Words are emotive, they create in us a response, a reaction. The emotional reaction to words comes from one of two places: our personal experience; and also our total inexperience, where we nonetheless have created a totally unfounded pre-conditioned meaning to a word, perhaps from something others have said, or simply from our imaginings of the word and its meaning. From the latter comes a great deal of prejudice expressed in all sorts of ways.
The word ‘mystic’, for many Christians, is one such word, a very emotive word. To some when it is said the transcendent tradition or writings of such people as Meister Eckhart or Teresa of Avila come to mind, for others however, there is a negative reaction as it is simply something which is associated with ‘other’ beliefs’.
In my book ‘The Mystic Path of Meditation’ (see ‘books’ link to the left) I describe the word near the beginning. In it I say “…the true meaning of the word “mystic” points to practices I wholeheartedly endorse. According to the dictionary, a mystic is ‘one who, through meditation and contemplation, seeks to become of one mind and will with their Deity.’ Based on this definition, then, all who seek to truly follow Christ should strive to be mystics.” It’s as simple as that, a mystic is someone who uses contemplative practices to become more like their Deity. All who desire to be more like God/Christ are called to be mystics therefore, and all can be.
In ‘The Big Book of Christian Mysticism’ (highly recommended!) Carl McColman describes mysticism as ‘Christianity’s best kept secret’ and that ‘Christian mysticism is not the same as ordinary religious belief or observance. It has room for profound doubt and questioning. It does not ask you to check your mind at the door and submit your will to some sort of external authority…Christian mysticism invites us to look at God, Christ, the church, our own souls, and our understanding of such things as ‘sin’ or ‘holiness’ in new ways [to what you might be used to]…It is a revolutionary way to approach God and Christ and spirituality. It is an ancient wisdom tradition…which promises to transform the lives of people who seriously and sincerely apply its wisdom to their own life circumstances”.
Mysticism and contemplation are inextricably interwoven. We gain the benefits of the mystic path by practicing contemplation. We become still and we become quiet in our inner selves, through which we gain a deeper experience and understanding of the Divine. In fact, those who we now, in our modern terminology, call ‘mystics’ from the Christian tradition, would most likely have referred to themselves as ‘contemplatives’. The art of contemplation, or ‘intentional silence’, allows us to become mystics, to regularly practice contemplation and meditation is to walk the mystic path. The subtitle to ‘The Big Book of Christian Mysticism’ is, in fact, ‘The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality’, and a follow up book of McColman’s is entitled ‘Answering the Contemplative Call – First Steps on the Mystical Path’.
Words, as I said at the start, are powerful, but something equally as powerful is silence. No words. Often we use words to distract our inner selves from dealing with the things within us that really should be dealt with. This is why some people are so afraid, or respond badly to silence. We hide behind the words, the busyness of our inner self. Words can, in fact, sometimes be counterproductive in our prayer life and our relationship with God. Sometimes we just need to stop talking, out loud or in our heads, and just sit in silence. Father Thomas Keating, who founded ‘Contemplative Outreach’ and teaches and writes on ‘Centring Prayer’, once said ‘God’s first language is silence, the rest is interpretation’.
When was the last time you engaged in intentional silence? Not just switching all the external noise off, although that is good, but intentional silence. Deliberately creating an inner environment of quiet and calm, stillness and silence.
Intentional silence is a first step in contemplation, which is the path to mysticism, to becoming more of one mind and will with the Divine.
Meister Eckhart, a 14th century Dominican Friar and often seen as one of the ‘great’ Christian mystics said “If God is to speak his word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace, and then he will speak his word, and himself, in the soul”. Eckhart always referred to the soul as a ‘she’, and here he reminds us that if we truly wish to hear and know God’s word and in fact his Self, then our soul, our inner self must be ‘at rest and at peace’.
To deliberately put time out, to create opportunities in our lives, for intentional silence is perhaps one of the most important but highly neglected practices of the modern church. As Mark Yaconelli says in ‘Contemplative Youth Ministry’ “The contemplative tradition of the Christian faith comes to us as a precious gift in an age when no one has time to sit still”, and as I point out in ‘The Mystic Path of Meditation’, “according to Brian Hedges of Life Action Ministries, [only] one in every 10,000 Christians meditate regularly”.
There is a lot of talk these days about transforming the church. Especially following a recent UK report to suggest that the 'non religious' now outnumber the Christians for the first time in hundreds of years. Many folk are seeing that the church as it is is not doing what it is meant to be doing, and not as it was intended to be, lots of people feeling despondent with mainstream church, feeling that they don’t fit in (see my previous blog ‘Ecclesiastical Monachopsis’). Perhaps Karl Rahner, a 20th century German Jesuit Priest, was right when he said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all”. By mysticism, Rahner explains, he does not mean some esoteric phenomenon but “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”
This here is the heart of it. Putting time out for intentional silence, to practice contemplation, to walk the mystic path, is to gain and live within a constant awareness of the Divine presence, and to “experience…God emerging from the very heart of our existence”. If we, as individual Christians all practice this, then the collective, known as ‘church’ will be entirely transformed into something positive for humanity, and the rest of creation too, something which will deeply reflect the true character of the Divine, and perhaps we would experience God truly emerging from the very heart of the church’s existence.
Practice intentional silence. Walk the mystic path. Encounter God more deeply, more personally. Be transformed.
A tiny reading list from what is available, but good places to start
Cole, David. The Mystic Path of Meditation – beginning a Christ centred journey
Heath, Elaine A. The Mystic Way of Evangelism – a contemplative vision for Christian outreach
Keating, Thomas. Intimacy with God – an introduction to centring prayer
McColman, Carl. Answering the Contemplative Call – first steps on the mystical path
McColman, Carl. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism – the essential guide to contemplative spirituality
Nelstrop, Louise. Christian Mysticism – an introduction to contemporary theoretical approaches
Rohr, Richard. The Naked Now – seeing as the mystics see
Underhill, Evelyn. Practical Mysticism for Normal People
Any primary sources from the mystics/contemplatives of the Christian heritage.
Many secondary sources about the mystics/contemplatives of the Christian heritage.