It often appears that after seekers go deep enough in Contemplative Christianity, they seem to leave Christianity – or, at least, begin putting their Christian spirituality into a more Eastern kind of mystical language. Heck, even Thomas Merton himself made a run for Asia to live as a hermit and was giving a speech there about the virtues of Communism just before “he mysteriously died.” Is it because there are fewer enlightened Christian mystics to teach us simply because there are fewer Christian mystics period? Or is it because all of the enlightened ones are living in silence somewhere and would prefer it to stay that way, because, well, words don’t really help anyway?
It might be that at some point, the ebbs and flows of the inner journey become too difficult to reconcile to the complexity of our tradition. In an attempt to preserve both the experience and the tradition, we articulate neither. Yet, the saints and mystics of old really did realize the God That Is All, not as an abstraction or theory, but as the reality of their day to day experience. For much of Christian history, mystics were obliged to use the language of the Church, meaning the Church’s theological frameworks most operative at that time, usually out of concern for their own safety.
But as this current resurgence of Christian mysticism plays itself out, the refinement of the higher-states for the individual seeker and the nuanced struggles common to more intermediate and advanced contemplatives still don’t seem to have a language that fits very well with anything Christian. So, after some centering prayer workshops, some silent retreats at the monastery, the seeker one day wonders, “maybe I should try that Buddhist retreat,” or “Eckhart Tolle is coming to my city this fall, maybe I should sign up?” So they do. And while they may return back sometimes to their favorite Christian writers, even still attend Church or sit with their old contemplative groups, the thought is now somewhere in the back of their head: these guys are light-weight. I’ve outgrown them.
So, it was a relief to meet Paul Smith. His life and work are an authentic testimony to the fact that one can come into an abiding sense of divine union in this lifetime. I’ve met only two Christian ministers in my life whose energetic transmission I could feel remotely. He is one of them.
Rev Paul mentioned early on in our conversation that folks who have immersed themselves deeply in centering prayer and contemplative silence have often stopped praying to God. His new book, Is Your God Big Enough, Close Enough, You Enough? addresses the dimensions of prayer in the higher state-stages by employing the 1st ,2nd, and 3rd person perspectives of Integral Theory. The twelve words that came to him were: Jesus talked about God (3rd person), to God (2nd person) and as God (1st person). If Jesus did this from a place of higher consciousness, so can we. While contemplative practices often seem to emphasize the first person, the other dimensions of our relationship with God can always yield great fruits. Our spoken prayers do not lose their power. In fact, as we wake up more and more, our prayer life increases in intensity and purpose.
He also walks us through the higher state-stages of the Christian mystical journey. Where Ken Wilber might use subtle, causal, and nondual, and Evelyn Underhill might use awakening, illuminative way, and unitive way, Smith calls these awakened consciousness, transcendent consciousness, and oneness consciousness. And by “consciousness,” Smith is clear that this is the word that best fits our current understanding of what was meant by Spirit in the Bible.
Indeed, the book is a rich archive of scripture, references, states of consciousness, and the depthless dimensions of our relationship to God. I was continually struck by all the scriptural examples Smith gives of higher consciousness in the Bible. Whereas most contemplative Christian books usually stick to half a dozen or so of the “greatest hits” of contemplation-in-the-bible, Smith adds passage after passage until one starts to scratch their head and begin to wonder if an entire re-reading of the Good Book from a mystical perspective is now warranted in every church in America.