A Question for Discernment: What Do We Need to Do to Make Mysticism Mainstream?

It’s the first Sunday of Advent. So liturgically speaking, it’s a new church year. Happy new year!

In the spirit of making a new year’s resolution, I’d like a pose a question for discernment. I don’t have the answer to this question, certainly not all the answers. This is question that I think everyone who is drawn to contemplation and mysticism needs to be working on, together. The way we answer this question will give us insight into the “new year’s resolutions” we need to be making, as Christian contemplatives.

The question is this: What do we need to do, in both large and small ways, to make mysticism a mainstream part of the Christian community?

You could frame it this way, as well: What is God’s vision for the contemplative future of Christianity? What is being asked of me (individually) and us (communally) to help the Spirit lead the people of God deeper into the mystical life?

I believe we are all called to a mystical spirituality, grounded in contemplative prayer — a spirituality grounded in the mystery of Christ, in the mystery of God-who-is-Love.

But many Christians have never heard of topics like mysticism or contemplation; others mistakenly assume these dimensions of the Christian life are dangerous or “foreign” (e.g., equating mysticism with Zen); while others think such “advanced” spirituality only should be practiced by priests or monks or nuns.

In other words, mysticism, at least for many Christians, is most definitely not mainstream.

If you want any evidence of this, visit a large church that hosts a centering prayer group. A thousand people may show up to mass or service on Sunday morning, but only 10 or 15 (if they’re lucky) make it to centering prayer on Wednesday night.  In other words, the contemplative ministry serves only about 1% of the congregation.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every last follower of Jesus Christ needs some sort of daily mindfulness practice (although to my mind this wouldn’t be a bad thing). We are all called to unique forms and expressions of spirituality, and sitting in silence for twenty minutes will probably always appeal to just a minority of the faithful.

But contemplative spirituality involves more than just type of silent prayer:

  • It includes “embodied” types of prayer, like walking a labyrinth or yoga;
  • It includes contemplative approaches to mainstream practices, like lectio divina, which is contemplative Bible reading;
  • It includes ministries of spiritual direction or companionship, where we learn to listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit by learning to listen to one another;
  • It includes contemplative art practices, like Zentangle or contemplative photography;
  • It includes an openness to mystery in our discernment process: seeking God’s will through listening, and wonder, and unknowing.

Bringing mysticism back into the mainstream does not mean that all the churches will suddenly turn into meditation halls filled with levitating saints (ha!). But I believe it does mean that Christianity could shed its current unhappy public image as a religion that says “no!” to spirituality — which leads some people to be “mystical but not religious.”

Making mysticism mainstream means envisioning, and working to create, Christianity as a faith-filled community of people who listen, who love, who wonder, who trust, and who remain safe even when faced with darkness and unknowing, paradox and ambiguity, suffering and silence.

And I believe, along with Karl Rahner, that the future of Christianity depends on this.

Among Catholics, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) has become an important and successful ministry because we intuitively recognize that becoming a Christian — a follower of Jesus Christ — involves more than just filling out some paperwork. No offense to my evangelical friends, but embracing a Christ-centered heart involves a lot more than just making an on-the-spot decision in response to a preacher’s impassioned altar-call. Following Jesus Christ, as a lifelong commitment, requires a period of formation culminating in a rite of initiation.

So here is my question: how do we form new contemplatives — not on the margins of the church (like that Wednesday night centering prayer group, wonderful though it may be), but in the mainstream? And once someone is formed (or, at least begins to be formed) as a person of deep silence and contemplative spirituality, how are they initiated into that dimension of Christian spirituality?

And what difference will it make, not only in their lives, but in the shared life of their community of faith?

Lots of questions, and I freely admit I have no answers (although I do have a few ideas, which perhaps we need to explore together on this blog and elsewhere in the months and years to come).  But perhaps you have an idea or two, along these lines, that you would like to share?

If so, please do so — either via social media or as a comment to this blog post. Thank you for your feedback.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.