Abram and Sarai were called to leave their homes and travel to the west. John the Baptist was called to preach in the desert. Jesus was called into the desert to fast and pray. Saul was blinded on the road to Damascus and was called to go into the city there and submit to one of the leaders of the Christian community.

Call — in fancy Latin parlance, “vocation” — is a foundational experience of the Christian spiritual life. Normally we think of the concept of call in relation to Holy Orders, as in a person being called to the priesthood or to the monastic life. But marriage is also understood as a vocation — God calls us into the life of the person we wed.

How does the concept of call relate to mysticism?

If we take Karl Rahner and William McNamara at face value (Rahner said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all,” while McNamara said “The mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic”), then we can assume that all Christians are called to enter into the mysteries in some way. It’s not as if some people win the lottery while everyone else gets to applaud. Union with God is not an extraordinary Christian vocation, it is the ordinary vocation of the Christian life. But what does that look like? If everyone ran off to the monastery, who would raise the next generation of children? If everyone gave over their entire waking lives to blissful meditation, then who will raise our food? That’s a caricature, of course; even contemplative monks are required to earn their own keep. So we have to disabuse ourselves of any notion that mysticism somehow involves a retreat form the practicalities of life. Rather, the call to enter the mysteries of God includes a coterminous call to enter more deeply the mysteries of ordinary life, including the mysteries of love, of work, of money, of community. Mysticism does not change who we are; it makes us more truly who we are.

I believe the call to be a mystic is, in fact, the call to live life deeply, passionately, wildly, joyfully. It is a call to make the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) — love, joy, serenity, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and moderation — central to our identity and experience. And if “moderation” and “wildness” seem to be at odds, remember the old saying: “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Sometimes, mysticism is like the extreme sports of God. It can take us to the edge of our comfort zone, to the dangerous places of our psyche and our relationships and  indeed our world. Maybe some of us are called to settle down in those dangerous places, and we become heroes of the faith like the desert fathers and mothers or, for that matter, Mother Teresa. Others only go to visit those on-the-edge points once or maybe twice in our entire life. That’s okay.

Because the paradox here is that, while the call to the mysteries is a general call, each of us will receive a unique calling. “Every person is a special kind of mystic.” We are like snowflakes: no two contemplatives are alike. Consider the importance of silence and solitude on the one hand, and discernment and spiritual friendship on the other. We each need silence and the space to listen for the nearly inaudible whispers of our own unique call. Where, in the silence, are we beckoned to explore? Discernment and the wise counsel of a spiritual friend or guide or director can help us from mis-hearing or misinterpreting the whispers of our vocation. As always, Christian mysticism is anchored in the community of faith.

We have to get over the idea that renowned contemplatives like Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux are somehow different than ourselves. Yes, they were consecrated religious; yes, they were gifted authors; yes, they were profound teachers. But you know, you probably can do some things a lot better than they could, and it just so happens that their gifts included a measure of celebrity, which (especially for a monk or a nun) is more curse than blessing. But there’s a 95% or more sameness between you and me and the “great” mystics. We need to bear this in mind. The 5% is where the uniqueness of our call kicks in, and it’s an adventure to discover just how my dance of intimacy with God will look like no other dance that ever existed. Meanwhile, you’re on your own road of singular God-discovery. Thanks to the samenesss we share, we can learn about and support each other on our unique pathways, even though we cannot walk the whole length of them together. There, again, is the splendor and importance of community.

So take some time and listen for your call. Chances are it will surprise you. Remember in The Sound of Music when the nuns couldn’t find Maria (because she was up on the mountaintop, singing)? One of the sisters said to the Mother Superior, “I’ve looked in all the usual places.” The abbess replied, “Considering that it is Maria, I suggest you look in someplace unusual.” The process of discerning our mystical vocation is probably a lot like looking for Maria. We need to look in the unusual places.

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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.

  • http://none Delameilleure Fred

    Dear Carl,
    Again you are writing fluently on an issue which keeps me busy these days: what is my own call in spiritual life? I have tried to fight God with my bare fists about this, but I have been so compelling that it took me nowhere. There are so many paradoxes to this whole ‘thing’ that I am really tired of it all together. Maybe I try too much to figure it out with my head? Maybe I am too unpatient? maybe I cannot listen because of the armor aroubnd my heart? Maybe God is silent (listen to… again Rahner in his Sprechen mit den Zweigende!)? Maybe I am in a dark night without any light? Maybe I have read far too much? Maybe I have compared myself with Merton or played a role of the hermit?…
    A friend, former Carmelite monk left his monastery about 5 years ago at age 50. He said to me it had killed him to read John of the Cross at 18!


    PS I don’t think this ‘call’ is static but dynamic

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Fred, sometimes the best thing we can do is to leave the books behind and go work in the garden for a while. The silence I speak of includes silence from too much reading (and this comes from a man who makes his living as an author and a bookseller!). And yes, you’re right, the call is entirely dynamic.

    P.S. Forgive me for not answering your emails, as you surmise, life is simply too hectic for me to respond to all of the many wonderful messages people send me!

  • http://odysseus.wordpress.com Jack

    Carl, thank you SO much for answering your call. It has been very refreshing and, yes, enlightening. I, too, am on a path of deepness. I am in the process of becoming a member of the Lindisfarne Community in Ithica NY. It’s a neo-monastic Celtic religious order with apostolic succession. I have been blessed with ‘finding’ this community.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that, in the process of seeking, I was led to your website and have been most encouraged.

    In the Grace of the Three in One,