We’re looking for a few good contemplatives

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.”

Boo hiss.

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.

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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.

  • Bob

    “Following Pseudo-Dionysius, mystics such as Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross; modern spiritual teachers like Peter Rollins and Maggie Ross, and — of course — The Cloud of Unknowing all fall within the magnificent, if virtually imprenetrable, vein of spirituality.”

    The above quote is from your MySpace page and my reaction is, “You can’t be serious! Peter Rollins and Maggie Ross? Modern spiritual teachers?”

    I looked at the website of these two “modern spiritual teachers.” Mr. Rollins’ site describes him as, “…the co-ordinator of the experimental collective Ikon. Ikon describes itself as iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing and engages in what it calls provocative acts of theodrama and ‘transformance art’.”

    Google Mrs. Ross and you will find from her writings that she is an anti-catholic feminist who has written such words of wisdom like, “…”the rapture,” a mythology dreamed up by a 17th century Roman Catholic preacher using a textual snippet from one of the more paranoid sections of the Book of Revelation…”

    How can you attempt to put these writers in the same breath as Pseudo-Dyonisius and St. John of the Cross and expect to be taken seriously? But then again, by doing so, you are certainly highlighting contraries.

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

    If I went through life worried about being taken seriously, I’d accomplish nothing. I’m sorry if you are ideologically offended by emergent evangelicals or feminist Anglicans, but I think any objective observer will find in both Rollins and Ross a continuation of the negative tradition of mysticism that certainly outshines much of the moribund writing from their contemporaries who are more worried about dogmatic correctness than responding to the divine mystery.

  • Bob


    With all respects, you are a writer of a very serious subject (what could more serious than the union of a soul with God?). You should expect to be taken seriously.

    Submitting the rest of your response to reason, an objective observer would conclude, in the final analysis, that there can be no conflict between “responding to the divine mystery” and “dogmatic correctness.” A simple definition of theology is, “faith seeking understanding.” “Faith” is ultimately the (emphasis) response to the divine mystery. The “dogmatic correctness” is there for our understanding. Of course, faith is not opposed to reason, it transcends it.

    Concerning your actual blog entry, I am disappointed to find that your impressions, or the impression you have of the Cloud author’s cautions, are ones of “elitism.” They are there for a reason.

    As you yourself wrote: “the difference between mysticism and contemplation is one of degree, not kind.” You forget to realize and make distinctions in the degrees of contemplation. St. John of the Cross certainly does, and even teaches when it would be appropriate for one to recognize when meditation should cease, and a more contemplative prayer begun. John writes that it would be counterproductive for a soul to pursue a contemplative approach before it is ready. I submit, that this is exactly the reason for the Cloud Author’s cautions.

    Now, authors like St. John of the Cross and Pseudo-Dyonisius have very strict definitions of “contemplation”, “mysticism” and “mystical theology.” In fact, these words to them are practically interchangeable and refer to the state of a soul whose faculties are in actual union with God (also “negative theology”). The meanings of these words have been corrupted over time and they do not have the modern day meanings, as a casual reader would give them.

    The same can be said of the word “perfectly” as you used it above in the blog entry. For a correct understanding of what is actually meant by “christian perfection” – one must have a Catholic understanding of what is meant because, after all, the author was Catholic. (In short, “christian perfection” in this life is exactly what I said before, the actual union of the faculties of the soul with God.) So, yes, in this context it does indeed “reek of purity” – as it well should.

    Sorry, for going on so long but, I felt that I had to in order to make my remarks clear. Finally, sorry again, but I do not believe that, given the strict definition of contemplation, one can simply say:”Hey, this contemplation sounds cool. I think I’ll start tomorrow.” One must begin at the beginning, not the end.

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

    Bob, thank you for taking the time to spell out your position, I don’t think you went on too long at all! But I rather think that you and I have considerably different understandings of mystical theology, if not of God. I certainly agree with you that mysticism, as popularly understood, is a far cry from the theology of St John of the Cross or Pseudo-Dionysius. But with all due respect, I think you underestimate the damage that has been done in the name of protecting people from spiritual practices for which they are judged to be not yet ready. A rose by any other name, my friend: this is spiritual elitism and paternalism. Such elitism is matched only by dualism and xenophobia in terms of forces within the church that have undermined the spiritual life.

    One excellent recent book that takes on the issue of the problems engendered by spiritual elitism, written by a Catholic priest, is Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope even though we may not see eye to eye, that you will feel welcome here and will feel free to continue the conversation. I’m certainly willing to approach anything you may wish to share in a spirit of willingness to learn.

  • Bob


    I did read the link you posted. I am also familiar with the writings of Fr. Keating and Messinger on Centering Prayer. Here’s another link that deserves attention:


    The danger, I believe, is actually the risk of falling into quietism or illuminism. These errors have already been refuted hundreds of years ago and I see no harm and great benefit in protecting souls from falling into these dangers, especially beginners.

    In the spiritual realm, one size just doesn’t fit all and no one goes to the Father without the Son (that is what CP attempts). The burden is certainly on CP proponents if they wish to contradict Doctors of the Church like, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila and they fail in their attempts. It is unjust to promote CP as some kind of “new and improved” mysticism, contemplation, or prayer. Frankly, Keating is wrong. Want to know how to do CP perfectly? Just go to sleep…oh yeah, and don’t dream.

    I agree, a far cry from St. John of the Cross and The Mystical Theology. No active or passive purifications of the soul…no faith, no hope, no love, no God.

    Perhaps, that is a result of this “modern” world…do it yourself….take care of yourself…self-help…self-reliant…self-made – Or is it just the same old ego in disguise again and we are not as sophisticated as we think we are. This (emphasis) is the “spiritual elitism” that is the same old danger that undermines the spiritual life. ie. Just do Centering Prayer…easy as you pleasey. Get to God without God…not possible. It is God who decides who draws near and who tests the heart (and even heals the unconscious). Let’s give God His due.

    St. Paul, who was transported to the third heaven in this life, still got his head chopped off. Pretty humbling if ask me.

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

    Bob, I am sorry that you have such a poor understanding of centering prayer. I am also sorry that you have to resort to sarcasm to get your point across. Now I fear it is you who are at risk of not being taken seriously.

  • Peter

    I for one am taking Bob seriously here, and I can see a genuine concern for the very real dangers of quietism and illuminism, especially among younger practitioners who are not grounded in the basics of the faith and Scripture.

    But I have to balance that with an appreciation of what I believe Carl is trying to get across here: to use an old analogy, it’s a lot easier to steer a moving car that may be going slightly off track than a parked car! The honest caution to steer clear of these “ditches” is no reason to forbid interested folks from learning to drive.

    When I first started going down the contemplative or mystical path, I found out pretty soon (it took me only a couple of years) that you can’t get to the Father without the Son. When I see someone flailing around in any of a number of spiritual practices that are likely to come to a dead-end for them, my response in compassion is to offer some information and a bit of guidance into something that might be more profitable for him/her–a response that I see in Carl here (in opening the contemplative option to an ever-wider audience) and also, I suspect, in Bob too with his cautions and caveats.

    In the spiritual life there is no substitute for mentoring, for “spiritual direction,” the hands-on practical help offered by someone a bit more seasoned to help the new guy get through the land-mines as safely as possible. Frankly, I find this “dissing” of Centering Prayer (or any other particular method) to be way off track and counter-productive. To be sure, some methods of spiritual practice are a lot more efficient and well-designed than others. But the bottom line here, as Bob has said, is that “It is God who decides who draws near and who tests the heart (and even heals the unconscious). Let’s give God His due.”

    Amen! But in the process, let’s refrain from condemning the efforts of others to learn to yield to the working of God’s Spirit in their hearts. And if we find we still have the tendency in us to make this kind of judgment against others, let’s use some of our contemplation time to allow the light of the Spirit to search our hearts and bring us to repentance, so we can truly love one another.


  • Peggy Goforth

    This conversation between Bob and Carl is pretty technical. It’s like watching two pro tennis players. My head aches from moving from side to side to watch the lobs and smashes.

    Once upon a time I wandered though a bookstore and found myself in the section on sexuality. I picked up the Joy of Sex and randomly glanced at the introduction. The author said something like that “in order to have a good sexual life one must prepare for it as an athlete prepares…”

    I promptly shut the book and placed it on the shelf.

    I was not nor will I ever be athletic. So much for the possiblity of sexual ecstasy! And at the time I had been married for several years and had three children, so I had some practice in sex but it sure wasn’t up to the hype I had been taught…

    I think it’s the same with the so called “MYSTIC” life. I read this blog and comments and I think “Oh I really am attracted to this!” and then I feel that with my complicated personal life, (disabled husband, child, full time job) there is no possibility of even TRYING.

    So I stick to going to Holy Eucharist, read the Bible, journal, walk the labyrinth when available and pray like Anne LaMott (Help! Help!).

    Oh, I got the suffering part down pretty well….I spent the past 3- 1/2 years dealing with family health crisis (mental and physical). Hospitals ooze with suffering….

  • Peter

    God bless you, Peggy!

    Your list of spiritual practices is probably more than adequate; let me throw in just one piece of advice: I suggest you practice “TURNING” as well. By this I mean “TURNING’ your attention frequently to Jesus, moment-by-moment, expecting Him to be immediately present (as in Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence) and intensely interested (as He promised in the Bible that He would be) in the details of your suffering, your less-than-ideal sex life, your “complicated personal life”….

    I pray for you that the hype and faulty packaging and technical jargon surrounding the “mystic” or spiritual life will be broken off for you, and that you will come to know the simple joy of daily, ongoing personal intimate communion with Jesus your Savior and Friend–which, after all, is what this stuff is all about.

    Carl, am I right about this? What do you think?

    Love and blessings,

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

    Well, I agree, Peggy’s spiritual practice sounds wonderful to me. We’ve got to get over this idea that we all have to be spiritual marathoners.

    And you’re right, Peter. There is an essential humility to the authentic mystical life (what Julian calls “homeliness”) that all the fancy theologizing of Meister Eckhart or John of the Cross or Garrigou-Lagrange can all too easily miss.

    Let’s hear it for down-to-earth spirituality!

  • Peggy Goforth

    As part of my Lenten practice, I decided to attnnd the adult sunday school series which for the next 5 weeks is an exploration of Brother Lawrence, as Peter suggested.
    The two presenters are friends of mine and I want to be a supportive presence as they share their insights. I was exposed to “Practicing the Presence of God” over 20 years ago while attending a liberal arts Christian College. It was recommended by a friend who was kind of mentoring me into the liturgical way of worship. I really didn’t get a lot out of it. But last night as I read it again, I discovered that I had been doing some practicing and not being aware that this was a form of prayer. Mostly I do it on my 35 mile trip to work. I need peace of mind as I deal with my life situation, otherwise I will become a screaming maniac.

  • judith collier

    bless you peggy. thank you carl and peter. peggy, how very faithful you are and thank you, i thought i wasn’t or ever could practice the presence of god due to an experience i had once of god’s majesty. but i am no longer on the mountain top and do practice the presence, i just wasn’t aware of what a normal presence of god was. i do bring god to mind many times as peter and carl explained. i will reiterate this point to my mind and not strain so darn much. intensity runs in this whole family like cooked rice.i don’t know if i am on the right page with you figuratively,but thank you again,judy