21st Century Mystic: A Q&A with Carl McColman

Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
Answering the Contemplative Call
First Steps on the Mystical Path
By Carl McColman

The mystical path is not some sort of static experience for the select few, says author and teacher Carl McColman. Rather, it is a living tradition, a rich and many-layered dimension of spirituality that is in large measure a quest to find the mysteries at the heart of the universe, paradoxically nestled within the heart of your own soul.

McColman first introduced readers to Christianity's lost mystical roots in his popular book, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. Now McColman is back with Answering the Contemplative Call, to show readers how to apply the riches of the mystical tradition to daily living.

Here, McColman answers a few questions about mysticism and  contemplation, and why both are so important for our time.

Why is mysticism important?

It's no secret that we live in a time when institutional religion, as we have known it, is changing. Many Protestant Churches are losing members rapidly; in the Catholic Church, we see a similar decline in people entering the priesthood or religious life. Too many church related financial and ethical scandals make headlines, and increasing numbers of young people are just giving up on the church as hopelessly irrelevant. Meanwhile, humanity is facing such huge crises, from environmental degradation, to the changing economy and the rise of poverty, to the horror of mass shootings. Those of us who love the wisdom of Jesus believe that Christianity has so much to offer the world, but it seems like the church will first need to get out of its own way.

A renowned 20th-century theologian, Karl Rahner, said, "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all." I think his words are prophetic. The more I study the wisdom of the great mystics of the past, the more I am convinced that their message is needed more than ever—both by Christians and by the world at large.

What is a mystic, exactly?

It can be defined many ways, and part of the beauty of Christian mysticism is that there is diversity among many different types of mystics over the centuries. But I think the common thread is encountering God not as an abstract idea—a dogma you believe in—but as an experiential reality, a Loving Presence that makes a real difference in peoples' lives. If you look at the writings of the great mystics, you see an emphasis on love, compassion, and forgiveness, that changes how people relate to each other. For mystics, religion is not about condemning people, but about setting them free.

Does Rahner mean everyone has to have supernatural experiences of God?

Certainly one traditional way of understanding mysticism placed emphasis on this idea of the "supernatural"—that a mystic is someone who levitates, or works miracles, or experiences Buddha-like expanded states of consciousness. This, in turn, has led many people to think mysticism is not for them, or even to be suspicious of mysticism as a kind of counterfeit spirituality. But I think that's a misunderstanding. The Bible speaks of different people having different gifts, and that's as true for people seeking the experience of God as for anyone else. Most of us are called to experience God's presence in very simple and down-to-earth ways: I think the key is not in experience but in love and compassion. Those are the true marks of the mystical life.

What is "the contemplative call"?

If we take Karl Rahner seriously—and I do—then we need to ask, "how do I give myself to God in such a way that Divine Love could be truly manifest in my life?" You don't become a mystic by deciding that's what you want to do, like someone decides to get a new tattoo. Mysticism is a gift from God. But how do we prepare ourselves for the gift of God's loving presence? The answer lies in contemplation, another fancy word from history that basically means "waiting on God." As John Milton put it, "They also serve who only stand and wait." That's the heart of the contemplative call: which is the call to seek God, not so much in the things we do (as if we can somehow earn God's grace), but by simply being the creatures God intended us to be. Contemplation is a very gentle form of spirituality. It's really about learning to recognize the hidden signs of God's love, already present in our lives, signs we generally miss because we are so busy.

Do you have to join a church, or some other group?