I finished Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, quite a few days ago. When my husband asked me what I thought of it, the main thing that I kept trying to get across is how amazed I was by how much ground Carl managed to cover in so few pages. Despite the title, it’s really not a very big book – just 300 pages. But it does cover a substantial amount of material in those 300 pages! It’s truly quite an accomplishment.
I wrote a post about 75 pages into the book about how I was a bit troubled by the idea of “selling mysticism”. Having finished the book, this still troubles me. The book could potentially be categorized as a guide for aspiring mystics which would be OK except based on my understanding of mysticism, an aspiring mystic is an oxymoron. Had the book been titled The Big Book of Christian Spirituality or The Big Book of Contemplative Christianity or something just slightly less ambiguous than “mystic”, it wouldn’t trouble me in the least.
It’s not that I think of mysticism as something magical, unattainable and only for the few. Nor do I consider mysticism to be “special”. Mysticism is simply a term that expresses a human potential that is very difficult to explain in rational terms. The trouble with writing a guide for aspiring mystics, as I see it, is that by turning mysticism into an achievable goal, we weaken that potential rather than strengthen it. The Buddhists say that the desire to be enlightened is a direct obstacle to enlightenment itself. Desire is desire is desire, even if it is for something lofty like enlightenment or being a mystic. What we seek we will forever seek. Realization does not necessarily require a quest, it is the quest. Eventually, we have to abandon the quest for our object of desire and “leap”. In the old French text, “The Quest of the Holy Grail” was not called “The Quest for the Holy Grail”. The title has been distorted by a goal driven culture. Consider the difference between a “Quest of God” and a “Quest for God”. The two barely resemble one another. One is focused upon a journey (process), the other upon an end result/acquisition (a goal).
Carl is obviously aware of this conundrum. He provides an entire chapter on Christian paradox because he says that mysticism is “all about paradox”. I agreed with the vast majority he listed but disagreed with a few, too. Especially, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perfect love casts out fear.” True, love casts out fear. But “the fear of the Lord” isn’t “fear, or dread or existential angst”. It’s Awe. Which, of course, doesn’t require a belief in God but works just fine if you do believe in God. And of course I have a problem with – “Mysticism is the quest for God. You cannot seek God unless God has found you.” Obviously, I do not agree that mysticism is the quest for God. Nor do I agree that all love is about seeking a beloved. Love is a choice and a journey. Not necessarily a quest for a beloved. Carl says things don’t work out at the end of Romeo and Juliet, but they do. The House of Montague and the House of Capulet, after decades and possibly centuries of being at war with each other, are reconciled in the end. Romeo and Juliet’s youthful, trusting love was not in vain. To me mysticism isn’t about seeking God. It’s the realization that we are already One with God. It is trust in God because God is trust. (Jeremiah 17:7 NASB.) Even though everything is a mess, all is well.
Carl says mystics would be at home in Missouri, the “show me” state, because seeing is believing. But I think what mystics understand is that it’s really the other way around. We don’t actually believe it when we see it. We see it when we believe it. How we choose to perceive the world is a choice we make. I do, however, fully agree with the paradox he used with the Missouri example: “Mysticism is about experience. Mysticism cannot be limited to experience.” Mysticism is rational because it is based upon experience. Mystics warn that our experience should be tested before trusted – is this an authentic experience or something generated by my own egoic drive? But at the same time, mysticism is not limited to experience because it is transrational. That is a beautiful paradox!
Carl says mysticism is like tofu. Not a bad analogy in and of itself, but he goes on to say, “If tofu’s strength lies in its ability to adapt to whatever dish it’s cooked in, its weakness lies in its lack of defining taste or texture on its own.” True, tofu is extremely adaptable. But my husband and daughter will eat tofu straight from the carton. They like it that way. Maybe that’s a little weird, but there are others like them. And anyway, the spiciest spice does not define taste or texture on its own anymore than does tofu. What is tasted requires a taster. The taster’s judgment about what is tasted is based on personal preference, not on the actuality of what is tasted. The apparent lack of defining taste or texture in tofu is not its weakness. That is its strength. Just as tofu does not require a savory dish to make it palatable, mysticism doesn’t have to take on a particular religious dogma in order to be perceived as beautiful.
Nietzsche was not religious, but is considered by many, including me, to be a mystic. He likewise inspired numerous people of various religious and non-religious backgrounds who are considered by many to be mystics: Martin Buber, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Paul Tillich, Jung, Rilke, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence… (Toward the end of his book, Carl says that “at the heart of eternal being is ever-evolving becoming”. That’s very Nietzsche!) Tofu is just fine on its own for lots of people. So is mysticism. Maybe you like tofu in savory dishes better than you like it plain and prefer mysticism expressed through beautiful religious symbols and practices. But that doesn’t mean it must be expressed in that way. It’s simply a matter of personal preference.
Of course, in all fairness, Carl’s book is specifically about Christian mysticism and was likely written primarily with Catholics in mind. I belong to a mainline Methodist Church which is big into things like Prevenient Grace and the Quadrilateral (the balance between and within scripture, tradition, reason and experience). Our church was founded by a mystic, John Wesley – “the reasonable enthusiast” – so I don’t think many Methodists would have a problem with Carl’s book. (Enthusiasts in Wesley’s day were the crazy charismatic types who were more concerned with magic and the spirit world than the rational world. Wesley was called an enthusiast because he had mystical experiences, but he was also a solid rationalist.) As far as I can tell, nothing in Carl’s book counters Methodism and I don’t think it would offend anyone except, perhaps, disgruntled ex-Catholics and the more literal among us. It might be the perfect book for some people in our church although I can only imagine the more ecumenical being interested in reading it because it is so heavily Catholic. Most with an ecumenical bent would likely already be familiar with what Carl has to say because the problem with covering so much ground in so few pages is that Carl can’t go as deeply into these concepts as he is definitely capable of going.
I actually bought the book hoping it would provide a bridge between paganism and Christian mysticism since Carl was a pagan in a previous life. I have lots of Unitarian Universalist friends who are very skeptical of Christianity. Most of them are UU Pagans. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this book will provide much help in bridging that particular gap. However, having once been an integral part of Catholicism for a decade of my life (and that I continue to be involved with it through my husband’s family), I do think Carl’s book will likely be very helpful to many people within the Catholic community. It speaks their language and is solidly grounded in Catholic tradition. I plan to purchase another copy for my husband’s brothers and sister to share. They have all been active Catholics their entire lives and have likely never once missed a weekly mass. But it’s only been within the the last decade or so that they have developed a more spiritual interest in their religion. When I met my husband, he was contemplating becoming a Jesuit priest. Not sure why he had such strong spiritual leanings so young while the rest of his family did not, but it was definitely his spirituality that attracted me to him. Had I read this book 20 years ago when I was first becoming Catholic (primarily for his sake – I was already deeply rooted in Methodism), I would have devoured it and would have wanted to discuss it with every person willing to discuss it with me. I also think the decision to become Catholic would have been much easier for me. Of course, can’t say it makes me want to return to Catholicism now that I’ve left it, but that’s another matter altogether.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
As long as we acknowledge that mysticism is, at its heart, about a deep and profound mystery that cannot be put into words, we can (and, perhaps should) acknowledge that it is precisely in this dimension of mystery that people of different faiths and different wisdom traditions can relate to each other – not in a spirit of competition of hostility, but in a genuinely open, compassionate, and respectful manner. (p. 64)
First of all, mystical Christianity is less about attaining unity with God and more about creating the inner emptiness where you can offer God hospitality. (p. 161)
So again we enter the realm of paradox. Mysticism is a journey; and it’s not a journey. It’s a climb up the mountain; it’s a transformation that happens right here, right now – no movement necessary. Since paradox is at the heart of mystical experience, the journey/not-journey becomes yet another key to unlocking the depth of the Christian mysteries. (p. 184)
The paradox at the heart of mysticism emerges from the paradox of being human. That which is infinite cannot be be squeezed into a finite container, no matter how grand and noble and beautiful that container may be. (p. 191)