Why Mysticism Matters

Recently someone asked me if I could comment on why mysticism matters, particularly in terms not only of religion and spirituality, but also health and wellness. It’s a big question. There’s a lot of work being done on how spirituality and even religion can support overall efforts to improve our physical and mental well-being — after all, Jesus was a healer before anything else — so I think I’ll leave that part of the question to folks like Andrew Weil, Larry Dossey, Bernie Seigel, and the writers and editors of Spirituality and Health magazine. Of course, the integral theory of Ken Wilber belongs here, since it addresses the larger question of how science and religion/spirituality complement one another.

But the part of the question I think I can more readily address is the role of mysticism, particularly Christian mysticism, in the larger arena of spirituality. Why does mysticism matter? First of all, I don’t believe mysticism and spirituality are coterminous; all mysticism is spiritual but not all spirituality is mystical. Mysticism represents that dimension of spirituality that directly addresses — and enters into — the mystery of God, for the purpose of growth in holiness (which is a religious code-word for personal and social healing) and deepening intimacy with God — the reality of being loved by, and loving God; which can involve experiencing God’s transformational presence in our lives, but also surrendering to God’s hidden presence, at a level deeper than mere human experience. I don’t want to get too bogged down in definitions here, suffice to say that mysticism brings us into and through mystery to encounter God.

So why does this matter? Perhaps put a better way, why does this matter more now than it did 50 or 100 years ago? Although historically mysticism has been on the margins of Christian theology and practice, many indicators point to it becoming more and more mainstream, for a variety of reasons.

  1. The epochal encounter between Christianity and eastern religions has resulted in many lay Christians developing an interest in meditation and contemplation: practices that up until very recently were pretty much found only in monasteries. A generation ago, folks like Bede Griffiths or Thomas Merton were seen as pretty exotic for trying to engage in eastern spirituality as a way of deepening their own Christian monastic practice; but now increasing numbers of Christians, including laypersons, are accepting the idea that the wisdom of Buddha, Vedanta, or other eastern philosophies might have something to teach Christians — not to lure Christians away from their own faith, but rather to deepen the experience of being a Christian through the wisdom gleaned from interfaith dialogue. Granted, this isn’t mainstream in the sense that “everybody” is doing it, but it is far more prevalent among ordinary Christians than ever before.
  2. Likewise, the shift from modernity to postmodernity has resulted in many Christians questioning the propositional, authoritarian nature of faith grounded in obedience to the church (Catholic) or the Bible (Protestant), and instead are looking for a more experiential expression of the faith, where their “obedience” is situated internally, toward a personal experience of God, Christ and/or the Holy Spirit. In fact, an interesting question is whether the widespread emergence of experiential Christianity is a consequence of postmodernity, or in fact a contributing factor to postmodern theology: after all, Pentecostalism is a century old now, and theological postmodernity really only dates back to the 50s and 60s with the influence of demythologizing among Protestants and Vatican II among Catholics. And even though in more recent years many Catholics and Protestants have pulled back from the most liberal implications of mid-20th-century theology, the theological genie really is out of the bottle. The old model of religion as something the “professionals” do while ordinary people just show up once a week to “pray, pay and obey” isn’t cutting bait anymore. Even as the most hierarchical churches have scrambled to entrench the power of their clergy, the laity are more on fire than ever before. This turn toward personal authority is also a turn toward the hunger for experience, and the hunger for spiritual experience eventually leads us to the threshold of mystery.
  3. Another indicator that mysticism is leaving the margins and entering the mainstream is specifically seen in the churches with monasteries (Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism), but I think it has implications for the entire body of Christ. What I am referring to is the decline of religious life, at least in the west (religious life is thriving in other parts of the world, but there are clear social and economic reasons why this is so). As the convents and monasteries attract fewer and fewer new vocations, ironically they are attracting more and more members of their secular, oblate, and third order associations. In other words, ours is the age when monastic spirituality — the traditional “home” of Christian mysticism — is being set loose from the cloister and entering into the lives of more and more ordinary laypersons.
  4. The Protestant corollary to the decline of traditional religious life is the emergence of Neo-monasticism (see the writings of Shane Claiborne or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove) and, indeed, the entire movement that is called “Emergence Christianity” or “the Emerging Church” which places a high emphasis on re-discovering practices traditionally associated with monasticism, such as lectio divina or the Divine Office. What Evelyn Underhill did for Anglicans and Thomas Merton did for Catholics, folks like Brian McLaren and Richard Foster are doing for evangelicals and other Protestants: that is to say, introducing traditional contemplative practices to a widespread population eager for “something more” in their spiritual journey.

So, more and more laypeople, throughout the spectrum of Christian denominations, are discovering mysticism and finding that it has something to say to them. And while mysticism has its enemies — usually either Protestants who are hysterical anti-Catholics or else Christians of all stripes who are xenophobically opposed to interfaith spirituality — I am confident that in the end, reason will triumph and Christians of good-will and common sense will recognize that Protestants can engage in Catholic spiritual practices without having to become Catholic, just as all Christians can learn from the wisdom of other faith traditions without abandoning their devotion to Christ. And both of these trends — the rediscovery of traditionally monastic or Catholic spirituality, and the encounter with the wisdom of the east — ultimately take us into the depth of Christian mystical wisdom, as found in the writings of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Catherine of Genoa, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Way of a Pilgrim, and numerous other orthodox Christian wisdom teachers. And the more we read the Christian mystics, the more we will see that their endorsement of pursuing holiness, embracing silence, and opening ourselves to a life of continual prayer is fully relevant to the needs and challenges of our time.

Therefore, I am confident that the blessing and promise of mysticism and contemplative spirituality will only increase in its visibility within the Christian community in the years to come. And this is why mysticism matters.

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  1. Carl,

    As a board member of The Shalem Institute (contemplative leadership in today’s society) I believe you nailed this article. Well done! The world needs this more than ever…


  2. Awesome post, Carl!

    I’ve been re-reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s magesterial Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening this week – part of my re-committing to a daily centering prayer practice at age 30 (!). And I’m being struck anew by the crucial, virtually unreplacable role daily contemplative prayer plays in authentic apprenticeship to Jesus – dying daily, or as the Amplified Bible puts it, ‘Cease consulting with yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.’ Self-reflexive (egoic) consciousness is a b!tc# if not oriented in its proper place; I know of no other way to cease consulting with my ‘s’elf than a daily contemplative prayer practice – and if I could be more specific, apophatic prayer that doesn’t fulfill the desires of the egoic/kataphatic self, but transcends them.

    But, here’s where the evangelicals will keep us honest. While a lot of good work has been done in developmental and transpersonal psychology along these lines, and while we’ve gained much from looking at Hindu and Buddhist contributions to spiritual (and just plain human) growth, Christian mystics need to do a lot more solid theological and biblical reflection as to why this ego-transcendence is so necessary for spiritual growth and working for peace.

    The best resource I’ve yet found that begins this reflection: Repenting of Religion by Greg Boyd. Boyd’s a controversial guy in evangelical circles, first for popularizing Open Theism and then for daring to say that Christians ought not be beholden to the political agendas of empire. This book is incredible though, a reflection on Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall, looking at the fruit of the knowledge of Good & Evil as egoic judgment, and the life & spirituality of Jesus as the cure. Worth reading, I think, for your next & more accessible follow-up tome!

  3. I’ll have to check out Greg Boyd. And yes, daily practice is essential. Just as you can’t learn how to play guitar or lose weight or get into shape without a daily commitment to the behaviors necessary to achieve your goal, so too contemplation — even though it has no “goal” other than learning to recognize and embrace the unconditional love of God — only matters in our lives if it matters every day of our lives.

  4. thegreeningspirit says:

    What a deep and penetrating post, Carl..I am in love with it! I resonated with this so much, as you named the spirit of a movement that is and has been unfolding and was hard to define..thank you once again for th keen eye of your Heart!
    Christine Phoenix-Green

  5. Infinite Warrior says:

    even though it has no “goal” other than learning to recognize and embrace the unconditional love of God

    Respectfully, I don’t believe that’s the ultimate goal. The unconditional love of God is rather a given. There is another.

  6. Thanks Carl. To add to what you’re saying I think Ignatian Spirituality – ‘finding God in all things’ – whether through the Christian Life Communities or even the everyday practice of the “examen” prayer, is another path that is helping people become the mystic Christians of the future Karl Rahner prophesised.

  7. Martha Mason says:

    Well, now I have to research Brian McLaren and Richard Foster…but I wholeheartedly agree that religion without the experience of God is pretty useless and, I would think, probably unable to transform us into the likeness of Christ.

  8. Foster wrote the “classic” text on evangelical appreciation of ancient practices, Celebration of Discipline and many other books on contemplative spirituality for non-Catholics. Brian McLaren is best known as a leading voice in Emergence Christianity, but he is also the author of Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. Like Foster, McLaren seems pretty dialed in to the idea that contemplative spirituality can thrive in a reformed context.

  9. Carl,

    What you wrote is wonderful and I am in complete agreement with it. I hope to see Protestants embracing spirituality in the future too. Growing up Protestant but now leaning toward Catholicism, I can see how we have missed out on the deep spiritual aspect and embracing the divine.

  10. No. 3 is so incisive and empowering to me an analysis…Thank you for your effort…

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