The Rare Handful? (Jean Leclercq’s Definition of Mystical Experience)

Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux

In the Classics of Western Spirituality edition of the Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq, OSB offers the follow definition of “mystical experience”:

…those rare occasions when a handful of Christians may enjoy sublime states of prayer and union with God.

What do you think? I have problems with the idea that mystical states are “rare” and only available to a “handful” of Christians. Perhaps Leclercq is trying to protect the integrity of the “sublime” nature of the mystical by suggesting it is so uncommon. If mystical experience happened to most people, most of the time, wouldn’t it cease to be sublime?

I don’t know if that’s what LeClercq is saying or not. But it’s a line of argument that I’ve seen before: what makes mystical spirituality “special” is precisely how rare it is. It’s thinking about spirituality in an economic way: gold if more valuable than iron because gold is harder to find. That which is freely available is worth less than that which is hard to find.

So by that line of thinking, what makes the mystical precious is precisely how scarce it is. But I have a hard time accepting this kind of narrative. God’s love is freely available to all people, and yet nothing is more valuable, more precious. The Divine economy, thank Heaven, operates on a different set of values than our creaturely human economy. In the heavenly economy, the more precious and valuable something is, the more lavishly, freely, joyfully it is offered to all. Love, after all, is the only “possession” we have that grows only when you give it away. And mystical experience, it seems to me, is all about love.

So I’m willing to play with Leclercq’s idea that the mystical involves “sublime states of prayer and union with God.” But I’m with Karl Rahner: “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” Unless we want Christianity itself to be “rare” and only practiced by a “handful” of people, that means all of us — no matter how messy and imperfect our lives might be — need to be opening our hearts and minds to the possibility, the availability, of profound transformation that arises from prayer and union with God.

So what do you think? Is mystical Christianity for everyone who seeks it? Or just for the chosen few?

Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Seven Essential Thomas Merton Books
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.

  • Sr.Sheila Patenaude, FMM

    I disagree. I think anytime Christians see God in a lovely flower or sunset or in a small child or in a suffering older person, that is a mystical experience.

    In Ghana, West Africa, there is an Akan proverb: “No one teaches a child God.” I think it means children intuitively sense God. Perhaps we hardened adults have lost the child’s sense of wonder, awe, and praise?

  • Nancy Waldo

    I don’t think God is at all stingy with mysticism, although that does sound like what he means. I agree with you that Love is lavished extravagantly, whether or not through mystical experience. What may be more restrictive of practices of mysticism are 1) fear of transformation (which requires letting go of safety nets such as conformity, tribalism, and comfort) and what will be heard in the silence; 2) the reputation of mystics as weird, sometimes mad; 3) the examples of saints whose mysticism took them to very uncomfortable, strange, sometimes dangerous places in response to Love; and 4) suspicion from within the institutional Church (for different reasons) of experiences of God which cannot be contained or controlled. So the limits of mysticism have more to do with our human limitations and cultural influences than with whether God makes mystical experience available to enough people. I think the work you and others are doing is slowly “demystifying” (LOL) mysticism, in the sense that we are encouraging people to take the risks of letting God’s Love ALL the way in and of responding to that Love. And God is stirring up a powerful thirst for direct experience of that Love, which is being met by many teachers, writers, spiritual directors, and mystics among us, under God’s guidance and for God’s purposes. It’s an excting time to be a mystic!

  • spirittools

    I agree with Nancy – anything can seem rare or odd to those who have not experienced it. As I teach prayer, I expect that everyone of my students is being invited into the deep mystical places, but it is up to them, their willingness to do the practice, to set aside the time, and to welcome the disconcerting experiences that will determine what happens.

  • Lillian Lewis

    Go, go Carl. St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila) says, “God is in-between the pots and pans.” Meaning, I believe that when we are in the zone we can access God anywhere. No excuses for missing prayer when its time to cut turf!

    Lil Lewis

    • apm

      Hi Lillian,

      Your ‘pots&pans’ quote resonates with me too. It reminds me of Tolle’s suggestion to be aware of the space between the words, or I am sure someone else’s suggestion regarding the gap between in and out breaths. A slightly different angle of viewing Teresa’s insight that helps me is to be aware of the (God’s) presence that sits behind the pots and pans, the breath, and the words – especially when the words are those rattling around in this silly head.

      I view mystical experiences as an encouragement award or a promissory note but they are not mysticism. For too many years mysticism for me was the experience – and like a heroin addict I measured everything against my early peak experiences. It took an extraordinary amount of dryness to humble my pride sufficiently to give it up.

      My exemplary mystic is Brother Lawrence who employed a KISS method, and he echoes your interpretation of Teresa’s quote: “The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were on my knees.”

      I think mysticism is very simple, it is to be aware each moment of the (God’s) presence that sits behind the rattle of the pots and pans, the rhythm of breath, and the riot of thought. Although it is simple, it can be very difficult as our minds want desperately to grasp this presence as it does with everything else – to make it as Carl suggests – ‘an experience’.

      So mysticism requires continual surrender. Surrender of the sensual, surrender of one’s mind, surrender of one’s knowing, surrender even of the mystical experience itself, leaving just the silent presence.

      Therefore I think mysticism, given its simplicity, is open to anyone willing to attend to the presence (of God).

      Best Wishes, apm.

  • Kevin

    I think the issue here is the phrase “mystical experience”. Since you are quoting Leclercq who is not only a monk but a scholar writing for scholars — there is the issue of the separation of mysticism from theology. So the words “mystical” and “experience” can actually push in directions away from what is intended by “mystical experience”.

    While I understand the push to make people realize what is intended by “mystical” is part of the actual deepening practice of all the Christian faithful in prayer — the “turn to experience” using the word “experience” in a contemporary way actually pushes away from deepening prayer and stays focused on the surface of things.

    I think this is pointed out in many places by many other people but I think it is important to remember. If we are going to follow Teresa of Avila’s true statement about “God in between the pots and pans” — then we need to see the subtle difference that can be problematic if we don’t.

    I think Leclercq was responding to the idea of union and versions of subtle prayer that is much more visionary. I imagine he would say that we are all “mystics” but that there are rare few who have these experiences of union and subtle prayer which were being interpreted as extreme states of experience. For me, I eschew the words mystical and experience for these reasons and tend toward using the phrase “contemplative engagement” as what is intended by a ever-deepening silence and loving communion. Centuries ago, it was called “mystical” but the context of what we think about human persons and what mystical means has changed so drastically that it can be problematic so that we get a great scholar and practitioner like Leclercq sounding like he is rejecting the very thing he is promoting.


    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Kevin. In my forthcoming book I talk about how I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the language of “experience” because it leads to viewing God as an “object” to our subjectivity, whereas contemplation entails beholding God’s unbounded subjectivity — whenever we see, imagine, think, or in any other way try to capture God as an object, we’re missing God.

      Incidentally, in the text I quoted from (the Introduction to the Bernard of Clairvaux volume of the Classics of Western Spirituality), Leclercq goes on to critique the very idea of “mystical experience,” suggesting that in Bernard the mystical can only be understood relationally to the ascetical. Quite brilliant stuff. So it was rather disingenuous of me to lift that quote out of context like I did — I justified it to myself not because I was trying to take a shot at Leclercq whom I admire greatly, but because I think in general this idea of mysticism = elite experience, which is pervasive in our culture, needs to be questioned.

  • JuliaMae

    I think the problem is: when we have the extraordinary experience, in the modern Parish there is often no one to tell. Not the priest who is too busy or the staff and there are no spiritual directors, hardly at all, especially for the financially bereft. So, the budding mystic ends up feeling isolated and without a context for their experience. This post post mine expresses some similar thoughts on the “everyday mystic:”

  • Bob Holmes

    Carl, Thank You for your thoughtful digging through the ancient and not so ancient texts and traditions. You do a great job for all of us.

    Maybe it’s my radical nature, but I would take it step further…As with second hand smoke, we in the Church die from second hand knowledge of God. Walking with God, between the pots and pans, plants in my case, is normal, and we’re taught to live subnormal.

    Jesus says it so clearly “I only do those things that I see my Father doing.” And again, “I only speak those things that I hear my Father saying.” I believe we’ve set the bar too low, and expect too little.

    I’m new to expressing the mystical, though I wouldn’t shy away from using the word experience, for fear of misinterpretation. I love the concept of knowing “as Adam knew Eve.” which I’ve found beats at the heart of Christian mysticism.

    As I’m on the road to becoming a Benedictine, Thank you Carl for your keen insight.

  • H Roberson

    It is rare because most of us aren’t listening. While God does lavish love on us; while he is available to all of us, most of us are worried about life and doing church “right” to the extent that we do not experience the experience.