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.