Review: The ‘mystical’ approach to Christianity

There’s a rising interest in the branch of Christianity described as ‘mystical’ and ‘contemplative’. My own interest was piqued, so I read a couple of books on the subject. The first one was:

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman (Hampton Roads Publishing Co, 2013).

atcclargeMy main problem was how to find the route from my own, fairly standard, evangelical experience of God to the kind of ongoing Christian experience the author describes. Is the latter an alternative to the former, or a possible extension of it? Probably the second, but I can’t be sure.

The gist of ‘mystical Christianity’ seems to be recognising that, because God is omnipresent, he is within all of us. Because of this, we can make a regular effort to shut out the chatter of everyday life, and of the active mind, and focus on becoming aware of his presence in the depths of our being. It’s hard to describe in clear language and is, I suspect (as one Scots lady allegedly said), ‘Better felt that tell’t.’

The author builds the book around a ‘travel’ metaphor. His three divisions are ‘Recognizing the Call’, ‘Preparing for the Journey’ and ‘Embarking on the Adventure’. I have to say it all seems sound enough, and he explains things as clearly as anyone could explain deep mysteries of spiritual experience. He roots everything firmly in Jesus and has a keen awareness of the human weaknesses that can inject impure motives into any spiritual pilgrimage.

He also quotes with affection the works of past Christians who tend not to figure much in the average evangelical’s awareness, people like Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton. In doing so, his aim is to show that the ‘mystical’ form of Christianity is not some weird novelty but has a solid pedigree stretching across the centuries.

He introduces his readers to some terminology that will be new to many of them: as well as ‘mysticism’ and ‘contemplation’ (in their specialist senses), there are terms like ‘kenosis’, ‘apophatic’ and ‘kataphatic’. You will enjoy getting to know them!

The goal of the ‘contemplative life’, he insists, is to know God more intimately, and that can’t in any way be bad. So push to one side notions of your becoming a twenty-first-century Desert Father or cloistered monk, and open yourself up to what could be a new and stimulating facet of the very faith that you have known for a long time. That’s the way I’m approaching it, anyway.

[Here are some quotations. As I read this book in its Kindle version, the numbers are Kindle locations, not page numbers]

The goal of the journey is, at least in part, to have no goal; the purpose is not so much to find God as to find ourselves in God.  (142)

…mysticism: I’m using this word very much in the intimacy with God sense… Contemplation: If a mystic is a lover of God, then contemplation is the means by which Divine love is given, received, and shared…  When I speak of mysticism and contemplation, I refer specifically to the Christian journey into the love of God.  (164)

…an interior alchemy that occurs in the human soul—the transformation from the normal human state of existential angst to serene recognition of the unifying presence of God.  (206)

To mystics, the mysteries of life are our teachers. It’s no accident that mysticism and mysteries are such closely related words, both evolving from the same Greek root. What makes something a mystery is that it is hidden from the peering, penetrating efforts of the human mind to analyze, categorize, and understand everything.  (329)

God is what matters, and any experience of God is secondary.  (351)

The longing we sense for God is a gift given to us by God, out of God’s longing for us.  (371)

When God’s longing for us connects with our longing for God, we enter the mystical life. All that remains is for us to wake up to this fact.  (424)

The contemplative call is a call to intimacy with God, not a call to be entertained by spiritual experiences. This is not to dismiss our longing but rather to be careful to point it in the right direction. To humbly and lovingly long for God and God alone—not even for an “experience” of God—this is the path of awakening.  (588)

Those of us who recognize the mysterious longing in our souls have probably already had at least one spiritual awakening of some sort at some point in our lives, no matter how small or humble it may have been. In all likelihood, we’ve had more than one. And if now you have a longing to wake up again, that’s part of the nature of things.  (672)

We have been trained, at least in the Christian world for the last few centuries, to approach God primarily with our minds.  (690)

I’m asking you to consider something that, in all probability, you’ve never been encouraged to notice before. I’m asking you to recognize just how God is present and active in your life.  (712)

So there is the paradox: We do not need to go anywhere to get closer to God, for God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. And yet, just as life is a journey, so too our dance of intimacy with the Divine will take the shape and form of a path, a passage, an adventure.  (781)

Just as not all mystics speak to all people, neither are the mystics infallible. Their writings are shaped by their own limitations and eccentricities. Some are dull, overly abstract, excessively penitential, hostile to those who see things differently, and marred by such ongoing problems as sexism, hatred of the body, and irrational fear of the devil.  (901)

Our journey is an inner journey—we are seeking not something far away or beyond ourselves, but something found inside our own hearts.  (980)

Spiritual practice, like any other discipline, can at times be dull and boring, especially once the novelty wears off.  (1113)

Jesus has been loved and accepted by the mystics, not as a way of appeasing an angry God, but as a joyful entry into the mysteries of love.  (1200)

For the spiritual life to reach its full potential, the interior/mystical dimension needs to be balanced by the external/social dimension.  (1251)

Again and again throughout history, mystics have pointed out the importance of the apophatic way—that God ultimately cannot be known in any kind of theoretical or conceptual sense.  (1299)

Everyone who engages in the serious pursuit of contemplative spirituality discovers that either the sensual imagery of kataphatic prayer or the vast emptiness of apophatic prayer is the more “natural” way of praying for them. And that’s fine. But each of us needs at least to be familiar with both approaches to spirituality.  (1321)

Even after months or years or decades of practice, veteran contemplatives are often humbled by the degree of inner noise—of mental static and emotional turmoil—that persists within their hearts and minds.  (1359)

Behold God’s presence in your life, whether seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, sensed or at a level deeper than sensation. Behold God’s love for you, implicit in your desire for love and your ability to love, wounded and imperfect as it may be.  (1474)

Because God is not an object, it is absurd to talk about “experiencing God.” Contemplation is not about us experiencing God; if anything, it is about God experiencing us.  (1497)

If we can loosen the grip and relax into the awareness of the present moment with a humble and loving heart—then, by grace, we may join Julian of Norwich in beholding God in all.  (1562)

One of the signs of being a true mystic is forgetting about yourself in the joy of loving and being loved by God.  (1713)

Here are the core spiritual practices of the Christian wisdom tradition: meditation and contemplative (silent) prayer. The journey into the mystery of God is a journey into these two essential mystical practices.  (1724)

Unlike the Eastern idea of meditation as a desired state of mental peace and clarity, the Christian idea of meditation is much more interactive, allowing the mind (and heart) to engage with the object of meditation—God, Christ, the Spirit, the Trinity, the Divine mystery. So Christian meditation is not about letting images or thoughts go; rather, like other forms of kataphatic spirituality, it is all about immersing ourselves in the Word of God.  (1734)

…the crown jewel of mystical spirituality—the regular practice of silent prayer.  (1887)

Centering prayer, the popular method of silent prayer based on the teachings of Trappist monks Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and William Meninger, involves using a prayer word of your choice. The idea behind reciting one single prayer word is to give the thinking mind as little stimulation as possible, instead offering one single point of focus that can be repeated lovingly and prayerfully as you embrace the silence.  (1950)

As we go deeper into contemplation, we find that kenosis isn’t just for Christ; it’s a spiritual path that all who hunger for the love of God will eventually be asked to follow.  (1981)

The mystical act of kenosis—of self-emptying, of freely choosing humility, of letting go of any desire to own or control God or otherwise reduce God to the level of spiritual experience—can never be systematized or encoded or reduced to a set of laws or rules or principles.  (2046)

Kenosis is central to the mystical tradition. Christ emptied himself, and is now emptying anyone else who comes to him in love and trust.  (2118)

The contemplative life offers a new dimension of sorrow and suffering, for to the extent that our hearts are united with God, we will be that much more sensitive to the brokenness, pain, and suffering of all God’s children—of all beings.  (2140)

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