Gregory of Nyssa (fresco in Chora Church)

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AM writes:

I find most of your posts on the contemplative life too congested with many labels and categories – mystics and non-mystics, oppositional thinking and non-oppositional thinking, Christian mysticism and ordinary Christian spirituality, Protestant mystics and Catholic mystics, mysticism and contemplation, etc. This appears to me not only an intellectual congestion but also a spiritual noise, a portrayal of a lack of inner silence. Somehow, I visit your blog … to be nourished by a certain quality I call “singlemindedness”. This is something I sensed to be absent in your blog.

I spent two hours last night writing a response to this comment. It took me to a place where I had to face my own rage at a cosmos where a young woman could spend her entire life so trammeled by illness. It was just a wee bit too vulnerable for me, so I decided to keep things simple.

In short, AM is right. Singlemindedness? I have no idea what that is. I’m clearly a son of Martha (if you don’t know who Martha is, see Luke 10). Intellectual congestion? Yep. Lack of inner silence? You bet.

Just to keep this short and simple: I write about contemplation and the mystical life not because I am any kind of “master,” but actually for the precise opposite reason: because I am hardly accomplished (whatever that means). I am, at best, an “aspiring contemplative,” a keystone cop of the inner life. My archetype is the clown, not the sage. This is why I compare mysticism to tofu and contemplation to the Dufflepuds in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (yes, that was a plug for my recently published and my forthcoming books). If you come to this blog looking for insight into the mind of a “true” contemplative, I’m afraid all you will find is this poor boy, trying the best he can with a pretty unimpressive level of skill. Sorry, but that’s what you get.

Of course, I hope folks won’t decide this blog is a waste of time. I rather like knowing that there are others out there who struggle with silence, who cannot figure out why their mind remains so congested despite their best and most sincere efforts, who are driven almost to the point of despair over how singlemindedness eludes them. I like it that you guys read my blog and offer me advice, encouragement, and the occasional kick in the pants (I see the comment above as one of those kicks). And I hope that this blog, miserable and imperfect though it may be, might offer a similar measure of enthusiasm and encouragement to its readers.

I’m teaching an introduction to Christian mysticism class right now through the Emory Center for Lifelong Learning. Last Thursday night, the lecture was on the history of Christian mysticism from the New Testament through Francis and Clare of Assisi. At the beginning of the lecture, I apologized in advance for what I was sure would be a snooze of a talk. After all, just how exciting can obscure folks from over a millennium ago (like Isaac of Ninevah, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa) can be? But at the end of the class, one of the students complimented me. “That wasn’t boring at all,” he said. “Your enthusiasm for the subject more than made up for how dry it is.” I was touched. I may not be a Bernard McGinn or an Andrew Louth, but at least I’m passionate about all this stuff.

So that’s what this blog offers: enthusiasm and passion for the silent life and the practice of contemplation. It’s the enthusiasm of a slow learner, a middle aged guy who’s angry at God because he has a terminally ill stepdaughter and a wife whose life is shaped by grief for her little girl’s pain. But somehow, I cling to my faltering attempts to find silence, because I know that’s the only way I can deal with all that anger and turbulence I continually find within. And I hope that in the midst of my many mistakes, perhaps you can find some encouragement to enter into your own adventure in silence. At any rate, that’s my prayer.