“The glory of God is Man fully alive.”
– St. Irenaeus
In the late 1970s, while studying philosophy at a Jesuit university, I discovered the “earthy mysticism” of William McNamara. For more than 30 years, it has remained the dominant spiritual influence of my life and is partly the reason I remain, despite everything, a committed follower of Christ and a stubborn (if not very pious) Catholic.
A charismatic retreat master and former Carmelite friar, McNamara espouses a gritty, life-affirming, no-nonsense approach to Christian spirituality that is unique and, to me, exhilarating. Despite having encountered over the years a wide assortment of gurus and spiritual teachers from many different religious traditions, I have never found a spiritual synthesis quite like that of McNamara’s Earthy Mysticism.
McNamara’s approach is both very traditional and, at the same time, strangely radical. His heroes are the classic Carmelite mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, but also literary figures such as Zorba the Greek and philosophers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
For McNamara, mysticism is not an otherworldly flight from reality but the opposite: a robust and courageous immersion in life in all its fullness and, through that immersion, an encounter with the Source of all (revealed, for Christians, in the person and work of the carpenter of Nazareth). With his long black (now grey) beard and full head of hair, McNamara looks like a wild-eyed rabbi or biblical prophet: a “disciplined wild man,” his term for a mystic.
In the 1970s and ’80s, McNamara’s message was challenging, defiantly anti-establishment: He insisted that all human beings, and certainly all followers of Christ, are called to be authentic contemplatives (mystics). Asceticism, the gradual sloughing off of pettiness and cheap thrills, is merely a way of whetting our appetites for the main meal of life.
The hustle and bustle of modern society is not such much sinful as it is deadening: or rather, it is sinful because it is deadening… or deadening because it is sinful. In his classic 1974 book, The Human Adventure: Contemplation for Everyman, written in the midst of the allegedly bohemian counter-culture, McNamara described the insipid dullness of materialistic society:
There are few towering pleasures to allure me, almost no beauty to bewitch me, nothing erotic to arouse me, no intellectual circles or positions to challenge or provoke me, no burgeoning philosophies or theologies and no new art to catch my attention or engage my mind, no rousing political, social, or religious movements to stimulate or excite me. There are no free men to lead me. No saints to inspire me. No sinners sinful enough to either impress me or share my plight. No one human enough to validate the “going” lifestyle. It is hard to linger in that dull world without being dulled.
Ultimately, Earthy Mysticism is an invitation to the radical amazement that comes with being fully, ecstatically alive. It is not a series of programs, methods or techniques but an attitude towards life, a willingness to ride the wild roller coaster of being a human being — with its rapturous joys and overwhelming sorrows.
McNamara’s brand of Earthy Mysticism seeks to reawaken in us a primordial astonishment at the real world and the God who is revealed in and through it. It seeks to help us recapture our original awe. When we pray, McNamara says, we enter the cave of a lion and do not know if we’ll come out alive. “God is not a nice or comfy thing to be possessed” through meditative techniques, he writes in his most recent book, Wild and Robust: The Adventure of Christian Humanism. “God is an earthquake.”
– Robert Hutchinson