Christian Mysticism and “Ordinary” Christian Spirituality

Last night I got an email from young person who asked me to explain Christian mysticism to her. She noted that she was a Christian but had never heard of mysticism before. Indeed, how many faithful church-goers are there, who know nothing about the splendors of the contemplative tradition?

This past Sunday I was visiting a class on Christian spirituality at a mainline Protestant church here in Atlanta, and, impressed by the articulate and eloquent expression of personal spirituality among the students, I began to ponder this question: what is the difference between Christian mysticism and, for lack of a better term, “ordinary” Christian spirituality? I know it’s counter-intuitive to start worrying about these kinds of distinctions, for this immediately puts the dualistic mind into high gear. Trying to talk about mysticism through dualistic consciousness is like trying to talk about lovemaking using only military metaphors. But, with that caveat fully in mind, here I go where angels fear to tread…

How Christian Mysticism is different from
other forms of Christian Spirituality

  1. Christian mysticism is entirely gratuitous. In other words, it is not necessary to be a mystic in order to be a Christian, or in order to be saved. As a religion, Christianity requires several basic commitments: to accept the lordship of Jesus Christ, to engage with the Bible and the tradition as sources of wisdom, to be baptized and to participate in Communion or the Lord’s Supper according to the discipline of your particular denomination, and to participate in both weekly corporate worship and regular private prayer. These basics form the foundation of Christian spirituality. Mysticism is a subset of spirituality (you can be spiritual without being a mystic, but you cannot be a Christian mystic without cultivating your spiritual life); furthermore; mysticism functions as an invitation to go deeper into the spiritual life than most other aspects of the Christian faith. Answering such an invitation is neither necessary nor required in order to live a good or even holy Christian life.
  2. Mystery is an essential component to Christian mysticism. Basic Christian spirituality is so simple that a small child can understand it (this is not a criticism; indeed, Jesus commanded his followers to become like little children). God loves you; God calls you to turn to him; God’s grace will help you where you cannot help yourself; life is meant to be live in gratitude for God’s love, by sharing that love and compassion with others. Mysticism ventures into realms that are paradoxical and trans-rational, beyond the limits of human reason to comprehend. For example, mysticism is concerned with restoring not merely a relationship with God, but indeed God’s full “image and likeness” in the human soul (Genesis 1:26), which is to say, the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity. Mystics explore these mysteries intellectually and/or through heartfelt prayer.
  3. Mysticism is developmental and evolutionary, even though it proclaims a basic truth that God is always already present to us. Ordinary Christian spirituality basically offers a two-step model: you are lost, and then you are saved. Because mysticism explores the landscape beyond  just being saved, it offers a more involved process of living into the Christian life. Mystics throughout history have traced the mystical life as involving three, five, even seven or more stages of growth and development. While none of these various models are universally applicable to all people, the overall message of mysticism is that growth toward the fullness of abiding in God is truly a life-long process; the paradox here is that we never fully arrive and yet through God we have already arrived.
  4. Mysticism implies, although it does not require, a deeper sense of experience of God. It also implies, although it does not require, a more profound sense of the mystery of God. Some mystics undergo vivid, ecstatic, or supernatural events in which the presence of God, or union with God, or communion with God, illuminate their minds and souls in a dramatic, almost shattering fashion. Meanwhile, other mystics experience heart-wrenching desolation, darkness and awareness of God’s hiddenness, absence, and inscrutable mystery. Both of these “light” and “dark” experiences may come to the same person, sometimes at different stages on the journey. The common denominator here is that mysticism takes the lover of God to extremes and to the wilderness or thin places of the soul, where one may encounter, and taste fully, both the luminous glory and the dark mystery of God.
  5. Ordinary Christian spirituality seeks growth in holiness. Mysticism is oriented to deification, or participation in God. This distinction is a difference more of degree than of kind, for true holiness opens out into deification and, likewise, deification builds upon holiness. Living the Christian spiritual life fosters yearning for God’s heart and conformity to God’s will, and leads to growth in the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). Mysticism includes all this and more: for it seeks nothing less than complete and total identification with God, immersion into the Divine Nature, and communion with God insofar as this is possible for a mortal, by God’s grace.
  6. When spirituality is not mystical, it is ascetical. Classical theology understood a distinction between mysticism, which involves the action of God, and asceticism, which involved human efforts to reach God. Asceticism comes from the same root word as athleticism, and thus is a word suggesting exercise, practice, self-discipline and self-restraint. These are all qualities inherent in ordinary Christian spirituality. Mystical spirituality, therefore, is spirituality taken as far as ordinary human effort can take it, and then abandoned into trust and confidence that the grace of God will reach us and give us exactly what we need, whether this includes ecstatic or profound experiences (or not), or life-altering changes in consciousness (or not).
  7. Mysticism implies real and heroic changes in the lives, behavior, and values of the mystics — although “heroic” can be grand or humble in its scope. Paul’s conversion, Francis of Assisi’s renunciation of worldly wealth, Julian of Norwich’s visions and retreat into solitude, Thomas Merton’s shift from ordinary Catholic monk to world-class cultural critic and interfaith explorer–these are a few of the examples of how mysticism causes dramatic changes in peoples’ lives. But there is also Thérèse of Lisieux and her “little way” in which she found the heroism of mystical spirituality only in very small and humble acts. Whether great or small, the changes that mystics undergo are always shaped by humility and the serene acceptance of Christian wisdom.
  8. Mysticism fosters a new way of seeing, grounded in non-duality and expansive awareness of the limitless love and grace of God. Typical Christian spirituality may not necessarily lead to non-dual consciousness superseding the dualistic way of thinking and seeing, that characterizes ordinary human life. To function in our world, we have to use skills of judgment (this is good, that is bad; this is profitable, that is useless; etc.) that lead to dividing the world into categories of up and down, in and out, right and wrong, and so forth. Mystical consciousness does not eliminate the dualistic mind, which after all remains necessary for making our way in the world, but it supplants dualistic ways of seeing, with a higher, non-dualistic viewpoint, that sees all things as belonging in the heart and love and grace of God, which in turn fosters compassion, non-judgment (Matthew 7:1) and a spirit of hospitality which define how a mystic relates to the world at large. This is why mystics tend to care for the forgotten members of society or reaching across boundaries to people of different ethnicities, cultures, political persuasions or religious beliefs–because mystics intuitively understand that (in the words of Richard Rohr) “everything belongs” to God and in God.
  9. Following mysticism’s tendency to non-duality and its humble acceptance of mystery, mystical spirituality is generally more open to exploring the wisdom of traditions and paths other than its own. For Christians, this means engaging in study and even practice of non-Christian wisdom traditions, such as Zen, Vedanta, Sufism, Kabbalah, Druidism, and shamanism. Mystics tend to be more comfortable than other Christians in holding the paradox of remaining faithful to Christian wisdom while simultaneously being open to learning from (and sharing with) the adherents of other paths. This kind of spiritual cross-fertilization can bring rich blessings into the larger Christian community, even though the mystics themselves are often misunderstood and attacked by other Christians for their interfaith work.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
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.

  • Yewtree

    One of the things that led me away from Christianity was the lack of a sense of any path or journey beyond being “saved”. That and the widespread homophobia, biblical literalism, and bad attitude to other faiths.

    Whilst I will never accept the Trinity or vicarious atonement or the resurrection, and therefore will never be a Christian, and whilst I am not convinced of the value of asceticism as a path to theosis, I do have a lot of respect for Christian mysticism and its insights and practicality (i.e. actually walking the talk by helping others). And I really like the way you have drawn out the distinctions between mysticism and “ordinary spirituality” here.

  • Carl McColman

    Yeah, the homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, chauvinism, arrogance, literalism, lack of compassion… I could go on and on. For you these problems with Christianity were the justification for leaving (which I fully respect); for me they are the markers of how much work there is to do.

  • Gannet Girl

    I often enjoy your site tremendously, but I think that your use of the term “ordinary” is most unfortunate. There is nothing ordinary about Christianity.

    More contemplation of vocabulary needed!

    • Carl McColman

      I think you and I have a different understanding of “ordinary.” To me it’s not a pejorative in the least. The Trappist tradition describes its own life as “ordinary, obscure and laborious,” following the Benedictine motto of “ora et labora” — prayer and work — as the heart of the spiritual life. I think of an ordinary life as a well-ordered life, which may not be very glamorous in our day and age, but frankly I find it much more appealing than never-ending chaos!

  • Trish


    I benefit greatly from the insights that you make available through this blog, and from the wisdom that you bring to the table from which those of us with a wider sense of the Christian communion do sup. Thankyou for this post.

    I’m reading a little about the history of monasticism in a Christian context at the moment, and I would love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between asceticism and mysticism, a relationship that you point to in item 6, above.

    In your last sentence in that item, you identify that mystical spirituality extends her hand out, and reaches to the unknown God. Historically, it would seem to me that asceticism preceeds many of the experiences that the mystics identify as mystical. In some ways it looks like there is an ordered progression, that typically mysticism, the identified connection with the divine, emerges out of asceticism, the period spent ‘en hypomene’, waiting on the divine.

    I’d love to understand your thoughts on this relationship – whether you see one as implying the other, or not so much so.

    Thanks and blessings,

  • Jim Carmichael

    Christianity is a “growing” experience. Christ explains that heaven is as a mustard seed, the smallest seed becomes that largest tree. We first become a Christian, by first believing thru hearing, then take the necessary steps required as quoted in the bible, repentance, confession of Christ, baptism, being added to the church and then receiving the gift of the holy spirit.
    This is the first step, if you stay there, you will not grow spiritually, which is the reason we are here, to gain spiritual growth. Thru study of the word, and doing the works, we will grow. The more we study, the more we work, the more we grow, and then we study even more, and work harder. When we add to that the self denial, we grow deeper and deeper into our faith. I believe when we finally reach the point of true and complete self denial, by embracing the poverty of Christ and the apostles, and doing so, not out of a desire to avoid hell (the 2nd death) or as a means to gain eternal life, but only to serve the Lord, And, for no other reason,then we may have arrived at the deepest of relationships possible in this life with our Lord.
    Dr J Vernon McGee spoke in such a way, that any Christian could understand what he was saying. Communication is the key to teaching those hungry for the truth. When we use a form of the english language that only a few of the elite can understand, I have to question if the writer, or speaker is truly attempting to serve God, by teaching His word, or trying to impress on others the level of their intelligence or education. Christianity is a simple faith in one sense, and deeper in another sense, than any will obtain in this life.
    If a person of a limited education cannot understand what is being taught, are we in a sense withholding the word from him?

  • Bob

    Everyone is spiritual and mystical or I’m spiritual but not religious or I love Jesus but not his followers. It seems like this post sets up a false dichotomy between ordinary and mystical. This mystical terminology didn’t seem to be in the writings of the saints of old. It was more or less living out the Christ life. Mystical stages of ascension being only for the advance and the elite that can understand the deep things of life. The arrogance of the new mystics that says beneath all religions is a same conciseness. It seems like old Gnosticism and pluralism rejuvenated. The Christian life is deeply incarnational and mediated through Scripture and Sacrament. A Jesus that has historical roots and can be touched. The scandal of particularity. The gospel has a radical message for all to be offended and wanting to crucify the Savior.

    Sorry for the rant, I’m frustrated with these categories and language of saved(conservatives) and us(mystics) isn’t healing the Church.

  • Jeff

    Your Christian mysticism doesn’t sound especially Christian. No Christ Jesus of Nazareth necessary as the present continual way to know the Father and have the Holy Spirit – as mystics they have moved on!

    I do not think that impersonal mystery is a higher state of spirituality. Jesus was intensely personal with Abba, Father. It speaks of fellowship with each of the Three Persons in the New Testament. It speaks of eternal fellowship with them, The Triune God never becomes just a generic unity as we know Him. In fact, if it does, it’s a sign we don’t know yet as we ought. Impersonal unitary mystery is a dumbing down of deity. As humans we are each particular individuals with an absolute uniqueness and “feel” though having a common humanity with others. We are made in the image of God, how much more will each Person of the Godhead be particular and have a unique “feel” and indeed concreteness and yet a shared Deity. Of course as humans of differing souls we will have our unique response to each Person, even as different friends and family members in my life each have a different relationship with and perception of me. Though, when these people compare notes they will agree on a common “Jeffness”. Stephen when filled with the Holy Spirit saw heaven open and Jesus standing at the right hand of the glory of God. A sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit is a personal perception of and revelation of the Father and the Son and of course of the Holy Spirit. This personal Trinitarian awareness of God is laced through Saint Patrick’s Confession, and indeed the New Testament and is found in eternity – “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb . . . . . . The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him”. Book of Revelation.

    How does the spirituality of Saint Patrick, the evangelist and Apostle of Christ to the Irish fit into your mystical definition? Apparently, according to your definition of Christian mysticism, evangelism (that embarrassing ‘come to Jesus’ stuff) drops out of the picture for a mystic, as he has moved on to higher things – into the world of non-duality where he no longer has to offend people with Jesus, Son of God, Savior of the World and can just dialog with non-christians about how we have so much in common in the grand dumbed down MYSTERY. Again, Carl, I think if you truly consider Jesus of Nazareth, as to who he is, he is too big to fit into your system – unless you do plastic surgery on him – nips and tucks and redefinitions to make him a tamed perennial philosophy Ken Doll Jesus; instead of concrete reality, flesh and bone, Holy Spirit baptizing eternal Son of God with eyes of flame, whose face shines like the sun, who bore our sins in his body, and at the same time can be your friend and eldest brother and servant who washes your feet and teaches you to do the same to others!

    • Carl McColman

      Jeff, I think you’re doing an awful lot of projecting here. Never did I say Jesus was not absolutely essential to Christian mysticism (in fact, I assume that what makes Christian mysticism Christian is, well, Christ). “Impersonal” is your word, not mine. Nor is the fact that I didn’t mention evangelism mean that I consider it unnecessary to mysticism; I simply don’t see evangelism as necessarily important to the immediate question at hand, which was trying to parse out the distinction between spirituality and mysticism.

      If mysticism really upsets you so much, why do you hang around at my website? Of course you’re welcome here, but you’re hardly the first person to come attacking. Frankly, you haven’t said anything to me, on this post or previous ones, that others haven’t said before you. I’ve gotten the memo that you, and many others before you, think mysticism is opposed to Biblical Christianity. I disagree with you. So you can either accept that, or not, but if you feel the need to keep attacking Christian mysticism, maybe you should go start your own blog.

  • Carl McColman

    Trish, here’s how I see it: I think the distinction between mysticism and asceticism always is founded on the sovereignty of God. God grants God’s graces as God sees fit. Some people need dramatic experiences of union and or consciousness of God’s presence; others do not. Asceticism, or spiritual practice, disposes us to be open to God’s action in our lives, but does not force or necessitate any particular experience of God. Why, then do we engage in spiritual practices? Because they help us to grow in holiness, to remain mindful of God and of our need for grace, and they can function as a tool for strengthening our sense of membership in the Mystical Body. In short, asceticism is its own reward, which may or may not lead to mystical experience, as God sees fit.

  • Carl McColman

    Bob, no contemplative that I’ve ever met, nor any mystic whose writings I’ve read, are ever invested in being “the elite.” If we project that onto them, that says more about us than about them. Whether we like it or not, some people are more gifted at music than others, some are more gifted at sports than others, some are more natural charismatic speakers and leaders than others. Mysticism, the ability to know and experience God’s transforming presence, is likewise experienced by everyone differently. To deny that is to suggest that God is not capable of creating each person as a unique “container” for his love and grace. There’s plenty of evidence in scripture that some people have truly extraordinary experiences of God: Moses, Elijah, the Apostles and St. Paul leap to mind. The people we call “the mystics” lived after Biblical times, but report similar extraordinary experiences. We can choose to make them “wrong” if we want, but I think a wiser course is to consider their wisdom and ponder how God’s grace may be continuing to flow to all people through their lives and witness. That, at any rate, is what motivates me in this blog. Because the gospel is so radical, Christian mysticism by its very nature is subversive of any kind of man-made elitism or hierarchy. But it still is founded on the individuality and uniqueness of each person, which necessitates that some people will have more extraordinary experiences of Divine presence than others.

  • Infinite Warrior

    As a religion, Christianity requires….

    I will never accept the Trinity or vicarious atonement or the resurrection

    Interesting to note, though, these concepts not only have their parallels in many cultures, but don’t mean what people think or expect it to mean to all Christians, either.

    “Trinity” is roughly equivalent to the “Dantian” of Eastern disciplines. (Father=Mind; Son=Heart; Holy Spirit=Vital Energy.) The Dantian is further mapped to energy centers in the body as in the Yogic tradition, whereas the Trinity is still primarily conceptual in Christian denominations that I’ve found.

    Resurrection or being ‘raised from the dead’ means to rise from a state of ignorance and/or suffering much as Jim has described it, though I’m not sure it entails all that much work. :) We’re not only already en-lightened, we’re already in heaven and heaven in us, but fail to realize it much of the time for our ignorance of the fact. (All gifts of the Spirit are free.)

    Vicarious atonement is a wee bit more problematic. While I don’t agree with everything Ms. Kingford has to say in this article on the subject, I do agree “they were not forgiven because Christ died; they were changed because he loved” and so are we.

    I’d have to echo Richard Rohr’s assessment that Protestant denominations are a little worse for taking such concepts literally, but that Orthodox denominations tend to set their interpretations in concrete doesn’t seem all that helpful either. I’m not sure how we expect the Spirit to move us as long as “Thou” is perpetually confined to the mental boxes we construct.

    According to its requirements, I don’t qualify as a Christian either, but take solace in the fact that Yeshua didn’t require anything of his disciples, asking only that they follow his guidance through the spiritual quagmires. Of those, I think Emerson said it best: “As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.” (The statement reads just as well when the “a” is dropped.)

    More contemplation of vocabulary needed!

    :) This reminded me of an off-hand comment made by the prolific author of another blog in a fit of frustration: “Doesn’t anyone speak English anymore?!” I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at the time but, of all the serious comments he made, that one has stuck with me like no other. A former English major, I nonetheless don’t think we do, and one of the finest examples is the word “ignorance” itself. People tend to consider this word synonymous with stupidity, but this blog’s author had a habit of hyphenating words to stress their original (i.e creative) meanings, and this one delightfully made its appearance frequently as “ignore-ance”, which is precisely what it means. It is not a derogatory term by any stretch of the imagination and means merely to be in a temporary state of being in which we are actively ignoring what is present to us.

    I’m reminded also of Carl’s posts on the subject of rest-less-ness. We tend to think of this as a state of agitation, but it is a state of agitation brought on by lack of rest.

    It grows ever more apparent to my mind, at least, that we over-stand words and concepts much better than we understand them. One has to wonder, for example, what it is about “at hand” in the biblical passage, “the kingdom of God (or Heaven) is at hand” that we don’t understand? It means the kingdom of heaven is here, now — i.e. right under our noses — and perpetually available to us. Why, then, do we tend to wait for some future time to see it? Because we have that ultra-linear, storybook sense of time in the West?

    “Time is a stubbornly persistent illusion.” — Albert Einstein

    Einstein, of course, was not referring to clock time, which we invented. Past is memory; future is a dream. Here and now is all we ever have…eternally.

    Divine Presence means the Divine is eternally available to everyone. We have only to be present to the Divine and there’s nothing really “secret” or “mystical” about this, imho.

    “More contemplation of vocabulary” is one of the best suggestions for enhancing the spiritual life I’ve heard lately. Thank you, Gannet Girl, for mentioning it.

  • Jeff

    Christian mysticism I believe is a remnant of the medieval monastic and ecclesiastical elitism where the ordinary Christian believer supposedly had less access to a real knowledge of God. That is not the model converting millions in third world countries – there the model is ordinary people believing in Jesus, knowing the Father and being filled with the Holy Spirit and knowing the Bible. No higher class of Christian mystics with a special knowledge, consecration and dedication inspiring the rest, there are people who are leaders and examples in believing in Jesus, knowing the Father, and being filled with the Spirit and following the Scriptures, but not a separate caste! Ordinary Christianity is sufficient. Christian mysticism is like what Paul dealt with in Galatians where people were thinking that additional things had to be done to be truly spiritual and that ordinary Christianity wasn’t enough. Our problem in the church is not a lack of contemplative spirituality but unbelief in the Son of God! Jesus as the life giver! Galatians 3:1-5 These are my final comments. I do believe you have a sincere faith in the Lord, to have the fullness some extras need to go!

  • Infinite Warrior


    As you mention “real knowledge”, I think you may be confusing mystical experience with the deficient form of gnosticism discussed earlier, in which gnosis becomes an end unto itself. In the comment thread of that post, Carl noted the “interesting question of how both creative and destructive energies can co-exist within the same community or tradition”. These Jean Gebser called efficient and deficient modes of consciousness, which I personally believe co-exist in every discipline in existence, which is why if I had to produce a label for my own philosophical inclinations (and I frequently have lately), it would be “eclectic”.

    I read your comments regarding your prayer life and am unsure if you realize that the more ecstatic states of being you describe might be construed as mystical, especially if the “ebb and flow, waxing and waning” feels like being immersed in an ocean of Love.

    Mysticism has less to do with knowledge, imho, than it does with depth of feeling and meaningful relationships. As RW Emerson put it, “It is not length of life, but depth of life.”

    Our problem in the church is not a lack of contemplative spirituality….

    In one sense, I agree with you on this point. In another, I disagree. The problem with “the church”, as I see it, is over-mentation: over-thinking, over-standing, over-in-form-ation, all of which could only result in uni-formity (as opposed to unanimity), spirituality-by-rote, and faith in a can, if left to its autonomic devices. Now that you mention it, though, it occurs to me that this may well be the result of losing touch with the true meaning of “contemplation” itself. It seems to be widely understood as synonymous with “mentation”, but contemplation and mentation are not the same thing.

    Contemplation, imo, is quiet-minded meditation wherein we exercise the intuitive perception we were born with — listening attentively, “seeing” with the mind’s eye, feeling with the heart of hearts and patiently awaiting revelation. You think this is opposed to something else. Would it surprise you to learn that I agree? It is opposed to something else. It is a counter-balance to our “ordinary” senses, those “lovely liars, with such a fantastic tale to tell that you believe it without question” in Seth’s words; the physical senses that lull us into the illusion that what we see, hear and feel with our physical eyes, ears and nerve endings is all there is.

    I find it unfortunate that “opposition” is nearly always thought of in terms of bi-polar extremes: “contradictory”, “mutually exclusive”, “antagonistic”, etc. All opposites are complementary … until we think them otherwise.