The summer after I graduated from high school, a scary dream and a book changed my life.
One Saturday night, I had a nightmare about the world coming to an end. It was filled with imagery straight out of the Bible — darkness at noon, stars falling from the sky — and my own sense of foreboding that the day of judgment was at hand, but I was not ready.
Nowadays I can say, “Of course the world felt like it was about to end — I was getting ready to move 200 miles from home to go to college.”
But at the time, my nightmare filled me with plenty of teenage angst. So I turned to my friend and mentor David, whom I knew from church, and told him all about it. His response was to say, “I have a book I think you ought to read,” and he handed me a small paperback copy of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness.
I didn’t read all 500 pages of it that summer, although it’s a book I have gone on to read multiple times. I did read enough to discover not only that David was right — it was a book that I needed to read. But I also discovered a rich and wondrous world of spirituality and wisdom that no one at my church had ever told me about, thanks to Evelyn Underhill.
That world is the world of Christian mysticism — something I now describe as Christianity’s best-kept secret.
I had heard the world “mystic” before; an English teacher described the poet William Blake as a mystic, meaning that he could see visions of angels. I knew that people existed who claimed all sorts of spiritual powers or abilities, from faith healing to clairvoyance to fortune telling. But all this stuff seemed exotic or maybe even a bit unsavory, better suited for a carnival sideshow than a church service. I was already a veteran of the charismatic renewal of Christianity, having spoken in tongues and experiencing a joyful sense of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
But nobody ever pointed out to me that a tradition of Christians, from every century since Biblical times to the present day, had embraced a beautiful and life-changing spirituality, based not on supernatural experiences (although such weirdness sometimes would show up) but rather on a profound interior transformation that wove together silence, prayer, meditation, contemplation, and a profound willingness to trust the Bible at its word: that we are called not just to obey God, or even to worship and adore God, but to be partakers of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4) — in other words, to be one with God.
And such Divine union and communion began in love, led to love, and resulted in a new way of seeing, of thinking, of functioning in the world, a way marked by insight, by compassion, and — even in the darkest moments of life — by joy.
What moved me the most about Underhill’s study of mysticism was not just the boldness of its claims but the fact that mystics have always been with us. Some of the most renowned and respectable leaders of the Christian faith, like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Francis of Assisi, were more than just brilliant theologians or holy saints: they were mystics whose lives shimmered with the luminous radiance of God’s flowing love.
It’s been said that when you learn to see something in a new light, you can’t go back to seeing it the old way. Once a child learns to ride a bike, it’s a lifelong skill, barring some sort of trauma or neurological disease that gets in the way. Likewise, discovering the mystical spirituality hidden within Christian history has completely transformed my relationship to the church and its teachings.
Of course, Christianity has its “moral” component: we see how human beings hurt one another, and in Christ we find a source for healing and new life. But mysticism is like that point in an infomercial when the salesperson says “Wait, there’s more!” Indeed, there is more. There’s more than just feeling sorry for your sins. There’s more than just trusting in Jesus to save you. There’s more than just resolving to live a good life. Those are all good things, but without the mystical heart of Christianity, the “you need to repent of your sins” message can come across as fear-based and controlling.
No wonder so many people abandon Christianity, even after growing up in religious families. They’ve never been told about the “more.” Christian spirituality offers us a new way of seeing the world, a profoundly beautiful way to enjoy God’s presence in our hearts and our lives, and a set of wisdom teachings designed to help us pray more effectively, open our hearts more fully to God, and discover meaning and even happiness in every facet of life — even the difficult stuff.
Later, I learned that a great mystic, a Catholic monk named Thomas Merton, had lived not far from me. When I was in graduate school, I learned about an organization called Shalem, which sought to apply the wisdom of the great mystics to the lives of ordinary people, here and now. Later I discovered that other organizations with similar missions existed, like Contemplative Outreach and the World Community for Christian Meditation. I found out that many classic books by great mystics were being translated into English, some for the first time, and being published for the general public due to the influence of the Catholic Church’s Vatican II Council, which promoted the study of ancient wisdom.
Christian mysticism may be the church’s best kept secret, but it’s slowly becoming more and more available for ordinary people, just like you and me, who are hungry for God and who desire not just a “head trip” religion but a spirituality that transforms our hearts and our lives.
That’s what Christian mysticism is: a spirituality of profound and beautiful inner transformation that offers wisdom and instruction in how to pray in ways that open our hearts to the presence of God. It’s not a magic formula, of course — God, after all, is in charge, and anything we do is always in response to God’s love, to God’s call. Mysticism is not about having nifty spiritual “experiences” — it’s more down-to-earth than that. Mystical spirituality is about learning to behold the miracles from God that have always been present in our lives that we’ve been too busy, too distracted, or too cynical to notice.
Will you join me in learning to pay attention to God’s call in our lives? Using the wisdom of the great Christian mystics as our guide, let’s discover the secrets of contemplative prayer, of silent adoration, and of a life radically open to the love of God. This monthly column will draw on the teachings of the mystics, with an eye on how their wisdom can make a difference in our lives today. I can promise you that it is an adventure!