The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A New Way to Think About the Relationship Between Spirituality and Religion

“I’m spiritual but not religious.” It’s an increasingly common way for people to identify their relationship to spirituality (as a system for personal growth) and religion (as an institution that requires membership, conformity, and submission). The younger you are, the more likely you will agree that this statement describes you.

It’s ubiquitous enough that it’s recognizable simply by its initials: “S.B.N.R.”

Other ways of describing this is “spiritually independent” and “the Nones” — a delicious pun that can describe anyone who, faced with a form that asks your religious identity, replies “None.”

Meanwhile, churches are facing a membership that is both aging and declining. Every year, it seems that fewer people are adhering to the traditional trappings of mainstream American religion: membership in a local church or synagogue, regular participation in weekly worship along with other activities organized around fellowship, education or service, and adherence to an ethical code that stresses personal morality and conformity to social norms.

S.B.N.R. people usually have thoughtful reasons why they say “no” to traditional religion.

Many people may reject religion precisely for spiritual reasons. They see religion as an obstacle to seeking truth (“If I’m a member of a particular church, I’m told I don’t need to be learning about the teachings of other religions”), or the institution as itself inherently corrupt (“I don’t want to be part of an organization that has covered up the crime of sexual predators”).

Some may recognize internal contradictions within religions that they simply cannot reconcile: for example, churches that pay lip service to “loving your neighbors” and yet tacitly promote a culture of disrespect for queer people or for others who may not “fit in” with the religious group’s identity.

Others might prefer a more scientific approach to questions of truth and meaning, and chafe against any religious idea that “we have all the answers.” In other words, they prefer the possibilities of not-knowing to the closed-system of dogmatic pronouncements.

But not everybody has chosen to be S.B.N.R.

Many people — of all generations — still remain actively engaged in religious observance, and some even resent the idea that, just because they are religious, that somehow means they are not spiritual — or not as spiritual as their non-religious peers.

 A Metaphor For Understanding the Spirituality/Religion Divide

As someone who writes about topics like spirituality, mysticism, and contemplative practice, I continually ponder this question of how religion and spirituality relate to one another, both for each of us as individuals and for society as a whole. I’d like to suggest a new way of thinking about the spirituality-and-religion question, hopefully in a way that is positive to both, while acknowledging the real changes that are affecting how people relate to both institutional religion and embodied spirituality.

Here’s a metaphor I’d like us to consider: religion is a chrysalis, and spirituality is a butterfly. This has both personal and collective implications. On a personal level, to be human means to seek to grow: to make that transition from caterpillar to butterfly. On a collective level, perhaps we are at a pivotal point in history where the “butterfly” of mature mystical spirituality is emerging from the “chrysalis” of institutional religion, and preparing to fly.

My own religious/spiritual identity is Christian — interfaith-friendly, to be sure, but still Christian. So I’m going to explore this metaphor using Christian ideas and language. But I believe this could be as easily adapted to any other religious institution or tradition.

Where We Come From: the Chrysalis

Before it becomes a butterfly, the butterfly is a caterpillar. The caterpillar happily conducts its life, munching on leaves, until it reaches a point when it begins to transition into a pupa — a stage of deep interior transformation. The chrysalis is the “shell” of a pupa; on the outside it appears to be inert, while all the action is taking place deep within. Eventually, the newly-formed butterfly emerges out of the chrysalis like a chicken hatching from an egg. After a short period in which its wings emerge, unfold, and dry, the butterfly is ready to fly.

Without the chrysalis, the caterpillar will never become a butterfly. Likewise, if the butterfly does not emerge from the chrysalis, it will never fly.

Religion, at its best, has a social function: to help pass on spiritual wisdom from generation to generation. This is why so many churches also operate schools, or at least “Sunday Schools” or other forums for religious instruction. Indeed, some adults choose to opt out of religious observance for themselves, while still making sure their children get exposed to religious instruction at their neighborhood place of worship (that may have been more common in decades past; I imagine nowadays most people who decide religion isn’t for them don’t feel the need for their kids to be exposed to it either).

Religion “works” when it effectively helps us to evolve from our caterpillar-state to our butterfly-state. And religion fails whenever it keeps its members spiritually stunted, locked in perpetual caterpillar-hood.

When religion-as-an-institution becomes more invested in protecting its own institutional interests than in truly helping its members to fly, it has, in effect, become a dead chrysalis. No longer does it promote life, but rather it has become a spiritual dead end.

And that’s precisely why so many people, especially young people, are opting out of religious observance in our day.

We have access to so much information that even our grandparents could not have imagined. Between the internet, mass media, and even books being more available than ever before, we do not need a local institution (like the church) to provide spiritual education. We do not need the neighborhood church or synagogue to provide us with a community of like-minded believers or a place where we can be of service to others. All these traditional functions of the neighborhood church/synagogue can be found in other ways.

In short, more and more people realize they don’t need the institutional church to make the transition from caterpillar to butterfly.

What Does This Mean: For Religion, and For Spiritual Seekers?

I certainly understand why many people opt for spirituality-without-religion. At the same time, I worry that this can sometimes mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

It’s one thing to reject how institutional religion can foster anti-intellectualism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or can tolerate racism, prejudice against immigrants and refugees, and hostility toward people of other religions. But it’s important to remember that these are institutional problems, and that religion is more than just an institution.

In Christianity, for example, the heart of the religion is the wisdom teachings of Jesus and his followers, the saints and mystics stretching from New Testament times to today. I worry that people who reject the institution because of the institution’s failings might also, unwittingly, be cutting themselves off from a rich and glorious tradition of spiritual wisdom.

Now, some people will reply, “I faithfully attended church for many years, and nobody ever talked about mystical spirituality, or inner transformation, or the kind of alchemy that comes from direct intimacy with God.” Fair enough. The institution has, in many ways, failed to do its job, which is to transmit the spiritual wisdom at the center of the tradition. Because of this, we all have to choose: either to walk away from the institution, or to stay in the institution but fight for its reform.

I’ve chosen the latter. But I respect those who choose the former.

But no matter how you relate to religion, please think about this: a caterpillar still needs a chrysalis to become a butterfly. If institutional religion is dying, then we all have to work together to find ways to keep the wisdom alive, and transmitted from generation to generation.

If you identify as “spiritual but not religious,” my first question is this: does this mean you no longer are affiliated with institutional religion, but you still want to be engaged with authentic wisdom? I suspect most people will say yes.

If so, then I challenge you: where is your chrysalis? Where is your “hard shell” that will give your spiritual life the structure and formation it needs in order to undergo the interior alchemy that will make a butterfly out of you?

Christianity has traditionally taught that we need community in order to mature spiritually. One of the functions of religion has been to express spirituality in a communal way. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that worships individualism; so we need to be careful here: are we rejecting the broken institution, or are we just rejecting community? If we reject community because we find it inconvenient or don’t want to be challenged, then we need to discern carefully: are we making choices in the interest of true spiritual maturity, or are we actually resisting the kind of change that the chrysalis invites us into?

For Those Who Haven’t Given Up on Religion (Yet)…

Now, let me speak specifically to people who have chosen to remain inside the institution: you are active members of a church, faithful Sunday worshipers, and so forth. If that’s you, then you need to beware the temptation for religion to become a rote system of external observance that does not foster real, interior change in your life. Furthermore, you should be asking your church: “What are we doing to make our community a place where real spiritual transformation occurs? Where the emphasis is not on social conformity or tribal identity, but on authentic, interior spiritual unfolding, recognizing that this will look different in different peoples’ lives?” Furthermore, we all need to make sure that our church is not a place that unthinkingly fosters hostility toward people of other faiths, or toward the scientific pursuit of truth, or toward anyone who seems “different” — whether in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, economics, educational level, political party, or whatever. If your church only welcomes a certain segment of the population while excluding others (even subconsciously), then it’s not truly a church, it’s a religious club.

If you are going to remain part of the institutional church, you must be part of the solution that can restore church to its real mission: of helping caterpillars become butterflies. If your church tends to want caterpillars to remain caterpillars (i.e., it rewards conformity rather than authentic spiritual creativity), then something needs to change.

…And for Those Who Have Already Walked Away

And if you have abandoned the institutional church, then I also challenge you to be part of a larger solution: to make sure we still have cultural resources in our society to preserve wisdom and to pass it on from generation to generation. If the institutional church were to simply disappear, I am concerned that in a society where profit is king, that wisdom will quickly be relegated to dusty shelves on a library.

A world without religion may sound appealing to you (think of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”), but if that religion-less world does not have meaningful, mainstream ways to protect, preserve, and promote authentic spiritual wisdom — a wisdom that functions as an alternative to the relentless demands of the profit-driven marketplace — then I fear that we will have just traded one “hell” (the brokenness of the institution) for another — a world where wisdom no longer matters, which sounds like a world where might will make right, and goodness will be eclipsed by endless narcissism.

I’m not invested in the institution as an institution. If it needs to die, let it die. But I am invested in the wisdom teachings of Jesus and the mystics. So whether you are religious or not, I hope you will join with me in discerning how our generation can best pass that wisdom on.

A Future For Spirituality… and Religion?

I want to see as many of us become butterflies as possible. To the extent that I am pro-religion, I want our religious communities and institutions to be in the business of making butterflies.

Karl Rahner famously said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” I believe the Christian of the future — the truly mystical Christian — is the butterfly: spiritually mature, anchored in love, centered in relationships, and soaring to the heights of God’s radical mercy, forgiveness, and joy. Just as there are many different species of butterflies, there are many different kinds of mystics: not all are Christian. But for those of us who come out of the Christian religion, our butterfly-ness will be Christian in nature (even if it is also nurtured by wisdom from other wells).

Likewise, if your religion of origin is Buddhism, or Judaism or whatever, your butterfly wings will carry the color and shape of your religious background.

Many people today are “interspiritual” — their spirituality is nurtured by multiple religious and wisdom traditions. These are the hybrid species, and each has its own beauty.

When a butterfly leaves a chrysalis behind, it no longer contains life. Does this mean — pushing my metaphor to its conclusion — that the institutional church is destined to die?

I don’t think so, because there are new caterpillars all the time. Every new generation needs its own chrysalis experience, even as the previous generation emerges from their chrysalises to fly. So I think we all have an obligation to find ways to pass meaningful and authentic wisdom on to the next generation. Maybe the institutional religions can be reformed to more authentically transmit mystical and contemplative wisdom. Or maybe many new channels of transmission will emerge. Either way, the responsibility remains the same: what are we butterflies doing to help the next generation of caterpillars to find their way into the chrysalis of transformation?

So if you are a butterfly, do not resent the chrysalis. If you are a chrysalis, do not envy the butterfly. Each has its place in the life cycle. We need to embrace a holistic spirituality that includes it all: structures for helping our children to find deep spiritual wisdom, and to apply that wisdom to their lives, so that in the felicity of God’s grace, they learn to soar.

Would you like to read a charming children’s book that explores this metaphor? Check out Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus.

Altamont, Auschwitz, Bethlehem, and My Lai — The Challenge of Contemplating the Dark Side

1969 was quite a year, and so in 2019 we’ve had plenty of “50th Anniversary” moments: marking the fiftieth anniversary of the first humans on the moon, of the Woodstock Festival, and of the Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road. It was the year that Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Sesame Street premiered on television, and some movies from this year included Midnight CowboyButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five were among the books published in 1969. So it was a remarkable year, and there’s plenty for us to commemorate now, fifty years later.

But there was a dark side to 1969. The Vietnam War was raging on, and student unrest was simmering in America (which would boil over the following spring with the Kent State shootings). It was the year of the Tate-Labianca murders, with the Manson Family becoming the first highly visible sign that the peace and love generation had its own violent, dangerous shadow side. And then, on December 6 — fifty years ago today — came Altamont.

The Shadow Side of Woodstock

This morning, the Washington Post published a lengthy feature profiling the free concert at the Altamont Speedway, east of San Francisco. It was meant to be a “West Coast Woodstock,” featuring bands like the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. But with over 300,000 people showing up for the free concert, almost no logistical infrastructure to handle a crowd that size and “security” provided by the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Gang (!), it turned out to be the “Anti-Woodstock” — and since the Stones were being filmed, the violence and chaos that culminated in the murder of a man in the audience was all recorded, showing up in the documentary Gimme Shelter.

With the exception of the Rolling Stones, all the bands that were scheduled to play at Altamonte (Grateful Dead never played; spooked by the violent energy in the crowd, they simply refused to perform) were part of the California hippie scene; most of the bands had played at Woodstock, and they all represented the “peace and love” ethos of the counterculture of the time. They branded themselves as the sane alternative to the insanity going on in southeast Asia. And yet, their free concert devolved into violence.

In the bitter words of a song John Lennon would record the following year, “The Dream is Over.”

I love the hippie music of the late sixties, but it’s sobering to consider that Woodstock and Altamont were less than four months apart. It seems that the groovy anti-war idealism of the ’60s counterculture had a pretty short shelf-life. It’s important to remember that the violence of both the Manson Family and Altamont had racist overtones (the man killed at Altamont was African-American; his white killer was acquitted after claiming he acted in self defense). Apparently, the songs and poetry of hippie peace and love were not enough to confront the dark underbelly of racism and privilege, which — sorry to say — remains a problem in our society today.

Echoes of Altamont

As I read the Washington Post article, with its detailed exposition of everything that went wrong on that day — at what was supposed to be a happy, free concert — I found myself thinking of several other moments in time that reveal the depth of the human shadow: the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus; the concentration camps of Auschwitz; the massacre of villagers at My Lai, Vietnam; and the caging of children along the U.S./Mexico border in our own time.

The slaughter of the innocents is to the nativity what Altamont was to Woodstock. I don’t like contemplating either of them, but they both need to be reckoned with, at least from a contemplative perspective. Granted, the slaughter of the innocents as recorded in Matthew 2:16 is mythological. But it’s hardly the only example of wanton killing of innocent people by soldiers — indeed, it was thinking about the Holy Innocents that reminded me of the My Lai Massacre.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni (c. 1430-1495)


The My Lai massacre took place in March 1968 but become public knowledge in November 1969, just days before Altamont. It was during an operation in Vietnam (where American soldiers were attempting to defeat the Viet Cong, the communist organization that U.S. Troops were fighting). In a classic example of “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” somewhere between 300 and 500 civilians were killed that day, including women and children; many of the women raped prior to being executed. This was all done supposedly in the interest of neutralizing a communist threat. But even if most of the My Lai villagers really were part of (or sympathetic to) the Viet Cong, would that justify the brutality? Of course not.

It was a slaughter of the innocents, in our lifetime. I remember My Lai, I remember the controversy surrounding the trial of Lt. William Calley, the only person convicted for this war crime. What I don’t recall (but learned from a Google search just now) was that the public was actually sympathetic to his defense that he was just “following orders” — the dark side of obedience. And I didn’t realize that the man who ordered him to commit the atrocities was acquitted of any wrongdoing, thanks to being defended by a high-powered lawyer.

It all stinks. Looking back, I realize that my own commitment to nonviolence and justice, to resisting militarism, probably began when as an 8-year boy my conscience was troubled by My Lai. Ironically, though, I walked away from the military culture my father represented, into the world of the hippies and the Grateful Dead: the world of Woodstock, but also of Altamont.

Contemplating These Infamous Moments

I never was part of the military, but I think everyone should ask ourselves some hard questions. If I were a soldier at My Lai, would I have just “followed orders” and killed the civilians? If I were a soldier in King Herod’s army, would I have obeyed a command to kill baby boys?

Or would I have found the courage to stand up for what is right? Of course, I prefer to think that I would do the right thing, and I hope everyone reading these words would be just as clear in your convictions. But I am also humble enough to realize that so many of the people who commit atrocities — think of the German citizens who staffed concentration camps like Auschwitz — have been “normal” and “good” people, upstanding members of their communities. It’s the nature of evil that it thrives in dysfunctional systems. Whether it’s a rock concert that is badly managed, or a rogue military operation, or a policy of incarcerating undocumented immigrants in a way that separates families and leaves children in cages.

In 1969 Richard Nixon was president, and just a few years later he would resign in disgrace to avoid impeachment. Today, we are facing another impeachment process; if we include Nixon’s, this makes the fourth incidence of impeachment in our nation’s almost 250 years. Three of those have occurred in the last 50 years. I wonder what that signifies?

Depending on who you talk to, the current impeachment process is a necessary effort to hold a corrupt leader accountable — or, a politically motivated effort to attack that same leader on (pardon the pun) Trumped-up charges. What confounds me is how both of these narratives seem to be almost totally at odds with each other, yet depending on whether you get your news from Fox or CNN, you are likely to believe in one and dismiss the other out of hand.

So what does all this have to do with contemplation?

What does it mean to be a contemplative in a world where innocent people get murdered by soldiers? Or concertgoers experience violence that could have been prevented? What does it mean to navigate morality and ethics in a world where refugee populations have reached crisis proportions, and some governments respond by closing their borders or treating those who seek entry like common criminals?

Back to the story of the Holy Innocents. Even though this story was most certainly a kind of folk-tale, it carries plenty of spiritual meaning that is worth exploring. Systematic forces of evil react violently in response to an unjust king’s fearful hold on power. But in the midst of that, we have a story of quiet heroism, as Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to protect their son — becoming refugees themselves in the process.

So when we find ourselves in the midst of evil, even systemic evil over which we have little or no control, there may still be the possibility of making moral choices. Our actions can still make a difference, even if we can’t stem the tide of the evil. After all, Joseph’s actions saved Jesus’ life, and paved the way for Jesus to literally change history.

I think we need to sit with the paradox of this baby — the incarnation of Love — being born in the midst of such dark violence and fear. How can we invite that baby, that incarnation of Love, into our darkest and most fearful places? Into our partisan politics, and our mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, our racism, our classism, our culture of bullying and violence, our complicity? And when we do so, are we really willing to let that baby change us, from the inside out? I hope so.

For a Contemplative, Looking for a Spiritual Community to Call Home

A reader recently wrote this to me on Facebook:

I’ve been on a spiritual journey for some time now probably for about eight years. The last five years it has gotten more and more intense and I have traveled / practiced within various paths that have led me to various religions and spiritual practices but I seem to be having difficulty finding one that resonates with me. Every time I seem to find a path there is some form of religious dogma that comes from it that deters me and has me thinking I need to find something different…. more of my internal light. I was deeply enjoying Christian mysticism and decided to join a non-denominational church but their teachings and views are not ones I agree with, so I am left feeling out of place and almost like a phony because I don’t follow that specific belief system. Same has happened in other mystical paths such as Kabbalah and Sufism where I attempt to find a community close to home in a temple or mosque and the same thing occurs. I grew up with no religion and studied Buddhism, Hinduism and even shamanism and Wicca along with the practices mentioned above. So I guess my question is what is your advice for someone like myself? I would greatly appreciate your feedback if you’re able to reply. Thank you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Thanks for such a thoughtful question.

It reminds me of something I read in a book by Alan Watts, many years ago. He was decrying how religions always seem to have a message (no matter how subtle) of “We’re better than everyone else.” “We are more faithful to the Bible,” “We have a more authentic spirituality,” “We have the best music,” yada yada yada. Then he mentioned Unitarian Universalism, which is famous for insisting that each person music create their own belief system, so they’re not in the business to telling people what to believe. But even there, Watts found something to complain about: liberal churches, he pointed out, often have the subtext “We’re more tolerant than everyone else!”

The short answer to your question, which you have already discovered, is that the perfect religious community does not exist. Finding a church is like finding a spouse. There’s two dimensions, and both are equally important: “Can I truly love this person, and will they love me?” — but just as important: “Can I live with their imperfections (and can they live with mine)?”

Every human being will sooner or later let us down. Every spouse will be, in some way, a less-than-perfect life partner. So part of the spiritual work of a good and healthy marriage is learning to love each other in spite of both of your imperfections.

And often, a person’s imperfections might be somewhat related to their positive qualities. The beautiful person who turns out to be narcissistic. The bon vivant who just can’t manage to be faithful. The artist who can’t figure out how to hold down a steady job. I know these are stereotypes! But I think there’s a principle here.

So now let’s look at faith communities. The church that celebrates intellectual freedom might turn out to be a very cold and emotionally distant group of people. The one that has a great youth program might not know how to educate its adults. The one with a strong emphasis on social justice might feel more like a nonprofit organization than a sacred place where the mysteries are adored.

So… how do we find the community we can love? And the one whose imperfections we can live with?

Clearly, from what you have written, dogmatism is a trigger for you. You don’t need a church that is going to dictate your beliefs to you, thank you very much. And that makes me think you’d be much happier with the Unitarians, the liberal Quakers, the UCC, or the Episcopalians, than with churches that tend to stress a certain manner of believing, like most Catholic or evangelical churches (incidentally, it is possible to find Catholic or evangelical churches where intellectual freedom is respected and celebrated — if you’re in Atlanta, I can point you to a few great communities — but unfortunately, these churches tend to be in the minority so they’re not as easy to come by).

So my first piece of advice would be, to keep doing what you’re doing, which is to “shop around.” It might well be that you are more comfortable in a small community that is less hierarchical, like a house church or a group of monastic associates. But those kinds of communities aren’t easy to find — sometimes you have to know somebody to find a small community like that.

So my second piece of advice: look for a community of practice. Instead of trying to join a church, see if you can find a centering prayer group. Instead of joining a Buddhist sangha, look for a group of people who just like to get together to meditate. It might well be, that a practice circle is all the community you need. I believe contemplatives need community, but you don’t need institutional religion in order to find a meaningful spiritual community.

While you are looking, try to cultivate friendships with likeminded persons online. There are so many Facebook groups, for example, that are organized around a shared interest or belief. If you like Richard Rohr, join a group devoted to his teachings. Or a group devoted to centering prayer, or Celtic spirituality. Once you find a group that feels like home, see if any members live in your vicinity. Meet someplace neutral or safe (a coffee shop, perhaps) and see if there’s potential for friendships to develop. Maybe your spiritual community will be something brand new that you help to create.

Finally — going back to the marriage analogy — if the day comes that you find a community that you truly feel at home with, take the time to try to be as honest and realistic about the community’s shadow side. Can you live with it? If you can, then prayerfully consider  joining that community. Recognize that, sooner or later, the community will drive you nuts — just like even a healthy marriage will at times drive both spouses to distraction.  That will be part of your spiritual practice: learning to live with, to manage, to make peace with, the limitations of the community. Because every community has its limitations.

Learning With the Imperfect Community

If a community bugs you because it’s dogmatic, is it possible that you need to learn to be flexible both with your beliefs and the beliefs of others? Maybe those “dogmatic” people actually know something you don’t? (but these are only relevant questions to ask once you’ve made your commitment; let’s be real, there are a lot of dogmatic people out there who have nothing to offer, except their own anxiety which gets expressed by, well, being dogmatic!). See, here’s the thing: if you join a truly healthy and creative spiritual community, there will be people in it who have things to teach you. But your triggers might get in the way.  What may look to you like dogmatism might actually be an invitation to consider truth from a new perspective.

So part of surviving in a faith community is finding the inner resilience to be able to discern when something triggers me, is the “trigger” a warning sign of other people’s dysfunction, or actually a warning sign of my dysfunction (or limitation)? There’s no easy answer to a question like this: it requires much trust, wisdom, reflection and discernment. This is just one example of the ways in which faith communities can help us to grow.

It’s not easy being a contemplative in today’s spiritual/religious landscape. Too many “spiritual but not religious” people do not appreciate the important lessons that a healthy community can teach us. But too many religionists are clueless when it comes to contemplation and mysticism. So it takes a lot of seeking to find a community that can work. It will never be perfect, and part of your spiritual practice will be learning to grow through the imperfections even as you are nurtured by the positives that the community has to offer you. Plus there are the lessons related to service, relationship-building, and learning to be compassionate to people who are sometimes very different from yourself.

I hope this is helpful! Keep looking, don’t be afraid to seek out alternative forms of community (or consider starting your own), and then learn to love through and with the imperfections. Good luck to you!

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.

Poetry, Meditations, and Contemplative Encouragement (the Perks of Being a Patron)

December 3, 2019 is “Giving Tuesday.” It’s a day designed to highlight the many worthy non-profit and charitable organizations that deserve our support — not just in December, but throughout the year.

May I humbly suggest that, on this Giving Tuesday, you might also consider supporting a creative professional — a writer (like me), or some other artist whose work brings joy to many people?

You probably know that my work as a blogger is primarily funded through Patreon, a membership website for people who want to support creative professionals like me.

Patreon allows people like you and me to offer monthly support to not only writers, but podcasters, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and game designers, for as little as $1 a month.

I myself currently support five different creative professionals through Patreon. The beauty of crowdfunding is that you can make a small, manageable monthly pledge — which adds up with the pledges from other patrons — to make a real difference for the artists you support.

This Isn’t About “Charity”

But Patreon is not meant to be a charity scheme. Those of us who receive support through Patreon are encouraged to offer something in return to our patrons. Something like a members-only newsletter, a special gift (like an autographed book), early access to new work, or even the opportunity for interaction with the artist you support.

So, if you’ve read this far (thank you!), obviously I hope you will visit Patreon and become a patron of one or more creators whose work you love. And I hope that includes supporting my writing. So today I want to highlight my newly revised list of benefits that patrons receive. I hope you’ll find these perks to be a meaningful expression of gratitude for your support.

Click on this graphic to become a patron.


Patrons who pledge $1 (or more) per month receive a special thank-you acknowledgment on the “Circle of Gratitude” page of my website, and a monthly newsletter for patrons only. If you pledge $3 or more, once or twice a month you’ll receive contemplative poetry that I have written, designed to inspire and support your spiritual practice.

For $5 per month you get all of the above, plus once a month I send you a meditation I’ve written on an aspect of contemplative Christianity. These are designed to “reframe” traditional Christian teachings in the light of mystical and contemplative practice.

For $10 per month you get all of the above, plus my “Contemplative Compass” column, specifically designed to offer practical advice and inspiration for supporting your daily spiritual practice. With an emphasis on cultivating a sense of wonder, deepening our relationship with silence, drawing on the wisdom of the great mystics, and fostering the virtues and values of a contemplative life, each month will offer new insight specifically geared toward deepening your spiritual journey. To learn more about Contemplative Compass, click here.

For $20 per month you get all of the above, plus an autographed book whenever I have a new one coming out — usually every 12-18 months. During years when I don’t have a new book, patrons will have the option of getting an autographed copy of one of my older books (note: this reward requires you have a USA mailing address).

For $50 or more per month you get all of the above, plus the opportunity to participate in a quarterly live event on Skype or FaceTime with me and the other patrons at this level (this will be limited to no more than 15 participants). We’ll explore a topic related to mystical or contemplative spirituality; you’ll have a chance to interact directly with me and with others who share similar interests.

For $100 or more per month you get all of the above, plus the opportunity to engage directly with me on a monthly basis, via Skype or FaceTime. We can explore specific questions you might have about contemplative or mystical Christianity, or we can prayerfully focus on your spiritual journey, listening together for how the Spirit is leading your journey.

The Spirituality of Creativity: and the Gift Economy

In all candor, since my writing is spiritual in nature, I would love to just be able to give it all away.

But we all know that we live in a world where mortgage payments and other bills just keep on coming. Patreon gives me the ability to keep writing, and to make my work widely available on my blog, where anyone can read it for free. It is not my intention to give some of my writing only to “paying customers.” So the poetry, the monthly meditation and contemplative compass are all work that, eventually, I hope to make available to the public at large. But patrons get to see this work first — in most cases, probably years before it will ever be available publicly.

So while I hope patrons will enjoy these perks that I’m offering, I also hope you will recognize that your monthly pledge of support is not just for me, but for everyone who reads my blog, many of whom might not be able to afford to make a pledge or join a membership site. Together, you and I will be making a difference: making sure that new content on mysticism and contemplative spirituality will continue to be available online, for anyone who seeks to learn about this lovely and meaningful spiritual path.

What Your Support Could Make Possible in the Future

When I first learned about Patreon, for a while I resisted setting up a Patreon account for my work. I thought, “Who am I to ask my readers to support my blog?” But I changed my mind when I realized that the support Patreon provides allows me to devote more time to my writing — which is not only a joy for me, but hopefully will be a blessing to the many people who read my blog each year. The more I am able to write, the more people are likely to discover the spiritual blessings of the four topics I focus on: Christian mysticism, Contemplative practice, Celtic spirituality, and Interfaith exploration. No one has to pay to read my blog. This material is available free to the public, thanks to the generosity of those who freely choose to be patrons.

As my patron support grows, I have several ideas of how I can expand my work online. I hope to begin including videos on my blog. I’d like to develop contemplative commentary on the Bible — as well as on the writings of the great mystics. And of course, I want to continue to expand Via Mystica, which I envision as an online “knowledge base” for the practice of mystical spirituality.

These are ambitious goals. They will take many hours, over a span of years if not decades, to complete. Your patronage can help to make these goals a reality, thereby increasing the amount of contemplative spiritual writing available to the general public online.

I hope you can sense how this all is based on giving — giving away quality spiritual writing for free online, made possible by the giving support of generous patrons. Please join this circle of generosity, by becoming a patron today.

Thank you! Please visit to become a patron.

My Christmas Recommendations for 2019: Books to Give to the Contemplatives You Love

Here’s a list of books published in the last eighteen months on a variety of contemplative themes. Most of these books are anchored in the Christian tradition, although several have strong inter-spiritual themes as well. Their theologies and approach to spirituality vary, as one might expect from any collection of twenty interesting and thoughtful books. But what they all have in common is a recognition that contemplative prayer and mystical spirituality matter. I am confident that there is something for everyone on this list. Do your Christmas shopping here, even if the only “elf” you are buying for is yourself.

This list comes with two disclaimers. First: I am the author of two of these books. Yes, I know that’s blatant self-promotion, but I also sincerely believe that anyone who would be interested in all the other books on this list will be interested in mine — I hope you’ll agree. Disclaimer #2: These books are linked to Amazon; if you follow the links and make a purchase there, I receive a small commission. Thank you for doing so  — it’s the easiest way you can support my writing ministry.


Lerita Coleman Brown, When Your Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom — one of the my favorite books of 2019, this is a powerful story of the author’s heart transplant she received while in her 40s — and the spiritual lessons that both her old and new hearts taught her. Written as a conversation Lerita held with both of her hearts, her candid and vulnerable description of her own spiritual journey is both inspiring and enlightening. Each chapter ends with questions and prompts you can use for when you speak — and listen — to your own heart.

Ruth Burrows, Essential Writings — Ruth Burrows wrote a modern-day classic of Christian mysticism, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, which is currently out of print in North America. But this book offers an in-depth survey of her best writings from throughout her career. As a Carmelite sister, Burrows approaches the spiritual life from the same tradition that gave us Saints Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Edith Stein. Arranged around the core idea that the spiritual life is a gift, this anthology shows how Carmelite spirituality remains vibrant in our generation.

Michael Casey, Grace on the Journey to God — This Trappist monk from Australia is not nearly as well known as other Cistercians like Thomas Keating or Basil Pennington, but I think he deserves to be — his writing is deeply contemplative, grounded in the Christian tradition but never hidebound or rigid. He has a clear sense of spirituality as a relationship and contemplation as a gentle process of humble simplification. This book explores the central role that grace plays in every step of the spiritual journey.

Marie Chapian, Quiet Prayer: The Hidden Purpose and Power of Christian Meditation — so many contemplative Christian writers are anchored in the Orthodox, Catholic, or liberal Protestant traditions, that it’s always exciting for me to discover evangelical Christians who embrace the contemplative way. Chapian combines her own journey of learning Centering Prayer with the voice and theology of evangelical spirituality to articulate an approach to contemplation that is heartfelt, relational, grounded in scripture, and deeply attentive.

Ed Cyzewski, Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians — another evangelical contemplative, Cyzewski acknowledges that his contemplative journey took him from a place deeply critical of Catholic spirituality to eventually acknowledging the rich treasures of silent prayer that has been handed down in monasteries over the centuries. Building on Henri Nouwen’s interpretation of the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, this book offers an antidote to any kind of spiritual anxiety — no matter what label you do (or don’t) wear.

Dom Marie-Gerard Dubois, Happiness in God: Memories and Reflections of the Father Abbot of La Trappe — this collection of fifteen sermons and talks given by a French monk — the Abbot of the monastery of La Trappe, from which “Trappist monks” get their name — explores how monastic spirituality has evolved during the years following the Vatican II Council of the Catholic Church. The author was a contemporary of Merton’s, and offers insight into the spirituality and practice of a monastic way of life that stresses simplicity and austerity — but also contemplation.

Mary Margaret Funk, Renouncing Violence — Sr. Meg is a Benedictine nun, well-known as a leader in interreligious dialogue but also in the recovery of traditional Christian contemplative spirituality. Her books explore topics from deep within monastic history, including mindfulness, humility, and discernment. In this book, written as a meditative response to the anger and violence of our time, the author considers another key monastic practice — renunciation — and explores how it can help those of us seeking a better way than the rancor and bitterness that is epidemic in today’s world.

Albert Haase, Becoming an Ordinary Mystic: Spirituality for the Rest of Us — Haase, a Franciscan friar, offers insights into how everyone is called to be a mystic — or, as his mother described it, “a special friend of God.” By emphasizing the ordinariness of the spiritual life — where each person simply is called to respond to the grace that we find in our own life circumstances — Haase makes mystical spirituality accessible and inviting. Each chapter includes exercises so that reading this book is not just a head trip, but a meaningful invitation into the mystical life.

Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation — Each of Martin Laird’s three books on contemplative prayer and practice is worth reading, but what makes this book unique is his thoughtful commentary on how contemplation helps us to grow, psychologically as well as spiritually. His lyrical and poetic writing invites the reader to explore the transition from reactivity to responsiveness to the “ocean of light” — the mature life of a mind luminous with the fruit of a deep contemplative practice. Read this wisdom, and you will be inspired to take your prayer deeper and higher.

Beverly Lanzetta, The Monk Within: Embracing a Sacred Way of Life — theologian Beverly Lanzetta has written numerous books on topics such as spiritual direction, feminist mysticism, and the spirituality of divine union. Here she unpacks what may be one of the most exciting themes of our time: the “monk within,” recognizing that everyone has a monastic dimension, even those of us who are not called to live in a cloister. Drawing on a variety of sources and emphasizing both feminine wisdom and the centrality of love, Lanzetta charts a contemplative path appropriate for all seekers.

Carl McColman, An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom: A Little Guide to Mystery, Spirit, and Compassion — Celtic spirituality is more than just a celebration of Irish and Scottish saints, stories, and poetry. It’s actually a unique expression of early Christian contemplation, heavily influenced by the desert mothers and fathers, the early monastics, but also the indigenous pre-Christian spirituality of the Celtic lands. You don’t have to be a Celt to appreciate Celtic wisdom — it’s for anyone seeking a more earthy mysticism for our time.

Carl McColman, Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (And Why That’s Okay) —I know it sounds paradoxical, but this is a book about how you can’t learn spirituality from a book! We read spiritual writing for inspiration and encouragement, and this book tries to do just that, by looking at universal themes such as compassion, silence, prayer, embodiment, trust, and vocation — and reflecting on how, for each of us, the best way to learn our “unteachable lessons” is to embrace a life of mindful attentiveness, thereby letting the Spirit be our first, and main, teacher and guide.

Marilyn McEntyre, When Poets Pray — Anyone who has read Mary Oliver — or the Psalms — understands that there is a deep link between poetry and prayer. McEntyre, who teaches literature but also writes about the spiritual life, is an eloquent guide to exploring the poetics of prayer (and the prayerfulness of poetry). She draws on some of the great poets of the past 1100 years, from Hildegard of Bingen to Wendell Berry to Denise Levertov, to illustrate her contemplative reflections (and yes, both a Psalm and a poem from Mary Oliver are included!).

Vincent Pizzuto, Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life — the author, a priest and theologian, begins this book by saying “The incarnation has made mystics of us all. What if we read the gospels as if that were true? This book is an attempt to do just that.” With beautiful prose and a keen insight into both scriptural wisdom and contemplative practice, Pizzuto demonstrates how deification — the invitation to realize our essential oneness with God — is both Biblically grounded and central to the contemplative experience.

Bernadette Roberts, The Christian Contemplative Journey: Essays on the Path — Bernadette Roberts (who died in 2017) was one of the most respected spiritual teachers of her generation, exploring nondual spirituality from a perspective at once deeply Christian and deeply resonant with other wisdom traditions. This book collects together a variety of her essays, on topics ranging from the Eucharist, to the Resurrection, to mystical theology and both true and false understandings of the self. It’s an accessible introduction to one of the most philosophical contemplatives of our time.

Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe — Given how popular Rohr is, I suppose most people reading this post already have read this book, but in case you are one of the few who haven’t, it deserves your attention. Rohr rightly sees that rethinking our theology of Christ can bring much needed healing not only to the Christian community, but also to how Christianity interacts with the world at large.

Veronica Mary Rolf, Suddenly There is God: The Story of Our Lives in Sacred Scripture — Rolf is known for her perceptive books on Julian of Norwich; here, she turns her insight onto the Bible and the role that the myths and stories of scripture can play in our personal spiritual journeys. She invites readers to engage with the Biblical text like a mirror for our lives today, finding in the overall narrative signs and symbols that can illuminate the dynamics of how God leads and guides us as individuals.

Jessica M. Smith and Stuart Higginbotham, editors, Contemplation and Community: A Gathering of Fresh Voices for a Living Tradition — an insightful collection of essays by a group of young contemplatives who met with Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, and other contemplative elders in 2016. If you want to get a sense of the future of contemplative spirituality, read this book. It’s inspiring and at times challenging, but most of all it’s filled with hope.

Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics — Mirabai is one of leading spokespersons for interspirituality: the inclusive, egalitarian celebration of all spiritual and contemplative traditions. Her love for the Christian mystics led her to publish a series of artful translations of classics by Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Ávila. In Wild Mercy she focuses on the teachings of women mystics and sages from the world over, distilling their many strands of insight into a singular proclamation of universal spiritual wisdom.

Clark Strand and Perdita Finn, The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary —The Rosary is one of the most beloved of Christian devotions, but many people are unaware of just how deeply contemplative a practice it is (or can be). This book approaches its topic from an interspiritual perspective, celebrating the mystical dimension of this ancient devotional practice while also exploring how it functions as an invitation into the feminine dimension of contemplation.

Revisiting Grace: A New Edition of Writings and Photographs from a Trappist Monk

If you are looking for a wonderful Christmas gift idea, I’ve got a suggestion for you: the newly released “Memorial Edition” of Grace Revisited: Epiphanies from a Trappist Monk by Fr. James Stephen Behrens, OCSO.

The new edition of Grace Revisited. Cover photograph by Fr. James.

Father James passed away suddenly earlier this year; you can read my obituary for him here: Remembering the Monk Who Wrote About Grace. At the time of his passing, all of Fr. James’s books were out of print, but the publisher was preparing a new edition of Grace Revisited. Alas, that new edition has now become a memorial after the author’s untimely death.

Fr. James became a writer in midlife, after spending two decades as a diocesan priest and then entering monastic life at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. His family had roots in New Orleans and he became friends with the noted Catholic novelist Walker Percy, who encouraged James to write and to seek publication. He launched his career when his first essay, “Andy’s Diner,” was published by the National Catholic Reporter.

“Andy’s Diner” tells about his experience people-watching at an eatery in New Jersey near the parish he served. “I used to go there alone every morning and find an empty stool near the far end of the counter to better enjoy the parade of humanity,” he wrote, going on to remark, “Most did not know I was a priest.” The essay goes on to display what made Fr. James such a wonderful writer: a warm-hearted but unsentimental reflection on the ordinary people and their ordinary lives who came and went from that ordinary diner. What it is not an explicitly “religious” or even “spiritual” piece of writing, Fr. James does speculate on how organized religion might learn a thing or two from the “Andy’s Diners” of the world.

Fr. James.

This first essay established the template for Fr. Jame’s writing: short pieces of non-fiction, usually focused on something entirely down-to-earth or everyday, which he would describe without commentary or preachifying. He never tried to give his subjects a pious veneer, but his work always managed to convey the most meaningful kind of spirituality there is: the spirituality of the human heart.

He continued to have essays published in NCR, while other pieces of his appeared in  his local newspaper or in the Catholic newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese, the Georgia Bulletin. On occasion he would also write something and just circulate it via email among his friends.

Eventually two collections of his essays were published, Grace is Everywhere and Memories of Grace. He also wrote a collection of meditations called Be Gentle, Be Faithful. But by the time I met him in 2005, his interest in writing began to take a back seat to his other great love: photography.

Fr. James’ best-selling (and award-winning) book, Portraits of Grace: Images and Words from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit was published in 2007. Once again, the book eschews the normal tropes and clichés of religious writing and religious art. But in this collection of the most mundane images — an empty bowl on a plate, a pair of boots by a threshold, a collection of gardening tools neatly arranged on a wall — Fr. James shows just how keen was his ability to see the sacred in the everyday. He wrote a brief meditation to accompany each image, making the book more than just a work of art — it’s a devotional imitation into a truly contemplative way of seeing the world.

Fr. James. Photo by Br. Chaminade Crabtree, OCSO.

He would go on to contribute his photography to books by other writers, like Bernadette Snyder and Irene Zimmerman. He talked about wanting to publish another book of photographs, this time filled with portraits. But it never happened, at least not during his lifetime.

Grace Revisited was first published in 2011, collecting together the material from his first two collections of essays, along with “Andy’s Diner” which had never before been published in book form. This new “Memorial Edition” features all the writing from the earlier edition, along with a selection of photographs and meditations from Portraits of Grace. All in all, it’s a wonderful survey of the wisdom and imagery from a truly talented (and down-to-earth) monk.

Since Fr. James died unexpectedly just before this book went to press, the publisher, Greg Pierce, was able to insert a brief foreword acknowledging his friendship with Fr. James.

If you are already familiar with Fr. James’ thoughtful and warm-hearted writing (and deeply contemplative photography), you don’t need any encouragement from me to know what a wonderful book this is. But if you are not familiar with the words and images from this most extraordinary ordinary monk, then let me assure you: a treat awaits you.

What is Mysticism — and What Does it Mean for Christians?

A couple of weeks ago I posted to this blog an article called Just What is Mysticism Anyway? And Why Should Anyone Care?

But a few years ago, I made a short video that addresses pretty much the same topic, although geared specifically to Christians.

In the summer of 2015 I filmed a series of videos before a small audience where I explored several themes, such as mysticism, silence, and monasticism.

Here is the “mysticism” segment. I begin by quoting Karl Rahner, famous for saying “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Then I offer some thoughts about just what mysticism is, and why it should matter to Christians.

Even though I’m speaking specifically to a Christian audience, I hope these thoughts about mysticism might be of interest to everyone, regardless of your religious or spiritual identity.

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.