The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
Selected as one of the best spiritual books of 2010 by www.spiritualityandpractice.com!
Mysticism is a topic many people associate with eastern spiritual practices such as Zen Buddhism or yoga. But Christianity has its own mystical tradition with a long and rich history that reaches back to the New Testament — and remains surprisingly relevant today. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism explores this rich tradition and shows how it can be a powerful tool for transformation and the experience of the Divine.
One of the greatest Christian theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, once said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Such a statement challenges Christians of our day (we live in Rahner’s future!) to consider the role of mysticism in the Christian life. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism does just that.
As an introduction to Christian mysticism and an exploration of why mysticism remains relevant in our time, the first part of the book explores the question of what mysticism is, examining its Biblical roots, its paradoxical nature, and how Christian mysticism has evolved over time. The second part of the book considers how mysticism can make a difference in the lives of ordinary Christians today, considering how spiritual practices such as lectio divina, meditation, and contemplative prayer can foster a deeper openness to Divine presence. An extensive list of the greatest Christian mystics, a recommended reading list, and a bibliography round out this in-depth introduction.
Selected as one of the best spiritual books of 2010 by www.spiritualityandpractice.com, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism has been highly praised by a variety of spiritual teachers and authors.
When I was eighteen years old, a friend of mine loaned me a copy of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Like many folks raised in a mainstream Christian context, I had no idea that Christianity had such a rich and storied history of men and women who experienced profound, life-changing mystical encounters with God — nor did I have any sense that such a tradition could remain relevant, even today. But Underhill’s book opened the door to that wondrous spiritual world for me, and I have been an enthusiastic seeker of the mysteries ever since. I’ve come to believe that mysticism is Christianity’s “best kept secret,” and that a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, Christian mysticism can help Christians find greater meaning and joy in their faith, and help non-Christians to see the wisdom tradition that began with Jesus of Nazareth in a new light.
Given how important Underhill’s book has been to my own spiritual life, I discerned a desire to write an introduction to Christian mysticism for the third millennium. While my book can never replace or supplant hers, my hope is that it can help introduce its readers to the splendor and beauty of Christian mysticism, just as Underhill’s book made that introduction for me. So on a very personal level, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is my way of saying “thank you” to Underhill — and beyond her, to God, who Christians believe is the source of all true mystical experience.
Evelyn Underhill was a brilliant scholar who spent years researching the history and literature of mysticism. Her pioneering work led to further studies by such renowned academics as Bernard McGinn, Harvey Egan, Andrew Louth, and the late Grace Jantzen. My book is designed to serve as a complement to such important researchers and theorists. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism bridges the gap between the “ivory tower” of scholarly studies of mysticism, and the everyday experience of ordinary Christians, for whom mysticism is not a topic for bookish research, but rather an invitation to a deeper experience of God. Because I assume that my readers may not know anything about mysticism (or, for that matter, anything about Christianity!), it can be an ideal introductory book.
My spiritual journey, like that of many seekers in our time, has been marked by a variety of twists and turns. I was raised a Lutheran Christian, moving to the Episcopal/Anglican communion as a young adult. But I was also drawn to the wisdom of other traditions, including Buddhism and Neopaganism. Eventually I spent about seven years outside of Christianity, exploring Wicca, shamanism, Goddess spirituality, Celtic Druidism, Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, among other spiritual paths. But the Christian contemplative path called me back, and in my 40s I entered the Catholic Church, placing myself under the spiritual guidance of Cistercian monks and Benedictine wisdom. What all this means is that I’ve been able to ponder the meaning of Christian mysticism for people both inside and outside the institutional expression of Christianity (the church). With this in mind, I endeavored to write The Big Book of Christian Mysticism both for Christians who might be new to the topic of mysticism, but also for people outside of the Christian tradition, who may or may not be students of the mysteries, but who are unfamiliar with how mysticism has been uniquely experienced and expressed within the lineage of those who follow Jesus of Nazareth.
Mysticism is a wonderful “location” of spiritual experience, particularly for those who are more drawn to what unites all people, rather than what separates us. All through history, Christian mystics have been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue: the great conversation between people of different religions. Unlike how some Christians too often approach “others” merely as targets for conversion, the great mystics and contemplatives of the Christian faith, especially in the recent past and present, see mysticism as the bridge that enables fruitful and positive interaction across religious boundaries. Thus, Thomas Merton explored Buddhism, and Henri Le Saux became so immersed in Vedanta that he even took a new religious name as Swami Abhishiktananda. More recently, contemplatives like Cynthia Bourgeault, Tilden Edwards, Mary Margaret Funk, and Paul Knitter have been leaders on the frontier where Christian spirituality engages with the wisdom of other traditions. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is not an interfaith book per se: it really is intended to serve as an introduction to the distinctively Christian expression of mysticism. But it is written as a contribution to an understanding of spirituality that is both deep (as in deeply-rooted in the Christian path) and inclusive (open to the wisdom of others). It is my hope that readers who do not identify as Christians will nevertheless find in this book a lovely expression of a particular stream of spirituality. Meanwhile, those readers who do identify as Christians will find themselves called to a deeper, richer, more intimate, and hopefully transformational dimension of their faith.
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Praise for The Big Book of Christian Mysticism:
Mysticism is not mystifying at all, but simple, always available, and utterly clarifying. Carl McColman’s much needed book will allow you to experience this for yourself! Christians and all Seekers will find both meat and dessert in such a full meal.
— Richard Rohr, OFM, author of The Naked Now:
Learning to See as the Mystics See
and Everything Belongs
Charmingly and conversationally written, but also rich in nuance and thorough in its coverage and its attention to detail, The Big Book is, as its name suggests, a big … even an enormous … contribution to our current literature on the subject. Highly recommended.
— Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence:
How Christianity is Changing and Why
and God-Talk in America
Before I heard about The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I had been thinking about how such a book has been needed for a long time. Now, having read it, I’m glad we waited for Carl McColman to come along to write it. It’s accessible, human, well-informed, balanced, broad … just what we needed.
— Brian D. McLaren, author of A New
Kind of Christianity and
A Generous Orthodoxy
The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is a masterpiece of scholarship and wisdom. Carl McColman obviously earned his understanding of mysticism through years of research as well as his own personal spiritual journey and there is no more powerful combination for inspired writing.
— Carolyn Myss, author of Defy Gravity
and Anatomy of the Spirit
Carl McColman has both studied and practised the Christian mystical tradition, stressing its earthiness and ‘ordinariness’. Like Thomas Merton, Michael Ramsey and others, he holds that mysticism is not an esoteric realm, reserved for the very holy, but is what all Christian life is about. I strongly commend this book.
— Kenneth Leech, author of Soul Friend:
Spiritual Direction in the Modern World
A wise and supportive guidebook for those going deeper on the Christian mystical path, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is grounded in sound scholarship and thoughtful reflection (often surprisingly fresh and insightful!), but what makes it sing is the authenticity of the author’s own contemplative journey.
— The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD, author of
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
and The Wisdom Jesus
With his Big Book, Carl McColman has pulled off a tour de force: a work on Christian mysticism that is broadly accessible, but deep; scholarly but not pedantic; reverent, but judicious; thorough, but a good read; an excellent introduction to the subject for the general reader, but with plenty of meat for the specialist. Highly recommended for the neophyte, the informed, and the expert alike.
Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit
in the Christian Life
In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Carl McColman offers us a thorough and engaging exploration of Christian mysticism which he defines as a form of alchemy – that is, transformation through the Source of all Love. His wise and clear writing takes us on a wide journey through both classical and contemporary mystic guides. Ultimately he invites us to catch a glimpse of the heart of Mystery through concrete suggestions for mystical practice and be transformed ourselves.
— Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, author of
Water, Wind, Earth, & Fire:The Christian
Practice of Praying with the Elements
The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is truly a work of art as well as a spiritual guide for those who want to know more about Christian mysticism. Writing for a broad audience of readers, Carl wants everyone to become aware of that rich history and its potential meaning for today. He writes in a lively, engaging style, but his work comes out of deep wells of spiritual wisdom. Appealing to both head and heart, his book not only makes the history of Christian mysticism accessible, but also provides for readers guidance in prayer, contemplation, and transformation itself. For Carl, the great mystics are not just people specially gifted, but soul friends and spiritual mentors for anyone who seeks to live today with some degree of interiority, integrity, and joy. I highly recommend this book not only for general readers interested in mysticism and spirituality, but also for undergraduate or graduate students who need an introduction to what Carl himself calls “this ancient wisdom tradition.”
— Edward C. Sellner, PhD, author of Wisdom of the
Celtic Saints and Finding the Monk Within:
Great Monastic Values for Today
In this delightfully accessible book, Carl McColman dispels the notion that Christian mysticism exists somewhere in the ether, and reveals its solid, earthy roots. If you want a rich, nourishing life of faith, and virtues that flourish like wildflowers, read The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, and let the good news in it transform you.
— Claudia Mair Burney, author of God Alone is Enough:
A Spirited Pilgrimage with St. Teresa of Avila
If you are looking for both a primer on Christian mysticism as well as an in-depth treatment of this oft-misunderstood aspect of the spiritual life, here is your book. Readable, useful, well-researched, Carl McColman’s book helps both the novice and those already well along on the journey toward a deeper relationship with God to see that mysticism is ultimately not at all a mysterious quest, but a human — and possible — one.
— Paul Wilkes, author of Beyond the Walls:
Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life
and In Due Season: A Catholic Life
A brilliant contribution from a clear, concise and articulate author! Carl McColman’s Big Book deepens the conversation as he explores the paradoxes of the mystical/traditional approaches, outlines the bias against cultivating an interior life and illuminates the reader on practices to embrace in order to relate to a dynamic Living God.
— Lauren Artress, author of
Walking a Sacred Path
Mysticism is at the heart of faith, whatever religious or denominational flag we raise. Thoughtful, well-written doorways into these mysteries, such as this one, matter a great deal to all of us who seek communion with the Mystery Itself.
— Robert Benson, author of
The Echo Within and
In Constant Prayer
Carl McColman’s Big Book of Christian Mysticism is an excellent introduction to the topic for beginners and is informative to those who have read widely on the topic. Its prose is inviting, its subject matter accessible, and its wisdom is that of the Christian tradition. It informs and inspires.
— Dana Greene, author of Evelyn Underhill:
Artist of the Infinite Life
A remarkable overview of the riches, wisdom, paradoxes, practices, and major figures in Christian mysticism.
— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat,
authors of Spiritual Literacy:
Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life
The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is wise and wonderful, deceptively simple! Are you interested in having a relationship with something that’s ultimately unknowable? Me too. It’s not easy, but dig in, here!”
— Jon M. Sweeney, author of Almost Catholic
and The St. Francis Prayer Book
In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Carl McColman covers with uncanny clarity the 2000 years of paradox, complexity and variety that is Christian mysticism. His writing is imbued with his obvious love for and experience in this rich and under appreciated Western tradition. Part history, part expose, part practice primer, with a dash of heartfelt confession, this book will be your “go to” reference for the Christian contemplative journey.
— Phil Foster MDiv, LPC, psychotherapist and
associate minister for spiritual development,
First Christian Church Atlanta
Praise for Carl McColman:
These days, my favorite Christian blogger is probably Carl McColman. I suggest checking him out. Very, very interesting guy…
— James Ishmael Ford, author of Zen Master Who?
and In This Very Moment:
A Simple Guide to Zen Buddhism
Carl McColman is part Ken Wilber, part Richard Rohr, and part Indiana Jones’ dad.
— Brittian Bullock, blogger, Sensual Jesus
Praise for Carl’s Blog:
A beautiful site… introducing all aspects of Christian mysticism.
— Abbot Christopher Jamison, host of
“The Monastery” on the BBC
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