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

The contemplative call comes from God, not from this or that institution. God's call to each of us is unique. So I don't believe joining a specific church, or monastery, or prayer group, is required. But I also think we have to be careful, because the default setting of our society is individualism. Christian mysticism is about love and compassion, which means it is all about community and relationship-building. Love needs to be put into practice, to be shared with others. So it is more than just "me &  God." For some people, that "more" may mean a traditional church life, for others it might mean an alternative community like a house church or a neo-monastic community. If you look at history, the mystics and contemplatives were always experimenting with new forms of community, creating new channels by which they could share the love of God with others. I think the mystics of our generation will bring a similar creativity to their faith.

Why is silence so important?

One of the most mistranslated verses in the Bible is Psalm 65:1—if you look at the original Hebrew, the verse basically says that silence is praise to God. I think this verse gets mistranslated because most Christians—even our theologians and scripture scholars—have such a hard time conceiving of this. We can handle praising God with music, dance, loud voices, and shouts of exultation, but silence? I don't think this is an "either/or" question: yes, let's praise God with music and noise, but also find times of silence, solitude, and drawing within, to—in the words of another Psalm—"be still and know God" (Ps. 46:10).

As for why silence matters, consider another lovely verse: "My thoughts are not your thoughts," says God (Isaiah 55:8)—but usually our minds are so full of our thoughts that God has no room to get a word in edge-wise. So silence, as a tool for prayer, is really an invitation: an invitation to let go of the normal chatter in our heads, and rest in silence where we can seek what the Bible calls "the still small voice" of God. Incidentally, the Hebrew phrase for "still small voice" could also be translated as "the sound of sheer silence" (I Kings 19:12).

Is all this stuff in the Bible?

The word "mysticism" only dates back ro the 17th century, so you won't find that specific word anywhere in the Bible. But the Bible does have much to say about the Mystery of God, and the presence of God, and even the experience of participating in God's nature (II Peter 1:4). All the early mystics were Biblical scholars, so yes, mysticism is very much grounded in scripture.

Isn't this just navel-gazing?

Critics of mysticism accuse it of being narcissistic or somehow withdrawn from real life. Maybe that's true of some other forms of mysticism, but Christian mysticism is all about coming down from the mountain and serving the people who are in need. The emphasis is very simple: experience the love of God, and then give that love away by loving and serving others. That can even include agitating for social change. All the great mystics have also been very engaged in the world in which they lived. They saw their job as bringing Divine love into a world that is so desperately starved for such love.

You're writing from a Christian perspective. What about other faiths?

Mysticism is a universal word and so you can find a mystical element of pretty much any loving spiritual path. The Christian mystical path has its own unique charm and beauty, which is why I love to explore it in particular. But one characteristic you tend to see among mystics—of all faiths—is such a secure grounding in their own religious identity that they can relate creatively and non-defensively to practitioners of other faiths. Look at people like Rumi, or the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh.

Mystics do not turn their backs on their "home" faith, but they open their hearts to wisdom wherever they find it. We can see this in the lives and writings of great Christian mystics like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, or Wayne Teasdale. The way I see it, mysticism gives us the best of both worlds: the nurturing depths of our own wisdom tradition (in my case, Christianity), and the insight and compassion to learn from all the other great traditions as well.

Can mysticism change the world?

I think so, but from the viewpoint of a mystic, the change comes not from mysticism, but from God. And for Christians, God is incarnate (embodied) in Jesus. Through Jesus, through God, we receive wholeness (which is what the word "salvation" originally meant), love, compassion, and the strength to work toward making the world a better place. If enough of us sign up for that, we really can change the world.

2/1/2013 5:00:00 AM
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