A Q&A with Carl McColman, author of Christian Mystics!

Are you looking to learn more about Christian Mystics? Read on!

What is Christian Mysticism?

It’s an umbrella term for a profound type of spirituality which stresses encountering the presence of God and realizing union with God. It is the closest thing within Christianity to “enlightenment” as understood in eastern religions.

Who are some of the great Christian mystics?

Some of the mystics are well-known: figures like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, and St. Teresa of Avila. Others are not as well-known but are amazing, fascinating personalities: figures like Julian of Norwich (14th century) or Thomas Merton (20th century)

How does someone become a mystic?

That’s a great question, because there is no official process for being recognized as a mystic (such as there is in the Catholic Church for canonizing saints). The great mystics are usually recognized in hindsight, because their writings or their teachings contain universal spiritual truth and profound insight into the heart and mind of God.

Can anyone be a mystic?

Absolutely! In fact, a renowned German Christian writer in the 20th century, Karl Rahner, said “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Another writer, William McNamara, said “the mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.” Therefore, the first step to being a mystic is being true to yourself; every mystic, like every human being, is unique.

What does it take to become a mystic?

The great mystics usually taught that to be a mystic requires three things: a deep commitment to holiness (to being a person of heroic virtue); a daily practice of prayer and meditation; and a willingness to give your life fully to God, which means fully to Divine Love. Obviously these are tall orders! But it’s a lifelong process. “Becoming a mystic” doesn’t happen overnight; it’s usually the result of years of prayer and meditation.

Some of the mystics listed in this book are called “heretics.” What does that mean?

Many of the great mystics, down the ages, were controversial figures in their day.  Their teachings often were rejected by the religious establishment, and some of them were even condemned for their views. Ironically, though, some of the great mystics eventually become honored as saints! Mystics are often visionaries, calling humanity forward into new ways of responding to the Love of God. Like all visionaries, sometimes their wisdom and value was not recognized until long after their death.

You also have a category of poets who are mystics. Why do mystics write poetry?

Not all mystics are writers, of course, but it’s the ones who wrote down their life stories or their teachings who are remembered by posterity. Interestingly, many mystics were poets — lovers of language who wrote about their visions and their experience of God in lyrical and beautiful ways. Indeed, some of the great mystics, like St. John of the Cross or John Donne, are also considered classical poets, honored for their literary achievements as much as their spiritual genius.

What, in a nutshell, do the mystics teach?

Since there are so many different types of mystics, it’s hard to summarize their teachings briefly. But I think you can see some general themes: mystics proclaim that God is a God of infinite, unconditional Love, a God of Love who desires to be close to each of us, and who wants us to be happy — a happiness that is found in union with God. Beyond that, the many mystics offer many different “maps” or methods for attaining that Divine Love in our lives.

Are there any great mystics who are still alive today?

Indeed there are. In the book, I profile several mystics who were alive when the book was written, including Bruno Barnhart, Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating and Willigis Jäger. Each of these figures are famous for the writings filled with spiritual wisdom and inspirational insight.

Some of the mystics seem to be very interfaith in their approach. Is this normal?

Actually, interfaith-friendly mystics have been a part of the Christian path since the first centuries, but it has become more common in recent years as Christians have become more familiar with other faiths. Even though Christian mystics tend to be deeply devoted to Jesus, they also often are open to other streams of wisdom, such as Buddhism or Vedanta. I’ve profiled several of these “interfaith-friendly mystics” as a way of celebrating the deep spiritual wisdom that is found throughout the world — among Christians as well as the adherents of other paths.

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Why I Wrote About Christian Mystics

by Carl McColman

When Peter Gabriel came to Atlanta in 2003, my wife Fran and I were able to get tickets to the concert through a friend who works in the music business. Not only did we have the best seats in the house (right behind and above the soundboard), but we were seated next to a row of VIPs. In fact, the man sitting right next to Fran had a copy of the setlist, so obviously he was connected with the band. I started chatting him up, and when I asked him if he had a professional relationship with Gabriel, he rather shyly said yes; I introduced myself, and when he replied, “I’m Trent Reznor,” I almost fell out of my seat.

“What are you getting all excited about?” Fran hissed into my ear.

“We’re sitting next to the leader of Nine Inch Nails!” I whispered. I spent the rest of the evening trying to play it cool; I didn’t even ask him for his autograph. Suspicious that this could have been someone with delusions of grandeur, as soon as I got home I looked up a picture of Reznor, and sure enough, he (or his identical twin) was the guy.

Fran still teases me about that; she doesn’t get star-struck as easily as I do (I once asked her, “Does anyone impress you?” She laughed and admitted she’d like to meet the Obamas or Pope Francis). I, on the other hand, am unrepentant about loving to meet people whose work I admire. It’s not just fame that dazzles me —  I’m not one to stand in line at a convention to get five seconds with a celebrity — but the chance to pick the brain of a writer or artist or theologian I admire? That’s catnip.

A friend of mine who was an Episcopal priest once arranged for me to have breakfast with the Anglican spiritual theologian Kenneth Leech, just the two of us; I felt like I had won the lottery. On another occasion I had the chance to interview the Irish mystic John O’Donohue, which turned into an afternoon filled with insightful conversation. Yes, I admit it: I’m a fan-boy.

Leech and O’Donohue are just two of the great mystics and contemplatives I write about in my new book, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages. It profiles a diverse and colorful assortment of visionaries, teachers, story-tellers, philosophers, prophets, saints, heretics, and others who lived interesting and remarkable lives, fueled by a passionate love of God — and even a profound sense of union with God.

Of course, most of these spiritual masters lived centuries ago, so you and I would only have a chance to “meet” them through their books, their poetry, or other writings. But isn’t that what makes books so miraculous: that they give us access to some of the great minds (and hearts) of history? You and I will never have the chance (at least, not on this side of eternity) to gush over Francis of Assisi, or Hildegard of Bingen, or Isaac the Syrian, or any of the other great mystics. But we can discover who they are, learn their stories, and benefit from their wisdom, which has been preserved for us, thanks to the written word (some of the more recent mystics, like O’Donohue and  especially Howard Thurman, have also left us a treasury of recorded sermons and lectures).

But Christian mystics often are not widely known — I bet at least one of the folks I mentioned above is unfamiliar to you, even if you are already interested in contemplative spirituality. When Fran looked over the table of contents in Christian Mystics, she said, “There are a lot of people here I don’t know!” I resisted the urge to suggest she spend more time poking through my library; instead I said, “That’s the point behind this book: to introduce people to amazing spiritual teachers and guides whom they probably have never met before.”

Some of them, like Beatrice of Nazareth or Gregory of Narek, lived centuries ago. Others, like Sara Grant or Bruno Barnhart, walked the earth in our time. My only boundary was limiting the book to Christians, but it includes Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Quaker mystics, ranging from two Biblical figures to three who are still alive today. Most important of all, these mystics cover a wide terrain in how they manifest their spirituality: many were monks and nuns, but others were ordinary folk leading humble lives. When you look at them as a whole, what becomes obvious is that there’s no one single or right way to be a mystic, which is to say, to respond to the love of God. Which means that every one of us is meant to respond to God’s love in the unique way that is right for us.

Maybe you’re like my wife, not easily impressed when you meet someone famous. But I hope you’ll take the time to discover the great Christian mystics. They may not be household names (although I think they deserve to be), but they are brilliant guides to living a spiritually meaningful and joyful life. Their stories — and their wisdom — is worth getting to know.

Originally published on Carl’s blog


Carl McColman lives near Atlanta, Georgia, where he is the member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit—a contemplative community under the spiritual guidance of Trappist monks. He is a member of the Atlanta Shambhala Center and is active in the Atlanta interfaith community. Carl frequently leads workshops and retreats on contemplative spirituality at churches, seminaries, monasteries, and retreat centers

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