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The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality Paperback – August 1, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


"Mysticism is not mystifying at all, but simple, always available, and utterly clarifying.  Carl McColman's much needed book will allow you to experience this for yourself. Christians and all Seekers will find both meat and dessert in such a full meal." - Richard Rohr, author of The Naked Now and Everything Belongs

"Charmingly and conversationally written, but also rich in nuance and thorough in its coverage and its attention to detail, The Big Book is, as its name suggests, a big ... even an enormous ... contribution to our current literature on the subject.  Highly recommended." - Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence

"Before I heard about The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I had been thinking about how such a book has been needed for a long time. Now, having read it, I'm glad we waited for Carl McColman to come along to write it. It's accessible, well-informed, balanced ... just what we needed." - Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian

"A guidebook for going deeper on the Christian mystical path, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is grounded in sound scholarship and thoughtful reflection (often surprisingly fresh and insightful!), but what makes it sing is the authenticity of the author's own contemplative journey." - Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Wisdom Jesus

"Carl McColman has both studied and practised the Christian mystical tradition, stressing its earthiness and 'ordinariness'. He holds that mysticism is not an esoteric realm, reserved for the very holy, but is what all Christian life is about. I strongly commend this book." - Kenneth Leech, author of Soul Friend

"McColman's book on Christian mysticism is a masterpiece of scholarship and wisdom. This author obviously earned his understanding of mysticism through years of research as well as his own personal spiritual journey and there is no more powerful combination for inspired writing." -Caroline Myss, author of Defy Gravity and Anatomy of the Spirit

From the Author

When I was eighteen years old, a friend of mine loaned me a copy of Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Like many folks raised in a mainstream Christian context, I had no idea that Christianity had such a rich and storied history of men and women who experienced profound, life-changing mystical encounters with God -- nor did I have any sense that such a tradition could remain relevant, even today. But Underhill's book opened the door to that wondrous spiritual world for me, and I have been an enthusiastic seeker of the mysteries ever since. I've come to believe that mysticism is Christianity's "best kept secret," and that a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, Christian mysticism can help Christians find greater meaning and joy in their faith, and help non-Christians to see the wisdom tradition that began with Jesus of Nazareth in a new light.

Given how important Underhill's book has been to my own spiritual life, I discerned a desire to write an introduction to Christian mysticism for the third millennium. While my book can never replace or supplant hers, my hope is that it can help introduce its readers to the splendor and beauty of Christian mysticism, just as Underhill's book made that introduction for me. So on a very personal level, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is my way of saying "thank you" to Underhill -- and beyond her, to God, who Christians believe is the source of all true mystical experience.

Evelyn Underhill was a brilliant scholar who spent years researching the history and literature of mysticism. Her pioneering work led to further studies by such renowned academics as Bernard McGinn, Harvey Egan, Andrew Louth, and the late Grace Jantzen. My book is designed to serve as a complement to such important researchers and theorists. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism bridges the gap between the "ivory tower" of scholarly studies of mysticism, and the everyday experience of ordinary Christians, for whom mysticism is not a topic for bookish research, but rather an invitation to a deeper experience of God. Because I assume that my readers may not know anything about mysticism (or, for that matter, anything about Christianity!), it can be an ideal introductory book.

My spiritual journey, like that of many seekers in our time, has been marked by a variety of twists and turns. I was raised a Lutheran Christian, moving to the Episcopal/Anglican communion as a young adult. But I was also drawn to the wisdom of other traditions, including Buddhism and Neopaganism. Eventually I spent about seven years outside of Christianity, exploring Wicca, shamanism, Goddess spirituality, Celtic Druidism, Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, among other spiritual paths. But the Christian contemplative path called me back, and in my 40s I entered the Catholic Church, placing myself under the spiritual guidance of Cistercian monks and Benedictine wisdom. What all this means is that I've been able to ponder the meaning of Christian mysticism for people both inside and outside the institutional expression of Christianity (the church). With this in mind, I endeavored to write The Big Book of Christian Mysticism both for Christians who might be new to the topic of mysticism, but also for people outside of the Christian tradition, who may or may not be students of the mysteries, but who are unfamiliar with how mysticism has been uniquely experienced and expressed within the lineage of those who follow Jesus of Nazareth.

Mysticism is a wonderful "location" of spiritual experience, particularly for those who are more drawn to what unites all people, rather than what separates us. All through history, Christian mystics have been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue: the great conversation between people of different religions. Unlike how some Christians too often approach "others" merely as targets for conversion, the great mystics and contemplatives of the Christian faith, especially in the recent past and present, see mysticism as the bridge that enables fruitful and positive interaction across religious boundaries. Thus, Thomas Merton explored Buddhism, and Henri Le Saux became so immersed in Vedanta that he even took a new religious name as Swami Abhishiktananda. More recently, contemplatives like Cynthia Bourgeault, Tilden Edwards, Mary Margaret Funk, and Paul Knitter have been leaders on the frontier where Christian spirituality engages with the wisdom of other traditions. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is not an interfaith book per se: it really is intended to serve as an introduction to the distinctively Christian expression of mysticism. But it is written as a contribution to an understanding of spirituality that is both deep (as in deeply-rooted in the Christian path) and inclusive (open to the wisdom of others). It is my hope that readers who do not identify as Christians will nevertheless find in this book a lovely expression of a particular stream of spirituality. Meanwhile, those readers who do identify as Christians will find themselves called to a deeper, richer, more intimate, and hopefully transformational dimension of their faith.

One final word: I'm rather embarrassed by the book's title. Here's the inside story. My editor came up with the idea of calling this work the "big book" because, in early conversations before I actually started writing it, we envisioned a tome rather like Underhill's: 500+ pages long, providing more information about mysticism than you'll ever need. But as I wrote the book, I began to question whether my goal of writing an accessible introduction to Christian mysticism would really be served by making this book so long that it could seem intimidating. My editor agreed, and eventually the book ended up being about half the length we originally thought it would be. Which I'm perfectly happy with -- except neither he nor I thought to revise the title. Oops! I've had a few readers scratch their heads over how "little" this "Big Book" is. Thankfully, only a couple of snarky reviewers have attacked the title, and then there's Richard Rohr, who very kindly told me he thought the title was "whimsical." Maybe in a future edition we can drop "The Big Book of" and just call this work Christian Mysticism: A Guide to Contemplative Spirituality. But for now, it is what it is. I humbly hope you'll order yourself a copy. Just don't be surprised at how "normal-sized" this so-called "Big Book" is!

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing (August 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1571746242
  • ISBN-13: 978-1571746245
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #160,549 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Alex Tang on August 12, 2010
Format: Paperback
I read Carl McColman's The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality (2010, Hampton Roads Publishing) while on a long flight from Singapore to South Africa, and reflected on the book while I was on safari in Kruger National Park. Amidst the raw chill of a morning on the African savannah plain while watching a glorious sunrise, adoration for the divine fills my heart, and I had a glimpse of what the mystics of all ages have been trying to explain to us. It resonates with what McColman writes about Christian mysticism,

"Christian mysticism is all about experience - the experience of union with God, or of God. But it is also about a spiritual reality that undermines experience itself, deconstructing all your masks and self-defen[c]es (sic) and leaving you spiritually naked and vulnerable before the silence of the Great Mystery. It is the spirituality of bringing heaven to earth, and of going through hell while here on earth in order to get to heaven" (p.9).

McColman structures his book into two parts. The first part explains what mysticism especially Christian mysticism is and the second is how to be a mystic through a contemplative life. The book is written in such an easy to understand way that a reader may easily miss how much knowledge and experience is needed to make such a complex subject appear simple. I discern that McColman has depth knowledge of many of the Christian mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, author of the Cloud of Unknowing and Hildegard of Bingen.

McColman's writing reflects the output of a gentle and kind soul who wants to share what he knows but is fearful of the repercussions. He walks gingerly through the minefield of what we commonly called mysticism.
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I loved this book. I enjoyed the author's writing style and although it is jam packed with information it was not boring at ALL. I found it both practical and inspiring. Maybe that's because I was spiritually hungry for this topic. I have been a Christian for decades, and have become interested in Christian mysticism as a way to make myself available to God. American Christianity talks a big game about having relationship with God, but if I am honest about my own life I desire much more than just reading my Bible and me talking to God through prayer. I rarely feel Him communicating with me. Sure, I feel His presence, and it's not that I doubt my faith, but mysticism seems like a practical way to make space in my inner being for God to take up residence and actually change me. This book helped me understand the difference between Eastern meditation and spirituality and the rich tradition that Christianity has. I don't need to find an Indian guru to journey into the "unknowing". This book has a great list of books for further reading, too. So it answered all my basic questions, gave me direction to actually experience silence, solitude, meditation, contemplation, lectio divina for myself and paradoxically filled me with questions and ultimately a desire to learn more. Paradoxes abound in this book, and I realized, in life. Mysticism changes nothing, and changes everything. After years of dreading the Christian "quiet time" I now look forward to my 30 minutes of solitude with the God of the universe. What a relief.
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This is one of those few books in which the author combines his knowledge of the "what" with the "how" and in doing so, he provides a solid theoretical look into Christian mysticism as well as practical steps and advice that one can use in their own journey towards fostering a deeper, more intimate, and experiential relationship with God. What is contained in these pages are tried and true, authentic Christian practices and teachings, and any Christian interested in the mystical aspect of Christianity would find this book to be a great companion on the journey. The author maintains a distinctively Christian approach to mysticism while not being "preachy" about it, and for this reason, I think seekers from all traditions would find value in reading this work as well. This book belongs on the bookshelf of any aspiring contemplative.
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I find Carl McColman's steady, gentle pace of his presentation to be just right. I think one of the main goals of presenting and discussing the inherent mysticism in not only the roots of the Christian faith but also in the daily spiritual life of a Christian, is that it should entice and encourage exploration rather than alienate. Because many people nowadays are 'too busy' to do their own research or even to regularly read the Bible, they have instead developed a hair trigger response of automatic offense if a different word is used, or because the message doesn't come from an authority they have entrusted to keep their faith 'safe' for them. It is so much easier to entrust the maintenance of your faith to an 'authority' rather than explore the very dangerous territory of what God may want to do in the individual's life. After all, you may be sent to Nineveh.
Despite that the modern view of Christianity is one only of allegiance and compliance (kind of like thinking of citizenship as voting, paying bills, and doing taxes), true Christianity is about a relationship with God. Of course this relationship can never be captured, because it is one of love. A parent sets rules for his or her child, but to say that those rules are the entirety of parenthood or family life would be ludicrous. So this book, or any book, cannot adequately encompass all of God or all of our relationship with God. But it tries, and within those limits I think it has at least a partial success.
I think one of the worst, maybe even the absolute worst aspect of the fall of man was that it brought separation between all of us, and separation of us from God. And yet there is still a connection. Maybe it's buried deep and hard to find, but it is there.
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