How to Find a Mystical Teacher

A reader sent me this message the other day:

I am loving your book, Christian Mystics, as I read it. I, myself, am tending to that life, and I have tried to find another, experienced Christian mystic from whom I can receive guidance. But, so far, I’ve only found two, a monk and a nun. I tried to contact the monk, but it turns out he is totally withdrawn to a life of prayer and meditation and doesn’t give guidance such as I am seeking. In the case of the nun, it turns out her mysticism is not the type to which I am drawn. So, I am wondering if you could tell me of any living Christian mystics whom I might go to for guidance.

Dear reader, thank you for your note, and I think you are not alone in terms of people who desire meaningful and quality spiritual direction and guidance from a true living master. Yes, I do know of some living Christian mystics. But before I give you a link where you are likely to find the guide you want, I’d like to explore the meaning of your search just a little.

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You mentioned in your letter that one of the persons you approached practices a mysticism that is not the type to which you are drawn. I think this is where we need to start.

Mysticism — Christian or otherwise — comes in many flavors. Some mystics are very withdrawn and profoundly silent, almost zen-like in their practice. Others are much more engaged in the world (even if they are monks or nuns). Some are “head” mystics, with a strong bent toward philosophy, theology, and academic scholarship; while others are more “heart” mystics with an emphasis on devotion, worship, and simple adoration.

There is no one right way to be a mystic. I’m fond of quoting William McNamara, who said “the mystic is not a special kind of person, each person is a special kind of mystic.”

But here’s something I think all of us need to remember: sometimes the best spiritual teacher for us just might be someone whose “spiritual style” is different from our own.

In other words, let’s say I’m comfortable with a very interior-focused, highly contemplative spirituality. If I seek a guide who is just like me, chances are that guide and I will just be reinforcing each other — in both good and bad ways. That might seem pleasant, but does it really help me to grow? Whereas if I choose to work with someone who has more of an emphasis on service and finding God in the world, it will certainly challenge me — but hopefully in a way that helps me to more fully respond to God’s call in my life.

Now, let’s take another step back.

Putting the “Christian” in Christian Mysticism

Whenever someone asks me to help them learn Christian mysticism, I always like to start with the “Christian” part.

You didn’t give me a lot of information about your relationship with Christ — or with the Church — but I would suggest anyone who is serious about Christian mysticism needs to begin with faith, and with community.

A lot of people struggle with this. “I want to embrace the mystical life, but I can’t stand going to church where no one is interested in mysticism!” I hear this (or some variation of it) a lot. And in fact, I’ve said things very similar to this myself, at points in my life.

But ironically, the mystics themselves again and again insist that one of the foundations of a truly mystical life is doing the very unglamorous work of being part of a faith community — even if it’s not a perfect fit.

It’s unfortunate that many people find that their local church does not support them in their quest for deep spiritual transformation. Many people abandon Christianity altogether, choosing instead to become Buddhist, or spiritual-but-not-religious, or to study a secular practice like mindfulness meditation.

But I’m assuming since you are specifically looking for a Christian mystical guide, and have approached monastic teachers already, that you are serious about pursuing mysticism in a Christian context. Good for you!

Believe it or not, I think the most important first step is to immerse yourself as deeply as you can into learning the Christian faith inside and out. Get to know the Bible and the sacraments. Learn Christian social teaching. Volunteer in some way or form in your local church.

Think of it this way. If you want to learn how to play the piano, you’ve got to practice your scales. That’s boring, but it’s the essential foundation. For Christian mysticism, the essential foundation is learning the heart of contemplative Christianity. Which means the Bible, the sacraments, and Church. At first it doesn’t matter if your teachers are “mystics” or not. You’re just learning your scales for now. It’s the essential first step.

Contemplative Christianity means something different from the mainstream Christianity that we see on the internet every day. This isn’t about megachurches or TV preachers or winning souls for Jesus. Rather, it’s about daily prayer, and practicing mercy and forgiveness, and learning to recognize that God loves everyone, no exceptions. And then striving to be just that loving and merciful yourself.

Maybe you are already doing all these things. If so, great! If not, I hope you’ll pray about it. Listen to how God is whispering in your heart.

A Few Books and a Link for Further Exploration

Reading a few books is always helpful. You mentioned my most recent book, but I think you might like The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and Answering the Contemplative Call as well. Two others I would strongly recommend are Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land and Elias Marechal’s Tears of an Innocent God.

Finally, here’s the link I promised you. I would encourage you to visit the website of Spiritual Directors International, which includes a directory of spiritual guides. Not all of them are well-versed in mystical theology, but some are. You might find that someone with a  strong knowledge of mysticism is located in your very own community.

Thanks for your question. I hope this information is helpful and please let me know if you have any further questions.

Note: here’s a follow up to this post: How to Find a Mystical Teacher, part two


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