Active and Contemplative Lives: An Interview with Carl McColman

Printed in the  Winter 2024 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Richard, Smoley "Active and Contemplative Lives: An Interview with Carl McColman" Quest 112:1, pg 12-18

By Richard Smoley

Many TS members will remember Carl McColman from his talk at the Summer National Convention in July 2023.

McColman is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and internationally known speaker and teacher on mystical spirituality and contemplative living. He is particularly well known for his work with the contemporary contemplative practice known as Centering Prayer. His latest book is The New Big Book of Christian Mysticism (Broadleaf).

In this conversation, McColman discusses how mysticism, contemplation, and the ways that mystical Christianity can restore the radical wisdom teachings of Jesus as an authentic, perennial tradition of inner liberation and transformation. He also explores the future of organized religion and the present state of spirituality in America.

A full version of this interview can be found on YouTube.


carl mccolmanRichard Smoley: In The New Big Book of Christian Mysticism, you define mysticism as “living with the mystery of the love of God.” Could you go into that?

Carl McColman: If we’re going to talk about mysticism, it seems to me that mystery is a good place to enter.

In our culture, I think there is a kind of idolatry of dogma or certainty. The path of the mystery invites us out of that addiction to dogma into a place where we can listen to the deep well of unknowing in our own hearts; in that place, everything becomes possible. Spirituality becomes less about a framework of doctrines or teachings to which we need to conform and more a field of radiant possibility, where we discover the beauty and majesty of our own soul.

This brings us to the word God, which is a fraught word.  God is a concept by which we measure our possibility, our love, our compassion, our capacity to wonder, our capacity to be beings of the miraculous. God is a mystery about which we have all sorts of narratives: the old man in the sky, the Gandalfesque figure, the Force from Star Wars. If you move into nontheistic traditions like Buddhism, the word God is essentially meaningless. I think approaching God mystically allows us to hold all of those different narratives with a sense of wonder and possibility rather than a need to nail down the one truth.

We can also speaking of living—of life. Mysticism, at its heart, is life-affirming; it’s biophilic. The mystical path says yes to life in its most expansive and inclusive and radically egalitarian way.

Smoley: What you say about the idolatry of certainty is true, but it seems to be the consequence of a much larger lack of certainty. People are clinging to certainty, not like a rock on the shore, but like the last piece of flotsam of a broken ship. That’s why it seems so desperate.

McColman: I think the opposite of certainty is not uncertainty, but possibility. The beauty of a mystical approach is that it invites wonder and dialogue. That’s what mysticism invites us into. Even in the New Testament, Jesus teaches that with the Divine, all things are possible. Those are mystical teachings, and we need to keep them in mind when we approach the problems that dogma or doctrine present to us.

Smoley: Let’s explore a major theme in the Christian tradition, which you discuss in your book: the contrast between the active life and the contemplative life, symbolized most famously in the story in the Gospel of John about Martha and Mary.

McColman: For anyone who may not be familiar with that story, the idea is that Mary is sitting with Jesus and the disciples, engaging in spiritual conversation with them. Martha is the hostess, working in the kitchen. She’s getting the food ready, and she gets angry that Mary is not helping her.

Anything in Scripture has to be read on a metaphorical level. So it’s not just a couple of sisters that are having a little tiff because one of them wants to hang out with the boys and the other one wants to make sure that dinner is served. Beneath that surface, Mary represents the contemplative life, a life of deep engagement with the Divine. Martha represents the life of radical service, which came to be known as the active life: working to make the world a better place, setting up hospitals, setting up orphanages, campaigning against slavery, bringing the values of the spiritual life into the material world.

Church history is not my primary focus, so I speak with the knowledge of a layperson, but for some reason it seems that at about the time that the Roman Empire fell, Christianity turned its mystical heart into the cloister, into the monastery. From around the year 500 to about the time of the Protestant Reformation, nearly all of the mystics are either monks or nuns, living a cloistered life.

In the Gospel story, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part. The monks and nuns took that idea and ran with it—the idea that the contemplative life is higher than the active life: we shouldn’t be worrying about injustice or worldly conflict; we simply need to turn our entire attention towards the spirit, towards the interior life, and everything else will take care of itself. I can see that argument, and as somebody who is psychologically an introvert, it has a lot of appeal to me.

But especially around the time of the Reformation, you see something else emerging. I’m thinking of Teresa of Avila, the wonderful Spanish mystic, who teaches that when you get to the seventh mansion of the “interior castle”—in other words, the end of the mystical life—what is emphasized is the sisterhood between Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha even merge and become one. Being immersed in the contemplative act and what the East calls the bodhisattva vow—to be of radical service to others—become as unified as breathing in and breathing out. There’s an essential unity of finding the Divine in service and finding service in union with the Divine.

Many of us go toward mysticism because we’re seeking that interior presence of the Divine, but then we find that it pushes us out—into relationship, into community.

 Smoley: What you say about the active versus the contemplative life seems to be very accurate and compelling. But I’m going to disagree with you on one major point, and that’s the major difficulty I have with your book. It’s not true that in those centuries, all the mystics were monks and nuns. There were many mystics who were not monastics: the Cathars, the Beguines, the Brethren of the Common Life. Most of these had one thing in common: the Catholic church disapproved of them, or approved in only the most equivocal way. Even Meister Eckhart died before the Inquisition could get its hands on him. Yet all of the mystics you have in your book are those approved by Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Did these alternative Christianities have nothing to say to us?

McColman: I don’t dispute anything you’re saying. We could chalk it up to marketing. If I want to introduce people within the institutional church to the mysteries, and I start talking about the Gnostics, they’re going to just toss me out; they’ll just say, “Sorry, not interested.”

The primary audience for this book is people who are within the church. They are not familiar with the mystical life and may even be scared of the mystical life. Sitting here talking with you, I’m assuming that the primary audience of this conversation is going to be people in the Theosophical world, which has an entirely different understanding of history and an entirely different understanding of mysticism. This book is probably going to be kindergarten for many of them. But that doesn’t make the book useless: we need kindergarten literature.

This book is for people who are afraid of mysticism from soup to nuts, because their church has told them to be afraid of mysticism. If I can’t get them to be pay attention to the Cathars, can I at least introduce them to Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa? The reality is that there are a lot of people that are even scared of Julian of Norwich.

Smoley: That’s very fair and understandable. But a large number of Christians and ex-Christians are not afraid of Julian of Norwich. They are afraid of the church—on the basis of their experience.

McColman: I would say it’s the institution. The mystics and contemplatives have always been on the margin; I’m on the margin of the institution. You could argue that the Theosophical Society functions on the margins; that’s where the mystics tend to be. The monasteries have been on the margins.

Here is a metaphor, and I think about it a lot: institutional Christianity is like a building that’s on fire. Even Pope Francis, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, or the most conservative evangelical would probably agree with that.

The church needs to be asking, is our primary job to save the building, or is it to save the people in the building? You can look at how the Catholic church has dealt with the abuse crisis: the institution is far more interested in saving the building than saving the people in the building.

I think this book has the potential to help the people that are in the building, but I don’t say, get out of the building. If they start reading the mystics, they’ll find their own way out.

I’ll be honest with you: when I first wrote this book, I was more in the institution than I am now. At that time, I had an idealistic idea that we could save both the people and the building.

At any rate, I do draw a distinction between institution and church, because I believe that mystical Christianity is a community, a communal mysticism. We need one another. Human beings need to be in a relationship. A church, when it’s functioning, is simply a relationship of mystics. It’s a relationship of people who are drawing from a shared spiritual system, from a particular wisdom lineage.

Institutionalization leads to the hunting of heretics, to the kind of violence and aggression that we see in the church to this day. All you have to do is go on social media to see how many people are spewing incredible aggression in the name of Jesus. It’s a betrayal of the wisdom teachings of the Master, yet for whatever reason, the institution seems to facilitate that. So burn down the institution, but let’s try to preserve some sacred community.

Smoley: You’re saying that the institution may be a building that is condemned, but there’s a community that needs to be perpetuated. Could you tell us about your vision of what this community might be like?

McColman: I wish there were people who were forty years younger than you and me in this conversation, because I think their vision would be a lot different, and probably a lot more creative and with a lot more potential. If you go into your average neighborhood Christian church—I don’t care if it’s Catholic, Protestant, evangelical—chances are, most of the people you’re going to see in there are sixty and over. Young people from the millennials on down have largely given up on church.

So what do young people need in terms of building community? Now I don’t want to go too far down this particular rabbit hole, but I do think there are political forces at work in our culture that militate against the formation of healthy spiritual community. That has to be addressed. But I think a bigger part of the problem is how the churches have betrayed their own mission, which is to be conveyors of wisdom, to pass wisdom down through the generations.

First of all, I think we need a community that listens. Those of us who are the older ones need to be doing most of the listening. We need to be radically curious about what our children and our grandchildren need. We need to be radically curious about people who are different from ourselves. So straight people, be curious about queer people; queer people, be curious about straight people.

You do get into systems of privilege and oppression, so there are some political dynamics here. But we need to be a community of wonder, a community of listening, a community of profound silence—and a community that is radically committed to compassion as well as ruthless in going after violence.

Institutions tend to have incredible pockets of violence or aggression. It’s not necessarily overt, but a matter of stripping people of their voice, shaming people, creating hierarchies of who’s in and who’s out. Whenever we see situations like that, we need to take a step back and ask, what is it we’re really promoting here? Are we promoting radical, egalitarian liberation? Or are we just creating another club? I think the future of any spiritual community will have to address questions like that.

We have become complacent with aggression in our culture and our systems of privilege, which will rot out spiritual communities from the inside.

Many of the people that you mention in the esoteric tradition were violently suppressed. You mentioned Meister Eckhart: at least they let him die. Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake. John of the Cross was held a prisoner by his own monastic brothers, and they beat him every week. We have to unpack the incredible violence that is at play in the spiritual life.

Then we get into gender-related violence or sexually related violence towards queer people, or people who are transgender or nonbinary. A lot of unpacking has to be done if we are going to be faithful to the wisdom that is encapsulated in Jesus’s message. Love the divine, love yourself, love one another, and even love the people you experience as enemies. There’s the mystical life in a nutshell, and we all fall incredibly short of it.

Smoley: What specific forces in our society do you see as the most debilitating toward spiritual community?

McColman: I’m only going to speak about the United States. In the last forty years, we have created an economic structure that hoards wealth—toward one tenth of 1 percent of the superwealthy, which has decimated the middle class. It’s a regressive movement, to a culture of a very small percentage of people who control 90-plus percent of the wealth, with the vast majority of people struggling to get by.

The philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a book called Leisure: The Basis of Culture. He doesn’t just mean culture in the sense of entertainment. He means a culture that has the capacity to pray, the capacity to contemplate, the capacity to cultivate one’s interior life.

Right now, most people can’t afford that. Why? Because we have created an economic system that concentrates and hoards wealth. We need to be taking a hard look at why. Why have we collectively created this system—or allowed this system to be created—that pits people against one another through divisions of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion? We have all these narratives whereby the other person is the scapegoat, and we get caught in them. Meanwhile, the people who are making life difficult for all of us are just getting richer and richer.

Smoley: That all strikes me as very true. On the other hand, there also appears to be a natural tendency toward divisiveness in human nature that these forces exploit. Where do you see that coming from?

McColman: The orthodox Christian answer would be original sin, but I’m not comfortable with that theology, so I’ll just put that to the side. Here I stand only on the authority of my own contemplative practice. But I would argue that the heart of what it means to be alive is God playing hide-and-seek with God’s self.

When we hide from who we truly are, we typically make choices that are not skillful—choices that seem to take us away from the essential teaching of love, compassion, and kindness, so we become aggressive towards ourselves and aggressive towards one another. We play games of one-upmanship; we become hypervigilant about status. You don’t have to be very old before you’re playing these games; they happen in the home, with sibling rivalry, and in elementary school. They seem to replicate in bigger and bigger forms as society gets larger: office politics, Wall Street, regular politics.

By the time we reach adulthood, this game of hide-and-seek has pulled in on itself so many times that we often don’t even know we’re doing it. An associate of mine wrote a book called Good White Racist? It’s a compelling title, because I think many people who are the beneficiaries of racial privilege in our culture are not conscious of it. They would actually protest: “Of course I’m not racist. Of course I want an egalitarian society. I want people of color to have the same freedoms and opportunities that Caucasians have.” The game of hide-and-seek is so well played that people aren’t even aware of it.

 I’m sure you’re familiar with René Girard, the French philosopher who argued that the heart of Jesus’s message is that scapegoating is simply not OK: Jesus came to announce the end of scapegoating. But 2,000 years later, we haven’t gotten the memo.

That’s how the game of hide-and-seek manifests: we become aggressive toward one another, because on a deep soul level, we’re aggressive towards ourselves.

Then, of course, there is the more advanced teaching: the recognition that I am my neighbor; my neighbor is me; we are not two.

Smoley: This leads toward a problematic theme, which is love. In the English language, the word love encompasses an enormous range of meanings, from plain old lust to the highest mystical love of Dante. I think many people have a resistance to love simply because they’re confused about what kind of love they’re supposed to feel. Are they supposed to feel romantic love for their neighbor? Some people love their neighbors—or their neighbors’ spouses—a little too much. I think it’d be much easier if people just talked about elementary human decency.

McColman: Yes, kindness, civility, decency, basic candor and honesty, willingness to admit when we made a mistake.

I would say that eros ought to be a higher dimension of love. I think we live in a culture that has debased and commercialized eros. But the Song of Songs and many of the great mystics’ teachings are profoundly erotic. There’s a profound sense of the sacredness of desire.  It’s not about cessation of desire, but about the baptism or transformation of desire.

Then there is compassion, self-giving love, the love of the bodhisattva: I will deny my own enlightenment in order to be of radical service to you as you work out your own enlightenment.

Like it or not, we’re saddled with this one word—love—that is supposed to carry that full spectrum. But even the best language is limited, so we have to be continually stopping and asking, what do we really mean, and how do we embody it? What does this look like on the ground?

We’ve got to create a culture of civility, a culture of decency. We’ve got to have that conversation with our children, and I don’t know that it’s happening right now. I don’t have children or grandchildren, so maybe I’m just missing it. But it seems to me that our culture has become incredibly cynical, and there’s a pervasive idea that nice guys finish last. Where’s this leading? If that’s what we’re teaching our children, what are we creating? What kind of a future are we inviting them into? I don’t know that anyone’s really asking that question.

Smoley: I think there is another element in the current spiritual situation. People go to church for a sense of mystical uplift: we want to be inspired. But often church is just boring. I had a witty but cynical friend in college who used to say that in heaven, you don’t have to go to church, but in hell, you do.

McColman: I think Christianity made a deal with the Apollonian psyche and repressed the Dionysian, which soon became the Devil.

It’s created a bifurcation in our culture, where church is all about being polite and repressed and supernice. Then what do we do on Saturday night? We go to bacchanalian rave parties, where date rapes happen and where people use too much drugs and alcohol, and then they die in car accidents. We have this split: a moralism, which has become desiccated, and the Dionysian, which has become immoral.

I’m not trying to be a prude here. I’m all for having a good time, for being embodied and sexual. Why don’t we have an integration of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, where church could be a little bit sexier, and secular culture could be a little nicer?

Smoley: The Kabbalah says that God planted the yetzer ha-ra, the evil impulse, in the human heart, along with the yetzer ha-tov, the good impulse. No one, I think, could deny that’s the case: good and evil have been planted in us, and it’s never entirely sure which one will prevail at any given moment. Does that make sense to you?

 McColman: It makes perfect sense. It reminds me of the folktale that may come out of the Native American tradition: the idea that we all have two wolves, the wolf of hope and the wolf of fear, the wolf of compassion and the wolf of hatred. You only have enough food to feed one of the wolves, so which one will you feed? Most of us tend to give this wolf a little bit, and that wolf a little bit. I think that’s a healthier model to argue than the idea that Christianity often presents: that God is pure goodness, pure light, and the Devil is pure darkness, and there’s a marketing campaign going on between the two. Are we going to go this way or that way?

If we accept that within each one of us is both the light and the shadow, how, then, do I manage the shadow and get what it’s good at? How do I get the energy, the anger, which can be in the service of justice, and the zest, the lust for life, that makes life worth living? And then balance that with the deep compassion and deep care and concern that can help those who are in need and can create joy and love?

If we just try to repress the shadow, we’re really not much better than those desiccated Christians that we were talking about a few minutes ago. But if we just give into the shadow, we join the pervasive cynicism of our culture. We have to bring in a kind of sacred balance that has boundaries but also recognizes that even the shadow has something to offer. This is the beauty of mysticism at its best, where mystics are not afraid of the dark.

Smoley: Could you talk about Centering Prayer—what it is, what value it has, and how a person might integrate it in their life?

McColman: Centering Prayer has its roots all the way back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the third and fourth century. But the the key text is The Cloud of Unknowing, which was written in the 1370s. It is the practice of intentionally cultivating interior silence.

You’ll hear people say it’s about emptying the mind, but I don’t think that’s a skillful way of describing it. Because the reality is that our minds are just like our heart. You slow down your heartbeat, but you don’t eliminate it. Eliminating your heartbeat would be to die.

It’s the same thing with the energetics of consciousness. We can slow down our thinking. We can let go of frenzied thinking and enter into places of profound serenity and profound peace. But the mind is never emptied: there’s always something there, even if it’s just supernal light or that rich darkness.

Centering Prayer is a gesture of consent. It’s a gesture of recognition that for many of us, our mind-heart matrix is unruly. It’s been described as the monkey, or wild horses, or a cocktail party in our hearts and minds that is making lots of noise. It tends to drown out the divine voice, which often comes as a whisper—the still, small voice that we find in 1 Kings.

Centering Prayer is a gesture of nonattachment to the flow of thinking and images and daydreams, letting them come and letting them go, and learning to pay attention to the silence that is between and beneath all of our thoughts, all of our images, our feelings.

You don’t have to empty your mind. The emptiness is already there. Your mind and your heart are chalices of deep silence and of divine light. Can I learn to notice that which is already there, and in noticing it, consent to it—consent to the Spirit?

To go back to the beginning of our conversation, it’s a mystery: all the names ultimately fail, but it is that in us which leads us to the compassion, which leads us into wisdom, which leads us into the Union, which leads us into nonduality. We could even argue that we’re already there, but we’re playing that game of hide-and-seek.

Centering Prayer practice is this mindfulness, the practice of radical consent. Spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault describes it as objectless awareness, and I think that’s a beautiful view: you are cultivating awareness without any particular object.

Now the instructions in Centering Prayer are similar to those for other meditation practices: you use a sacred word. It’s a little different from mantra meditation, because in mantra meditation, you continue to use the sacred word, but in Centering Prayer, there is a willingness to even let the sacred word go and simply rest in the objectless silence. Then another thought or another distracting image comes along, and you get caught up in it. We use the sacred word as a tool to let go of those distractions.

Oftentimes the sacred word will function like a mantra—we keep returning to it—but there’s always the open possibility that it all drops away—the distracting thoughts, the daydreams, even the sacred word—and we are simply resting in that which cannot be named or described, but which is always there.

Finding that conscious awareness is deeply nourishing on a soul level; it feels good. But from my own experience, I would argue that it also allows deep interior transformation to take place. To use Christian language, the Holy Spirit gets to work healing us heart and soul. That’s not to say that the Spirit can’t heal us heart and soul even if we don’t do this practice, but the gesture of consent is like a facilitation.

When people learn about this, they often say, “Oh, that’s just Christian Transcendental Meditation; it’s just Christians borrowing from the East.”

It certainly has affinities to Eastern methods, but the teachings are all out of the Christian tradition, from The Cloud of Unknowing all the way back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers. That’s not to say, it’s Christian, so that makes it better, but for the many people who want a Christian practice, this is a Christian practice that has deep resonance with universal spiritual practices.