The Little Book of Christian Mysticism: Essential Wisdom of Saints, Seers, and Sages

The Little Book of Christian Mysticism: Essential Wisdom of Saints, Seers, and Sages

by Carl McColman

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With over 300 quotations, this book invites the reader to delve into the writings of the great contemplatives and mystics of the past two thousand years.

The Little Book of Christian Mysticism provides a user-friendly, insightful, and potentially life-changing introduction to the essential teachings of the greatest mystics in the western wisdom traditions, past and present, including Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich. Readers can use this book to initiate themselves into this visionary and ecstatic spiritual lineage, and they can also use it as a book of daily meditations. Small enough to fit in one's pocket or handbag, this is truly a user-friendly introduction to this venerable body of wisdom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612833866
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Carl McColman is the author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Christian Mystics, and Answering the Contemplative Call, as well as a popular website (www.carlmccolman.com) and blog (www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman) devoted to Christian and world mysticism. His writing has appeared on Huffington Post, Patheos, Beliefnet, and Contemplative Journal. Carl lives near Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt


Every heart shelters within it a place of infinite longing. The German word for this is sehnsucht — which suggests a longing that is painful yet beautiful, so lovely that the ache of the yearning is itself a fulfillment. Alas, we live in such a noisy world, clanging with the chaos of our distracted minds and restless passions, so we often remain oblivious to our deepest yearning. Yet when we slow down and silence ourselves enough to recognize this desire for something that we cannot put into words, life will never be the same. We will follow that silent whisper in our hearts forever.

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

Psalm 42:1-2

The innate longings of the self for more life, more love, an ever greater or fuller experience, attains a complete realization in the lofty mystical state called union with God.

Evelyn Underhill

Contemplate the hart of which David sings, weary with the chase, breathless, spent, plunging into the water, as though he would lose himself in its refreshing depths. Even so our heart, ever unsatisfied in this life in its infinite longings, rushes to God, its Living, satisfying Fount, in the next. There, as the famished babe cleaves to its mother's breast as though it would fain absorb it, so our panting soul cleaves to God as though to be for ever absorbed in Him, and He in us!

Francis de Sales

For our natural Will is to have God, and the Good will of God is to have us; and we may never cease from longing till we have Him in fullness of joy.

Julian of Norwich

To those who long for the presence of God, the thought of him is sweet, yet they are not satiated, but hunger ever more for him who will satisfy them, as he who is our food testifies of himself, saying, "they who eat me shall still hunger," and he who was fed said, "I will be satisfied when your glory appears."

Bernard of Clairvaux

Let us consider our soul as a castle, composed entirely of diamonds, or very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions ... I know of nothing to which I can compare the great beauty of a soul, and its wonderful capacity. Truly, however enlarged our understanding may be, it is unable to comprehend the beauty of a soul, just as it cannot comprehend who God is; for He saith Himself, that He created us to His own image and likeness.

Teresa of Ávila

I am not now living in myself, And without God I cannot live; For without God, I am also without myself.

John of the Cross

When you were living like an ordinary Christian in the company of your worldly friends, the everlasting love of the Godhead, by which God made you and formed you when you were nothing, and then bought you with the price of His precious blood when you were lost in Adam, would not permit you to be so far from Him in form and degree of living. Therefore He kindled your desire full graciously, and fastened by it a leash of longing, and led you by it into a more special state and form of living, to be a servant among God's special servants, where you might learn to live more specially and more ghostly in His service than you did, or might do, in your previous way of life. But even then, He would not leave you thus lightly, for the love of His heart which He always had for you. See how lovingly and graciously God has brought you to this singular way of life, where, in solitude, you may learn to lift up the foot of your love; and step towards that state and degree of living that is perfect.

Anonymous (The Cloud of Unknowing)

You inspire us to delight in praising You; for You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.

Augustine of Hippo

During the days of His life on earth, Mary's Divine Son spoke these words: "If you ask the Father anything in My Name, He will give it you." Therefore I am certain You will fulfill my longing. O my God, I know that the more You wish to bestow, the more You make us desire. In my heart I feel boundless desires, and I confidently beseech You to take possession of my soul.

Thérèse of Lisieux

There are deeps in our consciousness which no private plumb line of our own can sound; there are heights in our moral conscience which no ladder of our human intelligence can scale; there are spiritual hungers, longings, yearnings, passions, which find no explanation in terms of our physical inheritance or of our outside world. We touch upon the coasts of a deeper universe, not yet explored or mapped, but no less real and certain than this one in which our mortal senses are at home. We cannot explain our normal selves or account for the best things we know — or even for our condemnation of our poorer, lower self — without an appeal to and acknowledgment of a divine Guest and Companion who is the real presence of our central being.

Rufus Jones


No one chooses to be a mystic. You may choose your profession, your interests, and your passions, but the mystical life is a calling, and we do not call ourselves. It is God's call. Of course, God has chosen you, for God calls everyone; in the words of a Carmelite friar, "the mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic." You are called to be the person God has created you to be, which may or may not line up with your own ideas. Nevertheless, we are all called to the possibility of deep intimacy with God, and even invited into profound union with God. All of us. So the question is, how will you answer your call?

But now thus says the Lord ... "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you."

Isaiah 43:1-2

The homeward journey of our spirit, then, may be thought of as due to the push of a divine life within, answering to the pull of a divine life without. It is only possible because there is already in that spirit a certain kinship with the Divine, a capacity for Eternal Life; and the mystics, in undertaking it, are humanity's pioneers on the only road to rest ... The spiritual pilgrim goes because he is called; because he wants to go, must go, if he is to find rest and peace. "God needs man," says Eckhart. It is Love calling to love: and the journey, though in one sense a hard pilgrimage, up and out, by the terraced mount and the ten heavens to God, in another is the inevitable rush of the roving comet, caught at last, to the Central Sun. "My weight is my love," said St. Augustine. Like gravitation, it inevitably compels, for good or evil, every spirit to its own place. According to another range of symbols, that love flings open a door, in order that the larger Life may rush in, and it and the soul be "one thing."

Evelyn Underhill

True devotion presupposes, not a partial, but a thorough love of God. For inasmuch as divine love adorns the soul, it is called grace, making us pleasing to the Divine Majesty: inasmuch as it gives us the strength to do good, it is called charity; but when it has arrived at that degree of perfection, by which it not only makes us act well, but also work diligently, frequently, and readily, then it is called devotion.

Francis de Sales

Suddenly the Trinity fulfilled my heart with most joy. And so I understood that in heaven it shall be, without end. For the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Julian of Norwich

If you would grasp Christ, you will do so sooner by following him than by reading of him ... Believe me as one who has experience, you will find much more among the woods than ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.

Bernard of Clairvaux

This Lord of ours is so anxious that we should desire Him and strive after His companionship that He calls us ceaselessly, time after time, to approach Him.

Teresa of Ávila

Have an interior desire that God may give you all He knows to be needful for you, to His greater honor and glory.

Have a continual trust in God, esteeming in yourself and in your brethren that which He most esteems; namely, spiritual good.

The more God gives, the more He makes us desire; until He leaves us empty that He may fill us with His blessings.

So pleased is God with the soul hoping in Him, and looking to nothing else, that it may be truly said the more that soul hopes for, the more it obtains.

John of the Cross

When our Lord said to Mary, who personifies all sinners that are called to the contemplative life, "Your sins are forgiven," it was not because of her great sorrow, nor for her remembering of her sins, nor even for her meekness from the beholding of her wretched state. But why then? Surely because she loved much.

Anonymous (The Cloud of Unknowing)

The Sun is but a little spark of His infinite love: the Sea is but one drop of His goodness. But what flames of love ought that spark to kindle in your soul: what seas of affection ought to flow for that drop in your bosom! The heavens are the canopy, and the earth is the footstool of your throne: who reign in communion with God: or at least are called so to do. How lively should His divine goodness appear unto you; how continually should it rest upon you; how deeply should it be impressed in you! Verily its impressions ought to be so deep, as to be always remaining, always felt, always admired, always seen and rejoiced in. You are never truly great till all the world is yours: and the goodness of your Donor so much your joy, that you think upon it all day long.

Thomas Traherne

Fill your lungs deeply with God so that you can breathe Christ into the world.

Caryll Houselander

God does not call those who are worthy, but those whom He will.

Thérèse of Lisieux

And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.

Kahlil Gibran


It takes guts to embrace the mystical life. If we think of spirituality and mysticism as "nice" concerns of only those who are polite and well-mannered, then we haven't fully considered just how terrifying the encounter with the Divine can be. The Bible may promise us that the pure in heart will see God, but it also warns that no one may see the face of God and live. Even before we consider the world-shattering power of the mystical encounter, we know that people die for their faith every day. Can we expect any less? Contemplatives must embody the courage of a martyr's heart, never knowing when the time of trial may come — or what death may come to call us into a new, but very different, way of life.

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

II Timothy 1:7

More and more advancing in this inner life, the soul will feel the imperative attraction of Reality, of God; and it must respond to this attraction with all the courage and generosity of which it is capable. I am trying to use the simplest and the most general language, and to avoid emotional imagery: though it is here, in telling of this perpetually renewed act of self-giving and dedication, that spiritual writers most often have recourse to the language of the heart. It is indeed in a spirit of intensest and humble adoration that generous souls yield themselves to the drawing of that mysterious Beauty and unchanging Love, with all that it entails.

Evelyn Underhill

There are two chief developments of our love towards God, one affective, the other effective ... By the first we give our affections to God and to that which He loves; by the second we serve Him, and obey His commands. The one unites us to His Goodness, the other causes us to fulfill His Will. The one inspires the love of complacence and benevolence, longings, and aspirations which tend to the union of our soul with God; the other fills us with the steadfast resolution, firm courage, and hearty obedience which are requisite to carry out God's Will, to suffer and accept willingly whatever it may be His Good Pleasure to send us.

Francis de Sales

We find meaning by abiding in God, faithfully trusting in God's mercy and grace. This is his own working in us, and of his goodness he opens the eye of our understanding — by which we have sight, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to our God-given ability to receive.

Julian of Norwich

I desire to serve only charity.

Bernard of Clairvaux

It is of great importance, when we begin to practice prayer, not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.

Teresa of Ávila

Everyone wants to receive the treasures and consolations of God; but very few are willing to enter into tribulations and sorrows for the Son of God.

John of the Cross

Lean meekly into the blind stirring of love in your heart. I do not mean your bodily heart, but rather your spiritual heart, which is to say, your will.

Anonymous (The Cloud of Unknowing)

The very discovery of the nearness of God, of the sustaining power of His love, of the sufficiency of His grace, has come to men in all ages through pain, and suffering and loss. We always go for comfort to those who have passed through deeps of life and we may well trust Christ when He tells us that it is not the lotus-eater but the sufferer who is in the way of blessing and is forming the spirit of the Kingdom.

Rufus Jones

The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.

Howard Thurman

He that sets himself to serve our Lord (especially in so high and divine an employment as contemplation) must prepare his soul for temptations greater and more unusual than formerly he had experience of; the which temptations will come from all coasts, both from without and within.

Augustine Baker


Those who criticize the mystical life argue that it is a form of escapism, an attempt to avoid the gritty reality of embodied life. But that is not what the greatest mystics have taught. Far from rejecting reality, mystical wisdom urges a more authentic immersion into what is real: and that immersion begins with an honest encounter with one's own self. From the Buddha to the Oracle at Delphi, spiritual sages the world over proclaim, "know yourself." Christianity is no different. True, authentic self-knowledge leads to humility and mindfulness. It is also the mystic's path to God. Think of it this way: if we do not take strides to know ourselves, how can we ever know another — including the "ultimate" Other?

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!

II Corinthians 13:5

Few can bear to contemplate themselves face to face; for the vision is strange and terrible, and brings awe and contrition in its wake. The life of the seer is changed by it for ever.

Evelyn Underhill

Does not all such rousing and kindling of the soul to better things come of God? Is it not all done in and for us? We are roused, but we did not rouse ourselves; the Spirit of God roused us, and to this end it moved us. "I sleep, but my Heart (i.e. the Bridegroom) wakes," He calls me by His Love, and I know His Voice. God calls us suddenly, and as it were startles us.

Francis de Sales

God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me. I may ask nothing less that is fully to your worship, and if I do ask anything less, ever shall I be in want. Only in you I have all.

Julian of Norwich

Let not the creature, but the Creator be praised. Let Him who gives, not he who has received, be exalted: not he who plants nor he who waters are to be praised, for they are nothing, but He who gives the increase, that is God. I, then, will praise the hand which is stretched out to give, not that stretched out to receive: the praise of the Lord, and not of His servant shall come out of my mouth.

Bernard of Clairvaux

If we can journey along a safe and level path, why should we want wings to fly? Rather, let's strive to make more progress in self-knowledge, for in my opinion we shall never completely know ourselves if we don't strive to know God.

Teresa of Ávila

The first thing the soul must have in order to attain to the knowledge of God is the knowledge of itself.


As long as the soul is one with the mortal body, no matter how sharp our understanding may be — in beholding of all spiritual things, but most specially of God — it is always muddied by some manner of fantasy; which leaves our spiritual practice unclean.

Anonymous (The Cloud of Unknowing)


Excerpted from "The Little Book of Christian Mysticism"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Carl McColman.
Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Part One: Purification, I–XI,
Part Two: Illumination, XII–XXII,
Part Three: Divinization, XXIII–XXXIII,
For Further Reading,

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