Breaking the Mystical Thermometer

A reader named Judy comments on my Teresa of Ávila page thusly:

… as to the stages of mysticism, the less I know the better. I do not want that craving of evaluating or one could say taking their spiritual temperature ever again. That sneaky ego always popping up saying “well done”. I am terrified of taking pride in what is “all God” and his work in me. I know myself and how quickly I can slide right down the chute, having done it several times.

As for being “terrified” of pride, I’d like to gently encourage Judy to consider Jesus’ repeated command to have no fear. That said, I certainly can appreciate her desire to live in a space uninfected, as it were, by the “sneaky ego” and the many ways hubris can insinuate itself into our spiritual lives. Which leads to why I find her comment so important:

We need to be careful whenever we put too much cognitive energy into understanding the dynamics or developmental process of mysticism (or spirituality in general). It’s way, way, way too easy to get caught up in measuring ourselves against what other people have said about the way in which the unitive life unfolds.

I remember when I took a course on spiritual direction from John Westerhoff some fifteen years ago, one of my classmates loved to talk about where he was on the spiritual ladder. “I don’t think I’ve entered the dark night of the soul yet, but I’ve clearly undergone the dark night of the senses,” he said with deadpan earnestness. I said nothing in reply, not sure that I could pick out either dark night if they were standing in a police line-up. But these thoughts occurs to me when I think of my former classmate:

  • Wherever we are on the spiritual journey, our task is to seek deeper intimacy with God, deeper conformity to God’s will, and a more profound willingness to allow God to bring healing and joyful Christlike transformation into our lives. If this is our task no matter how “advanced” we are, then who cares how advanced we are? In other words, there is a real way in which thinking about mysticism developmentally is really just a huge trap that can distract us from the real business of growth in grace.
  • Even if there are valid reasons for evaluating upon which rung we stand on the ladder of divine ascent, such issues need only be discussed privately with one’s spiritual director or confessor. Airing out these concerns with anyone else — family or friend, prayer-partner or stranger — leaves us deeply vulnerable to the snares of pride: feelings of self-importance or self-abnegation, depending on how we “compare” to others, or to saints or great mystics, or whomever. Neither of these feelings are particularly useful as we progress on the spiritual life. It is best to learn to simply ignore the towering temptation to evaluate or compare, at least in terms of our spiritual progress.
  • As Judith so succinctly points out, the less we know, the better. Perhaps if we are really serious about learning how to trust God, we can simply abandon the notions of spiritual progress and development, and just leave it to the responsibility of our spiritual director or confessor to discern where we stand — and what we need as we continue to make our slow progress along the way.

Is all this to suggest that John Climacus’ ladder of divine ascent, or Walter Hilton’s scale of perfection, or Teresa of Avila’s four degrees of prayer (or seven mansions), or any other schematic way of understanding mystical growth are useless? Not hardly. I believe that the writings of all these mystics can be profitably read by anyone who sincerely seeks to learn more about how others have experienced the process of transformation in Christ. But I do think there can be wisdom in preferring the writings of other mystics, like Julian of Norwich or Thomas Merton, who avoid description of methods or programs and instead simply reflect on the beauty and majesty of the spiritual life in a way that is relevant to all people. Meanwhile, when we do encounter any effort to explain the spiritual life systematically, it may be helpful to remember to hold such schemata lightly. Alan Watts once wrote about how the point behind a symphony is not for the musicians to race to get to the end, but rather for both musicians and audience to enjoy every single note along the way. The mystical life works much the same way. Everyone knows it would be silly for a bassoonist to think “Wow, we’re playing the third movement of Beethoven’s fifth; we’re so much farther along than those poor beginners who are stuck playing the first movement!” Likewise, continually taking our mystical temperature to figure out where we stand on the path toward Divine Union is pretty much a useless endeavor.

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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.

  • Peasant

    I think it was somewhere in Merton that I came across the notion that we are constantly at the ‘beginner’ stage. That is, no matter where we are, we enter again each day as beginners. Begin again. Begin again. Begin again.

    I wonder if we’d be better off and come before God with a ‘right mind and heart’ if we rec’d all these notions of stages and spiritual ladders as simply descriptive and not normative. Reading the back of a baseball card will tell us where the player has been and what he has achieved; but it won’t tell us what the result will be of his next at-bat.

  • philfoster

    Nor will the baseball card and stats show us the player’s soul. We are all apprentices – even the “masters” – on the spiritual path.

  • judith collier

    thanks guys, i’ve never talked to anyone before about spirtual experiences. i tried a priest once,being roman catholic,he wanted to send me to the bishop,forget that.i was afraid i was going to be another joan of arc or something,so for 33 years i just read. the protestants helped a lot telling me i had been born was good finding a catagory i fit in. back and forth between catholicism and the heretics(chuckle) i haven’t been to church for awile, need to go for communion.judy,i never had a confessor,i have trouble trusting someone with my soul.

  • Peter

    It can be scarey trusting someone with our soul! But here is where I’ll swim upstream and say that I think it CAN be somewhat useful to have some idea where we are in our growth:

    For one thing, if (for example) we are at the “stage” where the literal disciplines don’t help us the way they used to, but we take long nourishing drafts from the spiritual fountain as a regular thing, we might not beat ourselves up quite so badly if we recognize that what we are going through could be “normal” in the spiritual life, at least in the sense that other saints have been here, too, and can recognize the territory.

    For another thing, as judith mentions here, if we are somewhere between orthodoxy and heresy, it can be comforting to know that we are not insane just because of some of our experiences which seem extraordinary or maybe even a bit crazy! We hold our schemata loosely, as Carl wisely advises; but if we have SOME IDEA where we might be, it can comfort us with the notion that at least we are still on the path, going somewhere certain and good.

    I recognize the danger of getting set in too firmly to a pattern, or falling into pride when we think we’re really something we’re not. I guess what I’m saying is that I think God actually takes pride in what He is making out of us, something glorious and beautiful in His sight, and it’s OK if He occasionally decides to share some of His joy with us.

    Respectfully, Peter

  • judiyh collier

    thank you so much peter, carl,philfoster and peasant.i never had a computer before, i know the feeling,” jesus walked the wine press alone”.the last 20 years i have taken care of family members. the latest being my blind husband and his blind brother. and now i have been diagnosed with leukemia.god has made me so strong and i relish going through the fire for him. he is my heart of hearts. i joy in his providence,. at least half the time anyway! judy

  • Carl McColman

    Bless you, Judy! I’m sorry to hear about your challenges. I hope and pray that God’s grace and healing power flows abundantly in your life.

  • judith collier

    i am loving the thought on your website concerning julian of norwich with god being masculine and feminine. always having had a fighting spirit i had trouble with integrating totally with god. oh well, i thought, he knows me and called me, let him figure it out. i thought surely there was something amiss as i stood up to just about anyone but i was female and just knew god didn’t like that. probably has something to do with my generation, being 65, and not knowing how to assert properly. thank you once again,judy

  • Peter

    God bless you, Judy: “I joy in his providence, at least half the time anyway!” I enjoy your rare honesty–it is very refreshing.

    I hope you can find some refreshing and support here among people who are just like you in that we are seeking to please Jesus who is our “heart of hearts” and move into union with Him–just like you are! We will surely have different ways of expressing this, but I find the differences refreshing and enriching rather than threatening.

    May you come to know the fullness of His pleasure and delight in your heart, which is His favorite dwelling-place!

    In His love,

  • judith collier

    all of you are just priceless! for the first time in a long time i don’t feel odd or as my family used to call me,”the black sheep”.everything is usually fairly clear with me, i had the abilty to spot untruth even as a child, consequently i was rather obnoxious calling everyone ‘out’. i’m not quite that bad now.that’s how god and i met, in truth.just call me “judy appreciating”.

  • Sandra

    Mysticism is it a necessity in a developing relationship with God. To what extent must our love be in God before we are blessed with a mystic experience – we may not all have such an experience; yet God loves each one of us individually. Even though we are created by God to love Him with all our heart, mind and soul He controls when and how much that is.
    Mysticism is it an extra douse of His love He gives freely because He loves and wants to love Him in return and hope we use the experience fully for His good.
    Should we all be hung up on signs and wonders from God before we feel and trust Him. Isn’t that what natural love of God does to the soul? It should and yet it is only with free will, reason and revelation our soul is stirred towards Him who loves us.
    There is a bigger picture: The Kingdom of God,, understand why God became man,, Who is Jesus Christ.