Go Deeper On Your Spiritual Journey

What Richard Foster and Dallas Willard were to my generation – prime tour guides to the spiritual life – I hope and believe Carl McColman will be for the next generation. If you don’t know about him and his work, you should. — Brian D. McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy and other books

The Latest from Carl McColman:

Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught — and Why That’s Okay

We speak of spirituality as a “journey,” which implies not only a destination toward which we travel, but countless adventures encountered along the way. The journey is the destination—both at once. We may all be trying to get to the heart of God, but there are infinite ways to get there.

Can wisdom collected along the pilgrim path even be captured in words, codified into a book? Probably not. And why do the wisest books refuse to offer glib formulas or step-by-step instructions for happiness or enlightenment? Why are the great spiritual classics mostly just an invitation to keep our eyes, ears—and especially hearts—open?

Because we’re often stumbling on miracles while we’re looking for something else.

Using engaging and disarming stories from his own life, Carl McColman, a leading author of books in spirituality, gently leads readers toward a recognition that although the wisdom of the past is worth reading, hearing or reading others’ experience of God is ultimately no substitute for opening our own eyes, ears, and hearts to God.

Carl McColman’s first gift is his commitment to write about things that matter.  His second gift is his ability to write about them with clarity and warmth, enticing his readers to go places with him that we might otherwise not have gone. In Unteachable Lessons he leads us to the brink of lessons no book can teach, then frees us to go forward to learn them, trusting the God who meets us at every step on the unknown way.” — Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Holy Envy


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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


ALSO BY CARL McCOLMAN:

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom draws on myth, folklore, poetry, and the tales of Celtic saints and heroes, to explore the spiritual tradition of the Celtic peoples — a tradition rooted in hospitality, love of nature, and a mystical sense of the presence of God. The Celtic way is more important than ever in our increasingly fractured and troubled times. It’s not just for people who have Irish, Scottish or Welsh ancestry — this is a universal wisdom for all people.

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom is divided into three parts:

Part One: The Celtic Mystery: we begin by exploring the mystery inherent in the Celtic spiritual path with a brief discussion of the three streams of Celtic spirituality and an introduction to core ideas like thin places, holy wells, and “the edge of waiting.”

Part Two: The Celtic Saints: we go deeper by discovering how the faith of the Celtic saints is rooted in the desert spirituality of the early Christian tradition. We look closely at several Celtic saints, including Patrick, Brigid, and Brendan.

Part Three: Walking the Celtic Path: How do we “live” Celtic wisdom in our time? Through ageless values like hospitality, soul-friendship, storytelling, and the quest for the grail, we answer the invitation to make Celtic wisdom our own.


Order An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


The Little Book of Christian Mysticism invites you to delve into the writings of the great contemplatives and mystics of the past two thousand years. Featuring over three hundred quotations from great mystics from Biblical times to the present day, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism provides a user-friendly, insightful, and potentially life-changing introduction to the essential teachings of the greatest mystics in the western wisdom traditions, past and present. In this inspirational anthology you’ll find gems of wisdom from Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Howard Thurman, Evelyn Underhill, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, among many others. Readers can use this book to initiate themselves into this visionary and ecstatic spiritual lineage, and they can also use it as a book of daily meditations. Small enough to fit in one’s pocket or handbag, this is truly a user-friendly introduction to this venerable body of wisdom. Together with Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, this completes Carl McColman’s trilogy of books celebrating Christian mysticism for our time.


Order The Little Book of Christian Mysticism:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net



Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages celebrates the many types of mystics, visionaries, wisdom keepers, and non-dualists whose spiritual insight and perceptive teachings have illuminated the Christian tradition for the past two thousand years. Looking at 108 mystics from Biblical times to the present day, this user-friendly guide shows how the spiritual masters of the western tradition provide a variety of paths into the transforming heart of God. Everyone needs teachers and companions to guide and nurture us in developing rich interior lives — as we seek to respond to the beatifying, deifying love of God. The mystics, whose legacy includes sublime poetry, fascinating autobiographies, and potentially life-changing teachings, can help anyone find greater love, purpose, and a deeper sense of God’s presence. More than just a history book or an encyclopedia, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages is a curated celebration of western spiritual wisdom, making it accessible for all seekers today.


Buy Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality explores the spirituality of Cistercian monasteries, based on Carl’s experience as a Lay Cistercian, under the spiritual guidance of Trappist monks. For centuries the deeply contemplative and mystical spirituality of the monasteries was only accessible to the monks and nuns who devoted their lives to this ancient way of life. But in the years following the Vatican II council, the beautiful spirituality of the Cistercian path, grounded in values such as silence, stability, humility, lifelong conversion, and compassion, has been made available to the entire people of God like never before. In Befriending Silence Carl offers a step-by-step introduction to the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian way, making this deeply spiritual wisdom tradition accessible to anyone who would like to be inspired to find their own closer walk with God. Each chapter of the book includes questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and a spiritual exercise designed to make the wisdom of the Cistercians come alive for the serious seeker.


Buy Befriending Silence:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path invites you to reflect on the steps anyone can take to begin (or deepen) a regular spiritual practice. Informed by the wisdom of the great Christian mystics, this accessible and user-friendly book illustrates how wisdom from the past can be relevant to seekers today. The mystical life is a life of transformation, and this book celebrates how responding to the desire for a closer sense of God’s presence — the “contemplative call” — means entering into a God-centered process that truly can change us forever. Christian author and activist Brian D. McLaren praised the book, saying “What Frommers, Rick Steves, and Lonely Planet are to travel guides for physical locales, Carl McColman is fast becoming for the spiritual journey. There is so much that recommends this delightful guide — Carl’s own depth of experience, his wonderful ability to bring in apt quotations from the great contemplative saints of history, his ability to be both simple and deep without ever becoming simplistic or murky. As I read, I kept thinking of friends with whom I want to share this treasure — a travel guide to an adventurous journey that will last forever.”


Buy Answering the Contemplative Call:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality looks at one of the most misunderstood aspects of Christian spirituality: the mystical tradition, a wisdom lineage which stresses the love of God for humanity created in the Divine image and likeness — a tradition of prayer, meditation and contemplation, in which the mystery of Divine Love leads to the splendor of enlightenment, personal and social transformation, and spiritual joy. But what is mysticism, and why is it not more commonly spoken of in Christian circles? In the 20th century an eminent Catholic theologian named Karl Rahner famously said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, author Carl McColman reflects on what Rahner could mean — and how mystical spirituality could be a blessing not just for saints or nuns and monks, but for all Christians, and indeed for anyone interested in profound spiritual transformation. Caroline Myss calls this book “a masterpiece of scholarship and wisdom,” while Anglican author Cynthia Bourgeault calls it “a wise and supportive guidebook for those going deeper on the Christian mystical path… what makes it sing is the authenticity of the author’s own contemplative  journey.”


Buy The Big Book of Christian Mysticism:
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Audiobook: Audible
Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia celebrates how teaching about the Christian contemplative life is  “encoded” within the pages of one of C. S. Lewis’s most charming books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (in the beloved Narnia series). Lewis built his illuminating story — of a ship sailing through enchanted waters to the very end of the world — around the key elements of the Christian life: baptism, communion, struggling against injustice and temptation, and (as the story progresses) moving into deeper wisdom teachings centered around the experience of silence, the encounter with darkness, and finally, the breathtaking splendor of enlightenment. Eventually the Dawn Treader sails beyond a place where the stars sing, into a luminous world of wonders presided over by Aslan, the Divine Lover. Carl McColman’s The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader helps readers of all ages to discern the often subtle spiritual teachings found within Lewis’s charming (and deceptively simple) story. Popular Catholic author James Martin, SJ, praises this book and its author: “By turns playful, provocative and profound, McColman asks us to ‘become like little children’ in order to understand some very adult lessons.”


Buy The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader:
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Independent Bookstore (Online or Near You)
Ebook: Kindle • Nook • Kobo
Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore offers the reader a series of daily meditations grounded in Celtic spirituality, written in an inclusive way that can speak to everyone — you don’t have to have Celtic ancestry to enjoy this book. Written in 2004, it represents the culmination of years of study into both Christian and pre-Christian dimensions of Celtic spirituality. The wisdom of the Celts is poetic, mythic, celebratory, and mystical in the best sense of the word. It seamlessly weaves together insights from what the Irish Benedictine monk Seán Ó Duinn calls the “three streams” of neolithic, mythical, and Christian dimensions of wisdom. The result: a truly inclusive, hope-filled, and inspirational series of meditations, rooted in the mysteries of the Spirit, a reverence for nature, and compassion for humanity. This book is written in such a way that it serves beautifully as a daily devotional, but works just as well as an introductory guidebook to Celtic mysticism.


Buy 366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore:
Paperback: Amazon • Barnes & Noble
Independent Bookstore (Online or Near You)
Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net

I’m Wondering About the Relationship Between Mysticism and the Church. Here’s Why.

I often get asked if Christian mysticism needs the institutional church. Do you have to be a member of a church in order to be a Christian mystic? Or, to paraphrase a common way many people describe their spiritual lives: is it possible, in our day, to be “MBNR,” that is, “Mystical But Not Religious”?

Almost ten years ago, on page 30 of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I wrote the following:

Mysticism is often connected with religion. Here I am using religion to mean the various social and cultural ways in which people relate to each other’s common desire for contact with the Higher Mystery. This connection between mysticism and religion, however, exists alongside real differences and tensions. Certainly it is possible to be religious without exploring mysticism; and some expressions of mysticism do not require a religious setting. Since community is such an important element within Christianity, Christian mysticism is more overtly religious than other forms of mysticism. In fact, while mysticism in general is often connected with religion, I think the case can be made that genuine Christian mysticism is always religious (communal) in nature.

Recently I directed a retreat on the wisdom of the Christian mystics at Holy Spirit Abbey in Conyers, GA. One of the retreatants was reading The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and he asked me to comment on this passage. As we talked about it, it became obvious that my definition of religion — meaning “spirituality expressed in community” — didn’t work for a lot of people.

Why “Religion” Has Become a Trigger Word

For so many people who are drawn to contemplative or mystical spirituality, “religion” and even “church” have become deeply problematic. Even “Christianity” and “Christian” often function like trigger words: they don’t inspire people to feel a sense of joy in connection with Divine Love, but rather call to mind institutional structures that foster judgmentalism, exclusivism, cliquishness, moralism, intolerance, and at its worst, fundamentalism and self-righteousness.

And this isn’t just something conservative-minded people do: religious liberals can be just as judgmental toward those they disapprove of as religious conservatives are.

Anyone who has seriously explored contemplative or mystical spirituality can immediately see the problem here. If mysticism is an expression of joyful, nondual intimacy with God, but religion points to our human tendency to create social institutions that judge and exclude rather than welcome and embrace… well, that leads to my question: is it possible to be mystical but not religious? Perhaps for some people, the best way to embrace a mystical life is actually to stay away from the institutional church?

For most of my career as a writer on Christian mysticism, I have tended to be a staunch defender of the church, and have insisted that since mystics need community, the church is the place to find it. But this conversation last week at this retreat has given me some new food for thought.

If the words “religious” and “religion” in the popular mind are too identified with the negative aspects of institutional faith — so much so that most people can no longer even find the more positive elements of communal spirituality in the church — then, I have to admit, perhaps the time has come for us to begin talking seriously about a post-religious Christian mysticism.

I’m not sure what that looks like. Furthermore, I can imagine all sorts of problems that could follow the marriage of mysticism and post-religiosity.

But I’m beginning to recognize that the problems of non-religious Christian mysticism are probably no worse than the problems that arise when we try to keep Christian mysticism tethered to an organization/institution that seems to be resolutely anti-mystical.

For Some People, Church Might Be Necessary; For Others, Not So Much

Let’s be clear: there are many people who find joy in integrating mystical spirituality with membership in a healthy church community. I’m one of them. So I can’t say that mystical Christianity shouldn’t have anything to do with institutional religion.

But I am increasingly beginning to see that, for people who have been hurt by institutional religion, or who find that the cliquishness and judgmentalism of a church community is just too inimical to meaningful spiritual growth, then we have to talk about how to preserve the importance of community (which I still believe is necessary for healthy mysticism, even for people who have a vocation as hermits or solitaries) while liberating ourselves from the toxic limitations of institutional religion.

And I would even argue that those of us who remain engaged with the local church (like I do), we still need to be thinking about how mysticism can be a call to a new kind of Christianity, that is not constrained by the limitations of the institution (even if we are part of it).

This is a new frontier for me: a new topic to explore in prayer, reflection, and writing. I hope that my brothers and sisters who explore mystical Christianity, whether inside or outside of the traditional church institution, can engage in this conversation with me.

If it’s possible to be “MBNR” — mystical but not religious — what does that look like? How do we protect ourselves from narcissism, ego-inflation, and other problems that can undermine independent spirituality? And how do we find real community in a post-institutional-religious world?

I don’t have the answers, friends. I’m doing a lot of wondering here. I invite you to wonder with me.

Recognizing just how toxic the word “religion” has become for many people, if I could revise The Big Book of Christian Mysticism today, I’d probably change the above paragraph to read something more like this:

Mysticism often thrives best in a community. While there have always been hermits and solitaries who explore the mysteries in a radically alone way, many (if not most) of the great mystics in the world’s wisdom traditions have relied on communities to support their spiritual quest: they have lived in monasteries, convents, or other intentional communities; they have been apprentices to great masters or have in turn mentored their own students; they have embedded their practice of prayer and meditation in lives devoted to service and care for others, especially those in need. There are many social and cultural ways in which people relate to each other’s common desire for contact with the Higher Mystery. Even religious or academic institutions can support the mystical life, although institutions can also often be hostile to mysticism. As for specifically Christian mysticism, since Jesus mandated his followers love one another, love their neighbors, and even love their enemies, it seems that community is even more important to Christian mysticism than to other expressions of mysticism. In fact, I think the case can be made that genuine Christian mysticism is always communal in nature — even the hermits of the desert or in medieval Europe always found time to teach, counsel, or otherwise “wash the feet” of others who came to them for advice. Mysticism is about love: and love always requires relationships.

Mysticism is about love, and love requires relationships, and relationships generally happen in community. So friends, let’s work together to envision what mystical community really means and how we can create it — together. With or without the institutional church.

Gatekeeping and Contemplation: Is the Church Its Own Worst Enemy?

A friend of mine posted the following fascinating observation recently on Facebook:

I am easing out of parish ministry because there are too many gatekeepers and not much interest in contemplative prayer.

The writer is a Catholic lay minister — but I have heard or read similar words from Protestants as well as Catholics, from clergy as well as laypersons.

I think this points to a serious problem within the institutional form of Christianity. The church gets so wrapped up in gatekeeping — in deciding who’s in and who’s out, and in policing one another — that we basically choke the contemplative spirit right out of our faith communities.

No wonder young people are leaving in droves, while mindfulness is now big business.

Is your church empty? Contemplation could be the key to its revival.

If the church’s only (or main) purpose is to be a moral watchdog, dealing out shame to those who don’t measure up to some standards (usually involving sexuality) while giving others a free pass (usually when it comes to economic injustice), then the church is going to die.

I know I quote Rahner all the time, but it’s so obvious that what my lay minister friend was referring to is precisely the problem that Karl Rahner predicted when he wrote, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”

Let’s be real: “gatekeeping” is not a very good expression of Christianity. Sure, every organization has to have its boundaries, and Christianity is no exception. But if the organization is only about boundaries, then that means it has no center. In other words, its reason for being no long exists.

Religion without mysticism is religion that is dead or dying. A church without a vibrant culture of prayer, meditation and contemplation may just as well be any other kind of service organization. And if you had to choose being a Christian and joining the Moose or Elks or Rotary, well, most people are going to choose the organization that doesn’t shame them.

When Christian communities return to their true reason for being — their mystical heart and spiritual center of gravity — then there is little or no need to circle the wagons or keep an eye on the gates. Instead of worrying about who’s saved or who’s not saved, who’s committed a mortal vin versus who is in a state of grace, a church that keeps its eye on its own mystical heritage becomes oriented toward giving God’s love away, any way it can. It becomes a community pulsating with vibrant, joyful worship. The preaching and teaching is oriented toward joy and hope. The compassionate care of others is not a duty, but a natural outgrowth of a community oriented toward a shared of sense of being loved by God.

Think of your church as a circle. What is the strongest element of your church: the circumference, or the center? If your community is filled with gatekeepers and functionaries who obsess over doctrinal correctness and dogmatic formulations, insisting that the only people who really “belong” or those who think or speak or act a certain way, then yours is a community with a strong circumference, with an empty center. If, on the other hand, your focus is on cultivating a meaningful and living relationship with the God who is Love, and letting that community-wide relationship direct your style of worship, orientation toward hospitality, and shared commitment to prayer, then your community is truly defined by its center — God. And when that’s the case, then the circumference (the boundaries, the “gates”) will take care of themselves.

Please search your heart. If minding the gates matters more to you than cultivating a contemplative heart, I hope you will prayerfully consider how fostering a more intimate relationship with God might be the most important thing you can do to grow as a follower of Jesus. Meanwhile, if your church is more gatekeeper than contemplative, consider what you can do to help call the community back to its prayerful center. That may be a big job that will take years, if not decades, to make an impact. So be patient: God is more interested in sustainable long-term growth and in flashy quick fixes. But also: don’t delay! More and more disillusioned people are abandoning institutional Christianity every day. Help Christianity to have a future in your neighborhood: embrace the mystical life starting right now!

Let’s Go Deeper in Our Exploration of Mystical Christianity

Friends, I’m really excited about a new writing project I am launching next month through Patreon. I hope you will prayerfully consider joining me on this adventure.

Patreon is the crowdfunding website where readers like you are invited to support this blog and my other writing projects. Patrons through Patreon get early access to my current and future writing projects, including this new initiative. To learn more and to become a patron, click here.

This new project is called Contemplative Compass. It will be a monthly newsletter with original content, not available anywhere else, designed to offer practical, day-to-day support for people who are embracing the mystical element of Christianity. It’s for anyone who wants to explore the mystical side of Christianity. That includes Christians as well as non-Christians or spiritually independent persons who recognize that the mystical dimension of Christianity speaks to everyone.

Karl Rahner famously said “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” I think we are already living in the future Rahner (who died in 1984) was talking about. Many churches are facing declining and aging membership, and some are even closing their doors. The institutional side of Christianity is in crisis.

More and more people — especially young people — don’t want to be part of a religious institution.

But Christianity is more than just an institution. It preserves, generation after generation, a beautiful, deeply transformational, but largely hidden lineage of mystical, contemplative wisdom. And it is that dimension of Christianity — often unknown to the institutional side of the religion — that inspires and excites me, and that I am dedicated to exploring with the patrons who sign up for Contemplative Compass.

I know that the last thing most people need are tons of emails showing up every day (I know, you’re already reading Richard Rohr!) — so for Patreon supporters who sign up for Contemplative Compass, I only will be sending an email once a week. Some of these emails will be devotional in nature: original poetry or meditations that are written to support your daily practice. Once a month I’ll send out an informal, “behind the scenes” newsletter. But the heart of the program will be the Contemplative Compass email, with all-new material each month written expressly to support your practice — your contemplative journey.

Following the “compass” metaphor, each month I’ll be exploring four “directions” for cultivating our contemplative practice:

  • Reflect on the Mysteries — Live the questions of the spiritual life. Each month we’ll explore a question designed to foster and cultivate our deepening sense of wonder and encounter with the mystery that lies at the heart of the contemplative search. God seeks you — and does so by instilling in your heart a place of infinite longing. We’ll explore the questions that open that longing up to embrace the infinite.
  • Remember the Great Mystics — Honor the exemplars, the saints, visionaries, sages and teachers, from centuries ago or alive today, who embodied the promise and possibility of mystical spirituality. Each month we’ll celebrate a wisdom keeper whose life and teachings truly show us how to move deeper on the path.
  • Receive the Wisdom of Silence — Embrace the heart of the mystical life, by opening your heart and mind each day to the guidance that can only come directly from the Spirit, at a level deeper than words. Each month we’ll explore another facet of silent prayer and practice, always with an eye toward resting in the gift that is given: an invitation to go deeper to that place where we can be still and know.
  • Respond to your Unique Call — It has been said that the mystic is not a special kind of person, but each person is a special kind of mystic. There is no one-size-fits-all path into the mystical heart of Christianity. This is why Christianity has no “gurus” — only spiritual companions (like you and me) who accompany one another as we each seek to respond more fully to the guidance of the Spirit. Each month we’ll consider a virtue, a prayer practice, a Biblical story, or some other aspect of contemplation that can help us to more fully live the joyful, transformational, contemplative life we are called to live.

My hope for Contemplative Compass is that it will be a blessing for people of all walks of life and all stages on their spiritual journey: beginners as well as seasoned practitioners, devout churchgoing Christians as well as the spiritually independent. It’s meant to be an inclusive guide to what unites us, what calls us deeper, and what offers us transformation and possibility. In other words, it is meant to celebrate the spirituality of mystical love.

Contemplative Compass will not replace my blog, which I will continue to update as frequently as my schedule permits (most weeks I publish 2 – 3 new posts between my three blogs). The blog remains free for all readers — it is a ministry that I remain committed to doing as long as I can (and as long as people express an interest in it). But like the other content that is available exclusively on Patreon, Contemplative Compass is offered as a special thank-you gift for those who are able and willing to support my work through Patreon.

The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or will not exist. — Karl Rahner, SJ

Patrons will also have the ability to interact directly with me and the other subscribers of Contemplative Compass through the “Community” page on my Patreon site, where we can share with one another our experiences with the material we explore each month.

You can support this blog and my other writing projects for as little as $1 a month. There are six levels of support — each one offers specific rewards for those who sign up. The subscription to Contemplative Compass (which includes new poetry and meditations each month as well) is $10 per month. But there are others levels if you need to make a smaller pledge, or would like to make a larger one.

Remember, your financial support is not only a way of helping me (which I appreciate!), but also helps to keep new content posting to all of my blogs, which in turn helps more and more people each month discover the splendor and spiritual wisdom of contemplative Christianity. Thank you for doing your part to support this ministry!

Learn more about Patreon, or set up your pledge, by clicking here: www.patreon.com/carlmccolman

 

If you aren’t familiar with Patreon — it’s a crowdfunding platform for creative professionals. It’s basically the means by which I am able to publish new content on my blogs (here, and Via Mystica, and my blog at Patheos). The support I receive through Patreon makes it possible not only for me to write every day, but also to continue doing the research that allows me to keep growing as a writer and a student of the mystical path. My blogs will always be 100% free (and the ones that I manage, I intend to keep ad-free), thanks to Patreon. So if you find my writing helpful, and would like to help make sure new content keeps coming, I hope you will prayerfully consider joining the circle of patrons. To do so, click here: www.patreon.com/carlmccolman.

Thank you! See you on the path!

A New Edition of One of My Older Books is Coming Out Next Summer!

In my book Unteachable Lessons I talk about how, before I became a Catholic in 2005, I wrote a number of books that reflected my interest in pre-Christian spirituality — books about Goddess spirituality, ancient Celtic spirituality, Druidism and Wicca. I wrote:

These days most of those old books are out of print, but anyone with an internet connection can easily find used copies for sale (usually for about a penny plus shipping) on eBay or Amazon.

If you want to learn more about those old “pagan” books of mine, you can read about them here: Eight Pagan Books (By a Christian Author).

Well, as it turns out, one of my old books is going to be reprinted next summer. Today the publisher sent me the cover art, and so I’d like to share it with you now. The book, when it was originally published, was called Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses. The new edition has a new title: The Spirit of the Celtic Gods and GoddessesI like the new title better. And I definitely prefer the new cover design.

This is an image of an Irish mother goddess, Danu, by pagan artist Thalia Took. You can see the original art on her website by clicking here.

This book is a celebration of some of the major deities from Irish, Welsh, and continental Celtic mythology. While it is written for people who have a religious interest in these old mythic figures, it could be of interest to anyone who appreciates mythology or Celtic spirituality.

Now, I know that many of my current readers are not interested in paganism, Celtic or otherwise. For that matter, a lot of my readers from fifteen or twenty years ago are not interested in my more recent books exploring Christian spirituality and mysticism. But, what continually surprises and delights me, is the number of people who are interested in all my work, whether pagan or Christian.1I’ve been asked why I don’t capitalize “paganism.” It’s for the same reason I don’t capitalize “mysticism” — it’s a description of a type of spirituality, not the name of a religion. But I do capitalize Wicca or Asatru, just like I capitalize Christianity or Islam.

So if you are interested in the old Celtic myths, I hope you will take a look. Of all my older books, I’m really happy that this is the one that my publisher saw fit to reprint — and that’s because it was co-authored with a friend of mine, Kathryn Hinds. Kathryn was an excellent writer and a gentle soul who, I am sad to say, was called to leave this life in 2018. I’m sorry she’s gone, but I’m really happy that her collaboration with me will live on in this new edition of our book.

Here’s a picture of me and Kathryn from the last time I saw her, in 2016. We were at an awards banquet for the Georgia Writers Association, and we both received honors — me for Befriending Silence, and her for her novel The Healer’s Choice.

Carl McColman and Kathryn Hinds at the Georgia Author of the Year Awards Banquet, 2016. Gotta love her hair!

So, next summer will see this new edition of Kathryn’s and my book. If you haven’t read one of my older books, it could be a fun introduction to that chapter of my life. If you’re interested in ancient Celtic spirituality, I bet you’d like it. Even though I no longer identify as a pagan, I’m still perfectly happy to commend this book to those who are interested in its subject — for reasons I explain in Unteachable Lessons.

You can pre-order The Spirit of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses from Amazon — just click here.

Pictures of Rhiannon

My saving angel was… a chronically ill little girl.

If you’ve read Unteachable Lessons, you know that the “star” of the title chapter of the book is my stepdaughter Rhiannon. As I wrote the book, I mentioned several friends and memorable moments from Rhiannon’s life and our shared life as dad and daughter.

I thought it might be nice for this blog to collect some of my favorite snapshots of Rhiannon over the years. I hope you enjoy these as much as I enjoyed gathering them for you.

Since many of these are old snapshots, the quality of the image varies. My apologies for that, but I hope you’ll still get a sense of what a special person Rhiannon was.

Fran holding Rhiannon as a baby, 1985. She spent her first few weeks in neonatal intensive care. She was so sick with polycystic kidney disease that at first doctors thought she wouldn’t leave the hospital. But she lived over 29 years.
Four generations of strong southern women. Clockwise from left: Mama Frances Ham (Fran’s grandmother and namesake), Gladelle Verzyl (Rhiannon’s Grandmommie), Fran, and Rhiannon.
Before her stroke, which Rhiannon had at age 3 in 1988. She would never stand, or walk, unassisted after that.
Rhiannon, either shortly before I met her or shortly thereafter. What a cutie. This is the little girl who kept tugging on my beard and announcing, “I’m so happy to meet you!” (page 10)
I met Fran and Rhiannon in May 1992; this picture was one of the first ones taken of the three of us.
Our first “formal” photo, October 1992. Fran and I weren’t even engaged, but I think we all knew it was coming.
Rhiannon’s Baptism, May 1993, just a few weeks before Fran’s and my wedding. Behind Rhiannon, L-R: me, Fran, Gladelle, and Meg Anderson (Godmother and very dear friend).
Fran and Rhiannon, June 26, 1993: the day we became a family.
Me and Rhiannon, June 26, 1993. All smiles but not quite as close.
Christmas morning, mid 1990s. Adorable as usual.
Late 1990s: With Rhiannon at one of her homecomings. Such simple joy. I mentioned this picture on pages 26-7 of Unteachable Lessons.
Rhiannon with our feline companion, Clarissa. Of all the cats that lived with us during Rhiannon’s life, Clarissa was the most bonded with Rhiannon, often riding on her wheelchair with her and sleeping with her.
Rhiannon was a “Wish Kid” — a recipient of a wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Her wish: not merely to go to Walt Disney World, but to have breakfast with Mickey Mouse. Here her wish was granted, November 2003.
2004: Visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington DC. I really like this picture of the two of us — especially Rhiannon’s unabashed elation.
Also circa 2004: Rhiannon and I fill in for Prancer and Rudolph. This is Fran’s favorite picture of us. “My reindeer family,” she calls it.
Rhiannon’s Senior Prom Picture, 2007. My all-time favorite picture of her.
2011. Our last “formal” family portrait. Rhiannon by this point is pale and suffering from chronic anemia.
Fran and Rhiannon singing at a L’Arche Atlanta event.
Our friend Liz joins Rhiannon and Fran for a “silly hat” tea party. You meet Liz on page 16 of Unteachable Lessons.
Spring 2012: on the Emerald Coast of Florida, one of our two favorite vacation spots.
Summer 2013: In our other favorite vacation spot: Asheville, NC.
Christmas, 2013. Rhiannon gives me a Gonzo plush toy, since our final pet names for each other were “Kermit” and “Gonzo.” Three weeks later, she entered hospice care before passing away at the end of August 2014.
Carl and Fran McColman, Summer 2019. Before Rhiannon died she spoke to each of us individually and made us each promise to look after the other. So we are trying to do that. We miss her, but we believe living with joy is a good way to honor her memory.
Unteachable Lessons

If you haven’t read Unteachable Lessons — I hope you will. As Brian McLaren says in his foreword to the book, “In Chapter 1… you’ll meet Rhiannon, and she will steal the show. You won’t forget her, I promise.”

Order it from AmazonBarnes & Noble, ChristianBook.com, Independent Bookstores (Online or Near You), or if you live in the USA, get a signed copy from me.

Unteachable Hope, or, My Dream for Readers of My Latest Book

“What is your greatest hope for this book?”

This question came to me the other day from my friend Colette Lafia, a spiritual director and the author of Comfort and Joy and Seeking Surrender. She had written to me to congratulate me on the publication of my latest book, Unteachable Lessons. But then she asked that simple question, which I suppose every author should ponder as he or she writes — and then markets — a new book.

Unteachable Lessons

 

What is the hope at the heart of the book?

So with gratitude to Colette for asking the question, here are some thoughts that I’d like to share with you, whether or not you are reading Unteachable Lessons or just stumbling upon my website for the very first time. Hope is very much what drives me as a writer, so I hope (pardon the pun) that my words can inspire a little bit of hope for you as well.

I hope Unteachable Lessons speaks to anyone who is seeking a deeper and more intentional spiritual life. I hope the book inspires readers to remember that life is our best and most faithful teacher. I hope we can all take a deep breath and remember that every day, no matter how mundane our circumstances might be, every day is a new opportunity to find grace in unexpected places, to access the wisdom that is already deeply encoded in our hearts, and to share that wisdom with others, through love, through service, or merely through simply being the persons God created us to be.

I hope Unteachable Lessons reminds its readers that wisdom can be brought to us by the most unlikely or surprising of messengers: a little girl in a wheelchair, an actress in a cathedral, a clerk in a gift shop, an old Dr. Seuss book. What does this mean? Well, for starters, we should always have our eyes and ears open. You never know when wisdom, or insight, or a new way of seeing is going to come calling. So pay attention! The surprise might show up any moment now.

I hope Unteachable Lessons brings mysticism down to earth. It’s not necessarily a book about “mysticism” like some of my other books are; but some of the topics that it explores — the value of silence, the beauty of prayer, the journey of learning to trust in God, the centrality of love — are topics central to the deep wisdom of the great mystics. Mysticism can seem like a daunting and foreboding matter, but the great mystics themselves, again and again, remind us that God meets us in the most humble and ordinary of ways. So that’s one reason why I tried to make this book a celebration of humble and ordinary moments in my life — as a reminder that all of us have the opportunity to receive God in humble and ordinary ways.

I hope Unteachable Lessons helps anyone who reads it to remember that people who are different from us are not our “enemies.” Some people have different abilities than we do, or different religious identities, or different political values. It can be too easy to shrink away from folks who we perceive as “different” — they are the people who can snap us out of our comfort zone; but they just might inspire us to see the world from a new perspective. Yes, that can be a challenge, but it can also be a lesson in love, or in acceptance, or in peacemaking. Those are the kinds of unteachable lessons we all need to learn!

Finally (at least for now), I hope Unteachable Lessons helps anyone who reads it to remember that humility remains at the heart of all spiritual growth and exploration. We live in a fast-paced, achievement-oriented culture, where “the one who dies with the most toys wins” — and it is far too easy to let that cultural bias infect our spiritual lives. We see spirituality as a program to complete, a process to master, a mountain to climb. We forget that the heart of spirituality is love, relationship, connection. It’s not a race to win, it’s a life to live. I’ve tried to keep this principle in mind as I wrote this book. “Truth is a pathless land,” said the 20th century spiritual teacher Krishnamurti. Likewise, spirituality is not an achievement to gain, but simply an invitation to be loved, and to love. May we all hear this invitation, and respond!

So those are at least some of my hopes for this, my latest book. And of course, I hope that anyone who might be blessed by it will have the opportunity to read it!

Where to purchase Unteachable Lessons:

Or you can get a signed copy directly from the author.

The Point Behind “Be Still and Know”

One of the most popular verses in the Bible is Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” You can go into a Christian gift shop and find paperweights, wall plaques, t-shirts, and various other types of merchandise that prominently feature this verse.

But what does it mean? 

Obviously, the verse speaks to us in God’s voice: “know that I am God.” It is a proclamation that God exists, and that God can be known. Especially in our age of profound cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism, this is a bold statement indeed. Even people of faith sometimes find it difficult to truly know God. We know about God, but do we actually know God? J.I. Packer’s classic bestseller, Knowing God, sold over a million copies because it addresses this very question: knowing about God is not enough, we are called to know God, directly, intimately, incarnationally.

Back to Psalm 46: the Psalmist suggests that one way, perhaps the best or most efficient way, to know that I am God is simply by being still.

Surely, to know God requires more than just to stop fidgeting. 

When we place Psalm 46:10 in context, we realize that it’s at the end of a Psalm filled with martial imagery (remember, this was the Psalm that inspired Martin Luther to write A Mighty Fortress Is Our God). God is our refuge and strength when kingdoms fall and the nations are in an uproar. Waters may roar and mountains may shake, but we need not fear for God is our present help.

But then the Psalm pivots and the psalmist points out not only that God is our “mighty fortress,” but that God “makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (Verse 9). So more than just a defender, God actually brings peace, and causes conflict to end. 

That’s the setup for this invitation (commandment): to be still, and to know this God who is both a strong defender and the one who brings resolution to conflict.

So on one level, “Be still” carries a connotation of laying down your arms — to become vulnerable, undefended; to place trust in God alone. It is a gesture of openness and trust.

Looking at the Hebew word translated as “be still” — הַרְפּ֣וּ (har·pū) which comes from רָפָה (raphah) — we can see that it carries a rich array of meanings, including stop, desist, relax, cease. But it also carries a connotation of releasing, dropping, or sinking. 

I think we could make the case, therefore, that the stillness required to truly know God is an interior stillness. We are invited to relax and sink into the silence found deep in our minds and our hearts — the silence beneath our thoughts and between our heartbeats. There, in that undefended place of deep interior quiet — that’s where we are invited to encounter the living God. 

After all, our hearts and bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19, Romans 5:5). So to be still and know God, find the silence deep within. And in that silence the Spirit will meet us and invite us to know, truly know, God’s presence.


The Bible study software I use (for Hebrew word study as well as for interpreting the text) is Verbum. Not only is it filled with great scripture-related resources, but you can also get many texts by the great mystics on the Verbum platform as well. To learn more about Verbum, click here: www.verbum.com (this is an affiliate link; if you purchase Verbum, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you).


Today’s post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Eerdword, the Blog for Eerdmans Publishing Co. Here’s the link: www.eerdword.com/2019/09/12/be-still-and-know-that-i-am-god/

Biased Against Creative Work? It’s Easy to Do

Recently I went for a walk with a good friend of mine. We were chatting as we walked, and one topic that came up was the forthcoming movie adaptation of Little Women starring Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Florence Pugh. Which led to a conversation about Little Women in general, as we both tried to remember each character and what they represented.

Meg was the ideal 19th century woman, whereas the other three sisters each devoted their lives to a form of creativity. The ill-fated Beth was the musician, while Amy was the artist; and Jo, of course, was the writer.

I mentioned that in the new movie, Meryl Streep will be playing grumpy old Aunt March.”Wasn’t she the one who left her home to Jo and her husband?” my friend asked. “Yes, exactly,” I replied, “and they used it to set up a school for boys.”

“So they were able to do something good,” my friend said.

I looked at her, stunned. “Are you suggesting that being a writer isn’t good?”

She said, “No, of course, that’s not what I meant at all! Just that, with being able to open a school, Jo and her husband could actually help other people.”

“Oh,” I replied coolly, “so writing doesn’t help people?”

“Again, that’s not what I meant,” she said helplessly.

I know this person well, and I know that she is deeply committed to the arts and would never consciously want to suggest that writing (or any other creative act) is not “good” or “helpful.” But like an embarrassing Freudian slip, she couldn’t help but reveal a subtle bias against writers and writing, even while conversing (with a writer, no less!).

I’m telling this story not to impugn my friend, but rather to reflect on just how biased I think our society is, at large, against creative work (and workers). I went on to tell my friend about an Episcopal priest I once knew, years ago. At the time he had a son, an only child, who was in high school. We were having dinner one evening, and I asked about the son, and what his plans were regarding college.

“He’s only interested in art,” said the priest, with no hint of pride. “My wife and I are actively trying to discourage him.”

Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. But I remembered this conversation when I ran into the priest about 20 years later, and once again, asked about his family. “My son is doing great,” he replied. “He’s an accountant.”

Now, I have nothing against accountants, and am enough of a math-nerd myself to recognize that for some people, a career in bookkeeping would be their true vocation. But it occurs to me that a seventeen-year-old boy who wanted to go to art school may not really be finding his joy in number-crunching (let’s hope, at the very least, that he is continuing to make art avocationally).

Let’s turn the tables. Can you imagine a middle-class American dad saying, “My son is only interested in business school. We’re actively trying to discourage him”? No, I can’t imagine that happening either.

It’s tough, I know. As a creative professional, I know that most of us have modest incomes; indeed, I probably couldn’t do the work I do if I had a large family or other pressing financial obligations. I get it that a career in the arts is very uncertain, and many artists do end up becoming teachers or waiters or taking on some other kind of day-job, just to make ends meet. I get that.

But I fail to see how this is a reason to discourage a young person from following his or her dream — or, worse yet, to dismiss creative work as not “good” or “helpful” or “important.”

I may not be putting a lot of money into the bank, but I’m happy. And since when is trading away our happiness a good career move?

I hope that we can all take time to really reflect on the importance of creative work — obviously I have a special love for all forms of fine art, from poetry to literature to music to painting, sculpture, dance, and so forth. But there are other types of creativity that matter as well, from graphic design to architecture to non-fiction writing (yay!) to technical writing… and then there is teaching the arts, or working in an arts-related field, from museum curating to gallery management to publishing.

The arts matter. We all need more beauty in our lives. We need to celebrate the arts, especially with young people, for two reasons. First, it’s good to be creative. Even if someone has a vocation to go into business, or the ministry, or healthcare, their lives — and the lives of their loved ones — will be immeasurably enriched if they are themselves amateur artists or musicians or writers.

But we also need to encourage our youth to love the arts, because every generation needs to find its own voice. Who will be the Emily Dickinson of the 21st century? The Mozart of the new millennium? The Leonardo of our age? Yes, some people are geniuses, and you can’t teach someone to be talented. But even talented people need to learn their craft, to develop and hone their skills, and to foster qualities like discipline and perseverance and the ability to pay attention in order to be truly creative in an original way.

What a tragedy it would be if a child with the raw talent of a Michelangelo had parents who discouraged that child from pursuing an arts education. Or, for that matter, if that child had no access to arts training, because the local schools kept cutting arts funding. And make no mistake: the reason why public schools keep cutting arts funding is because we, as a society, do not value the arts.

I’m giving my friend a pass for her unintentionally dismissive comments about writers. But I’m not letting society at large off the hook. We all need to examine our own hearts, and let go of any bias we have against the arts. The future of beauty depends on it.

Contemplating Dragon Con: Pop Culture, Creativity, and the Masks We Wear

Each year on Labor Day weekend downtown Atlanta hosts Dragon Con, one of the larger conventions for fans of science fiction, fantasy, comics, horror, gaming, and various other forms of pop culture. It’s been going on for 30 years now, and I have friends who attend faithfully every year, but this year marks only the second time I’ve attended.

It’s huge — 85,000 people swarming around in seven downtown Atlanta hotels — so if you don’t like crowds, it might not be your cuppa. But many of the attendees dress up as their favorite characters (a practice known as cosplay, from “costume play”), so it’s a great place to people-watch. Indeed, on Saturday the cosplayers take over Peachtree Road for the annual Dragon Con parade, and folks will come in to town just to gawk at all the storm troopers and superheroes.

Game of Thrones Cosplayers…

But it’s worth paying the price of admission (about $85 for advance tickets) because then you get to attend an amazing vendor exhibit, art gallery, panel discussions on all aspects of fandom as well as workshops for writers, artists, animators, and yes, cosplayers. If you’re into gaming, there are tournaments going on throughout the convention. Each evening is rife with parties. “Filkers,” or musicians who write songs based on their favorite books/movies/shows, perform pretty much throughout the convention.

… and more GoT cosplayers!

Meanwhile, big-name movie and TV stars come to conventions like Dragon Con as guests of honor. This year’s attendees included William Shatner and George Takei of Star Trek along with David Tennant of Dr. Who fame. Many lesser known (but still interesting) performers and creators from the comic/science fiction/fantasy worlds attend, speaking at the panels and selling their wares in the vendor halls.

My friend Darrell (far right) was on a panel at the Dragon Con Horror Track.

It’s a lot of fun — as long as you are comfortable with pop culture and lots of people.

Contemplating Dragon Con

I go to Dragon Con to have fun. I enjoy people watching, and I’m a casual fan of enough genre culture that I generally enjoy the panels I attend. I like fantasy art so I always enjoy the gallery, and like most people I get a kick out of the cosplay.

But I can’t help myself, so even at a just-for-fun event like Dragon Con, I find myself looking at everything through a contemplative lens. Here are some of my takeaways from Dragon Con. If you’ve attended this (or another) fan convention, I’d love to know your thoughts on why these gatherings are so enjoyable — and what we can take away from them.

Cosplayer dressed as Dani from Midsommar
  1. Cosplay is an art: but we are all wearing masks. As you can see from the pictures I’m posting here, cosplayers can develop some incredibly detailed, intricate, and complex versions of their favorite TV or movie characters’ costumes. Some are fairly ordinary: lots of Wonder Women and other superheroes wandering out; plenty of Jedi Knights, Storm Troopers, and Game of Thrones characters. Others are more obscure — and remarkable, like the detailed floral gown worn by Dani as the May Queen in Midsommar (a movie only released in July of this year, meaning the cosplayer had only two months to create it).
    Compared to the cosplayers are the many people (like me) walking around in ordinary jeans and t-shirts. But I reflected on why cosplaying — a hobby activity that could cost incredible amounts of time and money, with no compensation other than compliments from fellow convention-goers — is so popular. And I realized that it’s because we all wear masks. We mask ourselves with our clothes, our material belongings, and even our political or religious identities. We mask ourselves with our career and achievements. We hide behind our friends and family members. Even the notion of the “false self,” which I admittedly have difficulty with, is perhaps simply a mask we wear from the inside out.
    We venerate “the individual” in our culture — we think the individual is more important than the collective, which is why characters from the Lone Ranger to Captain Kirk remain so popular. But we are social creatures, like it or not. So there’s something about cosplay — going to a convention with thousands of other like-minded fans, yet carefully constructing one’s unique “mask” to wear there — that turns our existential fate of always wearing masks into a type of performative play. I imagine this is also why Halloween is increasingly popular, and why Masquerades and Masked Balls were so beloved in years past.
  2. Creativity matters. And fun matters too. Pop culture is derivative. This year’s horror movie hit Midsommar is an homage to a 70s cult-horror flick, The Wicker Man. Much of modern epic fantasy is to a greater or lesser extent based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who in turn based The Lord of the Rings on Norse mythol0gy (the same mythos that gave us the Marvel superhero Thor). So why celebrate a form of culture that, in some ways, lacks originality and creativity?
    Notice I said “in some ways.” Pop culture may be derivative, but it’s also a forum where each generation’s writers and artists and other creators get a chance to put their own unique stamp on it. Star Trek in 2019 looks different from Star Trek in 1969. The same can be said for Dr. Who and other long-standing franchises. Likewise, cosplay is a genuine pop culture art form — where talent is put into the service of faithful reproduction balance by subtle cues of originality (at Dragon Con, many veteran attendees have taken a garish blue/gold/red pattern that used to be on the carpet at the Marriott and incorporated it, in subtle ways, into their costumes — making tribute not only to their favorite characters but to the convention itself as well).
    But cosplay is not the only type of creativity on display at the convention. The art gallery, the writers’ track, and the filkers all provide forums where attendees can rub elbows with (and learn from) creative professionals. The ethos of the con is clear: anyone and everyone can create. I attended one art workshop with my wife, and was moved by how all the panelists spoke of the support they get from each other. They may be rivals in business, but they are friends in art.
    So Dragon Con is a place where everyone can find encouragement to work out their own creative impulses. And since the overall ethos of the convention is a spirit of fun, there’s a subtle message: it’s fun to create. We need more of that message in our society.

    “No-Face” from the movie Spirited Away
  3. Where is the mindfulness? And the meditation? I don’t have a lot of criticism of Dragon Con. Yes, it’s over-crowded; it’s disappointing to spend half an hour swimming the sea of people only to arrive at a ballroom where the event you’ve been wanting to attend has just been closed due to standing-room-only capacity. But that’s a problem that any popular event will share.
    But there is one thing that bugs me. There is an entire track of sessions and workshops devoted to “Skepticism.” If you are an agnostic or an atheist, you have a home base at Dragon Con. I don’t begrudge the skeptics their own safe space: but as the member of another marginal group (contemplatives/mystics), why don’t we have our own track? I mentioned this to a friend who is a veteran attendee, and he said “You should create it.” Well, okay, except that as someone who’s only been going to Dragon Con a couple of times, I’m very much on the margins. But I’m willing to engage in the conversation.
    I understand that a fan convention is not the place for heavy theological discussions. Indeed, politics and religion are probably the two topics that are best kept off-limits at an event like this. I have no need to talk up religion (mine or anyone else’s), but I’d love to see panel discussions on mysticism and the imagination, or on sacramentalism in science fiction, or even on the relationship between horror and Dante. And I’d like to see interspersed with these kinds of events opportunities for mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, zen, yoga (there is someone who offers Tai Chi for an extra fee, but I think there needs to be something more widely available than that). Basically a safe, silent space in the midst 0f the fun and frivolity of the convention. Because us introverts, we need down time! And also because there’s a place for bringing the imagination and creativity and silence together. And Dragon Con would be a great place to make it happen.

Okay, so those are my thoughts. I’ll probably be talking up the mindfulness track idea with folks I know. Who knows? Maybe it will be created for the future!

Probably my favorite costume of 2019. Maleficient…

 

… whose wings had a very large span!

A Luminous Autobiography from America’s Most Unsung Mystic

Not all spiritual books are created equal.

Of course, there are the theological differences: many books present an image of God that is limited, narrow, and sometimes even abusive. And even the books that are theologically well-grounded are not always particularly contemplative. It is a rare treat to find a book that is both contemplative and shaped by a truly loving image of God.

But then there is a problem of literary merit. Frankly, some spiritual books are not particularly well-written. The writing can be tedious, ponderous, and overly abstract; other books suffer from writing that is too breezy, informal, and filled with clichés.

So I am always thrilled when I come across a book that balances a truly life-affirming understanding of God, with a deeply contemplative sensibility, and a literary quality that is poetic and a joy to read.

Yes, such books do exist. Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk and Martin Laird’s An Ocean of Light are two examples of books that combine literary excellence, theological insight, and a contemplative heart.

And today I’d like to shine a light on one I just read this month: With Head and Heart: the Autobiography of Howard Thurman.

If you don’t know about Howard Thurman: Thurman (1899-1981) grew up near Daytona Beach, Florida; his childhood was deeply influenced by his loving grandmother, who had been a slave in her youth. After studying at Morehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary, he was ordained a Baptist minister. Spending much of his adult life in academic settings, he was the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University from 1932 to 1944, and then the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965 — the first African American clergyman to hold such a position at a major historically white college. In between his years as college chaplains, he co-pastored a large interracial church in San Francisco. Dr. Thurman wrote many books, including The Inward Journey, Meditations of the Heart, and The Centering Moment. But he is probably best-known for Jesus and the Disinherited, a book that was said to be so important to Martin Luther King Jr. that he kept a copy with him at all times.

Howard Thurman is today best known as the godfather of the American Civil Rights movement — his profound spirituality shaped by a resolve to struggle for justice balanced by a firm commitment to nonviolence influenced MLK and others in the Civil Rights movement. But what is not so well known about Thurman: he was a true contemplative, and I would dare to say, a mystic — a mystic who deserves to stand with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Evelyn Underhill and other great mystics who were his contemporaries.

I’ve read meditations by Thurman, along with some of his shorter works (like Mysticism and the Experience of Love) and have listened to the recordings of his sermons that are available online and as an audiobook, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman. So in reading his autobiography, I expected to bask in his deeply authentic humility, his compassionate heart, and his keen sense of God’s presence, justice and mercy. But what truly blew me away about the autobiography was the evidence of just how deep a mystic he was — and the continual delight of enjoying his rhetorical skill as a writer.

This shouldn’t be surprising: Thurman was the Valedictorian of his class at Morehouse College. He was a brilliant man. But not all brilliant men are great writers, so it was such a joy to find that I could savor in his eloquence as much as in his keen spiritual insight.

Here are just a couple of examples:

When I was young, I found more companionship in nature than I did among people. The woods befriended me. In the long summer days, most of my time was divided between fishing in the Halifax River and exploring the woods, where I picked huckleberries and gathered orange blossoms from abandoned orange groves. The quiet, even the danger, of the woods provided my rather lonely spirit with a sense of belonging that did not depend on human relationships. I was usually with a group of boys as we explored the woods, but I tended to wander away to be alone for a time, for in that way I could sense the strength of the quiet and the aliveness of the woods. (page 7)

and,

What had I learned about love? One of the central things was that the experience of being understood by another was of primary importance. Somewhere deep within was a “place” beyond all faults and virtues that had to be confirmed before I could run the risk of opening my life up to another. To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability, this is to be loved. (page 146)

Thurman had the gift of writing about something ordinary (like a school boy wandering in the woods or fishing) and using vivid language to make the experience come alive for the reader, while simultaneously finding the spiritual meaning even in the most mundane of moments. But then he could turn philosophical — waxing poetic on the meaning of love — without abandoning his skill as a raconteur.

His skill as a writer alone makes this book a joy to read, an insightful look at an important twentieth century religious figure who encountered numerous significant people in his life, from Benjamin Mays to Rufus Jones, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. His description of life in the Jim Crow-era south was sober yet unflinching. His unfailing optimism — that racism can be overcome, that Christianity in particular offers a more hopeful vision of what it means to be human, a vision within our grasp — makes this book truly inspiring.

But like the late-night commercials say, “And wait, there’s more!”

For With Head and Heart is also the story of a contemplative life. And while Thurman, as a twentieth century Baptist, would not have had the same language to describe his inner life as someone like Merton or Underhill had, nevertheless he makes it clear that he had an ongoing, living encounter with the Spirit of God, that this encounter was nurtured by silence and solitude, and that at least at its peak moments it ushered him into a truly transfigured state of consciousness.

Once again, just a few examples:

More than forty years have passed since that morning. It remains for me a transcendent moment of sheer glory and beatitude, when time, space, and circumstance evaporated and when my naked spirit looked into the depths of what is forbidden for anyone to see. I would never, never be the same again. (page 128)

and,

That afternoon I had the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable. It was as if we had stepped out of social, political, cultural frames of reference, and allowed two human spirits to unite on a ground of reality that was unmarked by separateness and differences. This was a watershed of experience in my life. We had become a part of each other even as we remained essentially individual. I was able to stand secure in my place and enter into his place without diminishing myself or threatening him. (page 1219)

and one more:

As a boy in Florida, I walked along the beach of the Atlantic in the quiet stillness that can only be completely felt when the murmur of the ocean is stilled, and the tides move stealthily along the shore. I held my breath against the night and watched the stars etch their brightness on the face of the darkened canopy of the heavens. I had the sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I were one lung through which all of life breathed. Not only was I aware of a vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was a part of it and it was a part of me. (pages 225-6)

Daytona Beach. Photo by Darrell Cassell/Unsplash.

Whether a child on the beach, a young man on a mountaintop, or friends engaged in truly meaningful conversation, Thurman had the ability to recognize non-duality when it arose in his life. Not only did this ability to see impact his life’s work as a prophet calling for loving resistance to an unjust social order, but it also put him years ahead of the curve when it came to recognizing the spiritual unity that could be found beneath religious differences.

I had to find my way to the place where I could stand side by side with a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Moslem, and know that the authenticity of his experience was identical with the essence and authenticity of my own. There began to emerge a growing concept in my mind, which only in recent years I have been able to state categorically, namely, that the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience. It is not the context that determines validity. On any road, around any turning, a man may come upon the burning bush and hear a voice say, “Take off your shoes because the place where you are now standing is a holy place, even though you did not know it before.” I think that is the heartbeat of religious authority. (page 120)

A gifted preacher, a man of prayer, a social prophet, a gentle family man, and a companion to some of the most important figures of his age. Howard Thurman’s life story is fascinating, and his writing was beautiful enough to be equal to the task of telling the story.

• • •

We all know that America is a racist society. It is a matter for continual lament and, for whites, repentance.

Again and again, we run into evidence of this. And before I was even finished reading Howard Thurman’s autobiography, this thought occurred to me:

If America were truly a land without racism, I believe that With Head and Heart: the Autobiography of Howard Thurman would probably be as famous, and celebrated, as The Seven Story Mountain. It’s that good of a book.

So friends, let’s do what we can to help get this book (and its author) the acclaim it (he) deserves. If you haven’t read this book, do so. You’re in for a treat.