Do we really need another book on Christian mysticism?

Okay, after a rather spirited exchange of comments with Simon yesterday, I’ve owned up to the fact that my post Remain in Love was driven, in large measure, by my own defensiveness. As we say here in the south, “A hit dog hollers.” Not to say that I don’t stand by what I said, it’s a question of what motivated me to say it. Sure, Simon’s initial question got me to thinking about how so many Christians seem to embody a veiled or not-so-veiled hostility to things of this world; but in all honesty that was just an elaborate ploy to avoid the question itself: to paraphrase, “Why bother writing another book on Christian mysticism when there are already so many?” When Simon rather calmly pointed out to me that in my initial response I “protested too much,” … well, he was right.

So with all due respect to Simon and to anyone else who might be wondering the same thing, this morning I’ll try to refrain from deflecting the issue with a blustering argument about why I don’t like the question itself (!), and instead just attempt to answer it.

So do we really need another book on Christian mysticism? In all honesty, no we do not.

Type in “Christian mysticism” on and their database will return over 3800 titles. Granted, many of these are duplicate editions of the same work, and even more troubling, mixed in here will be all sorts of occult, gnostic, new age, and various other flavors of spirituality that are to a greater or lesser extent distortions of orthodox Christian mysticism (in other words, the kind of stuff that gives Christian mysticism a bad name among conservatives). But even if only 3% of the books served up by Amazon were worth reading, that’s still over one hundred explorations of my topic. If the average person were to read one nonfiction book a month (yes, I know, the average person doesn’t read at all, but bear with me here), it would take the better part of a decade to plow through these worthy tomes. So why should my new treatment of this admittedly not-very-mainstream subject be brought into the world, cutting down trees and taking up space on bookshelves all over the world, only to maybe someday get read by a few people, probably ten years or more from now?

Okay, I’m getting a bit over the top. But my point remains: we (i.e., the human family) do not need any more books on mysticism, Christian or otherwise. Thus, I can only be writing this book not to fill a need, but rather for more gratuitous reasons.

Something I don’t really talk about much here in this blog, but which is germane to today’s topic: as a writer, I don’t think of myself as an academic, or a theologian or a philosopher, or a journalist. Rather, I see myself as an artist. My wife is an amateur photographer (quite a good one, actually); and she and I are both having fun here in mid-life learning how to play musical instruments. Most people who visit our home are struck by how joyously chaotic it is: books lying everywhere, a beading project on this table, a stack of photographs on that; sheet music and downloaded Wikipedia entries and unanswered letters (not to mention the occasional credit card statement) adorning pretty much every flat surface. Yes, we are clutterholics — and most of the time, we tolerate it, not because it’s a point of pride but usually because we’re so engrossed in whatever creative pursuit has our attention at the moment, that we fail to notice much of anything else. The only other people I know who live so peacefully in such unnecessary disorder are computer programmers in their twenties — and other artists.

So I write about Christian mysticism with the sensibility of an artist. I bring to my writing no real desire to prove points and little to no expectation of changing the world (I’m pretty much thrilled if a book engenders one or two pieces of fan mail). Christian mysticism is like the bloom of a flower. Yes, it supports something very vital (the flower supports the plant’s reproduction, mysticism supports growth in grace and the love of God, what has traditionally been called “salvation”), but in itself, it seems to be more about beauty than anything else.

Yes. I love Christian mysticism because it’s beautiful. If salvation or justification or liberation are the hardy stems and grounding roots of the Christian “plant,” then mystical experience is its colorful blossom.

And so, back to the question of “why another book” on Christian mysticism. Well, why do so many plants produce multiple blossoms, when only one is needed to propagate the species? Why do artists and musicians keep on creating great works of art, when they’ve already produced one or two veritable masterpieces? Why do maple trees release thousands of fluttering seeds into the breezy sky, when perhaps only ten or twenty of them will ever take root and become mature trees in their own right?

Art, like natural reproduction, has an essentially gratuitous quality about it. Whatever practical function it has seems to be subsumed in a shock of beauty, beauty that is wholly unnecessary and often quite ephemeral. I believe that writing about the mystical experience can only be fully understood as an act of artistry. Hopefully there is a “practical” core — as I’ve said before, my hope is that at least one person will be brought closer to Christ as a result of reading my book. But my publisher will be printing thousands of copies, not just one. What about all those other books: if they won’t change peoples’ lives for the better, why bother? Of course, we don’t know that they won’t have positive impacts, wherever they land. But what I’m saying here is that even if my books only bring some transitory beauty and a whispered hint of grace into peoples’ lives, that alone is enough. That momentary glimpse of beauty, alone, is worth all my effort, all the efforts of my editors and printers and service workers and salespeople who will be involved in getting the books into peoples’ hands. And — this I say with fear and trembling — it will even be worth all the trees and other natural resources that will be harvested in order to create the books.

So no, we don’t need another book on Christian mysticism. But I will enjoy writing it — I already am enjoying it, even though it’s less than 20% completed — and I’m doing so as a conscious act of love and devotion to God. It is my prayer that others will enjoy reading it. And so, like all works of art, I commend it to the world, not to fulfill a need, but hopefully to foster beauty and joy.

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.

Christian Mystics to Celebrate in 2015
Meet the Newest Doctor of the Church: Saint Gregory of Narek
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
How to Keep a Holy Lent


  1. You’re a writer. It’s what you do. It is God’s gift to you and your gift to us. It is a major portion of your spiritual practice. What else should you be doing (I mean besides learning to play the bass guitar)?

  2. Well, I suppose the argument can be made that my writing is slowing down my bass studies. I mean, I’ve had the bass for about six weeks now and I’ve just barely figured out how to play “Amazing Grace.” Of course, I won’t start lessons until the 19th of this month, so I guess a slow start can be forgiven.

  3. Presumably you’re writing the book because you have something to say.

  4. Well, sure. But I think the question is really about “the book” (as a medium of communication) as opposed to, say, a blog. If all I’m after is self-expression, blogging does the trick nicely.

  5. judith collier says:

    carl, you surely know how precious and unique the individual is to god. there might be a million mystics but never before nor ever after will there be another you. jesus was the word made flesh, i see all people as words of god. god is always saying something, let him have his way with you, the book will have your beautiful essence. judy

  6. I do realise that I am actually at odds with what a lot of people here, so I don’t want to turn this into too much of an ambush. But really, I don’t see any of the ramifacations being dealt with.

    We can talk about Christianity’s supposed hatred of the world, which if this is the case (and I have seen a lot of instances of this in US fundamentalism) it is a misreading of the Gospel.

    So we can talk about people needing to appreciate the natural world (or Gods creation). And we can say that people need to appreciate the natural world, they need reminding of this, so the best thing to do is to write a book, whose production would result in the further decimation of Gods creation. People need to appreciate nature so much that I need to help people appreciate something,a tree for instance, that there is no contradiction in chopping a whole load of them down, pulping them and write on the pulp “appreciate trees”

    Is this “nature mysticism”?

    People need to know God. God was revealed in a personal way though the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Christ. Its that simple. Mysticism is a simple way of practising the presence of God free of props. God and the Holy Spirit will point to his Son, and what His son taught. Simple. Jesus said as much.

    Its so simple, that we need (as you mentioned Carl) 3800 titles alone to remind us how simple this is, each with their own take on this simplicity. So its not simple anymore, its confusing and contradictory. Babble. Babylon. And one more, because really, what is important, is that I WANT to write a book on it. Is that the heart of the Gospel?, the Gospel which mysticism is a by-product of.

    Christianity does not preach hating God’s creation. Christianity is totally at odds with the world that mankind has created at the expense of God’s creation, and the wisdom given to the Prophets. Yes, I distrust a world that exploits Creation because of what amounts to an ego-trip. Idolatry.

    Please don’t mistake this as self righteousness on my part. I am under no illusions as to how deep this consumerism and capitalism goes in my life, and the lives of those around me.

    Maybe I should write a book about it?

  7. I don’t think you can just dismiss me because I “want” to write about mysticism. It’s not just a question of what I (or anyone else) wants, but also a question of vocation. Do I believe I have been called to write about the mystical life? In my case, yes, I do, and that is something I have struggled over and prayed about and discerned with spiritual directors for many years (at least since 1991, six years before my first book was published). Never mind the image of the solitary writer huddled in his or her room, but writing is very much a communal endeavour, with my agent, editors, readers, booksellers, and others involved in the process. My writing is a gift to them as well as a joy for me.

    Simon, it’s easy to point out what’s wrong with virtually anything. But take that to its logical extreme and you are left huddled in a tiny circle you’ve drawn in the dirt, fearful to step out of it lest you trample an ant or crush an earthworm. Everything we do leaves a shadow. Everything. Which is why, at the end of the day, each one of us simply has to make peace with however large a “footprint” he or she will leave, and then try to do whatever we believe we’ve been called to do with grace and compassion.

    So perhaps rather than asking “Why do it?” a more useful question would be, “If you’re going to do it, do you have what it takes to do it well?” which is the question I’ll be addressing when I write “part two” of my response to your initial comment.

  8. That was quick!

    OK, I look forward to reading Part II.

  9. rodney neill says:

    Hello Carl,

    I am a keen reader on books on Christian mysticism –

    I was intially attracted to the idea of mysticism/apophatic theology as a common core experience of ‘union with God’ at the heart of every religoius tradition irrespective of religious dogma based upon personal experience – it seemed a good way of stressing that ‘all religions in experience’ are different pathways to the same God.

    However recently I have read some of the views of theologians such as Denys Turner and Bernard McGinn who I think would say that mystical writings that stress apophatic theology are essentially discourses about the hiddeness/mysteryi/ineffability of God who is beyond all intellectual, imaginative and EXPERIENTAL human ways of cognition. Mystical texts have been co-opted and misinterpretated by people keen to demonstrate the unity of religions via experiential union instead of appreciating the mystics thought in their own cultural and religious context.

    All this has left me at an impasse in my struggles to understand the Christian mystical tradition / negative theology and its relevance for to-day……I wonder if you will touch on these issues in your book?

    We are always in need of new voices/writers who can bring the rich heritage of the Christian mystical tradition to a contemporary audience esp in a postmodern steting. Your have a lucid and clear writing style in you posts that has shed light on my efforts to think through issues. I am looking foward to your book.

    Rodney Neill

  10. Yeah, there will be chapters on both kataphatic and apophatic dimensions of mysticism. My own spiritual director is an old school Trappist who sees kataphatic experience as inferior to the pure apophatic trans-cognitive union. I’m a bit more generous than he is, but I guess I do think that kataphatic experience is ultimately self-deconstructive. I do agree that the romantic project of using mysticism to prove that “all religions are one” is ultimately more wishful thinking than anything else. I’d rather us learn to tolerate other religions because tolerance is a good thing, rather than try to erase the distinctions between religions because difference is painful.

    Thanks for your comment. The more I look at the magnitude of writing about mysticism, the more humble I feel. Which I suppose is a good thing, as it keeps me on my knees!

  11. There may be a lot of books on Christian mysticism, but not all of them will speak to all people. The uniqueness of a voice is something great and profound and not to be dismissed.

    Not every author is going to resonate with everyone. Your work, Carl, will resonate with some who would not have been reached otherwise.

  12. “Does the world need a book like this?”–Well, I don’t have much experience in judging that, and I am not a marketing expert either; but I have observed that American consumers do not relate their purchases very closely to what they “need”–so that the more applicable question (regarding marketing) is, “Do people want a book like this?”–enough to buy it whether they “need” it or not!

    This applies to a lot of potential books besides Carl’s. My personal response to Carl’s case lines up with what several others have said above: Carl’s voice is unique; his perspective is quite different from mine, yet enough in common that I can recognize and “converse with” much of what he has to say; and yes, I count myself among those who “want” to read what Carl writes on the topic–whether I actually “need” it or not!


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