The Tyranny of Labels

Several folks have pointed out to me that my response to critical comments left on this blog lately has, to put it bluntly, lacked humility. I’ve allowed myself to get into a place of defensiveness, and that has colored both my blogging and my commenting. To such an observation, I fear I can only say nolo contendere. At least one person has declared that he will no longer be reading this blog. I’m sorry he feels he needs to go, but I understand why he’s been disappointed here. I’m  sorry that my pride and need to justify myself has compromised my ability to write clearly and beautifully about contemplative spirituality and life in Christ. All I can do is apologize, thank everyone who has pointed out to me my failings, and resolve to grow.

This whole sorry matter began when a reader posted a comment to my page on Walter Hilton, contesting whether Hilton deserves to be called a mystic or not. If I had been smart/humble (!), I would have replied by graciously thanking him for his opinion and noting that I agree with William McNamara, who says “The mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic” (Earthy Mysticism, p. ix). In other words, is it really worth our time to quibble over who is and isn’t a mystic? In my better moments, I don’t think so. But alas, two weeks ago I wasn’t having one of my “better moments,” and so I wrote a lengthy response/counter-attack to the Hilton comment, and that’s when the fun began. Several comments to that post got me even more defensive, leading to yet another exercise in self-justification. Sigh. Anyone got a mirror to help me scrape all this egg off my face?

So what am I learning: quite a few things. First, not to be so attached to being “right.” To recognize that not everyone is going to agree with my understanding of mysticism, Christian or otherwise (and that’s okay). To keep reminding myself to be not so quick in responding to my critics, particularly if I’m tempted to get onto the self-justification merry-g0-round. To humbly accept that I have a long way to go to becoming truly humble. That there’s no time to lose in beginning that particular journey. And to feel a sense of gratitude that people are engaged enough in this blog to offer criticism and challenge. In business, I’ve long understood that the customers who complain are much more your friends than the ones who just silently go away unhappy. Likewise, on a blog, the readers who leave challenging or critical comments are the ones who can truly help a blogger to grow. So… even when I don’t agree with you all the time (yes, I’m talking about you, Simon!), thank you anyway for going to the trouble of leaving a comment with your views. I mean it.

And one last thing, and that’s where the title of this particular post comes in. I think I’m learning more than ever before just how much labels get us into trouble. Debating whether somebody is or isn’t a mystic, a contemplative, a “true” Christian, an orthodox Catholic, etc. etc. etc. seems to be almost always a waste of time. When we do this, aren’t we just worrying about labels? It saddens me that so many people resort to “in name only” attacks: for example, “Nancy Pelosi is a ‘Catholic in name only;’” “Olympia Snowe is a Republican ‘in name only;’” and so forth. Criticize the person’s positions all you want, but does it really help to criticize what labels they do (or don’t) wear? For me at least, debating about labels can be a form of intellectual laziness, in which instead of doing the hard work of understanding the joyful complexity of any one person’s position, I resort to making a snap judgment by quickly comparing the person to my own particular set of shibboleths in regard to the particular label in question. Yes, I’m guilty of this — I’m not just preaching to the choir, I’m preaching to myself. This lesson is making me question the entire wisdom of labeling a certain group of Christians as “mystics” or “contemplatives.” Does such labeling really help anyone to enter into the splendor of Christian spirituality: or is it just an invitation for further rounds of debate?

Oh, well, I need to get ready for work, so I’ll stop here. Once again, to anyone who reads this blog: I beg your forgiveness for my defensive and prideful writing over the last few weeks. As Kate Bush says, please “Be kind to my mistakes” and pray for me as I try to keep growing in my own faith.

What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Social Media... and Silence


  1. As we climb the mountain, labels are the first things to blow away.

  2. A very excellent post, Carl, filled with true spirituality and deep humility, and I might add, a very healthy measure of insight. Such posts are one of the chief reasons I draw inspiration from your blog.

    Peace that passes understanding to you.

  3. Carl–I have just begun to read your ‘Big Book’ and I congratulate you on your wonderful style. It is clear and with the right tone, and shows your personality. Well done.
    As for your comment on “The Tyranny of Labels”….why have a blog if its purpose isn’t to make statements (however blunt) and generate comments and rebuttals?
    Keep it up!

  4. Ellen N. Duell says:

    This is a very human temptation, or “failing”. I appreciate your dilemma. Personally, I did not feel critical. But I agree wholeheartedly about labels! We need to focus on the issues, with respect and recognition of everyone’s participation. For myself, “centering” and “contemplation” are healing (or wholing). Putting labels on people seems to me to fog up the matters of justice and creation of community–and to get in the way of unconditional love.

  5. Carl, I fell into the trap myself in the comments section of your first-mentioned post, having gotten tired of the in-fighting I became part of the problem rather than the solution. Always a lesson is a present.

  6. This is a useful exercise. Write something personal and reflective.
    Count the number of times the words “I” or “me” are used. Rewrite, finding ways to say the same thing, without using these pronouns.

    Do this constantly.

  7. Wonderfully stated. I was at your Portland workshop and your presence has so much “spirit” just “in you”. Humility must be a really hard trait to develop as a Blogger for obvious reasons. I can sit here quietly and invisibly watching this, safe. Learning. Growing. You do your growing right in front of us.

    Bless you……and hugs,

  8. Thanks, Carl, for this honest sharing and courage. I noticed the “changed tone” in your response to the Hilton comment, and I remember thinking that I would have preferred more of (to quote your words today) your usual effort “…to write clearly and beautifully about contemplative spirituality and life in Christ.” I admit that I removed myself from Sojourner’s mailing list because of my fatigue with their “against-ness” with Glenn Beck – yes, Sojourner’s stances are “legitimate” and “correct” and “prophetic” but the “negativity” has tired me. Thanks again. I love reading your blog every day.

  9. Today was my first reading of your blog; having discovered your presence only yesterday. I understand your human slip up to allow the ego its need to defend the self when another’s belief may not be agreeable to our own. I have been guilty of the same situation many times and the lesson is sometimes hard to remain strong in its leaning. However; new tricks can be taught to this old dog and I am getting much better at allowing others to have their beliefs even if they do not always agree with my own. “Meditor Meditatus”
    Have a good day humble sir!

  10. Of course you’re dealing–or sometimes need to deal–with the labels people put on themselves.
    BTW, are you interested in seeing (your writing in) the publication Both Sides Now (and what kind of company it’s in)? If so, please send mailing address.

  11. A good and insightful post. Peace be with you.

  12. Carl,
    Please do NOT change or give up the dialogue as I enjoy your thoughtful and honest comments when someone comes off the wall in attacking you or your posts.
    Those of us that are ‘new’ and still learning look forward to your response and your thoughtful researched answers, often with proof positive and/or quotes of others, we may not have even known, who also support your view.
    The back and forth narrative… that is what makes us sort out what two individuals with differing opinion(s) are saying and allows us to think for ourselves.
    As for the individual that is leaving the site, ‘if you can’t take the heat, don’t kiss the dragon.’
    What ever happened to honest discussion and looking at other views?

  13. I’m all for “honest discussion and looking at other views,” so don’t worry — I’m sure we will continue to have lively and spirited conversation here at

    What I am trying to learn is to engage in such lively and spirited conversation without the need to be defensive, self-justifying, “snarky,” or attacking of others. A tall order, I suppose. But I believe the contemplative tradition deserves no less.

  14. oh spot on about the labels thing!! putting ourselves into boxes, when really, God does not care at all if we are a mystic, a christian or a celtic christian mystic with a little bit of hedgewitch thrown in [as I have labelled myself lately]…

    all of what has happened with the original post, your reactions etc etc.. is most probably just another ‘lesson’ in life for you :) -

  15. Conversation as prayer….yep, that’s why I’m here….embracing each of our falls into mere self-fulfilling debate, with prayer….reminding us that contemplative dialogue can never be achieved through our own efforts, only a sacred space created through our shared loving fidelity to divine reality. For me, this blog offers radical hospitality to each other as fallen keepers of the faith-filled path to ‘the palace of nowhere’.

  16. I’m hardly an expert on mystics and the tradition, which is one reason I come here and read your books to learn, but aren’t there a lot of mystics who were unneighborly and even pretty hard on their critics at times? And some who were largely unapologetic about it? Paul comes to mind, since he was hardly always a nice or humble guy, although he, like you, was self-aware enough to work at keeping his puffed-upness in check.) A lot of mystics were “social critics” (that’s always sounded to me like good work if you can get it) and hard-hitting critics at that, weren’t they? Totally with you on all the pervasive labeling, BTW. People used to disagree without slapping labels on them, especially labels aimed at diminishing or even demonizing them and their views.

  17. I don’t disagree on any particular point, but the grammar nazi in me wanted to stop by and compliment you on using “shibboleth” in a coherent sentence =)

  18. I recognise myself in all you said, Carl. Thank you for that. The fact that you have written such a post is testimony to your graciousness and humility. Strength and peace to you.

  19. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a vastly increasing tendency for people to “give up” on a friend, an author, a store, or even a religion after a few big mistakes. I’ve had more than one friend, after years of amiable relations, cut me off with no hope of further contact after just one argument. A business can lose hordes of customers after one well-publicized complaint about their service or the quality of their product. And, it seems, there’s a growing tendency of people to stop buying a product, reading a blog, or associating with any group or individual who has made one or two mistakes. I think this incident is another example of the trend.

    I suspect that people are treating their friendships and loyalties and affiliations, as well as their blog subscriptions, as disposable nowadays because there are simply so many options: with thousands of bloggers to read, what’s the point of putting up with one that made unsavory comments a few times? And with the billions of people available through internet connections, why should someone fret over the loss of one friend? We’re no longer limited to the 150 people in our tribe or village, whom we must stick with or else brave the wilderness alone; there’s a whole other tribe just a few clicks away. The problem with this mentality, though, is that everyone will eventually make a mistake, and any relationship (even the one between a blogger and his readers) requires patience and trust and a healthy dose of compassion to have any meaning in the long run. Mistakes are inevitable, but they needn’t destroy an enjoyable relationship. In fact, resolving mistakes will make the relationship stronger and more enjoyable.

    What it comes down to is that people feel they deserve perfection in all their interactions, and have a crippling phobia of risk. And it’s not like these people will mend their ways once they get “a taste of their own” and have someone walk out on them once *they* make a mistake, because they can just rationalize that the person walking out is being unreasonable and surely *they* aren’t the ones to blame.

    And yes, when I speak of “theys” and “thems” I’m including myself, because I’ve been guilty of this kind of behavior too. It’s very tempting to wash my hands of someone while I’m angry at them and haven’t run out of options yet. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of it at some point.

    Anyway, I might agree with the people who’ve been critical of your responses lately, but I think I’ll stick it out anyway. Because I know, and so does everyone else who’s still reading after all this, that you’re capable of recovering and apologizing. And in my short lifetime I’ve come to value the ability to apologize as one of the most admirable and valuable qualities a person can have – even more important than being right.

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