Mysticism and Missing the Point

A reader named William Law (I wonder if he’s related to the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life?) has not been shy about attacking the basic premise of this blog. Here are a few quotes from recent comments of his (all made to one recent post):

The discussion of mysticism and writing about mysticism as an “object” is specious and misses the point.

How words just multiply like rabbits. There comes a point where explaining is too much like a hamster on his wheel. There is real power in silence – that is the ultimate solitude in the dark light of God.

We spend all too much time talking about “mysticism” and “being mystics” in this generation as if it is a prize to capture.

I think the discussion of “Mysticism” probably should have stopped as a category with Evelyn Underhill since it seems that talking about it has taken on a larger importance than simply living.

Getting caught up in the importance of being published as an expert about “it,” instead of simply applying ourselves to the love and service of God is as far from “mysticism” as one can get. I suspect all this talk about mysticism and categories of mysticism (whether Christian, Buddhist, ermetical, conventual, visionary or not) is an insidious form of spiritual materialism that leds us away from the purity of heart God desires for us to discover in Him. In fact, the more one talks about mysticism, the more likely one is to never be a mystic, whatever that is.

Well, there you go, folks. I can now safely rest in the comfort of knowing that I am in all likelihood not a mystic, simply for the fact that I choose to write about mysticism. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted. I guess William McNamara must be wrong (he said “A mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic”), since only those who mostly or entirely refrain from talking about mysticism are likely to be in the club.

Okay, I’m being a bit snarky there, and we all know that is one of my flaws. But in defense of the author of the above comments, I do think he’s on to something. As one of my first meditation teachers used to say, “Reading a book on prayer is one of our favorite ways to avoid praying.” And if reading about prayer is such a distraction, heaven only knows how much writing can take us off course.

But the mystical life is not some sort of club that only the worthy get to join. If it were, only Christ and Mary would be in. The scandalous truth of the gospel is that prostitutes, tax collectors, pornographers, socialists, libertarians, lawyers, corporate headhunters, environmentalists, plastic manufacturers, community organizers, Tea Party activists, and even — gasp — writers about mysticism are all invited to the banquet. Every last one of us. And no fair saying that we are all invited only if, and to the extent that, we repent of whatever it is that makes us unworthy. Because that’s just another subtle way of trying to create insiders and outsiders, of us human beings trying to tell God what God’s boundaries should be. And guess what? We can “repent” all we want, but then — oops! — we all screw up, again and again and again. And those of us who think we’ve got it all figured out usually end up looking, sounding, and smelling like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.

So yes, William Law is right: writing about mysticism really is an adventure in missing the point. But meanwhile, here I am, and guess what? I like to write about mysticism. So I keep making the mistake. Some people will decide this means I’m not a member of the club that has no membership requirements anyway; well, so be it (others figured I was out of the club as soon as they saw how snarky I could be!). Meanwhile, I take some small solace in the fact that as much as it is a mistake to write about mysticism, paradoxically it may well be just as much of a mistake for me not to write about it — for if I made any effort to avoid doing what I love (i.e., writing about mysticism) in order to live up to some other person’s expectation about what is the right or wrong way to live my faith (because, at the end of the day, that’s all that writing about mysticism is, at least for me: it’s my way of expressing my faith), then I have become even more enmeshed in the tar-baby of self-absorption than I was to begin with.

This is not to say that the day may not come when I stop writing about mysticism. Or stop writing about my faith in general. Or the day may come when I stop writing about anything at all, simply because I become more devoted to the Daily Office and contemplation (remember Thomas Aquinas, who eventually realized that all his brilliant writing was nothing more than “straw”). I remain haunted by my monastic friend who insists I need to be spending two hours a day in silence. I’ve had two advisors whom I trust recently suggest to me that I need to make sure I am not “typecast” as a writer about mysticism. Meanwhile, I’m working on a talk I’ll give on Evelyn Underhill in February, and one of the topics I’ll be exploring is how she, one of the foremost authorities on mysticism in her generation, wrote less and less about mysticism as she became more and more immersed in the rich spiritual life of the Anglican Church. No matter how we approach it, writing about mysticism is, on a fundamental level, as much of a distraction as it is an invitation. It’s trying to eff the ineffable. It’s words echoing in the silence, silence that would be better served without the words. Probably the only thing as bad as writing about mysticism is reading about it. In fact, you should stop reading this blog right now and go pray.

And to all my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
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.

  • peregrin

    Thanks for this, Carl. I am reminded of what the wonderful Karen Armstrong has said on more than one occasion. She realised she was not very adapt at prayer and meditation, no matter how hard she tried, and this depressed her. Eventually, through writing she realised her spiritual practice her way of connecting with the Mystery was her study and writing. That when she read great works and inspired texts, studying them, taking notes etc, sometimes time would stop and she would enter the eternal. I am sure for some people writing takes them away from the mystery, as can , priestcraft and even meditation. For some of us, writing can take us towards the mystery. I am not sure who can ‘judge’ this besides God and the person concerned :) Have fun…

  • lightbearer

    happy thanksgiving to non americans too…………i am irish
    on the post, i agree with william all the way
    and i agree with carl all the way
    and i agree with myself all the way
    in fact the goal of a mystic is to stand in god and view all…..”all is good, all is very good”
    i never make a point of argument on these posts because i feel that all comments are the utterance of the holy spirit within us and so how can there be any disagreement, it really must be just a side of the spirit we had not been aware of
    so thank you lord for all the posts and all the comments
    let the posts and comments enlighten our lives that we may be filled with your holy spirit and become one
    yeah william and carl i am a mystic pretty damn cool dude too

  • srwhoknows

    Ah the irony
    According to Law’s comment: “We spend all too much time talking about ‘mysticism’ and ‘being mystics’ in this generation as if it is a prize to capture.” What strikes me the most in his comment is not so much the fact that some people talk on and on about mysticism, but that (according to Law) this generation treats mysticism as a “prize to capture.”
    Well, ok – I get that living-24/7-in-the-atmosphere-of-God is not a commodity that can be bought, sold, won in a gamble, or even earned. Point taken.
    But then again, according to Paul: “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12-14).

  • Bob Patrick

    You know, I can go both ways on this. I find writing to be a very helpful way to find my expression and understanding of something I have experienced. Very often, I have an intuitional or mystical experience that I know deeply but about which I find it very difficult to put words, to describe, even to understand. The attempt to write about it, or to have a conversation about the experience is almost always helpful to me. Hence, I keep a journal near my place of meditation and working.

    On the other hand, writing about something that does not spring from experience can become rather vapid, and anyone can do that. I have a hundred times.

    So, for me, the question is–where is the experience? Is the writing coming up and out of a deeply personal experience? Does it become a part of a conversation between those having these experiences? Does it help us understand ourselves?

  • Brian Mundt

    In my tradition (Lutheran), we talk about primary and secondary discourse. (Cf. Gerhard O. Forde’s “Theology is for Proclamation.”)
    In primary discourse, you do the task. E.g., you say, “I love you.” It is essential that preaching do to the hearer what the Biblical text authorizes.
    Secondary discourse is talk about the text, it is not the doing of the deed. Secondary discourse (e.g., theology) is what we do during the week, so that we can proclaim (i.e., primary discourse) on Sundays.
    I find it helpful to be clear which order discourse we’re engaging in. Yes, second order always falls short, but remains vital.

  • Heidi

    I wonder what motivates someone to critique objectification by verbiage with very dismissive objectifying verbiage?

    I’ve not seen a lot on this blog to suggest that you confuse pointing to the moon with the possession of it.

    In any case, there is value in the attept to “eff the ineffable.” That’s where we create some kinds of paths, so that when they drop away it’s a little more meaningful than a dog glancing up from his food. It’s poetry, it’s meditation, it’s the communion/communication attempt that always fails – ultimately – but can succeed in ways other than the description of some essence.

    After all, so many mystics were also amazing writers.

    On the critic – I can respect his point of view, but if that’s the case – why comment?

  • Ali

    “And if reading about prayer is such a distraction, heaven only knows how much writing can take us off course. [...] It’s words echoing in the silence, silence that would be better served without the words.”

    Here’s me with my not-really-a-Christian-anymore perspective…. so bear with me. :)

    Why exactly should writing about mysticism put us off course? I have always approached writing as a form of prayer, indeed, as a form of meditation and worship. You might say that it’s the oratio in my lectio divina of nature and the world – and boy does it dissolve into contemplatio often enough. Every sentence is an exercise in returning to stillness and silence, returning to the place of receptivity and arising, listening for the articulation, listening for the upwelling of Spirit into awareness and form… and then seeking to serve that presence and movement as faithfully and honorably and lovingly as you can, knowing you cannot do it justice.

    Yet the effort, the action is worth something, too. The work of articulation – whether it is through writing or prayer or other acts of art or creativity – brings us closer to stillness and silence even in the very process of shaping and refining the way we act. By running up against the boundaries and limitations of our medium (and our own forms as incarnate beings in a messy-crazy-beautiful world), we learn at once not only the sacredness of boundaries and the holiness of form, but also the sublimity of liminality and the astounding reality of just how porous, even illusory, those boundaries can be. This is why Catholicism, if I’m remembering correctly, values work as well as grace. Work is the manifestation of grace, and grace enables and supports our work. They are mutually necessary, not mutually exclusive.

    This comment went on for a while, and may end up as a post over on my own blog, but let me just wrap things up here by saying: You silly Catholics! I don’t get how you can worship a creator God, and then turn around and disparage acts of creativity and creation – as though they are mere distractions from the bliss of silent nothingness, instead of the most holy work we can be doing with the amazing gift of our lives.

  • tana

    You know, there are phases, for some of us. I happen to be in the learning phase. I’m a little fearful, which I’m working through with my spiritual director and also by just doing it in spite of the fear. But a very important aspect of the learning phase for me is talking to people who have been here before me, who are more knowledgeable than I am about meditation and centering prayer and going into the silence. I’m reading, yes, but I also want to talk about what I’m reading with other people. I don’t think that’s wrong. I don’t think that automatically discounts me as not a meditative, a contemplative or a mystic. I just think it means I have a type of personality that needs to engage in dialogue with other people about subjects I’m passionate about.

    Yesterday when I read the rather dismissive comment (and again, the Internet fails us because I couldn’t hear the tone of voice or see the facial expression), I was put off. But there was also a part of me that totally agreed with the point. In trying to work through my fear I do have to just shut up and go there – just do it. No amount of talking or reading or seminar attending is going to conquer the fear. And I do think there is going to come along a new phase wherein silence will reign. And that will be a whole other learning that I can’t even imagine.

  • Carl McColman

    To Ali: remember, I said “writing can take us off course.” I’m not suggesting that it necessarily shall or always does. But I do think the risk is great. And I say this as someone who, as the monks tease me, “wrote the book on Christian mysticism.” :-)

    The issue here is a profound paradox: as I say in the post, it is a mistake to write about mysticism, and it’s a mistake not to. Don’t make the mistake (!) of taking these mistakes too seriously. The discerning reader will notice that one of the tags I put on this morning’s post was “humor.” I think we are wise to take all this stuff lightly.

    Mysticism is a metaphor for falling in/being in love with the mystery that Christians call God. Writing (or reading) about mysticism is like writing or reading about love. I love love stories (yes, I cry at chick flicks) and I hope there will always be more good love stories to enjoy. But I pity the poor person whose life is so wrapped up in romance novels that s/he never manages to connect with another living being. This, I think, is similar to what Will Law was warning against.

  • Al Jordan


    I think you have generous insight into your writing, the why, the what and the so what. Also think you have a goodly measure of humility about what you undertake in your writing and this blog. You write because that’s what comes forth from your well of creativity and others are variously blessed, enlightened, made curious, and irritated by it. But more power to you (I should say more Grace to you) for making the effort. Both you and William leave me with something to think about. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your Family and to all your readers who share this Holiday.

  • Ryan Pendell

    I have yet to find a blog on spirituality that garners as much criticism as yours–and I’m sure it isn’t deserving of it.

    The funny thing is that the moment we speak to judge someone else we are condemned by the very words we say–”Why don’t you just be silent?” “Why are you talking about mysticism so much? Mysticism ought to be….” (“If we had lived in the days of our forefathers we would not have killed the prophets…”)

    What’s one of the Desert Fathers, say, something like, “If you want to be a monk ask, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your life and judge no one.”

  • Ryan Pendell

    I forgot to add, it reminds me of the Gospel reading on Sunday: “If you really are x, why don’t you y!”

  • Steven Waldman

    I’m reminded of the question posed to a saintly man who lived in Jerusalem till 1969, Rabbi Aryeh Levine. He was asked by an admirer if he was one of the “36 hidden saints” that according to a quaint old tradition must live in each generation to keep the world going. It’s like asking someone if they are a mystic – no good way to get out of that question. His wise answer was “Sometimes.” With that he opened up a new interpretation of the tradition. Instead of believing that there are 36 holy individuals and the world is dependant on them, he taught that there are “36 saintly behaviours” that must be performed at each moment in order to sustain the world, and every person, at any moment, can choose if his next action is a world-sustaining one, or not.
    Is there such a thing as an “enlightened” person, or are there people who are sometimes enlightened? Is the mystic a 24/7 mystic, or a 24/7 person who has mystical experiences?
    Am I a mystic? I think that sometimes I am. Too infrequently. And sometimes I look at something I have written, or a painting I have made, and I know that I’ve expressed something that just couldn’t be reached in a rational minded way. And even if it is only partially true, partially enlightened, it was my moment of “sometimes.”
    Carl, I like your stuff. And look around at the world a bit – even God is snarky at times – and a lot less apologetic than you!

  • Gary Snead

    step…step…quick back step…/step…step…quick back step…/step into a spin.step..quick back step, etc.
    Saying “swing dance” makes it easier for some to comprehend; imbedding a video of dancers would help many understand; for some, the words suffice, for some the words are as far as they can go, for want of feet or legs or nerve-muscle connection, or a partner, or a place to dance, or the music, or someone there to physically teach them. The words yet are a start, stilted, incomplete expressions of the truth, but real, accessible, discussable (is that a word?). So, let the words be.
    Carl, I have been silent for a time. Silent in not expressing myself here. Silent at work in not speaking my mind, silent at home in not speaking my love. Silent sometimes in not using words, sometimes in not doing, but sometimes in prayer, in living love in action, in humble service, in perhaps mystical communion with God within and in spite of/regardless of my life.
    I am thankful for the blessings I see in all the posts, for the awakening spirit I feel today, for the death of what I am called to put away, give away, discard today.

  • Jenny

    Eff the ineffable! Ha! That’s one of my favorite phrases from Doug Adams.

  • http://None Emmanuel Karavousanos

    In the book titled “The Gift of Mystical Insight,” I explain, probably for the first time, that the mystical state is simply what we know as, peace of mind and/or, freedom of thought. Naturally, as has been said, language may cause some trouble, but the truth is that if we ponder this a bit, we realize that this becomes true. The mystical experience (which is the onset of the mystical state) cannot be attained through the intellect. It can only arrive as an insight or what we call, a realization. It is precisely the same as an idea that suddenly arrives in the mind. Now one may ask, “Why does a mystical experience oc cur?” If we can answer to this question, we will have good reason and a very strong desire to reach for it. The reason mysticism has never been explained is because we ignore the very things each and every one of us SHOULD look toward, but ignore. In the simplest terms, a mystical experience occurs when we analyze something we already ARE familiar with or ALREADY know. How can this be? It happens when we are quite young. We learn certain things which become known on the surface — superficially. Another way to say this is that we do not learn certain key things intuitively. We know, for example, that we have a consciousness and that we are aware of a consciousness. Yet, we do not know our higher consciousness. We do not know the mystical state. We do not know ultimate reality. These three state are one and the same. They are what Jesus called, the kingdom of heaven. They are what Hindus call, nirvana. A number of prominent names have discussed analysis of familiar, obvious and known things, and things we take for granted. Hegel, for example said, “Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown.”
    Whitehead gave us these words: “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” And I understand it was Shaw who said, “No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.” I’ll give only one more of several others: it was Koestler who said, “The more original a discovery, the more obvious is seems afterwards.” The mystical state is nothing more than peace of mind and/or freedom of thought. One can attain it through the analysis of ideas already known.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Emmanuel Karavousanos

  • Al Jordan

    I appreciate all the comments and shared wisdom above. I do think, however, that words, written or otherwise, are a very necessary thing even in our spirituality. Words are simple symbols for understanding the reality of things, the proverbial fingers pointing at the moon. As long as we understand this and do not seek refuge in words and concepts, but are always seeking the reality behind the words, symbols, rituals, concepts, we are pursuing a mystical path. Words are the necessary means of negotiating the dualities of existence, but pointing fingers nevertheless.

  • Shodhin

    In Case 28 of the Mumonkan, Tokusan, the renowned scholar of the Diamond Sutra, came to a realization under Ryutan. He then proceeded to make a bonfire of his notes and commentaries, burning them all in front of the main hall.

    Depth of (mystical) insight puts to shame the running commentary. Not that we won’t occasionally speak or write; we will, but with insight it will be live words from the depth of our experience vs. running commentary on the experiences of others.

  • mike

    It might be said that “the path of a mystic” is acting in accordance with what is understood as necessary. Jesus, alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, does this.

  • Shane`

    well, you just lost one reader due to your inability to accept criticism and approach this with a tiny bit of humility.

  • zhaz

    The commentator William is as you say – onto something. Although I also sense a negativity in his comments that may have as much to do with his own discontents as with the blogger’s alleged ‘wordiness’.

    To broaden the discussion a little… being a practitioner of the Gurdjieff Fourth Way system, I tend to be suspicious of subjective states and attendant claims that get passed off as mysticism. There are many ways to “juice up” our inner life… drugs, magic, sex, fasting, devotion being just a few of the more obvious. Inner states that conjure everything from nirvana to images of Mary tap into an area of consciousness that is kind of like a personal Wonderland available to anyone who has the will and methods to access it.

    The extent to which these experiences “transform” or lead the participant beyond the ego and the complexes inherited from childhood is another question. In some respect it can be seen as spiritual feather-bedding… a way of making our mechanical sleep more pleasant, comfortable.

    There are numerous examples of people who experienced exalted states whose lives suggest anything but enlightenment. A number of Roman Catholic saints famed for so-called miracles and higher states were less then integrated when it came to their dealings with fellow humans. In other traditions you have people who undoubtedly achieved high levels of being and consciousness whose lives similarly suggest a lack of integration – Rajneesh was an example of this odd disparity.

    Self observation and inner “work” in the context of the Gurdjieff approach is rather different in that it is less concerned with “exalted states” and “faith” than vigilance and an unmediated understanding of one’s lack of integration. By seeing over time how the “machine” is malfunctioning, the knowledge in a strange way tends toward greater integration and a strengthening of will… the ability “to do”. The challenge it seems to me is to wake up out of the quasi-hypnotic condition we characterize as wakefulness and I’m not sure that mysticism isn’t a diversion – a sort of higher tier super sleep.

    The esoteric ante-rooms of mystics and other mega-dreamers seem like a Ritz Carlton in many respects compared the usual state in which people pass their lives, but the levels of engagement and the rewards of the Gurdjieff work has a value and application, in my opinion, that establishes an altogether different kind of foundation.

  • Daniel John

    Perhaps the point is that for all the writing on mysticism, the fruit of the mystical life is lacking, and a tree is known by its fruit. The response to Mr. Law begins with a sarcastic self-defense. Then there is a justification based on self-gratification (“I write because I like it”) while at the same time claiming that this exercise is necessary to avoid being “even more enmeshed in the tar-baby of self-absorbtion…” Well, its not working.

  • Mary

    Wow. Lots of stuff to ponder here. My ‘vision’ of all the comments are like watching highly educated people sitting around a large oval table discussing some kind of proof and truth of mysticism.
    I find mysticism in the presence of the moment. Just being ‘present’ in any given moment is quite astounding. Our minds tend to wonder off to explore. But to zerro in on the present moment takes practice and skill. Maybe it touches an outer edge of the kingdom.