The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism
Edited By Bernard McGinn
Publisher: New York: The Modern Library, 2006
ISBN: 0-8129-7421-2 (PBK)
In this large anthology, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Christian mysticism, Bernard McGinn, offers extensive selections from the writings of Christian mystics across the centuries. His idea is to enable readers, who may have often seen individual sayings of these mystics quoted, to appreciate their teachings in a larger context. As McGinn writes:
My hope is that the collection will provide a resource for those who have already tasted something of the spiritual wealth of Christian mysticism, as well as invite new readers to ponder the teachings of some of the most remarkable men and women of the Christian tradition.
The book concerns only Christian mysticism, because, for McGinn, mysticism is always “part of concrete historical religions…, not a religion in itself, nor the inner common denominator of all religions.” It is therefore “best understood in the light of its interaction with the other aspects of the whole religious complex in which it comes to expression.”
In the Christian context, most of the mystics describe their goal as union with God. But others avoided such language and spoke instead of awareness of the presence of God. McGinn therefore chose the “more inclusive and supple term” of presence as the basis for his selections.
McGinn organizes the texts thematically in three main sections: the preparation for mystical experience, aspects of mystical consciousness, and the effects of the mystical experience. This organization stems from his observations that “mysticism … is essentially a process, an itinerary or journey to God, not just a moment or brief state,” and that, while some mystics dwelt on “extraordinary forms of consciousness, such as visions and ecstasies,” most focused on “how their encounter with God transforms their minds and their lives.” McGinn divides each section into multiple sub-sections, starting each with his own helpful introduction.
The first section of the anthology, on preparation for mystical experience, is divided into five sections: Biblical Interpretation; Asceticism and Purgation; Prayer, Liturgy and Sacraments; Inner and Outer Practices; and Mystical Itineraries. Each sub–section presents writings from mystics ranging from the early Fathers of the Church up to modern times. To take one example, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) writes on four stages of prayer, using the analogy of watering a garden. She says that the first stage of prayer is like getting water from a well and carrying it to the plants. “This process is very laborious….[The beginners in prayer] tire themselves out in keeping the senses recollected, and this is a great labour because the senses are accustomed to distractions.” But it is God who provides the water in the well, which is “tears of…tenderness and interior feelings of devotion.” The second stage of prayer is like using a water wheel. “By … wheel and buckets the gardener may be able to draw more water with less labour and is able to take some rest without being continually at work,” because the soul has given “simple consent to become a prisoner of God, for it knows well what it is to be the captive of him it loves.” The third degree of prayer is like irrigating a garden with “running water coming from a river or brook….In this state our Lord desires to help the gardener in such a way that he may almost be said to be the gardener himself, since he does all the work….The pleasure, sweetness, and delight are incomparably greater than in the former state of prayer because the waters of grace have risen up to the neck of the soul so that it can neither advance nor retreat; it does not know how to; it seeks only the enjoyment of exceeding bliss.” The fourth stage of prayer seems impossible to describe. She writes: “May the Lord teach me the words in which to say something to describe the fourth water. … In this fourth state there is no feeling, only enjoyment without any understanding of the thing in which the soul is rejoicing. … How this prayer they call union happens and what it is, I cannot explain.”
In the sub–section on Mystical Itineraries McGinn notes how mystics in many traditions have used “the conception of life as a passage through a series of stages on the way to an intended goal” to describe “what they experienced and what they wish to hand on to their followers.” The mystic Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) describes
seven states which we call states of being, after Love has come and taken hold; and states of being they are. And they are the steps by which one climbs from the valley to the summit of the mountain, which is so isolated that one sees nothing there but God.
The second section of the book, Aspects of Mystical Consciousness, is divided into eight sub-sections: Living the Trinity; Encountering Christ; Love and Knowledge; Positive and Negative; Vision, Contemplation and Rapture; Distress and Dereliction; Deification and Birthing; and Union with God. McGinn writes,
Christian mysticism by definition is Christological—that is to say, it is only in, through, and by Christ, the God-man, that access to God is possible. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Almost all the texts found in this anthology illustrate in one way or another Christ’s role as both the way and the goal of the mystical life.
The twentieth-century French philosopher and social critic Simone Weil (1909-1943) writes of an experience when “Christ himself came down and took possession of me….In this sudden possession…neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.”
In the sub–section on Love and Knowledge, McGinn provides an extended introduction, framing how these two ways of coming to union with God have been viewed in different epochs. On love he quotes from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who writes that despite the fact that the soul is
burdened with sins, ensnared by vices, captured by enticements, caught in exile, imprisoned in the body, embedded in mud, fixed in slime, bound by its limbs, assailed by cares, distracted by troubles, bothered by fears, afflicted by pains, caught in errors, made anxious by worries, disturbed by suspicions, [yet it may] dare to aspire to be married to the Word, and not fear to enter into a pact with God, nor shrink from contracting a sweet yoke of love with the King of the angels. … Truly, this is the contract of a spiritual and holy marriage. But “contract” says too little; it is an embrace. … Thus they are bride and Groom. What other need or connection is there between spouses than to be loved and to love?
The unique aspect of this ‘marriage’ is that “this Spouse is not only loving, but is Love itself.”
The third section of the book, on Implications of Mystical Life, is divided into two subsections, one on the many accusations of heresy brought against the mystics, and the other on the balance between contemplation and action, between the solitary inward life and the active life of service. On the life of service, Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) writes, in the voice of Christ addressing a disciple,
I charge you to love me in the same love that I have loved you. You cannot do this for me, because I have loved you without being loved. Every love that you have for me is a love that comes from duty and not from graciousness, because you ought to do it. I love you from graciousness and not from duty. This is why you cannot give me the love that I am requesting of you. And therefore I have put you in the midst of your neighbour, so that you can do for him what you cannot do for me, that is, to love him without any self-interest from graciousness and without looking for any benefit. And what you do for him I consider as done for me.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.