First, the good news: I have finally — after several delays and re-negotiated deadlines — submitted the manuscript for my “big book of Christian Mysticism” to my editor. Long-term readers of this blog will recall that I signed a contract to write this book almost two years ago, so it’s been a long road. The book is much different from what I originally envisioned — at first, I thought I would place a lot of emphasis on the historical mystics themselves, unpacking their life stories, contemplative experiences, and mystical writings. Eventually I gave up on that idea, not only because several other authors (such as Bernard McGinn and Louis Bouyer) have already done magisterial chronological surveys of mysticism, but also because I found too many other such books to be, quite frankly, dreadfully dull. I saw no point in pouring two years of my life into a book that would be just more of the same, just another historical overview of my topic, that would go from “New Release” to “Publisher’s Overstock” in just two years. So what I originally envisioned as being fully one third of the book was reduced to an appendix, merely a few pages long.
So the bulk of the book ended up eerily similar to the structure of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: A Study in the Nature of and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, which, first published in 1911, will be almost a hundred years old when my book gets released. Underhill divides her book into two parts: “The Mystic Fact,” in which she explains what mysticism is, and “The Mystic Way,” in which she provides an overview of the developmental life of a “typical” mystic, through the stages of conversion, purification, illumination, dark night, and union. My book, likewise, is divided into two parts: “The Christian Mystery” and “The Contemplative Life,” with the first part more concerned with the theory of mysticism, the second concerned with its practice. But there are a couple of significant differences between my book and Underhill’s. First, as both my title and the name of my first part make clear, mine is specifically a book about Christian mysticism, so pretty much everything I have to say about the theoretical foundation of mysticism is written about and for Christian contemplatives. I trace the history of how mysticism — originally a pagan concept — entered into the Christian vocabulary, and how the concept itself evolved over 2,000 years. I talk about the distinctions between Christian and other forms of mysticism, and — in the book’s longest chapter — I have all sorts of fun teasing out some of Christian mysticism’s many paradoxes. Then comes the second half of the book, “The Contemplative Life,” where like Underhill I attempt to map out a developmental itinerary of the mystical life. Like her, I build on Origen’s tripartite division of purgation, illumination, and union; but my study of this topic differs from hers in two important ways: first, I pay more attention to what mystics do rather than what happens to them, and I use Guigo II’s “ladder of monks” as my guide in explaining the importance of lectio divina, meditation, prayer and contemplation to the mystical life. But second, and really even more important, I am writing for readers who are contemplatives or who are interested in becoming contemplatives. Thus, my treatment of what Bernard McGinn calls the “mystical itinerary” is less descriptive and more prescriptive: less “this is what happens” and more “this is what you can do.” My guiding light for the entire project was Karl Rahner’s famous observation that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” With this in mind, I felt empowered to encourage my readers that, yes, the mystical life is for them — since, indeed, it is for everyone who is willing to respond to the call of the Holy Spirit.
So… the book is completed, and off to the editor. Certainly there will be more changes to come (I’m particularly afraid that he will want me to cut its length, as currently it is quite massive), so, while I can say that it is completed I cannot yet say that it is done. But hopefully my editor will be sufficiently pleased with the book that the changes to come will be minor and will serve only to strengthen what is already in place. And if he doesn’t like the book, well… that’s another story.
But, assuming that the book is basically sound and that the editorial process over the next 6 months or so will be a joyful process of merely tweaking it, I am left with the question, “What now?” Yes, I do have another book idea gurgling up from within me — actually, two ideas — but it’s not yet time to begin discussing those publicly. When it is, though, rest assured that readers of this blog will be the first to know.
But more to the point: whither this blog? In other words, what do I want to write about, here in this most public and immediately accessible of fora? Certainly, I can just keep on writing about the Christian mysteries and the contemplative life, and I suppose to some extent I will do just that. But there are three other topics I want to explore more fully:
- Celtic Christianity: that amazing nexus point where pre-Christian Celtic and mystical Christian spirituality united to form one of the most beautiful expressions of Christian faith ever;
- Interfaith Dialog: I remain just as much “Carl-the-former-Neopagan” as “Carl-the-aspiring-contemplative.” It’s been five years since I realized that I was following the path of Brigid of Kildare, moving from paganism to Christianity. What have I learned in those five years, and where do I see this road taking me henceforth?
- Emergence Christianity: I’m still processing the fascinating array of conversations that took place in Albuquerque last March, when Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Alexie Torres-Fleming and Shane Claiborne joined about 1000 Christians from across the denominational spectrum to confer on what’s going on in the church today: in our post-modern world, fraught by perils on the one hand (declining church membership and monastic vocations, clergy abuse scandals, Christianity’s continued marginalization in the first world, the continued march of fundamentalism, both Christian and non-Christian) and by possibilities on the other (continued interest in experiential and contemplative spirituality particularly among young people, increased concern about social justice and environmental concerns among Christians as well as in society as a whole, and the “emergence” of increasing numbers of Christians who embrace post-modernity as a new vehicle for spreading the gospel in exciting and innovative ways). What are we to make of all this? Tickle suggests that we are in the midst of an epochal change in the church to rival the reformation, the great schism, and the rise of monasticism during the fall of Rome. Is she right? And if so, what should our response be?
Three big topics, each to my mind as interesting and important as the question of how to celebrate our contemplative heritage and make it accessible for our generation.
Okay, for the two or three of you who have actually read this far (!), I’d love to hear your feedback: which of these topics appeal to you the most? Why?
I don’t know if I’ll be back to posting daily right away (I’m having too much fun being “on vacation” after completing my manuscript!), but eventually I hope that this will once again be a daily blog: and so stay tuned…