To understand Matthew 13:11, read Matthew 11:25…

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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Thanks to everyone who left such thoughtful comments on my Matthew 13:11 post from a few days back.

Simon writes:

I had never seen that verse as relating to contemplation. Rather, it seems to me to refer to basic Christian truths. My Vine’s Dictionary says “In the ordinary sense a mystery implies knowledge withheld; its Scriptural significance is truth revealed”.

I think Vine’s is nailing it on the head. This is how Christian mysticism differs from pagan mysticism: the pagan mystery cults were all about the secrets one received through ritual initiation; in Christianity, the “initiator” is Christ, who makes the mysteries of God fully known and manifest to all (or, at least, to all who bother to pay attention, or who bother to receive the mystery).

I do believe all are called to contemplation, although that may, and indeed probably should, take different forms. Contrary to what some of my critics may think, I don’t believe everyone needs to be practicing centering prayer! I do believe that a mature Christian life will have a significant measure of contemplative silence and solitude, but how we reach that point, or nurture/sustain it, is ultimately a very personal matter, between the Holy Spirit and each individual Christian (and, presumably, their spiritual companion). As Simon says, “the highest levels of contemplation are simply a continuation of a normal Christian life – they are not something weird and wonderful and accessible to some sort of elite.”

Now, as for the “not to them” question. Again, Simon:

Finally, (and I will put this as a question) does the quote you have chosen mean that those to whom Jesus has not revealed the mysteries are excluded from true mysticism and contemplation?

I think Matthew 11:25 sheds some light here. In that verse, Jesus says: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” I think we can safely assume Jesus is speaking metaphorically; he’s not saying that college professors are out but 6-year-olds are in! Rather, he seems to be drawing a distinction between those who rely on their own elite knowledge and those whose hunger or thirst for God is characterized by innocence, simplicity, and childlike trust. This is why he speaks in parables rather than in learned philosophical discourse; his parables reveal the mysteries to the childlike, even while it obscures the mysteries from those who insist on erudition (or, perhaps, gnosis). I think the real line of demarcation here is between pride and humility: the mysteries are hidden from those whose pride render them blind, while they are crystal clear to those humble enough to acknowledge their own intellectual poverty — no matter how far their schooling has taken them!

Tana beautifully articulates how authentic mysticism, far from being elitist, is about as non-elitist as you can get:

I have a difficult time with this supposition that mystics view mysticism as only for the elite. I have a hard time believing that mystics view it that way themselves simply because of the mystics I’ve met and known, none would ever suggest it… This mindset, in my very limited experience, therefore comes from the outside of the tradition – those who want to dismiss mysticism as evil or false or dangerous or unimportant.

Exactly. It is those who have not (yet) drunk from the refreshing waters of contemplation who insist that these waters are only for the chosen few. I believe that one of the signs of authentic contemplation is growth in hospitality and humility, which generally means a tendency to ignore or humorously dismiss one’s own “mystical attainment,” while paradoxically insisting that mysticism is freely offered to all. Mysticism is characterized by love, and, like love, it is shot through with God’s economics: the more you give it away, the more you have.

I know that I struggled for the longest time with the central paradox of Christian eschatology: that a God of such supreme, self-giving love would engineer a cosmos where so many of his creatures wind up in hell. What is that all about? I don’t think universalism is the answer, because that implies a stripping away of our freedom as autonomous creatures: “you’re going to heaven whether you want to — or not.” I find the resolution of this paradox in the idea that we are all, in eternity, immersed in the irresistible love of God. For some of us, this is simply what Merton calls “the beatitude of heaven.” Others, however, resist the love, and in this resistance experience it as a burning flame. Perhaps others will initially resist, but even as they resist they will also relent and allow the love to purify them (yes, I’m Catholic, and am comfortable with the concept of purgatory — only I believe purgatory is not a room in hell, but a room in heaven!) Of course, this is all heavily metaphorical language, and perhaps is filled with a heretical notion or three. But to me, the mystery (paradox) of God’s justice and grace is resolved in that we all are called to be immersed in Divine Love for all eternity; only some of us will accept it (and be “in heaven”) while others will resist it (and be “in hell”).

Perhaps the challenge of Matthew 13:11 is similar. Everyone is given the parable: everyone is shown the mystery. Not everyone receives the mystery, however. I don’t think this is a matter of cognitive ability, or even moral worthiness (ain’t none of us “worthy”). It’s all about grace, and choosing to accept what is freely offered with the open heart and mind that we see in the children we love. How do we cultivate such an open heart and mind? I think our faith offers plenty of good advice here: love God, as best we can. Love one another (as we love ourselves). Practice living without fear. Cultivate qualities such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Pray, without ceasing. Rejoice in all things. Take time off to be silent and to be alone. And when in doubt, repeat all the above (especially the love part).

Part of the mystery of being human is that we are all different, and some of us naturally “get” the spiritual teachings of the Christian faith tradition better than others. But that does not mean there is any such thing as a “Christian elite” (or a contemplative elite, or mystical elite)! On the contrary, the more fully someone grasps the message of Christ, the less elitist they become. It’s yet another one of the delicious paradoxes of the faith.

Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
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.

  • jane brunette

    Thank you, Carl. So much richness here to contemplate. Two things stand out: First, when you refer to Christian mysticism vs. Pagan, I assume you are speaking historically. And yet I feel called to mention that still today in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition–whose Vajrayana practices have some roots in what we might think of as Pagan– we, too, get ritual initiations into “secrets.” The way one teacher explained this to me is that the initiations are a form of skillful means, to assist us in opening to the mystery that actually resides inside of us in our Buddha nature (which to me is indistinguishable from Christ). The rituals don’t indicate that we can’t reach that mystery without initiation–just that the dualistic mind can sometimes use some help letting go and these rituals offer assistance to those who resonate with this particular path of practice.

    Secondly, I found your characterization of heaven, hell and purgatory beautifully said and illuminating. It is hard for me to imagine that any soul would be left in hell eternally. Resistance gets worn away, even if it takes what feels like an eternity for that to happen. God is too dynamic and creative to allow such eternal stagnation. There is a great story in Buddhism that says the Buddha actually started out as hell being, but had one compassionate thought, which was the seed that pulled him out. This, to me, is the divine love inside each of us that nothing can put out–Jesus’s unconditional love at the core of who we are. (FYI I practice Buddhism because the skillful means it offers suits my needs–but at the core of my practice, I am cultivating an opening to the unconditional loving heart of Jesus.)

  • tana

    Resistance gets worn away, even if it takes what feels like an eternity for that to happen. God is too dynamic and creative to allow such eternal stagnation.
    This made me smile.

    I always forget about the child-like metaphor. And then I get a little stuck about topics like these because I know it’s simple, but I can’t find the pulse behind the simplicity. I didn’t really live within the mindset of a child’s mind when I was one; I always say I came out of the womb afraid and when my dad left I had to become a pseudo-adult quickly. Childhood was a phase to get out of quickly because I didn’t fit in, so I didn’t get the hang of it. You helped me connect two very important dots this morning by illuminating one of them. If my biggest lesson right now is Trust (it is), how appropriate is it that the alongside lesson is to be childlike?

    Thank you.

  • Laura

    Thank you, Carl, for this very helpful post. As you define the term here, I would agree that all are called to contemplation, just as all are called to love. I am used to hearing the term defined much more narrowly.

  • Simon Whitney


    Many thanks for that. May I just say that while I am a critic of Centering Prayer, I am not a critic of you! Even if we may have an interesting difference of view over some things.

    Jane Brunette

    I have to say I have found all your comments irritatingly fascinating. Fascinating in that your explanations of some of the concepts in Buddhism mirror those in Christianity – which I did not know. And irritating for exactly the same reason – because as you have seen I am on the traditional side of things which wants to maintain a uniqueness in Christianity at all levels. It is a good irritation, though!

  • Suze

    “….delicious paradox…” ….indeed! :-)

  • Don

    Thanks, Carl. I warm to your words.

  • Simon Whitney


    I wonder if this is an example of one of those areas that have been “revealed to you but not to them”:

    “What I find so deeply saddening in all this, is that a large proportion of the Church can still teach and admonish people against birth control. How does one even begin to grasp this? There’s an unconsciousness here that is mind –blowing.”

    So either the Catholic Church is right in this matter or Don Scrooby (who penned the above) is right. There does not seem to me to be any common ground here. I would have asked Don directly but he does not appear to engage in dialogue. And what we do in the flesh affects what we do in the Spirit so it is not a superfluous question.

  • Al Jordan

    I, like Jane, find myself evermore drawing from two spiritual streams, Christianity and
    Buddhism. This is not to say that I embrace the the institutionalism, dogmatics and labyrinthine teachings of either tradition. But I do venerate and take refuge in both the Christ and the Buddha. Buddha (via Buddha nature) embodies for me the truth and archetypal example of detachment from transience, letting go (fear and desire), enlightened consciousness, inner peace and outward harmony, awakening to essential being, living mindfully and in the now, and the inter-relatedness of all life. Thus Buddha instructs me in how do deal with ego and self.

    Jesus, the Christ, on the other hand, incarnates for me the face of God in human form, what a life filled with God consciousness looks like, the embodiment of Divine love, the boundlessness of Divine Grace, the supreme archetype of the path toward inner divinity and the understanding that the Kingdom is within. Thus Christ teaches me how to deal with Spirit.

    I don’t think I will ever drink from just one well again, albeit there was great comfort in doing that. I appreciate this blog allowing me to share aspects of my own spiritual journey and to be enriched and deepened by what others share of their own journey.
    Peace and Presence to all.

  • jane brunette

    Simon–I deeply respect the traditionalists who emphasize the uniqueness and particular genius of their given path–and I’m sure the traditionalists in my Buddhist lineage would cringe at my explanations here, which are colored by my deep connection to Jesus as an embodiment of divine love. But I sense from my own practice and study that the differences between these paths are more in emphasis and means than in actual truths once you get to the heart of the teachings. I also sense that those oriented toward mystic understanding–whether traditionalists or not– likely have far more in common with each other across religious systems than they do with the literalists of their own faith.

    Al–I tried to drink only from one stream, as I have a deep streak of traditionalist in me, but it became impossible. When I decided to just be a Buddhist, Christ and the saints kept popping into my visualizations (I guess it’s not about drinking–the Christian stream runs right through me). I finally gave up trying to be pure about it when my mentor told me that when a group of priests asked Kalu Rinpoche to teach them the Vajrayana practices, he recommended that they visualize Jesus rather than Buddha or Chenrezig (the bodhisattva of compassion). He did not see any contradiction whatsoever. Once I allowed that for myself, I also could find no contradiction.

  • Don


    “So either the Catholic Church is right in this matter or Don Scrooby (who penned the above) is right. There does not seem to me to be any common ground here.”

    I don’t really know you but I discern, and this may be terribly unfair, that being strongly orthodox you tend to think in terms of black and white. Certainly, the above statement gives that impression – it’s either this or that. Please forgive me if I have discerned wrongly. May I also just add that I have a profound respect for the Catholic Church and its rich witness. Anybody who knows me will affirm that. She has taught me much and I’m eternally grateful to Her for that. As a methodist minister, retired now, I speak and have spoken out of an African context, especially in the years of Apartheid in South Africa. I also speak out of the shocking context of poverty and overpopulation that is so much part of the African scene.

    Perhaps the post you refer to needs to be seen in that light. There are many Catholics I know here in South Africa, including a few priests, who would agree with that statement. Surely one has the right to make one’s discernments and express them. Maybe it does sound a little divisive and perhaps arrogant, and if so I apologise, but my words need to be judged within the light of the many other things I have said and written and experienced.

    I do believe that at the heart of all spirituality is the process of becoming conscious, or aware, and there are, whether we like it or not, levels of consciousness out of which we make our discernments and express them. I think there is a profound difference between expressing these discernments with arrogance and judgementalism on the one hand, and passionate conviction on the other while still remaining open to different or apposing views.

    Let me respond to your words, “I wonder if this is an example of one of those areas that have been “revealed to you but not to them”: I thank God for those over the years who have been profoundly more conscious than me. The gift that they have been to me is beyond price. So yes, there were things revealed to them which I had not even begun to dream of. Only as I listened to them with an openness which I struggled to nurture within me (full of ego) did I begin to feel the stirrings of something new and deeper – I’m still listening. The reason why I listened was precisely because they had this gift of being able to convey truth which they were aware of, without coming across as superior and judgemental. So I have no problem with the term “revealed to you, but not to them.” It would only be problematic if those to whom it was revealed believed that others were totally incapable of receiving it. In time and over the various stages of development we become open and ready to receive certain things. I think we’re all like that.

    May I end this by saying that I sense a boldness in you which I really appreciate.

  • Simon Whitney


    Thanks for responding. I do see some things in black and white – I think that is quite plain from much of what I write.

    I won’t get into a discussion of the Church’s teaching and the situation in Africa as that is not the point of this blog.

    I am interested also in your championing of Ken Wilber and Carl has indicated that he might address that at some future point.

  • Joe

    Sorry to do this, but etymology gets my OCD firing.

    The word musterion means a lot of things in its several forms in the Greek NT. There are some way creepy occurrences, in Revelations, for instance. Those, I don’t even want to think about. There are also instances (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:7) where there is no way of seeing how it relates to the tantalizing Matthew 13:11. Also the purported root of this, mueo, kind of craps out on us in its only NT use, in Philippians 4:12.

    But check out Mark 14:11, καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς· ὑμῖν τὸ μυστήριον δέδοται τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐκείνοις δὲ τοῖς ἔξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τὰ πάντα γίνεται. He said to them, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables.”

    Now THAT’s intense. The suggestion I read in it is that the referential deadlock of signified and signifiers has its benign path, opened through the parables; but that an unmediated way of knowing is presented as well, τὸ μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ.

    • Carl McColman

      Joe, you do Middle English and you do Greek. I know once a week is too much for you, but I sure wish you and I had some structured way to get together on a regular basis and unpack some of the contemplative treasures in language. I think I could learn a lot from you. Not sure that I have much to offer in return, but hopefully we’d have some interesting conversations.