How Mysticism is Unique — and Universal

One Light... Many Candles...

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.

When people in power tell other people what to do with their hobbies, their work, their passion, and their lives, we run the risk of enforcing the status quo, by pretending we’re talking about morality, when we’re actually using fear or corporate greed as a motivator.

Hence the stress that so many organized religions face today. When the religion ceases to be about faith and hope and connection and love and positive change and begins to focus on compliance, this organizational embrace of the status quo runs straight into the trend toward the weird. Playing the morality card is a weak way to build a tribe.

Weird is not immoral.

Seth Godin
We Are All Weird (Seattle: The Domino Project, 2011), p. 84

What to Say to the Nay-Sayers: Talking About Contemplation With Its Critics

Often, remaining silent is better than getting into a pointless debate.

If you are active in a church or other faith community, and you are drawn to (or practicing) silent prayer, if you talk about it with others you will likely, sooner or later, hear somebody say something along these lines: “Isn’t meditation Buddhist? Or Hindu? Christians don’t need to do that sort of thing.” “Sitting […]


Monastic Practices (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986)

During the third year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian, I was assigned to read Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, OCSO. Like so much monastic writing, this book is a gently written, meditative exploration of “what monks do” — the habits and exercises that not only shape the monastic day, but that over time help to form the character of a monk. For those of us who are not called to the life of the cloister, reading about such topics as the monastic cell and monastic decorum can be inspiring in a kind of analogical sense: in other words, by discovering “what makes monks tick,” we are invited to reflect on how we can fully live a contemplative spiritual life, even outside of the walls of a cloister. Of course, many topics in this book (silence, prayer, lectio divina) can be directly applied to the circumstances of any reader, monastic or not.

A nice bonus in this book are M. Bernarda Seferovich, O.Cist.’s lovely black and white illustrations on the cover and interspersed throughout the text.


The Sun at Midnight: Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012)

While I am not wild about the word “experience” in the subtitle, there is much to love about this book by a former Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Sun at Midnight is a brief but eloquent statement about how important mystical spirituality is to a living, healthy faith. Dom Bernardo clearly understands that the heart of mysticism is mystery, and that for Christians the supreme doorway into the mystery of God is the life of Christ. As a monk, he also recognizes, and beautifully affirms, how the essential elements of the monastic charism — work and prayer, the daily office, the sense of solitude and compunction that shapes the cloistered life — all invite the monk deeper in the mystery of Christ. Those of us who are not monks can still find much inspiration in these pages, for a lively mysticism is necessary not only for a healthy monasticism, but indeed for a healthy faith community at large.

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.

Thomas Dubay
Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and the Gospel On Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 175

Mindfulness and Contemplation: What’s the Difference?

Like a gentle stream, mindfulness and contemplative prayer both seek clarity. Yet only prayer seeks the face of God.

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 […]

Here Cistercian monk, author, and centering prayer practitioner Father William Meninger, OCSO is interviewed by an evangelical pastor, Pete Scazzero of New Life Fellowship, on the topic of “communion with God.” At the beginning Scazzero offers a rather lengthy “history lesson” of the divisions within Christianity, but ends with a lovely ecumenical note: “rather than judge traditions different from us, we want to learn from them.” Amen! (If you want to skip over the introduction, start at about the 5:00 mark). Fr. William begins with a wonderful definition of what a monk is, and many delights ensue.


What the Mystics Know (New York: Crossroad, 2015)

First, let me admit something: I’m not crazy about books that anthologize excerpts of writings from other sources. I find such “taken out of context” selections to be jarring to read. But that’s just my bias, so I’m recommending What the Mystics Know even though it’s that kind of book: sort of a “best of Richard Rohr,” at least in terms of his sizable corpus of writings published by Crossroad. Broadly divided into seven categories including enlightenment, imperfection, suffering, paradox, contemplation, truth and transformation, this book gathers together much of Father Richard’s easily accessible wisdom — not only on mysticism, but indeed on life in general. If you’re not familiar with Rohr, this would be a great starting point; if you already know his work, What the Mystics Know could work beautifully as a daily devotional.

Desert Island Discs (and DVDs)

Of course, if I were stranded here, I probably wouldn't care if I had CDs or DVDs with me...

If you were stranded on a desert island, what music would you want to accompany you? The BBC has a long-running program called Desert Island Discs which began airing in 1942 and as of 2015 it’s still going strong. Here’s the concept: Desert Island Discs … was introduced to the listening public as “a programme in which a […]