With apologies to Nirvana…

“Here we are now, entertain us!”

It may work as the refrain of a rock anthem, capturing the postmodern spirit of a generation weaned on cable TV and video games. But if this sentiment describes the future of Christian mysticism, then I need a new topic to blog about.

Paul commended his readers to “Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5, New Jerusalem Bible) and for contemplatives, this means to enter into the same Godly consciousness that characterized Christ himself (never mind that some of the more recent translations of this verse replace “mind” with “attitude,” betraying the disenchanted, anti-transcendent, flatland assumptions of our age). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that entering into unitive consciousness is a breath-taking experience if there ever were one. But this doesn’t mean that mysticism is about experience. To say mysticism is about experience is like saying a car is about fossil fuels. Sure, you need gasoline to make the thing go, but the point is to get somewhere, not to just sit around and groove on the noise that the engine makes. Or to use another metaphor: The point behind morphine is to alleviate pain; people who take it just to get high are abusing it. In a similar vein, the point behind mystical consciousness is to become Christ in the world, loving and serving those who are victimized, imprisoned, naked, hungry, anxious, violent, terrified, ill, dying, impoverished, addicted, starving, elderly, vulnerable, weak, angry, oppressed, marginalized, self-involved, unrepentant, and otherwise wounded or broken. If we reduce mysticism to some sort of cool spiritual entertainment, then we will have become the religious equivalent of a junkie. Which means that instead of being Christ for others, we will be the ones to whom others will come as Christ…

Sorry to be so cranky about this. But I think that a lot of the hostility to mysticism that surges through the conservative corners of the church may have to do with the idolatry of experience that has infected our culture so thoroughly. Granted, you can’t have mysticism without having experience. But I’ll say it again: this doesn’t mean that mysticism is about experience. it is the means, not the end.

When Contemplation Feels Like Dying
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
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://diurnal.tumblr.com Peasant

    It’s not ‘experience’ that is necessary to ‘have’ mysticism; it’s grace. Only God can make a mystic.

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

    True enough. And perhaps if more would-be mystics were as eager to seek God as we are to seek experience, grace would flow into our lives all the more abundantly.

  • http://themercyblog.blogspot.com/ MikeF

    Now that needed saying, Carl… thank you.

    I don’t think you need to apologise for crankiness when it’s with a wrong attitude, and not with some person who may hold that attitude!


  • http://naqsh.org/ned/ ned

    Carl, this is so well-put.

    The whole point is transformation. Having experiences just for their own sake is just another form of self-indulgence. If we aren’t bridging the inner and outer worlds — a process that is spectacularly painful at times — then you are right, we really are making a fetish out of mystical experiences, which is just another form of idolatory.

    The hardest part is letting go of “doing”. We are so conditioned to be caught up in that — seeking one experience after another is just another manifestation of this egoism. It’s only when we surrender to the fact that the Divine is the “doer” that Grace can start to flow uninterruptedly in our lives and we can be a source of it for others as well.

  • Peter

    Well stated, Ned–I think you’re onto something here: God is the doer; grace is the energy; we are the vessels…

    And thank you, Carl, for your insistence on this point! There is no doubt that the mystical life has its full share of experience in store for seekers, but part of the wisdom of nearly every mystical tradition is to “hold loosely” to our experiences, to let them go when they start becoming idols or barriers to our transformation into our calling to become means of grace for others.

    I heard a scholarly friend tell me one time that the “images” of the media have become the idols of our day. I think your post shows clearly the awareness that our obsession with own experiences has become a major obstacle to the “flow” of grace and love to us and through us to others and back to the source that completes the mystical cycle and makes the whole thing work. This narcissism is a major reason why things get “stuck” in this process, why 3% of the people have 89% of the wealth, etc etc.

    I don’t think I will ever stop enjoying mystical experiences, whenever God sovereignly grants them. But I am committed not to identify them as anything other than what they are: invitations to celebrate His love and then pass that love on to others in a needy, hurting world (as in your list of needy people).


  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    *Sigh* We’re so inclined in our flesh to veer towards that which is slightly off-centre, the things of God instead of God, aren’t we? We’re so scared of him, us wussy little fearful humans, scared he’s gonna eat us all up. And if we’re not scared he’s gonna eat us all up, we’re scared he’s gonna consume us all up, even when we desire it to be so. Even mystics. And especially in an age such as this. Thanks for the reminder, Carl.