Reading the writings of the great mystics — of figures like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, or even modern writers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or Bernadette Roberts — is not always easy. Many mystics use dense or figurative or poetic language in their attempts to express the inexpressible. Others rely on highly technical philosophical or theological language to make their points. Many of the mystics lived centuries ago, meaning that they had radically different world views and wrote in languages other than English (so some of their brilliance is no doubt lost in translation). It can be frustrating for readers who genuinely want to learn from the wisdom of the mystics, but who find their writing to be almost opaque, and such frustration can make it too tempting to just give up on the mystics, rather than to persevere and glean the wisdom that is encoded in their words.
Although naturally it can be helpful to fortify your appreciation of mystical writings by becoming grounded in theology, philosophy, church history, and Biblical criticism, most of us who are not full-time scholars simply do not have the time or resources to master all of these fields. Are we to give us, deciding that the mystics just aren’t for us?
I don’t think so. I believe even if you only can discern a tiny percentage of the insight and knowledge that is embedded in mystical writings, it’s still worth the effort. Of course, reading commentaries, forming or joining book groups where you can enjoy the writings of the mystics with friends and colleagues, and reading slowly to give yourself time to digest and truly comprehend the challenging material you are covering — these are all helpful ways to make the most of your mystical writing.
Another way to maximize your enjoyment of mystical wisdom is to remember that different kinds of people read in different ways. With this in mind, I’ve identified seven different “ways” to read a mystical book. These ways of reading are based on the circumstances surrounding the kind(s) of persons who might be reading such books. Obviously, mystical writings can be read by students, people who want to learn from them. But they can also be read by theologians or philosophers — learned individuals who bring a wealth of knowledge to their reading. For that matter, we can imagine monks and nuns reading the mystics: people who may not have a lot of book learning, but who are engaged in committed and sustaining disciplines of prayer. Likewise, we can also imagine what it might be like to read the mystics as a spiritual director (someone skilled in the art of mentoring and accompanying others who seek to grow in prayer) would read them. Or, we might approach the writings of the mystics as a poet, someone committed to eloquence and the artistic expression of language. Finally, we can think of two other categories of potential readers: a “magician” (someone who approaches spirituality with a commitment to personal growth and transformation) and mystics themselves — those radically committed to orienting their lives toward the presence of the divine.
I’ve created a series of questions that each of these seven “readers” might ask, as they encounters the writings of the mystics. There’s some overlap, to be sure. But I hope as you scan these different ways of reading mystical writings, and the questions that are inspired by each of these seven categories, you will be inspired to consider what matters the most to you when you read a book by one of the mystics. Are you reading just to amass information? Or are you looking for something more intimate, more heart-centered? How does reading this book impact your own prayer life? Your relationship with God? Your quest to become a better person, a contemplative person, perhaps even a holy person?
Recognizing the importance of accurate scholarship and historical criticism, nevertheless there is no one “right way” to read a mystical book. So I hope these seven approaches to mystical writing can help you in your own reading journey.
Reading mystical writings like a student
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a student, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- What can I learn from this book?
- How can this book help me?
- Help me to grow spiritually
- Help me to understand spirituality and/or theology
- Help me to be a better contemplative
- How does this book challenge me?
Reading mystical writings like a theologian or philosopher
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a theologian or philosopher, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- What is this author saying about God?
- How is this book unique?
- What do I agree/disagree with?
- What would I say differently?
- How does this fit in with Christianity as a whole?
- How is this relevant to today?
Reading mystical writings like a monk or nun
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a monk or nun, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- Can this book help me to pray?
- Is it suitable for Lectio Divina?
- What words/phrases jump out?
- How can this help me to meditate?
- How can it inspire the words of my prayer?
- How does it invite me into silence?
Reading mystical writings like a spiritual director/companion
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a soul friend or spiritual director, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- What is this author’s image of God?
- What is the author’s image of self?
- How does this author relate to God?
- What signs of growth does the author share?
- How is God present in this book?
- How is God leading this author?
Reading mystical writings like a poet
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a poet, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- How does the author use language?
- How does the author play with words?
- How does the author use imagery?
- What layers of meaning can I discern?
- What is beautiful about this book?
Reading mystical writings like a magician
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a magician, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- What is the author creating here?
- How is this book surprising or unusual?
- How can reading this bring about transformation?
- How is this innovative or revolutionary?
- What is evoked or called into being?
Reading mystical writings like a mystic or contemplative
If you read a mystical book from the perspective of a mystic or contemplative, here are some questions you might want to keep in mind.
- What is this book’s relationship with silence?
- How does this book cultivate wonder?
- Where is God present in these words?
- How does this book invite us into contemplation?
- How does the author use imagination to cultivate a sense of Divine Presence?
Making sense of the seven ways
No one has to incorporate all of these different ways of reading into your own process of reading mystical writings! We all will naturally gravitate toward one or another of these approaches. Some of us are natural academics; others natural artists. Some of us have a strong contemplative bent while others tend to be more concrete in our thinking. It’s a truism of spirituality that we should “Pray as we can, not as we can’t” — bring that same perspective to the way you read spiritual classics. Read the books in ways that make sense to you. Hopefully this overview of the many possible approaches can help you to have a broad and flexible appreciation of mystical literature, no matter which approach is your most “natural.”
Nevertheless, keep in mind that the particular way you read the book will directly shape your experience of the book. A person with the mind of an engineer will experience The Cloud of Unknowing very differently from someone with the mind of an artist. It’s not about who’s right or wrong, but simply acknowledging that different perspectives will make for different experiences.
Therefore, if you are struggling with a book of mystical or contemplative writing, before you simply give it up, try a different approach. Try on reading it like a poet, or a spiritual director, or a nun. See if giving yourself permission to approach the book from a different perspective might open the book’s wisdom and insight to you in surprising new ways. It’s worth a try!
Some Bonus Content!
This post is adapted from a video talk I gave to my Contemplative Studies of Mystical Writings class. One of the participants in that course, Barbara Hammond, created a PDF based on these approach to reading spiritual writings, and she adapted and expanded this material in some interesting ways. When Barbara shared her PDF with me, I enthusiastically asked her if I could include it in this blog post, and she has given permission to share this freely. So if you’d like to take these seven-fold approach a bit deeper, I encourage you to download the following PDF: How to Approach a Spiritual Writing.