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.