When I was an undergraduate taking philosophy, my professor said to the class that most philosophers are not actually philosophers; rather, they are merely historians of philosophy. What he was saying is that there is a clear distinction between knowing content and practicing that content. Since then I have found that this same distinction can be applied to many disciplines, and is especially true in religion — the difference between “talking the talk and walking the walk.” When reading The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: the Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality by Carl McColman, I quickly found that the author is doing both.
Although he has entitled this “the Big Book” it actually is moderate in length, only 320 pages. In comparison, Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle and Thérèse’s Story of a Soul are both around 200 pages. And in those 320 pages he covers a lot of historical ground — from Plotinus (around 250 AD) to Evelyn Underhill (died 1941) to himself. He proves himself a historian of spirituality. What is especially valuable here are the appendices: appendix A is a chronological list of mystical writers and their major works starting with Saint Paul and ending with Richard Rohr, appendix B then provides a synopsis of each of those major works (a massive undertaking in itself), and appendix C provides just a few online resources.
Even though Carl McColman shows himself well-versed in the history of spirituality, he has not structured the book as a historical montage at all. Rather, he has written a ‘how to’ manual and it seems that he has used his own journey to structure it. This is exactly how Teresa of Avila structures The Foundations, Story of Her Life, and The Interior Castle. McColman has not written an autobiography though. The examples he uses throughout come from the many spiritual writers he has read, or from people who is personally walking with.
What makes this book especially valuable is that he tries to clearly define and describe terms. This is really good. What is meant by “purgative, illuminative and unitive”? What is “meditation” and what is “contemplation” and what is the difference between those two terms? What is “Lectio Divina”? What is meant by “Dark Night of the Senses” and “Dark Night of the Soul”? And, of course, what is “Mysticism” and how is it distinguished from “Prayer”?
The Carmelites show up a lot in this book, but does that surprise us? He refers to Teresa and John a lot, of course. But he also brings up Edith Stein, Mary Magdalene d’Pazzi, Lawrence of the Resurrection and Thérèse. I am surprised, though, that Titus Brandsma is not mentioned.
I highly recommend this book — both to Carmelites and to any person interested in spirituality and mysticism. Spiritual directors should have it on hand for directees who are asking “mystical” questions. Lay Carmelites should read it because it puts together all the pieces they have learned in their formation into one narrative. Preachers should have it on hand for the wealth of quotations it offers from a large host of spiritual writers. And anyone who is on the quest to see the face of the living God should have it on hand to provide some light whenever the path gets cloudy. Although not lengthy at all, The Book of Christian Mysticism lives up to its name.