Mysticism, Scripture, Tradition and Reason

I have just now read yet another post from a blogger who attacks contemplative prayer. I’m going to have to give this up for Lent, and start two months early. It’s rather soul-numbing to slog through such writing devoted to the ideology of fear, particularly since I’m just not learning anything new. Again and again, it’s all the same old arguments:

  • Contemplation/Meditation/Mysticism is gnostic;
  • Contemplation/Meditation/Mysticism is eastern spirituality in disguise;
  • Contemplation/Meditation/Mysticism leaves us vulnerable to the devil;
  • Contemplation/Meditation/Mysticism lacks a scriptural basis.
  • And real Christian contemplation, as opposed to its “new age” counterfeits, is only for the truly spiritually advanced.

Since I’ve pretty much answered these misunderstandings in my post Answers to Contemplation’s Objectors, I won’t repeat myself here. But as I read this most recent post, the argument about mysticism and contemplation supposedly lacking a scriptural foundation really came to bother me. As I’m continuing my research for the book I’m writing, I continually am struck by how rooted in the Bible the Christian mystics are. Meanwhile, we should note that the mystics themselves are at the heart of the tradition of the church — at least 40% of the officially recognized “Doctors of the Catholic Church” are mystics, including such luminaries as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Siena, and Bonaventure. Numerous other mystics are canonized saints, while many others (such as Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton) are broadly accepted as important and edifying voices of Christian spirituality.

It seems to me that the issue is not mysticism’s role in tradition; after all, Reformed Christians do not even recognize the authority of sacred tradition, and realistically, the rank and file Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican Christian is not about to start reading John of the Cross or Gregory of Nyssa any time soon. What is so sorely needed is an easy to understand explication of how mysticism is grounded in the Bible. The more that ordinary Christians are invited to see that the Bible is the headwaters of Christian mysticism, the more hope exists that people will begin to see just how fear-based the anti-contemplatives really are.

When I was an Episcopalian, I learned about the idea that Christian authority rests on a “three-legged stool” of sacred scripture, sacred tradition, and reason/experience. The more I learn about Christian mysticism, the more confident I am that it truly belongs at the heart of faith: for Christian mysticism is grounded in scripture, the tradition is steeped in mysticism, and authentic mysticism is both consonant with reason and deeply experiential. For Catholics, the other leg of the stool is the teaching authority of the church, and while the church does have its anti-contemplative functionaries (which it always has had), I am confident that orthodox mysticism grounded in scripture and tradition offers nothing contrary to Catholic doctrine. But again — it all begins with the Bible. It all begins with the deep spirituality of the Psalms and the sensual ecstasy of The Song of Songs. It resonates with the visionary heritage of Isaiah and Ezekial and the encounters with God of Moses and Elijah. It finds its fullest expression in the literary structure of the Gospel of John and in the theology of the captivity letters attributed to Paul. The Bible is, pardon such an obvious pun, truly “the bible” of Christian mysticism.

Recently one of the monks in Conyers suggested to me that he doesn’t want to talk about mysticism any more because it’s just such a controversial word. After all, “mysticism” as a linguistic meme really only dates back to the sixteenth century. Mysticism is a loaded word and has been latched on to by all sorts of ideologues and esotericists, representing a wide array of ideas and values, some of which are clearly inimical to Christian spirituality.The monk went on to explain that he’s begun to just talk about communion with God. Maybe he’s on to something. But I hesitate to give up the concept of mysticism. Maybe that’s because I’m under contract to write a book on the topic! But it’s also because of my own experience: I was given a framework to understand my own experiential encounter with trans-egoic love thanks to Evelyn Underhill’s writing on, yes, mysticism. And through learning about mysticism, I was ushered in to the deep and lovely waters of the Christian contemplative tradition, and I discovered the living practices of meditation and contemplative prayer, which continue to form the heart of my daily walk with God. I don’t think it’s too overblown to say that mysticism saved my life. And while I’ve recently had a reader accuse me of loving mysticism more than God, that’s absurd — it’s like saying I love marriage more than my wife. I guess some people might fall into an abstract nightmare like that, but for me, the whole point of studying mysticism and trying to incorporate its wisdom into my life is to fall ever more deeply into love with the God who so infinitely loved me first.

So, my friends and others who might be reading this post, let’s talk about mysticism and the Bible. This will be a major theme of my book, but in the meantime, I hope it can be a recurring topic on this blog as well. Authentic, orthodox mysticism is Christianity’s best-kept secret, while the Bible is the faith’s most well-known and visible symbol. It’s time to unpack to countless ways in which those two aspects of the faith are linked together.

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  • Jason Aubrey

    Carl – maybe you’ve said something about this elsewhere, or maybe it’s too early to say, but do you have a timeline or eta for your book? The reason I ask is that I *promise* to buy a copy, and I want to start saving up. :) Jason

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    The book isn’t slated for publication until the fall of 2009. So you’ll have plenty of time to save your pennies.

  • http://www.thestumblingmystic.com/ ned

    Hi Carl — I myself am a student of the Indian philosopher-sage Sri Aurobindo and the French occultist-mystic the Mother. I wanted to ask what you think of the following article on the nonduality of Christ’s message:
    http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2007/12/13/3406363.html

    (This blog is based primarily on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother but is basically non-sectarian.)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Hmmm, the Gospel of Thomas. There are those who feel that the text can and will revolutionize the Christian faith, particularly in terms of its mysticism. While I tend to shy away from such bold and broad statements, I do think there is much to profitably explore in this slim work.

    Christian nonduality can be found not only in Thomas, but among the Celts, the Neoplatonists, the work of mystics as diverse as Eruigena, Julian of Norwich, Ruysbroeck, John of the Cross, and Thomas Merton in his best moments. Obviously the tradition as it has manifested as an institution has done a pretty poor job at celebrating nonduality, but as Christ might say, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see.” And it’s as plain as the nose on our face. But as this article (like the writing of Ken Wilber) makes clear, to those whose consciousness hasn’t yet glimpsed nonduality, it is impossible to see Christ any other way than dualistically. It is what it is. I just wish the dualists would stop trying to silence the nondualists.

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

    I am a lover of the Gospel of Thomas, but I’m not sure it will revolutionize the Christian faith. I think it may play a supporting role in the revolution, but I think the real revolutionaries are the ones who are promoting a new Christian metanarrative (which the Gospel of Thomas and other nondualistic Christian writings will be seen to support).

    I’m talking about the “emergents” within evangelical Christianity, like Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Shane Claiborne (I just finished his “Irresistible Revolution” and absolutely loved it), and about the “emerging paradigm” of Jesus in mainstream denominations (Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Walter Brueggeman, Cynthia Bourgeault), and people like N.T. Wright and Miroslav Volf, who traverse both worlds. The revolutionary work these people (who range from conservative to liberal) are doing, and the vision of Jesus they are promoting, is where the hope of revitalizing Christianity lies.

    I really believe your new book, Carl, reconnecting this vision of Jesus with its true origins (the Christian mystics) will be an important addition to the “emergent/emerging” conversation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Our opinions on Thomas are pretty much on the same page. I don’t consider Thomas to be “lost scripture” so much as an early and foundational text of the mystical canon – in other words, categorically akin to the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Evagrius, Eriugena, etc. etc. etc.

    I am utterly humbled (and honored) that you would mention my book in the same post in which you mention McLaren, Claiborne, Wright, Bourgeault, Borg, et al. I only hope that my writing can live up to such august company!

  • irishanglican

    Carl,

    I was a R. Benedictine for several years (in my 20′s) now in my 50′s. And now for over 15 years, an Anglican priest. I am Irish born, and live in the London area. And I have tacked on both the D.Phil., and Th.D. (for what that is worth).

    Having had a real Pauline and so-called Augstinian conversion (years ago now), does not our Christian mysticism need to stay within the revelation of the Judeo-Christian truth? (That would be some of the Deutocanon, and perhaps some OT Psuepigrapha)

    Fr. Robert

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    No argument, Fr. Robert. I’m quite liberal when it comes to God’s lavish love and grace, but rather conservative when it comes to defining Christian mysticism. To me, if it denies the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, it’s not Christian mysticism, no matter how lovely — or ‘mystical’ — it may be.

  • irishanglican

    Carl,
    We are on the same page mate! I am conservative on some things, and rather different on others, etc. Indeed the Incarnation and the Triune God are their own mystery, the Creeds just help fence this. But as Elizabeth of the Trinity said: The Christian life, [It is] “another humanity wherein Christ renews all his mystery.”

    Fr. R.


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