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The Mystical Heartbeat

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

The Mystical Heartbeat
Friday, July 19, 2019

Today I share again from Carl McColman’s book Christian Mystics:

The first Christian mystics appear in the Bible, figures like John the Evangelist and Paul of Tarsus. But mysticism didn’t end when the Bible was written. Great mystics appear in every century of Christian history. [1] By the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity became socially acceptable in the cities of the Roman Empire, remote wilderness locations like the deserts of Egypt and Palestine or the forests of Ireland became home to many saints and mystics.

Out of the deserts came the first monasteries, intentional communities of Christians who sought to give their entire lives to God. As this movement caught on throughout the Christian world, it became a natural home for great mystics and visionaries; and, indeed, nearly all of the great mystics between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries lived as monks or nuns. But with the dawn of the modern era—and the social changes such as the Renaissance and the Reformation in particular—monasteries became less central to Catholic Christianity and were largely rejected by the Protestant churches, so in recent centuries more mystics have emerged who did not live in a cloister.

By the twentieth century, several important figures, such as Evelyn Underhill [1875–1941] and Karl Rahner [1904–1984], began to insist that mysticism was not just a special quality for the “elite” Christians found in abbeys or convents, but rather everyone is meant to be an “everyday mystic.” Indeed, Rahner, widely recognized as one of the greatest of twentieth-century theologians, famously remarked that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or . . . will not exist at all.” [2] . . .

Carmelite friar William McNamara [writes]: “the mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.” [3] . . . In order for Christianity to survive, all Christians need to discover the mystical heartbeat that is already alive in the center of our tradition—and our souls. Put another way, mysticism is not something we achieve; it is something we receive. . . .

How do we find out what “special kind of mystic” we are called to be? Certainly the ultimate guide to union with God can only be God. . . . But God is assisted in this task by the wisdom and writings of the great mystics throughout history.

Not all mystics are writers, of course. But the ones who made the effort to record their life stories, their insights, their wisdom, their poetry and teachings, are the ones who have left behind “lessons,” so to speak, in the school for the love of God. . . .

Our goal, therefore, is to learn . . . the curriculum of a truly spiritual life . . . grounded in love, mercy, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, hope, trust, simplicity, silence, peace, and joy. To embody union with God is to discover these beautiful characteristics emerging from within and slowly transfiguring us. . . .

[1] See examples of mystics over the centuries: CAC Timeline of Non-Dual Thinkers and Mystics (Updated 2019).

[2] Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, eds. Karl Lehman and Albert Raffelt (Crossroad: 1986), 22.

[3] William McNamara, Earthy Mysticism: Contemplation and the Life of Passionate Presence (Crossroad: 1983), ix.

Carl McColman, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints, and Sages (Hampton Roads Publishing Company: 2016), xvii-xix.

Image credit: The Third-Class Carriage (detail), Honoré Daumier, circa 1862–1864, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: [On an ordinary underground train journey in London], all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging—workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. —Caryll Houselander
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