since it fails to meet the writing in the way that the author originally intended it to be read. Mystics did not (and do not) write to keep graduate students busy — they wrote to help their readers to be transformed and renewed in the image and likeness of God, to prepare themselves for the miracle of the Beatific vision, whether in this life through supernatural intervention or more fully in the next.

So for any person interested in reading the great works of mysticism, the critical approach needs to be balanced by time spent reading in a contemplative way. The Benedictines call this method of reading lectio divina — literally, “divine reading.” Lectio divina involves not only reading a text prayerfully and slowly, allowing the text to speak to us and possibly reveal Divine love to us, it also fosters an environment where other forms of prayer may emerge. In fact, Benedictine spirituality suggests that lectio naturally leads to the spiritual practices of meditatio (meditation, or what we might call spiritual reflection), oratio (conversational prayer), and contemplatio (contemplative prayer).

To summarize my answer to the question, “why read the mystics?” For some, the sheer joy of learning about religious culture will be reason enough. However, to truly appreciate the gifts that the mystics have to give, we need to read in a spirit of openness and devotion. In that context, we read the mystics in order to deepen our relationship with the Divine.

This post is an expanded revision of an essay I wrote about ten years ago for the original “Website of Unknowing.”

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Julian of Norwich
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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.archive.typepad.com/brothertadhg/ Brother Tadhg

    Great post and I concur. Thanks for writing it.

    Humbly, might I suggest a third reason for reading the mystics, and that of ‘strangeness’! Their way of looking at the world was different(and therefore ‘strange) to twenty-first century man/woman, and it causes us to anyalyse more deeply what they’re saying. Jesus used that type of thinking when he said, youve heard it said, but I say…’, and in answer to where are you mother, brothers etc, he spoke of his followers as being member of his family, which would cause any Jew of that day to sit up and listen intently, because it’s using words, phrases and thoughts in ways different to what is considered the norm.

    I can heartily recommend the works of Julian Of Norwich, the works of Meister Eckhart, and as regards lectio divina I can recommend a book, albeit 20 yrs old, called ‘Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina’ by Thelma Hall (Author).

    Brother Tadhg

  • Peter

    Thanks, Carl, for this clear distinction between the two types of reading. I especially appreciate the difference between questioning the text (in critical reading) and submitting to let the text question you (in devotional reading). This honors the various faculties (“agents” as per M. Eckhart) of the human soul, leaving us free (because grace does not force itself on us) but keeping us properly accountable to the potential of what is available to all in our mystical experience. It is this second form of reading that makes the Bible and all forms of true spiritual writing the most valuable it can be for us. I am greatly looking forward to the Beatific Vision, and I ask, “Why wait? Why not get started now?!”
    Thanks again, Carl,