Until You Give it Away

I believe that mysticism is a lot like love. Consider these similarities:

  1. It’s a free gift from God that we can neither earn nor deserve, yet God is eager to give it to us just the same.
  2. In this gift, all God is giving us is, well, God.
  3. In receiving the gift, it’s the best feeling in the world — but it’s more than just a feeling; indeed, it is a mistake to try to reduce this gift to a mere feeling.
  4. Expanding on the above: this gift heightens our consciousness (both in temporary and long-lasting ways), energizes our ability to make positive, good, healing choices in our lives, inspires us to clean up our own mess, and nurtures all of our relationships: not only with God, but with self, others, and indeed all of creation.
  5. One of the ways we know we’ve received the gift is how it creates real, observable changes in our lives.
  6. For Christians, the power of the Sacred Scripture and the Sacraments are uniquely effective in conveying the gift to us.
  7. There is an essentially communal dimension to this gift. In other words, we never fully receive the gift until we give it away.

Yesterday when I wrote about the four elements of mysticism, I received a lovely comment from Peter in which he “gently disagreed” with me, arguing that only experience, and not the layers of language which surround that experience, ought to be considered as mysticism. Here are a few snippets from his post (which you can read in its entirety here):

Mysticism as I define it is the satisfaction of the individual heart in its quest … for the filling of Augustine’s “God-shaped void” in the heart of every one of us … the experience of the Divine is itself the core of mysticism, is the Deep calling unto deep … mysticism is individual communion with God. Period.

I imagine if we were to take a poll, far more people who are interested in mysticism would be comfortable with Peter’s definition than with mine. I think that the experience of God is only the beginning of mysticism, not the fullness of it. Let me explain. I see how we respond to the experience of mysticism to be as essential a part of mysticism as the experience itself. Mysticism is like a snail: the experience is the warm cute little fleshy part with two antennae and a long tail, while the ways in which mystics respond to their experience (usually by talking about it, writing about it, or otherwise expressing it) is like the shell. The shell will exist long after the snail is dead. But without a shell, it’s no longer a snail: it’s a slug. Likewise, without the creative response to the experience, the experience is no longer mysticism: it’s just an experience.

Mystics are mystics because they are so eager to give away the gift they have received from God. They give it away by living the life they live; by talking about it, writing about it, making music about it, creating works of art about it. It seems that an authentic response to mystical experience always involves some sort of expression, some sort of effort to “eff” the ineffable. Mysticism echoes through the great cathedrals of Europe, the ecstasies of a Bach fugue, the haunting yearning of Vaughan William’s Tallis Fantasia, the southern gothic weirdness of a Flannery O’Connor short story, the social activism of a Dorothy Day or a Shane Claiborne, the heart-stopping beauty of an ancient Orthodox icon, where Christ’s eyes gaze into yours and all of eternity opens up. All these things are like the shells of a snail: they are things, hard, reified, not mysticism in and of themselves but silent testimonies to the life-transforming encounters that have taken place in years or ages past.

Anyone who loves popular music soon learns to distinguish between a song that really has soul and a song that was written largely to make money. Indeed, one of the worst insults that can be hurled at a musician is to accuse him or her of “selling out” or “going commercial” which implies that the force driving the musician is no longer the joy of serving the Muse, but simply the urge to please Mammon. Likewise, there’s a difference between art, literature or activism that is motivated by Divine Love or that is impelled by some other force: be it anxiety, the need to please, the urge to control, the hunger of pride, or whatever. So there’s a difference between authentic mystical expression and inauthentic, pseudo-mystical expression. Likewise, there is a difference between an authentic mystical experience and an ersatz experience that can be falsely labeled “mystical.” Examples of such pseudo-mystical experiences would include drug-induced highs, psychotic breaks, and fantasy wish-fulfillment (and orthodox Christians would also throw in there the deceptions of unfriendly spirits).

So I believe the essential formula is this:

authentic experience + authentic expression = authentic mysticism

Naturally, we need the gift of the Holy Spirit to truly discern the authentic from the inauthentic; since mysticism is itself a gift from God, it requires a gift from God to be able to smell it when it comes along. However, I also believe that one way we can begin to discern authentic mysticism from its many counterfeits is to look at the quality of its component parts. Truly mystical expression will clearly be motivated by love rather than by such forces as fear or the will to power (okay, let me interject that almost nothing is pure, so even our efforts to express our mystical experiences will inevitably include not only the impetus to express love but also hidden/unconscious motivations as well. The art of discernment will include the messy work of separating the wheat from the chaff). Likewise, we can discern when an experience is truly mystical by the effort made to give birth to love-inspired expression of that experience. Part of the nature of mystical experience is that it wants to be given away. Mysticism, like love, isn’t fully real until you give it away. In saying this, I don’t mean to knock the experience of those who have not yet had the opportunity or the maturity (or necessary interpersonal and creative skills) to give it away. Yes, mysticism can exist in potential. A child is just as fully a human as an adult, and so in that sense, a mystical experience that has not yet been expressed is just as fully authentic as one that has. But we all find it tragic when a child dies prematurely, and so a mystical experience that is never given away also has a tragic quality about it.

After all, the desert fathers lived as solitary hermits, deep in the wilderness away from the centers of civilization. But through both written and oral tradition, they found ways to pass their wisdom along. Margery Kempe was illiterate, but in true Margery style she found somebody to take dictation as she rattled off her long-winded, colorful story full of God-intoxicated experiences. I truly believe it: mysticism, like love, isn’t fully real until you give it away!

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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.

  • Peter


    You have a gift of picking nearly all my favorite artistic expressions of God-awareness (cathedrals, Bach, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, the icons [see Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light], etc.). All of these testimonies abundantly support your main thesis here of mysticism as ‘a lot like love.’

    And your analogy of “Mysticism is like a snail” is one of the most creative things I have ever heard you say! :) Brilliant. Like any great analogy, this one helps me to say something further about my experiences and preferences that may communicate to you something of what is inside me:

    I have been fighting a lifelong battle in favor of content over form, life over structure, wine over wineskins, substance over appearance, real experience over pretense–you get the idea. I feel that life without structure has the potential to create its own necessary structure, whereas structure without life is, well, just dead. It could be a testimony of earlier life, perhaps a relic; but it is in itself dead. I could say the same thing in terms of another analogy: I much prefer zoology to paleontology, or counseling to literature, because one is interacting with current life and the other is reacting to its shadows or footprints (or ‘shells’!).

    I offer no pretense that what I am doing is ‘balanced’ or ‘correct’ in any healthy way. I greatly enjoy reading all kinds of literature, including mystical literature, and my 9-year-old son’s favorite place to visit (with me) is the newly opened fossil museum about 15 miles from here. In fact, I will offer an even stronger disclaimer: I am naturally shy and avoid contact with people, especially new people, thus giving the lie to my stated commitment to interact with real living beings rather than their shadows.

    I also agree with the fierce necessity of learning to discern the wheat from the chaff, and the guts it takes to wrestle through this and grow to maturity in our lives of service as well as in our personal tastes. Jesus told us to remain as little children, but there is an unhealthy childishness that fails or refuses to grow up in love, and stifles the growth of the expression of the Spirit in us. I sense that this grieves his heart as he intercedes for us to be blessed in the greatest possible way: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

    Thank you for continuing to live what you believe, and to give away what you have received!

    Your brother in Jesus,