Understanding “The Dark Night of the Soul”

A reader writes,

Carl, have you written any articles on the “dark night” or about the struggles we face on our paths? I’d be grateful if you could either link me to any articles you have written or to any books you think might be useful.  I have Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross but find it quite dense.

Thanks for your question. Many people find John of the Cross challenging to read. He was a brilliant poet and an astute psychologist of the contemplative life, but not the most accessible writer when it comes to helping us with our day-to-day spiritual practice.

I think it’s helpful to bear in mind that John of the Cross uses phrases like “dark night of the senses” and “dark night of the soul” in a rather specific way. He uses these concepts to describe the process of how God calls anyone who is serious about the contemplative life into a state of letting go — of anything that threatens to come between us and God. For most people the “dark night of the senses” is easier to understand: we are asked to give up our tendency to want comfort, to seek pleasure, to prefer sensual delights that can make life joyful but can also easily become “substitute gods” — anything that we might find ourselves wanting to hold onto, even at the expense of our spiritual well-being.

Eventually it’s more than just material pleasures: we also can find that our attachment to pride, to the good esteem of others, to our desire for security or power or prestige — these qualities of life can also choke off our free response to God’s love and call in our lives.

So the dark night of the senses is the process by which we are stripped away of anything that comes between us and God.

From the Senses to the Soul

So what, then, is the dark night of the soul? This can be even more terrifying, for it represents a more radical and existential “stripping away.” Here even our religious or spiritual attachments may be taken from us, in the interest of being fully available for God, without any limitation or reservation. In the dark night of the soul, our image of God, our desire for spiritual consolation (experiences of God, or happy feelings that emerge during prayer), and even the sense of satisfaction that we might derive from prayer or meditation — it is all asked of us. Nothing is left except our pure vulnerability and desire for God to direct our lives, no matter the cost or the challenge.

Why are these processes called “dark nights”? For the simple reason that they are painful. It’s never a cakewalk to surrender a pleasure that we have previously enj0yed, whether it be sensual or spiritual in nature. No matter how motivated you are to lose weight, saying no the ice cream night after night is not always easy. No matter how motivated you might be to fully give yourself to God, being willing to surrender your precious experiences of God might be too bitter a pill to swallow, especially if it leaves you feeling lost — in a “dark night.”

Like I said, these are very specific, technical understandings of this concept, of the dark night of the soul. But the phrase also gets used in a more general sense, to describe any kind of interior crisis where we find ourselves called into a period of self-emptying, or loss, or darkness, in the interest of greater spiritual growth.

For Further Reading

So if John of the Cross is not the most accessible writer on this topic, what are some more gentle (and general) introductions to the notion of the dark night? Here are a few options.

Gerald May’s Dark Night of the Soul explores how darkness is an essential component of any maturing contemplative spirituality. May was a psychiatrist best known for writing about the spirituality of recovery from addiction, and in this book he takes aim at how so much contemporary spirituality emphasizes only the “light” — from the prosperity gospel to an obsession with feel-good experiences. Darkness matters for spiritual growth, and May explores why and how this is true.

Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul (notice the plural) uses this language in its more general sense, arguing that life unavoidably includes times of crisis and upheaval, and so any serious spirituality must sooner or later grapple with the encounter with darkness. But when we accept the dark night it can become a time of renewal and transformation.

Carmelite Sister Constance Fitzgerald’s Essay “Impasse and the Dark Night” (available for free online, follow the link) explores the concept of the dark night in the light of contemporary spiritual growth, offering the concept of the “impasse” as a way of explaining the dark night process in a language that might be more meaningful for seekers today.

Finally, if you want something that is more faithful to John of the Cross, look at Ruth Burrows’ Ascent to Love: The Spiritual Teaching of St. John of the Cross. Burrows is a Carmelite nun and one of the most respected of living contemplative teachers (of any tradition); this book offers contemporary guidance for navigating the complexities and nuances of the saint’s teachings, including understanding the distinctions between not only the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul, but even seeing how the dark night of the spirit has both an “active” and a “passive” dimension.

I hope all of this is helpful. One last thought: given that dark night experiences are challenging, I would encourage anyone who is serious about maturing in their contemplative prayer practice to see a spiritual director regularly. Having someone to discuss your spirituality with can be an important safeguard against getting caught up in ego-trips (“I’m so advanced, look at my dark night!”), or even worse, confusing an authentic dark night process with the more ordinary — but equally painful — experience of deep grief or even depression. Having a friend or companion to help you discern your spiritual journey is, for most of us, a necessary blessing.

The Difference Between Meditation and Contemplation

A reader of my blog writes:

As someone new and aspiring to find a more contemplative lifestyle, I’m curious of one thing. Is there a critical difference between sitting time and ‘observing silence, acknowledging God is present’ versus ‘meditating on God, whether through a holy text, your experiences with God, or other characteristics of God’?

Thanks for your question. And the short answer to it is “Yes”!

You are describing a basic difference between meditation (as it has traditionally been understood in Christian spirituality which looks different from the popular/secular ideas of what meditation means) and contemplation (which, again, means something different in a Christian context than in a secular understanding).

Hopefully, by understanding the Christian meaning of these words, it will be easier to recognize how they are distinct in a person’s prayer life.

Christian Meditation

To understand Christian meditation, let’s begin with a different word: pondering. To meditate on God, or Christ, or one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, has a quality of pondering about it. Now, pondering (‘to ponder’) comes from the same root word that gives us pound, as in a pound of weight.  To ponder something is to weigh it. That can be meant literally (as in weighing something in scales), but it has a psychological sense of weighing something in our minds. So the Oxford English Dictionary says, “To consider, meditate, reflect; to think deeply or seriously on, muse over.” Notice meditation is part of that definition.

To meditate on how much God loves me is something different from simply observing silence, which takes us to a place deeper in our awareness than mere thought or feelings.

So we ponder God, or Christ, or the mysteries of the faith, by musing on them, thinking over them, considering them. There is engaged mental activity at play. Not necessarily a lot of words: we can ponder something in an emotional or “affective” way, as in feeling appreciation for God’s forgiveness or having a sense of love welling up in our hearts.

But the key to this kind of meditation is a process of cognitive, mental engagement. To meditate on how much God loves me is something different from simply observing silence, which takes us to a place deeper in our awareness than mere thought or feelings. And that leads us the Christian understanding of contemplation.

Christian Contemplation

Contemplation has been described as gazing wordlessly on Christ with love. That’s a pretty good definition, although I would suggest that the emotional awareness of love is still a meditative experience. But maybe it’s helpful to remember that meditation and contemplation are like two ends of a continuum: there is no hard and fast distinction separating them, although they are different. Think of it this way: in meditation, there comes a point when the pondering stops, and the focus of your awareness shifts from your thoughts and feelings to a more vast, luminous recognition of silence, within and between and beneath all your thoughts and feelings. At this point you are transitioning from meditation to contemplation.

In contemplation, we seek to make ourselves radically available for the presence of God. The key Biblical verse is Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” The stillness is not primarily a physical stillness (it’s possible to be contemplative while walking a labyrinth or along the seashore), but an interior stillness. Now, I should hasten to point out that we never find complete interior stillness — at least, not while we are alive! So it’s a misunderstanding to say contemplation is about “emptying the mind.” Think of it rather as “allowing the mind to rest” or slowing down the flow of thoughts and feelings so that we can begin to discern the silence that is always there, like the screen behind a film or the page beneath the printed word.

There is a strong Biblical mandate for accepting silence as a foundation for intimate prayer: in addition to “Be still and know that I am God,” there is “For alone my soul in silence waits” (Psalm 62) and “The Lord is in his Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habbakuk 2:20). For Christians, our bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit” so I like to point out that we need to find the silence in our hearts since our own bodies are God’s temple!

Back to the Original Question

So… back to the original question: “Is there a critical difference between sitting time and ‘observing silence, acknowledging God is present’ versus ‘meditating on God, whether through a holy text, your experiences with God, or other characteristics of God’?”

I hope that you can see a distinction between Christian meditation, or pondering “whether through a holy text, your experiences with God, or other characteristics of God,” and a more contemplative practice which involves “observing silence, acknowledging God is present.” Now, for the final nuance of my reader’s question: is there a critical difference between the two?

Here’s how I understand this: is it important for everyone do include both of these types of prayer? Or is it okay to just do one or the other? Remember my point about meditation and contemplation being on a continuum. Just as there is no hard and fast distinction between these two approaches top prayer, likewise there is no hard and fast rule about what any one person should do in regard to these two practices.

I very much try to have both meditative and silent prayer on a daily basis. But I am blessed with the ability to find meaning and enjoyment in both kinds of prayer. Some people may find that one form of prayer really appeals to them, while the other is a real struggle. This reminds me of an old saying, “pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

So I don’t think there is anything wrong with recognizing that you naturally prefer meditation over silence (or vice versa). But I would caution anyone against being too rigid in their prayer practice: in other words, if you find you don’t like meditation, it’s okay to focus your prayer on a contemplative practice like Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer. But leave open the possibility that, at a future point in time, you may feel called to do something more meditative, like the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises or lectio divina. Always be open to the possibility that your prayer life might evolve over time.

Remember, the purpose behind prayer is to grow in intimacy with God, not to master a method or technique.

Because of that continuum, you might even find that you move from meditation to contemplation (or vice versa) in a very gradual manner, over time. Remember, the purpose behind prayer is to grow in intimacy with God, not to master a method or technique. Always keep your focus on that relationship, and the methods or styles of prayer that work best for you will sort themselves out organically. Of course, if you are having a challenge figuring out your best prayer style, find a spiritual director or soul friend with whom you can discuss your prayer life. Having another person join you in listening for how the Spirit is leading your prayer can be a true help as you seek to grow closer to God.

Just What is Mysticism Anyway? And Why Should Anyone Care?

I love to tell the story of a monk, Fr. Anthony Delisi (author of Praying in the Cellar) who was my mentor as a Lay Cistercian and one of the earliest readers of my book, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.

One time, I gave Fr. Anthony an early draft of my book. He read through it, but wasn’t terribly impressed. The next day he gave me the manuscript, and made this comment, “You never got around to defining mysticism. Then, about 90 pages into the manuscript, you finally admit that you have no idea how to define it.”

“That’s true,” I said, somewhat defensively. “After all, you can’t put it into words.”

Ignoring my excuse, he replied, “Well, why didn’t you admit that up front? It would have saved me having to read all those pages!”

So, when I revised the book, I tried to be a bit more proactive in offering my take on how to define mysticism. I also included several other definitions of the word from respected scholars like Evelyn Underhill and Harvey Egan, SJ. I pointed out that there really isn’t a snappy, quick, precise way to define this complex spiritual topic.

But people are people, and I often get asked, “What is mysticism?” In other words, how can we define this word?

The American Heritage Dictionary says it means “immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God.” Underhill concurs, calling it “the direct intuition or experience of God.” These are not bad definitions, but sometimes mysticism is not just about consciousness or awareness. Indeed, core mystical concepts like The Cloud of Unknowing or The Dark Night of the Soul point to a dimension of mysticism that is devoid of any kind of experience or conscious awareness.

Andrew Harvey’s lovely definition from The Essential Mystics might help open this up a bit further. He begins with a definition from Bede Griffiths, who talks about “the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery.” Harvey comments, “This mystery is beyond name and beyond form; no name or form, no dogma, philosophy or set of rituals can ever express it fully. It always transcends anything that can be said of it and remains always unstained by any of our human attempts to limit or exploit it.”

In my book, I go on to use Ken Wilber’s four-part definition of spirituality (from his book Integral Spirituality) as a template for mysticism (only I add a fifth category, since I thought Wilber’s four-part model wasn’t comprehensive enough, at least not for mysticism). So here is what I came up with:

  1. Mysticism refers to the experience of God, which can range from an ordinary sense of “practicing the presence” to a truly extraordinary “peak” experience;
  2. Mysticism also refers to an exalted or ecstatic level of consciousness: the sense of being enlightened or attaining nondual ways of knowing and seeing;
  3. Mysticism may point to someone who has extraordinary abilities: a truly gifted sense of Union with God, or the possession of supernatural, charismatic gifts;
  4. Mysticism can also mean having an abiding belief in God’s presence and intimate activity in one’s life, even without extraordinary experience or gifts;
  5. And finally, mysticism also points to the inner dimension of religious faith and practice, where religion means more than just an institution or a set of external rituals, but points to an interior transformation that has been nurtured by religious observance but ultimately transcends the limitation of religious dogma or institutional identity.

Okay, so this might be comprehensive enough to do the trick but how do we boil it down to a brief, summary definition? Maybe that’s not possible. But I’m going to try anyway. With a strong disclaimer that any brief definition of mysticism must necessarily be limited and incomplete, if you cornered me, this is what I’d come up with:

Mysticism is the spiritual encounter with a sacred mystery that cannot be put into words, but may be embodied through feelings, conscious awareness, experience, or intuition — or even through darkness or unknowing.

I would go on to say:

In theistic terms, it is typically thought of as the sense of Divine Presence or even Union with God, but again, this cannot properly be put into words, so all mystical expression remains partial and incomplete. Nevertheless many women and men down the ages — known as mystics — have attempted to describe their encounter with the divine in written ways, leaving us a treasury of mystical writings, including poetry, autobiography, theology, sermons and teaching texts. Since the sacred mystery can never be systematized, these texts will never offer a simple explanation of what mysticism is, but they remain inspiring to all who sense a calling to seek the Divine Presence in their own lives.

Now, as soon as we have a definition — no matter how limited or incomplete — this leads to a second question, after “What is it?” …. “What difference does it make?” Or, to put it even more bluntly, “Why should I care?”

Maybe, I suppose, someone can go through life without bothering to explore the mystery at the heart of spirituality. One might feel content and happy, with a satisfying career, loving family, meaningful friendships, and a guiding sense of purpose, without ever bothering to explore mystical theology or spiritual practice. To such a person I would say, with no hint of judgment or condemnation, “If you don’t feel drawn to the mystical life, then feel free to leave it alone.”

Other people, however, recognize a yearning or a longing in their heart for something they cannot name, something that cannot be put into words. It has something to do with love, with consciousness, with a sense of life’s meaning and purpose. For many people, this clearly has a spiritual dimension — it’s a yearning for God. To people with this sense of yearning or longing, I would say, “You already know in your heart what difference it makes. I don’t need to convince you to care, because you already do.”

Anyone can enter the mysteries, but the mysteries only reveal themselves to those who seek them.

Now, it is possible that someone may not feel drawn to the mystical life today, but a decade from now, after the highs and lows of ordinary life experience, that same person may suddenly recognize that yearning in their hearts. And they might even have a sense that it’s been there all along, only they never really paid attention to it before. Mysticism has been called a “second half of life” phenomenon, meaning that many people only discern the call to enter the mysteries as they enter the second half of their lives. That’s not true across the board: some people may be drawn to mystical spirituality while still children; others might be late bloomers approaching the mystery in their 80s or 90s. Everyone’s path is different; everyone’s calling is unique.

I use the word calling because I believe mysticism is more than just something that we decide we’re interested in. Here’s how I see it — the Mystery (with a capital M): call it Love (with a capital L) or God — is the initiating party in anyone’s mystical life. A person embraces the mystery because they are called to do so. Now, that call might come in dramatic ways (like Moses seeing the burning bush, or Saint Paul encountering Christ on the road to Damascus), but it could just as easily come in a very humble or down to earth way — finding our hearts opening up after the birth of a child, or the death of a parent. Feeling a sense of being touched by God in church or in nature. Reading a book that opens up more questions than answers.

Here’s the thing. I believe everyone is called. But not everyone receives the call, or is ready to receive the call. But it is precisely that inner call that makes all the difference, that explains why mysticism matters, why we should care.

Because otherwise, like mysticism itself, the “why” of mysticism just can’t be put into words. But for the heart that is open to the too-deep-for-words movement of the Spirit, nothing less than immersion in the Mystery-with-a-capital-M will ever satisfy.

Fr. Anthony Delisi, OSCO — the Trappist monk who teased me because I couldn’t define mysticism.

Romans 8:28-39: Basic Instructions for A Mystical Worldview

One of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament — perhaps even one of the most beautiful passages in all the wisdom literature of the world — comes from the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I think anyone interested in Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality needs to be familiar with this passage. It affirms who God is, how God loves us, how inseparable God’s love is from us, and really sets the stage for how Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality is simply a way of responding to that love.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28-39, NRSV)

As I read over the passage, I began to pray for the grace of resting in the truth of God’s love.

Here are some thoughts about this passage, followed by a prayer I wrote in response to this passage.

The first line is such a powerful and profound promise: “all things,” not “some” or only those that conform to God’s will. All things. And while Paul does qualify that this applies “for those who love God,” I think when we remember that God is Love, we can read this as “All things work together for good for those who love Love” and it retains its integrity.

Likewise, while it is tempting to read the second line dualistically, I think you could make just as strong a case that it is a radically nondual statement: Those whom God foreknew — and wouldn’t that be everybody? After all, we are one large family, the family of humankind. The next sentence then just deepens the nondual perspective to open up into a lovely affirmation of how God’s glorification extends throughout all people.

The passage goes on to acknowledge, in some of the most beautiful prose found in the Bible (or perhaps in all literature), that nothing can separate us from the love of God. It’s a stunning refrain, reframing and amplification of the promise first made in Romans 5:5: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

So if no one or nothing can separate us from the love of God — not even ourselves! — then we are left with one fundamental choice: accept it or not. I think for me, that’s a question about relaxing into that acceptance. I accept God’s love theoretically but I don’t always embody it. Yet the more I relax into this love, the more I am likely to simply realize it, enjoy it, and calibrate my life to it.

It’s easier to smile than to frown. Takes less muscular effort. But oh, how we love to frown, how I sometimes frown far too much! May God give me the grace to rest into God’s “smile.”

A Prayer in Response to Romans 8:28-39:

God, help me to relax into your love. I don’t have to manage it, control it, or make sure it’s flowing in my life. I do not need to prove myself worthy of it or somehow reassure you (or me) that’s all going according to plan. I do not need to waste time trying to figure out who is your “elect” or not, who is saved or not, who is in your grace or not. I can just accept that you love everyone, and so I can relate to everyone I meet as if I’m relating to someone truly special and precious in your eyes. Help me to relax into this place of radical trust, radical acceptance of your love, and radical compassion. I know it’s nothing to fuss over, and the more grounded I become in the ordinariness of your love, the more I am equipped to live a life of radical mercy, forgiveness, compassion, justice and love. Help me to live in your peace, so that I might be your peace — and your joy, and your love. Amen.


Prayer for Beginners: What is the Best Practice for Newcomers to Mystical Christianity?

A reader writes,

I am emailing to ask you what particular practice of prayer you would suggest to someone starting out on the mystical path?

I have a little experience of Zen sitting meditation and have tried to practice with the Jesus Prayer. There are differences between Centering Prayer (Keating) and Christian Meditation (Main). What do you suggest I start with?

Over the years I have done several of the meditation weekend programs offered by the local Shambhala Center. Shambhala training, for those who don’t know it, is essentially a program for learning Buddhist meditation practices but without a lot of Buddhist doctrine. It’s built on the idea that, for many people especially in places like America, learning a spiritual practice (in this case, meditation) is more beneficial, and often more easy to accept, than getting caught up in propositional doctrines, teachings and dogmas.

So each level of the Shambhala training involves a different exercise in meditation practice, and so the participant eventually learns a variety of approaches to meditation. The person who completes Shambhala training might not know anything about the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, but at least he or she knows how to meditate (and hopefully is actually doing so).

I have long felt that Christianity needs its own equivalent to Shambhala training: a curriculum that focusses on spiritual practice rather than on religious doctrine. Thus, this reader’s question: What is a good spiritual practice for someone just beginning to embrace Christian mysticism?

What complicates this question is two facts — one cultural, one doctrinal — that separates Christianity from most other forms of spiritual practice.

First, the cultural issue: Christianity does not have a tradition of teaching specific “methods” of contemplation. Even the methods my reader mentions: Centering Prayer and the John Main method of Christian Meditation — are both very much shaped by eastern practices (Centering Prayer is based the spirituality of The Cloud of Unknowing but through a method similar to transcendental meditation, while John Main’s form of meditation is based on the Hindu practice of mantra recitation).

This leads us to the doctrinal issue: for Christian contemplation — even when influenced by eastern practices — really is different from other forms of meditation, for a very simple reason: Christian spirituality is fundamentally relational — it is built on the desire for intimacy with God. At its core, Christian mysticism is not a program for attentiveness, or mindfulness, or dismantling the ego, or raising consciousness, even though I would argue that eventually Christian mystical practices support us in all of the above.

But the core, the foundation, of Christian mysticism is building a relationship with God through prayer. We embrace the mystical life not to enhance ourselves, but to respond to God’s call. Whatever blessings or transformation mysticism gives us is a consequence of deepening intimacy with God — and not the other way around.

So: if Christian mysticism is based on establishing or deepening a relationship with God, and historically there is no particular method or technique of Christian prayer or meditation, then what advice do we give to the beginner?

Let’s begin by quoting one of the great mystics, Teresa of Ávila, from The Interior Castle:

The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.

So. We lead with love. Which means, that as important as a disciplined practice like Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation might be, they need the foundation of love in order to be beneficial.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

You could paraphrase it like this: “If I practice Christian Meditation so that my mantra becomes the perfect center of my attention, but do not have love, I am just a bamboo flute playing the same four notes over and over again. And if I practice Centering Prayer to the point where all thoughts and distractions drop away and I rest in pure silence, but do not have love, I am nothing but a quiet ego.”

So a beginner needs to begin with love. But what does that entail? Well, Jesus mandated four dimensions of love: love for God (Mark 12:30), love for neighbor, love for self (Mark 12:31), and love for enemies (Matthew 5:44). G.K. Chesterton once quipped that we are instructed to love our neighbors as well as our enemies because they are often the same! But all joking aside, I think love your neighbors/love your enemies is a way of saying “love without distinction or duality.” We are called to be love: and to share that love with others, regardless of whether the “other” person loves us back or not. Even the person who actively wishes us harm deserves love — even if we have to express that love in ways that are safe and respectful of all our other love commitments (i.e., it’s not wise to passively let an enemy hurt you, that just inhibits your capacity to love others).

It’s hard to love your enemies; it’s even a challenge merely to pray for those who dislike you. So let’s not start there. Let’s start with learning to love God — and ourselves. Back to Teresa of Ávila, who recommends in her book The Way of Perfection a simple approach to prayer: that whenever we pray, even in the humblest of ways (like reciting the Lord’s Prayer or thanksgiving before a meal), combine the words of the prayer with an inner sense of love and adoration for God.

In other words: pray, and love God. Make that your practice. It doesn’t matter if you read prayers out of a book (like the Psalms or the Liturgy of the Hours) or if you pray using your own words. But pray. Talk to God. And cultivate a loving heart while you do that.

But what about meditation?

Yes, silence is important too. Yes, methods such as using the Jesus Prayer and reciting a prayer word are excellent for learn to “be still and know God.” But the question was specifically what would I recommend for beginners — and I believe learning to pray and the love should come first, and only then does it make sense to talk about what’s the best way to embrace interior silence.

Because, in a Christian context, methods like Centering Prayer matter not because there’s anything particularly special about the method but rather because of where the method takes us: into silence, a silence that we believe is given to us through the love of God. We are silent before God because even silence itself is a way to praise God, love God, and respond to God’s pre-existing love for us.

Silence is essential to the mystical and contemplative life. But it must be a silence grounded in love.

Photo by Alex Machado on Unsplash

Okay, I can hear people say now, “But you still haven’t answered the question!?!” In other words, what method do I recommend for beginners — assuming the beginner is already at work cultivating a daily practice and a heart centered on love. What then?

Let me finish this by quoting from a book called The Philokalia and the Inner Life. This is a commentary on The Philokalia, the massive five-volume anthology of mystical writings collected for Orthodox Christians (but really for all Christians). The author of the commentary makes this interesting observation:

The Philokalia is not a uniform collection of texts that have been edited so as to be in complete agreement with each other, but rather they provide a variety of views around a central concern with the purification, illumination and perfection of the Christian soul.

In other words, part of the power of a collection of mystical writings like the Philokalia comes precisely from the fact that it does not just present “one” way to become a mystic or a contemplative. There are a “variety of views” and a variety of practices and exercises. What works for me, as a 50-something, married, American, college-educated Catholic layperson, might not be helpful to somebody whose life circumstances or personality is different from mine. And this is a good thing.

There’s no one way to fall in love. There’s no one way to write a poem. Likewise, there are many ways to embrace contemplative practice and the mystical life.

I think both the John Main method of Christian meditation, and Centering Prayer, are excellent methods of entering into silent prayer. Frankly, I would recommend either one, based on this factor: do you know someone who can teach you, or direct you in one of the methods? Is there a group dedicated to one of these methods that meets at your church or another church near you?

Christian mysticism is relational — and that means not only does it focus on relating to God, but also that it encourages us humans to build community, friendships, and other loving relationships. So when it comes to practices like prayer and meditation, what matters the most is if you have access to friends or mentors who can teach you and support you on your ongoing, day-in-day-out practice.

So if there is a Centering Prayer group at your church, go with that. On the other hand, if there’s a Christian meditation group that meets in your neighborhood, that might be your best bet. If you are lucky enough to have both types of groups meeting in your community, visit them both and decide which one you are more likely to commit to, and go with that one.

Silence is silence. Prayer is prayer. Love is love. There are different tools available to us, spiritually speaking, to help us grow in love, to become regular people of prayer, and to begin to explore the mysteries of silence. The right “tools” for a beginner are the ones that he or she is most likely to use — and keep using.

Hope this is helpful!

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this post:

Is the Liturgy of the Hours a Required Practice for Christian Contemplatives Today?

A reader writes,

I’ve been leaning into a contemplative way of life for a couple of decades now… I’ve settled down into a daily pattern of Examen, Lectio Divina, and Centering Prayer.
Along this way, I’ve used Daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours. But I moved on, as they were “busy” and “noisy.” Every now and then, especially when I’m on a multi-day silent retreat, they feel appropriate. But not during my normal daily life. (I’m a parish pastor. And I appreciate a devotional pattern outside my work of the Sunday lectionary!) My current pattern of Examen, Lectio, and Centering Prayer continues to “work” for/on me. Yet, I periodically wonder if I should also practice the Daily Office? As a discernment pondering, I wonder if this is an escapist diversion or a calling. And I wonder if the Daily Office is especially appropriate for the First Half of the Christian journey, as Richard Rohr puts it, providing a grounding for the Second Half, which becomes quieter?
This in an open question for me. What are your reflections?

It’s a great question, and of course there is no one right answer.

Many monastic or cloistered writers, such as Teresa of Ávila, suggest that praying the Divine Office — also known as the Daily Office or the Liturgy of the Hours — should remain a central part of a person’s spirituality throughout their lifespan, even if they become dedicated contemplatives who devote significant time to silence. The Office is meant to be formative — the words, the rhythm and cadences, and the practice of slow/mindful praying, all help to shape a contemplative spirit in the heart of the person doing the praying.

Catholic priests, deacons, or members of religious orders or congregations have a commitment to pray the daily liturgy, either communally or privately (individually) that is mandated by their diocese or religious community. But once you get outside the Catholic or monastic worlds, then the liturgy is simply a devotional practice, and not a part of one’s vowed religious identity.

From this we can discern a couple of useful principles. First, that the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours has as much meaning in terms of community identity and belonging as it relates to fostering a deeper relationship with God. In other words, if I as a Lay Cistercian pray the office every day, I have two reasons to do so: first, because it nurtures my relationship with God, but second (and I would argue just as important) it helps to strengthen my bond with the Lay Cistercian community — and by extension with Cistercians and other monastics the world over.

This is similar to how Muslims pray five times a day — specific prayers that Muslims memorize and recite, whether alone or in a group, as an ongoing expression of their identity as Muslims. So when a Muslim prays, he or she is doing it not only as an expression of devotion to Allah, but also as an expression of shared identity with Muslims the world over.

But the second principle we can discern is this: when it comes to devotional practices, we must recognize that tremendous diversity can be found within the Christian family. You mention the Examen, Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer and the Divine Office. But other options exists, from Ignatian prayer, to the Rosary, to the Labyrinth, the Jesus Prayer, charismatic prayer, fasting, and then such things as art-as-prayer, service-as-prayer, that sort of thing.

There really is no consensus as to what constitutes the “gold standard” of Christian spiritual practice.

That problem is not unique to Christianity. If you want to explore Buddhism, your experience will be very different based on whether you affiliate with insight meditation (Hinayana), zen (Mahayana) or Tibetan (Vajrayana) practices. Communities in each of these three “vehicles” have different cultures, different practices, and different philosophies. And even within the same basic “faction” you’ll find diversity: the Nyingma, Gelug, and Kadampa “schools” all approach the dharma in different (and to some extent contradictory) ways.

So. What to do, then? Pray the Divine Office or not? How can one decide? For while the author of my question reports that he finds the office “busy” and “noisy,” could that just be his resistance, and not a meaningful assessment of the practice? In other words, any practice we undertake, sooner or later we will resist — because authentic spiritual practices tend to undermine narcissistic and egoic strategies of control; and when the ego feels its control is being threatened, it doesn’t go down without a fight!

But you can just as easily frame this question another way: am I resisting a practice because it’s not a helpful practice (at least, not for me), or am I resisting the practice precisely because it is helpful, but therefore I find it threatening on an egoic level?

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash.

Once again: there is no one right answer.

I think this question points not so much to the importance of the Liturgy of the Hours per se, as it shows us how essential it is to work with a spiritual director. Remember, it seems pretty obvious that the value and meaning of the Liturgy is found in community. Even my reader acknowledged that he still found the liturgy meaningful when on a retreat (and, presumably, his prayer is part of a larger praying community). For anyone who is not a life-professed member of a religious order or congregation, community is something that they must foster for themselves. For most Christians, the simplest way to form a meaningful community of prayer is to engage in an ongoing discipline of meeting with a spiritual director.

Thus, the question “Should I pray the Divine Office or not?” is best answered in a shared discernment process, with one’s spiritual director. So even a “community of two” might find the Liturgy really important as a way to prayerfully be united to one another, on the days between meetings.

This implies, of course, that both the directee and the director are engaging in a similar (or the same) discipline. In other words, I don’t think it makes sense for a spiritual director to insist that his or directees recite the liturgy, unless he/she is doing it as well.

Does this mean you shouldn’t pray the Liturgy if your spiritual director doesn’t? Not necessarily, for we are always free to go “above and beyond” what our personal rule of life mandates. Like I said, the Liturgy has tremendous devotional value. But if someone is praying it strictly as a personal devotional practice, I think he or she should still discuss it with his or her spiritual director. It is too easy to become obsessive/compulsive about a practice like the Daily Office. Maybe that’s a bit of the “noisy” or “busy” vibe that my reader was picking up on. Praying the Daily Office because one feels that one should or must pray it can be a short path to the liturgy being less about prayer and more about a ritualistic behavior designed to assuage anxiety or bolster one’s ego — precisely the opposite intent of the actual liturgy.

So, in a nutshell: I think the Liturgy of the Hour is a treasure for Christians. I think its beauty and power is truly discovered when it is prayed in community. For Christians who have a formal relationship with a monastic or religious community, following the community’s rule is simply what one does. But for those without that kind of a formal community, a “community” must be formed in order to meaningfully pray the Liturgy, and the easiest way to form such a community (of 2) is through spiritual direction. So one is only “obligated” to pray the liturgy if it is an agreed-upon practice shared by both director and directee. Otherwise, it can be used as a private devotional practice (or not) — but if a person prays it devotionally, he or she should take care to make sure that they are motivated by a genuine desire to grow in prayer, and not by a more compulsive motivation (like “I’m doing this because I should do so.”)

I hope this helps!



Teresa of Ávila: A Passionate Mystic of the Love of God

Visit the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, and you will see a 17th century masterpiece of Baroque sculpture: Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. This life-sizes statue depicts a nun reclining with a look of bliss on her face, while a grinning cherub stands before her, an arrow pointed at her heart. It is a striking work of art — but the subject of this sculpture, a Spanish Carmelite mystic Saint Teresa of Ávila, is even more remarkable than this world-renowned statue of her.

Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” Photo by Alvesgaspar; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582), now known as St. Teresa of Jesus or St. Teresa of Ávila, was one of the three greatest mystics of 16th century Spain — alongside St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) and Teresa’s own protegé, St. John of the Cross. Teresa was the founder of the reformed Carmelites (known now as the Discalced Carmelites), having established 14 Discalced Carmelite convents and monasteries in her lifetime. That alone probably would have merited her being canonized as a saint — an honor bestowed only forty years after her death. But even in her lifetime she had a reputation as a great mystic, thanks to several books of luminous mystical theology and autobiography she wrote, including The Book of My Life (her autobiography), The Way of Perfection (a manual of instruction on how to pray, written originally for her Carmelite sisters) and Interior Castle (her masterpiece). Teresa did not fancy herself a writer and indeed wrote each of these books in response to request from others; but from those humble beginnings these books have become crown jewels in the literature of western mysticism.

Teresa felt called to be a nun from an early age, and although her father was initially opposed to this, she entered a Carmelite convent when she was twenty years old. The following year she suffered a mysterious illness that included time spent in a coma and a period of paralysis; during her slow convalescence she began to read spiritual writings that introduced her to practices such as meditation or mental prayer. But by her own admission, she remained a fairly ordinary, not-so-pious nun for many years. It wasn’t until she was 39 that she experienced a new conversion toward a more meaningful, and committed, life of prayer. With this, she began to experience a succession of extraordinary phenomena, including visions, locutions (the sense of Christ speaking to her), rapture (a sense of being completely absorbed in God) and what eventually would prove to be an abiding sense of deep, interior communion with God (her king) and Christ (her beloved). About ten years before she died, she experienced a sense of being spiritually married to Christ, leading to an abiding sense of union with him.

Remember, Teresa lived during a tumultuous time: it was the age of the Protestant Reformation (which began while she was a child), and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain took place in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus sailed to America. So those were events of recent memory, and the Catholic Church in Spain was marked by the notorious inquisition. It was not a very congenial time for women to be reporting supernatural visions and a sense of union with God!

François Gérard (1770–1837). St Teresa of Ávila (detail), 1827.

Teresa, of course, reported her extraordinary experiences to her confessors, and they carefully pondered whether such phenomena could truly be of divine origin, or perhaps had a less savory provenance. Indeed, it was one of her confessors who instructed her to write down her experience of prayer — which resulted in her autobiography, completed during the 1560s. The evident spiritual depth of her writing soon won her a following, with Jesuits, Dominicans, laypersons, and even the Bishop of Ávila among her “fans.” Around this same time, in response to the request of her nuns to teach them how to pray, she wrote The Way of Perfection, offering an almost stream-of-consciousness meditation on the importance of humility, charity, non-attachment, and ordinary forms of praying (like the Our Father) for even a mature person of prayer. Teresa’s writing proved to be colorful and vivid, if not always particularly logical or linear. But with her most mature and renowned work, The Interior Castle, Teresa provides almost a systematic overview not just of prayer, but of the entire process of spiritual growth for those persons committed to giving themselves completely to God.

The Interior Castle is based on a vision Teresa received, of the human soul as being like a glittering castle, carved from a single luminous diamond. Within the ramparts of this castle are a series of mansions (indeed, the book’s title in Spanish is simply “The Mansions“). Each mansions represents a stage or state of spiritual maturity; the first mansion is the most immature, representing someone who has committed to the life of prayer, but still retains much love and attachment to worldly pleasures; each subsequent mansion represents a new chapter in the developing life of faith, culminating in the seventh, most central mansion, occupied by Christ himself. As the spiritual pilgrim journeys through the mansions, he or she must learn to sweep away the “venomous reptiles” — Teresa’s colorful image for human attachments and sinfulness — and master essential virtues for the life of faith, such as humility, perseverance, surrender, and unreserved trust in God.

So the books provide a rare glimpse into Teresa’s own personal experience of prayer (her autobiography), her method and priorities as a spiritual teacher (The Way of Perfection), and the theology or philosophy that underlies her entire spirituality and world-view (The Interior Castle). Taken together, these three books provide an unusually holistic insight into the life, belief, and teaching of one of the greatest of Christian mystics.

Unlike some mystics, Teresa’s prominence as a mystic is embraced even by the Catholic hierarchy. In addition to being canonized in 1622, in the year 1970 Teresa became the first woman ever to be declared a “Doctor of the Church” — an honorary title that indicates the hierarchy considers her writings to be exemplary for all Catholics to study. As of 2019, Teresa remains one of only four women to have received this distinction. All four women doctors of the church are mystics, but Teresa is clearly the most articulate and nuanced mystical teacher of the lot.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Therese von Avila, 1615.

One edition of  Interior Castle features commentary by a Redemptorist priest, Fr. Dennis Billy, who writes that there are at least nine dimensions of prayer that Teresa describes throughout her writings, beginning with “vocal prayer” (the ordinary practice of praying using words, either written in a book or spontaneously out of one’s heart), leading through to meditation (mental prayer), affective or adoring prayer, and then on to forms of contemplation, silent prayer, and ultimately degrees of mystical union with God. Most of these “higher” mystical forms of prayer are described in the latter mansions of the Interior Castle.

But in The Way of Perfection, Teresa offers surprisingly humble and down-to-earth advice for the person who wants to pray seriously. Recognizing that the most humble type of prayer — vocal prayer — needs to remain the foundation of prayer even for an advanced mystic, Teresa describes a beautifully simple way of praying that anyone can embrace: of combining ordinary vocal prayers (like the Our Father) with a focus on silent adoration (love) for God in one’s heart, while praying. So, in effect, Teresa combines a simple form of affectionate contemplation with the ordinary, humble experience of reciting one’s daily prayers, to form a basic, accessible practice of heartfelt praying that anyone can embrace. Indeed, Teresa suggests that anyone who is capable of advanced forms of meditation or contemplation probably does not need her simple advice, which she suggests is for the ordinary person whose mind races like wild horses!

Reading Teresa is not always easy: she often wanders into lengthy digressions that make it difficult to follow her train of thought, and her theology often emphasizes the royalty of God and Christ that Americans might find difficult to relate to. She also often puts herself down as simply an ignorant woman, a technique that feels annoying to postmodern eyes but in fact may have been a literary device she consciously used to preemptively defend herself against any possible accusations of heresy. How could Teresa be a heretic, if she were only a “stupid woman”?! But in fact, she proves again and again not only that she wasn’t stupid, but indeed that she was a genius of the soul.

To readers encountering Teresa for the first (or fiftieth) time, I would recommend approaching her words in a spirit of lectio divina — read her writings slowly, meditatively, looking for guidance from the Spirit to help you identify which of her words, phrases, ideas or principles seem to speak most directly to your situation. When something jumps out at you in this way, turn to prayer, and meditate over the words that speak to your heart. Let Teresa’s writing be a venue for the deepening of your own contemplative journey.

Here are a few quotations from Teresa, that help to illustrate just how feisty and passionate a person she was.

From The Book of My Life:

O God, help me! How a soul suffers when she loses the freedom to be who she truly is.

Without a doubt, I fear those who fear the devil more than I fear the devil himself.

Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.

From The Way of Perfection:

We have heaven within ourselves since the Lord of heaven is there.

There are some souls and minds so scattered they are like wild horses no one can stop. Now they’re running here, now there, always restless… This restlessness is either caused by the soul’s nature or permitted by God.

If you speak, strive to remember that the One with whom you are speaking is present within. If you listen, remember that you are going to hear One who is very close to you when he speaks.

From Interior Castle:

The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.

We cannot know whether we love God, although there may be strong reason for thinking so; but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or not.

Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, revolving as they do with such speed, so we cannot restrain our thought. And then we send all the faculties of the soul after it, thinking we are lost, and have misused the time that we are spending in the presence of God. Yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle, suffering the assaults of a thousand wild and venomous creatures and from this suffering winning merit. So this must not upset us, and we must not abandon the struggle, as the devil tries to make us do. Most of these trials and times of unrest come from the fact that we do not understand ourselves.


A Reason Why Liturgy Matters: “Like Staring Out Into Eternity”

So often, it seems to me, that people who are drawn to the Christian tradition of mysticism and contemplation are eager to learn practices like Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer — but they are far less enthusiastic about some of the less “glamorous” Christian practices, like participating in the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office or the Daily Office).

I confess that this has been true for me. If you invite me to deepen my breath, relax, and practice a discipline of letting go of my thoughts so I could be still and know God, my response would be, “When do I start?” But when it came to gathering with other people to pray out of a breviary (or, even worse, picking up the breviary by myself and praying in solitude), I simply failed to see the point behind it. It was so formulaic, so repetitive, so… rote! How could this be spiritually formative?

Getting to know contemplative practitioners from other faiths, however, has forced me to reevaluate my bias against the liturgy. First (as I recount in Unteachable Lessons), I became friends with a Sufi, a Muslim who prayed five times a day, no matter what — typically reciting the same passages from The Qur’an, day in and day out. Later, I spent some time meditating daily with a group of Buddhists, who began their morning meditation with the same few chants — day in and day out. They had other chants for the evening, again, the same words each and every day. I began to think that I was spoiled: at least the Christian Liturgy changed from day to day, based on the readings and whether it was Lent or Easter or some other time of the year.

So why do it? Why pray out of a book, prayers that consist of Psalms and canticles and other Bible verses — and even if they aren’t the same day in and day out, they do follow a rhythm, and over time you keep praying the same words over and over. Why do it?

I’ve written about this before — see Seven Reasons to Pray the Divine Office: the Divine Office provides us with a language for prayer, it teaches us who God is (and who we are in response to God), it helps to form our identity as people of prayer, and so forth. Today, however, I’d like to share another reason for praying the Liturgy of the Hours, that comes to me from an Anglican Benedictine monk, Holy Cross Father Aidan Owen, OHC. Brother Aidan is the Guestmaster of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY, and recently he sent out an email newsletter to friends of the monastery; in that newsletter he offered the following reflection, which he has given me permission to quote here on the blog.

I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on the place of the Monastery in today’s chaotic and violent world. I have friends — many of them among our guests — who are, so to speak, on the front lines, bringing God’s message of hope, love, and justice to those at the literal and figurative borders of our world. We monks are not, largely, those people. And yet, I firmly believe that the witness of prayer we offer is essential to the greater flourishing of God’s Word and God’s Love in this hurting world.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Br. Ron before I entered the Monastery. I asked him what it was like to pray the Office day in and day out for over forty years, worrying, I suppose, that it must get a bit boring. He surprised and delighted me by saying that it was like staring out into eternity. There is so much space and no hurry at all.

It strikes me that that window into eternity is what the Monastery offers as gun violence, white supremacy, environmental degradation, and consumerism wreak havoc on God’s people. Each time we pray the Office or celebrate the Eucharist or sit in silent prayer, we return to eternity, where God always lives, and we allow God to remind us that God’s peace and justice and love are already right here and right now, even as they are not fully visible or manifest.

When I first read that, I had a “wow” moment.

Praying daily prayers, even the same daily prayers you’ve been praying for forty years, is like a window into eternity. Not that eternity is some faraway place: on the contrary, it is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The beauty of daily prayers — even daily prayers recited from a book — is that they remind us that eternity is here, now; and they help us to see what is right in front of our noses — and in our hearts — but that we all too often fail to notice.

As you explore the path of Christian mysticism and contemplation, make the effort to balance your daily practice of silence with prayers that you sing or say. Prayers that come out of the tradition, like the Psalms or other Biblical passages — which of course are prayers that the great mystics and contemplatives throughout history have prayed; especially the Psalms, which Jesus himself prayed.

Will you ever get bored with the Daily Office? Of course: don’t we all get bored with the quotidian tasks of our lives? But as much as we can remember that our common prayers give us “space and no hurry at all” to gaze into the silence of eternity, hovering in and between the words we offer to God — then even the most mundane words we pray will shimmer with the light of grace.

Contemplation: the Heart of Mysticism

When I wrote The Big Book of Christian Mysticismthe publisher came up with this subtitle: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality. I’m not crazy about the word “essential” but other than that, I think it’s a helpful subtitle. Why? Because before you even open the book, you discover that “Christian mysticism” has something to do with “contemplative spirituality.”

When it comes to mysticism, contemplation is pretty much a core concept. It’s a concept that shows up in a variety of ways: there is contemplative prayer, the contemplative life (and contemplative living), and people who engage in these activities are called, simply enough, contemplatives. This is clearly parallel to the language of mysticism, which encompasses mystical prayer, the mystical life, and persons who are recognized as mystics.

So are contemplation and mysticism essentially interchangeable concepts? In other words, would it be a redundancy to talk about contemplative mysticism or mystical contemplation?

No, I don’t think they’re completely interchangeable — even though there is clearly some overlap between the terms. I think the distinctions between contemplation and mysticism are subtle, but real. In this post I’ll offer some insight into what contemplation and its related words mean — specifically in the context of Christian mysticism — and hopefully by the end of the post we’ll be able to discern how these terms are not identical.

What is Contemplation?

Contemplation; contemplative prayer; contemplative life; contemplatives. What do these terms mean? Especially, what do they mean in relationship to Christian spirituality and mysticism?

To begin my exploration of this topic, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The OED defines contemplation as:

The action of beholding, or looking at with attention and thought…

The action of contemplating or mentally viewing; the action of thinking about a thing continuously; attentive consideration, study…

Without reference to a particular object: Continued thinking, meditation, musing…

Sometimes, a meditation expressed in writing…

Religious musing, devout meditation. (The earliest sense; very common down to 17th c.)

The secular sense of contemplation has a meaning similar to pondering or cogitating. It’s a word that implies thoughtful consideration of an object of one’s attention: I contemplate a thorny problem, or a mystery such as death, or perhaps a work of art. Recently my wife and I visited the Manchester Gallery of Art where I saw one of my favorite paintings, William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd. As I stood in front of the painting, simply taking it all it, one might say I was contemplating its beauty and technical genius.

William Holman Hunt, “The Hireling Shepherd” (Manchester Gallery of Art)

It’s interesting that the OED acknowledges that there can be a religious dimension to contemplation — it even goes so far as to note that the religious sense of the word is the earliest sense, and was the most common sense through to the 1600s. But we live in a secular age now, and for most people the spiritual sense of contemplation is not something they are familiar with. But how is spiritual contemplation distinct from contemplation in general?

What leaps out at me about the OED definition of contemplation is how much it anchors contemplation in thought. “Look at with attention and thought,” “continued thinking,” “thinking about a thing continuously.” It sounds exhausting to me! And this, perhaps, is where the mystical meaning of contemplation differs from the mainstream or secular meaning of the word.

To begin to appreciate the spiritual dimension of contemplation, let’s turn to another definition; but this time, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.

So instead of the heart of contemplation being thought or cogitation, in a spiritual sense, contemplation is wordless prayer.

It’s not about thought — in fact, contemplation takes us to a place beyond thought.

Wordless Prayer: Into the Silence

It’s hard to define something by what it is not. What, exactly, is wordless prayer? The Catechism goes on to suggest that it is a prayer of “affective, loving adoration.” In other words, contemplation is a prayer of the heart, more so than a prayer of the mind.

We do not think our way into contemplation. We enter into contemplation through love, through faith and love.

Spiritual contemplation still can be understood using some of the concepts found in the OED: it’s a beholding, it’s a type of meditation, perhaps we can even say it’s a way of musing. But strictly speaking, spiritual contemplation only has one object: God. Sure, you can contemplate the virtues, the mysteries of the faith, the lives of the saints, and so forth. But there, you’re back to using the word contemplation in its broader, not-strictly-religious sense. For a narrower understanding of contemplation that brings us into the world of mysticism, the beholding, the music, the wordless meditation and prayer are all directed toward God.

Indeed, traditionally contemplation has been understood as a gift from God: no one contemplates God without God’s leading and directing the process. Contemplation is a gift given by God to the person who is doing the contemplating.

So, therefore, contemplation is relational. It is a description of a dimension of relatedness between God and the contemplative (the human being who is contemplating God).

To say contemplation is about relationship is also to say that it is a dimension of intimacy with God. To contemplate God is to be engaged with God in a heart-to-heart, intimate way. Indeed, many mystics might suggest that contemplation takes us to the place where God and the self are no longer “two.”

I’m struck by the irony of all this: because since contemplation is wordless, do you see the irony? I’m trying to describe, using words, something that exists beyond the limits of human language.

Contemplative Prayer, Life, and Living

Now that we have a basic sense of both secular and spiritual contemplation, the various other forms of the word can begin to make more sense. Contemplative prayer, is essentially the same thing as spiritual contemplation. Prayer is also relationship and intimacy. Many forms of prayer rely on communication using language — words and thought — to establish or nurture that intimacy. We “talk to God” when we say our prayers, when we ask for forgiveness, or make intercessions, etc. Such “vocal prayers” are good and beautiful, but contemplation goes beyond the reliance on words, language and syntax to establish such Divine intimacy. Contemplation is simply a form of prayer where words are no longer necessary, because the heart, in silence, is communing directly with God (because God is communing directly with the heart). Not only are words unnecessary in contemplation, but they would even prove to be a hindrance. Contemplation is like a kiss from God. If you’re busy talking, you can’t receive the kiss!

A contemplative is simply a person who has given his or her spiritual attention to the cultivation of contemplative prayer — or, at the very least, is open and receptive to receiving the gift of contemplation, according to God’s design. Some would say it is presumptuous to say “I am a contemplative” as if we humans get to call the mystical shots. God is in charge of mystical spirituality; we do not achieve it, we receive it. So to say “I am a contemplative” can be a humble way of simply saying “I commit to making myself available for the gift of contemplation, whenever God seeks to bestow it.”

Incidentally, traditionally the contemplative life meant living in a monastic or religious community devoted to contemplation. Nowadays the word can be used more loosely: to lead a contemplative life means to order one’s entire life, including a daily spiritual practice, toward the cultivation of spiritual contemplation. But in a more broad or general sense, we could also speak of contemplation as approaching life meditatively and thoughtfully, rather than always being quick to act. So we can speak of a “contemplative life” or perhaps “contemplative living” in this general sense of orienting one’s entire life toward a habit of meditation, beholding, wondering, and musing.

My wife teaches a class on contemplative photography, as do many other artists and spiritual teachers. Here, she is using the concept of contemplation in the broad sense of meditation/musing/beholding, but also in the more narrow sense of wordlessness and adoration. Following the Ignatian or Celtic ideals of “finding God in all things,” a contemplative photographer (or any kind of artist) relates to the world in that same kind of open-hearted, silent adoration, encountering the Divine presence in natural beauty and then receiving it in a spirit of wonder, appreciation, and musing.

Contemplation and Mysticism

Finally, we can return to the question of what is the relationship between contemplation and mysticism?

Here’s how I see it. Contemplation is a way — a way of seeing, a way of praying, a way of beholding, a way of wondering — of meditating, of musing, of recognizing. Contemplation, at its heart, is a dimension of consciousness: what many call a nondual consciousness, since at its heart contemplation meets God in oneness and communion. “God and I are not-two,” might be the motto of the contemplative way.

Mysticism is also a way, but it’s a broader way. It incorporates the contemplative way, but it also has a dimension of theology, of philosophy, of discourse about it. Many of the greatest mystics were, in fact, great thinkers: figures like Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, John Ruusbroec, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Hildegard of Bingen… these great mystics were true contemplatives but were also great teachers, visionaries, poets, philosophers and theologians. They not only lived in a contemplative manner, but they also were capable of communicating their profound union with God to others.

Clearly, there is much overlap: at its heart, mysticism is deeply contemplative: it invites us into that place of wordless adoration where prayer unfolds in communion and union. Where Meister Eckhart proclaims, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” (Sermon 16) But mysticism both is contemplation and embraces contemplation: it is a way of seeing, but also a way of thinking, a school of knowledge, a path of formation and discipline.

Can a person be a contemplative without being a mystic? Well, certainly a person can be a contemplative without having studied mystical theology or being conversant on all the nuances of mystical thinking. But the true heart of contemplative union with God is identical with mystical union: they are not different experiences.

Can a person be a mystic without being a contemplative? Certainly you can be a student of mysticism without entering the contemplative way: such persons can often be found in academic/university settings. But to truly taste the splendor of mystical spirituality, sooner or later one must walk the contemplative way.


The Characteristics of a Mystic

What are the characteristics of a mystic?

I know two elderly monks at the local monastery near where I live, both of whom have reputations as “real mystics.” Indeed, I would agree with this assessment — they both strike me as genuine contemplatives, true living mystics. But they are very different from one another in some key ways. One is something of a theologian, who spent most of his life reading dense, academic works on topics like the Holy Trinity and apophaticism (the spirituality of darkness and unknowing). The other, meanwhile, while no intellectual slouch — he speaks several languages — would rather spend several hours a day meditating than reading. Both have charming personalities, but one is a clear extravert, the other just as obviously an introvert. Both are committed Roman Catholics, but one of them also has a strong interfaith bent and as a young man devoted much time to exploring eastern forms of meditation.

So, using just these two men as a template (but also drawing from the literary sources by recognized mystics like Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Keating, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and many others), is it possible to begin to identify what kinds of characteristics mark the life and personality of a true mystic? Especially given the reality that mystics come in many shapes or sizes: like the saying goes: “a mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.”

I think it is possible to make at least some basic statements about the characteristics of a mystic. And while a simple blog post cannot be the final word on the characteristics of mysticism, perhaps this list of seven common (not necessarily universal) marks of a true mystic can be a source of discernment for anyone who is interested in embracing the mystical path.

  1. Mystics are humble. Kenneth Leech (author of Prayer and Prophecy) once rather playfully told me that true mystics would never presume to call themselves a mystic — they would humbly trust others to decide whether or not they truly deserved to called as such. I think his point was less about the labels we choose to identify ourselves with, and more about the central role of humility in the contemplative life. Mysticism is not a badge of honor or a point of pride. Having a sense of God’s abiding presence in your life, if it’s authentic and not just your imagination, most likely will impress you with a serene but clear sense of your own littleness and even unworthiness — not in terms of self-denigration (that’s just pride inverted), but rather as a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact acknowledgement of your own limitedness and imperfection. As someone (it’s often credited to C.S. Lewis) once said, a humble person doesn’t think less of himself, but thinks of himself less. Humility is all about being honest and authentic. So too is mysticism.
  2. Mystics are virtuous. We have so many subtle ways in which we dismiss the idea of basic, down-to-earth goodness in our society. We call a good person a “girl scout” or a “goody-two-shoes.” We sometimes think that truly good people are rather weak or passive — unable to defend themselves or to effectively fight for what they want. These ideas are so pervasive that they might go unquestioned: but they are symptoms of the pervasive cynicism of our culture. We forget that the word virtue is related to virility which implies strength, fecundity, and “manliness” — a gendered term that might better be re-defined as humanliness — the qualities that make a human being reach his or her full potential. True virtue: an unwavering commitment to goodness, fairness, justice, and courage, even when it requires self-sacrifice, was classically understood as an essential part of living a truly good human life. Goodness is not an optional dimension of a mystical life: it is inherent to it. And while no one is perfect, a good person takes responsibility for his or her mistakes.
  3. Mystics are kind and compassionate; love is central to their identity and consciousness. At least in a Christian context, love is recognized as the greatest of the virtues. If the characteristics of a true mystic begins with humility, the ultimate flowering of the mystical life is love, in its fullest expression. Not just love as passionate feeling or erotic desire, but rather love as a function of the will: an intentional commitment to virtues such as kindness, compassion, caring (and, when necessary, charity), and a grounded sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with all people and indeed all of life. “We love because God first loved us,” proclaims the New Testament, and a mystic embodies this truth. He or she lives immersed in Divine love, and the proof of that immersion is the loving way in which the mystic relates to others, including rivals and enemies, and to the world at large. Mystics bring the presence of God into the lives of others, and they do so by bringing love into all situations and circumstances; even and especially the most troubled situations.
  4. Mystics recognize spiritual depth regardless of one’s religious label. The first three characteristics could all be expected of any high-functioning, self-actualized person. But mystics are beyond merely human peak performance. A mystic is one who has drunk deep from the waters of eternity, and bathed in the supernal light of Divine consciousness. He or she is infused by God, and so lives from a deep place, a deep center within. One of the qualities of living such a “deeper” life is the capacity of recognizing a similar depth in others. It is said that when the American Catholic mystic Thomas Merton traveled to Asia, a Buddhist (who had never met him before) greeted him by proclaiming, “You are a natural Buddha!” Likewise, the Southern Baptist mystic Howard Thurman in his biography With Head and Heart reports recognizing deep truth in the lives of Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims when he traveled through India. The presence of God cannot be constrained by religious boundaries, and true mystics naturally recognize this.
  5. Mystics take their spiritual practice seriously; they don’t take it for granted. While there is a certain universal quality to mysticism, paradoxically many mystics remain deeply affiliated with one particular path. There are Sufi (Muslim) mystics and Christian mystics; Jewish mystics and Vedantist mystics; Buddhist mystics and nature mystics (found among indigenous spiritual practitioners around the world). Mysticism is universal, but it also seems to be a universal quality of mysticism that it benefits from a healthy ecosystem in which to thrive and flourish. When people say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” presumably this means they reject the constraining, fussily bureaucratic nature of religious institutionalism. That makes sense; meanwhile, so many mystics have pointed the way to spirituality within religion that they have wisely maintained at least some ties to the disciplines and practices of their particular faith tradition. Rather than digging a lot of holes, none of which go very deep: most mystics persevere at digging one deep well to access the living water.
  6. Mystics rely on grace and wonder: they know their spirituality is not entirely under their control. Playing a musical instrument, or improving one’s physical fitness, or many other desirable goals in life require hard work, perseverance, dedicated effort, and the willingness to follow the instruction of a qualified teacher, trainer, or coach. Mysticism is similar: it’s more than just a nice idea or a desirable identity: it is the fruit of dedication, loyalty, hard work, and ongoing training and formation. However, there is much more to mysticism than merely mastering a skill or honing a talent. Mysticism is, at heart, relational — it’s a dance between a finite human and the infinite Spirit. And of course, the Spirit leads the dance. This means that sometimes people enter the deepest chambers of the Interior Castle with seeming little effort; others may toil away for years and have no conscious “mystical experience” to show for it. God is the choreographer of the mystical life, and true mystics always recognize that grace is at the heart of their spirituality.
  7. Mystics are comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and unknowing. The challenge of grace is that it is beyond our control. We do not get to decide just how “mystical” we become: do we have supernatural experiences like Teresa of Ávila, an ongoing sense of desolation like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one single night of visions like Julian of Norwich, or an ongoing sense of darkness and mystery, called by names like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing? Ultimately, God decides, and each mystic is a unique expression of what it means to be a human being fully accepting of God’s love at work in their lives. We do not know what the road ahead of us looks like: so true mystics learn to live serenely with the unknowing, the mystery, the sense of ambiguity and paradox that is the mystic’s constant companion on the contemplative path. Mystics are more familiar with wondering than with certainty; more comfortable with heavenly questions than with cut-and-dried answers. Mystics live in the heart of paradox and possibility.

For your own discernment: which of these characteristics do you embody? Which ones are not familiar to you? Can you think of ways to cultivate all seven of these characteristics in your own life?