CHICAGO — Renowned author and professor of spirituality Bernard McGinn will give a lecture at The Lay Centre on the theme, “What Is Mysticism and Is it for every Christian?”
He agreed to this brief interview for our blog ahead of his lecture in Rome, Jan. 21 at 10 a.m.
Professor McGinn is a theologian, historian, and scholar of spirituality, affiliated with the University of Chicago, where he is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies.
- What is the relevance of mysticism for living today?
Many people seem to think that what I call the “mystical element in religion” is a thing of the past. By the “mystical element,” simply put, I mean the search for a deeper, even direct, consciousness of God in our daily lives. The great mystics of the Christian tradition did, indeed, sometimes receive special gifts, such as visions, locutions, and extraordinary spiritual manifestations (e.g., stigmata). Nonetheless, as even these mystics insisted, such gifts were always secondary and totally dependent on God. The essence of mysticism is a deepening experiential love for God which allows for a greater and more effective love of neighbor. Looked at from this perspective, mysticism is as necessary—and as possible—today as it has been in the past.
2. How can mysticism penetrate and develop in the pragmatic and utilitarian approach to life so often found today?
It is true that many people today have been overtaken by a largely utilitarian and pragmatic approach to life. This makes it more difficult for them to appreciate the loving generosity of spirit that is essential to trying to live a mystical, or we can say contemplative, life. Nonetheless, even many largely secular and anti-religious people (in the sense of organized institutional religion), will claim that “they are not religious, but are deeply spiritual.” I believe that this kind of slogan, superficial as it is, speaks to the hunger for a deeper contact with God that is very marked in current society. It is up to us to try to show such searchers that “religion” and “spirituality/mysticism” are not opposed, but really interdependent.
3. What three mystics would you recommend for people to read and why are they great teachers?
In the Christian mystical tradition, which might be likened to a great symphonic orchestra, there are many kind of instruments, and some will appeal more to some people than to others. We should also remember that the great mystics, like all of us, are tied to our own historical circumstances, issues, and language. Still, there is surplus of meaning in the major mystics that allows them to speak to us directly, even today, about the meaning of the search for God. Three mystical writings that I find particularly accessible for almost any reader are Augustine’s Confessions, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.
4. How can lay Christians be mystics in the midst of their busy lives?
Karl Rahner and others have used the phrase “everyday mysticism” to describe a central aspect of Christian mysticism—that it is to be lived out in the course of daily life, not just in church or in moments of contemplative prayer. God can be found in all things, if only we really look. Meister Eckhart once preached: “When people think they are acquiring more of God in inwardness, in devotion, in sweetness and in various [religious] approaches than they do by the fireside or in the stable, they are acting just as if they took God and muffled up his head in a cloak and pushed him under a bench. Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden” (Sermon 5b). I believe the practice of everyday mysticism is essential for the church today.