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.