This is a short little book — 135 pages — but it very clearly spells out the mystical theology embedded in the New Testament letters of Saint Paul. An excellent corrective to the common (but erroneous) idea that “mysticism isn’t in the Bible.” In fact, mysticism is in the Bible the way love is in God — it’s inherent, but centuries of left-brained approaches to reading and interpreting Scripture has meant that, for most people, the mystical theology of the New Testament is hidden in plain sight. Jesuit author George Maloney looks at Paul’s theology of the Body, of Mystery, and of the Holy Spirit to weave together a wonderful introduction not only to the mystical thought of the Apostle, but of Christianity altogether.
This is a delightful book. Mysticism is not a topic generally associated with C. S. Lewis, who even claimed in one of his later books that he was not a mystic and never would attempt to be one! But Professor Downing does a wonderful job of showing that this was just Lewis’s humility speaking, and in fact there is a strong vein of mystical wisdom and insight coursing through his writings, especially his fiction. Lewis loved reading the writings of the great mystics, corresponded with Evelyn Underhill, and described his own conversion as moving “into the region of awe.” Like they say, “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” What I find particularly lovely about this book is Downing’s down-to-earth but spot-on description of what Christian mysticism is. If you’d like a case study of ordinary mysticism, this is it. And if you love C. S. Lewis’s fiction, this book will open your eyes to an entirely new way of thinking about the spiritual writing of this beloved author.
Mystics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
This wonderful book explores the question “what is mysticism?” through the life stories and teachings of nine mystics: seven from the Christian tradition (including Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Merton), plus Rumi (Sufism) and Dōgen (Zen). So the book is anchored in the Christian contemplative path, but has a nice interspiritual dimension as well. Emerging out of Fr. Harmless’s experience as a college professor, he had done a marvelous job at balancing scholarship and accessibility in creating this book, which is a delight to read and packed with insight. He successfully demonstrates that, far from being a monolithic type of “experience,” mysticism actually comes in many shapes and sizes, although all its varieties are linked together by an intentional commitment to nurturing the soul (and, for theists, nurturing intimacy with God).
Following the passing of Anglican contemplative theologian Kenneth Leech, I’ve been revisiting several of his books. In the back of his book True God: An Exploration in Spiritual Theology is Leech’s manifesto “Toward a Renewed Spirituality.” It’s an important statement that deserves wide consideration. Ken offers thirteen points that he considers essential for the ongoing […]
Inner silence means “no thinking.” This seems to be very simple and easy. But it is very difficult. It is not the beginner’s work. I think it is everything to mystical training, including Zen. Indeed almost every method or device is nothing but a means to keep us in complete silence.
Walk into a Catholic bookstore — or a general bookstore large enough to have a “Christian mysticism” section — and you will see books by or about Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila, along with anonymous works like The Cloud of Unknowing or The Way of a Pilgrim. These are the “A-List” mystics: […]
The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)
Here is a six-hundred-page treasure: a collection of 77 sermons by a seventh century mystic, Isaac the Syrian (also known as Isaac of Ninevah). Syriac Christianity has a long mystical streak, and St. Isaac one of its most eloquent and renowned voices. Be sure to check out homily 28 — if you’re anything like me, you’ll find St. Isaac’s theology of eternity and the love of God to be beautiful (but not sentimental) and profoundly intuitive.
Truly, there is so great a din in your heart, and so much loud shouting from your empty thoughts and fleshly desires that you can neither see nor hear Him. Therefore, silence this restless din, and break your love of sin and vanity. Bring into your heart a love of virtues and complete charity, and then you shall hear your Lord speak to you.
One of my favorite quotations comes from Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” It’s a prophetic statement, from a man who died in 1984. When paired with the demographic realities of the last 30 years (Americans who identify as Christian comprised 85% of the population in 1985, […]
Beautifully illustrated and featuring a number of noted contributors (Laurence Freeman, Esther de Waal, Kallistos Ware, Shirley du Boulay and Andrew Louth, among others), this narrative history of Christian contemplation looks at the key figures in two millennia of Church history. Starting with Freeman’s thoughtful essay of Jesus as a contemplative teacher, the anthology explores how both the theology and practice of silence and prayer are found in every chapter of Christian tradition. I only have one quibble with the book: the final chapter profiles John Main, begging the question why other prominent late twentieth century contemplatives (like Thomas Keating) were left out.
This is a treat I just discovered the other day: an interview with Howard Thurman, an American mystic who not only represents a beautiful embodiment of contemplative faith as expressed in an African-American, Baptist context, but also who was a prophetic voice for justice (and a mentor to one Martin Luther King, Jr.). This is a long video (over two hours) so bookmark this page and come back to it when you have the time to savor Dr. Thurman’s quiet presence, his beautiful voice, and most of all, his palpably deep wisdom.
How, exactly, does Christian mysticism relate to all the other “mysticisms” of the world (Kabbalah, Sufism, Taoism, Vedanta, Zen, etc.)? A reader of this blog writes: I have been reading your Big Book of Christian Mysticism: on page 64 you say that “Ultimately … no absolutely clear distinction can be drawn between Christian and non-Christian […]
The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010)
This is a pricey book (so you might want to check it out of your local library), but it’s certainly worth tracking down, simply because Underhill’s letters are such a delight. As one of the foremost British writers on Christian spirituality and mysticism in the first four decades of the twentieth century, Underhill published a large array of books, some scholarly, some devotional, but nearly all suffused with her elegance and reserve. Thankfully, in her letters — ranging from loving missives to her husband, to fascinating correspondence with people like C. S. Lewis, Rufus Jones, or the Archbishop of Canterbury — we see a less guarded Evelyn Underhill, where she is willing to scold Lewis for his chauvinistic attitude toward animals or “purr” when telling her husband about a good review one of her books received. What is perhaps most important of all is how these letters reveal her genius as a spiritual director, providing common-sense advice and insightful encouragement to those who wrote to her seeking counsel. While this is not the first volume of Underhill’s letters to be published, its careful annotations make it the essential collection.
If anyone is tempted to think either that [the Christian] mystics are overstating what occurs in the transforming union or that this summit is not for everyone, I would simply invite the doubter to stop, to reread Ephesians 3:19–20, and then to think about it seriously for five uninterrupted minutes.
Recently a reader left the following comment on this blog: I have been reading and tried to practice the way of a contemplative life although poorly I believe. But my hunger for anything on the topic of contemplation continues. Recently I have also been enticed into “mindfulness” practices. Now what or how do you relation […]