I read Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality (2010, Hampton Roads Publishing) while on a long flight from Singapore to South Africa, and reflected on the book while I was on safari in Kruger National Park. Amidst the raw chill of a morning on the African savannah plain while watching a glorious sunrise, adoration for the divine fills my heart, and I had a glimpse of what the mystics of all ages have been trying to explain to us. It resonates with what McColman writes about Christian mysticism,
Christian mysticism is all about experience – the experience of union with God, or of God. But it is also about a spiritual reality that undermines experience itself, deconstructing all your masks and self-defen[c]es (sic) and leaving you spiritually naked and vulnerable before the silence of the Great Mystery. It is the spirituality of bringing heaven to earth, and of going through hell while here on earth in order to get to heaven (p.9).
McColman structures his book into two parts. The first part explains what mysticism especially Christian mysticism is and the second is how to be a mystic through a contemplative life. The book is written in such an easy to understand way that a reader may easily miss how much knowledge and experience is needed to make such a complex subject appear simple. I discern that McColman has depth knowledge of many of the Christian mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, author of the Cloud of Unknowing and Hildegard of Bingen.
McColman’s writing reflects the output of a gentle and kind soul who wants to share what he knows but is fearful of the repercussions. He walks gingerly through the minefield of what we commonly called mysticism. He is wise to limit himself specifically to Christian mysticism. Even then, he is aware of many well meaning Christians to whom the word mysticism is synonymous with New Age, not realising many Old and New Testament heroes of the faith may be considered mystics. I appreciate the way he grounds Christian mysticism in the Trinity, the revelation of God in his word (Bible), the Mystery of the Divine and in community. It is not often that mystics are understood in the context of their communities.
The second part deals with the heart of mysticism which involves kenosis (self-emptying) and perichoresis (analogy of the divine dance of the Trinity) which McColman calls the contemplative life. He introduces certain spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina (spiritual reading) and prayer-beyond-words which prime us to the contemplative life.
The heart of the book is what he calls the “mystical paradoxes.” The mark of spiritual maturity is to be able to hold in tension two seemingly opposing spiritual truths and yet be at peace about it. This is Christian mysticism. Unlikely systematic theology which gives the illusion that everything can be neatly explained in propositions, mysticism reveals that God is still a Mystery to our finite mind. McColman notes that “[a] God that you cannot comprehend is a God you cannot manipulate. This, I believe, is a God of true grace, a God worthy of worship” (p.77).
These “mystical paradoxes” that McColman highlights are:
• Mysticism is the quest for God vs You cannot seek God unless God has found you
• Mysticism is about experience vs mysticism cannot be limited to experience
• God is immanent vs God is transcendent
• Mysticism involves significant, life-transforming events and changes in consciousness vs a mystical experience may seem as insignificant as the Butterfly Effect
• You can do nothing to “earn” the mystical life vs If you are passive, you will be thwarting the action of the Holy Spirit
• Mysticism is the “flight of the alone to the Alone” vs Christ is present “where two or three are gathered” in his name
• God is One vs God is a Holy Trinity
• Christ is fully human vs Christ is fully divine
• Seek the light vs Embrace the dark
• Take delight in God vs Accept even suffering
• God is all-merciful vs God is uncompromising in his justice
• Seek holiness vs Practice hospitality
• Plumb deeply the Christian tradition vs Embrace all positive wisdom
• Love God’s creation vs Do not love the world
• Humankind is sinful vs humankind is invited to participate in union with God
• The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom vs Perfect love casts out fear
• Place your hope in the future when you will find conscious union with God vs Live in the present moment; that’s the only place you’ll ever find God
• Live by faith vs Live the truth
• Authentic Christian mysticism conforms to Biblical and church teaching vs Mysticism is following spiritual vision to greater freedom
• Pray methodically vs Prayer cannot be reduced to a method
• Become like little children vs Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind
• Mysticism is an intellectual pursuit vs True mysticism is mostly about the heart
• The mystical journey is like climbing a mountain – it’s a lifelong journey to reach the place God is calling you vs There’s nothing separating you from the love of God – right here, right now
• The Ultimate Mystery is silent vs Part of being a mystic is trying to express the effable through words
• Heaven is a gift freely given vs Hell awaits those who rejects divine love
Obviously those “mystical paradoxes” needs to be unpacked to do them justice and understandably McColman will not be able to do that even in his “big” book of 309 pages. The only fault I can find (aside from the pagination) is that this “big” book is not big enough! It would have been evenbetter if McColman expands more than what he has already done on these “mystical paradoxes.”
This is a good introductory book to Christian mysticism. Reading from the perspective of the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, I do not have any issues with what McColman has written here. Christian mysticism is an essential part of the Christian spiritual life and I agree with McColman here that everyone is a mystic (see also Paul’s writing in Ephesians 3). It will leave us with a truncated spiritual life if we neglect or reject this facet of our Christian spirituality.
Soli Deo Gloria