One of the monks who is reading the manuscript of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism teased me yesterday, by saying “It looks like you are just trying to get people into the pews!”

I defended myself by saying, “No, I’m insisting that community is an essential, foundational aspect of Christian mysticism. Granted, for many people, Christian community means the church. But I really do have room for a broad variety of types of community.”

Our culture (I’m speaking here of North America, but I suppose American values have seeped all over the world by now) is so individualistic: our mythic icons are figures like the Lone Ranger, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed — all figures who have some measure of singularity or solitude knit into their very bones. We admire fictional heroes like Captain Kirk or even Harry Potter because they flout authority — they make their own way in the world, again and again saving the day by their very willingness to reject strictures laid upon them by others. In the American psyche, community exists to serve the individual, but never the other way around.

How this plays out in mysticism, of course, is the idea that somehow mysticism represents a “higher” or “better” form of Christianity than mere tribal church-going. It’s almost Neitzhchean: the mystic is an Übermensch, to whom the normal rules and regulations of conventional churchianity do not apply, by virtue of his “superior,” experiential relationship with God. This is the notion that lurks beneath the rallying cry of the new age movement: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” In other words, I have a direct pipeline to God and I don’t need no stinkin’ church.

While I think it’s obvious that slavish obedience and submission to group authority has its own serious problems (and is not what I am advocating here!), unfettered individualism, that rejects community accept insofar as community may be convenient or directly beneficial to the individual, is both contrary to and ultimately subversive of true Christian mysticism. Plotinus may have described the contemplative journey as “the flight of the alone to the Alone,” but Plotinus was a pagan philosopher, not a Christian (and I should note that anyone who truly believes that mysticism ought to be a single, solitary project, is certainly free to pursue their course, and I wish them well, and I would recommend heartily starting with Plotinus. All I’m saying here is that such an individualistic, privatized form of mysticism is by definition not Christian mysticism). For that matter, Neitzche’s concept of the Übermensch doesn’t belong in any Christian understanding of mysticism, either. Mystics are not meant to be better than other people, but to willingly and sacrificially serve other people.

But, you might be thinking, what about Julian of Norwich? the Desert Fathers and Mothers? Thomas Merton at the end of his life? Isn’t there a long tradition of hermits, those who abandon the company of others to seek God in total solitude?

Yes, the hermitage has a prominent place on the landscape of Christian mysticism. But it is instructive to consider that the Desert Fathers and Mothers, within just a few generations, moved out of the eremitical (solitary) life and into the cenobitic (communal or monastic) life. Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton both found their solitude while remaining connected on some level to others: Julian lived in a cell that was attached to a church, while Merton’s hermitage remained on the grounds of his monastery. “Whose feet will the hermit wash?” asked one of the Desert Fathers, and this remains the key to the relationship between Christian mysticism and community: Christ commanded us to love and serve one another. We simply cannot do this unless we are in relationship, and to be in relationship requires community of some form.

I know that there are some very good reasons not to be involved in a traditional, paid-clergy-and-brick-&-mortar church. I know that churches are often inexplicably hostile to mysticism (or, not so inexplicably, since mysticism has been viewed with suspicion by both Catholics and Protestants ever since the Reformation). A person interested in the mystical life needs to be engaged in community not because community will teach us how to be mystics, but rather because community will teach us how to be holy. And holiness is an unavoidable prerequisite to the Christian contemplative life.

Thankfully, ours is an age when many different types of community are flourishing. If your local Baptist or Presbyterian Congregation simply leaves you cold, you can look for community through the house church network, or through informal Bible studies and prayer and praise groups, or even through meetup groups. Many monasteries have lay associate groups, and these are often ecumenical in nature. While I think it is counter-productive to flit from group to group (that is individualism in another guise), most of us thankfully have the freedom to “shop around” to find the right community that will teach us how to grow in holiness. Maybe to find our community we will have to sit in the pews. But just maybe, community will be found somewhere else.

The important thing is: if you want Christian mysticism to be part of your life, start by making community part of your life. And don’t rest until you’ve found your community.

Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Is Mysticism Genetic?
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
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.

  • Bill Fulbright


    You are right. While Community appears to be antithetical to Mysicism, the two are inexorably entertwined. As much as I like a simply said and intimate mass, I admit that I get impatient at the more elaborate masses that seem ponderous, with the somtimes lame and often repeated sermons. Some sermons actually energize me, some services are consistent, others are all over the place.

    I know I can count on my own stillness to be the gateway to my relationship to the Holy Trinity.

    I still believe we need community because none of us holds all the pieces of the Christian spirituality. We each of us pray for those and hold those up who do not hold our piece, and vice versa.

    We have to realize that surrender also means being willing to depend on others, trust that the greater community actually binds us and makes us holy, as you said.

    This is a point with which I have struggled in my studies and mystical understandings and practice. In the end a true mystic is humble, willing to surrender to the lower self, and can still participate and contribute to the community. Padre Pio comes to mind. What a great example to illustrate this point!


  • Green Monk

    I think you hit on something very vital and uncomfortable for many people. Whether it is Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, or Buddhism, community is an essential part. Lone Ranger spirituality is not the norm in those traditions.

  • Ali

    Some really important ideas in this post, and many of these points I would say are not exclusively Christian, either. My take on Druidry, for instance, puts relationship (and therefore, community) at the very center of its worldview. Balance, flux, evolution, harmony, justice, art, beauty, all of these only truly have meaning in community. Community must be the context in which individuals all work and live and move with each other in ways that sustain and benefit the whole, forming a kind of “ecology” of spiritual living in which community and individual both thrive and neither is subservient or subsumed in the other.

    Your post leaves me wondering, though, whether community must be religious in order for this relationship to be most meaningful. You point out myriad options for Christians seeking community, and of course there are many of these in most areas, but your examples are all religious, and more specifically Christian, in nature. I’d be interested in hearing your take on the role that these overtly religious communities play more specifically, and how they might differ from, say, the community of your local neighborhood, or your workplace, etc. For most Christians, I imagine their church communities overlap a great deal with such other kinds of local community, but those of minority religions (such as myself) might have to travel hours to the nearest gathering of fellow practitioners. It seems to me that, while in-person relationship with those of the same religion is very important, the immediate local community of your daily life must hold a prominent place. I practice my Druidry much more often through the ethics and attitudes I embody in the workplace, than on those rare occasions when I have the chance to perform overtly religious ritual with other Druids. And surely, the Christian doesn’t reserve her service for those of her faith alone, or only wash the feet of those who attend the same Bible study as she does! :)

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks, Ali. Since I’m writing primarily about Christian mysticism, naturally that colors what I’m saying, but I agree with you that community need not be Christian or even religious to be a tool for personal growth and/or growth in holiness/mindfulness. I think for those who lack the privilege of an accessible faith community, the best bet is to approach all relationships as potential arenas for spiritual insight and transformation. And there’s a lot to be said for community building in one’s own neighborhood. That’s actually quite Benedictine — St. Benedict was all about stability and being anchored in a particular place. Your insight about work is important as well. I work at a monastery, so for me the lines between work and faith community are unusually blurry. But for those who do not work in the context of their faith community, I believe finding some way to integrate the values and wisdom of their tradition (without being annoying to others!) is essential. We need to challenge the idea that faith should only be relevant to a segmented part of life (i.e., Sunday mornings, the eight solar festivals, etc.). If our wisdom tradition isn’t going to shape and form us 24/7, then why do we adhere to it?

  • Gary

    Thanks, and I would point to another:

    “I was asked: ‘Since some people keep themselves much apart from others, and most of all like to be alone, and since it is in this and in being in church that they find peace, would that be the best thing to do?’ Then I said, ‘ No! and see why not!’ If all is well with a man, then truly, wherever he may be, whomever he may be with, it is well with him. But if things are not right with him, then everywhere and with everybody it is all wrong with him. If it is well with him, truly he has God with him. But whoever really and truly has God, he has him everywhere, in the street and in company with everyone, just as much as in church or in solitary places or in his cell. … That man carries God in his every work and in every place, and it is God alone who performs all the man’s works, for whoever causes the work, to him it belongs more properly and truly than it does to the one who performs it. …”
    Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment

    This, I would suggest, points to what makes our being-in-community truly Christian, namely, centered in Christ–reflecting the life of God. May God help each of us toward this end.