Where do I go?

A reader named Kathy writes:

I have had so many mystical experiences in my life that I have few to share with… I’ve searched in the Christian churches for places to feel understood, where I can worship my love of Christ, and fellowship… but always feel alone. I am a mother and a wife, and am looking for fellowship with others who have a mystical orientation with Christianity.. where do I go? Where shall I find that sense of community? Any thoughts would be most appreciated.

Alas, I wish I had an easy answer for you, but I don’t. Probably the best first step to take would be to find a wise and caring spiritual director — a person who can attend to you and your relationship with God, offering encouragement, advice, and the occasional kick-in-the-posterior, all in service of helping you to grow in your relationship with God. Such a person (spiritual directors are also known as spiritual guides, spiritual mentors, soul friends, or spiritual companions) can often be found through a local monastery or spirituality center affiliated with a church. You can also contact Spiritual Directors International for suggestions on finding a spiritual companion near you. (SDI is an interfaith organization, and their website reflects this; but if you want to find a specifically Christian spiritual companion, you can do so through their network).

Next would be to find a venue where you can foster your spiritual practice. Mysticism and contemplative spirituality, in order to mature, has to be anchored at a level deeper than mere experience. It needs to be about the slow and unglamorous work of transformation in Christ. This is where a daily practice of sacred reading, prayer, meditation and contemplation become essential. To find support in such a daily practice, your best bet is either a monastery where a lay associates community might be found (if you’re not Catholic, that’s generally not a problem, since many monastic lay associate groups are ecumenical in nature), or else a small group, usually associated with a church, devoted to meeting regularly to practice silent prayer in community. One resource for finding such a small group is Contemplative Outreach. Visit their website to see if they have a group near you; or check your local listings to see if there is a monastery nearby.

You asked specifically about a church, and here I am recommending finding a spiritual companion (an individual) and a small group. This is because, at least since the reformation and probably long before that, parish churches have not really been in the business of fostering contemplatives, and so most churches (Catholic or Protestant) really lack the resources to help those who may be called to a profound life of prayer. I do believe that involvement in your local parish is important, but primarily because we learn values such as humility, compassion, and care for our neighbors in such a setting! These values are critical to the contemplative life, but we may have to turn elsewhere for more direct support on our interior journey. Furthermore, one of the dangers of the contemplative life is getting “lost” in our inner experience, and parish life can help to keep us more grounded — being asked to help with a church cleaning day or the local soup kitchen is just the kind of healthy spiritual work that can keep contemplatives mindful that Christianity is an entirely down-to-earth kind of faith.

I hope these thoughts (and links) will prove helpful in your journey to find support and community. May God bless you richly!

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
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.

  • Elizabeth

    There is also the World Community of Christian Meditation, – http://www.wccm.org – founded by Dom John Main in the late 1970′s. . It has now spread through a hundred countries. Individuals, groups and centres share the vision of peace and unity arising from meditation. Groups meet in homes, parishes, offices, hospitals, prisons and colleges. A network of Christian Meditation Centres helps to serve this community and its teaching work. Dialogue with other faiths has arisen from this deepening of Christian spirituality in the lives of men and women in all walks of life.

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

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  • http://www.brookletbodyworks.com Kim

    Carl, Thank you for sharing this post. I am also a mom, a wife and a Christian with the same issues and concerns. I live in a small rural town and have had a hard time fitting in due to the contemplative/mystical aspect of my faith. I am part of a non-denominational church who is very active in our community, but contemplation doesn’t fit into their current model.

    I think your suggestions are excellent. I found Contemplative Outreach about 7 years ago. I attended a leadership workshop that they held in Atlanta and learned a lot. I have also attended a Centering Prayer retreat lead by Cynthia Bourgeault. After a few years of practicing on my own, and meeting with others where ever I could, I decided to start a group in my small town. We do not currently meet at my church, but God lead me to a priest at the local Episcopal church. The Episcopal church was very open to the idea of starting a Centering Prayer group and over the last two years God has brought about 10 people who attend regularly. We have developed a wonderful community of sharing, caring, and real-life down-to-earth practice and service. The really great part of our group is that the members come from all over our area — Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal and non-denomiational churches. We even have a woman who is 89 who comes from the local assisted living center! She has added so much experience to our fellowship. After seeing our group in action, my church has now warmed up to having a Centering Prayer group of our own. Planning meetings are beginning soon! I say all this to say that we are not alone. There are people out there from all walks of life who feel “disconnected” and with a little leg work and a lot of prayer we can create communities of practice and fellowship.

    Carl, your blog also provides me with a feeling of community and I am so grateful.

    Kathy, if you read this, please feel free to contact me via my weblink. You are not alone ;-)

    Blessings, Kim

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

      Kim, thanks for sharing your wonderful story! It’s very inspiring.

  • http://www.songsofpeace.net Br. Stefan

    If you are in the U.S. this summer you are invited to a Pilgrimage of Peace where every day we’ll enter a simple, beautiful sung prayer and times of silence.
    Details at: http://www.wellspringministry.org/Pilgrimageofpeace2010.htm

    Br. Stefan

  • http://www Kathy Barbini

    I so much appreciate all your suggestions and thoughts, all very helpful and I’ll be eager to explore each. In the meantime, what a blessing to find this site, I’ll enjoy continued correspondence and reading from the archives! Carl, I’ll be very eager to read your books. Gratefully, Kathy

  • http://imagineintobeing.wordpress.com TheIntentionalSage

    It might also be wise to take up some reading of Transpersonal Psychology. This is a discipline that spends a great deal of time ‘normalizing’ mystical experiences, because let’s face it, mystical experiences are normal. :-)

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  • Kathy Barbini

    Kim, thank you too..it’s heartwarming to hear from another mother, too..and starting a group is a wonderful idea–I did start a small group here where we do contemplative prayer yet I think I need a change (see below)–. I will connect with you as you suggested via weblink, too..and Elizabeth and Carl what great resource to know the wide world wide network of Christian Meditators and small groups through Contemplative Outreach.

    I did find a spiritual director through the network, I have worked with her for a year, and did form a small group with 3 other women, yet they each have issues with Christianity (the director was brought up in a very conservative Christian home and now is with the Episcopal church but seems to even have a fear of talking about Christ, and the other women are similar)..perhaps I am ready for a new group–I sometimes feel disconnected there because of not being able to share my love of Christ and mystical experiences).

    And Br. Stephan, Ahhh, Wellspring…a place to retreat to drink of the living waters with others..we live on the west coast, and yet it will be a place we will visit when we travel east!

  • Heather

    Carl gives you good advice above here. You might also want to check out Integral Life. It’s a website with some free content and some premium content for 14.95/month (it’s a deal if it’s right for you) that has videos and audios on dealing with mysticism in the framework of religions where your beliefs are outgrowing the container. It has a very solid philosophical foundation. And, there’s an annual retreat that you can read about on their website. Attending that retreat can introduce you to friends, integral coaches, and people to meet your changing needs. Just consider whether the frustration lies within the boundary of your immediate community or within your denomination. Integral or the Center for World Spirituality (free video content–just search for the names) can provide you with both. Just keep walking, sister!

    Much love,

  • http://www.blestatheist.com Elizabeth Mahlou

    I enjoy this site very well, but I don’t think I have left a comment before, at least, I don’t remember doing so. I have had some of the same concerns as Kathy although very likely my experiences began differently. I was an atheist for decades, then through a theophanic experience was converted and pulled into mysticism and especially contemplation. For me, centering prayer, contemplation, and meditation are very different things. Perhaps that is because I have been fortunate to fall into the hands of a very old priest with some understanding and accepting of these things as a spiritual director (although, unfortunately, his order recently transferred him to a location pretty far from me). He was able to help me with the first locution I received. Since then, I have spent much time concerned with authenticity of the locutions and visions I get; the greatest help to me have been the works of Fr. Thomas Dubay. A little over a year ago, I joined a group, Contemplative Prayer for Busy People, taught by a priest about 45 minutes from where I live. That priest is very knowledgeable and is very accepting of the mystical to the extent that he is the official assistant in our diocese for exorcism. Fr. Kevin defines contemplation narrowly, based on the experiences of the early Christian mystics, the desert fathers (and mothers).
    Like Kim, I co-lead a prayer group. Only one other person in the group has experience with locutions, but all are accepting of them so I can talk about them. One of the local Franciscan nuns joins us, and my co-leader is a spiritual director.
    Looking at these people I have in my life and reading the words of others here, I realize that God has blessed me with more support than I thought I had. Yes, I would like to know others who experience union through contemplation and are tasked through visions and locutions, but since I don’t, I will be grateful that there are good people in my life who accept that I do.
    Wishing everyone a happy Fourth!

  • Ron Barnett

    Kathy – I recently attended a retreat with people who had many years of experience in Christian contemplative spirituality. During a discussion period it was learned that many had a need to share their inner life with someone who could understand. Apparently this need is both common and persistent for many os us. All the best to you on your way.