Celtic/Mystic, part two

The always well-connected Mike Morrell, in response to what I wrote yesterday about Christian mysticism and Celtic spirituality, muses:

Popular consciousness … tends to lump Celtic Christians and Contemplative Christians in the same corner, whether as an admirer (like myself) or a detractor.

Mike, I certainly understand. Celtic spirituality, whether Christian, pre-Christian, or non-Christian, is often described by both its advocates and its critics as “mystical.” So for the longest time I conflated the two as well. And certainly it is mystical, in the sense that the Celts have a profound consciousness of the presence of God, God’s immanence in the material world which thereby brings blessing to what might otherwise be dismissed as “fallen nature.”

But I think we need to be careful here, because mysticism and its derivatives are words that get used quite loosely, with many different shades of meaning (as an interesting aside, it’s fascinating to hear or read Ken Wilber’s description of the five different meanings of the word “spirituality.” A similar complexity exists with mysticism). Celtic mysticism is deeply immanent and cataphatic, stressing the nearness/presence of God and the value of creatures, creation and images as tools for accessing Divine presence.

But there’s an entire other tradition of mysticism, finding its roots in Platonic philosophy and stressing God’s otherness and transcendence. This is the tradition out of which apophatic (imageless) meditation and contemplation emerges. It is the so-called “negative” tradition of mysticism, the tradition I have elsewhere described as “Holy Agnosis.” I don’t think negative mysticism is inimical to Celtic wisdom, but it is certainly different from it.

I have met contemplatives who insist “I’m apophatic” almost as if it were a badge of honor. It’s also a subtle putdown of the cataphatic tradition, suggesting that meditation which relies on images is somehow inferior to the “true” meditation of emptiness. The corollary to this, of course, is the widespread rejection of mysticism within conservative Christianity, ranging from Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s attacks on centering prayer to Lighthouse Trails Research’s paranoid insistence that all contemplative prayer is “eastern mysticism” in disguise.

I think we need to beware of the temptation to exalt our preferred “style” of spirituality over what nourishes others. The common, and understandable, confusion between Celtic and classical mysticism calls for recognizing the distinctions within the mystical tradition; but those distinctions must never dissolve into rivalries or competition. As Wilber might put it, differentiation is a good thing, but don’t let it devolve into disassociation. A Celtic mystic and a Christian neoplatonist might approach their respective thin places with entirely different sensibilities. But they also need to honor their differences and respect one another. After all, we’re all trying to get to the same place in the end.

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
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Meet the Newest Doctor of the Church: Saint Gregory of Narek
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
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.

  • http://theriverlethe.com kay

    I’ve always been drawn to via positiva mysticism but have been surrounded by via negativa evangelists (so to speak). As you say, many insist that it is the only “true” mysticism. I think the Neoplatonic concept of God as Ground of Being (and as being ineffable as the Absolute) is important, but I think the concept of Logos as being manifest and incarnate and immanent and relate-able is equally important.

    I wish I didn’t feel like an intruder when it comes to Celtic spirituality. I only have the teeniest tiniest smidgen of Welsh ancestry which, in addition to being born and raised in the USA, makes me feel like an interloper.

  • http://maritzia.consecrated-life.org Maritzia

    One of the things that has always bothered me about many with religious/spiritual tendencies is their need to proclaim on path better or superior to others. To me, speaking as a strict, uneducated amateur, of course, mysticism is about the awareness of/connection with the divine.

    People have different abilities, different personalities. It isn’t always possible for every person to reach that moment of oneness with the divine through the same means. Centering prayer was really pushed on me when I was a novice, but it was something that I just wasn’t good at. During an Ignatian retreat, though, I learned to use imagery in my prayer, and that was when I was first able to really attain that state of oneness that I sought. For many, imagery is distracting and keeps them from attaining that moment. For me, it is necessary to do so.

    Everyone has different needs and different paths. We must each pursue that path which draws us closer to the divine. Which, of course, is what you just said here, but I thought posting just “Me too” would be silly.

  • rodney neill


    I always love your wise , insightful and perceptive writings on mysticism – its helps me to clarify issues in my own ongoing faith journey that is inspired by the Christian mystical tradition – in this case some of the differences between Celtic /platonist approaches.


  • zoecarnate

    Thanks again, Carl! This all makes perfectly good sense when you spell it out. I think, though, that some contemporary apophatics (I’m pretty sure Cynthia Borgeault‘s among them) take great pains to distance the way of via negativa from gnostic, this-world-denying tendencies. They liken the darkening of the senses to the place of voluntary chastity within marriage; that periodic withdrawal is needed to fully embrace and appreciate this world at other times. Hopefully this form of apophatic mystical understanding (‘progressive apophasis’?) can find a complementary home with the Celtic path and other kataphatic traditions, where the two can thrive together. Didn’t the Beatles or the Wisdom writer say that there’s a time and a purpose for everything under heaven..?

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

    I don’t know about the Beatles, but Pete Seeger and the Byrds sure said it (you’re showing your youth, my friend). The early Christian Celts were deeply penitential, observed three different “Lents” (40 day fasts) during their liturgical year, and were inspired by the Desert fathers and mothers. So they were certainly no strangers to self-denial or sacrifice. But their veneration of holy sites, lavish use of art (metalworking, stonemasonry, illuminated manuscripts) and gleeful intermarriage of pagan folklore and Christian hagiography all point to a cataphatic style of worship and prayer. I think Christian spirituality is always healthiest when it holds the tensions of apophatic/cataphatic, this-worldly/otherworldly, immanent/transcendental, in tension. Put another way: Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing need each other.

  • Liz

    After reading this post and the resulting comments, I am sure of one thing…you are all a lot smarter than me.

    I hope you don’t mind if I tag along. I promise to be (mostly) quiet.

  • Jeff Alexander

    An Experience:

    Years ago I had a life changing experience. I was spending a weekend at a Trappist monastery. A friend and I entered the church for the first time, We suddenly and simultaneously each had a marked spiritual experience. We stared at each other in shock and surprise. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit, fiery and enlivening. It lasted but a moment. What shocked me most was not the mere fact of experiencing “spirit” (I was used to that in my new age and eastern religious exposure) it was that it simply wasn’t the same spirit as I had encountered in those arenas. I had been taught the cardinal principle that God or Spirit or the Absolute in every religion, despite different approaches and words, was the same in essence and taste. I could no longer think that, based on my experience and what I was reading in the Bible. I was undone. Unless I reinterpreted and redefined the words of the Bible in the light of systems alien to the Bible – making it say things it doesn’t. – I couldn’t blend Christ and Hinduism/Buddhism. I still had a way to go but eventually I left eastern and new age thought behind and became a Trinitarian/Nicene creed type as that understanding had the best fit to scripture and my own experience of the Three Persons of the Godhead.

    I came up with this parable to explicate what I went through in my spiritual journey

    A Parable:

    The coast of Namibia is the only place in Africa where elephants swim in the ocean. Two gnats went out to sea. One landed on an elephant; the other on a whale. Both returned to land and shared their experiences. While their respective accounts had differences both said something like this: “It was huge beyond belief, wet, gray, and above all, alive!” Many gnat theologians decided the two gnats had experienced the same thing, while others disagreed. The discussion continues.

    Obviously the whale is Yahweh.

    What is the experience of the elephant? I think the “elephant” is deifying and absolutizing via “spiritual” practices and teachings your inward awareness which is created in God’s image. Your inner awareness and self is Godlike being made in his image and through proper training and continued programming you can expand it into an experience and perception of “absolute reality”. From the Christian perspective this is embracing the primal lie of Genesis that you can be as God! and is the root of eastern religions. When we trust in Jesus we become one spirit with him according to the Bible and his I Amness is now inward not merely outward. I can remember the moment when that happened!

    Anyway this is the conclusion I’ve come to in this area. I know this is offensive to sincere and well intentioned followers of eastern spiritualities, but Jesus Christ is termed the rock of offense and the stumbling stone. I know I barked my shins against him and it was painful, but in the end I trusted in him.

    Jeff Alexander

  • Jeff Alexander

    A foot note to above. We have words of St. Patrick founder of Celtic Chrsitianity containing first hand descriptions of his spiritual life in his “Confession” readily available translated on the web. -Trinitarian, Jesus and Bible centered, perhaps more cataphatic that apophatic. From the modern perspective it is a blend of the sacramental, evangelical, and charismatic/pentecostal – it even has an account of what may be a form of speaking in tongues along with pentecostal style dreams and words of knowledge concerning the future! Is St. Patrick “too Christian” for some Celtic Christians?