The kinds of things that people say to me…

Here are a couple of comments I’ve recently received from new online acquaintances, and my thoughts in response …

I don’t think I will ever go back to Christianity. But, I do find it interesting that thoughtful and intelligent people such as yourself end up Christians.”

Three or four years ago I would have said the same thing. Having been raised Christian and then freely embracing it as an adult, I subsequently decided to lay it aside and pursue the modern/postmodern revival of European paganism as my chosen spiritual path. But nowadays I think rather we don’t choose our spirituality so much as it chooses us. I had a rather self-concept-shattering transpersonal experience (call it mystical union, satori, samadhi, whatever) when I was a teen, and it happened at a church camp. So it’s almost as if I’ve been marked to engage with the Christian tradition, as I’ve done so ever since (even during my pagan period, I never stopped reading folks like Julian of Norwich or Evelyn Underhill). My tenure with paganism, it turns out, was very restless, as I bounced from group to group, from teacher to teacher, trying in vain to find “my” path, when in my heart I knew that “my path” was the one trodden by the Christian mystics from John the Evangelist down to Thomas Merton. Once I embraced that, it’s not as if all my struggles magically vanished (now I get to struggle with the many foibles of the Catholic Church, a never-ending source of amusement and frustration), but at least I found a sense of place and of home that has been richly satisfying to me.

As for why do I accept Christian theology and cosmology, I think it’s important to point out that I do in very much in terms of postmodern expressions of the faith — my experience as a member of institutional Christianity is much more shaped by people like Brian McLaren or Peter Rollins or Marcus Borg than by such figures as the Pope or Mother Angelica or even Rick Warren. In the eyes of many Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) this makes me suspect, but I can’t violate my conscience just to make them happy. Christ calls me to love my fellow Christians (and other people), not to worry about their approval. Meanwhile, the integral ideas of the Buddhist-influenced philosopher Ken Wilber helps me to intelligently situate Christian mysticism in the larger context of world religions and scientific ideas. Here in the third millennium, I don’t believe it’s possible to be a Christian fundamentalist unless a person is willing to simply ignore all the evidence of science, the social sciences, and literary criticism which taken together constitute a withering critique of the ideology that claims the Bible is inerrant. Thanks to Wilber’s theory, I understand that fundamentalism is the religious manifestation of a specific stage of consciousness that corresponds to a certain developmental level (which for many people occurs around early adolescence); once a person intellectually or emotionally grows beyond that developmental stage, I believe it is simply intellectually dishonest to cling to fundamentalist ideology (granted, many people seem to go through their entire lives without graduating from that early-adolescent level of consciousness, but that’s another issue). But it is possible to be an intellectually honest Christian whose faith is grounded in mystical theology and practice (which, among other things, has a tradition of holy agnosticism, going back at least as far as Pseudo-Dionysius in the late fifth century). That’s the kind of Christian I try to be — and studying the mystics and maintaining an ongoing spiritual relationship with a monastic community helps me tremendously in this endeavor.

I don’t search for the Divine in books, I’m not judging those who do, but I just believe there are sources of higher purity available in the ever present moment.”

No argument there. I’m a geek for mystical writings similar to how other people geek out on Harry Potter or scrapbooking or coin collecting. I’m not saying that studying the mystics is just a hobby; but I do believe it is ultimately inessential. But inessential is not the same thing as value-less. A person can be a profound mystic without ever opening a single book; conversely, someone could study all the mystical wisdom of the world and still be hopeless in terms of his or her own spirituality. Meanwhile, some other things really are essential to one’s spiritual health (such as community or prayer), whereas books and writings are, quite frankly, a luxury. Far be it from me to think that my comfortable North American existence with a personal library numbering in the thousands places me closer to God than the millions of people who struggle in truly dire conditions of poverty all around the world. The God whom I worship might suggest that if anyone were at a disadvantage, it would be me!

I read the mystics because it brings me joy and, I hope, a little bit of wisdom. I believe this joy and wisdom can be useful nutrients to deepen my relationship with God. This is why I find the great writings so valuable and thus want to share them with others. If at the end of the day, reading the mystics doesn’t make you a more loving person (loving God, loving others, loving creating, loving your self), then why bother? But I believe that, rightly approached, reading the mystics can help us to grow in love, and for this reason, it’s a worthy activity to pursue.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
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.

  • Alison

    I find your views very interesting and helpful, as someone who has rejected christianity for most/all of my life while practicing as a pagan and more recently working as a shamanic facilitator. I recognize now that my conversion process was going on for about 3 years, before coming to my present point, which is accepting Christ. I have not (yet) made the transition into a christian community, though, as I have difficulties with organized religion. For me, this is not a religion, but an inner reality, that first started dawning when I decided to find the Path of the Heart. Little did I recognize at the time that Jesus is the master of that Path. So, I am interested in about other peoples views on the subject, and also learning about what the different churches are doing. Somehow, things were simpler before, when I rejected that whole christian tradition… by opening up to it, life seems to become more complicated.

  • rodney neill

    I have just recently discovered your blog and have really enjoyed reading it. Over the last few years I have been very much drawn to the christian contemplative tradition – I had a sudden ‘renewal of faith’ experience about 4 years ago after being a disillusioned ex-believer who had left the church for many years. I have a newly awakened passion for reading particularly theology/spiritual books in an effort of how to live out a postmodern faith in to-days world. I live in Northern Ireland and were you to live down the road I would invite you out for a pint to chat to you about mysticism. Although I enjoy reading blogs and follow the emerging church conversation I very much prefer talking face to face. I look foward to reading more in your excellent website and recognise in you a kindred spirit.

    all the best ,