Three Myths of Mysticism?

Last night I joined the good folks at Countryside Church in Omaha, NE for their weekly webcast, Darkwood Brew. Needless to say, our topic was Christian mysticism. The host, Dr. Eric Elnes, invited me to comment on what he described as three “myths” related to Christian mysticism — three common misconceptions that many Christians might have about mysticism that might prevent them from taking it seriously as a means of fostering a deeper spirituality.

Here are the three myths:

  1. That mysticism, even Christian mysticism, is a hopelessly subjective experience;
  2. That mysticism is just about supernatural or extraordinary phenomena;
  3. That mysticism is too good to be true: that the average person really can’t have union with God.

Watch the show to see my response to these myths. My interview segments start at about 22:02 and 41:20.

Can you think of any other myths — common misconceptions — that prevent Christians from fully embracing the joy and splendor of intimate union with God?

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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.

  • An Orthodox hieronmonk

    A fourth myth of mysticism requires that authentic and authoritative mystical insights must come from charismatic leaders only, such as gurus, shamans, holy prophets, or a priestly/clerical caste.

    • Carl McColman

      It is indeed a persistent myth of Christian mysticism — perhaps of all mysticism. How sweet it is that the Holy Spirit keeps lifting up scandalously unauthorized people to behold the love of God and then share that love with others.

  • Phileena

    really well done carl. you were so brilliantly articulate on the contemplative tradition and mystical experience. thank you. i really appreciate your teaching and looking forward to gleaning more for you.

    • Eric Elnes

      Incidentally, Phileena will be on the Nov. 11th episode of Darkwood Brew!

  • Chris

    The myth that Christian Mysticism is a type of “false Christianity” (as found in the term “misty schism”)

  • Linda Carter

    I’ve been told that practicing such practices as meditation and contemplation allows Satan to enter my spirit and bind me forever. This seems to be from some evangelicals I’ve known.

    • Carl McColman

      Yes, that one is pernicious. And completely inconsistent with the tradition, which holds that evil enters our minds and hearts not through silence, but through thoughts. So if we want to protect ourselves from Satan, contemplative prayer is perhaps the best of all possible disciplines: learning to be non-attached to our thoughts, including whatever thoughts might come from infernal sources.

      • An Orthodox hieromonk

        Carl’s response about the “thoughts” –or “logismoi”– is a challengng concept to grasp by anyone opposed to learning from the mystics of the Church. “Some evangelicals” –as Linda Carter identfied “some” who propogate this myth– should be considered my referent to “anyone opposed” in the last sentence. Of course, opposition by “some evangelicals” should strike us as strange given an example like mystical knowledge about God’s hypostases within the creation narratives of Torah. However, a view dispersed widely among evanglical Christians that exaggerates the ‘sole’ authority of sacred Scriptures explains part of this conundrum; but a larger part of evanglicals’ reticence comes from a latent fear or mere distrust of the Church as Communion. Yet, just as true, mystic sanctification practices remain embedded amongst many self-identified evangelicals. A bridge -type text that I use when working with anyone voicing the myth, which Linda identifies, is Evagrius’ ‘Antirhetikkon’ or ‘Talking Back.’

        • Carl McColman

          Brilliant. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never thought of recommending Talking Back to people who fear that kind of demonic influence. A friend of mine tried centering prayer (without supervision, of course), got frightened when she bumped into her own shadow, became convinced that centering prayer is demonic, and now tells as much to anyone or everyone who will listen. It’s a textbook case of what can go wrong when a person attempts the practice without guidance. Anyway, my sense is that Evagrius just might be helpful to her. Thanks for the recommendation.

          • Linda Carter

            Thank you both for some good insights. I agree that for those against mysticism for this reason, part of the tension is with the Bible as sole revelation of God. And Carl, you are right, I’d really recommend that those starting contemplative practice should have a spiritual director or other guide.

            Interestingly, on this particular day, Halloween, in my ministry I also encountered those who would not let their children participate in the fun, thinking it inspired by some wicked spiritual force. I appreciate that at least they know that something is going on during these days, as opposed to those who’ve stripped the day of all it’s original meaning.

  • Scott Griessel

    Carl…thanks from Darkwood Brew for an engaging and thoughtful interview. We loved having you on the show. Next time we’ll add a bass solo.

  • Deb

    Thanks for an interesting follow-up conversation! Really enjoyed the conversation. Now I’m going to go read your O/Dohanue interview.