Remembering the Monk Who Wrote About Grace

Last week Father James Behrens, OCSO died suddenly. He was 71 years old.

Father James had been a Catholic priest for 45 years and a Trappist monk for 25 years. He was a talented man — a gifted photographer, a thoughtful preacher and an insightful writer. He had a beautiful singing and speaking voice, and even though he was a smoker, whatever effect the tobacco had on his voice only seemed to deepen it.

I met Fr. James in November 2005 — on the first day I worked at the Abbey Store of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit where he lived. I was there on a temporary assignment to help the store install a new computer system (I ended up staying almost eight years). I was excited to be working at the monastery, even though at the time I thought it was only for a week or so. I was a new convert to Catholicism, and associated Trappist monks with authors I admired (Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating), and, of course, with contemplation and mysticism.

It’s fair to say I had a very romanticized idea of what monks were like — and Fr. James, perhaps more than anyone else, helped me to bring my understanding of monks down to earth.

Carl McColman, Rhiannon Wilburn, and Fr. James Behrens, OCSO, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, spring 2009. Photo by Fran McColman

To begin with, Fr. James was the first monk I ever met who was not, at the time I met him, wearing the traditional black and white habit of the Trappists. We met during a work session, and he was dressed in ordinary jeans and a t-shirt. He looked more like the guy hired to mow the grass than like a monk (or, at least, like what I thought a monk should look like). When we were introduced, my supervisor mentioned to James that I was a writer — as was he, since he had three books published at the time (and would go on to publish three more).

“You’re a writer,” he observed noncommittally. “Are you published?”

“Yes,” I replied shyly. This was in 2005, when most of my books were decidedly not Catholic or even Christian in focus. I hoped he would change the subject, but no such luck.

“So what do you write about?”

Worried that I was about to lose my job before the first day was out, I muttered, “Well, actually, most of my books are about paganism, Goddess spirituality, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, really?” he said. Then after a pause, he mused, “I bet we have them in our library.”

I wasn’t sure if he was making a joke or not, so I let the matter pass. But for the rest of our relationship, James and I saw each other as writers, first and foremost.

That led to another conversation, about a year or so later. At the time, Fr. James was the monastery’s guestmaster, which meant that he oversaw the monastery’s retreat house and the scheduling of directed retreats. Many of the monks — along with a small number of lay persons — directed retreats on topics such as prayer, Bible study, meditation, even yoga.

One day I ran into James at the bonsai center, and I said, “Why don’t you have a retreat for writers?” He replied, “That’s a great idea, let’s do it.”

And that was how I became a retreat director. Almost by accident — since I was looking for a retreat I could participate in, not direct! But I was flattered by his apparent faith in me, and the thought of working with him was too good to pass up. So we wrote up a blurb for the retreat and got it on the calendar for the following year.

Since it was my first time directing a retreat, needless to say I was both excited and nervous. So about a month before the retreat, I emailed Fr. James to see about getting together to plan the retreat.

No reply.

Grace Revisited

A week later, I re-sent the email, “Just in case you missed this.” Still no reply.

The retreat was now only about a week away, and my nervousness had graduated to full-blown anxiety. I called Patti, the woman who ran the office at the retreat house. She gently explained to me that Fr. James rarely bothered to reply to emails, and my best bet would be to call him. She gave me the direct line to his office.

I called, and he answered straightaway. Relieved, I asked him if we could get together to plan the retreat. “Sure,” he replied in his normal deadpan voice. “Why don’t you come over to the retreat house for lunch one day next week?”

We compared our schedules, and the only day that worked for both of us was Friday — the day the retreat began. I wasn’t thrilled about cutting it so close, but there wasn’t much choice. I told him I would put together my notes for what I thought we could cover, and would see him that Friday.

The day of the retreat came, and I dutifully walked over to the retreat house. We all grabbed our food and moved to the dining room where conversation was allowed (the retreat house, like the monastery, maintains silence in most of the building). As it turned out, a couple was at the monastery who were old friends of Fr. James — but there were just passing through, they were only there for lunch.

So of course, Fr. James all but ignored me as he visited with his friends. I could hardly fault him for this, but I nervously eyed the clock, knowing that soon I would have to return to work and our chance to plan the retreat would pass us by.

Finally, Fr. James turned to me and said, “So what are we doing this weekend?” I pulled out my notes, organized into outlines for each of the five conferences (sessions) of the retreat. He glanced over them, and listened to me as I stumbled through my lesson plans.

He handed the papers back to me and said, “This is very nice, but why don’t we do this — I’ll share some initial thoughts with people tonight, and then you can follow up with your ideas tomorrow morning. In the afternoon we’ll grab some of the other monks who write, and we’ll have a panel discussion. Then in the evening we’ll watch a DVD I have about Anne Lamott, and Sunday morning will just be open for conversation. What do you think?”

And that was the extent of our plan. I realized, somewhat to my horror, that James intended to direct this retreat without a script — and he expected me to do likewise.

Portraits of Grace

I showed up at the retreat house that evening. We had a full house — forty retreatants. It seemed like Fr. James already knew half of them, so busy was he greeting folks and inquiring about others. Finally we gathered in the conference room for the first conference of the retreat. Fr. James began by telling a story or two from his experience as a writer. Nothing fancy, nothing polished. But he was honest, and candid, and vulnerable. And everyone was hanging on every word he said.

Fr. James was not one to make a show of piety. He tended to avoid using overly spiritual or religious language. He allowed the presence of the Spirit to shine through his down-to-earth storytelling, without making airs or fuss about it. In this way, he truly modeled humility.

Even though I had been ready to wring his neck that Friday afternoon, by the end of the retreat I was simply in awe of his ease, his presence, his focus on storytelling, and his recognition that the best kind of spiritual direction is really simply spiritual companionship. A detailed outline might be comforting to a control freak like me, but it really matters very little for a retreat — where the focus needs to be on listening for the leading of the Spirit, in the moment, and responding to that leading (as well as to the needs of the retreatants).

I must have done a halfway-decent job as Fr. James’s assistant, for I was invited to co-lead another retreat, with a different monk, six months later. After that I was invited to direct retreats on my own. And that began what is now a significant part of my full-time ministry.

Eventually Fr. James left the position of guestmaster, and I left my job at the Abbey Store to write (and direct retreats) full time. We did not see each other as often. I stepped back from the writer’s retreat, which as of 2019 is still going strong, now co-directed by four of the monks (it was, in fact, Fr. James’s final retreat before his passing).

He was a letter writer. The mail drop used to be located in the Abbey Store, and he would walk in and drop a handful of cards at a time. He corresponded with many people. After my daughter died in 2014, I received a lovely handwritten note from him, expressing his condolences.

He also was a photographer. He took many beautiful photographs, of nature, architecture, and people; his work was collected in two books including the award-winning Portraits of Grace. My all-time favorite photo of his was an image from a solemn profession in 2006, when the Abbot at that time, Dom Francis Michael, was censing the altar. The marble altar glistens with reflections of flowers set before it; the cloud of incense billows about the monk, a cross clearly visible in the smoke. The Abbot himself seems lost in reverie, as if receiving a vision. It’s a luminous image, and Fr. James gave me permission to use it, which I have done many times. Here it is once again.

The Abbot censes the altar, October 2006. Photo by Fr. James Behrens, OCSO. Used by permission.

But as wonderful as Fr. James’s photography was, for me he will always be first and foremost a writer. He preferred to write short non-fiction pieces: vignettes of everyday life, stories drawn both from his own experience as a monk or a priest, as well as insights into people he encountered over the course of his life. He wrote about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a tired woman falling asleep on a bus, a monk discovering that his eyesight is failing, that sort of thing. But in writing about the ordinary, Fr. James always managed to find something truly extraordinary: the surprising presence of love, a sense of eternity in the here and now, and — always — the subtle and mostly-hidden work of grace in our lives. This is perhaps why most of his books have the word “grace” in their title, and why the compendium of his best writing is called Grace Revisited.

Fr. James brought grace into so many peoples’ lives — through his words, his photographs, his quiet presence. I will miss him, as I know many others will as well. But I can’t begrudge his leaving us so soon. For you see, James had a twin brother who was killed in a car accident during their senior year in high school. That was over fifty years ago. We will miss him on earth, but as for heaven, I can only imagine how joyful the reunion of these two brothers must have been.

 

Advance Praise for “Unteachable Lessons”

One of the scariest moments for me, as an author, is when my editor and I have finished working on a book, and we then send the manuscript out to a number of people for reviews and/or endorsements. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking. What if no one likes it? Eek!

Unteachable Lessons

Fortunately, my forthcoming book Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (and Why That’s Okay) has received some very warm words of praise from a number of early readers. Forgive me for being a marketer (it’s part of the job description of any freelance writer), but I’d like to share the advance words of praise with you — in hopes, of course, that you will pre-order the book for yourself (and for everyone you love!).

Links for pre-ordering it from both major online retailers and indie bookstores can be found at the end of this post. USA residents: if you’d like to get an autographed copy, you can pre-order it directly from me by clicking here.

Advance Praise for Unteachable Lessons:

 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

We have come to expect inspiring and sure-footed guidance from the pen of Carl McColman.  In this beautifully written memoir, McColman continues his sound guidance through wide learning, deep experience, and the humor of the truly wise.

— Martin Laird, O.S.A., author of An Ocean of Light

Unteachable Lessons is an invitation to dance — with life, with the Holy Spirit, with the mystery of unknowing. It is a treasure, that will require you to join the dance, not just read the words.”

Therese Taylor-Stinson, editor of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around

Unteachable Lessons looks at many different journeys: the journey into grief, into silence, into trust, and perhaps most of all, the journey into God. No one can take these adventures for us — but Carl McColman is a wise and caring companion on the path.

— Richard Rohr, O.F.M., author of The Universal Christ

These lively stories of loss, awakening, and moments of divine encounter and surprise offer invitations at every turn to recognize how the Spirit lives and moves in our own lives as well as in the author’s.  Deft and funny, rich with spiritual insight and unpretentiously articulate, this book is one to be enjoyed, dog-eared, carried to retreats, and shared.

Marilyn McEntyre, author of Word by Word

Riveting, inspiring and beautifully written, Unteachable Lessons is a moving account of finding God amidst both the laughter and tears in life.

 — James Martin, S.J., author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage

This powerful little book inspires and instructs masterfully.  A must-read for those interested in truths beneath the words.

Margaret Benefiel, author of The Soul of a Leader

As a writer myself, I know the temptation of going on and on. A lot of us writers like writing more than our readers love reading. But this is a short book, short and delicious. And nutritious. It won’t strengthen your addiction to words. In fact, it will do the opposite.

Brian D. McLaren, from the foreword to Unteachable Lessons

The publication date of the book is September 17, 2019. Avoid the rush! Pre-order it now…

The book may be pre-ordered through:

If you’d like an autographed copy, you can also order a copy directly from me by clicking here.

The Paradox of Radical Trust

On his live album Precious Friend, Arlo Guthrie cracked a joke: “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” Seekers of holy nonduality recognize this: in the economy of grace, the words of the author of Ecclesiastes ring true as ever: “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven: … a time for loving, a time for hating; a time for war, a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8)

When I read this list, I’m tempted to fall back into the human desire to control life by managing our experience: “It’s okay to love, but not to hate; peace is better than war” and so forth. And why not? I’m much more interested in loving that hating, in being a peacemaker than a warmonger.

But you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in. Like it or not, we live in a world where war happens; where hate happens, where abuse and addiction and violence all happen. And while it’s imperative to make moral choices to inform and guide our lives (abuse and violence are not okay), contemplative practice brings us face to face with the reality that we are called to live in, and respond to, and love and forgive, a world where light and dark both exist, both persist, and both impact the course of our lives and the choices we are called to make.

My first spiritual director, a wonderful woman named Lin whom I met through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, told me when I was only about 25 years old that my core spiritual issue was learning how to trust. More than three decades later, I’m still working on this one.

I wonder what trusting the Spirit really looks like from a deep contemplative place? As Lin so shrewdly observed, I must agree with her that my capacity to trust is hardly exemplary: I trust, and I mistrust. I have faith, and I doubt. I respond spontaneously to the urging of my heart or intuition, and I second-guess myself. I accept the wisdom of my faith community and my tradition, and I argue against such wisdom.

St. Paul tells us love always trusts. But sometimes that means even trusting doubt, or boundaries, or the inability to trust. (Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash)

But you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in. Perhaps we can only trust to the extent that we also can doubt. Perhaps our ability to say yes — to our tradition or our teachers — is shaped by our capacity to say no. Perhaps the key to trust is learning to trust both our trusting and our doubting.

The radical nonduality to which contemplation invites us is not an “everything goes” nihilism, where nothing really matters. Rather, to use Richard Rohr’s elegant phrase, it is an “everything belongs” embrace, where that which is good is affirmed, and that which is bad is accepted even as it is called to change. If we hate the haters, aren’t we just lending energy to their pattern? Only by loving the haters can we ever hope for radical transformation. That is the secret of forgiveness, as well as of unconditional love.

Every day I try to respond anew to the invitation Lin gave me so many years ago: let’s trust the Spirit, and do so radically. But ironically, that includes even trusting all the ways in which we choose not to trust. Not to acquiesce to our mistrust, but, paradoxically, to accept it: thereby creating the space where the Spirit may continue to move in, and transform, our lives.

 

What Inspired Me to Write About Christian Mysticism

This month marks nine years since The Big Book of Christian Mysticism was published. Hard to believe it’s been that long! To mark this anniversary, I’m reposting here an “author’s statement” about the book that I originally wrote for Amazon. Hope you enjoy it (and if you haven’t read The Big Book of Christian Mysticism… well, what are you waiting for?!?!)

Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill (Cover design courtesy Dover Publications)

When I was eighteen years old, a friend of mine loaned me a copy of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Like many folks raised in a mainstream Christian context, I had no idea that Christianity had such a rich and storied history of men and women who experienced profound, life-changing mystical encounters with God — nor did I have any sense that such a tradition could remain relevant, even today.

But Underhill’s book opened the door to that wondrous spiritual world for me, and I have been an enthusiastic seeker of the mysteries ever since. I’ve come to believe that mysticism is Christianity’s “best kept secret,” and that a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, Christian mysticism can help Christians find greater meaning and joy in their faith, and help non-Christians to see the wisdom tradition that began with Jesus of Nazareth in a new light.

Given how important Underhill’s book has been to my own spiritual life, I discerned a desire to write an introduction to Christian mysticism for the third millennium. While my book can never replace or supplant hers, my hope is that it can help introduce its readers to the splendor and beauty of Christian mysticism, just as Underhill’s book made that introduction for me.

So on a very personal level, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is my way of saying “thank you” to Underhill — and beyond her, to God, who Christians believe is the source of all true mystical experience.

A Mystical Pioneer

Evelyn Underhill was a brilliant scholar who spent years researching the history and literature of mysticism. Her pioneering work led to further studies by such renowned academics as Bernard McGinn, Harvey Egan, Andrew Louth, and the late Grace Jantzen. My book is designed to serve as a complement to such important researchers and theorists.

The Big Book of Christian Mysticism bridges the gap between the “ivory tower” of scholarly studies of mysticism, and the everyday experience of ordinary Christians, for whom mysticism is not a topic for bookish research, but rather an invitation to a deeper experience of God. Because I assume that my readers may not know anything about mysticism (or, for that matter, anything about Christianity!), it can be an ideal introductory book.

My spiritual journey, like that of many seekers in our time, has been marked by a variety of twists and turns. I was raised a Lutheran Christian, moving to the Episcopal/Anglican communion as a young adult. But I was also drawn to the wisdom of other traditions, including Buddhism and Neopaganism. Eventually I spent about seven years outside of Christianity, exploring Wicca, shamanism, Goddess spirituality, Celtic Druidism, Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, among other spiritual paths.

The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

But the Christian contemplative path called me back, and in my 40s I entered the Catholic Church, placing myself under the spiritual guidance of Cistercian monks and Benedictine wisdom. What all this means is that I’ve been able to ponder the meaning of Christian mysticism for people both inside and outside the institutional expression of Christianity (the church).

With this in mind, I endeavored to write The Big Book of Christian Mysticism both for Christians who might be new to the topic of mysticism, but also for people outside of the Christian tradition, who may or may not be students of the mysteries, but who are unfamiliar with how mysticism has been uniquely experienced and expressed within the lineage of those who follow Jesus of Nazareth.

A Spiritual “Location”

Mysticism is a wonderful “location” of spiritual experience, particularly for those who are more drawn to what unites all people, rather than what separates us. All through history, Christian mystics have been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue: the great conversation between people of different religions. Unlike how some Christians too often approach “others” merely as targets for conversion, the great mystics and contemplatives of the Christian faith, especially in the recent past and present, see mysticism as the bridge that enables fruitful and positive interaction across religious boundaries.

Thus, Thomas Merton explored Buddhism, and Henri Le Saux became so immersed in Vedanta that he even took a new religious name as Swami Abhishiktananda. More recently, contemplatives like Cynthia Bourgeault, Tilden Edwards, Mary Margaret Funk, and Paul Knitter have been leaders on the frontier where Christian spirituality engages with the wisdom of other traditions. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is not an interfaith book per se: it really is intended to serve as an introduction to the distinctively Christian expression of mysticism.

But it is written as a contribution to an understanding of spirituality that is both deep (as in deeply-rooted in the Christian path) and inclusive (open to the wisdom of others). It is my hope that readers who do not identify as Christians will nevertheless find in this book a lovely expression of a particular stream of spirituality. Meanwhile, those readers who do identify as Christians will find themselves called to a deeper, richer, more intimate, and hopefully transformational dimension of their faith.

What Makes a “Big” Book Big?

One final word: I’m rather embarrassed by the book’s title. Here’s the inside story. My editor came up with the idea of calling this work the “big book” because, in early conversations before I actually started writing it, we envisioned a tome rather like Underhill’s: 500+ pages long, providing more information about mysticism than you’ll ever need. But as I wrote the book, I began to question whether my goal of writing an accessible introduction to Christian mysticism would really be served by making this book so long that it could seem intimidating. My editor agreed, and eventually the book ended up being about half the length we originally thought it would be.

Which I’m perfectly happy with — except neither he nor I thought to revise the title. Oops! I’ve had a few readers scratch their heads over how “little” this “Big Book” is. Thankfully, only a couple of snarky reviewers have attacked the title, and then there’s Richard Rohr, who very kindly told me he thought the title was “whimsical.” Maybe in a future edition we can drop “The Big Book of” and just call this work Christian Mysticism: A Guide to Contemplative Spirituality. But for now, it is what it is. I humbly hope you’ll order yourself a copy. Just don’t be surprised at how “normal-sized” this so-called “Big Book” is!

2019 Update: since I wrote this, I completed the material that originally was meant to be the second part of the Big Book — published in 2016 as Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages. And at my editor’s suggestion I edited a devotional book on the writings of the mystics which we called The Little Book of Christian Mysticism — a fitting (and smaller-sized) companion to the other two books!

Celebrating Evelyn Underhill

It was forty years ago this summer — the summer of 1979 — that I first discovered Evelyn Underhill, the British spiritual author whose writings introduced me to the beauty and splendor of Christian mysticism. To celebrate this personal anniversary, I’m reprinting here a blog post I wrote back in 2007 about her and her writing. I hope you enjoy it.

Evelyn Underhill, Ordinary Mystic

It might be a bit controversial for me to include Evelyn Underhill in my list of western mystics. To the best of my knowledge, she never claimed to be a mystic herself, and her work was aimed more at introducing her readers to the history and theory of mysticism than in asserting any spiritual or mystical authority of her own. In other words, Underhill was a great popularizer of mysticism, similar to how Alan Watts was a popularizer of Zen or Michael Harner a popularizer of shamanism.

But her knowledge of the subject was so vast, her work so thorough and wide-ranging, and her interest in the spiritual welfare of those who corresponded with her or who participated in the retreats she led was both so genuine and so wise, that she deserves to be included in the roster of western mystics at least as much as theologians like Bernard of Clairvaux or Thomas Aquinas, whose claim to mystical fame lies as much in their intellectual achievement as in any personal spiritual experience.

A Twentieth Century Mysticism

Hers is truly a twentieth century mysticism, more democratic than aristocratic in its focus: in other words, she champions not so much extraordinary moments of divine union as experienced by an elite few, but rather a more down-to-earth but no less life-transforming encounter with divine grace that is available to, as she put it, “normal people” — in other words, the ordinary person who may or may not be an ordained minister, a consecrated monk or nun, or an erudite scholar. Underhill introduced the average person to extraordinary spirituality, and in doing so, celebrated the idea that anybody — regardless of pedigree, background, education, or religious vocation — just might be able to scale those visionary heights.

She lived from 1875 to 1941, which makes her a contemporary of Thérèse of Lisieux and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Born into a well-to-do British family, she married a barrister with whom she bore no children, leaving her free to write — and write she did.
Although not as prolific as Thomas Merton, she wrote three novels, as many volumes of poetry, a collection of medieval tales of the Virgin Mary, and over twenty specifically religious books, including collections of essays and transcripts of radio talks she did on the spiritual life.

She also edited and wrote introductions for a variety of mystical classics, including The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, and an anthology of writings by John Ruysbroeck, her personal favorite of the great mystics. Her masterpiece, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness was released in 1911, when she was only in her mid-thirties; other key works include Practical Mysticism, Mystics of the Church, and Worship. Although her later works tend to be more oriented toward ordinary Christian spirituality than toward “mysticism” per se, all of her writing is imbued with a deep sense of the glory and possibility of a spiritual life wholly given to the love of God and the desire for Divine Union.

A Mystic for Everyone

Born into an Anglican family, her love of mysticism and her work with a Catholic spiritual director (Friedrich von Hügel) naturally led her to an interest in entering the Church of Rome, but she felt repelled by the anti-modernist views of Pope Pius X and, once she married her Anglican husband, decided that it was God’s will for her to remain within the Church of England. This she did for the duration of her life, where in addition to writing her numerous books and essays she also delivered lectures (she was the first woman to lecture on religion at Oxford University), led retreats, and engaged in works of mercy, devoting one day a week to charitable work among the London poor.

Underhill’s writing is literary and elegant; clearly the product of a 19th century British education. She does a splendid job at expressing the miraculous reality of the mystical life and how it can transform “ordinary reality” into a life shimmering with the Divine Presence. Her perspective is clearly Christian, but her own Anglican identity never impedes her vision, and consequently hers is a celebration of mysticism that can be appreciated by all branches of the Christian family tree. I think her work is essential for anyone seeking an authentic Christian mysticism that refuses to be confined by its historical boundary of the cloister.

For further reading:

I. Selected works by Evelyn Underhill

II. Books about Underhill:

Finally, here’s a bit of personal trivia: her birthday was December 6, a day she shares with Dave Brubeck, Dion Fortune, Henryk Górecki, and… me!

Appreciating the Rosary as a Method for Contemplative Prayer

Nothing says “Catholic” quite as much as a rosary. But anyone — Catholic or Orthodox, Protestant or Pentecostal, Anglican or Evangelical — can find a way to incorporate the simple beauty of the rosary into the life of prayer. Think of a rosary as a tool, which can be used to foster contemplative silence or to train the subconscious into a life of habitual prayer and recollection (gathering the mind into a state of restful focus on God).

Mention the rosary, and I suspect most people think of a chain or cord with 59 beads, a crucifix and a medal of Mary or a saint. Go to your local Catholic store and you’ll see a colorful variety of rosaries, from glow-in-the-dark plastic ones (suitable for children) that cost less than a dollar, all the way up to beautiful rosaries featuring semi-precious or precious stones, silver chains and medals, costing in the hundreds of dollars.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

But before you start figuring out the most expensive rosary you can afford, remember this: the chain is not really the “rosary” at all. It’s just the tool, a mnemonic device if you will, to assist you in praying the rosary. What is truly the rosary is the sequence of prayer and meditation that Christians have been praying to Christ and Mary for centuries.

I don’t need to go into details of how to pray the rosary; if you’re new to it, download this PDF for instructions. My purpose is simply to celebrate the rosary as a doorway into contemplation. But first I want to address the two most common objections raised against the rosary:

  • It is repetitive. In Matthew 6:7 Christ warns his followers not to use “vain repetitions” (King James Version) when praying. Although modern translations like the New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version more accurately translate this as “babbling” or “empty phrases,” to many Christians, it remains a direct attack on the rosary and its use of prayers — particularly the Hail Mary — repeated over and over. But even if we go with the KJV translation, it’s important to note that Jesus criticized vain repetition — in other words, repetition with no meaning or value. Obviously, this does not apply to the rosary when used properly, for Christians over the centuries have found it a singularly meaningful tool for praying more deeply and intimately with God. If we believe we are not to use vain repetition in our prayer, thank God for the rosary, where repetitive prayer is filled with grace.
  • It emphasizes devotion to Mary over devotion to Christ. True, the traditional Catholic rosary includes more than 50 Marian prayers, compared to only 6 recitations each of the Lord’s Prayer and the trinitarian Glory Be prayer. Although devotion to Mary has been a part of Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican devotion since the earliest days of the church, other Christians have not only abandoned Marian spirituality but actually oppose it as somehow un-Christian. This is not the place to solve that argument; all I can say is that Christians who venerate Mary understand the difference between worship (for God alone) and devotion (for those who love God). Meanwhile, to Christians who are uncomfortable with the Marian dimension of the rosary, I’d encourage you to explore alternative ways to use the rosary, such as Robert Llewelyn’s wonderful “Christ-centered rosary” found on pages 136 and 137 of his book With Pity Not With Blame. There’s nothing magical about the traditional rosary; other prayers can be substituted that can still enable you to use the rosary as a tool for fostering contemplation.

How is the rosary a tool for contemplation? When you pray the rosary, you are engaging your conscious mind on several levels. First and most simply, the drone of the recited prayers serves to suppress the incessant “chatter” of normal waking consciousness. By itself, though, even a formula for reciting repetitive prayers can be overpowered by the mind’s ability to distract itself.

But the rosary involves more than just praying by rote.

The rosary beads require attention as you move your fingers across the beads in accord with the progression of the prayers; and throughout the rosary, mysteries — significant events from the life of Christ or Mary — are to be meditated on while you recite the prayers. To the beginner, this seems overwhelming: remember all the prayers, the manipulation of the beads, and a mystery to meditate on simultaneously!

But it doesn’t take long for the power and spiritual beauty of the rosary to be revealed: for in this “multi-tasking” approach to prayer, the tight control of normal waking consciousness is turned back on itself. In essence, by praying the rosary, you give the ego so much to do that its ability to undermine your prayer with distracting thoughts is minimized, if not done away with altogether.

And while you consciously engage your devotional awareness on these multiple levels, you are in essence freeing up deeper regions of our soul to simply rest in the Divine Presence — the essential heart of contemplation.

Not everyone will find the rosary useful or enjoyable. Spiritual seekers with a more naturally apophatic (imageless) inclination, who naturally find joy and comfort in the profound emptiness of contemplative meditation, may find the rosary to be busy, even frenetic. If you don’t enjoy the rosary on a conscious level, you may not allow yourself to experience the subtle contemplative benefits that it affords at deepers levels.

But for those whose spiritual personality leans more toward kataphatic, or image-based, meditation, the vivid imagery and symbolism of the prayers and mysteries of the rosary can bring joy in themselves, as well as the unexpected benefit of nurturing a deep sense of stillness and grounding in the changeless stability of God.

The moral of this story is as simple as it is evident: if you don’t care for the rosary, find other disciplines for your prayer life; but if you do enjoy, pray it with delight… and be mindful of how it nurtures you, not only consciously but on a deep soul-level as well.

For further reading:

Via Mystica — An Online Resource for Exploring Christian Mysticism

Friends, I’m pleased to announce that I have launched a new website called Via Mystica. To visit it, click here: www.viamystica.com.

Via Mystica is a website devoted entirely to the study and practice of Christian mystical spirituality. It’s still in its beginning stages, but let me share with you my vision for what it can be.

It can be an online knowledge base for people who just want to learn more about Christian mysticism. Thus, it will be a compendium for information on the most important mystical and contemplative writers and teachers, and their teachings — both from history and living today. It can also be a resource for those who want to begin to integrate contemplative and mystical practices into their daily lives — which involves not only learning the core practices, but also helping you to connect with others on the same path, from soul friends and spiritual directors to community resources such as prayer groups or contemplative ministries.

I’ve been publishing blog posts and articles about various aspects of mystical and contemplative spirituality for about 15 years, so I have a lot of archival material, a fair amount of which is not currently online. For now, Via Mystica will function as an archive of my best “mystical” writing over the years, along with new essays/blog posts that I will write with its larger mission to mind: to introduce people online to Christian mysticism, to offer a curated forum for learning more about the history and teachings of the mystics, and to guide those who want to embrace the mystical life and begin or deepen their own contemplative practice.

Evelyn Underhill, on of the most important twentieth-century writers on Christian mysticism.

But my hope is that this site will be much more than simply a blog about mysticism.

I envision Via Mystica will also include audio and video content about mysticism. Future possibilities include offering webinars or online courses, so that anyone who desires interaction with teachers and other students of mysticism will find those opportunities here as well.

Other possibilities could include setting up a forum or even a membership site. I’m not sure if that’s the direction it’ll go or not — those things are beyond my current expertise — but depending on feedback I receive from readers and patrons, as well as the possibility of strategic partnership(s) with others who might be develop those features, they are certainly options for the future.

The sky is the limit. I’m starting small — for now, just a simple website that will include curated content from my archives on the subject of Christian mysticism. We can see how it goes from there. My hope is that anyone who visits Via Mystica will interact with me so that I can begin to get a feel for what people would like from a site like this. As I get a greater sense of what I can be doing to serve the online contemplative mystical community, my hope is that Via Mystica will be our meeting place — to connect, to learn, to practice, to pray, and to grow together.

Does this appeal to you? I hope so. Via Mystica is meant for anyone who wants to learn more about Christian mysticism and apply the wisdom of the mystics to their lives. I hope that includes you.

Julian of Norwich, one of the most poetic and optimistic of Christian mystics.

For now, this is very much a labor of love. I have no funding for this aside from the generous patrons who support me (and my work) through Patreon. It is possible that developing the vision for Via Mystica might involve raising money (crowdfunding, investors, and/or revenue from online courses) if there is interest in actually building something beyond a blog/archive. I’m open to let the Spirit lead; it will be an adventure to see where this goes.

How to Be Connected

Do you want to be part of the Via Mystica adventure? Joining the circle is easy — as simple as signing up for email notifications or making a small monthly pledge.

If you would like to receive email notifications for when Via Mystica is updated, then please sign up for my email list.  You’ll get notified  whenever there’s something new on the site (you’ll also get emails whenever there’s something new on my personal blog as well). My goal is to post one to two new (or archival) articles, essays or blog posts each week, so that by this time next year we should have well over fifty essays/posts collected together on the topic of mysticism. Hopefully it will continue to grow from there.

If you’d like to support this project, the easiest way is to become a Patreon patron of my work. Doing so involves a monthly pledge — which can be as small as $1. To learn more about supporting me (and other creative professionals) online, visit Patreon; here’s the link to my page: www.patreon.com/carlmccolman

Most important of all, please pray for me and for this new online project. Please join with me in seeking God’s guidance and leading for this initiative. The God of Christ is a God of love, so let’s pray that this site may be a way to celebrate and share Divine Love with each other and with the world.

Please let me know what you think — how an online resource/knowledge base about Christian mysticism can be most useful/helpful for you. Thanks for reading — I’ll see you over at Via Mystica!

 

Love, Miracles, and the Fullness of Joy

The following message was shared with the congregation of Unity Atlanta on Sunday, June 30, 2019. I was the guest preacher for a “multi-faith Sunday” and so I geared my message toward celebrating the commonalities between Christian mysticism and Unity.

Julian of Norwich and her cat. Stained glass window in St. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, Prospect Heights, IL.

I would like to begin by sharing with you a quote I found online from an Episcopal Bishop, who has written many books; his name is John Shelby Spong. When responding to an inquiry from a woman who told him that she had abandoned fundamentalist Christianity for Unity, this was Bishop Spong’s response:

I have great respect for the Unity Movement. I believe Unity is in the vanguard of calling Christianity into a new self-understanding. This movement is deeply life-affirming, not life-denying. It does not wallow in sin, but rather celebrates life. It also recognizes that there are many pathways to God and that none is evil. I have been greatly enriched by my close association with Unity over the years.

Friends, I agree with Bishop Spong. 

I come to you today as a Catholic Christian, but perhaps even more as a lifelong student of the wisdom teaching in Christianity known as “Christian mysticism.” It’s my understanding that Unity’s approach to ecumenical or interfaith dialogue is to emphasize what unites us, rather than what separates us. Mystical Christianity, likewise, celebrates what unites us. And that’s what I would like to do this morning.

And speaking of what unites us, here’s a question for you. Can you feel the love in this room? I hope so — for I certainly can.

From where I stand, looking out over the community gathered here, I see miracles. I see faces that are shining like the sun. I see LOVE in human form.

We all know that God is Love. It’s a basic, core teaching — not just of Unity, or of Christianity, but indeed of the entire Western Wisdom Tradition. 

William Blake, the great poet, once said, “And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” We could paraphrase that like this: “We are put on the earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the radiant beams of God.”

Think about it: every time you say “I love you” to somebody — even if it’s to your own self — you are giving them God. Every time someone says “I love you,” they are giving God to you.

This means that every time you fall in love, you are immersing yourself into God — ever more deeply into God. 

I once heard a spiritual teacher say that a true mystic is someone who falls in love at least three times a day. I had another teacher, a few years later, who used to instruct her students to look for at least three miracles every day. I think these two are related. Fall in love — manifest a miracle.

Okay, the point here is not that we all need to be finding three new boyfriends or girl-friends every day! That’s not what my teacher meant, nor is it what I’m trying to say now.

“Falling in love” is bigger than just “Finding a Sweetheart.”

Falling in Love is something we can do with the sky, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars and the trees. I fall in love every time I see the ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico. I fall in love when I travel. I fall in love when I stay at home. I fall in love with my friends, over and over again.

And my wife! My wife — Fran — I fall in love with her, over and over again. Each and every day. Last Wednesday was our 26th Anniversary. And we are just getting started!

We can fall in love with works of art, with great poems or symphonies or songs, with movies and stories and legends. And don’t get me started on kittens… I do have a weak spot in my heart for kittens. My wife has to keep reminding me, “they do not all have to come home with us.”

Miracles All Around Us

Friends, take a moment and, if you are willing and able, please look at the person sitting next to you, to your left or right, in front of you or behind you. If it feels safe to do so, take a moment and gaze into their eyes. 

You are gazing into the eyes of love. Right here and right now. You are gazing into the face of God. You are gazing into a miracle, a miracle in human form.

And that miracle in human form is gazing into your love, your Divine Presence, your miraculous being. You are a Sacred Gift. You are a blessing. Right here, right now. You don’t have to earn it, or prove it, or make it. There is nothing that needs to be achieved or manifested. It just is. You just are, and you are surrounded by love and miracles.

Does this make you smile? I hope so, because the more I rest my heart and my joy in the miracles of love that surround me, the more I smile. The more I experience joy.

Which reminds of a powerful affirmation that comes down to us from a woman who lived in the 1300s in England.

Julian of Norwich: “The Fullness of Joy”

Julian was a 14th-century English visionary, a mystic who had powerful and life-changing visions of what she called “Divine Love.” In fact, her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, was the first book written by a woman in the English language, at least to our knowledge.

And what a message she had for us! What a joyful, affirmative collection of wisdom is found in her book. Right now I just want to focus on one such statement:

For the Fullness of Joy is to Behold God in all.

Let’s fall in love with this amazing statement, and discover what it promises for each of us.

Julian lived at the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer, so she wrote in Middle English which is difficult to read in our day; so scholars translate her writing into modern English. What’s interesting about this line is that it gets translated as 

For the Fullness of Joy is to Behold God in all.

but it also sometimes gets translated as 

For the Fullness of Joy is to Behold God in everyone.

Friends, let’s take a moment and let these words of wisdom from over 600 hundred years ago sink in. As you know, I’m here today as a guest preacher so I’m a beginner when it comes to Unity — but based on my knowledge of Unity teachings, I think this wisdom from Julian of Norwich would fit right in. This may seem second nature to many of you, but I think we cannot hear this often enough.

Julian of Norwich beheld God in everyone because God IS IN everyone.

And she wasn’t the only Christian mystic who recognized this, either.

Epiphany on a Street Corner

In our own time, one of the most celebrated of Catholic spiritual writers was a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton. Merton lived in a monastery in Kentucky and became famous for his wisdom teachings. One of the most fascinating stories about Thomas Merton involves a mystical awakening that happened to him one day in the spring of 1958. He was in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, there to run an errand for the Monastery. And while he was there, he received a moment of enlightenment, and he said that when this happened, he was standing on a busy street corner, and he fell in love with everyone he saw.

Here I am suggesting we should fall in love three times a day, and depending on how crowded that street corner was, he fell in love with 20, 30, 50, maybe even a hundred people, all at once!

And why did he fall in love with them? Well, he wasn’t quite as bold as Julian of Norwich was — but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty clear what he was trying to say. When he wrote about what happened to him (in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), asks this question: “How do you tell people that they are all walking around, shining like the sun?”

He also suggests that if everyone could see what he saw, and now I quote him directly, he wrote:

If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…”

He goes on to proclaim, 

“the pure glory of God [is] in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…”

He ends up by declaring, “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

The ideas of Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton — and there others, names like Meister Eckhart, Jan Ruysbroeck, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, and many others — these great wisdom teachers of the past, none of whom are household names today, they represent the HEART of true Catholic, and Christian, and western spirituality. And their message is a message of love, of hope, of healing, of interior transformation, and of joy — all because it is grounded in the unshakeable conviction that God is present everywhere, in all things, and in all people — and that each and every one of us is a walking manifestation of that Divine Presence, capable of bringing Divine Love, Divine Light, and Divine Healing, literally to everyone we meet.

That is the heart of the wisdom tradition that is known as Christian mysticism. And, sad to say, it does not get taught in most neighborhood churches.

But back to Julian and her profound teaching about Divine Love and beholding God in all.

Lo and Behold!

I’d like to focus on this word “beholding.” It’s not a word we hear too much in the English language any more, except perhaps when your grandmother says “Lo and Behold,” which is an idiom that basically means “surprise, surprise, surprise!” 

The only other time most of us hear the word behold is at Christmastime. We all know what the angel says to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

But what does this word behold really mean? At its most basic level, it is simply a fancy synonym for the word “Look.” The angel could just as easily have said “Look!”

And I bet you didn’t know this: but when we say “Lo and behold” — did you know that the word “Lo” is basically a shortened form of the verb “Look”?

The word behold has a much richer sense than merely to look, or to see. If I say “I behold” you, I’m not just saying “I look at you” or “I see you.” The hold part of behold means just what you think it means. Like the old wedding phrase “to have and to hold” — so when I say “I behold you,” I’m really saying “I embrace you.” I embrace you with my eyes — that’s the looking part — but I also embrace with my heart. And with my soul.

“The fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” We are invited not just to “look” at God, like God is a sight to see. That would imply separation! Like I could say “I look at Reverend Jenn” — she’s over there, and I’m here. But when I say “I behold God,” I’m not just looking at something out there — I’m embracing something in here. I’m embracing the Divine within. 

And so with Julian of Norwich, when we say “the fullness of joy is to behold God in all,” we are not only affirming the Divine presence in all people, we are embracing that presence, holding it — in our eyes, in our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies. And out of that embrace flows love — for hey, God is love — and out of that love, miracles happen.

The Wisdom of Evagrius

Before I conclude, I’d like to touch very briefly on one other point that I think shows how Unity and Christian mysticism actually have a lot in common. When I was preparing this message, naturally I wanted to learn a little bit about Unity, so I did a little bit of research and I discovered “UNITY’S FIVE BASIC PRINCIPLES.” As I meditated on those, I was struck by this principle: “We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.” 

What impressed me about this principle was how similar it is to a basic teaching of Christian mysticism that goes back all the way to the third century.

So I imagine most of you have heard of the so-called “Seven deadly sins.” Now, I know that Unity does not focus on the notion of sin. Unity affirms healing and creativity and abundance, and therefore dismisses “sin” as basically an erroneous way of thinking.

Well, believe it or not, as a student of Christian mysticism, I am comfortable with focus on thought rather than on sin. Let me tell you why.

Before Pope Gregory, back in the sixth century, came up with his idea of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” there was an earlier teacher named Evagrius, from the third century. It was from Evagrius’s teachings that Pope Gregory came up with this notion of deadly sins. But believe it or not, Evagrius never talked about deadly sins Rather, what he emphasized was the importance of letting go of what has been called the Eight Afflictive Thoughts.

Yes, that’s right. If you go back to the third century, you can find the mystical tradition in early Christianity insisting that the heart of the spiritual life consists of letting go of negative thinking that holds us back and that afflicts us with unhealthy, dualistic perspectives.

So it seems to me that when the founders of Unity began to teach about the formative power of thought, they were simply reclaiming and restoring an ancient wisdom teaching, that unfortunately had gotten lost over the centuries.

God is love. The fullness of joy is to behold God in all. The first step into a spiritually abundant life is letting go of unhealthy, limiting, negative thoughts.

It sounds like Unity and Christian mysticism have a lot in common indeed. No wonder Bishop Spong was so positive in his praise for Unity.

Giving the Message at Unity Atlanta, June 30, 2019. Photo by Freda Steward.

Eight Pagan Books (by a Christian Author)

In my book Unteachable Lessons I tell how I spent a period of time estranged from Christianity — the faith I was brought up in, and the faith I adhere to now. But for a period of time in my  middle adult years, I explored a variety of new religious movements that are inspired by the old pagan religions of Europe and other areas. These new movements go by a variety of names: Paganism, Neopaganism, Wicca, Goddess spirituality, Druidism, Celtic Reconstructionism… there are others, but these are the paths that I explored.

While on this “Pagan journey” I wrote a number of books that explored this alternative spiritual world from a variety of perspectives. These were all published between 2001 and 2005. When I wrote these books, I thought that I was a “former Christian” — but the time came when I yearned to be reconnected with Christ and the Christian community. So after a fair amount of soul searching, long conversations with friends, and several sessions with a therapist, I began to re-integrate myself into the church, a process that ultimately led to my family and I becoming Catholic, and I becoming a Lay Cistercian (a layperson under the spiritual guidance of Cistercian monks).

Time often offers us a new perspective on the choices we made in the past. When I look back now on my interest in Paganism, I realize that much of my motivation had to do with seeking a mystical form of spirituality—more than what I was finding in the churches I attended at the time. I chafed against the prosaic religion of my childhood and early adult years, and sought a more embodied, more sensual, more experiential way of nurturing my soul. For a time, Paganism seemed to be what I was looking for.

There were many things I loved about Paganism, including its recognition that the earth is sacred, that nature can be a wise spiritual teacher, and that the Divine has both a feminine as well as a masculine dimension. Eventually, when I realized that Paganism really wasn’t where I belonged, I went on to explore the spiritual heritage of Christianity more thoroughly, including its contemplative, mystical, monastic, and Celtic dimensions. In doing so, I discovered that everything I wanted from Paganism I was able to find in the spiritual heart of Christianity.

Recognizing this, when I look back at the books I wrote about Paganism, I see in my writing the voice of an alienated Christian trying to find his way, rather than the voice of a convinced Neopagan. In saying this, it is not my intent to criticize Paganism or my many friends who remain Pagan. Indeed, one of the lasting gifts I received from the Pagan community was a recognition that respecting other faiths in no way diminishes one’s own. I am a better Christian for having spent time hanging out with the Pagans. And I am more capable of doing real interfaith exploration with my friends who are Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim (as well as other faiths), thanks to having been a “temporary Pagan” when I was younger.

So is it fair to say these “Pagan books” are by a “Christian author”? At the time I wrote them I might have disagreed, but now I think that’s a fair assessment. When I wrote these books, I was still motivated by Christian perspectives on community, ethics, spirituality, and worship, even if only subconsciously. One of the many things I’ve learned as an author is that even the most carefully written book always seems to have something to say in addition to whatever the author may have consciously intended. For me, these books carry the “hidden” message that when a Christian explores non-Christian spirituality, he or she will generally bring at least some Christian ways of thinking along for the ride.

Are these books worth reading? Well, that’s up to you. If you are a Christian interested in Paganism (or, for that matter, a Pagan interested in Christianity) then you might find these books insightful. For that matter, anyone interested in interfaith dialogue and interspirituality might enjoy several of these books. And I hope that they remain relevant even to people who only wish to learn about, or practice, Pagan spirituality. But that’s for the reader to decide.

The last time I checked, most of these books are now out of print, although used copies are generally available online and several are available as e-books. If you’d like to read them, I’ve provided links to help you find copies.


 

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess (2001)

This book was written in the late 1990s, when I was an Episcopalian struggling to make sense of my profound sense of interest in, and spiritual connection to, the Goddess spirituality of our time. I wrote the book especially for those who want to “maintain a light, spacious relationship” with both Goddess-centered and Christian forms of spirituality. But even beyond that, it calls for religious tolerance, goodwill and hospitality for all spiritual seekers of any path or faith tradition.

The book is written in a style similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ — in other words, it’s light on theology, and mostly just articulates my wish that someone could explore both traditions if they so desired. I compared Christianity to the music of Bach, and Goddess worship to a rainbow-family-style drum circle. I didn’t see why a person couldn’t enjoy both equally. It was a sweet sentiment, if not necessarily a very compelling argument. Still, I’ve received plenty of letters over the years from readers who have found this book meaningful.

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess is out of print and no ebook version is currently available. You can search for used copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu.

The Well-Read Witch

The Well-Read Witch (2002)

I’m a book nerd. When I realize I’m interested in a new topic, the first thing I want to do is buy an armload of books about it. I first became interested in Neopaganism and Goddess spirituality when an old High School friend suggested I read Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Religion of the Great Goddess. From then on I read book after book on the topic, years before I actually mustered up the courage to seek out other Pagans and actually attend Pagan events or gatherings.

From 1997 to 2001 I worked for the New Leaf Company, a major wholesaler/distributor of mind/body/spirit books and other products. New Leaf carried a vast selection of books on earth-based religion and spirituality: Wicca, witchcraft, and other forms of Neopaganism. This book arose out of my personal desire to learn about these religions and spiritualities, and the research I did, talking to priests and priestesses of various Pagan and Wiccan communities to discover which of the many books on earth spirituality were the most highly recommended and/or the most popular. In the end, over 400 books on some thirty different topics were reviewed in The Well-Read Witch, making it an annotated bibliography for a lifetime’s worth of Pagan-oriented reading material.

A friend of mine who was a Wiccan priestess chided me on the title. She thought only someone who had undergone an initiation ritual deserved to call themselves a “witch” (in the Pagan world, “witch” is a unisex term), and since I hadn’t had such an initiation, I had no right to even use the word in the title of a book I wrote. At the time, I thought she was being persnickety, but when I gave up on Paganism a few years later, her criticism suddenly made more sense to me. A more honest title for this book would be “A List of Books for People Who Want to Learn About Paganism” but that’s not very marketable, is it? So like it or not, The Well-Read Witch is what it is.

The Well-Read Witch is out of print in book form with no e-book version available. You can search for used copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu.

 

Guide to Paganism

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism (2002)

If Embracing Jesus and the Goddess was my way of saying “I like to explore Paganism” and The Well-Read Witch was me saying “Here’s how I’m going to do that exploring,” then my third Pagan book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism, was my way of saying “Okay, here’s what I’ve learned.”

Like all “Idiot’s Guides” this work is meant to be a simple but factual introduction to its topic, written in a playful, down-to-earth, and easy-to-read style. It was meant to be a positive, basic overview of the fast-growing world of earth-based and Goddess-oriented spirituality.

At the time I wrote this book I was studying with a local Wiccan group; in retrospect, this book suffers from over-emphasizing Wicca to the detriment of other forms of Paganism. Nowadays I think it is interesting primarily as a personal document: it shows what aspects of Paganism appealed to me. So I emphasize veneration of nature, appreciating mythology, and an ethic of nonviolence and earth care.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism is out of print in book form, but of course you can search for used copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu. It is, however, available as an e-book for the Kindle and the Nook.

When Someone You Love is Wiccan

When Someone You Love is Wiccan (2003)

Like the previous three books, this book continues my personal arc of exploring how Paganism was impacting my life. Specifically: how to tell my elderly parents that their son, who at one time was talking about becoming a Lutheran minister, was now exploring witchcraft and magic? After a particularly awkward conversation during a family visit, I realized “there should be a book about this” and When Someone You Love is Wiccan is the result.

When Someone You Love is Wiccan was an attempt to share my interest in Paganism not only with my family, but with anyone who might want to learn more about earth-based spirituality but without wanting to practice it for themselves. Concentrating on “mainstream” forms of Neopaganism like eclectic Wicca, the book aimed to dismantle stereotypes and misconceptions and instead build bridges of understanding.

I was horrified by the book’s cover art (like most authors, I pretty much have to accept the cover art that the publisher decides is best). I thought the cover art was designed to appeal to Pagans rather than to the non-Pagan readers I was writing for. Even now, if I were to choose one of my Pagan books to be reprinted/republished, this would be the one. But hopefully with a better design!

When Someone You Love is Wiccan is out of print in book form, but of course you can search for used copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu. It is, however, available as an e-book for the Kindle and the Nook.

Guide to Celtic Wisdom

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom (2003)

My first “Idiot’s Guide” sold well enough that the editor asked me if I’d like to write another one. I pitched a couple of ideas to her (one of them was on mysticism — which years later would blossom as The Big Book of Christian Mysticism), but the one she liked was Celtic spirituality.

Celtic spirituality — the spirituality of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and other Celtic lands — is a natural topic for someone interested in both Christianity and Paganism. After all, it was Christian monks who diligently preserved the mythology of the pagan Celts — writers from William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, down to John Moriarty and even John O’Donohue, have all been steeped in this colorful ancient mythology. Given my own Scottish ancestry, Celtic myth and religion were a strong draw for me when I explored Paganism, so it’s no surprise that this became the latest installment on my journey.

In my opinion, I did a much better job providing a survey of Celtic spirituality than I did the year previously with Paganism as a whole. In this book I look at how Celtic spirituality can be expressed in a variety of ways — and even included a chapter on Christianity.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom is out of print in book form, but of course you can search for used copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu. It is, however, available as an e-book for the Kindle and the Nook.

Before You Cast a Spell

Before You Cast a Spell (2004)

This book arose out of a conversation I had with several Wiccan and Pagan booksellers who were frustrated by the many beginners in the Wiccan/Pagan world who wanted to learn about magic and spells — while ignoring the spiritual and ethical dimensions of magical religion. In retrospect, I believe writing Before You Cast a Spell represented the beginning of my journey from Paganism back to a primarily Christian identity, for in it I argue that ethics, personal responsibility, and choosing to be happy and empowered, are all ultimately more important than magic. But even though the book marks my own personal spiritual turning point, it has been warmly embraced by many teachers and elders within the Pagan community, and won a prestigious national award from the Coalition of Visionary Resources (the trade association for new age and metaphysical businesses) as the “Best Magic Book” of 2004.

Before You Cast a Spell is out of print in book form, but of course you can search for used copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu. It is, however, available as an e-book for the Kindle and the Nook.

Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses

Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses (with Kathryn Hinds) (2005)

Kathryn Hinds was on the editorial team of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom; she and I moved in the same social circles here in Georgia. Having had a good experience working together on that book, we co-conspired to put together another project. Because her Wiccan coven was structured about Welsh mythology, and my interest was primarily in Irish myth, we thought it might be fun to write a devotional book about the various gods and goddesses of the Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic traditions. The publisher agreed, and this book is the result.

Collaborating with Kathryn was a delightful experience. We divided the work, so each chapter in the book is primarily written by one of us — with the other one reading and offering editorial feedback. Because of Kathryn’s professionalism and editorial acumen, I believe this book represents the best writing I did of all my Pagan-themed books. That’s a bittersweet statement to make, for it’s also my Pagan swan song, for within six months of finishing it I had begun to cut my ties to the Pagan community. Nevertheless, I still think this book provides a useful (and positive) overview of how Neopagan Celtic spirituality can be practiced in today’s world.

Kathryn passed away in 2018. Even though our spiritual paths diverged, I count it a great joy to have worked with such a fine writer, editor, and all-around wonderful human being.

Update: a new edition of this book, with a new title — The Spirit of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses — will be published in the summer of 2020.

Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses can be purchased either new or used by following one of these links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu. It is also available as an e-book for the Kindle and the Nook. Better yet, order the 2020 reprint, which you can find on Amazon or Indiebound. New cover, slightly different title, but the same book.

 

366 Celt

366 Celt (2005)

Written more or less concurrently with Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses, this book provides a more nuanced glimpse into my personal spiritual development, as someone who had identified with Paganism but now was slowly beginning to recognize within myself the desire to return to the Christian faith. If Embracing Jesus and the Goddess chronicles my entry into Paganism, 366 Celt — a series of brief daily meditations on a variety of Celtic-themed topics — details the other end of that seven year journey. The end result? A book that, I hope, could be of use to all seekers of Celtic wisdom, whether Christian or Pagan.

At the suggestion of the book’s editor, a decade later I revised it (and ultimately largely rewrote it) to make a more Christian-centered book, An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom. While that latter book reveals where my journey took me, 366 Celt is a devotional statement of where my journey had taken me in the past.

366 Celt can be purchased either new or used by following one of these links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through ISBN.nu. You can also purchase a copy directly from me.

 

At the Atlanta Celtic Festival a few years back…

After All That…

In 2005 my family and I were received into the Catholic Church and that fall I began working at the monastery where eventually I would become a Lay Associate. I thought I was done with professional writing — but in 2007 the editor who had worked with me on Embracing Jesus and the Goddess and 366 Celt called me and asked for a new proposal. I explained that I was no longer writing about Paganism, but his reply was to ask for a proposal based on my current interests. So I went back to the idea I had developed five years earlier — for an introductory book on Christian mysticism — revised the proposal to bring it in line with my current thinking on the topic, and sent it in. Within just a few months, I had a contract offer to publish what would become The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Miann: The Ardent Desire for God

I’m preparing for a retreat I’ll be leading in Scotland next month, and so I’m reading a book called Island Spirituality: Spiritual Values of Lewis and Harris by Alastair McIntosh. In the book, he tells of a conversation he had with a Free Church (Presbyterian) pastor named Rev. Calum MacDonald.

We sat down over a cup of tea in their living room. Calum was in his rough and ready working clothes as the croft runs by the church. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he said: ‘The old people of the island often say that there is only one quality in the human heart that the Devil cannot counterfeit.’
I looked at him with eyebrows raised. ‘The Devil?’
‘Yes. I’ve heard it several times. The old people in this community would say that there’s only one thing he cannot fake.’
‘And what is that?’
‘We call it in the Gaelic, the miann. M-i-a-n-n.’
“Mee-an,” I said, trying to get his pronunciation, always embarrassed at my lack of Gaelic. ‘And what does that mean?’
‘You could translate it as ardent desire,’ he said. ‘Specifically, the ardent desire for God.
‘The one thing in the human heart that the Devil cannot counterfeit is the ardent desire for God.’

Now, whether you think the devil is real or is merely a mythical symbol for the reality of evil, is beside the point. Let’s just take some time and get to know this delicious Gaelic word, miann.

The tagline for my book Answering the Contemplative Call is: “In every heart there is a place of infinite longing.” I could just as easily have written “In every heart there is infinite miann.” This also calls to mind the famous quote from Saint Augustine: “You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

The “God-shaped hole” in our hearts is where our miann resides. It is the longing, the desire, the eros for God. Many people ignore this longing, or perhaps have invested so much energy into their desire for money, sex, power, fame, approval, or whatever, that they have all but forgotten about the God-shaped hole in their hearts.

But I believe it is always there.

In fact, I believe the miann in our hearts is evidence for how much God longs for us. Our longing for God is a grace — a gift from God; a gift that is meant to be the mirror-image of God’s longing for us.

As I wrote in Answering the Contemplative Call:

The longing we sense for God is a gift given to us by God, out of God’s longing for us. God desires us and gives us sehnsucht as a way of calling to us. Our yearning for God is a mirror image of God’s yearning for us. But we are the mirror—the yearning starts with God and arises within us as a response.

Sehnsucht is a German word for longing; C. S. Lewis uses it to describe a kind of poignant longing that seems almost painful — and yet it would be unimaginable not to have this longing. It would be more painful to be devoid of this longing, than to experience it even if it seems unfulfilled.

So is miann the same things as sehnsucht? Since I am not fluent either in German or in Gaelic, I can’t really say. For what its worth, Google translate renders miann as “a desire” and sehnsucht as “nostalgia” (but if offers alternative translations: longing, yearning, desire, hankering).

What I find particularly interesting about the passage quoted from Alastair McIntosh is this notion that the devil cannot counterfeit miann. To put that in less mythical language, miann — the ardent desire for God — cannot be faked. It can only arise out of the heart of authenticity.

Miann brings us home to who we truly are. Creatures of love and longing, created to desire the loving God who desires us.

I don’t know about you, but I find this thought to be nothing less than beautiful.