25 Mystics

One section of the book I am writing will be a survey of the key voices in the Christian mystical tradition. It will begin with a survey of mystical theology and mystical experiences as recorded in the Bible, and then give brief biographies and summaries of the teachings of probably 25 key mystics over the course of Christian history. I am trying to draw up a list that is inclusive of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant mystics, as well as covering the entire history of the tradition and encompassing both men and women — in other words, I want it to be a diverse list, but not just for the sake of diversity (I don’t want to load the list with lesser significant voices just in order to make it demographically balanced). I also wanted to make sure that at least one or two living teachers are on the list, which is why Keating and Bourgeault made the cut.

So here’s the list as it currently stands:

  • Evagrius Ponticus
  • Pseudo-Dionysius
  • Maximus Confessor
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Hildegard of Bingen
  • Meister Eckhart
  • Gregory Palamas
  • John Ruusbroec
  • Catherine of Siena
  • The Cloud of Unknowing
  • Julian of Norwich
  • Catherine of Genoa
  • Teresa of Avila
  • John of the Cross
  • George Fox
  • William Law
  • The Way of a Pilgrim
  • Evelyn Underhill
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
  • George MacLeod
  • Thomas Merton
  • Bede Griffiths
  • Thomas Keating
  • Cynthia Bourgeault

I plan on writing this section of the book last, which means I probably won’t begin working on it until the fall. So this list is subject to change. I’m posting it here both as a curiosity (it will be fun to compare it with the list of figures who actually do get profiled in the book), but also to invite you to comment if you think there’s anyone who is truly important, who is not on the list (or conversely, if I’ve listed someone who really has no business being included on an A-list of Christian mystics, at least in your opinion). So fire away!

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  • Tom

    I love the saints, but I wish there were more of them who were married people with normal sex lives. I don’t know if there are any of those on your list, but it’s easy to see why people would come away from looking at the church’s liturgical calendar believing you have to be a monk or a nun to experience God.

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

    To the best of my knowledge, George Macleod, Evelyn Underhill, Cynthia Bourgeault, George Fox, and Catherine of Genoa all were married. Granted, that’s only 20%, and three of these five were clergy. The monk who is my spiritual director and unofficial advisor to my book keeps telling me that he believes the future of mysticism lies with the laity. So it’s my hope that a hundred years from now we will have plenty of examples of orthodox Christian mystics who were both non-clergy and non-celibate.

    I hope my good readers get the hint!

  • emma

    it seems you don’t that book Tom: David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints (South Canaan,: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1999).
    See the book’s page on Amazon.com for a long review. enjoy, Emma (Greek Orthodox)

  • emma

    suggestion: Carl, have you considered Gertrude of Helfta, Cistercian tradition, just like Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century, fabulous woman. and St Symeon the New Theologian, THE mystic of light in the Eastern Christian tradition. 11th century. Emma

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

    Emma, definitely would love your suggestions regarding the Orthodox mystics. I wasn’t sure who was more important between Gregory of Nyssa, Symeon the New Theologian, and Maximus Confessor. I know, they’re all important! But I’m assuming based on your comment that if I had to choose one of those three, to go with Symeon. Is that correct?

  • zoecarnate

    Hmmm. I know lots of Protestants go ga-ga over William Law, but I just don’t get the appeal. On the other hand, I know some mystics whom Protestants greatly respect but whom Catholics regard as heterodox. If you can’t stomach Guyon, how ’bout Archbishop Fenelon? :)

    Also, Jan van Ruusbroec, whom Evelyn Underhill regards as the greatest mystic of all time, He should make the list.

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

    Ruusbroec is already listed (I called him “John” instead of “Jan” but it’s the same guy). As for the quietists, they’ll get mentioned, but if I”m going to replace Law I’d rather replace him with an actual Protestant. Any ideas there? There’s always George Herbert or one of the Cambridge Platonists.

  • zoecarnate

    Oops! Didn’t see Johnny boy. Let me think about a replacement Protestant…

  • http://peters-rants.blogspot.com/ Peter



    –good list. especially Hildegard! and George Fox!

    I don’t like Bernard’s politics but neither do you.

    and be sure to re-read Wm James for renewed inspiration on the “obective, scientific” approach to this subject.

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

    I have mixed feelings about Boehme: certainly a major figure, but so very idiosyncratic! I’ll have to think about him. Woolman I’m much more positive about, I just need to think about whether I want two Quakers. And you’re right about Bernard’s politics!

  • http://peters-rants.blogspot.com/ Peter

    I figure two Quakers out of 25 really is too many, though Woolman is easily as “First-hand” (a paraphrase of Wm James) as Geo Fox was, and as influential at least in our part of the world….

    Boehme I have not read first-hand; like you, I wish I had more of a chance to actually…well, as my kids’ t-shirts from the library say, “So many books, so little time”–clearly applicable to mystical writings, especially the first-hand stuff…but what I have read ABOUT Boehme shows a scope and depth (without the “benefits[??]” of ecclesiastically approved metaphysical education) of original revelation equivalent to any on the list. Of course he is on my list of heroes because of his courage (like the biblical Daniel and Jan Huss and Joan of Arc and Michael Molinos and Mme. Guyon and even M. Eckhart) to stand up at great risk against the established sytem…I guess the scoundrels rather than the saints acc to your earlier categories…

    I really have no basis to make suggestions. But I am on your cheering squad as you work your way through this book. To be more precise, I am praying for you to have the anointing of the Holy Spirit for clear vision and focus as you make these painful decisions (e.g. who’s in and who’s left out) and get on with the joys of the actual writing…

    God bless you, Carl!

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

    Thanks, Peter. I appreciate the encouraging words — and the prayers!

  • Raven~

    Carl, I agree with Emma that it’s important to include Symeon. Personally, I think Symeon is more “accessible” than Maximos Confessor, and would well represent an Eastern viewpoint contemporaneous with Bernard and Hildegard

    Issac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian) is one of my very most beloved teachers; as you know, Maggie Ross has written extensively about his writings.

    And, I appreciate your including “The Way of a pilgrim,” to represent Russian kenotic spiritual praxis, but I personally think it would be good to include substantive references to Seraphim of Sarov, and the Optina fathers — real persons who exemplify that spirituality. I’m blanking on the names of contemporary Greek/Athonite mystics. If I find them, I’ll send ‘em along


  • bar

    I would like to second St.Gertrude of Helfta – mystic of mystics.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com Darrell Grizzle

    I’d like to cast my vote along with Peter for Jacob Boehme. I would include Aelred of Rievaulx, because I absolutely love his writings on Spiritual Friendship, although I’m not sure if he would actually be considered a mystic. I would also substitute Basil Pennington for Thomas Keating. To me, Fr. Pennington’s writings seem much more personal, more experiential, while Keating’s seem a bit more academic. (I’m prejudiced, of course, by the wonderful week-long retreat with Fr. Pennington that I was blessed to attend a few years ago at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.)

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com Darrell Grizzle

    PS: Other than the above, I think your list is fantastic! I’m so glad you’re including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin , Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, and Cynthia Bourgeault, as well as The Way of a Pilgrim and my medieval favorites!

  • Riccardo Stoeckicht

    The list is a great list, and naturally a very challenging one to create since by choosing some, others have to be omitted. I would like to suggest a little known (in the west) Coptic monk – Matta El-Meskeen or Matthew the Poor, a witness of how a profound mystical experience can be had in the 20th/21st centuries.

    Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier De La Motte Guyon who lived between 1648 and 1717, a married French woman, raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and who was imprisoned by the powers to be of her times for her simple, mystical faith and relationship with, and in Christ, could be another addition for consideration.

  • thepromisedend

    May I suggest Simone Weil and William Blake, two politically subversive Christian mystics. Also: some of the desert mothers and fathers?

    Merton remains top of the list for me.

  • Carl Smith

    I like Francois Fenelon’s writings, but I’m sure his association with Quietism has hurt him considerably.