Reconciling Mystical Teachings with Conventional Christianity


A reader named Allen wrote to me:

Dear Carl, I find myself struggling with a bit of a spiritual crisis. I feel torn between the teachings of more traditional Protestant thinkers like Dallas Willard and the mystical teachings of figures like Thomas Keating. While I’ve experienced spiritual growth through my meditation practice using the WCCM form, I’m also concerned that I’m straying from the more conventional forms of Christianity. I’m drawn to silence, peace, and contemplation, and the WCCM form of meditation brings me a great deal of peace. But at the same time, I wonder what the true way is. I feel confused and uncertain about what path to follow. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and guidance on this matter. How can I reconcile my love of the mystical teachings with the more conventional forms of Christianity? What advice would you have for me as I continue on my spiritual journey? Also, I thought I would mention that I attend an Anglican church and find a lot of value in its liturgical tradition and sacramental practices. I’ve been reading a lot of Evelyn Underhill’s works lately, and I find that her writings on Christian mysticism and spirituality really resonate with me. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how I can integrate my affinity for the mystical and contemplative aspects of Christianity with my participation in the more structured and formal practices of the Anglican church.

Allen, I’m sure you are not the first person to have wondered about how to integrate the contemplative dimension of Christianity with, as you call it, “conventional” religious observance.

I think it’s important to begin with a clear recognition that contemplative teachers like Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Keating are, in fact, faithful Christians whose teachings and writings are accepted as orthodox by their faith communities (Keating was Roman Catholic, Underhill an Anglican like yourself). In fact, to the best of my knowledge Dallas Willard also stood in the contemplative tradition, as did his protegés, Richard Foster and Gary Moon (who is a friend of mine). Willard was a Baptist — so between him, Keating, and Underhill, you have Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Christians, each tradition of which has faith-filled teachers of contemplative spirituality. And of course there are many others — from Catholics like Richard Rohr and Laurence Freeman (of WCCM); Anglicans/Episcopalians like Adam Bucko or Cynthia Bourgeault, and Protestants/Evangelicals like Howard Thurman or Phileena Nicole. In short, Christians from across the spectrum of the denominations have taught, and continue to teach, the practice of contemplative spirituality.

But you may be wondering, why then isn’t contemplative spirituality more widely practiced in the churches? It’s a valid question, and I think the answer has two parts — one historical and the other psychological.

Why Contemplation Seems “Unconventional”

Historically speaking, it’s helpful to keep in mind that in there is good evidence in the New Testament that contemplative spirituality was at least somewhat present in the earliest churches. We see Jesus’s example of going on retreat (40 days in the wilderness) and withdrawing on a regular, probably daily, basis for silence and solitude. Later, we find Paul instructing the Thessalonians to learn silence as a part of their spiritual walk (I Thessalonians 4:11, often poorly translated as “Strive to be peaceful” or “Aspire to live quietly,” would more accurately be rendered as “Learn to be silent” — the original Greek word, ἡσυχάζω (hésuchazó) carries the sense of stillness and silence that we associate with contemplation (it’s the word from which Greek Orthodox contemplatives, known as hesychasts, derive their name). Even the Revelation to John includes an approving comment about silence in heaven for a half an hour! (Revelation 8:1) — I think we can safely say that the angels and saints weren’t just fidgeting during those 30 minutes — they were praying. Silently. Contemplatively.

But what happened? The simplest explanation is that as Christianity became a more mainstream religion, the deep interior work of contemplation became increasingly just something that monks and nuns did. Laypeople were not expected to be contemplatives, so it became a practice restricted to the cloister. Therefore, virtually all the great mystics of Christianity during the millennium between the fall of Rome and the Protestant Reformation lived in monasteries or otherwise in consecrated life: from saints like Benedict and Bernard of Clairvaux, to nuns like Hildegard of Bingen or Gertrude the Great, and friars like Francis of Assisi or Meister Eckart — almost without exception, mystics were cloistered (or, at least, members of religious orders) — eventually you begin to see lay contemplatives and lay mystics — from Catherine of Genoa to Julian of Norwich to Margery Kempe, many mystics (especially women mystics) were laypeople (Catherine we know was married, and many scholars believe Julian was as well). So even before the Reformation, you begin to see some lay mystics and contemplatives. Of course, that trend has continued, to the point where in our time you have Thomas Keating marveling that the persons he knew “who are most advanced in prayer are married or engaged in active ministries” (he said this in Open Mind, Open Heart: the Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel).

But in addition to the historical reason that contemplation was not widely practiced because most contemplatives lived in monasteries, there is also a psychological reason why you don’t find a lot of contemplative practice in the churches.

Psychologically speaking, the simple fact is that the “contemplative personality” is only found in about 1% of the general population (I’m basing this on research done by Carl Jung and by the developers of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type test). Frankly, most people find it difficult to pray for extended periods in silence. I do not point this out in order to judge people — on the contrary! I think it is wonderful that God has endowed human beings with so many different personality types and characteristics. But for many people, the contemplative approach to spirituality is simply unappealing, or too difficult. For people who are natural extraverts, who naturally have a more scientific than intuitive mind, and who naturally are thinkers more than feelers, often find the spiritual practice of silence to be unappealing or simply too difficult to do regularly. It’s like some people are not very gifted when it comes to music or art or sports. They are not bad people; it’s just that their gifts lie elsewhere.

The same principle is at play with  contemplation. Over the centuries and extending into the present day, the practice of religious Christianity (i.e., what goes on at church) has typically been more geared toward the extraverts, the concrete thinkers, the “sensible” folks. Such people respond well to didactic teaching like Bible study or preaching; they do best when expressing spirituality in very down-to-earth, concrete ways (like helping people in need or visiting the sick and homebound) and prefer worship that is verbal/vocal (like singing, chanting, and praying out loud) to the more quiet and withdrawn practice of silent prayer. As this “extraverted” culture in the Christian religion gets passed down from generation to generation, contemplation simply receded further and further into the background.

And so we come to the present day, and people like Allen wonder if contemplation and mysticism are “truly” Christian. As someone who has been studying Christian theology and spirituality my entire adult life, I am confident and clear that yes, contemplative Christianity is completely faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the mainstream teachings of the church. If it seems “different” or “unusual,” that’s mainly because many neighborhood churches simply don’t make room for it in their lives. No wonder it can seem unfamiliar! And for many people, religion needs to seem familiar in order to seem orthodox or safe. I can understand that impulse, but unfortunately it doesn’t help the 1% of us who have the natural personality for contemplation. We have to learn to accept that Christianity — orthodox Christianity — is both broader and deeper than the “conventional” church religion we grew up with.

What About People Who Reject Contemplative Christianity?

Allen may be aware that there are some Christians — a minority, to be sure, but often a very vocal minority — who insist that contemplation is not  good Christianity. They see it as too “new age,” or too “eastern” or even too “Catholic” (it’s usually only Protestants who complain about that!). I have a Buddhist friend, James Ishmael Ford, who recently ran a post on his blog quoting a Catholic theologian who has worked to refute the arguments of anti-contemplative Catholics. Why do some Christians reject Centering Prayer and other contemplative practices? Usually they seem to have a very poor understanding of church history, so they genuinely believe that silent prayer is a “novel innovation.” They’re wrong, of course, but that doesn’t prevent them from spreading their misinformation, especially online. Plus, if they have a theology that stresses God as angry, as remote, as an authoritarian figure who wants only our submission and obedience, then they really don’t have any breathing room in their theology for contemplation, which stresses God as more loving than angry, more close than far away, and more interested in our happiness than just our compliance to rules.

Our theology will shape the way we pray. And I personally believe that a theology which stresses God’s anger and requires human beings to be docile and submissive is, frankly, poor theology. But this way of seeing things has always been evident among at least some Christians, so I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. But this leads me back to Allen’s question, and I have to respond by asking Allen (or anyone else reading this): who gets to decide what is or isn’t “the true way”? In the Catholic world, the Church is the final arbiter of “truth” — but the Catholic Catechism makes it clear that contemplation is an appropriate spiritual practice. In the Protestant world, the ultimately authority is the Bible — and while the Bible does not explicitly promote practices like Centering Prayer, neither does it prohibit such ways of praying — and as I pointed out, there is good evidence in scripture that silence, stillness, and solitude are all very important to the spiritual life!

So Allen, I hope no one has told you that good Christians cannot practice meditative prayer. If someone has, I frankly would question their motives. Are they really trying to help you draw closer to God, or are they projecting their own anxiety (about trying to please an angry authoritarian “god”) onto you and your love of silence? The tradition is clear, that silent forms of prayer are deeply nourishing, profoundly beautiful, spiritually safe, and provide us with a rich inner doorway into the mysteries of God’s hidden (mystical) presence. And while it’s unfortunate that this way of praying has been marginalized over the centuries, and for that reason  it doesn’t feel “conventional,” we should allow the Holy Spirit to guide us where the Spirit will — and for some of us, the Spirit does guide us directly into deep contemplative silence.

I hope this is helpful, but to Allen (or anyone else reading this), if you have additional questions, please let me know — you can use the contact form on this website. Otherwise, trust the good Christians who promote contemplative prayer practices through organizations like WCCM, Contemplative Outreach, Shalem, the CAC/Living School, the Wisdom Way of Knowing, Abbey of the Arts, Closer Than Breath, Spiritual Wanderlust, or my own Companions of the Mystery. All of these organizations teach practices consistent with the life-giving teachings of Jesus, and all are deeply contemplative in their approach.

A Final Word: Concerning Formal Liturgy and Contemplative Prayer

In his PS, Allen brought up Anglican Christianity in particular, wondering how the deeply personal and radically silent nature of contemplative practice can square with the carefully structured, deeply liturgical practices of many Christian communities (including the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Churches). I think the key here is to view liturgy (formal, corporate worship) and contemplative (usually private, silent prayer) as complementary. They do not compete with each other, nor is a Christian required to reject one in order to be faithful to the other. On the contrary, like monks down the centuries who chanted their liturgical prayers together every day but explored deep interior silence in solitude, Christians can weave together the personal, solitary love for silence with a community life that simultaneously stresses community, music/praise, worship, and liturgy. I would even go so far to say that a well-balanced Christian “diet” needs both liturgy (or communal worship in some form) and contemplation (or silent prayer in some form). Just like a healthy marriage needs both intimate/private time but also time spent with friends and neighbors and the larger family, so too is the healthiest Christian life a blend of private/silent prayer, and public/communal worship. Allen, I hope you can find time for both in your heart. Each will nurture you in its own way!

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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman



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