On the Margins

The other night my friend Cliff and I were talking about a series of Sunday School Classes we’re doing for his church. We’re looking at how the mystics within Christianity are the both the heirs of the prophetic tradition and the custodians of theophany.

Part of our conversation involved figuring out the best way to present the mystical tradition to adults who may have been devout churchgoers for a lifetime, but who may know little or nothing about Christian mysticism. Wouldn’t such an adult reasonably wonder why, if mysticism were so important, he or she hadn’t heard about it before?

My answer is simple: ever since the first folks went out into the desert in post-Constantine antiquity, mysticism has been a marginal element within Christianity. Sure, some mystics (Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux) get the blessing of church hierarchy, but many others (Origen, Evagrius, Eriugena, Eckhart) are dismissed as heretics. Still others, like the 14th century English mystics, live and die in obscurity, with their wisdom and experience reaching a wider audience only centuries after their death.

So overall, mysticism lives on the margins. Even those saints whose mystical wisdom is accepted by mainstream Christianity still have far less influence than more heroic figures like saints and martyrs. More people know about Mother Teresa or John Paul II — or for that matter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer — than are familiar with Thomas Merton. And the further back in time you go, the more obscure (read: marginal) the mystics become.

So as I was driving home from our meeting, this thought occurred to me: marginality is what links the mystical tradition and the Celtic tradition together. I’ve been trying to figure out their natural meeting points. Sure, some Celts were mystics (Eriugena, George MacLeod), but overall, Celtic spirituality tends to be more about the wonder of nature than about the nature of wonder. So I’ve been more or less seeing my dual interests in Celtic wisdom and Christian mysticism as parallel, but hardly integral.

But marginality is the missing link. As Christians who lived “at the end of the world” and within a culture that had reached its apex some 500 years before the coming of Christ, Celtic Christians clearly have inhabited the margins. Just like the mystics.

So now the question becomes: how do the marginalities of mysticism and Celtic Christianity compare to each other? What are their points of similarity, and what are their differences?

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  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    I really like what you’ve written here, Carl. I feel like I live in the margins myself, in so many areas of my life. That element of marginality may be, on a subconscious level, what attracts me to Celtic spirituality (both Christian and Pagan) as well as the mystics (both Christian and Sufi). Thanks for giving me some food for thought as I travel to Sarasota!