Why I Wrote a Book About Christian Mystics

Or, What Trent Reznor and John O'Donohue Have in Common

St. Francis: He's Not Just For the Birds

St. Francis: He’s Not Just For the Birds

When Peter Gabriel came to Atlanta in 2003, my wife Fran and I were able to get tickets to the concert through a friend who works in the music business.

Not only did we have the best seats in the house (right behind and above the soundboard), but we were seated next to a row of VIPs. In fact, the man sitting right next to Fran had a copy of the setlist, so obviously he was connected with the band. I started chatting him up, and when I asked him if he had a professional relationship with Gabriel, he rather shyly said yes; I introduced myself, and when he replied, “I’m Trent Reznor,” I almost fell out of my seat.

“What are you getting all excited about?” Fran hissed into my ear.

“We’re sitting next to the leader of Nine Inch Nails!” I whispered. I spent the rest of the evening trying to play it cool; I didn’t even ask  him for his autograph. Suspicious that this could have been someone with delusions of grandeur, as soon as I got home I looked up a picture of Reznor, and sure enough, he (or his identical twin) was the guy.

Fran still teases me about that; she doesn’t get star-struck as easily as I do (I once asked her, “Does anyone impress you?” She laughed and admitted she’d like to meet the Obamas or Pope Francis). I, on the other hand, am unrepentant about loving to meet people whose work I admire. It’s not just fame that dazzles me —  I’m not one to stand in line at a convention to get five seconds with a celebrity — but the chance to pick the brain of a writer or artist or theologian I admire? That’s catnip.

A friend of mine who was an Episcopal priest once arranged for me to have breakfast with the Anglican spiritual theologian Kenneth Leech, just the two of us; I felt like I had won the lottery. On another occasion I had the chance to interview the Irish mystic John O’Donohue, which turned into an afternoon filled with insightful conversation. Yes, I admit it: I’m a fan-boy.

Leech and O’Donohue are just two of the great mystics and contemplatives I write about in my new book, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and SagesIt profiles a diverse and colorful assortment of visionaries, teachers, story-tellers, philosophers, prophets, saints, heretics, and others who lived interesting and remarkable lives, fueled by a passionate love of God — and even a profound sense of union with God.

Of course, most of these spiritual masters lived centuries ago, so you and I would only have a chance to “meet” them through their books, their poetry, or other writings. But isn’t that what makes books so miraculous: that they give us access to some of the great minds (and hearts) of history? You and I will never have the chance (at least, not on this side of eternity) to gush over Francis of Assisi, or Hildegard of Bingen, or Isaac the Syrian, or any of the other great mystics. But we can discover who they are, learn their stories, and benefit from their wisdom, which has been preserved for us, thanks to the written word (some of the more recent mystics, like O’Donohue and  especially Howard Thurman, have also left us a treasury of recorded sermons and lectures).

Christian Mystics

Christian Mystics

But Christian mystics often are not widely known — I bet at least one of the folks I mentioned above is unfamiliar to you, even if you are already interested in contemplative spirituality. When Fran looked over the table of contents in Christian Mystics, she said, “There are a lot of people here I don’t know!” I resisted the urge to suggest she spend more time poking through my library; instead I said, “That’s the point behind this book: to introduce people to amazing spiritual teachers and guides whom they probably have never met before.”

Some of them, like Beatrice of Nazareth or Gregory of Narek, lived centuries ago. Others, like Sara Grant or Bruno Barnhart, walked the earth in our time. My only boundary was limiting the book to Christians, but it includes Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Quaker mystics, ranging from two Biblical figures to three who are still alive today. Most important of all, these mystics cover a wide terrain in how they manifest their spirituality: many were monks and nuns, but others were ordinary folk leading humble lives. When you look at them as a whole, what becomes obvious is that there’s no one single or right way to be a mystic, which is to say, to respond to the love of God. Which means that every one of us is meant to respond to God’s love in the unique way that is right for us.

Maybe you’re like my wife, not easily impressed when you meet someone famous. But I hope you’ll take the time to discover the great Christian mystics. They may not be household names (although I think they deserve to be), but they are brilliant guides to living a spiritually meaningful and joyful life. Their stories — and their wisdom — is worth getting to know.

 

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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13 thoughts on “Why I Wrote a Book About Christian Mystics

    • I do include three contemplatives who are currently alive: Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and Willigis Jäger. Two others — Bruno Barnhart and Kenneth Leech — actually died while I was writing the book.

  1. I am looking forward to the arrival of your new book. It is on the way, supposed to arrive on Friday. I knew most of the names you mentioned, but am anxious to meet the two whose names were unfamiliar — Sara Grant and Beatrice of Nazareth. I am also excited to get to know some of the more familiar names better. Congratulations, and I hope the book is a huge success.

  2. got myself into trouble! I sent your article about how to have a contemplative church to several friends who are Episcopal priests. After several months, my priest asked me to lead a Quiet Day focusing on Centering Prayer, then another request, how about sharing it with the Congregation during Christian Formation hour with several short “sits”. I am happy it is bearing fruit but really wanted someone else to do it. Ha, God says, let’s have you! Anyway I hope one day we might get you to Charlotte, NC. Contemplation is so needed in our world today. Bless you,

  3. I just received the book a couple days ago and I’m already loving it! So, thank you for writing the book. I’ve been looking for something similar for awhile. Anyway, do you think you’ll ever write a book detailing the mystics that are not part of Christianity?

    • It’s not currently on my to-do list, but you never know. In the meantime, take a look at this book, which is specifically about the mysticism of light but which definitely provides insight into many great contemplatives across the world’s traditions: Let There Be Light by Arthur Stein and Andrew Vidich (I was their consultant for the chapter on Christianity, and also helped with copyediting the manuscript).

  4. (This will be off-topic as usual).
    Nine Inch Nails and contemplation don’t seem congruent Carl. Oh the paradox! But then my idols are James Taylor, Neil Young (acoustic), Dan Fogelberg etc, and they draw critical review as well. I play at Church. Last week I was practicing “Lord of the Dance” in my back office. When I walked into the exam room the patient condescendingly asked, “Were you in your happy place? Lord of the Dance is near the top of my list of 10 most hated liturgical songs. Peter, Paul, and Mary were good in the 60’s, but they should stay there.” She’s one of those who thinks only Gregorian Chant should be done at mass. My telling her that the children’s choir starts cheering and clapping when we play it made no difference–I’m just a dullard who has helped make a mockery of the sacred mass with my acoustic guitar and James Taylor like vocals. I think I’ll play some Nine Inch Nails next time she comes in.

    • Thanks for giving me a smile! To be honest, NIN was never in heavy rotation on my iPod, it’s just a little too dissonant for my taste. My tastes in popular music more run along the lines of Yes/Peter Gabriel/Grateful Dead/Beatles, with some guilty pleasures being Allmann Brothers and Led Zeppelin. But even that kind of much doesn’t get heard in our house too much anymore, I tend to listen mostly to classical and sacred choral. But don’t worry, I’ll never knock you for “Lord of the Dance” — that was the tune my wife and I processed to at our wedding so it has a very special place in our hearts!