Mysticism and Esotericism, continued

Some wonderful commentary to my post yesterday on Mysticism and Esotericism. Consider these words from Fr. Aidan, who is speculating on why esoteric movements (like the Rosicrucians) have flourished over the years:

As you suggested … there is a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has had both official distrust and fear from the Church against various mystics and mysticism in general … and the fear and distrust of the common masses or even one’s fellow parishioners against people, like myself, who have felt a life directed toward inner work of any kind, except maybe the modern science of Psychology and therapy.

Although, as you say, a “developmental map of Christian mystical consciousness — that takes us all the way to the nondual — has yet to be written,” there has been work by such notables as Ken Wilber which describe the changing states of Consciousness from the Mythological level of religious consciousness where the average practitioner remains to various advances in levels and stages of consciousness of the practicing mystic. Unfortunately, for the average Christian following the mystic path there has been little assistance until more recently to aide those of us living outside of monastic communities.

So, there has been distrust from both the institutional side of church, fellow parishioner, and fear from the “Elite” monastic mystics to make their secret knowledge more available in guiding the average person in contemplative prayer, which can drive people underground in their practice and sharing of such information for fear of being seen as weird, occultic or heretical. It can make them feel isolated from the common mass of believer who are not at that level of awareness or direction. If that is true today, it may have been even more true in ancient times. This is just a personal speculation or empathy for such people, as I have often felt during my journey.

Alas, his words are too true. One only has to make the briefest of visits to polished, and presumably well-funded, websites like Lighthouse Trails Research and Apprising Ministries to recognize that Christian hostility toward mysticism is alive and well. When I was a teenager someone told me my interest in mysticism was dangerous, because mysticism “begins in mist, ends in schism, and has not God, but I, at the center.”

I’m afraid that this tension between mysticism and institutional religion is pretty much built in to the nature of things. Mysticism celebrates and encourages the authority of personal experience. While orthodox Christian mysticism seeks to balance personal experience with the received authority of scripture and tradition, what is one to do when one’s experience challenges or ignores such external markers of authority? The church, like any other human organization, will defend itself against such challenges. So the individual is faced with the choice of either denying his or her own experience in order to fit in with the church, trying to find some sort of creative way to hold personal authority and ecclesial authority in creative tension, or to simply leave the church. In some settings, the third option may not be possible, and I assume that for most people with authentic spiritual experience, neither is the first.

So mystics have the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to integrate their experience with a faith community that (see above) is often suspicious of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Clearly, one response has been the esoteric route: engaging in secret work, beneath the ecclesial radar, so to speak. Such work may be more or less divergent from official church teaching, and so some of the most renowned of esoteric movements (the gnostics, the Rosicrucians, Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light) may often be viewed as heterodox or even heretical by mainstream Christians. But another strategy to hold personal experience in tandem with the authority of the church has been the monastic journey, or, for that matter, the charismatic experience: in other words, to enter into a highly structured environment where spiritual experience is valued, but historically has often been rather tightly controlled. Indeed, for most of Christian history, its greatest mystics have also been monks.

If we consider the names of the great Christian mystics, we find both those honored as saints (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Catherine of Siena) and those denounced as heretics (Origen, Evagrius, Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, Madame Guyon) on the list. This process is still at work in our own time: Thérèse of Lisieux and Faustina Kowalska have made the “saint” list, while Teilhard de Chardin and, I fear, even Thomas Merton seem destined to be marginalized by the institutional church as heretics or, at best, dangerous.

Ultimately, each of us must forge our own path. I think I gravitate more toward the monastic/orthodox end of the mystical swimming pool, and away from the esoteric/heterodox end, for a number of reasons. Having logged in a number of years in the neopagan camp, I’ve had my fill of heterodoxy. I believe that mysticism is ultimately not given for individual enlightenment, but for the nurturing of love, both God-human love and love amongst the human family. With this in mind, I feel more comfortable in the orthodox world, even though there tends to be greater suspicion toward altered or transformed states of consciousness within the institution. I’d rather work with a greater emphasis on love and justice, and less of a relationship on transformed consciousness, than the other way around. For that matter, trying to function within a community setting seems, to me, a better opportunity for “giving mysticism away,” by offering encouragement and companionship to others (within the church) who may be feeling called to a deeper silence, but are unsure of where to turn (thanks, in no small part, to the historical animosity between the church and her mystics).

Fr. Aidan rightly notes that ours is the age of the emerging reality of lay contemplatives. Contemplation has been liberated from the monasteries, thanks to the pioneering work of folks like Evelyn Underhill and the towering achievement of Thomas Merton, who although he was a monastic, had an epiphany in 1958 (ten years before he died) that revealed to him that all people, not just those in the cloister, were called to the mystical life. Others have followed his lead, including John Main, Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, etc. Meanwhile, laypersons are not only discovering the riches that have traditionally been hidden away in the monasteries, but are also encountering the profound mystical wisdom of other traditions, from the eastern religions to Sufism and Kabbalah. Indeed, when we consider the history of centering prayer (it began, essentially, as a Christianized alternative to transcendental meditation), we are reminded that the liberation of Christian contemplation from the monasteries has come about in no small part because of the increasing access that lay Christians enjoy to the wisdom of the world. If Christianity does not disseminate its own indigenous wisdom, then it will experience a “brain drain” as those who are drawn to contemplation and mysticism will increasingly abandon the church for other, more congenial, traditions (this, of course, is already happening, but it would be even more dramatic if it weren’t for the work of folks like Keating and Rohr).

I do think that even a fully embraced Christian mystical practice, drawing deeply on the wisdom of Eckhart, Ruusbroec, Palamas, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and the other “great” contemplatives, still has some catching up to do with the wisdom of all the other contemplative traditions. It is telling that, when Ken Wilber maps the stages of mystical consciousness as he does in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, he offers no examples of Christians at the nondual stage (although Meister Eckhart is his example of a causal mystic, and Teresa of Avila at the subtle stage). Perhaps this is because no true nondual Christian mystic has ever bothered to write about her or his experience. Or it may be that Christianity simply has not yet produced a contemplative at the level of, say, Ramana Maharshi (that I doubt, but it is a question). At any rate, one of the challenges for Christian contemplatives in our day is to maintain our practice, while immersing ourselves in the wisdom both of our own tradition but also the best that the wisdom of the entire planet has to offer us. And then we need to consider points of convergence, resonance, and harmony. I write this, feeling like I am a kindergartner telling my friends that there is such a thing called graduate school. I know I lack both the contemplative experience and the knowledge to truly map the path to Christian nonduality. But somebody needs to do this, and somebody will do it. And perhaps that person is reading these words, right now.

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
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Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Pentecost and Ecstasy
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.

  • Fr. Jay

    Powerfully and beautifully put.

  • Jason Miller

    At the high levels of Subtle, Causal, and Non-Dual it is difficult to put the experience into words. The problem with dropping mystics from the past into categories of attainment is that we are basing it on their words. Even if a Christian has exactly the same experience as say, a Dzochen practitioner, they are going to describe it quite differently because of : the path of approach they took to get there, what the culture that they write for will accept and find useful, and how good they are at writing.

    I would bet that plenty of the Christian Mystics have reached the non-dual state, it is just a matter of how that state gets described when the author is sitting at their desk in a far less glorified state of awareness.

  • Carl McColman

    Exactly, Jason, which is why I think deciding “Christianity has never produced a Ramana Maharshi” would be simply unfair. I suspect, for example, that Aquinas’ vision on December 6, 1273 probably was some sort of non-dual experience — after which he dismissed all of his writing as only so much straw.

  • Heather

    Wow, that is a powerful post, Carl. Nicely done. I would only take issue with the polarities you seem to be setting up here (and please correct me if I’m misinterpreting): “I believe that mysticism is ultimately not given for individual enlightenment, but for the nurturing of love, both God-human love and love amongst the human family…. I’d rather work with a greater emphasis on love and justice, and less of a relationship on transformed consciousness, than the other way around.” I’d say that it would be a gross generalization of mysticism outside of Christianity to reduce it to individual fulfillment only and to state-chasing at the expense of love and justice. While you are certainly picking up on a thread that is out there, I think that the deeper pattern is one of deep care arising from transformed consciousness (in whatever form–from universal love to the particular). A non-self-reflexive service can often be ego-directed and misguided as can a non-self-aware love. They can be reactive and self-motivated in ways that the practitioner is not aware–precisely because he or she has not explored the inner frontier in a nonjudgemental and compassionate way that allows for compassion to arise for others going through similar suffering. While the emphasis early on in consciousness transformation is working on the problems within the self, that is not the end of such practice nor the fruits. And, choosing to get off the wheel of samsara is not the goal for every practitioner on a nondual path, while it may be for some. These are some issues very central to my own path right now, a path based in Catholic mysticism and inspired by both the saints and heretics that you site above.

    By pointing to the opposite of selfless love and justice, you do bring our attention to one thread in the enlightenment teachings, represented in my opinion by writers like Steven Norquist (for a representative glimpse of this nihilistic school: However, that is only one side of the street, as Ken Wilber would say in “Hurts More, Bothers You Less,” and as he says, if compassion is not arising, you’re doing something wrong: (See also Ken’s “Bodhisattvas in Hell”: — “If you put off your enlightenment, how can you do anything with wisdom?” This is an experiential insight also.)

    Just to list a few teachings out there right now that emphasize the bodhisattva’s call: “waking down” (see, for instance, _Waking Down in Mutuality_ by Saniel Bonder and Linda Groves Bonder), “unique self” (what the Sufis call “the pearl beyond price” and what in the nondual Jewish tradition has been called “ani after ayin”), and “bodhicitta”–that sense of living with wide-open heart and tender awareness that awakens along the path. (Pema Chodron talks about bodhicitta in a very lucid way in her books if any are interested in knowing more.) And, in fact, if one develops nihilism as a result of Zen practice, it is considered a sickness: “[Hakuin] wrote that the great Zen sickness arises from ignorance, illusion, and false distinctions.” (

    Instead of using love and justice as a distinguishing characteristic, however, I find the thread that has run through your blog about infused versus active contemplation incredibly helpful in understanding contemplation and mysticism inside Christianity versus the path of mysticism and meditation outside Christianity. Not all Christian practitioners likely see their states as infused, but that seems to be a distinction that enables the radical insights that arise from that practice to circulate freely in an orthodox environment. And, there is truth to the idea of infused practices that seems to be an oversight in the Eastern teachings.

    And, Carl, I really want to express my gratitude to you for taking on these challenging and important topics. What you are doing is not easy, and that there is some controversy here suggests that you are stirring a hugely important but currently sleeping topic. I guess I just want to sign off by saying that I’m not trying to compete ideologically by offering topics from outside Christianity in my comments here in this blog. I visit your site, Carl, because you do provide such a breath of sustaining life in the Christian contemplative community and in Catholic mysticism specifically, a tradition that I am deeply indebted to and wish to continue to work with. And, I admire how you do so from within that tradition. Integral philosophy and the integral perspective–closer to the top of that map of structures of consciousness that Fr. Aidan alluded to–would acknowledge that Eastern and Western practices both offer truth. I respect your choice of tradition and modes of service within that tradition, and I want to make that clear. But, I did want to point out that, philosophically, the polarity that seemed to pop up above could potentially propagate misconceptions within the Christian practice community. I want to prevent others interested in nondual states from assuming that all enlightenment practice is focused on the individual or that it entails a loss of love and emphasis on justice necessarily. It is very often about knowing oneself as a first step and anchoring love and justice in the awakened state. But, thanks again, Carl, for providing the space to make this conversation possible.

  • Simon Whitney

    I do think that we need to be careful of the “all Christians should be like me” mentality. I just don’t think it is the case that all people are built for the contemplative life. I have to say that I go along with the Cloud author who was fairly categoric about the divisions – although he also was quite clear that an “active” could easily reach the heights of contemplation. Are we who the Lord has blessed in this way not trying to fit others into a mould they were not made for?

    When Wittgenstein came back from a spell in a hut in Norway he said “I dare not bend the knee to pray otherwise I would melt”. I think there are many who may feel the same. The contemplative life is so all encompassing that it can be difficult to function normally in society. I think some people intuit this and so give the contemplative life a wide berth. That is their choice – they will just have to get used to a contemplative life after death!

    Perhaps another thing that puts people off are the odd titles and names that arise. If you are looking for websites on the contemplative life you find things like, er… Anamchara, for example! What on earth does that mean to the man in the pew? It meant nothing to me until I discovered by accident that it had something to do with Celtic Spirituality.

    I also wonder why we immediately assume that the different accounts of mystical experience given by a Christian mystic and a Dzochen practioner are due to culture or the language game within which the two different people relate their experiences. Is it not possible that the reason for the difference in the relation of the experience is precisely because the Christian mystic does have a different experience from the practitioner of Dzochen?

    There also seems to me to be a reluctance on the part of those following a contemplative path to submit to some sort of analysis of what they are saying. It is a sort of “Touch my spirituality and I’ll smash your face in” type of approach. True contemplatives should have nothing to fear from this.

    I think what really bothers me is the reaction of things like Lighthouse Trails Research. They have linked “contemplative prayer” with “centering prayer” and in their mind both are to be rejected. While I agree that “centering prayer” should be rejected I don’t agree that “contemplative prayer” and “centering prayer” are at all the same thing. But the reaction of those who are not following a contemplative path is to throw the baby out with the (dirty) bath water.

  • Carl McColman

    Heather: thanks for your thoughtful insights. Just to clarify for you and anyone else who was reading, my concern about enlightenment “vs.” compassion was not intended as a slight of non-Christian traditions, but rather reflects my own experience in the esoteric community. I’ve chosen monastic Christianity not so much as an alternative to Buddhism or Vedanta or some other wisdom path, but rather as an alternative to Rosicrucianism or the Golden Dawn or Wicca. Certainly, the bodhisattva tradition alone is a clear indication that compassion and justice are not Christian trademarks! As Rohr says, when we talk about “action and contemplation,” the most important word in the phrase is “and” — so I hope that, wherever we are on the journey (seeking enlightenment, or seeking compassion), that we will be given the grace of seeking one, but finding both.

    Simon: if by “I just don’t think it is the case that all people are built for the contemplative life,” you are saying that not everyone is called to the cloister, then certainly I agree with you. And perhaps not everyone is called to a life of disciplined prayer and contemplation, as my wife and I are seeking to cultivate in our own non-cloistered home. But I do agree with Merton that there is such a thing as a “masked contemplative,” the person who embraces a contemplative way of living, even while living “in the world.” I have a hard time believing that there are people who wouldn’t benefit from such a prayerful reality becoming part of their lives. That, to me, would be like saying not everyone should drink fresh water.

  • Simon Whitney


    I did not say that people who are not called to live a contemplative life would not benefit from such a life. As the Cloud says, we will all be contemplatives in Heaven.

    I simply said that not all are called to it. And we should leave them alone to lead the life that God has called them to lead.

  • Heather

    Thanks for clarifying, Carl. I realized I went off on a bit of a soapbox speech without much to go on! Still, I hope that some of the links in my comment will be useful to others who are perhaps struggling with issues similar to those I’m working with. This was topically relevant for me!

  • Serena

    I admit I have never read the works of Ken Wilbur, and it’s not very nice to judge a book before reading it, but I have to admit I’d be rather suspicious of any philosophy that ranks or systemizes spiritual experience into “levels”. First of all, I think trying to sort the wonderful diversity of spiritual experiences into neat little boxes is impossible. But more than that, a hierarchy of levels implies a goal and a “right” and “wrong” order to do things in, that a person who does things in a different order can be said to be “regressing”, that above all the goal is progression up the ladder. And it opens the door for attitudes that one spiritual person is “better” than the other because she is more advanced or has had higher experiences, therefore her authority is more trustworthy. Whereas Mysticism (as I understand it) seems to emphasize personal authority over external authority (inasmuch as the external authority is other people rather than God), that every person has a unique and individual relationship with God.

    I’m not saying you or Ken Wilbur are advocating this sort of hierarchical thinking, but I wonder how a system of levels can be used without fostering such an attitude. Do you have any thoughts that could reassure me in this matter, Carl?

  • Carl McColman

    Serena, Wilber addresses the very question at length in his writings. He is a proponent of the great chain of being, although he distances himself from the concept of hierarchy because of how that word has become associated with systems of domination and control. Instead he prefers “holarchy,” a nested process of evolutionary development. He cautions against using language like “ladders” and “levels” for the reasons you point out — that it is too easily misconstrued as some sort of goal or ranking system. Nevertheless, he admits that when discussing distinctions in consciousness, such language is unavoidable. This is the paradox, isn’t it? That real distinctions in consciousness do exist, and yet it is a detour to reduce spirituality to some sort of ladder to climb. Here, as is so often the case in mysticism, our language simply fails us.

  • Father Aidan

    Hi Carl, it seems your discussion of esotericism and mysticism has prompted some lively discussion. I recently ordered and finally received your Big Book of Christian Mysticism; and have already read a few chapters into it. I’d like to bounce a few more questions at you regarding this discussion.

    On pg 17 you state, “…student of Christian mysticism lose their way when they get too caught up in quests for secret knowledge, or hidden teachings that are supposedly they key to higher realities that somehow have been lost (or suppressed) by Church Authorities. I am willing to go with the idea that many of the key principles of Christian Mysticism have been marginalized, ignored or even ignored…The Keys to Christian Mysticism have been hidden in plain sight.”

    I certainly agree with you that people, whether gnostics or even some modern charismatics, and anything in between, can get caught up in quests for secret or hidden knowledge. This may be one of the dangers of mysticism in general and a deficit of not having an experienced teacher or guide on the spiritual journey.

    However, there does seem to be a genuine element of secrecy and hiddeness within the earliest stratas of early Christianity. I don’t have time now to cite specific chapter and verse here but would like to offer a few examples. Some of these “secrets” may include- the obscurity (intentional or unintentional) of Jesus’ childhood, Christ telling things in parables to the crowds but explaining the meaning of such parables to the disciples (“Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables”; or “With many such
    parables spake He the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake He not unto them; and when they were alone He expounded all things to His disciples”[please note the emphasis on "when they were alone" or "them that are without."]); Jesus tells His apostles: “I have yet many things to say to you, but ye cannot bear them now;” “Give not that which is holy to the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine”; or such terms as “The Mystery,” or “The Mysteries,” used to designate the sacred circle of the Initiates or connected with Initiation: “The Kingdom,” “The Kingdom of God,” “The Kingdom of Heaven,” “The Narrow Path,” “The Strait Gate,” “The Perfect,” “The Saved,” “Life Eternal,” “Life,” “The Second Birth,” “A Little One,” “A Little Child” ["Then said one unto Him: Lord, are there few that be saved? And He said unto them: Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in and shall not be able."] The list may go on.

    St. Paul also makes similar comments, such as:

    “I came to you bearing the divine testimony, not alluring you with human wisdom but with the power of the Spirit. Truly ‘we speak wisdom among them that are perfect,’ but it is no human wisdom. ‘We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world’ began, and which none even of the princes of this world know. The things of that wisdom are beyond men’s thinking, ‘but God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit … the deep things of God,’ ‘which the Holy Ghost teacheth.’ These are spiritual things, to be discerned only by the spiritual man, in whom is the mind of Christ. ‘And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ…. Ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal.’ ‘As a wise master-builder I have laid the foundation,’ and ‘ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you.’ ‘Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the Mysteries of God.’”

    There are many examples fro Church history, such as St Clement of Alexandria or Origen. One quote from Clement in his Stromata, says, “”The Lord … allowed us to
    communicate of those divine Mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God. And if one say that it is written, ‘There is nothing secret which shall not be revealed, nor hidden which shall not be disclosed,’ let him also hear from us, that to him who hears secretly, even what is secret shall be manifested. This is what was predicted by this oracle. And to him who is able secretly to observe what is delivered to him, that which is veiled shall be disclosed as truth; and what is hidden to the many shall appear manifest to the few…. The Mysteries are delivered mystically, that what is spoken may be in the mouth of the speaker; rather not in his voice, but in his understanding…. The writing of these memoranda of mine, I well know, is weak when compared with that spirit, full of grace, which I was privileged to hear. But it will be an image to recall the archetype to him who was struck with the Thyrsus.”

    Anyway, I am not trying to make a case to justify gnosticism or secrecy but to question whether there was a genuine aspect of secrecy in the Gospel tradition- a common message of salvation in Christ for all; but also the deeper or more spiritual teachings of Christ for those who had matured in Christ from being babes feeding on the milk of the word to more mature adepts who were then given stronger meet.

    If this is so I can certainly see the potential for abuse and elitism; but can also understand from personal experience the problems with sharing even the contemplative/mystical aspect of the Gospel with people who are either not there in their own journey or not yet ready for it, things which may only confuse someone who has not had the foundations in Bible, theology and spiritual formation. Even in the Cloud I seem to recall that the contemplative practices were reserved for monastics who had spent years being educated in these foundations of faith and in practicing the active dimensions of a life of prayer.

    I was hoping you might elaborate more on the secretive tradition in early Christianity, the benefits and dangers of it, the marginaliation or suppression of such teachings being reserved for more experienced believers; and the dangers and benefits of making the mystical tradition more readily available to the masses today through such things as your book, Christian Meditation, Centering Prayer, etc.

    Thanks, respectfully,

    Fr Aidan Hix+