Is there a relationship between the charismatic renewal and the mystical tradition? Years ago I bought a book called Contemplation and the Charismatic Renewal. I never read it — maybe I should go back and read it now — but I liked the basic message as described in the blurb on the back cover: that the fervent excitement of charismatic experience can and perhaps ought to mature into the deep loving silence of contemplative practice.

I hung out with charismatic Christians for about a year or so back in high school. As I’ve said elsewhere, when I was sixteen I had a fairly profound experience of the presence of God during a youth retreat Communion service. Profound experiences of God’s presence weren’t really on the menu at the Lutheran Church my parents and I attended, so I started to hang out with my Pentecostal and charismatic friends, since they had a language for experiential spirituality and I could speak of my experience without anyone thinking I needed meds. Before long I had worked the program: I had been Baptized in the Holy Spirit and was speaking in tongues and prophesying and dancing in the spirit along with the best of them.

But it only lasted a year. A few things happened to cause me to move on, including a disillusioning weekend at a national charismatic conference where I saw some real out-of-integrity behavior on the part of the leaders of my group. But probably the main reason I gave up on charismatic Christianity was, ironically, the fact that I couldn’t square my own experience with God with what the charismatics were telling me. They had a pretty high theology of evil — Satan was behind every rock and bush, and definitely active in the occult, eastern religions, and rock music — which didn’t square with my rather mind-blowing experience of God as pure love and ultimate, sovereign power. Nowadays, using the categories of integral theory, I can see that the group I was involved in had (and enforced) boundaries consistent with a strong tribal/mythic-membership consciousness, whereas I was already moving to more of a world-centric/pluralistic consciousness, which simply has an entirely different set of boundaries. Without meaning to sound judgmental, my experience was like hanging out with a group of people huddled around a bonfire, scared of the dark — and I was the only one who could see that the sun was rising.

So I got disillusioned with charismatic forms of spirituality, and have been rather armored against the charismatic world ever since. After a number of twists and turns that I don’t need to go into here, I discovered contemplative spirituality, and despite a rather long detour into paganism, that’s pretty much where I’ve dropped anchor.

Back to my initial question: is charismatic experience is any way related to the profound exploration of the mysteries of God that characterize the heart of Christian mysticism? And the older I get, and the more I am capable of understanding the dynamics of why charismatic community didn’t work for me when I was a teenager, the more I am inclined to say “yes.”

After all, we hold that God is one. Three persons, but one God. If this is so, then either charismatics and mystics are inspired by the same Holy Spirit, or else one group or the other is erring spectacularly. And yes, I know that there are charismatics who will insist that mystics come straight from the pit of hell. But see what I wrote above: those charismatics, in my view, are trapped in a tribal way of relating to the world. My question is more about charismatics who (or at least, who are willing to) embrace a more global, pluralistic, world-centric consciousness. Is there a place for glossolalia, ecstatic dancing, and prophetic utterances at the threshold of the abyss of God’s deep silence?

I think so. I have no idea what this looks like, but I think it’s worth pondering over and praying about.

Part of what I loved about the charismatic world was its confidence. Charismatics loved the idea that God is just waiting to bestow gifts on his children. They loved to quote this passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

Somehow, when I got disillusioned with charismatic spirituality and removed myself from that corner of Christian practice, I also gave up on this degree of simple, childlike trust. I got sophisticated in my thinking: “It’s wrong to ask God for a good parking spot; someone else might need it more than I do.” Of course, by that logic, it soon became wrong to ask God for anything. And guess what? I stopped asking God for anything.

So let me be Hegelian here for a minute: if I’ve gone from the thesis of simple, childlike trust (in a charismatic sense), to the antithesis of silent surrender that, alas, was not nearly as trusting (in a contemplative sense), then perhaps now as I move toward my sixth decade on this giant whirling rock, I’m trying to find a synthesis, combining a deep childlike trust with a deep, serene silence, characterized by a pluralistic, boundary-less love. I’m not sure that this has anything to do with speaking in tongues or ecstatic dancing. Not to pass judgment on such things, but that’s not really what I’m looking for. I’m looking for the sense of deep trust in God’s goodness and God’s willingness to give us gifts, even better gifts than we can ask for or imagine.

I suppose I can begin this quest for a new charismatic-contemplative synthesis by asking God for it. And while I’m at it, I can ask God for help in my discipline, and help in my quest for holiness, and help in dealing with my distractions and inner turmoil whenever I sit in silence. And… following the theme I’ve been writing on lately (“how to become a mystic”), I can take Karl Rahner’s idea that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic” to God, and trustingly share with God that I am ready to be re-formed and transformed into the Christian that God would have me become.

Wow. I’m hitting my resistance. Time to breathe deeply, again and again. And to work on that trust issue.

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
When Contemplation Feels Like Dying
Creative Conversation Begins with Contemplative Compassion


  1. Hi Carl, that’s a really interesting question. I personally liken charismatic Christianity to the experience of a sugar rush: people go to the front of the hall and give their life to Jesus in a rush of charismatic enthusiasm, and next day the reality of not being able to leave “sinning” behind sets in.

    Whereas with contemplative and mystical traditions (such as your worldview and that of Unitarians), it’s more of a low glycemic index spirituality – constant nourishment rather than peaks and troughs.

    I think Christian charismatics and mystics would do well to look to the Jewish mystical and ecstatic traditions, which seem to have an excellent balance between enthusiasm and contemplation. But then much of charismatic Christianity is frankly pretty anti-Judaism (as well as seeing Satan behind every rock and in everything that isn’t part of their tribal mindset).

  2. Margaret Amoss says:

    It pleases me to hear you working to find understanding and acceptance between two extremes of Christianity! I wonder if anyone entrenched on the charismatic side is stretching to include mysticism? I enjoy your writing, and thank you for sharing the steps of your journey, which I’ve kept up with remotely for some years now (11)!

  3. Wow, excellent post! Something that I have learned after touring religions and ideas is that there are paradoxes in all teachers and that we must move beyond them because intuitively we know better. Each individual will see things that others do not and that is what makes integral my path. We are all right, just partially, so we should stay open.

    I believe the phrase for your new path is transcend and include and it is the path that I have chosen for myself. How exciting to relate. My new spiritual wholer, a mystic, I have yet to find that glitch and am not sure I will.


  4. Having myself spent some time in charismatic Christian circles as well as Pagan circles (no pun intended), and finally landing in the rich soil of Celtic Christianity, I can appreciate what you are considering here Carl.
    Honestly, from my perspective, the charismatic gifts and magick seemed closely related in my experience. I remember being in a charismatic prayer circle as a young person, “praying against” the evils of the occult on Halloween…I remember thinking, “But aren’t we doing the same thing those “evil” Pagans are doing…gathering in a circle, calling upon an otherworldly power in order to manipulate circumstances to our liking?” I left that church shortly thereafter and began a long quest for a better fitting spirituality.
    My experience with contemplative spirituality was very healing…a shift from a power based spirituality to a surrender based spirituality. This was very refreshing to me, and ultimately that surrender changed me for the better.
    In Celtic Christianity I have found, that which is to me, a healthy balance of surrender and power, and so here I have found my spirit’s home. I surrender to the Unfailing Love of God through Jesus Christ, then in the power of the Holy Spirit, I am able to offer the gift of Blessing, and protection, when it is genuinely called for. It’s a much gentler experience, devoid of the fear and judgment that was so much a part of my charismatic experience, and even more alight with the active reality of the Spirit in the midst of the ordinary, though probably less alarming to those witnessing it!
    Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts…I had not articulated this for myself till now. I truly appreciate that.
    Deep Peace and Every Blessing!
    Cheryl Anne

  5. D. J. O'Raghallaigh says:

    Hi Carl,

    The synthesis of those two ways is an interesting problem! I think the best way to solving it is by letting us pray with confidence, asking for the strength to accept God’s will, and this is point is beautifully elucidated in the following prayer by Charles De Foucald:

    I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
    Whatever you may do, I thank you:
    I am ready for all, I accept all.
    Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
    I wish no more than this, O Lord.

    Into your hands I commend my soul;
    I offer it to you
    with all the love of my heart,
    for I love you, Lord,
    and so need to give myself,
    to surrender myself into your hands,
    without reserve,
    and with boundless confidence,
    for you are my Father.

  6. Interesting comments – I particularly enjoyed Cheryl Anne’s comment. I have a lot of trouble with the language of “surrendering to the will of the Father” though – I’d prefer something about going with the flow of the universe (or aligning my will with the higher will) – but then I sometimes think Christianity is against the flow of the universe, which is why you dance widdershins (anticlockwise), whereas Pagans dance deosil (clockwise, or with the direction of the Sun). It’s because of the difference in theology between the two traditions.

  7. Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics here. I certainly understand your allergy to patriarchal language, but I think the question of “flowing with/emerging from” is a red herring. What is evolution, but going “against” nature — evolution always takes us somewhere we haven’t been before, which implies somewhere entire new, entirely emergent, entirely foreign to all that we previously have known. So if Christians try to go “against nature” (as in trying to create holiness as a category dissimilar from just following natural desires), who’s to say that they are not engaged in a larger process of spiritual evolution? As for dancing Widdershins, no Christian community that I know of has any specific mandate against dancing Deosil; for that matter, I know of plenty of Pagan groups that dance Widdershins with gusto. Probably best not to generalize, methinks.

  8. Dear Yewtree…
    How about surrendering to the flow…I like that idea…kind of like wind chimes, which make the most beautiful music by surrendering to the wind. “Surrendering to the will of the Father” sounds too much to me like getting one’s marching orders. I am moved more by Jesus’ use of the image of the vine and the branches…and the sap of the Spirit, flowing with Life. That’s what my experience of surrender is like…letting the sap flow….letting the wind evoke my song.
    Just my rambling thoughts…
    Deep Peace and Every Blessing,
    Cheryl Anne
    P.S. As for dancing, I have a sort of “dancing dyslexia”…I have no idea which direction I’m going in at any given time!

  9. Jeff Alexander says:

    I am very familiar with this question. I have read the Cloud of Unknowing, and other, descriptions of the mystical/contemplative approach and framework. I even had a life changing experience in a Trappist Abbey – detailed elsewhere in a comment on this website. But I couldn’t find the mystical/contemplative framework and approach explicitly laid out in scripture. David, Paul, and other Biblical figures didn’t seem to model it at least as I how I understand it. Of course individual scriptures can be brought into support the mystical/contemplative model, but I just couldn’t justify it based on scripture as being the normative model to spiritual fullness. Whenever I tried to take the approach, which was attractive to me – via the Jesus prayer or silent contemplative prayer ( the abyss of God’s deep silence in your words) it never was blessed as it seems to be for other people. I found my place of blessing in a different place.

    I began with the I John 4:15 “Whosoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him, and he in God.”

    So the simple confession of and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior is my practice, Paul said “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave his life for me” I John “Whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” Ephesians “In Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit”

    As I acknowledge and confess Jesus the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life rises up in me – I often then pray in tongues, the Father is before me, and I pray to the Father who is there unseen. My favorite scripture is Revelation 7:17 which is a picture of this Trinitarian interchange – “For the Lamb at the center of the Throne will be their Shepherd: He will lead them to Springs of Living Water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” In between times of fellowship with Him, the Lord sustains and helps me while I am focused on doing my daily duties.

    Anyway, this is how it is on my good days. I may have willing spirit but my flesh is weak. Hebrews 2:1 “we must pay more careful attention, therefore to what we have heard (the good news of Jesus Christ) so that we do not drift away”. I regularly return and refocus on what Paul calls the “simplicity of Christ” and as Peter says, continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

    My ‘mysticism’ my spiritual discipline is Peter’s confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, deepening that reality for me. Giving Jesus the “pre-eminence” Colossians 1. Jesus said “the work of God is to believe in the one God sent” Paul in Galatians 3 stressed that the Galatians received the Spirit and had miracles because they believed what they heard – the message of Jesus as the Resurrected Son of God who died for their sins. So I see prayer as a fruit of my acknowledgment and confession of Christ who then fills me with his Spirit and reveals the Father to me. For me it seems the various Christian traditions put the cart before the horse. True, people are told to start with faith in Jesus, but are then redirected to various spiritual disciplines and practices to gain the fullness of the Spirit. Yet Jesus clearly said the Holy Spirit is simply given as a gift to those who have faith in Him. The Galatians lost faith that Jesus was the baptizer in the Holy Spirit and turned to “works of the flesh” to be spiritual. This one of our continual temptations. Jesus told us to be aware of the yeast of the Pharisee and to avoid sin, we turn aside so easily to sin or some form of religious legalism or works system to gain life – perhaps the contemplative way is a rarefied version and Charismatics develop their own versions? – instead of directly eating Christ as the bread to receive life, even as the Israelites grew tired of manna and wanted their old diet.

    Enough for now. Thank you for providing a forum where these matters can be discussed!

  10. Thank you, Carl, for another interesting post. For years, I had a relationship with a charismatic Christian – until we broke up months ago, finally admitting after years of struggle that our worldviews were too different. In my youth, I had started with Zen Buddhism; later, I was greatly influenced by Martin Buber’s writings; then came the Ken Wilber-phase; and finally, I was taking my first steps into contemplative Christianity, in a sense getting closer and closer to her beliefs – but still, our perspectives proved to be painfully unresolvable. First, we wanted to convert each other; then, we struggled to accept each other; and finally, we accepted that to really accept each other meant to release each other.

    From what I have experienced with charismatic Christians here in Germany, to use integral language, it’s a curious combination of real mystical states (from subtle to causal and maybe even non-dual) with a tribal-to-mythic belief. Interestingly, there seems to be a growing interest in contemplative spirituality – women groups explore the mysticism of the Song of Solomon (Jesus as the bridegroom, the individual/the community as bride); variations of lectio divina are practiced, including resting in God; many charismatics practice what they call “soaking”, which from what I can see is resting in an inner silence beyond thoughts (although they usually use gentle music for that purpose).

    I think these are good signs. From what I can see, contemplative Christianity will sooner or later enrich the Charismatic movement in a way that will lead to a growth beyond magic/mythic beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily mean a change of practices; speaking in tongues, enthusiastic praising and prophecies might still be common, but they would be interpreted in a different way. But especially resting in silence can change you significantly – thoughts, beliefs and theologies are relativized in the face of gentle mystery.

    On the ten day centering prayer retreat I just returned from, it became clear to each of us, a group of 11 people that mostly didn’t know each other, that this inner silence in face of the mystery creates a bond beyond all differences – a “unity in diversity”, as Father Thomas Keating likes to say. As a Baptist pastor said at the end of the retreat: “It’s amazing… the difference of theologies represented… but yet, we just don’t care…”


  11. Carl, your speculation re: a possible Hegelian synthesis, or Zen-like movement, from a naive understanding through reflection to a novel hermeneutic of the second naivete’ sounds inspired to me.

    Ken, thanks for your insights.

    Whatever one’s spirituality (and it’s problematic to say what should be generally normative or essential vs temperament-driven or accidental), the transformative journey will foster ongoing intellectual, affective, moral, social and religious conversion, typically beginning with a dualistic, problem-solving, “what’s in it for me?” stance toward God, and growing into a more nondual, relational, love of God for the sake of God, Bernardian love, which finally ends in a love of self for the sake of God/others (going beyond earlier stages but not without them).

    The most common misconception, which is a type of dualistic fundamentalism, whatever one’s spirituality, is the notion that God is here and not there, or that our different experiences of truth, beauty, goodness and unity differ necessarily in origin (e.g. natural vs supernatural) rather than in degrees (of realization of the God-encounter). Thus we see sola scriptura, solum magisterium, ecclesiocentric exclusivisms and other heavenly notions that are of no earthly use.

    There is much I could add from my own experiences in renewal, but I am unable to share in-depth right now. What I would say really wouldn’t addend or amend what’s already been said by you all, so very well.

  12. D. J. O'Raghallaigh says:

    I can also see why people can see the use of the word Father as patriarchal!

    However the word Jesus used for Father was abba, and this Aramaic combines some of the intimacy of the English word “papa” while retaining the dignity of the word “father,” being both informal and yet respectful. Therefore it was used invoke the prescence a loving God and not an authoritarian one.

  13. Great post and wonderful dialog. My own journey has been one that began in the charismatic renewal and has drifted all over the map to the borderlands of Catholic Christianity. As a teenager, the intensity and emotional nature of the charismatic experience captured me, which is no surprise since teenagers are much about emoting ( As a high school science teacher, I see this regularly!). Still, the inner intellectual and skeptic was troubled by the apparent “mind-control” behavior of those in leadership positions. It also seemed to me in hindsight that people with a deep need to belong were often drawn in, much as they are to other groups regularly labeled as “cults” in contemporary culture. So I was troubled by this dichotomy of the message of a merciful, loving God and the “groupthink” that was so us vs. them, The Spirit vs. the world, flesh, and devil, labeled quite accurately in other posts as tribal-mythic. As I reflect on it now, it bordered on gnostic. I recall the beginning of the shift in my own spirituality when the praise was going up in the church basement, and in my head and heart, all I could sense was the Divine saying “Be silent, and know that I am God”. Still, I went to and graduated from the poster child college for charismatic Catholicism. By the time I had graduated, I felt more affinity for the contemplative than the charismatic. Still, this for me was an evolution, a maturation process. I am grateful for the charismatic experience that brought my limited experience and understanding of God out of the relm of the cognitive and rooted it deeper into the core of my being, and to this day I will find myself sometimes praying in tongues or losing myself in a good “praise and worship” song. These are merely doorways through which I can enter deeper into that presence that is The Presence, always “here” whether or not I am attuned to it, waiting patiently for me to wake from the slumber of the daily minutia to live fully in communion with He (She) who is Love.

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