Brief Reviews

Brief Review: Big Book of Christian Mysticism – Carl McColman [Vol. 3, #40]

A Brief Review of

The Big Book of Christian Mysticism:
The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality
Carl McColman.
Paperback: Hampton Roads, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Mary Bowling.

Carl McColman seems to have made a good decision in writing a big book of Christian mysticism. There’s a lot to cover under that topic, and any book other than a big one might not have been able to thoroughly deal with the task of exploring Christian mysticism; its roots and origins, its history, tenets, paradoxes and practices.  The book is written for a broad audience and assumes that the reader may be starting from scratch when it comes to mysticism, or possibly even Christianity. As such, the writing is very basic, but the coverage of the topic is quite thorough and serves as a very good introduction to Christian mysticism and contemplative practices.

There are two main parts in the book. The first part deals with the definition of Christian mysticism, some history and other issues surrounding it such as its association and confusion with different examples of Eastern mysticism and other Eastern practices. He discusses some common misunderstandings about what mysticism is and has been since the beginning of Christianity. He also spends one chapter introducing many different paradoxes that pertain to mysticism or to Christianity in general, and he gives a brief background on each.  The second part of the book pertains more to the “how” than to the “what” and “why” of the first part. He devotes a chapter to several aspects of contemplative life or contemplative practices such as prayer and Lectio Divina. He opens this section of the book with a chapter urging those who would seek either a closer or a more experiential relationship with God to begin in the context of a church or a group of believers.  After exploring the practices related to contemplation, he finishes the book with a few helpful appendices: a chronological listing of mystics and their writings from the time of Paul the Apostle through today, his own suggested contemplative reading list, and a short list of online resources.

Throughout the book, names, viewpoints or passages are used from an array of mystical writings, which give the reader a sense of the variety of thought and style encountered in mystical writings. McColman cites well-known biblical figures such as the Apostle Paul, early-church and desert fathers and mothers, medieval writers, writers of poetry and prose, even some of C.S. Lewis’s children’s fiction is presented as an example of mystical writing.  From the regard shown by McColman for the long tradition of Christian mysticism, especially those things that have been recorded in books and passed down through the years, the reader is able to gain an appreciation and an understanding of the breadth the topic, and may well be enticed to continue on a long and well-worn path of contemplation knowing he/she is in good company.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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