For the Future

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…

Two Saturday events: in Atlanta and Richmond
Bruno Barnhart (1931-2015)
Speaking of Silence (On Internet Radio)
Seamus Heaney reads "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"
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.

  • James Bergeson

    Mr. McColman,
    Personally, I find all three topics fascinating and would think there is a large amount of overlap amongst them. I would enjoy reading what you have to say in regards to Emergence and how that may lead people that were raised Christian and became pagan (as most neo-pagans are, in my opinion) back to Christianity, and perhaps Celtic Christianity specificly.

  • Chris Robinson

    I don’t know enough about Celtic Christianity to be interested in it – so I don’t know about that one.
    The other two, I know I’d find interesting – because they are already part of my life!

  • Cheryl Anne

    Hi Carl,
    With the spiritual landscape you have traveled, and the particular cadence of your creative voice, your book on Celtic Christianity would be very welcome in my personal library! Congratulations on the completion of the Mysticism book…I’m looking forward to it!
    Every Blessing,
    Cheryl Anne

  • Leslie

    Hi Carl,

    Now I’m excited! All three please. I’ve been Catholic where I was “saved” and just didn’t know it (LOL), have explored albeit only superficially goddess worship and landed in the charismatic evangelical church about 6 years ago. For a while the fundamentalist structure & teaching I found there was edifying and gave me a firm foundation. But I’m a global soul and a seeker who is now finding that my observations, experiences & relationships in this world are not completely in sync with what the fundamental church is teaching. I yearn to dive deeply into the fathomless mystery that is God, to know Him and love and serve Him to my utmost. I’m looking forward to reading your book and your upcoming posts.

  • amosanonslinkblog

    Congrats on your book. Underhill is a hard act to follow – but she really does need updating. For example, she uses ‘psychic’ where we would say ‘psychological’ and ‘apprehension’ where we would say ‘perception.’
    In another vein, are you aware of the route of entry of Celtic Christianity into Britian, via Spain? I have a theory that perhaps the roots can be traced to the ancestors of the Mandeans of Iraq, who did originally come from Judea, and prehaps even from Qumran. Do you have postings or thoughts on this?

  • Carl McColman

    Underhill’s book is probably, outside the Bible, the single most influential book of my life, so I’m hard pressed to criticize it — but yes, it IS a century old, and was written for a rather skeptical readership, so she puts a lot of effort into merely justifying her topic. I can’t claim to have “updated” her work, but perhaps I will prove to be at least an acceptable acolyte.

    I know nothing about the Mandeans of Iraq, although I am familiar with the Spain/Ireland connection. I’ve always understood the Irish mission to be part of the Johannine tradition, which would explain some of the disconnect between the Irish and the Roman/Petrine churches. Are the Mandeans considered to be disciples of John?

  • Br Yossi

    Really looking forward to this book!

    All three of the sections resonate and it will be wonderful to join the dance!

    The Church’s fuedalism needs continual challenging and renewal. May mystic voices continue to be heard carried on the winds.

  • amosanonslinkblog

    Thanks for your reply. Re: your question “Are the Mandeans considered to be disciples of John?”
    Not Exactly. They consider John the Baptist to be a more important prophet. Many of their texts were lost, others destroyed by S. Hussein and the Iraqi war. So there is much we will never know. But that’s just history. Thinking about such things excessively will interrupt our awakening process.

  • Gary Snead

    A trinity of topics…interesting, but how about this – Effective dialog requires the participants to each have a solid foundation, a clear place from which they come forth to interact. Consider Contemplative Celtic Christianity if that is your Trappist tendency of today and step out and dialog.{sorry, I couldn’t resist the alliteration humor) We always are doing interfaith communication in that each person has faith not exactly like our own and we interact with others daily, even the hermit if just in the null set, knowing people enough to know how to avoid them. To your 3rd point, I agree with Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun, but perhaps like a rubic’s cube without a solution, the face most toward the sun at any given time has a different combination of those unchanging total sets of colored squares, and knowing the past allows us to have a chance to discern which combination to try to avoid, which we can accept or tolerate and which we should actively champion.

  • Carl McColman

    Isn’t the question of a solid foundation ultimately about where we place our authority? As someone who began struggling with Sola Scriptura in high school and whose submission to the Catholic magisterium is, at best, an uneasy truce, I certainly have plenty of issues around that question. But it really is an emergence question as well — Phyllis Tickle argues that all of the “epochal” shifts in church history (great schism, reformation, etc.) are ultimately about authority, and that this post-modern emergence, whether something to be welcomed or to be resisted, is a new conversation about Christian authority on a global scale. As for Solomon (or, perhaps more consistent with the text itself, Qohelet), I won’t argue his assertion that there is nothing new under the sun — and yet in Christ all things are made new (Revelation 21:5), and if Matthew 9:16-17 carries any weight, then it’s our job to make sure what is new is handled properly — even if it’s just a new combination of the cube (love that analogy).

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  • Michelle

    Have you considered blogging about your writing process? It might upset your trinity of trinities, but I think that’s always interesting for people to hear, since a writer’s work can be an accessible trope for the process and journey of vocation – let alone how useful it might be for other writers.

  • Ted

    I’ve enjoyed following your blog for several months now. Like many others here, I find a great deal of syncope amongst the three topics: interfaith dialog among Christians of different denominations or “traditions” is inexorably linked to the emergent movement that seems in some ways to attempt to transcend the existing boundaries within Christendom. How are we to be disciples in a world that is increasingly “post-Christian”? Are the challenges of evangelization and discipleship (the kind described by Bonhoffer as our response to “costly” grace)also opportunities to question and let go of modes of operation and systems of administration that are so much more the trappings of Empire rather than the personal and social transformation that comes from heeding the call of the Gospel to build the Kingdom of Divine Love? As a cradle Catholic who has spent time “all over the map” from a uber-charismatic/conservative to a feminist/liberation theology devotee and back again to some middle point, I also live in an uneasy truce with the magestarium, yet am convinced of the historical foundation and ultimate necessity of an interpretive authority on issues related to the larger Christian community and its response to the world. Still, I am intrigued and inspired by this post-modern perspective. Characteristics of “Celtic” Christianity include a deep sense of the presence and action of the Divine in nature, and so relate to the current view of ecological responsibility as a spiritual discipline. I think this is becoming more of a blog than a comment, so I’ll stop here. Keep up the great writing