One thing I’ve found interesting: when I tell people I’m writing a book about Christian mysticism, a typical response I receive is, “Oh, that’s advanced, that’s beyond me, I could never be a mystic.”
A little while back I set up a page for The Cloud of Unknowing on MySpace. Recently someone emailed me and said:
In the author’s foreward he says of the book, “you are not to read it, write or speak of it, nor allow another to do so, unless you really believe that he is a person deeply committed to following Christ perfectly”, and goes on to reinforce this in several different ways. As I read this, I realized that by having “The Cloud of Unknowing” as a MySpace friend I’m advertising the book to the public; very, very, precious few of which are committed to following Christ perfectly, even among Christians. So, for this reason, I’m removing your account as a friend in hope to honor the intentions of the author, and I hope you would consider deleting the account altogether for the same reason.
In my response I respectfully declined, saying “I understand where you’re coming from, however, I believe that it’s more important for people to know about the contemplative tradition than for me to try to judge whether or not someone is worthy to learn about it.”
I love The Cloud and I think it’s one of the more important of the negative-mysticism texts. But I believe the author’s elitism is truly counterproductive, not just because it bothers random people on MySpace but because it has helped to contribute to this idea that mysticism is something only for the very few — the contemplative elite, as it were. From where I sit, here’s how it looks to me: if you’ve been baptized, you’re qualified to become a Christian contemplative (and if you haven’t been baptized, you still can explore contemplation as an inquirer or as a non-Christian). As for a “deep commitment to follow Christ perfectly” — such language reeks of purity rather than hospitality, and long-standing readers of this blog know how I feel when those two qualities face off. For newcomers, let’s just say that the Christ I worship and adore had a habit of inviting the most ragtag of folks to the feast…
I’ve talked about Ken Wilber and his principle of “greater depth, less span” as a way to understand why so few people actually do make the deep commitment that The Cloud author was looking for. It’s the same principle that differentiates the untold millions of people who love to play a game of football in the backyard versus the few who make it to the Major Leagues. But just because you’re never gonna play pro football is no reason not to play at all. I’m learning to play the bass guitar, not because I have any illusions of being the next Tony Levin, but because I’d like to have a little bit of fun with my wife and some friends who play guitar. And that’s okay! What bothers me about the idea that mysticism is only for the elite is that people who recognize that they aren’t called to be the next Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t even bother with contemplation at all. Such an attitude is tragic. Maybe mysticism is only for the few. But I believe contemplation is for anyone and everyone who’s willing to sit down and shut up and allow God to love them. And the difference between mysticism and contemplation is one of degree, not kind.