Mystics, Heretics and Saints

Consider this list of Christian mystics and theologians (if you’re not familiar with any of these figures, do some research and add their writings to your reading list):

  • Clement of Alexandria (second century CE)
  • Origen (third century)
  • Evagrius Ponticus (fourth century)
  • Pelagius (late fourth/early fifth century)
  • John Scotus Eriugena (ninth century)
  • Marguerite Porete (late thirteenth/early fourteenth century)
  • Meister Eckhart (late thirteenth/early fourteenth century)
  • Jeanne Guyon (late seventeenth/early eighteenth century)
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (twentieth century)
  • Thomas Merton (twentieth century)

What do these figures have in common? Each of them, to a greater or lesser degree, have been either denounced as heretics, had at least some of their writings condemned, or at the very least have been criticized for advocating positions that are ambiguous or confusing to the Christian faithful. In other words, these figures have all been denied access to the inner chambers of doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesiastical respectability. Here is ample evidence that the tension between dogmatic and mystical Christianity that plays out in today’s world — in terms of the criticism that Mother Angelica and her followers level at the Centering Prayer community (or, on the Protestant side, the anti-mystical attacks emanating from the Lighthouse Trails Research Project, targeting contemplatives like the Quaker Richard Foster or the Episcopalian Tilden Edwards) — is, sad to say, nothing new.

Frankly, when I consider the long and sorry history of how mysticism has been continually ignored, attacked, or marginalized within Christianity, what I find remarkable is not so much how this continues today, but rather what is truly amazing is that some mystics occasionally do get accepted by the church — Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are three who leap to mind, although thankfully they are not the only ones. Of course, such “insider” mystics almost always have drenched their writings with language that the dogmatic mainstream finds acceptable: submission to the church, self-denial, and dualistic consciousness. This means that the discerning student of the mysteries is faced with particular challenges when reading mystics who are also saints. Of course, for those of us who are trying to walk the tightrope of engagement with the institutional church while also pursuing the contemplative life, the wisdom of the saint-mystics is particularly instructive: they show us how it is to be done.

Hildegard's Mystical Trinity
John Cassian's Three Renunciations
Julian of Norwich
The Feast of Saint Hildegard
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.

  • Russel Montgomery

    As usual, I am grateful when I read your writing.
    Your writings are a rare gift in that they combine a deep contemplative awareness, a critical mind and a radical spirit.
    keep up the great work…. I really appreciate what you are doing.

  • Mike Farley

    “for those of us who are trying to walk the tightrope of engagement with the institutional church while also pursuing the contemplative life, the wisdom of the saint-mystics is particularly instructive: they show us how it is to be done.” Absolutely!

    I for one am not upset by the fact that people like St Francis, and even to a lesser extent Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton, and one you’ve left out, Brother Ramon, have to hedge their writings with submission and self-denial. We are walking a tightrope in this contemplative life, and it is easy to go right off the rails without submission etc. I am profoundly grateful for the obedience my Franciscan calling requires of me – as was Br Ramon! – and for the care and oversight of my own Parish priest.

    With great blessing goes the risk, always, of great pride or at least of great self-delusion (the young Peter Abelard, perhaps?) and for me at least, obedience is the antiseptic!

  • Carl McColman

    Mike, Spoken like a true Franciscan! :-)

    I agree with what you say, with one important caveat. I see too many conservative Catholics who appear to have made a fetish out of submission — particularly submission to the church. I am reminded of attending a particularly glorious Anglican high mass last year, with splendid choral music; after it was over, the little old lady sitting next to me smiled and said, “I know it’s idolatrous, but I just adore that music!” We laughed at her little joke, but there was a kernal of truth there. Even worship, submission, and self-denial can turn into idols when we allow them to assume a position of ultimate concern in our lives — a position which should be reserved for God alone.

  • Yvonne

    Surely any submission to authority has to be tempered with discernment as to whether it comes from God, or is just temporal authority?

    The Nuremberg trials did not accept “I was only obeying orders” as a defence. It was held that conscience is more important. So if you were ordered by the Church to do something that was against your conscience (a God-given faculty) would you do it?

    The will of the Church and the will of God are not the same thing. I agree that personal mystical insight must be checked with one’s spiritual adviser(s) or community, but if it has to be tested against dogma – instead of being checked for hubris or other forms of spiritual pride – then who is to say the dogma is correct?

  • Mike Farley

    Very good point, Yvonne, which is why I was so taken with Carl’s comment that the “saint-mystics… show us how it is to be done.” None of the people on his list did things that were against their conscience just because they were to be following orders. The delicate balance they struck, between self-will and blind obedience, is what is so instructive for us today. If you read the accounts of Francis’ – and even more, Clare’s – work in establishing their order(s) you will see so clearly how it works.

    Carl, you’re right. As Yvonne points out, submission and self-denial can get exalted to the wrong place. There can only be one “position of ultimate concern in our lives — a position which should be reserved for God alone.” Again, the people you’ve cited show us the way – none of them made the mistake of putting human authority in place of God, and their ways of discerning just how far God’s will may be assumed to be expressed in the teaching of the Church, and where those teachings need to be challenged and tested, are what is so helpful to us today.

    It really is a tightrope; to me sometimes it feels more like a narrow causeway (I’m thinking of Lindisfarne!) and the tide is rising, and the wind is getting up… The writings of the great saint-mystics then stick up like those long poles either side of the Lindisfarne causeway, to show us where the safe path lies, even when the waves are already breaking across it.