Mystics and Contemplatives

In the past several days, I have used the words mystic and contemplative somewhat interchangeably.  While the two are similar and walk a common path with a common mission, I have learned there is a bit of a difference between the two.  After today’s blog, let me know if you are a contemplative or a mystic.

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The same, only different

There are common characteristics between contemplatives and mystics, most obviously is their intimate connection with the transcendent, or what I call God.  Mystics and contemplatives both possess a deep inner calling to connect with God and to maintain that connection, sometimes through meditation and prayer, often through life itself, nature, the body, relationship and creative expression.  Mystics and contemplatives both have an innate ability to see and be present to the world beyond this world and once encountered, mystics and contemplatives find ways to cultivate that connection through disciplined practice (again, sometimes in prayer, sometimes through other means).  While mystics and contemplatives are similar in this regard, there are a few things that set them apart.

Examples in the saints

The Catholic pantheon of saints provides the perfect exploration into the differences between mystics and contemplatives.  John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating and Catherine of Siena are contemplatives.  St. Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Galileo and Teresa of Avila are mystics.  The former tend to stay in line with the Institution…..the latter tend to rock the boat.

Contemplatives vs. Mystics

Contemplatives (as compared to mystics) are well-behaved.  They are quiet and unobtrusive.  Contemplatives are content to sit and pray and trust and wait (for the most part).  Contemplatives gain the approval of the Institution.  They color inside the lines.  While speaking and living their truth, they don’t tend to rock the boat.  A contemplative would be more likely to earn an imprimatur and a nihil’obstat – the Vatican Good Housekeeping seals of approval.  Mystics, on the other hand, are a whole different story.  Mystics, by their very nature are sh..t-disturbers, they rock the boat, are not content with status quo and generally tick people off (those who find security in the status-quo anyway!).   Mystics also, tend to be a bit mad (aka crazy, insane, off their rocker…)….at least they appear that way to the general public and to those who maintain the current structure of power.  Mystics are not “normal.”   Mystics do not color inside the lines and they are certainly anything but quiet!  Mystics are loud.  Mystics make their presence known.  Mystics are unlikely to gain the approval of the Institution – in fact, they might seek to tick them off.  In fact, any mystic worth their salt has probably been called before the Inquisition to defend their crazy ideas….and some have been excommunicated or even killed for their truths, or at the very least, silenced.  (Galileo, Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen for example).  Some have survived the scrutiny of the Inquisition (Teresa of Avila, St. Francis, Martin Luther, ahem…Jesus!) and through their survival, initiated great reform!

Mystics are Reformers

Herein lies the other difference between contemplatives and mystics.  Whereas contemplatives may be initiating reform through their quiet, prayerful presence, mystics are living their call to reform OUT LOUD.  Like John the Baptist, mystics are the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Mystics are the prophets and visionaries who see our potential as human beings and work toward helping us achieve this potential, for this is the call of the mystic – to know God, to see God’s higher vision for humanity, and to invite (challenge) the world to become this vision.

So…..are you a contemplative or a mystic?

About Your Spiritual Truth

I am a trained, professional Spiritual Director, Author and Hands-on Healer. I offer services, programs and classes that empower you to hear the voice of the Divine that speaks from within you. It is the voice of the Divine that leads us to our highest truth, to the discovery and cultivation of our gifts and to a life of Authentic Freedom where we know contentment, compassion and joy. Your truth will set you free!
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4 Responses to Mystics and Contemplatives

  1. John Backman says:

    Hi, Lauri,

    To build on your thinking: from what I recall of the saints you mention (and I may be misremembering), there’s a lot of overlap on the mystic-contemplative scale. HIldegard had a deeply conservative streak, and Teresa (for all her visions) strove mightily to stay within the confines of the Church even as she was tussling tooth and nail with the authorities of said Church. On the other side, I can’t imagine that Merton’s deep explorations of Eastern traditions endeared him to everyone in the hierarchy. Which makes me wonder about this: God by nature is in the business of cow-pie disturbance, so perhaps anyone who seeks union with God will inevitably ruffle feathers in one way or another. What do you think?

    • Cow-pie disturbance indeed! Thank you for adding your expansive perspective along with a little additional information. All I can say is AMEN AMEN. And wasn’t Catherine of Siena the one who tromped over to France and kicked the pope’s butt back to Rome? In the end (no pun intended), I think contemplatives and mystics are responsible for keeping the Institution on the path of Love. Without us, the church would be just another irredeemable bureaucracy. And to add a plug for the Institution…..they probably help to keep the mystics and contemplatives from spinning right off the earth into the cosmos or from imploding all together.

      • John Backman says:

        TOTALLY agree with you, particularly about the value of the Church vis-a-vis mystical thinking. It reminds me of a time when I was doing some serious rethinking of certain dogmas; our priest’s ardent traditionalism gave me a safe space from which to explore–and a tether of sorts to the best of our long tradition. He provided a nice balance, and I’d always like to live in such a place of balance and dialectic.

  2. Bob Russo says:

    “God by nature is in the business of cow-pie disturbance”
    This is a classic!!

    Bob Russo

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