“Ordinary Mysticism”

A quote from The Big Book of Christian Mysticism:

Mysticism can best be understood in an egalitarian and inclusive way… you don’t have to have supernatural experiences in order to be a mystic; therefore, everyone is called, if not to a life of extraordinary phenomena, then at least to the “ordinary mysticism” of the contemplative life.

At the monastery this weekend, one of the monks asked me if I could explain this term “ordinary mysticism.” Since it is in quotation marks in the book, I should point out at first that “ordinary mysticism” is not an “ordinary” term (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). I used the term specifically to differentiate mysticism as I understand the term (and as I believe many other writers, including Karl Rahner, Evelyn Underhill, Kenneth Leech, and Thomas Merton, used the term) from an older, more elitist way of thinking about mysticism. If mysticism as I understand it is “ordinary” mysticism, than this other way of understanding it could be called “extraordinary” mysticism.

  • Ordinary Mysticism is what I understand Rahner to mean when he says “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” This is, in essence, an experiential spirituality which seeks union with God, in the heart of the mystery of God, which transcends a merely rational or intellectual relationship with God. This mysticism basically has three characteristics: it aims for, and hopes for, the felt experience and conscious awareness of the presence of God, and union with God. But of course, since such experience can only be the gift of God, the seeker must recognize that sometimes God is “known” only in darkness or unknowing — the felt experience of the seeming absence of God. This is where faith is essential, for only a lively and well-nurtured faith can sustain the seeker  through times when God seems absent. In addition to experience and faith, the third element of ordinary mysticism is practice: the disciplined engagement with historically recognized spiritual practices, including lectio divina, meditation, prayer, and contemplation, which do not cause the experience of God, but dispose the seeker to be open and receptive to receive whatever experience God may choose to bestow. One who engages in such practices can be called a “contemplative,” even though the highest, most mystical form of contemplation is, itself, purely a gift from God.
  • Extraordinary Mysticism, like ordinary mysticism, entails the conscious awareness of the presence of God, and/or sustaining faith in God’s presence even when only aware of God’s seeming absence, and a life ordered to spiritual practices aimed at fostering greater intimacy with God. However, it is extraordinary in the sense that the mystic experiences phenomena or events that cannot be explained by ordinary human science: such as miraculous healings, visions, locutions, levitation, the ability to survive on no food other than the Eucharist, the stigmata, and the body remaining incorrupt after death. Such phenomena, of course, is controversial, and many devout Christians may remain skeptical about such things. I would argue that even a person who is skeptical about allegedly supernatural phenomena may still be an “ordinary” mystic.

A person who believes that mysticism is only mysticism when it is accompanied by supernatural experience, will reject my idea that experiential, faithful, practical contemplative spirituality is “ordinary mysticism.” But I have no idea what such a person would call the kind of spirituality that I call “ordinary” mysticism. Perhaps just “Christian discipleship.” I can live with that kind of semantic quibbling. But I would point out that in a world where most people think Christian discipleship consists mainly in regular church participation, Bible study, and perhaps doing charitable work, what I call “ordinary mysticism” is in itself hardly ordinary. And that, I think, is where much of the problem in Christianity lies.

Is Mysticism Genetic?
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
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.

  • Phil Soucheray

    I hope this post elicits an uproar of AMENS. It offers a clear distinction between types of mystic experience while clearly articulating the depth of the union with God that Jesus lived and encourages us to seek. Thank you Carl.

  • http://nemo235.wordpress.com nemo235

    A true mystic can not experience extraordinary mysticism, with out first expiriencing ordinary Mysticism. I would suggest that most mystics should stick with ordinary mysticism, because there is much less suffering involved.

  • I-Don’t-Know What

    “But I have no idea what such a person would call the kind of spirituality that I call “ordinary” mysticism.”

    I think most spiritual writers would call it “acquired contemplation.”

    As for the terms “darkness” and “unknowing” I would think that the mystics would reserve these terms for “extraordinary mysticism” – for they have to do with Transformation in God…not his seeming absence. Ok, “darkness”, I’ll grant you…as distinguished by “the Dark Night of the Senses and the Dark Night of the Spirit in John of the Cross. But “unknowing” is not ignorance in the mystical sense of the word.

    Final thought. Faith should not only sustain us when God is seemingly absent…but also, like the Centurion, when God is present. “Lord, I am not worthy….” I am unaware of any greater act of faith in the Bible.

  • Leland

    Ordinary, extraordinary, acquired, infused, while these are all helpful in categorizing different experiences as they relate to mysticism, I see them as only scratching the surface of the infinite ways in which creation encounters and experiences the Creator. I find it especially inspiring to see glimmers of divinity shining through in individuals that are considered by much of creation to be way out of touch with their creator. In this sense, I would agree with your quote, in the “Big Book”, from William McNamara, “the mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.”
    By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the “Big Book of Christian Mysticism”. It was very thought provoking. I took care to mark those portions of the book that I embraced as well as those portions that sparked contention. Now I can enjoy revisiting those ideas to engage them further. Thanks.

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

      Thanks, Leland. And of course, in the spirit of friendly debate, I’m eager to learn about which points in the book “sparked contention”!

  • http://nitecaravan.blogspot.com/ Son of Wisdom

    This is a great post. I like the distinction explaining ordinary and extraordinary mysticism. I second what Nemo said…ordinary must preceed extraordinary in my opinion. :)

  • al jordan

    Tongue in cheek, this all reminds me of something my 17 year old son (at the time) said to me when I was going through one of those periods of self deprecation (before it ceased to matter): he said, “Dad you are an ordinary man, but you are an extraordinary ordinary man.” Never forgot that. Thank you, son.

  • I-Don’t-Know What

    “I second what Nemo said…ordinary must preceed extraordinary in my opinion.”


  • Linda O. Hardin-Atkins

    mysticism is what it is beyond every concept. An inner personal experience with God beyond words and thoughts


  • Bob

    After following this blog for a couple of years now. The thought that I keep returning to this sifting of contemplation compared to church attendance and bible study or the comparison of ordinary mysticism and church attendance. It seems like this stuff is of the interest of rich, bored, Episcopal types. Would a construction worker, a Hispanic immigrant or a marginalized person dabble with this stuff? It would seem like Hispanics would attend mass, partake of the Sacraments and give a little to charity. This may be my issue more than anything. I just feel a futility in sorting this all out and the joy of just leaving my growth in God’s hands and go along with living

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

    Well, I’m hardly rich, no longer an Episcopalian, and my life is anything but boring, so I don’t fit your stereotype very well. But I think you do have a point. It’s like Shakespeare or the opera — two forms of art originally popular with the masses, but today only enjoyed by the educated cultural elite. Since contemplative spirituality had its roots in lectio divina and scripture study, and since most Christians for most of history have been illiterate, contemplation has had a marginal role within the church from the very beginning, practiced mainly by those who have had the privilege of education (ie, the monastics). Today, when more Christians are literate than ever before, I think there’s greater potential than ever for contemplation’s popularity to increase. Seeing how many of the lay associates at the monastery where I work are middle class (or lower!) and/or have only a high school education, I think the potential is real. But as long as the churches remain afraid of contemplation (for historical reasons, largely tied in with the reformation), many who might otherwise embrace it are unfortunately not even being told about it.

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    Ongoing mystical consciousness is more important than transient encounters. In my e-book I said of true mystics: After absorption in oneness, they view existence from a broader perspective. The universal essence, which had engulfed them, is later felt as background to everything they experience. Living has greater purpose, even if they cannot explain it in words. Their feeling, thinking and actions become for the soul, the whole and all, not for “I, me” and “my.” Their sense of being reaches beyond limited personal concerns.