I first got to know Carl McColman mere months (possibly even weeks) after getting married. In early 2006, both he & I were linked to a mutual Christian mystic’s blog whose name escapes me now. Carl’s Website of Unknowing was instantly familiar to me as a site that had both intrigued and scared me a bit in college, years before. It was then – in the late 1990s or early 2000s – that Carl had laid out his then-path of being a “Christian-friendly Pagan’ who was wholly conversant with my tradition. It scared me because of his easy fluidity between these two worlds, where I saw only hard walls.
Flashing forward to my re-discovery of Carl’s site five years or so later. I was intrigued by his autobiographical Beliefnet piece After the Magic, describing his exit from his neo-Pagan milieu into Roman Catholicism of all things! Once again rendered palatable to this newly-married, newly-minted (cautiously) post-evangelical, a website became a person: I got to know Carl in realtime as my wife and I started hanging out with him and others at the Atlanta Christian Mystics Meetup during our final months before the Raleigh move. I learned a thing or three about how to hold one’s tradition as truth with integrity while not running roughshod over others, upon witnessing Carl’s lived experience of now being a “Pagan-friendly Christian.”
Last year he released the acclaimed Big Book of Christian Mysticism, which certainly lived up to its name. And while his next offering is not the autobiographical work I’m still hoping for (the Beliefnet piece was such a tease), The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader is a step in that direction. It takes a serious, sustained look at C.S. Lewis’s life and spirituality vis-a-vis the most allegorical of his Narnia novels.
Lewis, Carl contends, penned his children’s novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader around the classic Christian mystical stages of purgation, illumination, and union.
This voyage, the book’s official description reads, is “for Christians of all ages, is full of adventures, temptation, discomforting silence, dealing with “Dufflepuds” (distractions), and a final terrifying journey to the “Island of Darkness” (the dark night of the soul). As the Dawn Treader sails beyond where the stars sing, you will discover a world of wonders characterized by light and clarity, and encounter Alsan – Christ – himself.”
Lewis’s interpreter, McColman, is an enigma himself. As I’ve gotten to know him over the years, I’ve met a gentle soul with a wicked wit. Raised a staunch Lutheran, forged in the fires of both the Jesus Movement and charismatic renewal, McColman became by turns Episcopalian, agnostic, and neo-pagan. In the latter mode he became a trusted spiritual guide and best-selling author, counting books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism and Embracing Jesus and the Goddess to his credit. Then, after his visionary encounter with Christ led him to a transfigured Christian faith, Carl began retail work with the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, where he remains today.
So what does he do with Lewis? Here’s an example:
In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis refutes the idea that mystical experiences are an end in themselves. As he saw it, mysticism, by itself, is neither good nor evil; it is the content or the object of mystical experience that determines its ultimate value. “Departures are all alike; it is the landfall that crowns the voyage.” In other words, any kind of mystical experience is simply a “departure” from normal awareness and ordinary reality. It’s like seeing a glorious site in nature—the Grand Canyon, for example—for the first time. The beauty, the vastness, the austerity—these all combine to create an experience of wonder, or of humility, or even of ecstasy. Or, think of how some people’s lives are changed when they encounter suffering, or poverty, or other forms of human need. The experience of compassion and sadness in the face of human misery can change a person’s life forever…But an experience, in itself, does not make someone a mystic.
Whether an experience is one of great joy, or love, or sorrow, or suffering, or even a more “classic” mystical experience of feeling God’s presence in our hearts, we need to ask: where does this experience take us? Lewis goes on to say, “The saint, by being a saint, proves that his mysticism (if he was a mystic; not all saints are) led him aright; the fact that he has practiced mysticism could never prove his sanctity.” In other words, mysticism does not necessarily make a person a saint, nor does sanctity necessarily make one a mystic. For Lewis, there’s no contest: if we have to choose between being a spiritual master and a holy person, seek holiness. Better to be humble and holy than to be mystical and lost in the illusions of our own egos.
It’s this kind of counter-intuitive wisdom that avoids clichés and presents fresh considerations. I’ve gotten a lot out of this slender volume. Carl’s background makes him uniquely qualified to mine the depths of Narnia, as he is by turns literary, Christian (in the same Anglo-Catholic sense that Lewis was), and knowledgeable of the great reservoir of global pagan mythology that Lewis himself loved and employed. All of this makes reading The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader a contemplative experience in and of itself.
Watch a trailer for the book here: