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Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness

Author:Underhill, Evelyn (1875-1941)
Description: First published in 1911, Mysticism remains the classic in its field and was lauded by The Princeton Theological Review as 'brilliantly written [and] illuminated with numerous well-chosen extracts . . . used with exquisite skill.' Mysticism makes an in-depth and comprehensive exploration of its subject. Part One examines The Mystic Fact, explaining the relation of mysticism to vitalism, to psychology, to theology, to symbolism, and to magic. Part Two, The Mystic Way, explores the awakening, purification, and illumination of the self; discusses voices and visions; and delves into manifestations from ecstasy and rapture to the dark night of the soul.

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Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology, Third Edition

Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology, Third Edition (Paperback)

~ F. C. Happold (Author)
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
4.0 out of 5 stars Good starting point
F.C. Happold's introduction to mysticism consists of a short (110 pages) essay (broken into readable mini-chapters) and a brief anthology of world religious literature on the subject (300 pages). Those with serious interest will probably want to immediately continue with a reading of some of Evelyn Underhill's works, including her book Mysticism, or complete original...
Published on April 1, 1999

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0 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars Happold offers little to the serious student of mysticism.
This book had very little to offer the serious student of mysticism. The first part of the book was an attempt at classifying mysticism into various categories, which ultimately proves to be of little worth. The second part of the book provided the reader with excerpts from mystical texts. These excerpts do not provide any adequate insight into the nature of these...
Published on November 10, 1998

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4.0 out of 5 stars a critique of Mysticism by Happold, November 9, 2009
By Edward B. Alcott (San Antonio, TX) - See all my reviews
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I am a professor of Christian mystical theology and have found Happold's book to be an excellent one. I have used it as a text in my class and for personal meditation. He combines a study of mysticism itself in the first 120 pages and then substantiates it with the writings of several mystics. This is basically a study of Christian mysticism with references to the mystics of other religions. The selections in the anthology are long enough to capture the writer's intent. The book leaves one with a good introductory understanding of mysticism. And it challenges the reader to more deeply read the mystics.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Mystified, March 27, 2006
This is a magical little book. It appeared into my life at the right moment, and never ceases to amaze me with it's vast array of different takes on the same source which we all come from. No matter what I'm going through in my life, I pick up this book, randomly open it to a page and it is always revelant to what I am going through at the moment. Incredible. I have not read this book in a linear fashion, but rather by this method I have just described, by opening it to any page, and it is always the answer I am looking for. And it continues up to this day, although I thought I read the whole book, old passages will just come back with new meanings.
I'm suprised more people don't have this book. But I think it will have a way of bringing itself into the hands of those who are meant to read it. From Plato to Teilhard de Chardin with a sprinkling of Buddhist mysticism and Sufi Love poems, the reader will recieve a variety of viewpoints, although Happold admittedly leans towards Christian mysticism. All in all, like I said, a magical little book. FC Happold has joined the ranks of the mystics he has written about, by giving us this little gem, which continues to thrive although Happold is no longer with us. Just read it with an open heart, and soon you will find an answer. If it is in your possession, it is no coincidence you were meant to have it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
4.0 out of 5 stars Add to your library with this beautiful work, May 26, 2005
F.C. Happolds' 'Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology,' is an excellent first book for someone intrigued by a subject too often poorly understood. A "mystical experience" is an extraordinary occurrence, resulting in wonder, amazement and insight. Such experiences can not be packaged and sold, but are freely available to anyone. Life itself, and consciousness itself, are the ultimate miracles - miracles taken for granted as we tred through our daily routines. The true mystic is in a state of awe, simply because he IS aware. This introductory text presents a collection of authors, concentrating on Christian mystics. The new reader can then acquire texts on the Sufi, Zen and other non-western traditions, and then, one night as wispy clouds drift by a crescent moon... !!!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Introduction to Mysticism, November 17, 2002
In my thirties I had an experience totally beyond anything in my previous life. I was not a religious person, but this experience of seeing the 'uncreated light' was overwhelming and entirely unforeseen.

I didn't know how to explain what happened. I did not even know this is the mysticism that various religions talk about. When I found Frank Happold's book, it gave me the framework I needed to understand this life-changing experience, and for that I will always be grateful.

The book provides a starting point and an introduction to genuine mystical experience, the profound kind which alters your understanding of life. Happold offers a helpful introduction to the mystic's universe which is 100 pages long. This is followed by an anthology of mystics from many traditions. The anthology is 300 pages and provides a wonderful source for further study.

I recommend this book with only one mild reservation. Happold believed the experience of Christian mystics is somehow superior. I am afraid I find some of their accounts obviously altered to avoid being burned at the stake! I think they revised their account of experience to bring it in line with church doctrine.

But that is a minor point. Frank Happold's Mysticism is the best introduction I have seen to this topic.

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
4.0 out of 5 stars Good starting point, April 1, 1999
By A Customer
F.C. Happold's introduction to mysticism consists of a short (110 pages) essay (broken into readable mini-chapters) and a brief anthology of world religious literature on the subject (300 pages). Those with serious interest will probably want to immediately continue with a reading of some of Evelyn Underhill's works, including her book Mysticism, or complete original classic works in the field. In his anthology, Dr. Happold provides in effect an extended bibliography of works for future study. One value of the book, written after Happold's retirement from a long career in English secondary education, is its immediate 'cutting across' all religious and time boundaries. The reader is immediately given the fact that mysticism has been and is now found in all religious traditions and has a common structure wherever it occurs. This book would possibly be a good supplementary text in freshman philosophy classes, being used to reinforce the currently unpopular view that there are epistemologies other than realism to be seriously considered. In fact, at one point Happold refers to mysticism as a 'critical realism.' An instructor might find that students enjoy reading this book along with some Ayn Rand, for instance.
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0 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars Happold offers little to the serious student of mysticism., November 10, 1998
By A Customer
This book had very little to offer the serious student of mysticism. The first part of the book was an attempt at classifying mysticism into various categories, which ultimately proves to be of little worth. The second part of the book provided the reader with excerpts from mystical texts. These excerpts do not provide any adequate insight into the nature of these mystical texts nor the mystics themselves. The first part of Happold's book is a gross over-classification of mysticism while the second part of the book is an abhorent reductionism of mystical texts which renders the "selected passages" meaningless.

-Kory Harris

LibraryThing recommendations

  1. Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
  2. Mysticism in the World's Religions by Geoffrey Parrinder
  3. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (Penguin Classics) by Anonymous
  4. The Essential Mystics: The Soul's Journey into Truth by Andrew Harvey
  5. Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

How to Become a Mystic

November 11, 2009 · 6 Comments

I’ve been thinking about how so many self-help books begin with “How to…” Consider these examples:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • How to Raise the Perfect Dog
  • How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
  • How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
  • How to Lie with Statistics

… and there are many, many more. But to the best of my knowledge, no one has written a book on How to Become a Christian Mystic. I wonder if such a book would be useful to people. Keep reading →

→ 6 CommentsCategories: Christian mysticism · Christianity · How to Become a Mystic · spirituality
Tagged: identity, Mysticism, spirituality


November 10, 2009 · 2 Comments

I’ve just found a new website devoted to interfaith dialogue and spirituality that looks very promising. Check it out: www.interfaithing.com

→ 2 CommentsCategories: Other Links · interfaith dialogue
Tagged: interfaith dialog, Interfaithing

Harvey Cox on Fundamentalism

November 10, 2009 · 1 Comment

My brother alerted me to an article that ran in the Boston Globe on Sunday by Harvey Cox, called “Why Fundamentalism Will Fail.” Among other things, this hopeful essay suggests that fundamentalism is on the way out because mysticism is on the way in.

I only hope he’s right.

Here’s a link to the article: http://shar.es/akIMO

→ 1 CommentCategories: Current events · spirituality
Tagged: fundamentalism, Harvey Cox


November 10, 2009 · Leave a Comment

Is there a difference between “union with God” and “intimacy with God”?

Unpack the etymology of intimacy and you’ll find that it has to do with speaking, announcing, making known. Intimacy means self-disclosure. I tell you who I am. I listen as you tell me who you are. So there seems to be a relationship between intimacy and language. Sure, in human terms we speak of “being intimate” as a code-word for sexual intercourse, but isn’t sexual intimacy a physical expression of words such as “I love you,” “I desire you,” “I want you,” “I give myself to you”?

As we relate to God who is bigger than any material thing, obviously there is no physical expression of intimacy, but this does not mean there is no erotic dimension to intimacy with God. On the contrary. Intimacy with God is not only profoundly erotic, but is indeed the foundation and form of all human eros — the experience of making love, even illicitly, can happen only because of humanity’s essential participation in the eros that emerges from the Divine. God is love, and this means all forms of love. God is desire, God is friendship, God is compassion, God is charity, God is over-flowing self-donation. And God is eager to tell us all about it. And then God waits in silence, eager to hear us tell God all about who we are, and the choices we make, and the dreams we hold dear, and the shames we bury or the fears we try to ignore. And out of this conversation, by this conversation, through this conversation, intimacy happens.

Back to my initial question: is intimacy with God the same thing as union with God? I think union is the summit and completion of intimacy. But even there, language fails us, for intimacy with God is never complete, never perfected, never reaches the final mountaintop. Always there is a higher, more majestic, more splendid peak to scale. Does this mean we never attain union with God? Some have said as much, suggesting that final union with God is attained only after death. I’m not sure I buy that, in that I suspect that eternity will unfold and expand just as surely as space and time do. So perhaps union with God is not merely a telos, but rather, paradoxically, is as much a present reality as a future hope. We are already in union with God, by virtue of being God’s beloved creation and bearing God’s image and likeness and existing in the universe of God’s making. We are so fully immersed in the ocean of Divine Love that we go through most of our days blissfully unaware of this blissful fact. Back to intimacy: God is just waiting for us to slow down and listen long enough so that his Word can get through to us. “Pay attention, or you’ll miss it!” We’ll miss the fact that we are creatures of love. We’ll miss the fact that God’s love for us is bigger than our sin — our resistance and rejection of that love. We’ll miss the fact that we are called to have the Mind of Christ and to partake in the Divine Nature. We’ll miss the fact that we are already in union with God.

We are already in Union with God, and yet, intimacy with God is the glorious, falling-in-love process of rediscovering that union and realizing it in our lives. It is a scary and heady and exhilarating thing. God asks of us nothing less than our entire lives, asking us to surrender to love so that love might transfigure and transform us. How this plays out in each person’s life is as unique as their DNA and life story. Some of us are called to be contemplatives, others mighty activists for justice and peace, others prophets, others artists, others ordinary husbands and wives and mothers and fathers, living quiet lives but lives filled with dignity and hope and joy. The point is, when we become intimate with God — truly listening to God’s word for us, and truly sharing our “word” with God — then things will change. The point behind being transfigured and transformed is that we become more than what we were before. This is somewhat frightening, for it is out of our sphere of control. But if we trust God, let down our armor and let God in, and breathe through our resistance, then the Holy Spirit will take charge and miracles will ensue.

So the experience of intimacy with God is the process by which we realize union with God. It’s a process that never ends, so we never experience final (perfected) union. But the truth is that union has been our birthright all along. We are falling in love for the first time with our lover who has been passionately present with us for all eternity.


→ Leave a CommentCategories: How to Become a Mystic · Mysticism · spirituality
Tagged: intimacy with God, Mysticism, spirituality, union with God


November 9, 2009 · 9 Comments

For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.

— Matthew 17:20 NRSV

One concept I have run into again and again, both among Christians as well as among others with an interest in mysticism, is the idea that mysticism is about experience which is somehow different from faith.

The logic seems to go like this: as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But mysticism, by contrast, is about the experience of God’s presence in our lives. Why would anyone settle for mere faith, which seems to be built on hope rather than real, lived experience? Wouldn’t it be better to trade faith in for a more direct, immediate, feel-it-in-your-bones sense of God’s reality and activity in our lives?

The Apostle Paul says we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). But if faith justifies us, how much more will direct experience contribute to real, lasting intimacy with God?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes an “either/or” relationship between faith and experience. Somehow, if we have a real enough experience of God, then we no longer need faith. “Faith is not important to me, because I know in my heart that God is real and God is present in my life,” someone once proudly told me. She was young, self-assured, a minister in a small church. Politeness prevented me from telling her what I thought of her aplomb: it sounded to me like she hadn’t had a dark night experience yet. Yes, mysticism is all about experience, but mysticism is both bigger and deeper than experience. Sometimes God comes to us through absence. Sometimes faith is tested in the crucible of doubt. And even when an experience hits us over the head with the proverbial two by four, we still must reflect on the experience and interpret it, with the language, values, and religious symbols that contribute to our sense of spiritual identity. Such a process of reflection and interpretation is a process that depends on faith: faith in the very trustworthiness of our own experience, and in our knowledge and ability to reflect on and interpret it.

Why is faith important? Why is it essential, even to the mystically inclined? For one very simple reason: No one has a perfect experience of God. Anyone who says that they do is just fooling themselves. Perfection is a concept related to completion, which implies that nothing can ever be perfect in human experience until we reach the end of our lives. In the meantime, faith is the tool by which we navigate all the great unknowns of life, including our relationship to the future, to our deep unconscious, and yes, to everything about God that is beyond our puny little experience, no matter how personally meaningful such experiences might be.

If you embrace the contemplative life, you will be opening your heart to a quest for experiential intimacy with God. This is a good and beautiful thing. But it doesn’t render faith unnecessary. On the contrary; faith becomes more important than ever. Cultivating faith is at least as important as daily meditation or the practice of virtue.

And how do we cultivate faith? Two thoughts here. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ,” proclaims Paul (Romans 10:17). Dust off your Bible, my friend; and if you aren’t already participating in the weekly Mass or worship service of your faith community, then start doing so. Participating in regular worship and daily scripture reading is of central importance when it comes to nurturing faith. Granted, the “word of Christ” can come to us in ways other than through Sacred Scripture. But keeping the ear of our hearts open to listen for the word of Christ however it may come to us does not render Sacred Scripture (or corporate worship) unnecessary. On the contrary, reading (and hearing) Sacred Scripture will attune us to recognize the word of Christ however it may come to us: in the words of a homeless person, in an insight while reading the news, in a conversation with a trusted friend. The more we listen for the word of Christ, the more we nurture our faith. And do I need to point out that such listening requires the cultivation of inner silence?

My other thought about cultivating faith has to do with the meaning of the word itself. Merriam Webster defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God.” So to nurture faith, we need to nurture belief, trust, and loyalty. Belief, incidentally, is not so much about certainty of the mind as openness of the heart; trust and loyalty are also heart-centered virtues. So faith comes not from the intellect so much as from the will: it’s not what we think, but the choices we make, that make us faithful. I choose to trust God. I choose to open my heart to God. I choose to stick with God, no matter what. Out of these choices, faith happens.

And faith does not replace or crowd out the experience of contemplative awareness of God’s presence: rather, it sets the stage for such an encounter to take place.

→ 9 CommentsCategories: Christianity · How to Become a Mystic · Mysticism · spirituality
Tagged: confidence, Contemplation, faith, Mysticism, spirituality

Not a Tame Wild Thing…

November 8, 2009 · 10 Comments

Where the Wild Things AreWe went to see Where the Wild Things Are last night. It’s a basic go-to-the-otherworld-to-find-yourself kind of story, in which our hero Max (wonderfully portrayed by the too-cute-for-words Max Records) responds to his mother’s exasperated declaration that he’s “out of control” by running off to where the wild things are. He talks them out of eating him and into getting appointed King of the Wild Things, and the Wild Rumpus ensues. At first Max finds it’s great to be king, but eventually things start to change.

Early reports about the movie suggested that Maurice Sendak (who wrote and illustrated the original children’s book) was happy with Spike Jonze directing the movie because he didn’t try to turn the wild things into just big cute, cuddly teddy bears. In other words, he let them stay wild. Apparently this made the movie studio nervous, and rumors swirled during the production of the movie that it was too scary for kids. Even more to the point, it doesn’t have a tidy, feel-good ending, even though its faithfulness to the book does offer a sense of resolution. Although Max follows the rules of the hero’s journey and makes his return at the story’s dénouement, we viewers are left with the unsettling implication that the wild things remain wild — and in the wild. You never know when they’ll show up again, or when Max will run off for another visit.

My daughter, who normally has a pretty low tolerance for movies with an edge, liked it, and she and I howled like wolves all the way from the theater to the van.

I’m reminded of one of the most important lines in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when one of the characters (it differs from book to movie) notes that Aslan is not a tame lion. The truth is, we always want to tame God, just as we always want to tame anything and everything about our own deep wildness, and about the stories we tell about “the wild” —i.e., the otherworld. We want the fairy-folk to be cute cuddly garden sprites, despite the fact that in Celtic folklore they are not only not-so-small, but also both dangerous and unpredictable. Tolkien wisely gave us the diminutive hobbits as our ambassadors to his otherworld, forcing his readers to identify with small protagonists because ours is an age that insists on keeping our fairy tales small as well. From a hobbit’s-eye view of things, even a domesticated otherworld can still seem mighty big and dangerous. Something similar is at work with Spike Jonze’s reimagining of Sendak’s story, where a child has to encounter some life-sized monsters. Of course, the psychological punchline is that the wild things all live inside of himself. “Inside all of us is a wild thing,” proclaims the movie’s trailer, set to a spunky, bouncy soundtrack. Guess what? Aslan is inside all of us, too, and he’s waiting to roar.

We all want Aslan to be tame, and we want God to be safe and predictable. This is the temptation behind fundamentalist religion, where God is reduced to a robotic father-figure-in-the-sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad. And then there is the God of liberal religion, who just is a big nice guy who loves everybody unconditionally and who pretends that evil doesn’t exist. Where the Wild Things Are (the movie) takes aim at both of these kinds of domesticated deities and blows them to smithereens. It may not be an explicitly religious movie, but it makes some pretty important theological statements nevertheless.

So if the Ultimate Wild Thing isn’t just a robotic dispenser of justice or a feel-good postmodern psychotherapist, then just what are we dealing with? I’m not sure I can answer this question, for after all, we are dealing with Mystery here. Part of why Aslan remains Not a Tame Lion has to do with Aslan being the Ultimate Mystery. But just as in the book version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the beavers assure the Pevensie children that while Aslan isn’t safe, he is good, I think we can start with that small measure of comfort. After all, if God isn’t good, then the universe is meaningless, and we all have to create our own good, much like Max and and the Wild Things build their fort. But without a deeper and higher meaning, sooner or later we tear down the forts we build. But some things endure, like love, compassion, noble acts of self-sacrifice for the good of others, the belief in fairness even when life seems pretty unfair. That these things persist over time, to me is evidence enough that good exists, not as a convenient human construct but as a real ontological principle, somewhere deep inside the ultimate Wild Thing. And that makes me willing to get on the boat and join Max in the adventure. Even though I suspect it will get pretty dangerous out there (or is that “in there”?).

→ 10 CommentsCategories: Books · Reviews · movies
Tagged: C. S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, movies, Reviews, Spike Jonze, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where the Wild Things Are

The Magdalene Relic

November 7, 2009 · 4 Comments

My dear readers, the veneration of saints’ relics is not a central part of my spirituality, Catholic though I may be. And I’m cynical enough to wonder if any 1st century relic can ever really be accepted at face value (I mean, just how many relics of the “true cross” are there?). However, with this disclaimer and caveat in mind, even I have to say that this is really, really cool:

A relic of St Mary Magdalene is coming to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. Her relics have been venerated in Europe since the 2nd century. Now, Fr. Louis Marie Ariño-Durand, a Dominican priest will accompany the reliquary to the Monastery on Sunday, November 29, 2009, from 11 AM to 6 PM. The relic will be in the Abbey Church which is open to the public.

The relic is only in the United States for a limited time and the Monastery is fortunate to host it for a day. Look at it this way: if it’s an actual relic of Mary Magdalene, then… wow. And if it’s not, it still represents an interesting piece of cultural history as well as an object of fervent devotion for many centuries. So either way, this is worth putting on your calendar.

→ 4 CommentsCategories: Announcements · Catholicism
Tagged: Announcements, Catholicism, cult of the saints, Mary Magdalene, Monastery of the Holy Spirit, saints, saints' relics, veneration

The Promise of Paradox

November 6, 2009 · Leave a Comment

The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life
By Parker J. Palmer, with an introduction by Henri Nouwen
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008
Review by Carl McColman

The Promise of ParadoxParker Palmer’s first book almost didn’t happen. As he explains in the new introduction to The Promise of Paradox (first published in 1980 by Ave Maria Press and now reissued in a gorgeous hardcover edition by Jossey-Bass), he didn’t imagine himself as capable of writing an entire book, but when an editor pointed out to him that paradox was a recurring theme in a number of his essays and that they ought to be gathered together and published as a book, not only did Palmer agree, but he realized that he had underestimated himself: as he humorously puts it, “In a moment of satori worthy of a Zen wannabe, I realized that not only could I write a book, I already had! … The Promise of Paradox was an accidental book. But once I held a copy in my hands, I knew I could write more books if I wanted to.” So we all who love Palmer’s gentle and honest wisdom owe that editor at Ave Maria a huge debt of gratitude.

The primary weakness of The Promise of Paradox is, not surprisingly, that it reads like a collection of essays — which it, in fact, is. But this is a weakness I am happy to live with, since there is so much that is strong and good and true about this book. Although paradox is the golden thread that unites all the chapters/essays, each section brings a distinctive perspective on this central theme: from the opening essay which unpacks the concept of paradox through a look at Thomas Merton and his playful concept of being “in the belly of a paradox,” to Palmer’s creative re-imagining of the Stations of the Cross (not unlike the stages of grief), to two luminous essays on the nature and value of community, to meditations on scarcity and abundance and the spirituality of education. And so the book’s weakness is also, paradoxically, its towering strength: each of these essays stands on its own, each filled with wisdom, insight, and gently dry humor. Palmer has a perceptive and discerning mind, and is able to offer keen criticism of the foibles and blind spots of modern life without ever coming across as mean-spirited or angry. There’s not only much wisdom in what he says, but in how he says it.

In his new introduction, the author confesses to being uneasy with how much Christian language informs this 30-year-old book, not because he is no longer a Christian (to the contrary), but because he has become increasingly uncomfortable with how religious language can be divisive and exclusive and how some Christians have hijacked the language of the faith to their own political ends. Perhaps herein lies another paradox. I found myself agreeing with Palmer’s discomfort, and yet also enjoying the explicitly Christian feel of the essays themselves. I was left, by the end of the book, feeling really glad that he made no attempt to revise or rewrite the essays. Yes, it’s a problem that such language has been hijacked by those whose values seem to be at odds with Christ’s. But how wonderful it is to hear Palmer use that very language in such a Christ-like way.

→ Leave a CommentCategories: Books · Christianity · Reviews · spirituality
Tagged: book reviews, essays, paradox, Parker J. Palmer, religious language, The Promise of Paradox, Thomas Merton

Why Mysticism Matters

November 5, 2009 · 10 Comments

Recently someone asked me if I could comment on why mysticism matters, particularly in terms not only of religion and spirituality, but also health and wellness. It’s a big question. There’s a lot of work being done on how spirituality and even religion can support overall efforts to improve our physical and mental well-being — after all, Jesus was a healer before anything else — so I think I’ll leave that part of the question to folks like Andrew Weil, Larry Dossey, Bernie Seigel, and the writers and editors of Spirituality and Health magazine. Of course, the integral theory of Ken Wilber belongs here, since it addresses the larger question of how science and religion/spirituality complement one another.

But the part of the question I think I can more readily address is the role of mysticism, particularly Christian mysticism, in the larger arena of spirituality. Why does mysticism matter? First of all, I don’t believe mysticism and spirituality are coterminous; all mysticism is spiritual but not all spirituality is mystical. Mysticism represents that dimension of spirituality that directly addresses — and enters into — the mystery of God, for the purpose of growth in holiness (which is a religious code-word for personal and social healing) and deepening intimacy with God — the reality of being loved by, and loving God; which can involve experiencing God’s transformational presence in our lives, but also surrendering to God’s hidden presence, at a level deeper than mere human experience. I don’t want to get too bogged down in definitions here, suffice to say that mysticism brings us into and through mystery to encounter God.

So why does this matter? Perhaps put a better way, why does this matter more now than it did 50 or 100 years ago? Although historically mysticism has been on the margins of Christian theology and practice, many indicators point to it becoming more and more mainstream, for a variety of reasons.

  1. The epochal encounter between Christianity and eastern religions has resulted in many lay Christians developing an interest in meditation and contemplation: practices that up until very recently were pretty much found only in monasteries. A generation ago, folks like Bede Griffiths or Thomas Merton were seen as pretty exotic for trying to engage in eastern spirituality as a way of deepening their own Christian monastic practice; but now increasing numbers of Christians, including laypersons, are accepting the idea that the wisdom of Buddha, Vedanta, or other eastern philosophies might have something to teach Christians — not to lure Christians away from their own faith, but rather to deepen the experience of being a Christian through the wisdom gleaned from interfaith dialogue. Granted, this isn’t mainstream in the sense that “everybody” is doing it, but it is far more prevalent among ordinary Christians than ever before.
  2. Likewise, the shift from modernity to postmodernity has resulted in many Christians questioning the propositional, authoritarian nature of faith grounded in obedience to the church (Catholic) or the Bible (Protestant), and instead are looking for a more experiential expression of the faith, where their “obedience” is situated internally, toward a personal experience of God, Christ and/or the Holy Spirit. In fact, an interesting question is whether the widespread emergence of experiential Christianity is a consequence of postmodernity, or in fact a contributing factor to postmodern theology: after all, Pentecostalism is a century old now, and theological postmodernity really only dates back to the 50s and 60s with the influence of demythologizing among Protestants and Vatican II among Catholics. And even though in more recent years many Catholics and Protestants have pulled back from the most liberal implications of mid-20th-century theology, the theological genie really is out of the bottle. The old model of religion as something the “professionals” do while ordinary people just show up once a week to “pray, pay and obey” isn’t cutting bait anymore. Even as the most hierarchical churches have scrambled to entrench the power of their clergy, the laity are more on fire than ever before. This turn toward personal authority is also a turn toward the hunger for experience, and the hunger for spiritual experience eventually leads us to the threshold of mystery.
  3. Another indicator that mysticism is leaving the margins and entering the mainstream is specifically seen in the churches with monasteries (Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism), but I think it has implications for the entire body of Christ. What I am referring to is the decline of religious life, at least in the west (religious life is thriving in other parts of the world, but there are clear social and economic reasons why this is so). As the convents and monasteries attract fewer and fewer new vocations, ironically they are attracting more and more members of their secular, oblate, and third order associations. In other words, ours is the age when monastic spirituality — the traditional “home” of Christian mysticism — is being set loose from the cloister and entering into the lives of more and more ordinary laypersons.
  4. The Protestant corollary to the decline of traditional religious life is the emergence of Neo-monasticism (see the writings of Shane Claiborne or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove) and, indeed, the entire movement that is called “Emergence Christianity” or “the Emerging Church” which places a high emphasis on re-discovering practices traditionally associated with monasticism, such as lectio divina or the Divine Office. What Evelyn Underhill did for Anglicans and Thomas Merton did for Catholics, folks like Brian McLaren and Richard Foster are doing for evangelicals and other Protestants: that is to say, introducing traditional contemplative practices to a widespread population eager for “something more” in their spiritual journey.

So, more and more laypeople, throughout the spectrum of Christian denominations, are discovering mysticism and finding that it has something to say to them. And while mysticism has its enemies — usually either Protestants who are hysterical anti-Catholics or else Christians of all stripes who are xenophobically opposed to interfaith spirituality — I am confident that in the end, reason will triumph and Christians of good-will and common sense will recognize that Protestants can engage in Catholic spiritual practices without having to become Catholic, just as all Christians can learn from the wisdom of other faith traditions without abandoning their devotion to Christ. And both of these trends — the rediscovery of traditionally monastic or Catholic spirituality, and the encounter with the wisdom of the east — ultimately take us into the depth of Christian mystical wisdom, as found in the writings of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Catherine of Genoa, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Way of a Pilgrim, and numerous other orthodox Christian wisdom teachers. And the more we read the Christian mystics, the more we will see that their endorsement of pursuing holiness, embracing silence, and opening ourselves to a life of continual prayer is fully relevant to the needs and challenges of our time.

Therefore, I am confident that the blessing and promise of mysticism and contemplative spirituality will only increase in its visibility within the Christian community in the years to come. And this is why mysticism matters.

→ 10 CommentsCategories: Christian mysticism · Mysticism
Tagged: Christian mysticism, Mysticism, spirituality and health

Anyone care to Twine?

November 4, 2009 · 4 Comments

Yesterday Br. Michael at the Monastery suggested that I join Twine, which he described as “Facebook for smart people.” If you’re not familiar with Twine, it combines social networking with an easy tool for sharing content thematically. So I’ve joined, and promptly set up a Twine for Christian Mysticism.

If you’re a member of Twine, let’s connect. If not, then you might enjoy it, so give it a look:

Take the Twine Tour: www.twine.com/tour/overview

My user profile: www.twine.com/user/mccolman

The Monastery’s profile: www.twine.com/user/holyspiritmonastery

The Christian Mysticism “Twine”: www.twine.com/twine/12q7cpk43-p7/christian-mysticism

Hope to see you there.

→ 4 CommentsCategories: Announcements · Christian mysticism
Tagged: Carl McColman, Christian mysticism, Twine

Quote for the Day

November 3, 2009 · Leave a Comment

Do not think to found holiness upon doing; holiness must be founded upon being. Works do not make us holy. It is we who must make works holy. For no matter how holy works may be, they do not make us holy because we do them, but in so far as we within ourselves are as we should be, we make holy all that we do, whether it be eating, or sleeping, or working, or what it may.

— Meister Eckhart, quoted in
The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics
edited by H. A. Reinhold

→ Leave a CommentCategories: Christian mysticism · Mysticism · Quotations
Tagged: H. A. Reinhold, Holiness, Meister Eckhart, Quotations, The Soul Afire

The Contemplative Life is a Heavenly Life

November 2, 2009 · 3 Comments

Blessed John Ruusbroec says, toward the end of his masterpiece The Spiritual Espousals, that “the contemplative life is a heavenly life.”

In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I describe mysticism as “living in heaven consciousness.” (We’ll see if that phrase survives the editing process, but I like it, so I think it will).

I just read on Twitter where somebody quoted Thich Nhat Hanh as saying “The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.” What a great and challenging quote. Without meaning to impugn the peace movement (and in my experience, thankfully, I can say that this observation is not always true), I think Thich Nhat Hanh is on to something because sometimes in a zeal to promote one kind of good, we abandon another good. It’s like Christians who are so hateful to people they perceive to be sinners. Talking about missing the point!

Thich Nhat Hanh, like Jesus, understands that you can’t be for peace unless you love your enemies. I have a friend who is an angry atheist, and is contemptuous of fundamentalist Christians. This morning I imagined what it would be like to ask him why he holds such bitter feelings in his heart. I imagine he would say, “Because the Christians themselves are so contemptuous.” My response: “Oh, so you want to drag yourself down to their level?”

If we are the body of Christ, then we are called to put on the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16, Philippians 2:5), and I don’t see how this can mean anything other than living a heavenly life, right here, right now, starting today. Starting this very minute. We do not have to wait  until after we die to go to heaven. We do not have to wait until after we die to surrender our lives to God, right? Nor do we have to wait until after we die to be loved by God. If being loved by God and giving our lives fully and joyfully to that Love isn’t heaven, then I don’t know what is.

“Oh, no,” I can hear the nay-sayers now. “We are in the vale of tears, we are in a world trammeled by sin, and suffering, and darkness and doubt. How can this be heaven?” But that line of thinking is all about victimization, not victorious living (to use an evangelical catchphrase which seems appropriate here). Living in heaven consciousness is not about everything being easy or pleasurable. Frankly, much of the wickedness in the world today stems from people doing things to themselves and each other in vain attempts to create ease and pleasure. So if we don’t need streets paved of gold and cute cherubs floating on the clouds playing their harps in order to live a heavenly life, then what do we need? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we need love. John Ruusbroec suggests we need contemplation. I think if we work on becoming more loving and more contemplative, and then really listen to where the Holy Spirit is calling us, and actually get off our duffs and do something about it, we will end up pretty far along the road to heaven. Because, you see, heaven isn’t about what happens to us, but rather is all about how we respond to God’s love, and put that response into action, right here, right now, no matter how bad things might be in the moment. This is why a poor person fighting cancer can be light years ahead of a completely healthy and abundantly wealthy person when it comes to living a God-infused life.

Psalm 139:7-10 is instructive here, and I particularly like the King James Version. The Psalmist is addressing God and says: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” If we cannot flee the presence of God, then our choices are simple: to bask in that presence, or to struggle against it. Here, it seems to me, lies the secret of heaven and hell. Of course, basking in God’s presence is no cakewalk. It’s no hedge against suffering; on the contrary, God has an annoying habit of showing up precisely in those places where suffering is the most acute. But there’s a universe of difference between meaningless suffering and suffering that is, or can be, redeemed.

Back to contemplation: the point behind spending 20-30 minutes every morning and evening in silent prayer is simple: it’s a way of calibrating our inner compass, to keep ourselves pointed Godward. So that we can bask in God’s presence, rather than struggle against it. So that we can look for heaven not in those places that are armored against suffering, but where we can find redemption, somehow, even in the midst of the greatest of pain. And by doing these things, we don’t make suffering go away or somehow work magic to “make it all better.” But by opening ourselves up to the surprising and unexpected ways that God can redeem even the most horrible of circumstances, we begin, slowly and falteringly and with frequent failures and relapses, to live a heavenly life. Just like Ruusbroec said.

→ 3 CommentsCategories: Christian mysticism · Mysticism
Tagged: Christian mysticism, Contemplation, Heaven, John Ruusbroec, Love, Mysticism, peace, Psalm 139, suffering, The Big Book of Chrsitian Mysticism, The mind of Christ, the presence of God, Thich Nhat Hanh

What are your favorite Psalms?

November 1, 2009 · 6 Comments

For today’s Lay Cistercian meeting we have been asked to identify our ten favorite Psalms and our favorite verse from the Psalms. Here’s my list:

Psalm 4
Psalm 8
Psalm 19
Psalm 24
Psalm 34
Psalm 100
Psalm 121
Psalm 131
Psalm 133
Psalm 150

And my favorite verse is, far and away, Psalm 37:4 — “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

So what are your favorite Psalms and/or verses?

Here is the NIV Text of these Psalms: Keep reading →

→ 6 CommentsCategories: Bible · Lay Cistercians
Tagged: Bible, Lay Cistercians, Psalms, scripture

Lark in the Clear Air

October 31, 2009 · Leave a Comment

In honor of Samhain, here’s a little bit of lovely Irish music for you, sung by the lovely Irish singer Cara Dillon…

→ Leave a CommentCategories: Music
Tagged: Cara Dillon, Celtic music, Irish music, Lark in the Clear Air, Samhain

Saturday with St. Benedict (and me)

October 30, 2009 · 3 Comments

If you’re in Atlanta and looking for something to do tomorrow, why not come out to the Church of Our Saviour in Virginia-Highland, for the inaugural meeting of “Saturdays with Saint Benedict” — a bi-weekly group exploring Benedictine spirituality and its relevance to young adults today, co-sponsored by the Church of Our Saviour’s 20s & 30s group, and the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s Young Adults group. The morning kicks off at 10:00 AM with the Eucharist, followed by a gathering at which I will be speaking on Benedictine Spirituality and my experience as a Lay Cistercian in formation. Although technically this is a young adults’ group, I suspect you won’t be kicked out if you have a little bit (or a lot) of gray hair (and if anyone says anything, just say you’re with me).

The Church of Our Savior is located at 1068 North Highland Avenue in Atlanta. We’ll be meeting in the Lady Chapel (located off the lower courtyard; unfortunately not wheelchair accessible as the courtyard is below street level and accessible only by stairs).

→ 3 CommentsCategories: Announcements
Tagged: Announcements, Benedictine spirituality, Church of Our Saviour

New (and not so new) books from friends

October 29, 2009 · Leave a Comment

One of the sweet things about being an author and a blogger is that I’m always learning about wonderful new (and just “new to me”) books, often from friends of mine, either folks I know in person or acquaintances that I have found through Facebook. So this morning I thought I’d highlight a few of these books, books which I think readers of this blog will enjoy. Actually, I myself have not yet read any of these books (!), but I have at least looked at them all, and they all look pretty juicy.

First, here are two books from folks here in the Atlanta area. In neither case is my friend the author, but with Planet of Grace my friend James Stephen Behrens provided the photographic illustrations to accompany Bernadette McCarver Snyder’s text; and this recently issued edition of The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel was translated by local scholar Carmen Acevedo Butcher. My connection to both of these persons comes from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit: Father James is one of the monks at the monastery, and Carmen I met when she came to the Abbey Store to buy some fudge! Planet of Grace is all about the spirituality of life embedded in the earth (“biosphere one”), with lovely photographs all taken on the monastery grounds. The Cloud needs no introduction to readers of this blog, as it is one of the towering masterpieces of English mysticism (and Christian mysticism in general).

Now for a few books from my online friends, only one of whom I have met face to face, and he only briefly. Theology of Wonder is the oldest book on this list, having been published in 1999, it is by the Orthodox Bishop, Seraphim Sigrist. It consists of a series of short meditations “where Arthurian legend, Russian iconography, Jewish wisdom and Eucharistic community come together in a stirring intimation of the world seen whole,” in the words of reviewer Michael Allison. The Orthodox Heretic is by the bad boy of emergence Christianity, Peter Rollins, in which he (according to the blurb on the back of the book) “presents a vision of faith that has little regard for the institutions of Christendom. His uncompromising critique of religion, while often unsettling, is infused with a deep and abiding love for what it means to genuinely follow Christ.” Hmmm — I don’t know, but based on how wonderful his first two books were, I’m willing to bet it will be a pretty sweet read; it also consists of a series of short parables and tales. Finally, Diana Butler Bass’ A People’s History of Christianity approaches church history with the same kind of iconoclastic “tell the story from the bottom up” methodology that Howard Zinn used in his classic A People’s History of the United States. Not surprisingly, Butler Bass gives far more air time to the mystics than most conventional church historians ever bother to do. Might be because she is interested in how ordinary Christians actually struggled to live out the gospel. What a radical idea!

So there you go. Happy reading…

→ Leave a CommentCategories: Books
Tagged: A People's History of Christianity, Bernadette McCarver Snyder, Books, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Diana Butler Bass, Facebook, friends, James Stephen Behrens, Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Peter Rollins, Planet of Grace, Seraphim Sigrist, The Book of Privy Counsel, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Orthodox Heretic, Theology of Wonder

Matthew 7:1

October 28, 2009 · 2 Comments

I had a dream last night in which I was counseling a woman, perhaps a little bit younger than me, who had struggled with addiction much of her adult life. Eventually she began to turn her life around and became involved in a small church. Unfortunately, she still would act out from time to time, and this impacted her religious life when, at a church picnic, she engaged in a sexual encounter with another member of the church — a married man.

As she told me this story, she mentioned that as a new member of the church, she had an assigned friend — sort of a sponsor or “big sister” — who reacted with anger and shaming when she learned of the indiscretion. After I heard the entire story, I said to her, “I’m not sure how useful it is to pass judgment on  how immoral your actions may have been; rather we should simply discern how your choices are, or are not, the most loving for all concerned.”

I woke up and the dream has stayed with me. It has no bearing on anything that has “really” happened to me, although certainly during my Pagan years I had plenty of friends who engaged in all sorts of sexual activity that would make your average churchgoing Christian’s toes curl. I think this is more likely related to a conversation I had with a monk the other day about Catholic identity as an adult convert. He emphasized over and over again that “we are the church,” meaning that it is a mistake to think only of clergy or the hierarchy when thinking of the church: that the church consists of all the people who gather together, not just those who do it full-time.

We are the church. And we have no idea what to do when members of our ranks engage in acting-out behavior, especially such behavior as directly or indirectly hurts other people. Far be it from me to condone adultery or other forms of sexual malfeasance. But when I consider the dynamics of my dream, I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. He saves her from being stoned by challenging her accusers to let only a sinless person cast the first stone, and one by one they leave. Finally he tenderly ministers to the frightened woman, reminding her that it would be a good idea not to put herself in that position again.

Absent from both my dream, and the Jesus story, is any mention of the man involved. How often are we inconsistent in handing out our judgment, zeroing in on someone who is vulnerable, or lacks social standing, and making them scapegoats for all our collective sins?

We are commanded by Christ not to judge one another. Meanwhile, if we do not maintain some sort of collective boundary-setting that distinguishes healthy/okay behavior from other actions that are not healthy and not okay, only chaos will ensue. Somewhere between judgment and chaos is the place of Christian sensibility, where we can begin to address the great sins of our time: and I’m not just talking about who’s in bed with who. I’m also talking about who’s judging who, who’s abusing who, who’s oppressing who, who is trashing the environment, who is getting wealthy at the expense of others, who is curtailing the life and freedom of others on the basis of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual identity,  who is destroying their own lives or the lives of others with drugs or other unhealthy substances. And on and on the list goes.

It’s all really quite overwhelming, which is why I suppose Jesus was far more interested in us working on the sticks in our own eyes rather than the splinters in each others’. Perhaps the best way to move out of judgment and into loving discernment is to begin doing so with our own selves.

→ 2 CommentsCategories: Christianity
Tagged: Christian ethics, Christian morality, discernment, Dream, judgment, sin

“An enlightened power of reason and a love common to all”

October 27, 2009 · Leave a Comment

John RuusbroecJohn Ruusbroec (1293-1381) is one of the greatest of the Christian mystics. His masterpiece, The Spiritual Espousals (sometimes translated as The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage) in my opinion belongs on the short list of “must read” classics of western mysticism.

Here is just a taste of the poetic breadth of his wisdom. At one point in the book he writes about the various gifts of the Holy Spirit as described in Isaiah 11. One of these gifts, Understanding, can be seen as comprising several effects, including simplicity in the spirit, enlightenment, and love in the will. To quote the mystic himself, spiritual Understanding leads to “an enlightened power of reason and a love common to all.” In other words, the Holy Spirit’s gift of Understanding transforms the intellect (leading to enlightened reasons) and also the will (leading to love for all).

How, then, does this manifest in the life of the believer? Ruusbroec provides a list of qualities that is well worth reflecting on:

  • Humility, the “foundation of all virtue,” is the starting point of the life of enlightened reason and common love;
  • Worship, which when offered with honor and reverence to God will “lift up in spirit” we who seek God’s love;
  • Praise, Thanksgiving and Service, the elements of worship, will in Ruusbroec’s words enable us to “thus become free”;
  • Confessing and lamenting the blindness and ignorance of human nature — rather than focus on our private moral failings, he calls us to confess, in solidarity with others, all the corporate failings of our human nature;
  • Desiring the enlightenment of all — if we confess the sins of all, ought we not also fervently desire the healing and transformation of all?
  • Beseeching God’s mercy on behalf of others, so that they might advance in virtue; this leads to greater corporate love for God;
  • Giving generously to those in need, out of God’s rich goodness — Ruusbroec recognizes that this is more effective than mere evangelizing of others; supporting those in need helps to naturally create the space where we all may love God more;
  • Offering to God our imitation of Christ, which, when done out of love, will deepen our sense of God’s response to our prayer;
  • Offering to God our devotion to the angels, saints and all good people, which will deepen our sense of being part of the communion of saints; in Ruusbroec’s words, “we will thus be united with them all in the glory of God”;
  • Offering to God the good work of the church and our participation in the Eucharist — another surprise: many might think of the Eucharist as belonging at the head of a list like this, but Ruusbroec places it at the end. The good work of the church, including the miracle of the sacraments, does not lead our response to God’s gifts in our lives, but rather functions as a summation of that response. Ruusbroec affirms that through our participation in the sacramental life of the church “through Christ we might meet God, become like him in a love common to all, transcend all likeness in simplicity, and be united with him in essential unity.”

Ruusbroec summarizes this list by flatly declaring “this is the richest kind of life I know.” It seems to me that not only does the spiritual gift of Understanding naturally lead to the cultivation of all these other blessings, but that it can work the other way around: and we who seek to live the life of joyful response to God’s grace can work on each of these ways of responding to Divine Love, and in doing so we create the space in our souls for the gift of Understanding to be poured in.

→ Leave a CommentCategories: Christian mysticism · Mysticism
Tagged: Christian mysticism, Gifts of the Holy Spirit, humility, John Ruusbroec, Prayer, Spiritual Espousals, Understanding, worship

Tessa Bielecki’s Recommended Reading for Growing in Intimacy with Christ

October 26, 2009 · 4 Comments

In her CD teaching series Wild at Heart: Radical Teachings of the Christian Mystics, former-Carmelite-turned-desert hermit Tessa Bielecki offers a wealth of suggestions of books one can read to deepen a sense of who Christ is. This veritable library for Christian formation includes poetry, art books, lives of saints and mystics, and children’s stories. In other words, it’s not just a dry selection of commentaries on the Gospels, thank heaven. Indeed, it is such a wonderful list that I took the time to write down all her recommendations, and so I’m archiving it here (this is somewhat of a selfish exercise, for many of these books I myself am unfamiliar with, and so this list is in large measure a wish list for yours truly). Let me begin by recommending Wild at Heart itself: it’s a six-CD set that in many ways beautifully complements my forthcoming Big Book of Christian Mysticism: it celebrates Christian mysticism not as some interesting footnote to church history, but as a living, breathing, dynamic spirituality into which each of us are being called, here and now, in our own unique way of course. If you enjoy reading my blog, I think it’s safe to say you’ll enjoy Tessa’s CDs.

Once you get your hands on Wild at Heart you’ll find disc four to be filled with all sorts of interesting recommendations for further reading. Here is that list, for your browsing pleasure. The first eight titles include poetry, not all of which is necessarily Christian or even religious, but which can initiate us into the mystery and wonder that lies at the heart of an encounter with Christ. Then comes two books that feature images of Christ from around the world, that can help to liberate us from the idolatry of only envisioning Christ in our own image. Bielecki then turns her attention to Christian mystics and to Christian saints, noting that one way to deepen our intimacy with Christ is by learning more about the greatest lovers of Christ throughout history. Finally, she caps off her list by commending C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, noting that his image of Christ as the wild lion, Aslan, can be particularly useful for those of us who lead overly domesticated lives.

With the poets, Bielecki only mentions the author by name, and so I’ve taken the liberty of selecting a work or two for each author that seems to best represent that particular poet’s work. Of course, if you are drawn to a particular poet, you may well wish to take your exploration further.

So here’s the list:

So there you go. Happy reading, and happy deepening of your intimacy with Christ.

→ 4 CommentsCategories: Books · Christian mysticism · Christianity · spirituality
Tagged: C. S. Lewis, Czesław Miłosz, Denise Levertov, Frederick Buechner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Harvey Egan, James Harpur, Mary Oliver, Peggy Rosenthal, Phyllis McGinley, Robert Ellsburg, Ron O'Grady, Tessa Bielecki

Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

October 25, 2009 · 17 Comments

Ken Wilber describes a significant malaise of our time as “boomeritis.” What he means by this is the tendency among highly educated and self-actualized persons (as typified by the baby boomer generation) to embrace values that include pluralism, egalitarianism, subjective/personal understandings of truth, and a general “live and let live” ethos, but that often appears marred by egocentrism, narcissism, and self-absorption. In other words, a laudable value system that promotes freedom of conscience can also devolve into a fragmented world where everyone does his or her own thing and, as a result, community flounders. I’m reminded of a friend of mine — a highly educated, successful businesswoman, who is devoted to her own spiritual practice — who always speaks of truth in possessive terms: she has “her truth,” I have “my truth,” and so on. In her cosmology, everyone is entitled to his or her “own” truth. What is not possible is any kind of grand narrative or truth claims that take us outside of ourselves and force us to play on a level field with everyone else.

I was reading one of Wilber’s books this morning in which he describes this problem, and thought about one of the reasons I was drawn back to Christianity from Paganism (a pluralistic, egalitarian spirituality if there ever were one). It had to do with the culture of self-sacrifice, humility, and asceticism that is at the heart of Christian spiritual practice. These values are often rejected by non-Christians as dysfunctional and/or patriarchal. But I think the Christian emphasis on self-denial can also function as a corrective to the pervasive narcissism of our time.

The danger in Christianity comes when believers settle for narrow or limited models of Christian experience. For example, one widespread model of Christianity in our culture emphasizes pre-scientific ways of understanding the cosmos or pre-modern ways of relating to authority (in other words, fundamentalism: think Jerry Falwell). Another model emphasizes scholarly approaches to the Bible and often has a strong bias toward social action — but against the culture of self-sacrifice that has historically exemplified Christian spirituality (the liberalism of Rudolf Bultmann or Bishop Spong epitomize this variety of the faith). Alas, relatively few people in the pews really seem to be engaging with a full and rich experience of Christianity: combining a deep devotion to the traditional spirituality of the religion with the challenges of bringing Christianity into dialogue with the knowledge of science or the wisdom of other faiths. Those who do embody, as far as I have seen, some of the most beautiful expressions of the faith. In other words, Christians who seek to be wise as serpents (by embracing science and multi-culturalism in addition to their own faith identity), but also innocent as doves (by taking seriously Christianity’s call to self-denial, thus dodging our cultural tendency to narcissism and individualistic self-absorption) often seem to be the most truly Christ-like in their values and relationships.

Fundamentalist Christianity is anchored in obeisance to unquestioned authority and a tribal way of thinking about the world at large. Liberal Christianity rejects the above and instead tries to “de-mythologize” scripture and express the faith in a rational, and even anti-metaphysical way, emphasizing social justice over spiritual transformation. Then there is postmodern or emergence Christianity, which acknowledges that the Christian narrative is only one among many narratives, and often celebrates Christianity as a subversive, counter-cultural project. The problem with each of these expressions of the faith is that they are often hostile to the others. Perhaps when Christ issued the call to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16), he prophetically envisioned a time when some Christians would be authoritarian/tribal, others rationalist/materialist, and still others multi-cultural/pluralist. We are wise when we engage with all three of these expressions of the faith; and we are innocent when we refuse to allow any one of them to ignite our own narcissistic tendencies, by which we would trade devotion to the wild, untameable God for a smaller faith that is geared toward personal comfort and self-satisfaction.

What does it mean to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? It means to pray our way into a truly Integral Christianity. I don’t think it’s been born yet. We’re still in the labor pains.

→ 17 CommentsCategories: Christianity · Integral Theory
Tagged: Boomeritis, Christianity, Integral Theory, Ken Wilber

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111 Mystics

The following list of books represent those writings by 111 Pagan, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystics dating from the beginning of the common era to the present day. Please buy a book or two (or all 111!). Click on any title to purchase the book from Amazon.com. A portion of the proceeds from your purchase help to pay for the hosting costs of this website. Thank you!


5 responses so far ↓

  • 111 Mystics Update « The Cloud and the Hazelnut // March 15, 2007 at 9:37 am

    [...] 111 Mystics Update Published March 15th, 2007 111 Mystics I fear that I have been remiss in keeping my blog up-to-date in regard to my 111 Mystics Project. [...]

  • A Mini-Sabbatical... « The Cloud and the Hazelnut // May 14, 2007 at 8:43 am

    [...] Published May 14th, 2007 111 Mystics Continuing my journey through 111 of the great western mystics that I began in late 2004, recently I’ve been plodding through the A. C. Ionides translation [...]

  • Jane Hutchinson // June 26, 2007 at 7:27 am


    It is me again. I have almost finished your book, but with your book I checked out another one out of the library. I don’t see it on your list (of 111, haven’t checked the long version so forgive me if it’s there) so I thought I’d pop by and let you know of it’s existence.

    It’s written by a Western Sufi (my designation, not necessarily his) named Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and is titled, The Circle of Love. [ISBN: 1-890350-02-8, 1999, The Golden Sufi Center, Inverness, CA.]

    Maybe you already have it in your library or have read it. If not, I believe, based on what I see listed by you here, that it would be a great addition to your reading list. It’s quite amazing and my first exposure to Sufi Mysticism. He also blends in many other faiths.

    I’ll be back to purchase some books through your site in a week or so.

    Seattle, WA

  • links for 2007-07-17 « notations / lurking chihuahua // July 17, 2007 at 7:31 am

    [...] 111 Mystics (My Reading List) « The Website of Unknowing (tags: books blog) [...]

  • Jacquelyn Judd // April 13, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    I am excited about finding your website (via Aon), and I am very much looking forward to reading along with you and discussing these books.

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  1. The Coming of the Cosmic Christ by Matthew Fox
  2. Dark Night of the Soul by St john of the Cross
  3. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries by Mircea Eliade
  4. The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult by Leon Surette
  5. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

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