How Mysticism is Unique — and Universal

One Light... Many Candles...
One Light… Many Candles…

How, exactly, does Christian mysticism relate to all the other “mysticisms” of the world (Kabbalah, Sufism, Taoism, Vedanta, Zen, etc.)?

A reader of this blog writes:

I have been reading your Big Book of Christian Mysticism: on page 64 you say that “Ultimately … no absolutely clear distinction can be drawn between Christian and non-Christian mysticism.” This concerns me, because you *do* seem to say in other parts of the book that there *is* a clear distinction between the two (for one, Christian mysticism is practiced “in Christ,” and while Eastern forms of mysticism seek to empty the mind, Christian is a ‘thinking’ form of meditation [pg. 218]). So, did you come to a different conclusion while writing the book, or would you still hold that Christian and non-Christian mysticism are basically the same?

Thank you for your question. I think the issue really has to do with the distinction between “Christian mysticism” as a unique expression of Christian spirituality, and “mysticism” as a more general term referring to deep spirituality regardless of its context. To parse out that distinction, let’s look at prayer.

Any religious or faith tradition that believes in one or more gods will involve some sort of prayer — that is to say, efforts to communicate with the deity. Jews pray, Christians pray, Muslims pray, Hindus pray, theistically-minded new agers pray, even some Wiccans and other pagans pray, depending on their understanding of deity.

So prayer is an element of spirituality that transcends religious identity. And certainly there are deep similarities between say, Christian prayer and Jewish prayer. But there are also profound differences. Christians pray in, through and to Christ, while Jews and Muslims do not. Each tradition has its own language and literature of prayer, and while there is some overlap (both Christians and Jews pray the Psalms, for example) there is also much that is unique to each tradition.

And when you consider the difference between the religious traditions founded on Abrahamic monotheism, and other traditions (like Hinduism), the language, practice, and theology of prayer becomes even more varied. So much so that many Christians might not feel comfortable participating in a Hindu puja.

So is prayer a universal human activity (or near-universal, since non-theists do not pray) — or is prayer merely an umbrella term for a variety of human religious activities, many of which are incompatible at a fairly deep level? Different people with different values will answer this question differently, but I think it’s a “both/and,” not an “either/or” scenario. Prayer is universal, and prayer is varied. Both are true.

The same holds for mysticism. On one level, mysticism is an umbrella term for the spiritual heart of all the world’s great spiritual and religious traditions, holding that at their heart — at a level deeper than cultural or mythological or cognitive expression, mysticism points to something universal, nondual, inclusive, and unifying, a deep place of spiritual expression where love marginalizes dogma, compassion trumps cultural identity, and unity matters more than the human capacity to judge others.

On the other hand, Christian mysticism is not the same thing as Zen, or Sufism, or Kabbalah, or any of the other great “mystical traditions” in the world. and to say that they are the same is to be willfully ignorant of the many teachings and values that define differences between the traditions.

As I write these words, I recognize that many readers of this blog will be more comfortable with the “all mysticism is the same” perspective, while others will be more comfortable with the “each mysticism is unique” perspective. Wherever you may fall on this continuum, I invite you to consider that this is yet another mystical paradox, and that both of these perspectives have a deep truth to them — even though, on the surface, they seem contradictory.

So Christian mystics anchor their faith in Jesus Christ, and the other mysticisms of the world do not share that faith. That seems to be an irreconcilable difference. And yet, the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton regarded each other as brothers, finding a place where they could relate out of love and compassion, all0wing their cultural and religious differences to fall away. Love conquers all. And yet, when the Dalai Lama talks to Christians, he doesn’t tell them to become Buddhists or even interspiritualists; he encourages them to be good Christians.

Now, to directly answer your question: “did you come to a different conclusion while writing the book, or would you still hold that Christian and non-Christian mysticism are basically the same?”

I would still say that mysticism, in its most general sense, points to a place beyond cultural and religious identity where we recognize the unity of all humankind, the primacy of love, and the sanctity of all life. At the same time, I would still say that Christian mysticism refers to a distinctive expression of Christian spirituality, grounded in mystery and silence and joy, that embodies what St. Peter called “partaking of the Divine nature” and Christ’s insistence that we “abide in him as he abides in us”  (II Peter 1:4; John 15:4). Mysticism is universal; Christian mysticism is distinctive. Both are true. It’s a paradox.

To finish with a quote from the book: “as soon as you try to put it into your own words, mysticism unfolds itself into a variety of paradoxes and seemingly contradictory truths that leave you as confused and befuddled as ever.” (p. 25)

Sorry I can’t be any clearer than that. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

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


  1. I agree with you completely that it is more of a both/and. I have heard it said though, that the mystics of any faith have more in common with each other than a Christian mystic would have in common with a traditional, non-mystic Christian. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Thanks for your question, Beth. I really think it depends on the situation and the people involved. I’m deeply involved in the Christian world through my association with the monastery and my ministry, but I also have a number of meaningful interfaith relationships. In my experience, with other Christians I am more likely to experience conflict, but I think that’s just like I’m more likely to get into a fight with my brother than with my next door neighbor. I think it’s easier to go deep, really deep, with someone who speaks the same language I do, even though it’s lovely to form meaningful bonds of friendship and affiliation with those whose cultural matrix is different from mine. As for dealing with “non-mystics,” well, I guess I see the world differently: I think everyone is a mystic, because everyone has a place of mystery deep within them, what Merton called le point verge. Granted, not everyone recognizes or acknowledges that mystery! But even those who embrace the mystery often forget who they (we) are. So I try not to think of Christians as “mystics” or “non-mystics” and when I don’t get along with a Christian, I figure my job is to find ways to forgive and to love.

  2. We Christians tend toward our fears of the “unknowing” or the fear of falling, again. Even after God, the Incarnate Word, and the angels of God have repeatedly told us “Do not be afraid.” Mysticism is prayer of deep trust and an emptying the self (not so much the mind) which comes from letting go and letting the Groom lead the dance (“Come follow me.”)
    We also look for “greener grass”, or the fastest way to arrive, there is none. God is leading not only our dance but the band as well.
    Well, isn’t this way or that way better? Remember, as Aslan so often reminds different characters in “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “I am tell you your story, not” theirs. I tell no one any story but his own.”
    Trust in the “story” that is you, spoken by Christ in the silence of you heart, place you hand in his, and the other on his shoulder and follow. Reread Carl’s answer again it is well stated and practice, practice, practice, trusting in God’s Loving-kindness.

  3. I’m really only familiar with Centering Prayer, a Christian form of meditation that as I understand it, is aimed at opening awareness more fully to God and inviting God to do with me — change me — however God wishes. This seems quite different from the only other meditation approaches I know anything at all about from friends — which seem more like observing the mind or emptying the mind without any reference to God. Surely I’m missing lots of information, so welcome your corrections. (And if you say “well just read my book!” I’ll understand!)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Catherine. The first thing I would say is that mysticism is not the same thing as meditation. Meditation is a spiritual practice, while mysticism, speaking as a Christian, refers to the spirituality of union with God. As for how centering prayer — which is a form of Christian meditation — differs from other forms of meditation, you’re right on the money, because Christian meditation always begins with prayer: our response to God. Secular or many eastern forms of meditation do not concern themselves with prayer or union with God, so they tend to focus more on awareness or observation. I don’t think they are necessarily opposed to Christian forms of meditation, and I know Christians who practice Zen or mindfulness meditation. But certainly at least in terms of intent, there is a clear difference between meditation-as-prayer and meditation-as-self-inquiry.

  4. If I were to say that mysticism were a means to an end, then each form of mysticism would take me to a separately unique end, not a unified one. If the Dalai Lama’s expression of mysticism (or Zen, etc.) does not lead me toward an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, then I don’t understand the relevance of mysticism as you’ve expressed in this post

    I find the mystical approach to a vibrant faith in the living Christ to be so extraordinarily helpful, and your books in particular are such an exceptional expression and form of instruction to that end. But couldn’t some of the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels be considered “dogma” and “judgmental” (e.g”. . . .No one comes to the Father except through me” – John 14:6).

    I do not mean to be contentious or combative, though I’m certain many will think my comments are. But even mysticism as an expression of worship must submit to the expressed will of Christ, shouldn’t it?

    1. Phil, can you really say that “each form of mysticism would take me to a separately unique end, not a unified one”? I know that was C. S. Lewis’ position, so you’re not alone — but I think the subjective nature of religious practice necessarily means that no one can definitively say whether mystical spirituality takes us to a common destination or a variety of separate destinations. And, even if you and Lewis are right, that still does not make non-Christian forms of mysticism irrelevant. Surely you do not begrudge the world the wisdom that comes from sources other than Christianity? Secular science, the mathematical genius of the Arabs, the political and philosophical wisdom of pagan Greece: there are many contributions to the common core of human wisdom that come from sources other than the Gospel. So even if you consider Christian mysticism superior to all other forms of spirituality, that hardly makes other traditions “irrelevant.”

      As for “No one comes to the father but through me” — John 14:6, the single verse most often quoted by Christians who are uncomfortable with interreligious dialogue, in my experience — while it certainly can (and does) get used as a “clobber verse” to attack interfaith engagement, nowhere in that verse is Jesus explicitly saying it’s wrong for Christians to study, learn from, or even practice, spiritual exercises with non-Christian origins. To make that conclusion is to project ideas onto Jesus that he simply didn’t address. One could just as easily make the argument that, because Jesus declared “no one comes to the father but through me,” then Christians have an obligation to become as deeply engaged with other faiths as we possibly can, in the interest of introducing Jesus to those who have pre-existing alternative spiritual identities.

      I think John 14:6 must always, always, always be understood in the light of “love your neighbor” (and even, if we must go there, “love your enemy”). I for one consider Buddhists and Muslims and Jews, etc. to be my neighbors, not my enemies (unless of course they were hostile to me, but that does not necessarily follow from any one religious practice). But even if they *were* my enemies, I’m still commanded to love them. I think it’s very difficult to love someone if we simply see them as a target for proselytization or as somehow “inferior” to us because their faith differs from our own. Yes, we are instructed to teach, and baptize, and make disciples, but you can’t force someone to be a disciple, so that’s a commandment to receive the ones who the Holy Spirit sends to us, right? Meanwhile, if we truly take a genuine interest in the culture and wisdom and spiritual practice of those who differ from us, with no hidden agenda, what a powerful witness that is: when we say “we love our neighbors,” we mean it.

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