Distinguishing Mysticism from Contemplation

Gary asks: “Christian mysticism, contemplative Christian spirituality, (pardon my naive position but are these different, similar or the same?)…”

Regarding the distinction between contemplation and mysticism: I do address this issue in my forthcoming book (can’t resist the plug), but briefly, I would say mysticism is an umbrella term for spirituality that engages the mysteries of the  faith (and this is a pun, for the Eastern Orthodox Churches call the sacraments the “mysteries”), whereas contemplation is a form of prayer that emphasizes silence, the surrendering of discursive language as a means of communicating with God in favor of entering the Divine darkness — the mystery of God beyond what our finite human minds can fathom — what in the fourteenth century was deemed “the cloud of unknowing.” Anyone with a passing knowledge of mysticism will recognize what an essential role contemplation plays in any form of mystical spirituality, no matter how humble or ordinary.

So they are different in the sense that mysticism refers to a type of spirituality while contemplation refers to a type of prayer; yet they are similar in that contemplation is a mystical form of prayer. Meanwhile, I think because mysticism is, in the popular mind, so associated with supernatural/extraordinary experiences on the one hand, or with occultism or new ageism on the other, many Christians are naturally hesitant to apply this term to themselves. I agree, for much the same reason why it is bad form to call oneself a “shaman”: a calling that is inherently humble (i.e., self-forgetful) would naturally be evidenced most clearly in those who do not bother to claim the calling for themselves.

On the other hand, of course, is Rahner’s comment about the Christian of the future. But if we are all called to be mystics, doesn’t this mean we are all called to enter into the darkness of contemplation? I think so. And so, for this reason, while I don’t like to call myself a mystic, I am willing to speak of myself as a contemplative (or, perhaps, an aspiring contemplative), since I do yearn to encounter God in the space before, between and beyond my faltering thoughts. Classical ascetical theology distinguishes between infused contemplation (contemplation as gift from God) and acquired contemplation (contemplation freely chosen by the human being, in grateful response to God’s freely given grace). Furthermore, contemplation is related to unitive or nondual consciousness: the space beyond words is also the space beyond dualistic or oppositional thinking. While I think it is true that we attain that degree of consciousness only through grace, I also believe it is a level of consciousness available to everyone, and therefore attainable by those who are willing to embrace it (as Richard Rohr teaches, usually through great love, great suffering, or a sustained practice of contemplative prayer).

So I think it is not inappropriate to call ourselves contemplatives, as a way of affirming our intention to respond to the mystery of Divine Love by offering our own feeble attempt at love in return, in the empty places where human words always fail.

Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
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://thebyzantineanglocatholic.blogspot.com/ Joe Rawls

    This post is quite helpful. I have no problem calling myself a “contemplative” (albeit a very bush-league one) but would never use the word “mystic”, since I don’t have visions or glow in the dark. Even if I did, it would be showing off.

  • Gary Snead

    I agree, humility, not showing off, seems to be a mark for sanctification in our stumbling toward God. So perhaps, as contemplatives receiving, being in, that cloud of unknowing, and what we do next is at least partly expressed in II Corinthians 1:3-5. God in that cloud, as in the valley of the shadow of death, comforts us, not just to be comforting, but to aid and equip us to comfort others with that comfort, like our word-less presence beside a suffering friend or family member. We sometimes hungrily and sometimes by rote obediently seek to be within the cloud, that comfort, to be ready to share that with others. Right?

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


  • Nancy