Mysticism for those who don’t like “mysticism”

A reader writes:

The Big Book of Christian MysticismIn the first chapter of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism you offer your sense that mysticism offers the serious practitioner the possibility of experience of God that is transforming and which then enhances the world around us. I firmly agree. But does that mean such a transformative relationship is not open to those who can’t accept the value of mysticism, or is it that the depth of the relationship is potentially greater through the pursuit of prayer, meditation and contemplation?

In some ways it seems that there could be correlates to Christ’s teaching about the importance of being born again in the Spirit.

First of all, thank you for your question. Let me break it down into its component parts, and tackle them one at a time.

1. Is the transformational relationship of mysticism not open to those who can’t accept the value of mysticism? First of all, let’s admit that the word “mysticism” is itself deeply problematic. Over the centuries it has become so vague and has been used in so many different ways, to mean so many different things, that it has practically lost its usefulness, and at least one major contemplative author writing today, Maggie Ross, has repeatedly expressed her conviction that the word no longer is useful. So who’s to say that the person who “can’t accept the value of mysticism” isn’t very sensibly reacting against one of the ways in which the concept of mysticism has been used poorly? For some it is virtually synonymous with magic and the occult; others use it to refer to mainstream experiential Christian spirituality; others see it as a code word for inter-religious spirituality (blending Buddhism and Christianity, etc.); and still others see it as an esoteric teaching that implies an almost miraculous encounter with God. And then of course, some critics of mysticism (or even of religion in general) use “mysticism” in a disparaging way to describe any kind of irrational, superstitious, or unscientific spiritual behavior. Because of all this, I would tend to be very non-judgmental about persons who resist or reject mysticism as a concept. Finally, I think it’s important to consider that, since Christianity teaches that God is sovereign (i.e., nobody tells God what to do), God certainly may impart mystical graces even on those who insist they see no value in mysticism! Presumably such a person would be profoundly surprised by a sudden experiential encounter with God, especially after having insisted that such phenomenon either doesn’t exist or has no value. To me, that would be evidence of God’s sense of humor.

2. Is the depth of the mystical relationship potentially greater through the pursuit of prayer, meditation and contemplation? Because you use the qualifying word “potentially” I can answer this question with a simple “yes.” The reason why the great mystics and contemplatives throughout history have commended prayer, meditation, contemplation, lectio divina, the Divine Office, and other spiritual practices to their readers and students is simple: such practices dispose us to receive the felt sense of God’s presence in our lives. I’m choosing my words carefully. Spiritual practices dispose us to the sense of God’s presence; they do not “make” God present or “make” us feel God’s presence. It is possible to be a dedicated daily practitioner of meditation and yet never have an out-of-the-ordinary experience of God’s presence. Likewise, it is possible for someone to be overwhelmed by a sense of the presence of God, even though he or she has never meditated a day in their life! If meditation “made” us feel God’s presence, it would be little more than a magical technique, and God a puppet on a string. Thankfully, God is much bigger than that — and so is the mystery behind contemplative practice. God is sovereign, we cannot engineer an experience of God the way that seeing a scary movie will engineer cathartic feelings of horror or fear. Having said that, the witness of two millennia of God-seekers is clear: such practices do dispose us to the possibility of encountering a sense of God’s presence, and for that reason they are worthy of our attention. And even if we never have an “experience of God” (many contemplative authors caution us that seeking after experience is a detour away from the heart of Christianity, which is about seeking God, not “the experience of” God), contemplative practices can help us to grow spiritually, to find natural feelings of serenity or meaning, and to find greater purpose in life. So contemplation is good for us, on many levels. Finally, note that I refer to being disposed to “the felt sense” of God’s presence. It is a matter of Christian doctrine that God is always, already present in our lives, whether we feel that presence or not. Contemplation is a way to point out to ourselves something that is already there.

3. How does this correlate to Christ’s teaching about the importance of being born again in the Spirit? We could approach this question a number of ways, depending on our theological perspectives. For many Evangelicals, being born again is related to an experiential event, involving consciously and rationally accepting Christ as one’s savior. But for a Catholic, being born again is anchored in baptism, which could happen to an infant, with little or no conscious sense of experiencing the event. Let me put it this way: I do think there is a place in the spiritual life for making a choice. Theologians call it “the fundamental option” — am I going to live my life only out of narrow self-interest, or am I going to grow beyond myself and exhibit some measure of love, compassion, and care for others in how I “do” life? Theologically speaking the fundamental option looks like this: Christianity proclaims a God of love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Am I going to believe in such a God and try to live my life according to such God-values, or am I basically going to say “I don’t believe” and choose a different set of values, like hedonism or narrow self-interest, to organize my life around? I think that everyone, whether Catholic or Evangelical, Christian or non-Christian, atheist or agnostic, sooner or later has to make a choice like this somehow: compassion, or not? love, or not? forgiveness, or not? To me, saying “yes” to love is an essential first step, regardless of whether or not we have been baptized, have accepted Jesus as our savior, or whatever. Now, what does all this have to do with mysticism and mystical experience? I think by my understanding of mysticism — that it involves experiential transformation of consciousness in relation to the sense of God present in our lives — such a fundamental option would be pretty important. But not absolutely necessary, for once again, God is sovereign, and God can impart mystical grace on anyone at any time, even on the most selfish, narcissistic, God-hating, love-detesting cretin out there. But I think generally speaking, the person who says “yes” to love/compassion/God is far more disposed to mystical spirituality than someone else who says “no.”

I hope these rather long-winded responses to your questions are  helpful. Thanks for asking, and thanks for reading!

Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
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.

  • Phil Soucheray

    Thanks Carl.

    Tthe guidance I take from your offering is to stay the course in practicing mysticism for the sake of the course and its value in encouraging me in living a life of love and compassion.

    Enjoying the read of your book.


  • Sr.Sheila Patenaude, FMM

    Many thanks for the excellent clarification. In ttalking to some adults who call themselves “atheists”, I have often used the concept of “fundamental option”.

    And in listening to Evangelical preachers on the radio, I realize their concept of being born again coincides well with a Catholic’s option at Confirmation (and throughout life, by ongoing conversion) to make a personal choice for God and salvation.

    In my years of work with Hindus in India, I realized how all people are looking for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, even if they don’t consciously know the Christian Christ. Many people are seeking God in their life–and isn’t that what the word “mysticism” really means? Those who make this conscious choice become even more aware of God permeating all of their life, but I believe most, if not all, people become aware of God at some point in life–under whatever name.

  • Al Jordan

    Carl, your response(s) to the initial comment were enlightening and well presented. You have the incredible gift of being able to present, sometimes esoteric truth, in an understandable way. The responses were a short course on mysticism. I especially appreciated the 3rd response with its emphasis on the primacy of love. In the counseling I do, I sometimes say to counselees that if you can’t believe in God, can you believe in love? If you can’t believe that God is love, can you believe that love is God? It’s a beginning. Those qualities that make us most deeply human are also the qualities that make us spiritual.

    Vocatus at que on vocatus, Deus aderit.

  • Mike MacDonald

    Thank you, Carl, for these wonderful words on mysticism and the “practices [that] dispose us to receive the felt sense of God’s presence in our lives.” I work in children catechetics, and your words not only encourage me in my own faith journey; they also enrich my thinking in terms of responding to parents who want “a program” (preferably, an easy one) that will “make’ their child a “good Catholic.” I am most grateful for your sharing of your wisdom.

  • John Sterner

    Your use of the word “sovereign” is weak – perhaps you mean God’s “freedom” – sovereign implies rule – otherwise great stuff