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

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

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

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

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

Why “Religion” Has Become a Trigger Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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