1. What made you decide to write “Growing into God: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism”?
I’ve long been a student of Christian mysticism—and a practitioner, too, I might add! I was teaching a graduate course in Christian mysticism at a local university, when I realized that the only textbooks out there were either antiquated or hopelessly inept. I decided to write one myself. But because I’m me, it isn’t a textbook. I teach, but I don’t consider myself an academic. I’m a pastor—so I’m not writing for academics or even students necessarily, but for ordinary folks. My ideal reader is a Christian who wants to go deeper into her own tradition, or a non-Christian who wants to see what all the hoopla is about.
2. Readers know what I mean when I say Christianity, but what is Christian Mysticism? What is the difference?
In my mind there isn’t one. Mysticism is the very core of the Christian tradition, regardless of what denominational lens you’re viewing it through. The problem is, most Christians have either forgotten this, or they don’t recognize what they believe as being “mystical.” Mysticism is the pursuit of—or enjoyment of—union with the Divine. Since all Christians believe that they are united with God (or Christ or the Holy Spirit) in some fashion, all Christians are mystics. But unfortunately, we in the Christian tradition have done a pretty lousy job of communicating our tradition, even amongst ourselves. We’ve made it so sin-centric that we’ve sapped it of its joy—and that’s just not the way of Jesus at all. Christianity isn’t about sin or guilt or blame. It’s about life and transformation and making love to God. (There, that should get me on some Christian fuddy-duddy’s hit list.)
Sure. First, Evelyn Underhill describes a step zero, called “Awakening,” that kicks everything off. This is a mystical experience that just kind of comes out of nowhere and knocks you upside the head. You go, “WTF? What the hell was that?” This is kind of the “God as heroin dealer” model. The first taste is free, but you know you’ll want more, and soon you’re hooked. Which is good, because the next step is very hard. The mystics call it “Purgation” and it’s the first step in the classical model. Once you’ve had an Awakening experience, you see everything in a new light. You begin to sort through the things in your life, weighing them in light of the mystical revelation you received. You begin to let go of those things that are not congruent with your vision, and hold on to those that seem congruent. Basically, you’re sorting the illusory from the Real, based on the brief glimpse of the Real that you’ve received.
Once your done with this sorting, you can settle into a serious meditation practice, which the mystics call “Illumination.” In the Illuminated state, you see the Divine in all things. But as you go deeper, you realize that this is incomplete—that in fact, it is the other way around: all things are in God. I call this stage, “Enjoyment” because in it you really learn to enjoy the presence of God, and you sink deeper and deeper into an awareness of the Divine presence.
Finally, you sink so deep that the distance between you and the Divine disappears. The mystics often speak of this as “divine marriage” or “divinization,” but the result is the same—the illusory distinction between the Creator and the creation is dissolved, and the mystic enters into full and conscious union with the divine. But this is no sea of bliss. To be one with God means that what God wants, you want, and what God does, you do. And since God’s primary concern is to heal everything that is wounded or broken, mystics in full union are very busy people, spending most of their time with the poor and the oppressed.
(Question 4 was skipped because he pretty much answered it in question 3.)
5. In reading “Growing into God”, the path of the Christian Mystic doesn’t seem entirely safe. Could someone attempt this by themselves with just your book for guidance?
No form of mysticism is safe. People blow out their nervous systems doing Kundalini yoga all the time, when they try it out of a book. Christian mysticism isn’t as hard on the body’s electrical system, but you’re right—it’s not a safe endeavor, either. It’s best done within the context of a loving and supportive church community (there is no such thing as a “lone ranger” Christian, after all) and for best results, one should see a trained spiritual director once a month.
6. The Catholic Church features many mystics in their history, but I get the feeling if someone spoke to a bishop today and said, “I’m pursuing the path of the Christian Mystic,” the Bishop’s response would be to back away from you slowly. I guess my question is, what’s up with that?
Well, my guess would be such a reaction might have something to do with an overzealous ambition. It’s like the difference between saying “I’m thinking of going into politics” and announcing, “I’m going to be king of the world!” Going into politics is doable, being king of the world is less likely. And so it is with mysticism. The truth is that all Christians are called to be mystics, but few ever reach the “finish line” of full union in this lifetime, but the good news is, we don’t have to. As St. Therese of Lisieux of Liuseaux said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
On the other hand, if most Christians knew their own tradition better, we’d all own up to being “on the mystics’ path,” and there would be far fewer raised eyebrows. Still, your fictional bishop should know better. Instead of backing away, he should clap a hand to your shoulder and say, “That’s a wonderful thing. I’ll be praying for you.”
7. Can Union be compared to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment? Is this path just for Christians?
The stages of the mystical journey are roughly the same in most religious traditions. If you conceive of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold path as a linear model of spiritual development, and compare that to the model laid out in the Hindu Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, and compare that with the Christian model of Purgation, Illumination, and Union, you’ll find amazing similarities. The Hindu and Christian models are the closest. The Buddhist model does things in a slightly different order, but all the pieces are there. Of course, each tradition uses a different vocabulary, different metaphors and symbols to describe this journey, but the journey is basically the same. In my book I’m describing the journey as Christians have experienced and spoken about it. But when you strip away the symbols and language and cultural baggage what you find is the same journey of the soul—a human journey.
8. Can you tell us about one of your favorite mystics and why they’re a favorite?
I have so many favorites! I especially love Julian of Norwich, though, because her visions are so rich, so emotional and loving, and they also challenge the theological notions of her time, albeit in a cannily diplomatic way. But I also love the practical mysticism of Charles Williams. His “occult thriller” novels are masterpieces of both horror and theology. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if not for his influence.
9. What’s next for you? Any more books?
Yes, there are always more books! I have a new one coming out from Morehouse/Church Publishing titled Faithful Generations: Effective Ministry Across Generational Lines. I’m also polishing a Christmas novel, and hope to soon start work on a sequel to my horror/comedy/adventure novel, The Kingdom. Meanwhile, my progressive rock band, Mind Furniture, just did our first gig and we were blown away by the positive response we get, so we’ll probably put some energy into more live shows, even as we continue working on our next CD. Our last CD is called Hoop of Flame, and it’s on iTunes, so I hope you’ll check it out. It’s got a great hymn to Shiva, and a rock opera where we put God on trial for his crimes against humanity. It’s a kick!
10. Part shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
Have you done any articles on Christo-pagan/Christo-Wiccan rituals or communities? I’d love to read that, if so.
I haven’t, but I’d love to. There are so many topics out there, so little time it seems. A great place that has discussed it from time to time along with a ton of other fascinating topics is The Wild Hunt website.
About John R. Mabry, PhD:
John R. Mabry is a United Church of Christ minister and pastors Grace North Church (Congregational) in Berkeley, CA. He teaches spiritual guidance and world religions at the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith Ministry in Berkeley and at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto. Among his books are “The Way of Thomas”, “Faith Styles”, and “Noticing the Divine”.