Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages celebrates the many types of mystics, visionaries, wisdom keepers, and non-dualists whose spiritual insight and perceptive teachings have illuminated the Christian tradition for the past two thousand years. Looking at 108 mystics from Biblical times to the present day, this user-friendly guide shows how the spiritual masters of the western tradition provide a variety of paths into the transforming heart of God.
Everyone needs teachers and companions to guide and nurture us in developing rich interior lives -- as we seek to respond to the beatifying, deifying love of God. The mystics, whose legacy includes sublime poetry, fascinating autobiographies, and potentially life-changing teachings, can help anyone find greater love, purpose, and a deeper sense of God's presence.
But the mystics are not a uniform bunch, which is why this book is such an essential guide to their lives, wisdom, and essential teachings. Carl McColman, author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, organizes the mystics into nine categories: visionaries, confessors, lovers, poets, saints, heretics, wisdom keepers, soul-friends, and unitives. By profiling twelve examples of great mystics and spiritual teachers in each category, the book can help you to learn more about the mystics, and identify those whose writings will be most valuable to you as you pursue your own adventure of falling ever more deeply in love with God.
All of the most famous Christian mystics are profiled here: figures like Teresa of Ávila, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, and anonymous masters like the authors of classics like The Cloud of Unknowing or The Way of a Pilgrim. But the book also will introduce you to many lesser known (but truly wonderful) mystical geniuses, such as Beatrice of Nazareth, Gregory of Narek, and Coventry Patmore. Nor does the book shy away from living (or recently living) mystics: visionaries such as Howard Thurman, Sara Grant, Kenneth Leech, and Bruno Barnhart are all included.
This informative volume will appeal to those who buy religious reference books and anyone interested in Christian mysticism or western spirituality. But it's more than just a history book or an encyclopedia: Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages is a curated celebration of western spiritual wisdom, making it accessible for all seekers today.
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About the Author
Carl McColman is a blogger, author, and spiritual director based in Stone Mountain, Georgia. He is the author of ten previous books exploring spirituality from a variety of perspectives.
Read an Excerpt
108 Seers, Saints, and Sages
By Carl McColman
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Carl McColman
All rights reserved.
"Visions and voices are such frequent accompaniments of the mystic life, that they cannot be ignored," wrote Evelyn Underhill in 1911. Writing a book in which she was attempting to defend mysticism from its skeptical or rationalist critics, she makes this admission rather begrudgingly. And yet, she's right. Visionary phenomena may be on the fringe of religion as a whole, but it is much more common in the lives of at least some mystics.
Not all mystics, Christian or otherwise, are visionaries, and I suppose one could also say that not all visionaries truly are mystics. One could have visions simply as a result of mental illness or an overactive imagination. For that matter, many mystics would say that visions could just as easily come from the devil as from an angel or God. In other words, having a vision in itself means very little. To discern that a vision is truly mystical (i.e., it comes from God) requires careful and prayerful consideration. Teresa of Ávila (whom you will meet shortly) believed that visions or other extraordinary phenomena mattered far less than the humble matter of loving and serving one's neighbors — that was the mark of truly being touched by God.
Visions, like the mystics who have them, come in many different forms. For some, like Julian of Norwich, a visionary encounter is truly singular and extraordinary: Julian had sixteen visions in a single twenty-four-hour period, and if she ever had another one, she doesn't say. On the other hand, Hildegard of Bingen began to have visions while still a young girl, and she proceeded to fill several books with accounts of her many visions that she continued to receive throughout her long life (she lived to be eighty-one, a remarkable feat in the twelfth century).
Visions can be spiritual, intellectual, or bodily in nature, meaning that they might come in the midst of a dream, an imaginal encounter with heaven, or a can-you-believe-it encounter with non-ordinary reality. Visions also have a wide variety of content: most are filled with typical spiritual imagery (God, Jesus, Mary, angels), but others seem to be surprisingly creative or original (Hildegard saw viriditas, a kind of spiritual energy flowing through all creation that seems very much like the Force from Star Wars).
What are we to make of mystical visions? Like Jesus walking on water, such phenomena may seem hard to swallow — it's too easy in our skeptical age to dismiss such incidents as little more than psychological drama. Evelyn Underhill, following a long tradition of Christian mystics, felt that visions themselves should not be taken too seriously; what matters is the spirituality of the visionary. I think this is a helpful rule of thumb.
A Trappist monk read an early draft of this book and suggested that I not put visionaries at the beginning. He was concerned that it could give the impression that supernatural phenomena are more important to mysticism than they truly are. I see it the other way around: I'm leading off with visionaries precisely because, of all the characteristics of mysticism — beholding God's presence, cultivating a compassionate heart, maintaining a daily practice of prayer or meditation, and so forth — having visions is actually the least important. Even though some visionaries (like Teresa of Ávila) are among the greatest of mystics, when it comes to all the various qualities of the mystics, well, we're starting at the bottom and working our way up.
Enjoy the stories of the visionaries in the pages to come, but remember the wisdom of Julian of Norwich, who insisted that the point behind extraordinary graces is only to grow in the love of God. Someone who has never had a vision but who loved God better than Julian was, to her, further along the path.
Adrienne von Speyr (1902–1967)
Adrienne von Speyr, a mystic in the most skeptical of ages, the twentieth century, is remarkable not only for her spiritual genius but also because she was a renowned physician. Furthermore, she is noteworthy for her close friendship with one of the great theologians of her time, the Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar. Like many visionaries, her extraordinary encounters with angels or saints began in childhood. She had a vision of Saint Ignatius of Loyola when she was six years old; nine years later she saw the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels and saints.
After becoming the first woman in Switzerland licensed to practice medicine, she met von Balthasar in 1940 and shortly thereafter entered the Catholic Church. Although she struggled with health issues, she continued to work as a doctor until 1954. At this time she also began dictating her prolific, visionary mystical writings to von Balthasar, eventually completing over twenty-five books, including devotional commentaries on scripture, meditations on Mary and the saints, and reflections on topics such as prayer and contemplation. Even her writing has a "visionary" quality to it, since she dictated from a state of deep contemplative absorption into the presence of God. Von Balthasar once noted that "a veritable cataract of mystical graces poured over Adrienne in a seemingly chaotic storm that whirled her in all directions at once. Graces in prayer above all: she was transported beyond all vocal prayer or self-directed meditation in order to be set down somewhere after an indeterminate time with new understanding, new love and new resolutions."
"God relates to the world, not just in speech, but also in silence," writes von Speyr in her book The Boundless God, setting forth a theme we will see again and again: that the heart of mysticism and contemplation is silence; not just human silence, but indeed a heavenly silence: the silence of God.
The Boundless God by Adrienne von Speyr, translated by Helena M. Tomko (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004).
Birgitta of Sweden (ca. 1303–1373)
Birgitta of Sweden was widely renowned as a visionary during her lifetime and shortly after; she was canonized as a saint in 1391, less than twenty years after her death. Born of a wealthy Swedish family, she married young and gave birth to eight children — one of whom, Catherine, became friends with another great mystic, Catherine of Siena. After Birgitta's husband died, she founded a religious order and moved to Rome.
A visionary since childhood, her "celestial revelations" included scenes from the life of Christ, including the nativity and the crucifixion. She became associated with a popular medieval devotional practice of saying certain prayers for each wound that Christ suffered during his passion; in a vision, Christ told Birgitta that he'd received a total of 5,480 such wounds. Her visions are rich with detail, including many questions posed to Christ or Mary about religious or philosophical matters, each answered patiently. For example, when asked why spiritual people still commit sins, Christ replied, "I, God, am charity; and where I am, there is freedom. Therefore he who accepts my Spirit has the ability to sin if he wishes, because every human being has free will."
Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations, edited by Marguerite Tjader Harris, translated by Albert Ryle Kezel (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).
Elisabeth of Schönau (1129–1164)
Elisabeth of Schönau made her profession as a Benedictine nun in 1147 and began to receive visions in 1152, when she was only twenty-three years old. Over the remaining years of her short life (she died in her mid-thirties), she received enough visions to fill six books, along with instructions to write letters of admonition to various religious leaders of her day. Elisabeth corresponded with one of the great visionaries of her time, Hildegard of Bingen, and sent letters to many other religious figures, including the abbots of monasteries and bishops. Most of her visions consist of ordinary religious symbolism, including apparitions of the Virgin Mary, angels, the devil, and various biblical figures. She also saw scenes from biblical history. Such visions usually included some sort of exhortation, admonitions, instruction, or consolation, such as the time she saw Mary standing in "a wheel of great light." The Blessed Mother marked Elisabeth with the sign of the cross and silently communicated to her, "Do not fear, because these things [her visions, which must certainly have been awe-inspiring] will not harm you at all."
Elisabeth of Schönau: The Complete Works, translated by Anne L. Clark (New York: Paulist Press, 2000).
Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani (1878–1903)
Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani became renowned in her day as a visionary, ecstatic, and stigmatist. An intelligent child, she contracted spinal meningitis as a young adult, only to be miraculously healed shortly before her twenty-first birthday. About this time her mystical visions began, leading to the night before the Feast of the Sacred Heart, 1899, when she went into a rapture and saw the Virgin Mary (who covered her with her cloak) and Christ — from whom flames of fire emerged, striking Gemma's hands, feet, and heart and leaving her with the stigmata. During another rapturous vision, Jesus took his crown of thorns and placed it on Gemma's head, causing her to suffer along with him.
She shared her visions with her confessor, who at first didn't believe her but eventually instructed her to keep a diary and to write her autobiography, in which she recorded numerous extraordinary events. Despite healing from meningitis, her ill health returned. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the fall of 1902, leading to her death on Holy Saturday the following spring, just a few weeks after her twenty-fifth birthday.
While the Catholic hierarchy was initially hesitant to accept her story (skeptics dismissed her as suffering from a mental illness), by 1940 the Church declared her a saint.
Gemma Galgani insisted that she spoke to her guardian angel, Jesus, Mary, and various saints. Her writings seem very simple and perhaps even naive, especially when compared to the philosophical masterworks of other, more educated mystics. But what shines through is a profound love for God, sorrow for her sins, and a tremendous desire to be worthy of the unconditional love that she encountered through her visions and ecstasies.
The Saint Gemma Galgani Collection by Gemma Galgani (London: Catholic Way Publishing, 2013).
George MacDonald (1824–1905)
George MacDonald, a minister of the Church of Scotland, found a higher calling as a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Much of his fiction is imbued with fantasy and wonder, visionary literature that inspired some of the great writers of the twentieth century, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L'Engle, and especially C. S. Lewis, who called MacDonald his "master." Lewis edited an anthology of excerpts from MacDonald's works and paid homage to this Scottish mystic by having him appear as a character in Lewis's dream-novel about hell and heaven, The Great Divorce.
MacDonald is not a visionary in the traditional sense of someone who receives extraordinary, ecstatic encounters with the Divine. Rather, his visionary genius manifested in creativity — through his ability to write stories about magical worlds filled with a sense of numinous mystery. Even MacDonald's sermons and other nonfiction writing shimmers with mystical insight. Take, for example, this excerpt from MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons, "The New Name":
Each of us is a distinct flower or tree in the spiritual garden of God, — precious, each for his own sake, in the eyes of him who is even now making us, — each of us watered and shone upon and filled with life, for the sake of his flower, his completed being, which will blossom out of him at last to the glory and pleasure of the great gardener. For each has within him a secret of the Divinity; each is growing towards the revelation of that secret to himself, and so to the full reception, according to his measure, of the divine. Every moment that he is true to his true self, some new shine of the white stone breaks on his inward eye, some fresh channel is opened upward for the coming glory of the flower, the conscious offering of his whole being in beauty to the Maker ...
Life and action, thought and intent, are sacred. And what an end lies before us! To have a consciousness of our own ideal being flashed into us from the thought of God! Surely for this may well give way all our paltry self-consciousnesses, our self-admirations and self-worships! Surely to know what he thinks about us will pale out of our souls all our thoughts about ourselves! and we may well hold them loosely now, and be ready to let them go.
In Listening for the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell writes about the Celtic wisdom at the heart of MacDonald's visionary writing:
MacDonald was reared on the old Celtic stories and legends of the West and in time allowed these to shape the spirituality that he was to express through his fictional works. Many of his stories have been read particularly by the young, but he claimed to write for the "childlike," both young and old, that is, for those who see with the eyes of a child. His works of the imagination strove to recover the inner faculty of sight whereby God may be seen within us, among us and in all the things of creation.
Is there a relationship between the imagination (such as inspired writers like MacDonald or, for that matter, C. S. Lewis) and mystical vision (such as fueled the mystical wisdom of a Birgitta of Sweden or Elizabeth of Schönau)? I believe so — not to reduce mystical visions to mere imagination, but to recognize that at its most exalted, the human imagination might usher us to the very threshold of the divine mysteries.
Unspoken Sermons, Series I, II and III by George MacDonald (public domain Kindle edition).
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
Hildegard of Bingen stands as one of the most colorful and remarkable of mystics of any age. A Benedictine abbess, Hildegard was a Renaissance woman who lived several centuries before the Renaissance. More than just a mystic and visionary, she was also an accomplished musician, an artist (or, at least, an art director), a preacher, an herbalist, a prophet, and a respected leader in the church of her day. She lived at a time when women had no channels open to them to influence public opinion or assert their own will, and yet she managed to form the right relationships with the right people in order to ensure that her voice would be heard. As the first major woman mystic in Western Christianity, she paved the way for others who are now regarded as some of the greatest of Christian spiritual teachers: Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Ávila, and Maria Faustina Kowalska all stand on the shoulders of this spiritual giant.
By her own admission, Hildegard was a lifelong visionary. She first encountered the lux vivens, or "living light," when only three years old and went on to write three books about her extraordinary revelations, the last one completed only a few years before she died. At first she made no effort to publicize her mystical visions, but in her forty-second year she received instructions to commit her story to writing. Recognizing that women did not routinely write about their spirituality, she shrewdly appealed to Bernard of Clairvaux for advice, and he in turn appealed to the Pope, who issued a written statement approving of Hildegard's work.
The visions themselves range from the luminously beautiful to the starkly terrifying. In her writings, she combines vivid descriptions of what she saw with detailed reflections on their meaning. Part of what makes Hildegard so remarkable a figure — and appealing to us today — is that she created (or instructed one of her sister nuns to create) illuminations to illustrate many of the visions. While much of the content of her seeing is predictably religious in nature, filled with the glory of God and the depiction of biblical stories, plenty of meaningful insight characterized her experiences. By providing both literary and visual records of her visions, Hildegard often made subtle contributions to an alternative way of seeing even the dogmas of the Church.
For example, one of her most remarkable visions was of the Holy Trinity: the Christian understanding of God as consisting of three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Many efforts to depict the Trinity rely on abstract symbolism, such as a triangle imposed upon a circle. The circle represents the "unity" of the Oneness of God, while the triangle with its three points symbolizes each of the distinct "persons" of the Trinity.
Excerpted from Christian Mystics by Carl McColman. Copyright © 2016 Carl McColman. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Table of Contents
The Nine Categories,
Chapter 1: Visionaries,
Chapter 2: Confessors,
Chapter 3: Lovers,
Chapter 4: Poets,
Chapter 5: Saints,
Chapter 6: Heretics,
Chapter 7: Wisdom Keepers,
Chapter 8: Soul Friends,
Chapter 9: Unitives,