A reader of my blog has written to me to ask for advice on reading the mystics. He notes, “they embrace very traditional theology that is awkward for me in the 21st century.”


There is no one single “Christian mystical theology.” I would be suspicious of anyone who tries to distill the teachings of all the great mystics into a single summarized statement of “this is what you do in order to become a mystic.” It just doesn’t work that way. For one thing, the mystics stretch across two thousand years of history, and come from many different cultures and locations. Even if we accept the idea that mysticism ushers us into a place where truth is one, eternal, and unchanging, the corridors of human thought and culture that the mystics use to bring us to that place of profound unity are as varied as the mystics themselves.

All this is to say that anyone who reads a variety of the mystics will sooner or later run into one or more of them whose thought and theology comes across as awkward — or worse.

For example, many of the mystics stand in the Greek/Platonic tradition of regarding Christianity as a religion designed to help us poor mortals escape the evils of the current world in order to achieve some sort of rest and bliss in an otherworldly heaven after we die. With this kind of thinking, naturally a mystic would emphasize rejecting the earth, rejecting the body, rejecting anything that stands in the way of attaining that pie-in-the-sky post mortem perfection. The problem is, the church today (except in its most ultra-conservative circles) largely has come to see that “going to heaven after we die” is only one strand of the religious identity of Christians. The Gospels are clear in their mandate for justice, forgiveness, nonviolence, and care for the poor and vulnerable — all mandates that imply not so much a rejection of our earthly life, but a positive and hopeful engagement with it. Why would Jesus have called the meek “blessed” for they would “inherit the earth,” if Christianity was all about rejecting the earth? Clearly, there’s more to Christianity than just going to heaven when you die. Even relatively conservative theologians like N. T. Wright now point out that Christianity is just as much (if not primarily) about bringing God’s heaven to earth, as about some sort of after-death escape plan.

If you’re familiar with Ken Wilber’s integral theory, we could use his terminology of “ascender” and “descender” spirituality to describe these two currents within Christianity. “Ascender” spirituality is the kind of spirituality that emphasizes rejection of the current world in hope for a better world to come. “Descender” spirituality prefers to focus on celebrating the gifts (and righting the wrongs) of the world we live in, without worrying about “heaven up there.” The old gospel tune “I’ll Fly Away” epitomizes ascender spirituality, while John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the embodiment of descender spirituality.

I believe part of the splendor of Christianity is that it has room for both the ascender and the descender way of relating to Jesus and his message. But I think anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Christian history will agree that the ascender way of thinking has been dominant through much of the church’s history. And this is one way (certainly not the only way, but it’s a biggie) in which reading the mystics of centuries past can be difficult for us today. When mystics like Francis de Sales or Thomas à Kempis (to use two rather obvious examples) go on and on about rejecting earthly pleasures, avoiding contact with strangers, cultivating suspicion toward members of the opposite sex, and emphasizing a kind of individualistic quest for holiness and purity that seems utterly oblivious of the pain and suffering in the world at large, I for one begin to wonder if their “mysticism” isn’t really a form of narcissism — “because I love myself so much, I will do whatever it takes to placate the angry God, so that I will get my reward… and everyone else can pretty much go to hell (unless they do exactly the same thing I’m doing).”

Back to my reader and his concern about traditional theology (like what I’ve just described) being awkward for us to read today. Does this mean we should not bother with the mystics? I’ll admit, that’s a tempting path to consider. But at the end of the day, I believe that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and this includes the history of spirituality. I think it’s important for all the Christian mystics (and saints, and major theologians) to be read, and understood, in every generation. That doesn’t mean that any one of us needs to read every single major Christian writer — after two thousand years (and counting!) of literary output, there’s no way any one person can stay on top of it all. But thankfully, Christianity is a religion of community, and so we as a community need to remain in touch with the wisdomkeepers of the past. But our experience of reading the great mystics will evolve over time, and we may find that some mystics strike us as out of sync with where the spirit is leading the church today. And that’s okay. It’s better to read the mystics and find that we need to argue with them, than to ignore them altogether — and find that our knowledge of what does and does not “work” in terms of being faithful to God’s call today is that much more impoverished. In other words, the mystics might not only be able to help us discern where God is calling us today, but they might just as well help us discern where God is not calling us. For me, reading à Kempis or de Sales is insightful precisely because I find in their writings examples of the limitation inherent in “ascender” spirituality. Then, when I turn to mystics or contemplatives who seem to be a bit more balanced in their spirituality (like Julian of Norwich, or Maggie Ross, or Cynthia Bourgeault) I have a clearer sense that their vision of God is more congruent with the leading of the Holy Spirit in our time.

I should point out that even Thomas à Kempis and Francis de Sales still have many lovely and inspiring things to say about the spiritual life. Thankfully, it seems that even the most awkward of mystics still has something to say. As Wilber puts it, “no one is smart enough to be wrong all the time.” So even if you find yourself reading a mystic and it seems to be a struggle, hang in there, and look for the jewels of wisdom that may be hidden in the dirt. Allow yourself to read any of the mystics — all of the mystics — with a discerning mind. Give yourself permission not only to have the mystics teach you, but also to disagree with them when their way of approaching divine truth seems irrelevant or even counterproductive to today’s world. But when you find yourself feeling that awkwardness, make the effort to understand why — and to know your own relationship with God well enough that you can reflect on why others’ experiences may not speak to you. By doing that, you will be doing what all the mystics hope for you: you will be growing in your intimacy with the Ultimate Mystery.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
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.

  • Nancy Waldo

    Carl, Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Seeing as the mystics see, might be an excellent recommendation for someone fairly new on the path of Christian mysticism. He does a great job of pointing to the non-duality behind much of what is difficult in “traditional theology.

    • Carl McColman

      Indeed! I could have easily included Rohr in the same sentence with Maggie Ross and Cynthia Bourgeault as examples of living contemplatives with a truly integral theology.

  • Rich Snyder

    Concerning the “ascender/descender” concept, I think that being saved (whatever that may mean to you) can be summed up as: “Jesus is coming, and I’m going.” To me, Heaven is a given. Now, let’s concentrate with being here and being of service to all who the Lord brings to us.

  • Nektarios

    I’ve have won’t to write for a while now, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian so i’m coming from the Greek Tradition, and am deeply influenced by the monastic tradition in it, here are few books that have impressed me deeply: Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, Mother Gabriel, The Ascetic of Love, by Sister Gabriel, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, and Remember Thy First Love (Revelation 2:4-5): The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony by Archimandrite Zacharias, I you take a look at them or even read the they are great.
    all glory be to God