Questions at the Heart of the Renewal of Christian Mysticism: A Survey

We hope you will consider answering some or all of the following questions about points that are central to clarify in any deep renewal of the Christian mystical tradition. Your responses can be signed with your e-mail address, or unsigned.
  1. What is Christian mystical experience, or contemplation?
  2. How does it relate to the life of prayer?
  3. How does it relate to faith?
  4. In what way is it a personal perceptible experience so that you know that you are receiving it?
  5. What is the relationship between contemplation, and belief in the central mysteries of the Christian faith like the Trinity, and the divinity, death and resurrection of Jesus?
  6. How does contemplation relate to spiritual experiences like visions, voices, prophecies and other extraordinary events?
  7. How does contemplation relate to Eastern forms of enlightenment?
  8. Do modern attempts to renew the Christian contemplative life like centering prayer and John Main's Christian meditation aim at Christian mystical experience as you understand it?
  9. How do you think the experience of no-self, expressed by someone like Bernadette Roberts, relates to the Christian contemplative life?
  10. What do you think of the current state of spiritual direction when it comes to contemplatives?
  11. What other questions would you like to see considered?

Send written responses to Inner Explorations, Box 37, Midland, OR 97634 USA,
or e-mail responses to



Response #1:

1. Christian mystical experience, or contemplation, is an infused experiential knowledge of love and union with God.

2. Infused contemplation is the perfection of prayer.

3. Contemplation illuminates and enlivens the darkness of faith and brings the person into ''vital'' contact with God.

4. Infused contemplation is received by the person as an irresistible, intuitive gift of knowledge and love. It is a mysterious ''seeing'' gift with which one penetrates experientially into the hidden mysteries of faith. It is almost impossible to describe in what way this is received as a perceptible experience. Suffice to say that when one possesses this mysterious ''seeing'' gift of contemplation, one can ''see'' the hidden beauty of all things. Rather like the person who looks at one of those posters in which a picture is composed of a series of dots, within which another picture is hidden. One either sees the hidden picture, or not.

5. It is agape Love in the will which informs the person's intellect of His indwelling presence. This Love is interior to Itself, knows Itself, and in that sense transforms us into Love, and inserts us into the interior life of the Blessed Trinity. The person ''becomes'' God, ''another Christ," by participation in God.

6. Contemplation is not now usually associated with imaginary visions, voices, prophecies, or extraordinary events, as it was in the Prophets of Old Testament times. Since the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, visions, voices, and the gift of prophecy are received in infused contemplation as intellectual gifts. These gifts are Christ's betrothal gifts to His chosen soul with which she penetrates into the deep things of God and comes to share in the mind of Christ. These are supernatural gifts, the person who receives them sees nothing with his eyes, nor hears anything with his ears, nor can he predict future events. These gifts are delectable to the one who receives them, often this delectation ''spills over'' into the natural senses and is experienced as ecstasy and rapture. The effect of these gifts on the natural senses is most often felt at the beginning of contemplative life proper, i.e. in the Illuminative Way, when God takes great care to captivate the person's natural senses in this way so that they may be accommodated to the things of His Spirit.

7. I cannot say exactly how contemplation relates, or not, to Eastern forms of enlightenment. I haven't studied these deeply enough, but I am sure that there is an experience of the ''transcendent self'' which is common to all men, and throughout time, regardless of culture or creed and their modes of expressing this experience to others. All men are made in the image of God, and each receives his own invitation to enter freely into God's Life. At this level, we are all the ''one man''.

8. Quite simply no. A person does not find Christian mystical prayer by concentrating with their mind on creating emptiness within in the hope that God will fill that emptiness. Only the poverty of heroic charity can create such an emptiness, an emptiness which is already connatural with Christ's Kenotic emptying of Himself for us. Charity alone transforms us into Charity.

9.  I have read Bernadette Robert's book, The Experience of No-Self. I found her a little confusing to read. I think she is probably genuine enough, at least, I would want to give her the benefit of the doubt. It is not always easy for the mystic to express adequately that which they have experienced in transforming union, and to stay on the side of orthodoxy.

On pages 357-358 of Maritain's Degrees of Knowledge, there is a very interesting and illuminating footnote with regard to this problem. At No. 68, '' The vocabulary of the mystics is not ontological, but affective, individual rather than personal'' [Louis Massignon] and, ....''they [the mystics] allow something of that which they feel to overflow and utter secret mysteries from the abundance of the Spirit, rather than explain these things rationally. These similitudes, if they [are] not read with the simplicity of the spirit of love and understanding embodied in them appear to be nonsense rather than the expression of reason''.

That, more than likely, is the case with Bernadette, but if it is, she has been ill-advised in seeking to prove to us rationally in her book that the oneness she experiences is of God's essence, and therefore beyond the transforming union which St. John of the Cross experienced. She oversteps the boundary line between what is Infinite and what is finite. She seems to forget that Love is interior to Itself, has knowledge of Itself. It is this Love residing in our human will which informs the finite intellect of His presence. It is we who are grasped by God, not us who grasps Him. He is always God loving God in us. We always remain, in this life, ''The little pipes of clay through which He blows His Breath and plays melodies ever new,'' to paraphrase Tagor.

For me, the awareness of this union is characterized, more often than not, by a deep sense of loss. Loss of self, loss of the ''God'' which Theism knows, loss of other people, a void. In this void I live in a truly paradoxical state. Whereas I live in a state of Joy, I do not feel particularly joyful! My mind seems to be totally absorbed elsewhere. I think, I speak, I act, but I have no idea where these things originate in me. It is this awareness which I was trying to express in ''The Vast Unbounded Desert''. This desert IS God. I once wrote in my journal in relation to the ''function'' of this void, ''Night, the intimate blanket of darkness in which lovers are secretly enfolded.''

There are times, however, and it is this awareness which I was trying to catch in ''The Adoption of a Child'', when I ''see'' this union very clearly and with certitude. This ''seeing'' is always characterized by St. Paul's expression of it, ''It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.'' From this awareness I am left with the knowledge that I have been granted a share in the mind of Christ, that mind which St. Paul exhorts us to put on, Divine Wisdom Himself, and I know that I am privileged to have this guiding Principle in my mortal life. This Principle is always active in me even when I am not consciously aware of it. It is the Principle which judges all things rightly, the deep things of God, and men's hearts, for It ''sees'' as Christ Sees, and ''knows'' as Christ Knows. The conscious awareness of this union, at that level of awareness, does not allow Itself to be grasped and held by a finite intellect. Like the Israelites, in their journey through the desert, I have always to return to the desert of Faith, Hope and Charity, where I must gather each day sufficient Manna for that day alone. This Manna, which is the nakedness of the Theological Virtues, can often seem tasteless and unnourishing, especially in comparison to the ''fleshpots'' of Egypt which one tasted to the point of satiety in the Illuminative Way.

10. As far as I am aware no such direction exists.

11. My response here would be the same as before. If only juridical contemplation is being taught, nurtured and experienced in religious houses, what is the ''function'' of these orders for present day society?


Response #2:

1. A Christian becomes a mystic the minute he or she begins to love God for God's own sake (not for the gifts which God may bestow). It is very much like falling in love, because the mystic simply loves in all circumstances, in all weather, in all spiritual states, in darkness and in light. Mystical experience is the experience of love with the awareness that this love is a gift from God. The mystic's attention is habitually focussed on God, and the mystic is aware that God is capturing his or her attention. In other words, the mystic is aware that God initiates and sustains the experience.

2. The experience of contemplation is a state of being that spills over into the prayer life along with every other aspect of life. Prayer by itself does not necessarily lead to contemplation. Rather, the choices and acts of the will throughout life, when they habitually spring from a reflection on Scripture and a desire to live according to the will of God, lead to contemplation.

3. Faith leads to acts and to contemplation. Acts and contemplation lead to even greater faith.

4. One knows, but it is impossible to explain how one knows. The experience is tangible, but not physical, emotional, or mental, although all of these are impacted by the experience.

5. In a genuine Christian mystic, belief in the central mysteries of the Christian faith becomes a knowing and a certainty, especially with respect to the Incarnation, the reality of the miracles, the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity. At the same time, all of these things remain a profound mystery. Genuine Christian mystics have a great desire to share this knowing with others, and it is very painful not to be able to directly bestow this gift. (Each must choose what he or she will believe.) However, the mystic's certainty is sometimes contagious.

6. Infused contemplation is in itself a supernatural experience. Visions, voices, and other extraordinary events are a great mystery. They sometimes occur when the mystic lives in two worlds. While the physical senses remain attuned to the physical world, glimpses of heaven and glory sometimes awaken in the mystic, but this awareness is "seen through a glass darkly" and not clearly understood.

7. No comment.

8. Centering prayer is a technique. I don't have any knowledge of John Main's Christian meditation. Techniques can lead to altered states of consciousness. Love leads to contemplation. If love and techniques are combined -- perhaps they may lead to contemplation. I don't know. See my answers to numbers 1 and 2. The best prayers are the prayers that awaken and deepen love.

9. Haven't read the book.

10. My spiritual director is a Discalced Carmelite friar. He's great! Carmelites make good spiritual directors, because spiritual direction is part of their charism and vocation. Even if they are personally more active than contemplative, they are well versed in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross regarding the stages of prayer and the spiritual
life in general.


Response #3

1. What is Christian mystical experience, or contemplation?

I believe that one of the biggest problems we have when we try to discuss this topic is the inconsistency in use of terms. When I teach prayer methods that can lead to contemplative prayer, I tell the students that all people are called to contemplation. I define contemplation as union with God at the core of a person’s being that leads to deep, silent, inner prayer (i.e. contemplative prayer); a knowing of God; and infused knowledge from God.

I would define "knowing" and "experiencing" as two similar but not identical things. "Knowing of God" often cannot be understood, grasped, or explained since it is more like the Hebrew concept of knowing with our whole being. We cannot pinpoint how or where within ourselves we know, yet we do know without a doubt that it is God. I define an "experience of God" more as some thing that is experienced through our consciousness, that is, we can see or feel the experience. For example, we see a beautiful sunset and suddenly we have a feeling of great happiness, blessedness, wonder, or love. We may say we have had a mystical experience of God.

An example from my own personal journey may explain my point (or make it clear as mud!). My first long-lasting experience of God was best explained as "every cell in my body vibrated with the knowledge of God". There was a definite knowing of God with my being, but there was also an experience of God since the knowing worked its way up through my consciousness and manifested itself as a very loud and very active event that I can only describe as my cells vibrating. I was aware of this knowing as long as it lasted since it was always right in my face. Words fail me here!

Anyway, I thus define a mystic, or mystical, or mysticism in terms of the experience of God. Most people are not called to a continuous mystical experience of God, which I define as the "light on" experience (see Ruth Burrows in Guidelines to Mystical Prayer). Both of the women in her book "know" God, but only Claire seems to be able to see what is happening to her, that is, she has experiences of God. The other woman, Petra, "was always in darkness and aridity" (p. 3). Ruth Burrows goes on to define mysticism as something beyond experience. However, from the literature I’ve read it appears that the people we consider mystical are those people who have had almost continuous experiences of God. Thus, I define a mystic as a person who has an essentially continuous experience of God for some period of their life.

All people are called to union with God, which leads to contemplative prayer, a knowing of God, and infused knowledge given by God, that is, contemplation. But not all people are called to have continuous mystical experiences of God or the "light on" experience. And, in fact, most people will have some mystical experience of God in their life, but it does not mean that they have achieved union with God (something that is tied to the will). The majority of people who are contemplatives (have some level of union with God) will likely know God but they will not know what in them is doing this knowing or how they are knowing. The knowing seems to bypass our intellect and consciousness so we can know that we know God yet we may spend our lives in a spiritual aridity. That is why it has always been stressed that our feelings and any experiences of God are NOT indicators of our stage in the spiritual journey.

Since the terms "contemplation" and "mystical" are used to mean so many different things by different authors, this is how I’ve chosen to define and explain these terms.


2. How does it (contemplation and mystical experience ) relate to the life of prayer?

All knowledge or experiences of God are pure gift. Our task is to be open to God's gift. We need to constantly say "yes" to God and be willing to do whatever work is required by us to help God work in and through us.

Prayer is an essential form of communication between us and our Creator and can bring us to a state of openness to God. When we pray as children we usually have an agenda of things we want and are disappointed when God doesn't come through. As we mature we hopefully begin to pray more with open hands and minimize our agenda. We pray with the desire to accept God's will for us. As we progress in prayer we will hopefully reach the point where we are habitually open to God and embrace God's will as the fulfillment of our being.

Our prayer and growth in prayer are gifts of God. If we simply have a desire to be open to God during prayer but don't really know what this means or how to do this, God will take that desire as a "yes" and shower us with transforming grace. Our fidelity to prayer (however shabby we feel our prayer may be) is very important since it is our commitment to be there for God each day so that God may transform us. Thus, prayer and growth in prayer is very important for the spiritual journey.


3. How does it (contemplation and mystical experience) relate to faith?

I need to first define "faith" in terms of trust or believing without knowing rather than "faith" as a specific set of doctrines or beliefs, such as the Catholic faith.

Faith is critical to the spiritual journey, but for my own experience (primarily mystical) I found faith most critical during the times I had no experience of God. In the early days (1993-1996) of my journey I had a constant experience of God. This experience began very loud as "every cell in my body vibrated with the knowledge of God". Then it changed to what I best define as "a warm glow or the heat that is left when a fire has been removed". Finally, it changed to a "low hum". Though my experience of God got quieter and quieter, I was still having some experience of God. While I was in this state, I knew God was real and that God was with me. We were inseparable! Truly, this state required very little faith since I was believing in something I knew not something I didn't know.

However, when the Dark Night began in April 1996 and I no longer had any experience of God, I needed faith desperately. I needed the faith to believe that God was still with me, that God did still love me, that God was real, and that I really did have 2.5 years of experiencing God. I think that some of the work done in the Dark Night is the increase of our faith, especially if we've been leaning on our experiences of God rather than God. I did not necessarily need great faith before, but I clung to what little faith I had when I no longer had any experience of God. In this regard, people who do not have mystical experiences of God are fortunate since they are always leaning on their faith.

Once the experience of God left me I was fearful that my faith was too weak to sustain the pain from this "abandonment". My legs of faith were weak and wobbly and I prayed constantly for God to help me believe and to trust since I no longer knew. It was a very painful and difficult time but God was able to increase my faith since I had nothing else to lean on but God. Faith - definitely a cornerstone of spiritual growth!


4. In what way is it (contemplation or mystical experience) a personal perceptible experience so that you know that you are receiving it?

I think I already answered much of this question in #1. Both the knowing of God (contemplation) and the experiencing of God (mystical experiences) are things we perceive. However, the knowing is something that occurs in our whole being. An experience is something that has worked its way into our consciousness or sense perception so that we have the experience. Experiences are colored by our intellect, personality, culture, etc. since we can only have or understand our experiences through the lens in which we see life. Because no human being can have an experience of God that is not colored by his/her lens, we always have to be careful to discern if the experience is truly of God, of ourselves, of evil, or a combination of the above. We can't be certain of this so the best we can do is pray for guidance in our discernment and then act on what we believe is primarily of God.


5. What is the relationship between contemplation, and belief in the central mysteries of the Christian faith like the Trinity, and the divinity, death and resurrection of Jesus?

I believe that as our relationship with God deepens, God reveals more of God's self to us as infused knowledge. Things that we once believed with our intellect, become things that we know with our being. We can study concepts like the Trinity and Jesus' death, divinity, etc. but cannot truly understand them with our intellect, only with our being.

When I began to formally study theology (I previously worked in the environmental field), I found that I already knew some of the concepts. These were concepts I had never learned before, yet when I heard the formal theological explanation I realized I already knew it. I could only explain it as infused knowledge from God. When I try to explain how or what part of me knows these things, I always end up saying that I know them with my heart. (I don't mean "heart" as a human organ of the body but as something of my being that loves or experiences love.) It seems to me that the heart has its own mind or intelligence. When words for reflections/homilies come to me, I say that they are written on my heart. Once they are written on my heart they have become part of me (or I part of them) and I need no notes since I simply speak the words out of who I am, i.e., out of my very being. I try to explain concepts using my "head" (intellect) but I know things with my "heart".

Thus, as our relationship with God deepens, God can choose to reveal more of God's self to us. I do not know the Trinity with my being, but I do have a friend who has the great gift of this knowing. She can never explain her knowing as a doctrine or anything concrete, but simply as an intimacy with the 3 persons of the Trinity. As she explains it, she knows that she is part of the Trinity and she has some understanding of the Trinity, but it is nothing she could ever explain or even talk about. It is too bad we have to use words to communicate since the things of God truly cannot be known with the intellect and cannot be adequately expressed with the words linked to the intellect.

6. How does contemplation relate to spiritual experiences like visions, voices, prophecies and other extraordinary events?

As I've stated above, I would distinguish between contemplation (knowing with our being) and mystical experiences (knowing that reaches our consciousness). Visions, voices, and the like are mystical experiences. Since they are filtered through the lens of a person's personality, culture, etc. and since we must use our limited vocabulary to explain or understand this experience, these things reflect something of the person and are never pure messages from God. In fact, I propose that we would have no knowing at all of anything that was purely God. (Bernadette Roberts addresses this idea in her book What Is Self?)

These mystical experiences may help an individual but they are not an indicator of the spiritual journey. John of the Cross may have been suspicious of Teresa of Avila's mystical experiences since he believed that experiences were NOT an indicator of union with God and were suspect as they could derive from a person's neuroses and temperament.

7. How does contemplation relate to Eastern forms of enlightenment?

I used to think that the Buddhist striving for enlightenment was the same as a Christian striving for union with God. We just called it by different names and described it differently. However, after corresponding with a Theology professor last year on this topic, I am not sure anymore that this is a true statement. He told me that many theologians believe that Buddhists are actually having a different experience when they experience enlightenment than when a Christian experiences union. They believe that the experiences go beyond culture and belief and that it is too simple to make my blanket statement when comparing experiences of union or enlightenment from the various world religions.

In this same vein, from my own experience, I have found that the Christian tradition in which I was raised does affect my prayer. Before I began or even heard of centering prayer, I tried Zen Buddhist meditation. For 2 months I was faithful about the meditation and each day I would sit and concentrate on my breathing and the hara (naval region). It never seemed like a good fit for me. Six months later I discovered centering prayer and it was like I'd come home. I realized that Zen meditation did not work for me since I needed to place God at the center of my prayer. I needed the simple openness to God that is required in centering prayer rather than the concentration on breathing. I have often wondered if I had been raised as a Buddhist or if I had a different spirituality or personality if the Zen meditation would have worked for me. My conclusion is that most of us are strongly shaped by our culture and religious upbringing and thus most of us will have a spirituality and spiritual needs colored by this upbringing. I have some theories on this issue but no real answers.

8. Already discussed.

9. How do you think the experience of no-self, expressed by someone like Bernadette Roberts, relates to the Christian contemplative life?

I am a strong supporter of Bernadette Roberts' ideas on self and no-self. I have read all three of her books and watched her video. In fact, I have even been on one of her retreats. I found the What is Self? book and the video to be most informative. While I don't agree with all her ideas I do think that she has the best explanation of the self that I have read in psychology or theology textbooks. Her explanation of the self fits in perfectly with the dark night phase of the journey.

I have not experienced what she describes as the no-self state and thus cannot judge what she describes. If the journey to union with God is full of paradoxes that cannot be logically explained, how much more then would the no-self state be a giant paradox that is incomprehensible to our human minds. You can only know or understand no-self by being in it and once you are there you won't be able to explain it to people who are not there. The same holds true for the journey of self to union with God. However, I saw nothing in Bernadette's books on the no-self state that would lead me to conclude that it is not a Christian idea. I think her explanation is very possible.

The only thing I question is if someone would want to aspire to achieve this state since her description of it sounds rather horrible. If it is a state that all people are called to, then I would conclude that her description of this state is colored by her own personality and life history. Thus, each person would have a different experience of no-self, some more painful and some less painful.

10. What do you think of the current state of spiritual direction when it comes to contemplatives?

I think it is often very lonely being a contemplative. It is very difficult to find people to talk to who understand where you are coming from and what you are saying, and that holds true for spiritual directors. I don't see a remedy for this since it is just the nature of the contemplative journey. There are not a lot of people on this path, and thus, there are just not a lot of people to talk with. When you find someone, they are a gift from God. The rest of the time you just try to live with the pain of not being able to express your deepest feelings or being misunderstood if you do try to express them. But even in this pain God can work to transform us so nothing is wasted in our lives! Yes, it would be nice if there were more spiritual directors with a contemplative background who could journey with us in the beginning stages of the contemplative journey. But I don't think it is critical once the journey is advanced since ultimately God will help us through the difficult times. We learn to simply trust God's work in our lives without having to understand or know everything.



Another response

1.What is Christian mystical experience, or contemplation?

Direct, intimate, personal experience of God.

2.How does it relate to the life of prayer?

It's part and parcel of the life of prayer. Or at least it grows out of it, whether or not the prayer happens to be on a conscious level. (In any case, "prayer" meaning "calling out to God", which is what it was most often, in my experience.)

3.How does it relate to faith?

For me "faith" for a long time (like 60 years) was really the same thing as "hope" and a decision to believe in the Christian faith -- a blind, trusting decision made when a child and ratified since.

4.In what way is it a personal perceptible experience so that you know that you are receiving it?

It is a powerful and irresistible visitation of deep tenderness, friendship and eros on every level of my being which deepens and becomes more overwhelming with every passing month.

It began with what I later learned is called "baptismal illumination" or the "baptism of the Holy Spirit", at the end of a nine month process of instruction in becoming a Roman Catholic (this was after 60 years actively in another denomination) when I had just made my first Confession and moments later been anointed for some knee surgery I was to receive. It was as though the balance, or magnetic center, located in my spiritual "heart", had shifted all of a sudden.

It took me a long time (surprisingly, it seems now) to realize that what had happened essentially was that God and I had fallen in love. I kept thinking in terms of what did these "experiences" I was having mean? I failed to realize that this was a new relationship, not a set of experiences.

5.What is the relationship between contemplation, and belief in the central mysteries of the Christian faith like the Trinity, and the divinity, death and resurrection of Jesus?

Jesus as the Word, the Logos, the One who IS, is "the Real One". So it all happens in relationship to Him, whether He happens to be, so to speak, in disguise as far as the person involved is concerned.

My prayer for over 25 years has been the Jesus Prayer, which really led me though I didn't realize it. All the mysteries of the faith are contained there, it's said, and I've certainly found this to be true.

I am an iconographer, very much in the Byzantine tradition, and always the halo around the head of Jesus bears the Greek inscription "Ho ON", or "the One who IS", or "The Real One".

6.How does contemplation relate to spiritual experiences like visions, voices, prophecies and other extraordinary events?

I don't know; it depends upon the person and the nuances of their relationship to God. I have the impression that some people are gifted with psychic gifts, which may or may not be informed by the Holy Spirit. I think a very cautious approach to all that kind of thing is very much in order.

7.How does contemplation relate to Eastern forms of enlightenment?

I don't know enough about the latter to say.

8.Do modern attempts to renew the Christian contemplative life like centering prayer and John Main's Christian meditation aim at Christian mystical experience as you understand it?

Weeell, yes and no. They are useful, certainly, especially at the beginning of the process because they cut through the mind chatter and all the conceptualizing and analyzing that we all are conditioned to do. But I personally think they carry the objectivity thing too far. I practiced Centering Prayer for years and found it helpful, but when I was trying to get some help after my prayer had become so

intimately relational and physical etc. all I kept being told on the e-list I belonged to (devoted to centering type prayer) was "yes, that's just emotional unloading" etc. which really was no longer true.

Fortunately I realized this on my own, simply because the prayer of relationship became much too strong for me. It finally dawned on me that this was another ball game. Also at this point, fortunately, I happened to attend a retreat run by a hermit experienced in this who was able to give me the help I needed.

9.How do you think the experience of no-self, expressed by someone like Bernadette Roberts, relates to the Christian contemplative life?

I read that book about 10 years ago, well before all this happened; it struck me at the time as "creepy" and oddly disembodied and impersonal. Looking back, I think it was so devoid of any relationship to God or anything or anyone else except the experiences she was observing that it was perhaps more the record of a kind of psychic journey than anything else.

10.What do you think of the current state of spiritual direction when it comes to contemplatives?

For me, when the Baptism of the Spirit occurred (3/98) it seemed for a long time that nobody had a clue, even experienced religious with whom I was working at the time: they clearly expected it would all go away ("enjoy the ride, but it won't last") and when it didn't, they were at a loss.

In addition, the fact that the spirituality I had been given so suddenly was vehemently erotic, or "spousal", added a complication: the two male directors I had during the first 2 years or so (one a Dominican, one a Jesuit) were both clearly bothered by it. They were wonderfully patient and professional and accepting and because they both were real pray-ers they did manage to help me, but ultimately I realized that they really didn't know how to handle spousal prayer, at least in the case of a middle aged woman! I can hardly blame them.

Subsequently, though, I have managed to locate a woman my age, who is an experienced director and is just the person I need. I have to think that she may be the exception that proves the rule, though.

11.What other questions would you like to see considered?

I don't know exactly; certainly I have been left with a deep sense that mysticism without a deep loving relationship to God in which all the barriers are down

is at best sterile, at worst dangerous. Actually, if everyone in the churches were able to get to the point that (for example) Teresa of Avila was at when she glimpsed that statue of the Lord in His suffering and collapsed in compunction and love at its feet, we might not be so driven with ideology...

As a wise old Jesuit said at a retreat a year or so ago, "We all hafta fall in love with God!"


Another Response to Questions at the Heart of the
Renewal of Christian Mysticism: A Survey

My Answers:-

1. What is Christian mystical experience, or contemplation?

Christian mystical experience or contemplation is first and foremost part of a relationship of love: a relationship initiated by God but which is offered freely with no constraint. Once accepted it has the nature of a transforming fire. It also can be likened to a journey: a journey to a land you never even imagined existed. But it is a hard road and a long journey. Gradually it creates a capacity for seeing, albeit obscurely, spiritual realities and is a whole way of living that encompasses both moments of "vision" and the most ordinary everyday events.

2. How does it relate to the life of prayer?

Those parts of our lives that we single out and call "prayer" are related to the above in a similar manner to the way outings and making love are related to a marriage. That is to say they are moments of growth, renewal and recreation. I have thought much about prayer and how it fits in. In the end I came to see two things. Firstly, that prayer was not something we did, but something God did, and secondly, that prayer needed to be "here" and "now" and not belong just to special times and special places.

3. How does it relate to faith?

I would agree with what I have read elsewhere that contemplation leads to a deepening of faith so that in the end there is little difference between believing and seeing. (c.f. The Practice of the Presence of God being the Conversations and Letters of Brother Lawrence – towards the end of Eleventh Letter)

4. In what way is it a personal perceptible experience so that you know that you are receiving it?

When I was about twenty-two I had such an overwhelming spiritual experience that in spite of my anxieties I could do nothing but point to it and say "God". Since then I have been aware, sometimes more clearly than at others, of touches of peace, joy, love and such like that had the same origin. At what point you could call my experience "mystical" is another matter but an awareness of this "other" has grown in depth and clarity over the years. In 1990 I bought a poster with the text ‘Know that I am with you always.’ (Matt. 28:20 ) and it seemed meant for me with the emphasis on the words "Know….always" and since then I do feel that I "know," but it is not always a "felt" experience. Which is to say that it does not always involve my emotions.

5. What is the relationship between contemplation, and belief in the central mysteries of the Christian faith like the Trinity, and the divinity, death and resurrection of Jesus?

I have found that contemplation illuminates the central mysteries of the Christian faith, both separately and as parts of each other, not always in a way that can be easily put into words, but in a way that can be lived.

6. How does contemplation relate to spiritual experiences like visions, voices, prophecies and other extraordinary events?

I am not much of a "psychic" person myself and haven’t had much experience of visions, voices and such like. I do believe that God can use them as a means of communication when he sees fit. The only problem is recognising what is being communicated and what is not. This doesn’t, of course, mean that any such thing is always of God and even those that are may come clothed in our words and our images. In fact if they contain explicit words or images I think that these are inevitably ours to some extent. I can understand St John’s fear of such things, but if you haven’t got a spiritual director you have to muddle on as best you may. Especially if God "insists" that you act on them.

7. How does contemplation relate to Eastern forms of enlightenment?

I have read something of the mystical literature from various faith traditions. I feel that it is probably the same God trying to reach out to people behind them all, but that does not mean that all paths are equally apt for this. Eastern enlightenment, inasmuch as it inclines to the impersonal rather than the suprapersonal, would seem to be a case in point.

8. Do modern attempts to renew the Christian contemplative life like centering prayer and John Main's Christian meditation aim at Christian mystical experience as you understand it?

I would think that centering prayer and John Main’s Christian meditation do not claim to aim at mystical experience as I understand it since that would seem to imply dictating to God who is free to give his gifts as he pleases. However I imagine that they would hope that it would help prepare a person to receive them.1

9. How do you think the experience of no-self, expressed by someone like Bernadette Roberts, relates to the Christian contemplative life?

I am afraid that I have not read anything by Bernadette Roberts.

10. What do you think of the current state of spiritual direction when it comes to contemplatives?

My experience of spiritual direction by real, flesh and blood, people is that it is practically non-existent and consequently hard to find. I have relied on the spiritual direction that can be found in the great spiritual classics, together with a few modern writers on the subject.

11. What other questions would you like to see considered?

I would suggest two other questions that I feel that it would be advantageous to explore.

a. What is the relationship between Christian contemplation and everyday life? I think that this should be considered because I believe that the way we live our lives is a more important part of "contemplation" than anything else.

b. What is the relationship between Christian contemplation and the education of priests in the seminary. I think that this is important because I get the impression that priests are taught very little about prayer at all, let alone "contemplation," and I think that has a profound effect on both them and their ministry.

My answers to the last two questions would be as follows:

a. The first prerequisite of a life of contemplation is a life of virtue. That does not mean that we need start off as anything but sinners, however we need to value and desire virtue. At first and for a long time it will involve hard work but in the end all is given. The great spiritual writers have always emphasized humility as a primary virtue for contemplation. To this I would add: love, for self, neighbour and God; hope as shown by patience, persistence and endurance, especially in times of suffering; faith not only as belief, but as trust and letting go. Courage and self-discipline also play their part. Simplicity and purity of heart help to make the path clearer.

b. I think that a renewal of seminary training to include the study of contemplation and Christian mysticism would help priests to deepen their own spiritual lives and give them some of the tools needed to help them to support others.



1. As an aside one might consider Meister Eckhart’s ‘then you should know that God must act and pour himself into you the moment he finds you ready.’ from "Et cum factus esset Jesus Annorum Duodecim etc." P43. of Meister Eckhart Sermons & Treatises, Vol. 1, Translated and Edited by M. O’C. Walshe, Pub. Element, 1991