The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality

By Debie Thomas

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Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality (San Francisco: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2010), 310pp.

One of the great Christian theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, once predicted that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” And yet many Christians assume that mysticism belongs to the spiritual traditions of the East, to Hinduism or Zen Buddhism. McColman’s book attempts to correct this mistaken assumption by offering a broad introduction to Christian mysticism — to its history, its defining characteristics, its mysterious paradoxes, and its relevance to contemporary life. McColman begins by tracing Christian mysticism back to its roots in the New Testament, and insists that contemplative practices are not New Age add-ons to Christianity, but an integral part of the religion’s founding and evolution. He explores the wisdom and insights of many great mystics from the past two thousand years of Church history, including Augustine of Hippo, Hildegard of Bingen, Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, and Thomas Merton.

He then describes the practices themselves — lectio divina, meditation, contemplative prayer, silence, holy living, church attendance, spiritual direction — as “keys to the mystery,” exploring each practice in ways that are easily accessible for beginners and seasoned practitioners alike. Throughout the book, McColman argues that the point of Christian mysticism is not to win God’s love (God’s love is a given), but rather to open ourselves up to receive God’s love, and give it away to those around us.

He concludes the book with an extensive reading list, and several additional resources on the contemplative tradition. For anyone interested in exploring the who, what, where, when, and why of Christian mysticism, McColman’s “big book” is a great place to begin.

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