Walk into any Barnes & Noble and it won’t be long before you’re confronted with rows and rowsand rowsof self-help books, all different and yet all the same. They’ll usually have covers with a blown-up torso-up shot of their respective authors, arms crossed, sporting an immensely self-satisfied pearly white grin, or at the very least a knowing, penetrating look. They’ll almost certainly have titles which include colons, such asand I’m now culling from a random selection of books that have been published within the past few months“Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message,” “Goals Suck: Why the Obsession with Goal-Setting is a Flawed Approach to Productivity and Life in General” (note that this author is making a valiant effort to be different), “Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative,” and on and on. There are also often numbers involved, because steps are comforting. Joel Osteen is the king of these“Your Best Life Now Study Guide: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” “Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day,” etc. Even “Religion” and “Theology” sections of bookstores seem to have been encroached upon by this insidious book breed, so much so that I’ve often seen about one hundred titles like, “Sow and Grow: Planting God’s Word and Manifesting a Breakthrough” and only two or three of the spiritual classics a la Thomas a Kempis’s “The Imitation of Christ” or Augustine’s “Confessions”and those tucked hastily into a corner.
Why this overwhelming infestation of the self-help paradigm, particularly into the “Theology” section of the bookstore? Well, there are lots of reasons, surely, but one of them seems to be that we Christians have largely forgotten about our rich history of mystical writings. And in the rare instances that we do remember the mystics, they kind of freak us out.
This is because, really, we’re no longer sure what “mysticism” is. It’s either something uncanny and bizarre, or it’s some nebulous thing at the heart of all religions, a kind of “coexist” hippie mentality. We’ve forgotten that, at least in the Christian tradition, the word “mysticism” has a far more precise meaning: as Bernard McGinn writes in his comprehensive The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, mysticism is “that part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of what the mystics themselves have described as a direct and transformative presence of God.”
Although the word mysticism was created in the seventeenth century, and not popularized until the nineteenth, the adjective mystical (meaning “hidden” in Greek) has been widely used among Christians since at least the late second century CE. The word was employed to refer to the secret realities of Christian beliefs, rituals, and practicesparticularly important was the “mystical” or “spiritual” meaning of the Bible, as opposed to its literal, or historical, sense. Christians also began to speak about “mystical contemplation” and, starting around 500 CE, of a branch of theology called “mystical theology”the knowledge of God that is supra-rational, a divine gift.
What does this all have to do with self-help books? Mysticism, properly understood within the Christian tradition, is essentially talk of experience, a journey towards God, not just the moment of what is often called “mystical union.” In the words of McGinn, it’s “more than a matter of unusual sensations, but essentially comprises new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts, not as an object to be grasped, but as the direct and transforming center of life.”
When we read the mystics we gain a better understanding of ourselves in relation to God, and in so doing, we gain a proper understanding of the very means and purpose of personal growth. I’m not saying mystical writings are self-help books; I’m saying, quite frankly, that they far surpass and ought to supersede many of them. Not to mention the fact that they are infinitely more interesting.
So let’s not be afraid of the mystics anymore. Just think of them as your new (kind of unusual) friends. The theme of biblical interpretation is a good place to start, because really all of Christian mysticism is rooted in a reading of the Bible that searches for its words’ hidden meaninga reading that contrasts sharply with our current preoccupation with historical-critical readings that primarily seek the author’s original intent.
Origen of Alexandria (180-254), widely acknowledged as the greatest exegete of the early Church and its first explicit mystical theologian, has a beautiful commentary on the Song of Songs. So does St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the Church’s aptly-named “mellifluous doctor.” Gregory of Nyssa’s (33594) The Life of Moses is a rearrangement of the story of Moses from the Old Testament to present the patriarch as the model of mystical ascent to God. There are two parts: the first a straight narrative of his life, and the second a longer contemplation on the meaning of the story. We can go on to read Athanasius of Alexandria’s The Life of St. Antony to gain a better understanding of the meaning of asceticism. We can read Origen, John Cassian, or Teresa of Avila on prayer.
If we like steps, as the titles of most self-help books would suggest, we will not be disappointed. These guys, from Bernard to Bonaventure to Aelred of Rievaux, love organizing things into steps. There are many works on aspects of mystical consciousnessfrom encountering Christ to the intertwining of love and knowledge. I would suggest Bernard McGinn’s The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism as a good resource for further reading.
I often wonder what would happen to the Church if there were a renewal of interest in these writings. So what are you waiting for? Go get your mysticism on (but you’ll have to get these books online, because they’re nearly impossible to find in a bookstore these days!).