An Idea for Interfaith Contemplative Theology

Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator), a 6th-centur...

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This came to me this morning as I was talking my morning walk. I was thinking about the challenge of talking about Christian spirituality to non-Christians. So much of the traditional language of spirituality — humility, repentance, obedience, holiness, self-denial, asceticism, and so forth — is distasteful to our postmodern sensibilities. Even Christians struggle with much of this language; how much more so would many non-Christians find it unappealing.

I don’t think we need to apologize for traditional language, even when we adopt a critical stance toward some of it (mortification, for example, is a concept that is far more dangerous than useful). But sometimes we may need to acknowledge our distance from the language, and/or be clear about how such language is best understood within the overall context of Divine love and grace. This is why I like to go back to the Greek metanoia when talking about repentance, or consider the relationship between humility and “earthiness.” I think to some extent, the distaste we feel toward the traditional language of asceticism may have more to do with how that language is misunderstood, especially in our day.

With all this in mind, this morning I was thinking about the traditional map of the mystical life: purification, illumination, and union, which we also know by the Greek words katharsis, theoria, and theosis. I was imagining myself in a context where much or most of an audience would be non-Christian (say, for example, at a new age bookstore). How could I talk about these three terms in a way that would be meaningful for those who do not share the jargon of my faith?

It occurs to me that purification, which is about the fostering of holiness, is also about growth in true compassion: for holiness, after all, is about love of God and love of neighbors as our selves. Non-Christians may not feel much identity with the idea of holiness, but compassion may well work as a point of understanding.

Likewise, illumination (theoria) implies receptivity to the light of God that comes through the Word — understood both as Christ (John 8:12) and also as sacred scripture (cf. Psalm 119:105). But this language of the light of God, Christ, and Word will mean nothing to those who do not accept the teachings of the Christian tradition. How then, can I explain the concept of illumination? It occurs to me that the effect of illumination is trasnformation — we receive the light of God and we are changed by it. So if we accept transformation as the key to illumination, I believe we have a word that can be easily understood by all.

A corollary word here, of course, would be enlightenment. I do think there is a relationship between eastern concepts of enlightenment and the Christian concept of illumination. But I am a little hesitant to use speak about enlightenment, especially since in the west it has a particular historical meaning, and I suspect that its eastern usage also carries a dimension of meaning that may not be easily translatable into the tradition of Christian wisdom. Still, this might be an interesting word to use in the service of open dialogue between faiths.

Finally, union or theosis is the hardest concept of all to translate. We may consider several possibilities: experience of the presence of God, communion with God, immersion into God. The challenge here is to honor the traditional Christian insistence that some sort of ontological distinction between creator and creature persists, now matter how deeply we may fall into the experience of union. This distinction is the “hairline fracture” in which the loving presence of the Holy Spirit is found. Complete cessation of the line separating the self from God would amout to the extinguishing of self-giving love. This, the Christian tradition, is not prepared to affirm. So how do we talk about union without having to engage in a wordy disclaimer like what I’ve just written? I’m going to suggest the word participation, because it is the only word I know of that speaks to both distinction (“part”) and union. It’s not perfect — it could lead to the idea that I am a necessary “part” of God and therefore God is not whole without me. But, then, no word or concept can capture the mystery of theosis, which is why it is a mystery. So, again in the service of fostering dialogue and conversation, I think participation is a good starting point.

So, purification —> illumination —> union could also be spoken of in terms of compassion —> transformation/enlightenment —> participation. Perhaps not the most eloquent or artful way to speak about this map of mystical development, but suitable I think as a way of beginning to speak of the Christian mysteries in language that is not immediately too foreign or off-putting.

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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.

  • Leslie Hershberger

    Hi Carl~I like the notion of purification as compassion because without a “yes” to Love and to compassion, the necessary step of purification can become an exercise in self-flagellation.

    I gave a talk on Underhill’s stages of mysticism and I hope you don’t mind if I share my thoughts on purification or “purgation:”

    “Then, comes the break and for most mystics, it is a rather abrupt and intense break. The seething consciousness from below demands to be heard and bubbles forth into a new state of consciousness. The subject is no longer the person she was before.

    This is the awakening or the conversion—the “un-selfing.” The scales fall from the eyes and deeper truths are revealed.

    There is no question of ignoring the new awareness. You cannot un-know what you know.

    As we awaken, we bask in what the mystics call “spiritual consolations.” The world is spirit and we see it everywhere and in everyone. We are deeply connected to the Whole, to God, to the Source of all Life. We rest in this awareness, but there is an inevitable next step on this quest to wholeness.

    Purgation or Dark Night of the Sense: The necessary correlation and completion of conversion

    We must step out of the cave, venture back into the world and incorporate this new awareness into our lives. We are now cognizant of how plugged into we are of our old way of being. We must face those awful moments of lucidity when our “sham life” is exposed. In theological terms, this is described as separation.

    St. Catherine refers to a “cell of self-knowledge.” I saw what could be and I have lived my whole life like this? What have I lost? Who have I hurt? What damage have I done? And, now I have seen this Greater Reality when I awakened and I keep doing it! Again and again and again. The mystics all, in one way or another, articulate the vehemence of this showing—they write of painful discomfort and conflict, intense pain when they see a sharp vision of the muddled life we have lived in the cloud of unawareness.

    The lover of the Absolute knows that this stage of Purgation is necessary stepping stone in the spiritual path. “Let me suffer or die,” says St. Teresa which certainly does not seem to make much sense. But she articulates a painful truth—dying to the old self means there are necessary losses.

    Those who insist this seems like some sort of morbid self abuse must understand that their stories call the seeker to a complete life of surrender—selfhood has no place. The spiritual nature is, as John of the Cross says, on fire for something nobler—this dark night of the sense, this call to deny the desires of the lower self, leads our spiritual nature to a place that is free—where the ego does not have such a stranglehold. We cannot cling to the vessel of the egoic self.

    The mystics describe two necessary tasks in this step of purification:

    The first is Detachment

    Die to self. Sell all of your possessions. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Be delivered from your burdens…and you know what they are.

    Whatever keeps me locked into this endless cycle of suffering, I must observe and let go.

    This requires a “holy indifference” to the accidents of life. The will of my small self must get out of the way. I don’t get to decide how each moment must play out.

    This is about faith…surrender…mystery.

    I have noticed in my work with people that the dark night is experienced so differently by different people. For some types, they may notice that their familiar heaviness and worry has lifted—and it feels so strange and new—it’s unfamiliar territory to feel pleasant. The ironic thing is that this pleasantness feels almost like loss—at least I knew that terrain of sadness and heaviness.

    For others, it feels like a free fall into the suffering and pain of the world. I can attest to waking up to profound suffering in a way I had never seen.

    However one experiences this dark night, it is similar in that we often don’t know it is happening when it is happening. God sort of darkens our awareness which is a good thing because this way, we can’t always use our intellectual mind to try to figure it all out. John of the Cross speaks of the compassionate God who turns out the lights so we are safe from charting our own course ourselves. We become vulnerable and the dark night becomes a guiding night as we are taken into a place where we would not have gone on our own. We are invited to surrender into an unknowing.

    In this unknowing, our images of God loses their significance. Worship or church or rituals may not seem as fulfilling. What brought us peace before feels stale and dry—even in our prayer life or our meditation practice.

    This brings us to the second necessary task of the purgative state articulated by the mystics is that of Mortification.

    The term mortify is rooted in the study of disease pathology: it means death or decay of part of the body. The death is the death of the old self.

    Mystics articulate two paths in the dark night: the active night and the passive night. The active night has to do with ethical practices. This is a stage called conscious conduct. New habits must be formed. New ways of thinking are required—new paths must be paved. Attention is always required.

    In this stage of conscious conduct, you integrate your awakening so that you can connect to the flow of Life that is far greater than your individual will.

    Yet, in conscious conduct, our small self still is navigating the ship and we find ourselves tripping up again and again. Which leads us to another important component of mortification-after trying and trying, I’m back here, in this place…again.

    So, what to do as I face the death of this old self who keeps reappearing?
    Surrender to it. Surrender to grace. God flows through our failed attempts and takes us where we would not go. We are free from the idols we have made of our relationships, feelings and behaviors. This is the spirituality of subtraction. We are left more empty than we began. Just let go. Freedom comes from surrender and relinquishment.

    Each path is different and yours calls you in its own way. If you shun people and the world, you are called into the heart of the community. If you are addicted to people’s approval, you may find yourself right in the middle of a crowd who mocks you. If you are a miser, you find yourself being called to freely give to those who ask. If you long for control, you are called into a situation in which you have no choice but to surrender. The action is not the key point here—what matters most is the reaction they stimulate in the self. What is keeping you from your own awakening and purgation? ”

    Carl, I wrote that piece about five years ago and thought of it when you described these stages. What strikes me is that when I wrote that piece I didn’t realize how important compassion is in this experience of purgation. When you name that the quality of compassion is the primary focus of this stage, I see it differently. It has me going back to the initial talk I gave to re-work it.

    Thanks so much for this reflection.

  • Mary

    Dear Carl,
    A friend once told me how she looks at situtations like looking at a crystal. All you have to do, is turn the crystal and you will see it in another light.
    I see ourselves as diamonds. Some of us sparkle, some of us are still just a lump of coal.
    Within the concept of the dark night, parts of us are under pressure to transform us into the diamond.
    Other parts of us may be in the purgation stage or using another word like mortification. We may need to participate in the chipping away at our diamond so we will be able to sparkle more brightly. Like actively banishing negitive thoughts and judgements.
    And again, the Enlightment stage. When we can actually see with our whole being the Goodness that surrounds us. This moment may be attributed to God’s way of carving out another prisim within us.
    Now, I will stop talking. The diamond being formed within me is being led more and more into silence and solitude.
    Thanks for reading.

  • Shodhin Geiman

    There have been a couple of conferences over the last few years joining Buddhist and Christian monastics together. One, I know, was held at Gethsemani in KY. From what I’ve heard, the participants had little difficulty understanding one another.

    As I’m reading your post, I’m wondering if the issue here is not one of crossing the lines of practice traditions but of crossing the line between a practice tradition and, for lack of a better term, “spiritual consumerism” (you mention the New Age folk). Their distaste for the traditional points of reference in Christian spirituality is often matched by their distaste for the traditional points of reference in Buddhist spirituality as well. They’re no more inclined to listen to talk of nekkahmma (renunciation) than to talk of katharsis, for instance. Established meditative/contemplative traditions, seems to me, will have crossed similar terrain, and while the names may differ somewhat, the general topologies will describe the same reality.

  • Carl McColman

    Shodhin Geiman, you’ve raised an excellent point. Thanks for your comment.

    And thanks to both Leslie and Mary, too. I’m so blessed to receive such wonderful and insightful commentary on this blog.

  • Sue Curwood

    Wonderful timing for me to read your article and related comments. I have been grappling with language myself these past days, trying to describe this very process. ie grappling for words which are ‘in other’ based, rather than ‘separate self’ referenced. Also having had (very fortunately) strong eastern influence and having been called back to fall in love with my childhood tradition of christianity and the languages offered in this tradition. I awoke from sleep this morning with the words ‘sophisticated spiritual naivity’, describing for me the language I have been using from ‘a head bent on being heart-based’ perspective. Language for me has turned inside out now as my heart surrenders to God’s unfathomable love more, with all the painful purification and grace-filled immersion taking place in mercy. You could say the language emerging is more ‘naive spiritual precision’. ie that language serves this process to the degree it calls from the mysterious nature of God’s merciful love, rather than clinical understanding. I ‘hear’ your immense capacity for both sources of language as I read your words, especially with the dilemma of communicating through the reference nuances of other spiritual perspectives. That is a purifying/purging process in and of itself!!!!!! …and thankyou.

  • Phil Soucheray

    You hit upon perhaps the key issue that keeps people from true engagement. Language is so idiosyncratic that it often leads to misunderstanding, when it’s sole purpose is supposed to be the reduction of just that thing. Words of this nature that come to mind include “perfection,” and “charity.”

    In the strict Christian understanding of perfection our tendency is to cast our understanding in the context of the scriptural notion of “be perfect as the Father is perfect.” That’s totally unobtainable if one acknowledges we are created beings. But cast it in the context offered by the likes of St. Francis de Sales and it becomes reachable. His encouragement is for us to strive perfectly to understand our human shortcomings and to turn outward (upward) for transformation.

    Charity is another one. The word in western Christian experience (especially in the pre-Vatican II context) tends to evoke notions of obligatory caring for others. In my experience, though, I find it better to view charity as that perfection of love that allows one to act or give in service out of a sense of caring desire – not obligation.

    As you point out, enlightenment carries it’s own baggage. Here it seems to be a clash between the notion of what the source of true enlightenment can be — science or philosophy. It’s still a good word, especially if one can use it as an offer or suggestion for being open to the possibility that true enlightenment depends on being open to wisdom from both science and philosophy.

    Now union. There’s a toughy. I have a relative who finds the notion of union or even communion between God and man as almost pretentious. He sees it as little more than a western notion, deriving from homo-centricism, that can lead us humans to think a little too much of ourselves, to the detriment of the rest of the creatures of the world. My response to that position is to try to be open to experience of life however it occurs in the world, but recognize that I can only share my higher thoughts (at least at this moment in time) with other humans — making it kind of exclusive by nature.

  • mike


    “the notion of what the source of true enlightenment can be — science or philosophy.”

    These two seem rather limited as to possibilities for the “source” of enlightenment.

    How about including The Light as a source? Paul on the Road to Damascus, Jesus on the mountaintop, the burning bush of Moses. Do you believe these reports are some kind of metaphor?

    By the way, true enlightment is dropping the baggage. If you’re still carrying around a lot of weight, it’s not enlightenment. :)

  • Philo

    You wrote:

    //But this language of the light of God, Christ, and Word will mean nothing to those who do not accept the teachings of the Christian tradition.//

    One could disagree by pointing out that your word “Word” stands for “Logos”, which has been discussed in terms of “Divine Order” since at least 500 years before the birth of Christ.

    I am authorized to point out that said Logos is the very same “order” that Hawking postulates predating the birth of our own Universe. Hawking, then, would do well to understand this very important theological concept before making statements about the necessity and pre-existence of God Almighty.


  • mike


    Einstein’s description of the Universe is E=mc2. In this Universe, nothing is lost and nothing is gained. All forms very clearly change.

    ” It’s not perfect — it could lead to the idea that I am a necessary “part” of God and therefore God is not whole without me.”

    With respect, from what century do you speak?

    In keeping with Einstein’s observation, God is entirely whole with or without “me” because I am not “apart” from God at all. Nothing in the universe is ever lost, or a part from another part, because nothing in God’s Universe is ever lost or gained.

    Is this not good news?

    It may not be traditional “Christianity” but it makes a whole lot of sense and brings a uch needed comfort to this poor soul.