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.
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?