Charismatic Mysticism

shutterstock_88010986“Do Gifts of the Spirit, especially those like tongues, have any connection with mysticism? Historically, theologically, experientially, in connection with the Divine… If so, in what way, and if not, why not?”

A few months back, I asked folks on Facebook if they had any questions they would like me to address on my blog. Here is what a person named Anna wrote in reply:

Well – this was a question I asked when I was on my silent retreat in a very small Christian ashram in South India last year (I’m back there in a couple of days). I spent most of my retreat in silent meditation, prayer, yoga, reading Christian and other mystics – and walking meditations. After a while of walking and repeating my mantra as a centring prayer, I found myself, totally unconsciously, gradually starting to pray in tongues… my question is — do Gifts of the Spirit, especially those like tongues, have any connection with mysticism? (historically, theologically, experientially, connection with the Divine) If so, in what way, and if not, why not? My spiritual journey over the last few years has taken me into some very unexpected places, with a much deeper awareness of the Cosmic Christ, and I’m wanting to explore those places, while still testing the truth of them. I’d really appreciate some of your thoughts. In fact that also leads to my time last Sunday, when I was nowhere near a church in India and happened to be in a remote area with a Hindu temple within a cave. I found it to be a prayerful place and spent some of my Sunday morning praying there – but I know that some of my friends would be horrified if I told them!

Anna, first of all, my apologies for taking almost four months to reply! I’ve had a busy schedule, and your question is so rich that I wanted to make sure I had time to give it the response it deserves.

First of all, you probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: this blog is a safe space for both intentional interfaith dialogue/interspirituality, and deep exploration of the Christian mysteries. While not all contemplatives are interfaith (nor all interfaith folks necessarily contemplative), I am convinced that interspirituality and diving deep within one’s “home” faith tradition are complementary spiritual practices that can profoundly support each other.

In other words, if you want to give yourself totally to Christ and Christ’s mysteries, and you want to drink the nourishing waters of compassion and joy found in other wisdom traditions, it is possible to do both, and find that each of these spiritual intentions is a blessing to the other.

And (alas) I know all about friends being horrified. I have friends who are horrified at my interfaith exploration, and friends that are horrified at my devotion to Christ. I see it as part of my spiritual practice to be open and authentic with my friends, and to respond to their fear and disapproval with compassion, love and forgiveness. Some days I’m better at it than others, but I have a very strong sense of that as part of my vocation as a follower of Christ.

But let’s look at your question.

“Do Gifts of the Spirit, especially those like tongues, have any connection with mysticism?

The short answer is “Of course!” Gifts of the Spirit have everything to do with mysticism. Mysticism is to “mystery” what spirituality is to the Holy Spirit. For Christians, spirituality means receiving, acknowledging, and seeking to live by, the presence of the in-dwelling Spirit in our hearts and lives. Likewise, Christian mysticism is the invitation for Christians to embrace, and embody, “the mystery of Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27) — a mystery is something hidden, so that the sacraments are “mysteries” in which God’s grace is “hidden” within ceremonies involving water, or bread and wine; likewise, the mystery of Christ is the recognition that Christ is truly present in our hearts, even if “hidden” below the threshold of our conscious awareness. We know this is true by virtue of the witness of scripture: we are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26); we are the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27); we have the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16).

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think we could even say that the mystical life tends toward contemplative prayer: the prayer of waiting, of resting, of deep attentive silence, whereas the spiritual (Spirit-filled) life tends toward charismatic prayer: prayer that is joyous, effusive, devotional, prophetic, and even ecstatic (e.g., tongues). Let me say it again: this is an oversimplification. I don’t think there is a hard-and-fast division between contemplative and charismatic forms of prayer or spirituality. Just as the Trinitarian nature of God means that each person of the Trinity dances together and co-inheres with one another, so too the different styles or dimensions of prayer/spirituality “dance” and “co-inhere” with each other. Differences between charismatic and contemplative expressions of spirituality are differences of degree, not of kind.

It is perfectly possible for a devout, practicing Christian to be contemplative without any experience of charismatic gifts. And it’s just as possible to be a charismatic Christian without any sense of being called into the deep silence of contemplation. But in my experience, many people drink from both wells. Maybe at different seasons of their lives, depending on their needs and the specifics of God’s call in their life. But it’s also possible that a Christian enjoy both the restful silence of contemplation and the exuberant joyfulness of charismatic worship as complementary dimensions of  one faith in the Triune God.

You asked about historical expressions of charismatic mysticism. This post is already getting long-ish, so I’ll just mention two names for you to explore further: Symeon the New Theologian (an 11th century Eastern Orthodox mystic) and St. Francis of Assisi — both of whom are renowned as mystics, but whose life story shows evidence that they enjoyed a charismatic style of prayer.

Experientially, I think it varies from person to person as I have suggested. Anna, your experience — of glossolalia emerging out of centering prayer — is not the same for everyone, but I’m sure it’s not unique to you either. Off the top of my head I don’t remember that happening in my life, but it may have. Praying in tongues is not a frequent part of my spirituality, but it does show up from time to time and when it does it’s lovely. It comes and it goes. Is that normal? Who knows what is “normal” in the vast plenitude of God’s grace? But it seems normal enough for me.

I’m not sure that I’m qualified to make a theological statement about the relationship between contemplation and charismatic prayer, beyond what I’ve already said. As for the connection with the Divine — well, both mystical and charismatic spirituality emerge out of God’s presence in our lives, so I think “connection with the Divine” is at the heart of both.

Contemplation and the Charismatic Renewal
Contemplation and the Charismatic Renewal

One more thought. A while back, Paulist Press published a book called Contemplation and the Charismatic Renewal which looked at pastoral issues involving the encounter between silent and ecstatic forms of spirituality. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting. Follow the link in the title if you’d like to order a used copy (it’s out of print now, but used copies are inexpensive).

I hope this is helpful. Thanks, again, for such a rich question!

Is charismatic prayer part of your spiritual life? If so, how does it integrate with your contemplative practice?  Please share your experience, either as a comment on my website or on social media. Thank you!

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


  1. Thank you for this reflection. I find it intriguing that it has popped up right now as I have recently been musing on the subject. I ‘grew’ up as a Christian in a wonderful and healthy Charismatic church. ( after an evangelical ‘ born again’experience).
    Then I was led into Centering prayer. And I was happy for the calm quiet silence of just sitting in the presence of the Holy. I attended seminary , and sadly , feel the academic study quenched the Spirit in some ways. Charismatics were not well regarded there. But contemplative prayer was ok, though not central to other more practical expressions of faith. Anyway I was graced with the gift of tongues in my ‘ baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and never stopped praying in this gift in my personal prayer life. Some seasons I am moved to pray in tongues more than others. It IS a language as the same words and phrases are always in the praying, even all these years later. Recently I have become more oriented to Centering prayer once again, and joined a group. What is relevant to your post is that as I practice centering prayer more faithfully I am finding the inspiration arising to pray in tongues more frequently. I thought I had ‘grown up out’of the Charismatic expression of faith into a more contemplative form of worship, but lately I even find that I am longing for some good old joyful singing, hand clapping and hand raising . So I am beginning to think there is a definite correspondance between contemplative and charismatic.

    1. Jenny, I suspect there are quite a few of us “charismatic contemplatives” out there! It’s sad that often communities that are safe with one of these dimensions of spirituality are indifferent or hostile to the other, and I recognize that there are often theological, philosophical, social and political reasons behind this divide. But since I believe it is the nature of Christ to bring reconciliation into the world, I’m eager to find whatever healthy ways are available for us to reconcile charismatic exuberance with contemplative serenity. They really can both happily co-exist in the same person — or even (I believe) in the same community.

  2. I have no idea if this will speak to the issues you raised, but it may be of interest.

    Ronald Nixon was born in England in 1895. A science prodigy of sorts as a child, he became disenchanted with the fruits of science as a fighter pilot in World War I. He became interested in Buddhism and Theosophy and went to Lucknow University as an English professor, where he was blackballed by the British for befriending the Indian students.

    He came to realize that the wife of the vice chancellor was a woman of great mystical attainment (also a woman of great poise and beauty; mobbed by a crowd in Rome who took her to be an appearance of the Virgin Mary), and when she retired to the Himalayas to found an Ashram, he renounced all to follow her.

    Given the name Krishna Prem, he was the first Westerner ever accepted into the devotional “Vaishnava” order. He also had a first rate philosophic mind, and was deeply contemplative. He had friends of the quiet, contemplative yogic persuasion whose reactions varied from embarrassment to horror when they saw him leap up during devotional singing, and dance in ecstasy until he fainted and fell to the ground.

    He was also widely recognized as one of the few westerners who penetrated to the contemplative depths of the Indian tradition. He wrote some of the most profound commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and Katha Upanishad. He was described by the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi as “a rare combination of jnani [contemplative] and bhakta [ecstatic devotee.]

    I myself have both tendencies; I love the ecstatic devotionalism of the charismatic movement and the quiet, profound peace of the contemplative. Over the past 41 years since I first discovered Krishna Prem, i have always drawn solace from the fact that he was so completely at home in both worlds.

  3. Thank you Anna for the question, and Carl for your thoughtful response. My own journey with Christian spirituality began in the 70’s with the charismatic movement. What an exciting and deeply transformational time. Gradually I began to feel a missing element, which I stumbled upon while visiting a Benedictine monastery-hence my own movement into a more contemplative spirituality. Now, 20 yrs later, I have recently felt drawn back to “Praying in the Spirit”- particularly as I am driving or jogging or doing something more active, To be given this “back and forth dance” between the two is a sign to me of the generosity and graciousness of God. I still lean more into my contemplative practices– and am trying to let the Holy Spirit be my guide in striking the balance.

  4. Dear Carl, greetings in the name of the “HOLY TRINITY”, i think you have answered the difficult question of, CONTEMPLATIO and CHARISM, very well, the “SPIRIT OF GOD” guides us into all truth, even in those moments when we are not aware of this happening. There is no division between the “GIFTS” of the HOLY SPIRIT, and the RECEPTION of the HOLY SPIRIT. God go with you today, FR. Paul.

  5. Hello, I have just happened across this interesting website and thought I would share a spiritual practice which I am involved in as it contains aspects of mysticism, contemplation, gifts of the Spirit as in speaking in tongues and is interfaith. I am a Christian and practice surrender towards God along with people from many other faiths. Through this surrender we experience inner cleansing, movement and voice and gradually come into a state of greater awareness of our motivations in our lives. We believe that we are receiving what Christians call the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other faiths it might be called something else but essentially it is the manifestation of the love and power of God or the Creative or Divine Life Force. Some people have unusual experiences and revelations while most experience the changes as a gradual deepening of their true humanity. This spiritual practice is called Subud and you can read about it on It is a spiritual experience, not a religion which I believe has brought me closer to experiencing a direct contact with the grace of God and has deepened my understanding of God’s will in my life.

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