Carl McColman writes about the spiritual life. He explored many paths before taking refuge in the Catholic Church, which he joined in 2005. His newer books all reflect his love for contemplative, monastic and mystical Christianity. His older books covered a variety of topics including Celtic, Nature and Goddess spirituality.
Carl’s work is characterized by an optimistic, expansive understanding of spirituality, rooted in Christianity while embracing the wisdom of the world’s contemplative traditions. In his own words, “I am passionate about helping people to embody creative, joyful lives of love and service, formed by prayer, silence, and the wisdom of the saints and mystics.”
Carl McColman learned the practice of contemplative prayer at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is a professed Lay Cistercian — a layperson under the guidance of Trappist monks. He regularly speaks, teaches and conducts retreats on contemplative Christian practice, and blogs at CarlMcColman.net.
Carl has written several books. His newest one, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages, was published in October 2016. Previous works include Befriending Silence, Answering the Contemplative Call and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. In addition to his blog, Carl’s writing appears in The Huffington Post, Patheos, and Contemplative Journal.
Now on to the interview.
What prayer methods do you practice on a daily basis?
Some days are better than others, but as a Lay Cistercian I have a commitment to daily silent prayer (what others might call centering prayer, but following my monastic teachers I typically pray without a prayer word, simply remaining present with my breath and my silence — unless my mind is really buzzy, and then I use the Jesus Prayer to stay focused); daily lectio divina — which for me includes scripture but also the writings of the mystics, currently I’m reading Julian of Norwich (one of my favorites); and at least one office of the liturgy: usually morning prayer, although sometimes I might pray evening prayer and/or compline. When I pray compline I’ll also include an examen, but that’s not a daily practice for me.
What was the first prayer method that you practiced?
As a child, table grace and bedtime prayers. Then as a teenager I embraced charismatic prayer which was truly a joyful experience. Only as a young adult did I discover the splendor of silence, and then after that, the liturgy. So it’s been a gradual adventure for me.
What does Jesus have to say about prayer?
Lots of things. Everyone knows the Sermon on the Mount, which has some of his most sublime teachings, but also the Farewell Discourse in John is quite advanced teaching on prayer. Jesus doesn’t teach methods, he’s more interested in pointing his disciples to “being prayer” in the sense not unlike Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings about “being peace.” A Christian band back in the 1970s called Second Chapter of Acts had a lovely song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You.” That pretty much describes what Jesus is about.
How has your prayer life evolved over the years?
See the question about “first prayer method” — I answered this question there! I guess what I would add is that as I entered midlife and began to work with the Trappists, I became more appreciative of silence and more able/willing to rest in the silence within me, as prayer. So my prayer has become much more of a “sabbath-experience.” Ironically, at the same time I have learned to appreciate more how ministry, or caring for the needy, or other “activist” efforts are, in themselves, prayer. So while I have become more contemplative, I’ve also become more of what the Jesuits call “contemplative-in-action.” I don’t see this as a contradiction, but rather two sides of the same coin.
How can prayer help people?
I like what Richard Rohr says about Christ: Christ died on the cross not to change God’s mind about humanity, but to change humanity’s mind about God. Or something to that extent. I think the same holds true with prayer. Prayer doesn’t change God, who is changeless Love. But prayer does change the person praying. God shares God’s love with us through our prayer. Incidentally, I believe that’s true for all types of prayer, not just silent/contemplative prayer. I really distrust language that suggests contemplative or mystical prayer is “higher” than other forms of prayer. That’s like saying blue is higher than green. Just different colors on the wheel.
Does prayer help those who are sick or suffering? I think it does. I have no science to back that up. But when my daughter was sick and suffering and dying, there were so many graces in her life and all of our lives. We have a very strong sense that we were carried by the prayers of literally hundreds of people. And at the monastery I encountered a number of situations where people got healed, cancer went into remission, etc. Now, I don’t think prayer is magic: I know plenty of other situations where there was much prayer and the person still died. But I do believe prayer makes a difference, but there are so many variables at play in each person’s life there’s just no way to map it with any kind of predictability. Julian of Norwich insisted that prayer needs to be accompanied by generous trust — so part of the “job” of praying is to seek to more fully trust God, as we pray. And I think even that — learning to be more trusting — is itself a doorway to being helped by prayer.
What advice do you have for beginners to prayer?
Pray every day. It’s better to have a minute of silence every day, and stick with it, than to try to be a hero and meditate for an hour and then give up because it’s too challenging. Pay attention to how you image God: prayer always thrives best when we open ourselves to God’s unconditional love. And if you are serious about daily prayer, and especially silent/contemplative prayer, find a spiritual director.
Why should we study the mystics?
The same reason why aspiring guitarists should listen to Eric Clapton or aspiring writers should read Maya Angelou. The mystics are the great exemplars of living a God-infused life. They show us what to expect, what to do, what not to do, how to think, how not to think (!), and most importantly of all, how to pray. They are our guides, our sherpas, our docents. They are the mapmakers. Their maps help us on our journey into the heart of Love.
What one or two mystics have had a huge impact on you and why?
I’ve already mentioned Julian of Norwich, who is probably my favorite “classical” mystic, a visionary who lived in the fourteenth century, whose writing is filled with astute theological reflection not only on prayer but also on the theology of salvation, of grace, and of the relationship between Christ and humanity. Just brilliant from beginning to end. And filled with joy and optimism and hope. She’s a wonderful corrective for all the dour religiosity that so many of us have suffered, thanks to our local church communities!
For a more recent figure, probably Evelyn Underhill who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. While her writing is not as erudite or philosophically nuanced as her contemporary Teilhard de Chardin or of course Thomas Merton, her books are heartfelt love-songs to how God woos us through the joys and challenges of the contemplative/mystical life. If you want to get a picture of the real Evelyn Underhill, read her letters, where she is much more informal, down to earth, sometimes quite funny, and always just an astute spiritual director. She’s golden, and I wish more people knew about her work.
Thank you Carl for this interview! Please visit Carl at CarlMcColman.net.
I have enjoyed reading many of Carl’s books! Feel free to read my review of Befriending Silence.
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I am currently reading Contemplative Living: An Invitation to a Deepening Journey by . I just finished reading Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass, A Taste of Silence by Carl J Arico and The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Brueggeman
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Since the time of the Desert Fathers in the third century, Finley begins, Christian mystics have practiced meditation as a way of opening to the direct presence of God in daily life. Legendary seekers such as Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Meister Eckhart explored how meditation can lead us beyond the closed horizon of the ego, to an interior and holy refuge that is always available to us. On Christian Meditation, James Finley offers a gentle introduction to this all-transforming way of life, and the ever-deepening realization of oneness with Christ it leads us to. (Based upon his book, Christian Meditation.)