Books and Distraction

In response to a reader named Simon, last Monday I wrote a post called Do we really need another book on Christian mysticism? Here’s how I ended that post:

Now, I haven’t addressed the other side of Simon’s question, which has to do with concerns that books about the experience of God could actually be a distraction from seeking the direct experience itself. This is an important question, and will deserve a post of its own in the near future.

So now, to address that “other side” of the question. Are books on Christian mysticism actually a distraction from living a mystical (that is to say, Christ-centered) life? And the most honest answer I can come up with is this: while they are not meant to be, and they don’t have to be, distractions, they certainly can be.

Last November (or maybe the November before that) I attended an All Saints’ Eucharist at the Episcopal church where Fran and I got married. That church is known for its amazing music ministry, and sure enough, on a feast day they pull out all the stops, with glorious hymnody, motets by folks like Tallis or Byrd, along with a virtuoso organ prelude and postlude. At the end of the Eucharist, when the organist finished the postlude, everyone who was still in the nave clapped. An elderly lady was sitting next to us, and she smiled and said, “I know it’s idolatry, but I just love that music!”

Her comment speaks to an essential tension within Christian spirituality. When we love the glories of God’s creation, are we worshipping God through the adoration of the created thing, or are we merely falling into idolatry? And like my answer to Simon’s question, I think the answer can only be, it depends. What is the difference between an icon and an idol? Is there an ontological difference? Or is it merely a difference to be found, phenomenologically, within the experience of the one who gazed upon the object? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — can the same be said for idolatry?

When I was a pagan, I collected statues of the Celtic gods and goddesses. Even then, I always say them more as “pagan icons” than idols. Now that I’m a Catholic, I think of the old Irish deities like the Dagda or the Morrigan as mythical archetypes rather than gods to whom I offer worship. What’s interesting is that my wife (who journeyed with me from paganism to Catholicism) would be happy if I got rid of all the statues. But I think they’re beautiful works of art, and for me part of the generous orthodoxy of catholic spirituality is that I don’t have to rid myself of pagan art even though I no longer engage in pagan worship. It’s that old purity-vs.-hospitality debate: if I cleansed my house of all traces of my former paganism, would I be a “purer” and therefore more holy Christian? Many people would say yes. But I see Christianity as being about the outpouring of God’s love and grace to a world that so desperately needs it, and not about any kind of demand that this world must somehow prove itself “worthy” by cleansing itself and destroying everything it judges as wrong.

Back to my book. Part of the terror of being an artist is that I have no control over how others will view my work. I intend my book on Christian mysticism (and, for that matter, this blog) to be a source of edification and spiritual nurture for those who encounter it. Naturally, this is my prayer, and I hope that the Holy Spirit will bless my work so that it may be a worthy offering to God. But once it gets published, I have no control over how it gets used. Some will no doubt find in it a gift. But for others, there may be something I say — perhaps even just an off-the-cuff aside that I make in a footnote on page 253 — that will prove to be a horrible stumbling block, that could create a crisis of faith. “But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.” That is the terror that accompanies me as a write. And anyone who doesn’t think about that millstone probably has no business engaging in spiritual writing.

I can’t make Simon (or anyone else) decide that my book is worthy to be published. All I can do is pray about it and write the best book I can. Even before Simon raised his concerns, it was my intention to include in the book a challenge to my readers: not to use reading my (or any other) book as a way to avoid the actual work of prayer, meditation, and living the Gospel. That would be like buying an expensive computer and just using it to play games. But just because somebody could do that — buy a computer and use it poorly — is no reason for computers never to have been invented. Similarly, the fear that some readers will actually be hindered in their faith journey rather than helped as they read my book is a fear that is meant to spur me to write the best book I can, with God’s help. But I do not believe it is a fear meant to silence my voice altogether. I believe it is better to praise God poorly than not to praise God at all.

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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.

  • Liz

    I think worshiping the method rather than what the method is pointing to is a temptation for all of us. It seems that the West tends to value the intellect over the experiential and that has left many of us confusing the act of talking about the Gospel and transformation with the actual practice of living the Gospel and allowing it to transform us. (Besides it’s so much easier just to think and talk about it…and it helps me feel smart. ;-) )

    Still, I don’t think that should be a condemnation of the method itself…more just a cautionary note for all of us as we work our way through our lives.

  • Mike Crowl

    As a musician who’s done a lot of playing in church settings, I think one of the biggest problems Christian musicians have is to deal with the fine line between real worship and performance. I’m not sure that I’ve found that fine line yet myself (!)

  • judith collier

    Boy do I know that feeling! That responsibility! My husband professes to be an atheist. It says in the bible that a husband can be won by the actions or silence or words of the spouse, well, something to that effect. I really let him “have it” one day and he said,”don’t talk to me about your God again.”I was devestated and went into depression, thinking I had committed the worst sin in the world and that was letting God down. It took about three christians to restore me. judy

  • bar

    could you explain what you mean by ‘mythical archetypes’ in connection with Celtic gods ?

  • Carl McColman

    Are you familiar with the work of Carl Jung? Or Jean Shinoda Bolen? The idea is that the old pagan gods have archetypal meaning that can be psychologically beneficial for people trying to reach their full potential. Bolen works with the Greek gods, so Ares represents the warrior archetype (fighting for what’s right), Poseidon represents the deep unconscious (learning to be in touch with your own shadow), etc. It’s basically stripping the deities of their religious meaning and re-imbuing them with psychological meaning. They are no longer gods as the pagans saw them, nor demons as the early Christians saw them, but symbols that can be helpful in the quest for human understanding and personal growth. Basically, I think the old Celtic deities can have a similar function. I spent a number of years trying to relate to the gods on a religious level, but ultimately found that all I was relating to was aspects of my own psyche. When I became a Catholic, I was searching for something more truly transcendent. But I don’t believe we have to demonize other religious symbols in order to be a good Christian.