Here’s a question I sometimes get asked:
Do I have to be a member of a church to be a Christian mystic?
Like so many aspects of the spiritual life, the answer — to borrow a phrase from Facebook — is “it’s complicated”!
To begin to get a sense of this, let’s think about not only church but also community.
In chapter 9 of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I make the case for community as an essential ingredient of the mystical life. I say this:
Relationship forms the heart of Christianity, whether we are relating to God or to one another. Christianity undermines the idea, prevalent in our secularized society, that God is nothing more than a metaphor for the deepest, highest, or best parts of ourselves. While faith in Christ invites us to seek God within ourselves, we are not seeking just a part of ourselves. Rather, we are seeking to become part of something much bigger than ourselves — the God who is greater than the cosmos. We can seek this because, paradoxically, this transcendent God has been seeking us all along. We love God in response to God’s love for us. Likewise, Christianity also offers an alternative to the pervasive narcissism and self-obsession of our time, by calling us to look for God not only inside ourselves, but also through each other… Since God is in each of us, when we gaze into the eyes of our friends and neighbors and fellow Christians, we are gazing into the Temple of the Holy Spirit. (page 137)
As wisdom traditions go, the heart of Christianity is not enlightenment, or unitive consciousness, or the ability to work miracles — any and all of these things can happen, and there have been mystics who have reported precisely these phenomena. But they are not the heart Christian mysticism. The heart of Christian mysticism is love. When Christians were moving out into the desert in the fourth century to live in solitude, St. Basil the Great asked a question to challenge them. “If you become hermits, whose feet shall you wash?”
Chances are, you who read these words live in America or Australia or Western Europe (and even if you don’t live in those places, you are probably somewhat influenced by their culture). The culture of these lands tends to be highly individualistic — the mythology of the U.S., for example, lionizes solitary figures like Paul Bunyan and the Lone Ranger. “To thine own self be true” is our creed, and the unspoken coda to that dogma is “because no one else really matters.” Now, I do not fault the emergence of a healthy adult personality, which includes forming a unique sense of self and the ability to follow one’s own conscience even when it means going against the grain. Those are good values, so individualism certainly is not all bad! But for a spiritual tradition that places so much emphasis on love, community, and service, Christianity naturally challenges us to balance our individuality with a commitment to others — to family, to friends, to community, to colleagues, and yes, to people who share our faith.
And I know I shifted from talking about “Christian mysticism” to simply talking about “Christianity.” That’s because the heart of Christian mysticism is, well, forming intimacy with Christ. And such intimacy implies following the Christian path — mystic or no.
But… But… !
But does this mean you have to join a church, for heaven’s sake?!?!
I think I understand how many people — including many people with a genuine interest in the mystics — find church to be the last place they want to be, on Sunday or any other time during the week.
There are many reasons for this. Many people have been hurt by churches. And not just in terms of extreme trauma (like clergy sexual abuse), although that does happen, to the church’s shame. But even beyond such outrageous harm, many people are hurt in much milder/smaller — but still painful or traumatizing — ways. People get shamed for a variety of reasons — from expressing their sexuality to questioning the pastor to showing an innocent interest in interfaith exploration. Sexism, racism, and homophobia often create climates in churches that can be unhealthy and even dangerous. Churches can be abusive in other ways — to learn more about this unhappy topic, read Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt.
Some churches seem to be too political — which can be a problem no matter what “side” you are on. Other churches clearly cater to a specific “tribe” of people — from “country club” churches where everyone at least appears to be wealthy, to “blue collar” churches where everyone appears to be just getting by. Many churches are clearly “white” or “Black” in their makeup. While it might be spiritually adventurous to join a church where everyone is different from you, that can also be psychologically taxing. The only thing worse? A church where everyone is just like you!
Finally, many people find that church is simply unfulfilling, or — dare I say it? — boring. Uninspired sermons, lackluster music, a culture that seems to stress conformity and nostalgia rather than truly grappling with the radical teachings of Christ (let alone the mystics). If that’s what being a Christian is all about, is it any wonder that so many people vote with their feet?
And I haven’t even begun to address the fact that so many churches are devoid of people interested in the teachings and practices of the mystics!
Putting the Pieces Together
So how do we integrate Christianity (and Christian mysticism)’s commitment to love, and the importance of community, with the often problematic nature of too many churches that fall too short when it comes to truly embodying the teachings of Christ?
First, I think we have to acknowledge that we live in an imperfect world, and this extends to everything — including church. If your only complaint with church is that it is unfulfilling or boring, may I gently suggest that perhaps your standards are too high? Perhaps you are seeing church as something that exists to serve your needs — but it isn’t. Churches are not spas. They are places where we have the opportunity to love others, and to serve God — by being in relationship with others.
But what if you are a survivor of spiritual abuse? What if the only church in your town is filled with political extremism and a conformity culture that is just plain toxic? Here are a few thoughts. First of all, this is where the difference between community and church matters. I believe that Christians are called to be a part of community. I also believe that toxic or dysfunctional churches are not what Christian community is meant to be. Leaving a toxic church is like leaving an abusive marriage: it’s an act of courage, and I believe God blesses people who are willing to make that brave choice.
Fortunately, healthy churches do exist, and there might be one closer to you than you think. A church that is committed to dismantling the evils of entrenched poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia. A church where the pastor just might quote the Dalai Lama in a Sunday sermon. A church where not everyone looks alike, but people seem happy, friendly, and welcoming. A church that is transparent about its finances. A church that has safeguards in measure to keep children and other vulnerable persons safe. A church that is as committed to prayer as it is to social justice — and vice versa. There may be other signs for you to look for, these are some of the signs I look for, to help me recognize that a church is healthy.
Ultimately, it’s a place where I can say “yes” to questions like “Can I truly worship God here?” “Can I truly be of service here?” “Can I truly be myself here?”
It’s worth it to try to find a healthy church. A healthy church is like a loving marriage and a creative, fun, challenging work environment — life is too short not to take the time to find (or foster) these qualities in our lives.
But let’s say you simply cannot find a truly inspirational/healthy church. What then? Back to community. Fortunately, there are many ways to foster community in our lives. We can participate in online groups or forums dedicated to spirituality or mysticism. We can become active in neighborhood organizations or centers for community activism. And — especially in terms of your interest in Christian mysticism — we can find communities that share our interest in spirituality, such as Centering Prayer groups, monastic oblate communities, or even a book club dedicated to reading spiritual literature (hey, suggest one of my books!)
So, back to the question: “Do I have to be a member of a church to be a Christian mystic?” In an absolute sense, strictly speaking, the answer is no, you don’t — especially if being involved in a church could be unsafe or (re)traumatizing. But remember St. Basil’s challenge: church may be optional, but community is essential. You need feet to wash: which is to say, you need a place where you can love and serve others. As imperfect as every church is, a basically healthy church can often provide that community for us. So don’t write church off too quickly. And if you can’t find a healthy church, look for an alternative type of community where you can grow spiritually and learn to love.
A Final Thought
I believe many people who are interested in Christian mysticism abandon church because, well, most churches are not particularly mysticism-friendly. Churches are often overly institutional, and many clergy are still the product of seminaries that are great at filling their heads with facts, but far less effective at teaching them how to pray, how to contemplate, how to be silent, and how to be present with the spiritual needs of others. This has changed in the last few decades, but there’s still a long way to go.
Remember my comment about “no church is perfect”? A corollary to this, unfortunately, is “very few churches are friendly to mysticism (Christian or otherwise).” So if you join a church because it’s a place where you can serve, and love, others, keep in mind that you might still need to find your spiritual nurturance some other way. You might need to join (or start) a Centering Prayer group, or become a monastic oblate, or begin working with a spiritual director. Fortunately, resources do exist to help you grow deeper spiritually (check out the Community Resources section of this website for some ideas to explore). It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a workable one: you participate in a church to serve, and then find other groups or relationships that bring you the spiritual nurture you need.