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The Way of the Mystics
Authors: John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Pages: 234

In his Young Men’s Classes, Scottish Pastor Alexander Whyte spent a year teaching on "The Mystics." Each week Dr. Whyte spent time discussing the spiritual vitality and commitment of Tauler, Thomas a Kempis, Luther, Santa Teresa, St. John of the Cross, Madame Guyon and Fenelon. As an evangelical Protestant, I was intrigued that a Protestant minister, as eminent as Dr. Whyte, would spend time focusing on the mystics, a group that I knew little about.

Through reading the books of Protestant pastor A.W. Tozer I learned that he also was a student of the mystics. With some qualifications, he recommended their books. 

Today an interest in mysticism and mystical practices seems to be on the rise. 

Some evangelicals might view with suspicion or even alarm the writings and practices of the mystics. There may be valid reasons for concern. The excesses and errors of mysticism have been justly criticized.

However, like a lot of things, we should be careful about judging something by its extremes. For those who would like to explore this subject first hand, John Michael Talbot has written with Steve Rabey _The Way of the Mystics_. Most probably know John Michael Talbot from the beautiful inspirational music that he has recorded, but he has also authored or co-authored nearly twenty books. Steve Rabey is a prolific writer and a Protestant who has an appreciation for some of the ancient practices of Christianity.

Who is a mystic? Talbot defines it this way: "A mystic is an ordinary person blessed by an extraordinary experience of God that transforms his life in amazing ways. A mystic is someone who believes there are realities to life that are beyond what can be perceived by our rational minds or described in words. Further, a mystic not only believes this in the abstract but also desires to practice it in the concrete, allowing these deeper realities to permeate his or her life." 

The chapters are divided up into lessons that can be learned from each of the thirteen different men and women that are covered. Most are Catholic, but there are a few—John Donne, George Fox, and an unknown seeker—that are from different faiths. In each chapter we get a concise overview of the person’s life and background, their thought—including quotations from their writings—and a summary of additional resources available for further study. The book serves as a clear introduction and guide to some of the best known and a few lesser-known mystics in Church history.

It’s not all highlights. The book is careful to not gloss over the faults of the individuals. When writing about Bernard of Clairvaux, the authors state: "In his most embarrassing public episode, Bernard helped rouse support for the Second Crusade—a horrible failure that resulted in the unnecessary loss of many lives." When the authors tell us that Bernard did this "to his lasting regret," we get a complete picture. He may have inspired the Crusade, but he realized that he made a mistake, one that he regretted for the rest of his life. This kind of honesty is characteristic throughout the book. Though welcome, it can make for uncomfortable reading when dealing with some of the extreme forms of asceticism that some of these individuals practiced. 

The authors help us understand that the mystics were often influenced by the times in which they lived. Catherine of Siena "grew up at a time when saintliness was equated with harsh ascetic practices, but she clearly took the idea of crucifying the flesh to a whole new level." Among other things, she would actually scourge her body three times a day with a chain that was tipped with sharp hooks. In today’s culture this kind of harsh treatment of the body is incomprehensible. If we are not careful, we could easily dismiss someone like this, but as one scholar put it, Catherine was "both anorexic and holy." She experienced a genuine intimacy with God. 

Catherine did develop anorexia, which brought about an early death from starvation. At the end of this particular section the authors provide an appropriate warning: "Those who want to follow in the footsteps of the mystics should be forewarned that potential dangers lie in their path if they choose a life that combines solitary devotion with harsh discipline." 

The disturbing elements in the lives of the mystics are offset by the rich reservoirs of devotion that flowed from their lives. I was enamored with the simple childlike faith of Therese of Lisieux. "The only way to make progress along the path of divine love is to remain very little and put all our trust in Almighty God," she said. "That is what I have done." 

It was a pleasure to read that Bernard of Clairvaux preferred to win people through love than to try to scare people into heaven. He preferred the sweet over the bitter. "Jesus is honey in the mouth, music in the ear and a shout of joy in the heart." Bernard "described a Heavenly Father who was so kind and loving that people felt compelled to love him back."

One chapter, "The Way of the Pilgrim," deals with the origin of the Jesus Prayer and discusses "breath prayer." The Jesus Prayer involves repeated repetitions of the phrase: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." This kind of prayer is foreign to me, and as a Protestant I found myself questioning it. In situations like this when one finds something that is questionable, the temptation, especially for Protestants, may be to reject something entirely—like this book. If Tozer had done that when he learned about the excesses of Catherine of Siena, he would have missed out on one of his greatest sources of inspiration. Instead, he overlooked what he could not agree with and learned what he could.

The mystics covered in this book, including Antony and the Desert Fathers, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and the rest are part of Church history. At the very least, it’s helpful to know who they are. The authors serve as knowledgeable and able guides to these individuals. The stories of their lives are fascinating, if not a little disturbing at times. Their zeal and devotion is for the most part exemplary and inspiring. This is a fine effort. 

If it were in print, it would be wonderful to read Alexander Whyte’s lectures on the mystics. Since that’s probably not possible, I’m glad that John Michael Talbot and Steve Rabey have teamed up to give us The Way of the Mystics. It’s easy to read and understand. It provides an overview of a segment of Church history. It would make an excellent textbook for those who wanted to lead or take a class on the mystics. Alexander Whyte, and perhaps a host of others, who value what can be learned from the mystics, would no doubt consider such a class a worthwhile endeavor. 

Michael Dalton
April 28, 2005



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