Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 16

The Way of the Mystics: John Michael Talbot and Gary W. Moon in Conversation

John Michael Talbot & Gary W. Moon

01.  Introduction

After performing at the Ozark Mountain Folk Fair in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 1973, John Michael Talbot began to reconsider his life. What seems so remarkable about this was his age—nineteen—and the fact most would say he was on top of the world. After all, he and his brother, Terry Talbot, were the heart of a country-rock group known as Mason Proffit, which had fronted for some of the biggest acts of that era, including the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. Nonetheless, John Michael had the sudden revelation that his life was empty and sad.

Talbot was born in Oklahoma City on May 8, 1954, and grew up in Indianapolis. His father had been a violinist with the Oklahoma City Orchestra. His mother was a pianist, and his maternal grandfather had been an itinerant singing Methodist minister. It didn’t take John Michael—as he prefers to be called—and Terry long to start playing in regional bands. By the time John Michael was fourteen, Mason Proffit was on the road and gaining national exposure.

But John Michael’s holy U-turn resulted in the breakup of the band, a depletion of his savings, and a temporary embrace of an extreme, fundamentalist tributary of Christianity. When John Michael sought spiritual guidance at Alverna, a Catholic retreat center in Indiana, he discovered the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi and the peace for which he had been searching.

In 1982, John Michael became a Third Order Franciscan lay brother and eventually founded the Little Portion Hermitage, a community based in the Franciscan tradition (also known as the Brothers and Sisters of Charity) at Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The setting of this integrated monastic community is in the same region as the 1973 Ozark Mountain Folk Fair where Mason Proffit had performed in front of ten thousand people.

This interview is not my first time to catch up with John Michael. In the summer of 1998, our family decided to construct a vacation such that each person got to pick any two places in the US; then we got in the car and connected the eight dots. For one of my choices, I picked Little Portion. This brought on a chorus of, “Oh, Dad!” but a deal was a deal. On a hot July evening, the four of us gathered with John Michael at Little Portion for vespers and what turned out to be—due to a scheduling conflict for the staff—a private concert that none of us will forget.

As a long-time fan of John Michael’s music, I was not surprised by how much I enjoyed his recent book, The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today. And I was delighted when he agreed to sit down for this interview with Conversations.


02.  Interview

GWM:     I’m old enough to remember when you and your brother, Terry, were part of the country-rock group Mason Proffit. As I recall, in the early seventies, you were sharing the stage with some pretty well-known artists. But, according to what I’ve read, you were “seized by a sudden revelation” that changed the course of your life.

JMT:    I guess I had just seen too many passed-out people on concert floors after a show. It all seemed a bit sordid and futile. I wanted to make music that made a positive difference in people’s lives. We tried to do that with Mason Proffit, and it was successful to a greater degree than with most bands, but I wanted something more.

GWM:    Would you say that a revelation like that constituted a “mystical experience”?

JMT:    Yes. But a mystical experience simply means something we cannot fully describe. That is true of any personal religious experience. But it is also true of any love, be it human or divine. Love is an act of the will and is directed through some objective understanding. But ultimately it is beyond complete understanding. It must be lived. But it can also be true in understanding something as scientific as quantum physics! Mysticism is really for everyone if people simply open themselves up to it.

GWM:    Your quest for an experience of God was certainly very open and honest. I understand that you spent almost four years searching for answers and exploring major world religions. Then you saw a “Christ figure” that personalized Christianity for you. Would you mind saying more about that experience?

JMT:    I had a rather typical “visionary” experience to confirm the changes in my life. I simply asked God if “He, She, or It” existed. I saw a Christ figure. No special revelation about me except that he loved me. It was overwhelming, and it changed my life for the better

GWM:    Why do you say the word “visionary” with a question mark in your voice?

JMT:    It could easily have been psychological. But I figure God can use any part
of my being—spiritual, psychological, or physical—to reach me. Actually, he usually uses all of who and what we are to reach us completely. Plus, I just don’t think I’m all that special. The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know much, haven’t accomplished much, and have missed many opportunities to be a much better human being, especially in light of the faith I sometimes all too easily express.

GWM:    Your humility is refreshing. I understand that you believe sacred music can be sacramental, that it can take the listener into the heart of God. In essence, the music you are creating is a vehicle for the experience of sacrament and mystery. How intentional is this during the creative process?

JMT:    One of the main meanings to the word, “sacrament,” is “mystery.” Music has the potential to reach people in ways beyond human understanding. St. Augustine said that those who sing pray twice. Some religions teach that God created with “music,” and the creation reflected that perfect harmony, rhythm, and proportion. Audible music in this world can point us toward a much greater music of spirit, soul, and body. This music must be intuited with the human spirit aided by the Spirit of God. When touched by God’s Spirit, earthly music acts as audio icons, which are called windows to heaven. So spiritual music can usher people through to a spiritual level where the music is often best heard in silence.

GWM:    What a cool phrase: “audio icon.” I like that very much. And your description of creation reminds me of Calvin Miller’s beautifully written trilogy—The Singer, The Song, and The Finale.

But to continue with the notion of sacred music having the potential to be sacramental, your first album as a monk was The Lord’s Supper (1979). Another one of my favorites, Quiet Reflections, contains a series of songs that take the listener through what I’ve called a “virtual Communion.” For years I’ve ended retreats with those songs, inviting the students to imagine each breath to be an experience of receiving Communion—welcoming Christ to the center of their bodies and beings. As a good Catholic, how weird do you think this is—Communion without the elements?

JMT:    Fine.

GWM:    Fine that it’s weird or fine to be that casual with Communion?

JMT:    Both. The Church is using the language of communio to best describe life in Christ. It is communion that flows forth from the Communion of Eucharist, and leads back to Communion. It is sacramental that flows from the Sacrament and leads back to the Sacrament. The Eucharist symbolizes grace that is already in the believer, and effects that grace to grow stronger and stronger through faithful reception of the Sacrament.

GWM:    Let’s transition to your book, The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today. What was the driving motivation to write it?

JMT:    It was a follow-up to my best-selling Lessons of St. Francis.

GWM:    Now right after I’ve bragged on you for being humble, you drop in a phrase like “best-selling.”

JMT:    Sorry. I meant to say my surprisingly popular book.

GWM:    Much better.

JMT:    As I was saying, my life in community is based on Franciscanism, but it has always gone beyond it to the entire monastic tradition. This does not make us “better.” We are just not easily housed within the parameters of the Franciscan family alone. The Way of the Mystics kind of follows that progression.

GWM:    I love the structure of the book. After a very helpful introduction, you provide thirteen chapters arranged in chronological order that each presents the life story of a different spiritual pioneer—from Antony to Thomas Merton. And as a side note, your use of thirteen chapters would seem to make this book ideal for small groups that meet on a quarterly basis. If that wasn’t intentional, I’ll assume it was mystically inspired. Before getting into any of the specific “pioneers of the spirit” you present, I have a few more general questions.

You make the interesting statement that while rational discussion is good and potentially very helpful, “rationality is not the source of religion. Before expressing itself in words and ideas, religion is born of experience.”See John Michael Talbot and Steve Rabey, The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom from Experiencing God Today (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 1–2. Or, according to Frederick Buechner, “Religion starts, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat.”The Way of the Mystics, 1. Please say more about how experience and feeling are at the heart of mysticism.

JMT:    I am most pleased that Pope Benedict XVI has reintroduced eros, where we get the word erotic, into the full Christian notion of love, to balance our recent, almost exclusive use of agape, or a self-diffusiveness free of lust and such. Going back to Church fathers and philosophers, he shows us how the use of the passion in love can help to lift us out of our erroneous use of love/lust. The whole point of love is to rise above self-obsession and really become self-emptying so we can authentically be self-giving.

God uses thoughts, feelings, and intuitions of the spirit to reach people. Sometimes they occur separately, and sometimes all at once. Usually, they cannot be dissected like the frog on the ninth-grader’s biology table.

Most of us are addicted to negative patterns regarding the use of these faculties. Most of us develop an entire self-image based on these unhealthy patterns, and we really believe that this persona, or personality, is the real “me.” Our real identity includes these things, but is based on a person of the spirit that we have ignored for so many years that we often are not even aware that such a person even exists deep within on the level of the spirit.

GWM:    When you use the phrase “person of the spirit,” I’m reminded that when we attempt to measure religion as a variable in psychological research, we most often use belief and behavior as indicators. But when the attempt is made to measure spirituality, the variables become experience and feeling. In this sense, does discussion about the mystical, about the internal “person of the spirit,” seem more at home with spirituality than religion?

JMT:    Of course, today’s language favors the use of the word spirituality instead of religion. This is probably because organized religion has often failed so miserably. But religion also gets a bum rap. As a Catholic, I can say that even with all of our failings, religion gets more done for good in this world than almost any other institution, secular or sacred. Consider all the social and spiritual programs, ministries, and communities that bring so much good into this world.

Specifically, good religion must include both spirituality and mysticism. It is the “soul” of the Church. Without it the Church becomes a cold and lifeless institution. No matter how efficiently it does good works, and technically well it preaches faith and morality, it remains unable to bring real spiritual life to almost anyone.

As to measuring effective spirituality, I have never been a fan of touchy-feely spirituality. I have seen far too many people fall into the trap of self-obsession and unhealthy habit patterns under the guise of spirituality. Real spirituality must change a person’s life for the better. That includes behavior in the way we deal with others.

God may reach us where we are, no matter how messed-up our lives might be, but He loves us enough to show a way to change. That may come all at once, but usually it is a step-by-step process that continues our entire lives.

GWM:    Well said, and your last statements reflect the balanced and practical approach to mysticism in your book. I’m also reminded that a lot of folks distrust words like mysticism. I’m even reminded of the quip, “Mysticism is something that begins in a mist, and ends in a schism because of having I in the middle.” Without having to dignify that, what is your favorite definition of mysticism, and what do you say to help people become more drawn to the term or experience?

JMT:    Mysticism just means “mystery.” If love is the heart of our faith, then faith must include mystery. That is why the heart of Catholic Christian worship is not the pastor’s sermon, the music ministry’s music, or even the friendliness of the people of a particular local parish. Sacraments, especially Penance and Eucharist, remain the high point of our worship. All the rest is there just to set the table for our Divine Guest at the table of the Lord.

GWM:    What you said reminds me that our managing editor recently told me that if you do a quick word search for mystery in the New Testament, you find twenty-two instances where the term occurs. That amount of real estate beats the space allotted to tithe and tithing by eleven to one. But I’ll bet the topic of mysticism trails tithing by one hundred to one for sermon topics. I’m rambling—and flirting with excommunication. So, here’s my question: When Paul refers to “Christ in you” as the great mystery that had been hidden through the ages [see Colossians 1:26–27], I believe he was underscoring the number one teaching point from all his writings—the experience of Christ within. Do you think that a lot of Paul’s excitement about the great mystery revealed—that it is possible to experience a “with-God” life throughout the day—may be lost today?

JMT:    Yeah, I think you are correct. To some degree, I think Paul’s excitement about the ability to experience the mystery of Christ within has been lost. I’m sure I’m biased, but this loss may be more evident in the evangelical movements in the United States than elsewhere. I certainly believe there definitely should be more spoken about mysticism and the mystery of Christ in us.

GWM:    And your book, at one level, is an invitation to follow the example of mystics past, and step into the great mystery of “Christ in you.”

JMT:    Yes, exactly.

GWM:    John Michael, along these same lines, you make the statement that in a sense, “every Christian who has a living, vital, and spirit-filled relationship with God can be considered a mystic.” Please say more about that.

JMT:    If you enter into this gift of Jesus and the Church, you become a mystic whether you like the term or not. We can and should define much about faith and morality to lead people to and in Jesus Christ. But if we go forward in the Communion line with faith, hope, and love, then we are mystics. Why? because love can be explained partly but never completely. If this is true of love in general, how much more [is it true of] divine love from and with our infinite God?

GWM:    Simply put, the goal of your book is to help people become better mystics. How do you practice mystical awareness on a daily basis?

JMT:    Pray and work. Take time away from the hectic affairs of daily life that so easily dull our spiritual sense of intuition. Be still; meditate on the Word of God, and then let your spirit be awakened through that Word to a place beyond words. That place is Jesus. After that, then go back out to work in the crazy world. But now you go from a place of contemplation, peace, and love, and lead others back to that place of peace without even knowing you are doing it. You do it simply by being.

GWM:    I find myself very drawn to your practical and balanced approach to living in a with-God manner, which is living with love and living as a beneficiary of mysticism. And there are other ways you give us a balanced view. In your book you remind us that while mysticism is often called a religion of the heart, we should never focus so much on the heart that we neglect the intellect. It almost seems that mysticism is the kite, and theology is the string that keeps it from blowing off course. I sense that you want to offer mysticism as an outgrowth of sound theology that infuses it with life. If I’m reading you correctly, please say more.

JMT:    Yes. Good mystics stay rooted in sound and balanced beliefs. It is the anchor that keeps us from being swept away in the stormy waves of life.

I am currently reading about quantum physics for the first time in my life. I find it a helpful analogy for spirituality. Quantum physics seems to contradict on a subatomic level most of the laws and mechanics of nature on the daily level of cause and effect in the world we can see and touch with our natural faculties of the five senses. Time and space are no longer constants through which all else relates. Isaac Newton explained classical physics brilliantly. Modern physics goes beyond space and time into “space/time.” But just because we have found a strange new world on the subatomic level, [we have] no reason to leave Newtonian physics behind. To the contrary, you need both. Otherwise, you end up “lost in space”!

The same is true of spirituality. You need a good grounding in the teaching of the Church regarding faith and morality before you launch too widely into the world of mysticism or interfaith matters. Without that anchor, you can get tossed, turned, and twisted before you even know what hit you.

GWM:    Yes, there’s the needed tension. You need both the anchor and the sails, the string and the kite. For some today who may have experienced too much anchor and not enough wind in the face, for those who are becoming turned off to Christianity and who view it as synonymous with legalism or political activism, your book offers them the heart of the Christian story. What would you say to someone who seems to be missing the experience of Christianity—other than, “Boy, do I have a good book for you”?

JMT:    I encourage those initially grounded in Christian faith and morality to take the time just to listen to what others say about their faith. Sometimes that can speak more than mere words. But “silence implies consent,” as the saying goes. Wait for the right time to share your faith, and then do not be afraid to do so. But I avoid criticisms of another’s faith experience. I believe that we get more done by sharing our experience. If it is good, it will have a good effect on the other person’s life.

GWM:    Thanks. As I’ve mentioned, your book presents the life stories of thirteen mystics. You begin with Father Antony and describe him as being an “athlete for God.” What training regimen would you recommend to a mystic wannabe?

JMT:    First, find a good teacher and place yourself under his or her direction. But do this in a healthy way, not with undue dependence or codependence. Next, get into a good Christian community that carries the mystical heritage of Christianity as an active aspect to their way of life. Monasteries are the best place to start. Some may not be called to give up everything and enter a monastery, but you can enter their extended community while remaining in the secular world. These are called oblates, seculars, or associates, among others. Our Brothers and Sisters of Charity community has “Domestics” who live our way of life in the secular world. Normally this expression outnumbers the monks and nuns about ten to one.

GWM:    What would your advice be for distinguishing a healthy spiritual “athleticism” from an “unhealthy asceticism”?

JMT:    Asceticism is a healthy part of good mysticism. It basically means to let go of old ways of thinking, feeling, and acting in order to rediscover the child God originally created us to be. When this happens, we are “born again.” Jesus says we must bring all that we are to the cross and let it die. He also says that we must be born again and become little children to enter the Kingdom of God.

He calls us to become childlike, but not childish! Unhealthy asceticism is usually obsessive in nature and causes us to become scrupulous. A scruple is a little pebble that gets lodged in one’s shoe. You can still walk, but not very gracefully. In spirituality, scrupulosity is to become obsessed about certain outer aspects of healthy asceticism without understanding its real meaning or goal. This often occurs when one tries to do all this without a good teacher or spiritual director.

GWM:    That’s very helpful, John Michael. Given that your first book—I understand it sold quite well—was on St. Francis and that the impact of his life on your life has been remarkable, I read the chapter on St. Francis with great interest. You mention there that although he never wrote much, accounts of his life make it clear that he embraced a bridegroom approach to mysticism. You also reference that Franciscans for centuries have taught that the mystical love union that grows between God and his people happens in a fashion similar to the way a human love relationship grows over time. I agree and think this theme is vitally important, but help me know how to frame this for a friend I have who thinks the Song of Solomon should be excised from Scripture with a pocket knife for being the “ranting of a dirty old man.”

JMT:    Just ask them about their own love life, and that should put a stop to it! Seriously, it is a long-accepted analogy for our love relationship with Jesus, and employed as an analogy by many great saints and doctors of the Church. The problem occurs when this analogy becomes too literal, and old, unhealthy sexual habits are stirred up through the very meditation that is supposed to be helping them. As Evagrious said, “Do not let the cure to a passion become a passion.”

GWM:    I’ll pass that on. But before we leave the topic completely, joy is a prominent theme across the chapters of your book. Do you think it is helpful to think of joy as the emotion of union?

JMT:    Yes. Better yet, ecstasy. The ecstatic experience is one of the steps along the way to deeper contemplation. In my book The Lover and the Beloved, I go into greater detail with this analogy. The ecstasy of sexual union with one’s spouse is important. But the quiet and still afterglow is also every bit as rich for a good relationship. Ecstasy must lead on to deeper places of union. Joy is a part of both.

But joy must also know sorrow, and empathy with those in pain and suffering. Joy without knowing the sorrows of life is superficial. Deeper joy can endure through pain, even when one does not “feel” joyful. It becomes a deep and abiding companion through all of life’s inevitable experiences.

GWM:    You offer the provocative statement that although some may consider mystical experiences to be proof of our spiritual maturity, you caution that they may, in fact, show how immature we are. Please say more.

JMT:    If one is always seeking the high of mysticism, then one is not yet a mystic. Mysticism has its highs and breakthrough moments, but most of life is very mundane. It is when the mystical intuition of the spirit pervades our whole life, high and low, good and bad, that one is beginning to walk the authentic way. I am reminded of the old Zen saying about the young student who asked his teacher about mystical enlightenment. The old teacher simply said, “Chop wood; carry water.” Or, as we are told in the Christian tradition, we must learn to find the “sacrament of the present moment” if our mystical union with Jesus Christ is to bear real fruit in our lives.

GWM:    Final question: please leave us with a reflection on the two spiritual pioneers—from the thirteen you write about—that have given you the most practical help for your own journey with God—and what is the advice from them that you’ve put into practice?

JMT:    St. Francis was approached by a young novice to take into town and preach. He waited and waited. Finally, Francis said to the novice, “Come and preach with me.” The boy was beside himself with anticipation. They went into town, where Francis began to talk with the vendors in the piazza about how business was going. He talked to all about how life was going for them. Every now and then, he would offer some spiritual word for encouragement. When the sun was dipping low into the late afternoon sky, Francis turned to the boy and said, “Let’s go back to the hermitage.” The boy remonstrated with Francis, saying, “But you promised we would go preaching!” Francis said, “We have been preaching all day.”

The other is from St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. The Benedictine tradition simply says, “Pray and work.” When mystical prayer is genuine, it makes us better workers. We can bring prayer to our work and lead work to prayer. Real mystics are realists. When they are not, they are not real mystics.

GWM:    You say it and write it as well as you sing it. What a rare gift, and thank you so much for what you’ve done for the cause of Christian spiritual formation.

03.  About the Interviewee


About the Interviewee

John Michael Talbot is a best-selling Christian music artist who recently released his fiftieth album, Living Water. He is the author of over twenty books or songbooks. For more information please visit: