Is Charisma a Gift or a Curse?


Q: I have a question about charisma –  I heard it can be a gift of the Spirit but I also know it can be a serious ego trap (a certain guru with a fleet of luxury limousines comes to mind). What kind of energy is there behind charisma? Is it a gift or a curse? It seems to me that Fr. Keating had a bit of a struggle on that front  at the time he was an abbot.


A: Thank you for your discerning question.

As with almost everything else, charisma is not a single “something,” but more an energetic gamut. At the one end of the gamut is pure, holy being-radiance that attracts simply by its own freedom and goodness. That’s the kind of charisma people responded to in Jesus and so many other great saints and holy people; it’s the radiance of pure holiness itself. In his final years Thomas Keating was also radiating this kind of charisma much of the time; the more simple he became —“the less Thomas was there”—the more magnetically the pure charisma of his realized Being glowed. But even for Thomas it took a long life journey to get  way there!

At the other end of the gamut charisma is “sticky”— the distorted animal magnetism of an ego self “on the make” for personal power and gratification. This “magical” charisma is basically vampirish: it sucks people in, then sucks them dry. Gurdjieff called it a “misuse of the sexual center” with good reason; whether or not there’s actual sexual acting out involved, you can always sense that undercurrent of lust at the driveshaft of this demonic caricature of the “holy” charisma. “I will not be impotent!” it proclaims. You’re quite right that it’s a curse, for both the one who must bear it and the ones who will suffer from it.

Those are the extreme ends of the gamut. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, stuck between our authentic yearning selflessness and the fears and inner demons that drive us back behind our own barricades. We all have charisma to some degree, though many of us prefer to keep it well hidden beneath a bushel!  But as we work our way courageously toward freedom—freedom from our  false-self-programs, freedom from clinging and insistence, freedom from self-importance—we discover that grace itself, working through our lives, slowly transforms our “sticky” charisma into holy charisma, which then radiates out to others as the gift of their own freedom.

As Jean Gebser once wisely said, “Anyone able to set aside power is liberated from impotence.” Then and there does charisma find itself wholly purified.

God bless you, Cynthia Bourgeault