Quote for the Day

Once we empty ourselves of our certainties, we open ourselves to the mystery. We expose ourselves to the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.” We bare ourselves to the possibility that God is seeking us in places and people and things we thought were outside the pale of the God of our spiritual childhood. Then life changes color, changes tone, changes purpose. We begin to live more fully, not just in touch with earth, but with the eternal sound of the universe as well.

— Joan Chittister, Called to Question:
A Spiritual Memoir

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
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.

  • Simon Whitney


    I have to say that I think the good Sister is wrong. It is these very certainties that allow us to stand on solid rock and reach for the skies.

    Thomas Merton said the exact opposite of Sister Joan:

    The notion of dogma terrifies men who do not understand the Church. They cannot conceive that a religious doctrine may be clothed in a clear, definite and authoritative statement without at once becoming static, rigid and inert and losing all its vitality. In their frantic anxiety to escape from any such conception they take refuge in a system of beliefs that is vague and fluid, a system in which truths pass like mists and waver and vary like shadows. They make their own personal selection of ghosts, in this pale, indefinite twilight of the mind. They take good care never to bring these abstractions out into the full brightness of the sun for fear of a full view of their unsubstantiality.
    They favor the Catholic mystics with a sort of sympathetic regard, for they believe that these rare men somehow reached the summit of contemplation in defiance of Catholic dogma. Their deep union with God is supposed to have been an escape from the teaching authority of the Church, and an implicit protest against it.
    But the truth is that the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the Church’s teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by that authority. – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Enlightenment, Chapter 20

    A wonderful phrase: “pale, indefinite twilight of the mind”.

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

    I’m assuming you meant New Seeds of Contemplation. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it: if Merton were still alive today, would his thinking be closer to that of Joan Chittister’s or Mother Angelica’s? With all due respect, Simon, I rather suspect the former is more likely. What is at issue here is whether it is possible to affirm the dogma of the faith and yet also consider that mystery may take us to a place beyond mere certainty. I’m not sure that I have a strong position on that question. But I do believe it is a question worth asking.

  • Simon Whitney


    I am sure you are right – Merton’s thought did move quite a bit. (As I understand it – I am not well read on Merton. As you have pointed out!)

    However, I do wonder about this question. A dogma is simply a truth wrapped up in words. These words can often be inadequate. When trying to describe the Trinity the Catechism keeps using the word “mystery” (CCC 234 – 237). So, is the Trinity a dogma? It is in the sense that it is a truth – God reveals himself as a Trinity of persons. The Catechism says that it is the foremost in the heirarchy of truths – it is the foundation stone upon which all other truths rest.

    So, what does it mean to go beyond the mystery of the Trinity? There seems to be a sort of thinking which says “Dogmas of the Church = certainty. But we can go beyond these constricting things” How? What is there beyond the Trinity?

    And look at Sister Joan’s secondary thoughts. What does it mean to be “in touch with the earth”? And what is the “eternal sound of the universe”? What do they mean to you? You obviously thought them to be significant and meaningful otherwise you would not have put them on your blog.

    By way of explanation, my studies and interests lie in spirituality and philosophy. So I do like to be as clear as possible – perhaps demanding something which cannot be achieved. However, contemplation and mysticism is an area fraught with danger and there is so much stuff that is questionable, to say the least. To my mind, Sister Joan’s thoughts seem to border on panentheism – if they have not actually crossed that line.

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

    …contemplation and mysticism is an area fraught with danger and there is so much stuff that is questionable, to say the least.

    Simon, this anxiety about the dangers of contemplation is a recurring theme in your posts. Yes, contemplation carries with it a set of spiritual and psychological dangers. This is why I consistently instruct my readers and commentators that their practice needs to be grounded in the community of faith and under the guidance of a qualified spiritual director. But you keep bringing this up, over and over again. It seems to me that you might have a deeper, unmet need that somehow is finding expression in your repeated warnings and cautions about the practice. Do you go to rosary websites and talk about the dangers of the rosary there (and yes, there ARE dangers associated with the rosary, from obsessive compulsive neurosis to Mariolatry)? If you are just singling out contemplation, then I suspect there’s something deeper going on here.

    I’m wondering if you, yourself, simply have no call to contemplative spirituality, and perhaps you are confusing your lack of vocation in that area with a self-directed need to attack others who do have such a call (especially if that call might include an interfaith expression of their practice). Please don’t read this as a criticism of you! As mystics throughout the history of the church have pointed out (the author of The Cloud of Unknowing leaps to mind), not everyone is called to contemplation, or called to contemplation at this time. I don’t believe this is about “better” or “worse,” but rather simply points to the splendid diversity in the Body of Christ. Having said that: in my experience, some of the most intractable critics of contemplation are, ironically, those who have no call to it! And, lacking sustained experience not only in contemplation but in spiritual direction from an experienced contemplative, such persons feel the need to attack what, in essence, they simply do not understand.

    With this in mind, I confess that I am very curious about your daily practice of your faith. How much time, each day, do you devote to your intentional prayer? What is your balance between the daily office, formulaic prayers like the rosary or novenas, unscripted vocal prayer, mental prayer, and silent prayer? Are you under the regular guidance of a spiritual director? How often do you meet with him/her? Do you discuss your fears about contemplation with him or her? What does your director say about your fears?

    Why is it that you feel you must keep bringing up the “dangers” of contemplation here at my blog? Are you afraid of contemplation? Or, more to the point, are you scared of God? Or the devil? Do you disapprove of me and/or my readers, because my theology is liberal?

    I think your comments about panentheism say a lot more about you than about Chittister. I don’t see panentheism in her words at all. I believe it’s important to recognize that Christianity is an incarnational, earthy religion, a religion of embodiment and physicality, and I believe Chittister’s comments reflect the concern that she, and many others, have to try to speak for such an incarnational faith, in contrast to the often otherworldly/ dualistic forms of Christianity that frequently seem to be embedded in a particular complex of elitist or chauvinistic values.

    Also, the more I think about our exchange from this morning, the more I think that we need to be careful about the temptation to project other peoples’ ideas about dogma (such as yours, or Merton’s) onto the Chittister quote. You asked me why I like the Chittister quote: it’s because I think there is wisdom in learning to embrace mystery, which includes a recognition that the life we lead is “fraught with” (to use your language) uncertainty, ambiguity, cultural difference, and language that often contains submerged messages concerning the politics of privilege and control. Now, I honestly believe that such a recognition does not necessarily entail a rejection of Christian dogma. But it might lead to a way of thinking about the current power structures of the Catholic heirarchy that may not be to the heirarchy’s liking.

    I saw the “certainties” that Chittister dismisses not in terms of Christian dogma, but rather in terms of a certain psychological type that insists on non-negotiable absolutes — and then turns around and hides behind those absolutes as a way of refusing to engage in real relationships with real human beings who may have needs or concerns that the “absolutes” cannot neatly address or fix. Frankly, I think we should assume that Chittister is not talking about the authority of the church, unless she explicitly says she is (and unfortunately, I do not have the context for this passage handy, so I cannot offer it to you here).

  • Simon Whitney


    I will make this my last post (to coin a phrase!).

    I am not afraid of contemplation. And I do not see any danger in contemplation at all. What I am afraid of is false mysticism and false contemplation. It seems to eat away at a person’s faith. CP is just such false mysticism, in my opinion. There are symptoms shown by practitioners of CP that seem to run through your own responses as well. There is a determination to insist that they hold keys that others have no access to. They are unable to answer fairly basic questions. They come back with personal questions – which I have not asked of you or anyone else. It is as if a little yeast makes its way through the whole dough. And it is not very edifying. As Denys Turner pointed out in his excellent book “The Darkness of God” there is a distinct “anti-intellectualism” which is all pervading. All the true Christian mystics never hesitated to subject their views to the scrutiny of the Church or “learned men” as Teresa of Avila put it. This trend is almost totally absent among many practitioners of CP.

    Let me try and address some of your personal remarks about me. I am 53, during the course of my teens I looked at all sorts of religions and beliefs. I was most attracted to Zen and Taoism and practiced them to the extent that I was able at the time. Zen meditation left me feeling cold – although I do not dismiss it altogether. Eventually, I was reading a book on Paul trying to show that he was the (flawed) founder of Christianity in its modern form. But that led me to God and I gave myself to him with the words “There is no alternative”.

    I joined an evangelical church and loved every minute. I read the bible for 3 hours a day getting up at 5am to start. I cannot begin to tell you the wonderful experiences I had during that time. I am grateful to God that he put me in a Church where experiential Christianity was looked on as the norm. But as I read the bible I became more and more Catholic in my views. I would discover a truth and then discover that the Catholic Church had taught that truth for centuries before I had “discovered” it. Eventually all the dominoes fell – the penultimate being the real presence and the final domino being the Motherhood of Mary in its fullest sense. That is – she is the Mother of God and my mother and the mother of us all. (And by “Mother of God” I mean that this title confirmed that Jesus was God incarnate – it did not elevate Mary to divine status)

    So I became a Catholic – much to the amazement of my Evangelical friends who thought I was possessed! Since becoming a Catholic I have continued to have mystical experiences and they have grown deeper as the years have gone on. I have been a Catholic now for 20 years. Part of this was finding a book called “Dark Night of the Soul” in a second hand bookshop. This was while I was still in the Evangelical Church. The book explained to me what I was going through in a way that my friends in the Evangelical Church could not – they had no idea what I was talking about.

    So, I am now a Carmelite and am joining the Discalced Carmelites secular. In fact, having led the Chapter of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance for 6 years, I am now one of the facilitators for the new Discalced Group. I run the RCIA programme in my parish, I have a degree in Philosophy and an IQ of 158 as measured by Mensa. (Boasting? Yes but you have asked!)

    I say Morning and Evening Prayer, practice at least 30 minutes of mental prayer, read the bible – aiming for an hour each day, I read Philosophy – particularly that philosophy that connects to theology, I read the mystics – principally Carmelite writers but also the Philokalia and the more well known mystics (Eckhart, Ruusbroek, Dionysius the Areopagate, Richard of St Victor etc). I have to say that I find eremitic mysticism more to my taste than some of the monastic mysticism which can be long and tedious! I bought a copy of the Cloud while still at the evangelical church and have read it 2 or 3 times a year for the last 23 years. I say the Rosary very seldom and do not practice any of the rote forms of prayer (such as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy or whatever it is).

    Am I a contemplative? Yes, I believe I am. If you don’t believe that then that is fine – I am not looking to you for approval or disapproval.

    Please don’t array your own credentials – I am sure they are longer and more impressive than mine!

    With regard to Sister Joan – I think that, with due respect, you ought to have some idea of the context of the material you put up for consideration. I may well have quoted her out of context – but you should know that. As to her comments – they are comments that frequently occur in the thought patterns of those who espouse panentheism. If you hadn’t discerned that then fine – you weren’t perhaps thinking it through. Is Sister Joan a panentheist? – I don’t know because I had never heard of her before seeing the quotes you mentioned. But I do know that this type of comment and the ideas behind them are found in panentheism.

    You say that Christianity is “incarnational”. I agree – if by that you mean that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and if by that you mean that all human beings carry the “divine spark” by virtue of the fact that their souls are created by God directly. If by “incarnational” you mean that the world contains elements of the divine or that the divine is in all things then Christianity does not teach that and has repudiated such language and thoughts at various times. Christianity also teaches that God created the universe and so there is an ontological difference between the creator and his creation. (Please don’t bring up the Creationism vs Evolution debate – that is not what I am talking about here) This blurring of definitions is another aspect that I have found within the CP circle – it leads to a very poor understanding of the truths of the faith. In fact, it seems to lead to a very poor understanding of truth per se.

    I find this idea that we can go beyond the dogmas to be confused. A dogma is simply a truth wrapped up in words. Sometimes the words are clear, at other times the words are inadequate. As I have said, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the word “mystery” frequently when addressing the Trinity. (234 – 237). But, despite it being a “mystery” the Catechism refers to the Trinity as being the foundation of all other truths – it is the cornerstone of the faith. It is the way God has revealed himself to all of humankind. How do you “go beyond” this? How do you “go beyond” truth?

    But, as you say, it is your blog and you are entitled to dictate what does and what does not appear. You have that power and that authority – and you are perfectly entitled to exercise it. So I have rambled on enough – but as it is the last post I hope you will indulge me. Thank you for attending to some of the questions raised. If you think that I have a bee in my bonnet about Centering Prayer then you are right. I see it as a crying shame that so many good, well-intentioned people are getting involved in something so insipid when there is so much good wine available!

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

    Thank you for such a candid and detailed response, and please accept my apologies if you felt I was being impertinent.

    My one comment to you would be this: if, as you say, centering prayer is “insipid,” then I would suggest that you consider carefully if your efforts to invite its adherents and practitioners to taste the good wine might not, unintentionally I am sure, be backfiring. In other words, (and perhaps this is my own projection here, I must admit) in my experience so many of CP’s critics seem to be far more invested in attacking CP than in celebrating the better alternative. As the Quakers said, “‘Tis better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I just don’t see many of CP’s critics to be putting much energy into lighting candles. Rightly or wrongly, Simon, my perception of you has been that you are all about the attack.

    I will say this: even though that has been my sense of where you are coming from, I’ve also been impressed by the overall civility in your posts. Thank you for that. It’s always a challenge to discern when a commentator is actually being hostile, or is merely forcefully stating an opinion with which I strongly disagree.

    I suppose the crux of our disagreement is this: I believe that God can use even centering prayer and the CP community, with all its flaws and blind alleys, to God’s glory. For this reason, I would much rather be measured in my criticism of it. I think you and I are in broad agreement that there are far greater treasures than the writings of Frs. Keating and Pennington. But I know enough people who are engaged in the ongoing sacramental life of the church along with their practice of centering prayer that I simply cannot decide it is a completely bad thing. Rather the opposite: I think it is a quite good thing, that nevertheless presents some problems. But as your saint Teresa of Avila points out, even in the higher mansions we still run into the occasional reptiles.

    To be honest with you, I think my own credentials are impoverished alongside yours! So since you asked me not to parade them out, I will gladly comply! :-)

    Fair enough about it being my responsibility to know the context of a quotation. Having said that, if Sr. Joan is in fact parading her panentheism, once again I suspect this simply highlights a fundamental way that you and I seem to see the world differently: since I’m willing to quote Buddhists and Neopagans and Vedantists in my blog, I see no problem in quoting a Christian panentheist either.

    Please don’t go away, Simon. It’s good for me to engage (or be engaged by) those who are willing to challenge what I say. All I ask is that you be mindful of the distinction between criticism and attack — and I’ll strive to do the same.

  • Simon Whitney


    I will immediately break my own stricture! I think what you have said about putting forward true contemplation rather than attacking CP is absolutely right. That is another reason I won’t be spending time in debate – the best way to put forward true contemplation is to do it. It will be a longer and harder road but it will be worth the effort.

    God be with you. (and I am sure he is)

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

    Thanks. And I’ll be giving you an opportunity for the worthy longer/harder road soon, because this little exchange has given me cause to reflect on my relationship with CP (both pro and con), which I will post to this blog sometime soon. And I trust that, no matter what direction my own words take me, you’ll have something interesting to add to the conversation.

    And if, as you hint, you will be too busy actually praying to write about prayer (here or elsewhere), then all I humbly ask is that you remember me in your prayers.

    Thanks — and many blessings to you.