Mystics and Contemplatives

The ever-perceptive Phil Foster asks in a recent comment on this blog:

Is there a difference between a mystic and a contemplative type? I’m certainly the latter but not the former.

Phil, I think your second sentence in this quotation goes a long way toward answering the question. A “mystic” as I see it, is one who has been ushered into the mysteries — and it is God who does the ushering. So, while on one level we are all mystics (as William McNamara puts it in his book Earthy Mysticism, “A mystic is not a special type of person; each person is a special type of mystic”), it’s also important to bear in mind that “becoming a mystic” is not so much something we do as something we receive. Meanwhile, a “contemplative” as I see it is one who watches or observes (it comes from a Latin root that means something along the lines of “observing the auguries”). Thus, in terms of Christian spirituality, the contemplative is one who watches for the gift of mystical union. We cannot choose to be mystics, but we can choose to be contemplatives. Contemplation is essentially what we do in order to be prepared to receive the mystical gift, kind of like the bridesmaids who kept their lamps trimmed and burning.

Now, having said all this, I should note that my definition of contemplation is not the same as what you’ll find in the classic writings of mystics like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. They speak of “infused contemplation” which is, again, a gift from God, not something of our own doing. So in their language, contemplation belongs to the same category in which I have placed mysticism.

Does that clear things up a bit?  :-)

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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.

  • vincent

    Carl and Phil, As per your discussion on mystics and contemplatives, I might recommend Thomas Merton’s concise book entitled, “What is contemplation?” whereby he very straighforwardly explains ‘active’ contemplation verses ‘passive’ contemplation (that which Carl correctly calls mysticism). But Meton also explains various other terms that are often vague or confused (i.e., quietism, meditation, etc.). If either of you haven’t seen it, I might recommend you have a look.

    Pax Christi,


  • Peter

    Critical to the discussion of definitions of mysticism vs. contemplation (and the like) is the place of personal responsibility / discipline in the process. If Phil considers himself a contemplative but not a mystic, I consider myself the opposite–a receiver of sheer grace, the gift of life in the Spirit, the beatific vision–which I have done nothing to earn or “attain to,” but which is purely the gift of God to the unworthy recipient, and indeed always will be. If in fact I ever do anything along the line of self-discipline or partaking of what are called “the means of grace,” even that is simply a response to a God-given hunger and thirst that implies no measure of merit or virtue on my part, but rather a knee-jerk response to the drives and desires that have been placed in my spirit by the One who desires me more than I desire Him.
    I like Carl’s verbal distinctions here, and Vincent’s (= Thomas Merton’s) too. But I hold fiercely to the reality (in theory as well as in experience) that God is always the initiator in the Divine Romance, the Heavenly Dance of Love, and I (and we?) always the receiver(s). God is most pleased with us (as John Piper says) when we are most satisfied with Him.
    Blessings to all,

  • Carl McColman

    Peter, you’re right. Even when we think we’re in charge, we are responding to grace. So perhaps the difference between a mystic and a contemplative is that the contemplative dances with the illusion that he or she is doing something, while the mystic has been disabused of that silly notion! :-)

  • Yvonne

    As Dion Fortune used to say, there is one Initiator :)

    The distinction between mysticism and contemplation is very interesting. I hesitated to call myself a mystic until I felt that I had received a connection to the Divine Source – and you’re right, the Divine reaches to us, not necessarily the other way around.

    Carl, you may be interested in this series of posts by Christians responding to contemporary Paganism:

  • phil foster

    Good discussion.

    When I say I’m a contemplative I mean this more as a personality type. That is, I am by nature (gift from God) introspective and introverted. I think when I avail these tendencies to my spiritual practice I am contemplative, And by no means do I mean to imply that I have not been given by grace mystical experiences and, occassionally, awareness. I don’t think that makes me a mystic. Although I have been given several profound visions from God that doesn’t count as mysticism. Rather, I would see the mystic as one who lives in that grace given, Unitive awareness. I am leary of mystical awareness not informed by practice. That doesn’t mean that my practice will insure mystical awareness; that is God’s business.

    I certainly agree with the McNamara quote you sited, Carl. The mystic is probably the natural human, and we all have this capacity. But if it is “illusion” to have spiritual practice and discipline, then we really have no need for our study, prayer, worship, fellowship. We must develop our “receptive faculties;” that doesn’t mean we’ll receive anything. No guarentees. To be continued…

  • Nancy

    I agree that God initiates mystical experiences and that they are always gifts and not earned. As I recall, in The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila speaks of stages of mystical union, with unitive awareness as the last stage. She would classify as a mystic someone who has not yet reached that stage yet has received certain other graces.

    I think that someone who has had visions and/or direct experiences of God are changed by those graces. There are insights gained, a strengthening of faith, and other graces received that set a mystic somewhat apart. I, too, am a mystic, and there are certain things God has revealed to me that would make it impossible for me to question those aspects of faith.

    Now, on the other hand, I want to emphasize that there can be no pride in being a mystic since all is unearned grace. Somewhat as a comment on Carl’s reveiw of Dom Pennington’s book on the Rule of St. Benedict, the abbot repetively called himself a sinner. It has been my experience that the more mystical experiences that I have had, the more aware I have become of my sinfulness. More of my sins become apparent to me through the light of God. Yet in the midst of this awareness is a keen awareness of God’s love for me and every person.

    I cannot imagine a mystic not taking part in prayer and worship. To experience God is to realize that our God is more than we could have hoped for or imagioned. This certainly leads to prayer and worship.

    I am currently of a mind to say that for me, time spent in study might be better spent in contemplation. God accomplishes more in me when I become so open than I could attain through study. God’s will for me may be very different than the paths taken by mystics or saints in the past whose books I might like to read. What is important for me is to become aware of God’s will for me. There was a time, however, when I did read some of the classics on mysticism. It reassured me when I was wondering if these things happen to other people.

    ISometimes I think of it as the “sacrament of the present moment ,” a phrase coined I think by Br. Lawrence. Every moment is filled with grace but we must be receptive to it and God’s gentle leading. If I am preoccupied or on too tight a schedule, then I am less likely to notice the gentle leading. I can’t take the time to do a favor at that moment or listen to someone in need or all the other various possibilities. I can be in too big of a hurry to notice the beauty in the people and creation that is surrounding me and thus lose the chance at that moment to praise God.
    do believe that there are many valid paths to mystical union with God. We are each unique and God leads each of us in the way best suited to each individual.

  • Peter

    Thank you, Nancy! This is a wonderful reply.

    I love studying what other mystics have written, with the understanding that any mystic knows inherently that we cannot write out fully what we have seen, and yet we feel compelled to write anyway, hoping that what we write might inspire or bless others who are beginning to experience similar things and are, as you say, “wondering if these things happen to other people.” It is wonderful to find the confirmation that we are not alone in these things, or crazy, or if we are crazy there is a fine, honorable community of saints down through the ages that we share the same craziness with!

    I also agree that the time comes when “the time spent in study might be better spent in contemplation.” Amen! As one of many possible confirmations of this, I can point to Carl McColman’s experience earlier this year, when he ‘quit’ doing his blog for a number of weeks (months?) because he found he was stuck in reading and writing about mysticism/contemplation perhaps more than experiencing them, and he was unhappy with this turn of events.

    And “the sacrament of the present moment” HAS TO BE customized to each individual, because in the present moment it is only the individuals present who are experiencing the leading of God, hearing his voice, seeing his face…

    Blessings on your continued experiences of the unmerited grace of God, knowing that “the greatest of these is Love.”