Can the Wisdom of the Past Speak to the Challenges of Today?
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, our ongoing national conversation about racism and justice, concerns about restoring our economy in the wake of the pandemic, and the normal challenges that an election year brings, this year seems to be like none in recent memory.
As Christians, no matter what issues or concerns may arise in our nation and in our world, we know that we are always called to be faithful to the Gospel and to the radical teachings of Jesus Christ.
But what does it mean — to follow Christ in extraordinary times? How do we apply the wisdom of the past to the challenges of our time?
This fall I am scheduled to facilitate a course on the Wisdom of Christian Mystics, co-sponsored by Columbia Theological Seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning and Montreat Conference Center. In the past this has been a popular course, often filling up and resulting in a waiting list for those who wait too long to register.
But this year, some may be asking, “How relevant is Christian mysticism to a world rocked by infectious disease; a world struggling to understand — and dismantle — the systemic sin of racism?” It’s a fair question.
The answer is, quite a lot, actually. Let’s look at just two of many women and men throughout history who are known to us as Christian mystics (if that term is unfamiliar to you, it can be defined as individuals who report a profoundly experiential encounter with the living presence of God in their lives, and who find their discipleship transformed and empowered by that encounter).
Many great saints, theologians, philosophers, poets, and ordinary men and women are renowned for being mystics. Figures as varied as St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, and Thomas Merton are regarded as mystics of the Christian tradition.
Some scholars even speculate that Martin Luther and John Calvin had their mystical side.
Christian mysticism, as historically understood, is not an “anything-goes” spirituality; the great mystics typically have been deeply formed by the Bible and by their communities of faith, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox.
But still, that nagging question: what do the mystics of the past have to say to us, today?
Let’s consider just two examples of great mystics: one Catholic and one Protestant, one male and one female, one from the 14th century and the other from the 20th. They hint at what a broad diversity of voices can be found in the annals of Christian spirituality — and they also show how timeless their wisdom truly is.
A laywoman in the 14th century whom we know as Julian of Norwich is distinguished for having written the first known book in the English language authored by a woman. The topic of that book: Divine Love. It tells the story of her own extraordinary experience of a series of visions she received while seriously ill; and the fruit of 20 years of prayer and theological reflection on what that visionary experience meant for her.
Julian was born in 1342 and died after 1416. This means she lived during at least three major outbreaks of the bubonic plague. In fact, some scholars speculate that she may have been a wife and mother, only to have lost her family during the ravages of the plague. Ironically, though, Julian’s spirituality does not exhibit any hint of pessimism or cynicism that one might expect from living through a trauma like a plague (which, it is believed, killed as much as half the population of Europe during the 14th century!). On the contrary, Julian’s spiritual theology is deeply optimistic, poetic and lyrical in its celebration of love and trust as keys to a healthy relationship with God.
Closer to our own time is the African-American Baptist preacher and theologian Howard Thurman (1899-1981). Thurman’s autobiography, With Head and Heart, reveals an articulate writer who speaks eloquently of his childhood in the segregated south (the grandson of a slave), his education and eventual career as a college chaplain, serving institutions like Howard University and Boston University. His autobiography also revealed a a rich and meaningful relationship with God that some commentators describe as mystical.
In addition to being a modern-day mystic, Thurman was also a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a series of writings, particularly his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman explored what it meant to struggle against racism in America in the light of the Gospel. It is said that King kept his copy of Jesus and the Disinherited with him at all times.
For many of us, the challenges of 2020 have been difficult, from the many casualties of COVID-19 to economic uncertainty to the painful recognition of how persistent the problem of racism remains in our society. Studying the mystics will not solve any of our problems — but they can offer us Gospel-centered wisdom that can shed light on a truly faithful response.
The course “Wisdom of the Christian Mystics” is scheduled for October 15-18, 2020. For more information or to register, visit the course’s page on the CTS website.
Carl McColman is a contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. He is the author of several books, including Befriending Silence, Answering the Contemplative Call, and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in the Huffington Post, Contemplative Journal, Patheos, as well as his own blog on Christian spirituality and contemplative living, www.carlmccolman.net.