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  • Mysticism and Space: Space and Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing Author and Julian of Norwich
  • Philip Sheldrake (bio)
Mysticism and Space: Space and Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing Author and Julian of Norwich. By Carmel Bendon Davis. Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008. xiii + 271 pp. $74.95

This book, by a scholar of medieval English, explores the influence and representations of the notion of “space” in the writings of three fourteenth-century English mystics. This is intended to provide new and creative ways of understanding Christian mysticism and mystical theology. Dr Davis’ chosen texts are the works of Richard Rolle (including Meditations on the Passion, despite its uncertain authorship), the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing (with some reference to The Book of Privy Counselling by the same author) and the Revelations of Divine Love (or Showings) by Julian of Norwich, predominantly the Long Text (subsequently cited as LT).

Apart from a specifically literary notion of mîse en abyme, Davis’ chosen contemporary interpretative frameworks are largely provided by French social, philosophical and cultural theory. Mîse en abyme in this context suggests both the irreducible gulf that separates the contemplative person from God and yet the way in which this abyss is paradoxically “bridged” by a chain of representations within the mystical texts themselves. For understanding spatial theory, Davis uses Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, applying his concepts of “spatial practice” (or how perceived, material space is negotiated), “representations of space” (or how space is conceptualized) and “representational spaces” (or how lived space is replete with possibilities beyond itself). Davis also draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of habitus as the “embodiment of structure,” that is Christian structures, in the “mystics” themselves. Finally, she uses Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopias” to develop the idea of real spaces (for example, a hermitage) which act as counter-sites subversively representing something beyond that society.

There can be no doubt that Davis’ approach to the mystical texts offers a number of fresh insights—for example into the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, the text which I specifically traced through Davis’ study. The first three chapters of the book deal in turn with Physical Space, Social Space, and The Space of the Text. The final three chapters explore “mystical space” in reference to each of the writers in turn.

In “Physical Space” Davis points to a critical shift in ways of seeing that is evident in Julian with her interpretation of the famous passage in LT Chapter 5 where “all that is made” is experienced, first, as “no bigger than a hazelnut” in Julian’s palm. Yet, as Davis suggests (reinforced by reference to Chapter 8 “because I saw it in the presence of him who is the Creator”), the image functions not merely as an expression of the insignificance of creation but also as a starting point for understanding reality as God sees it (in this case as loved and protected). That is, Julian is led to see reality from “God’s point of view.” This is an important theme to which Davis returns at several points. In the chapter on “Physical Space” Davis also explores medieval conceptions of the spaces of enclosure and solitude, the role of architectural imagery and of bodily space. In the case of the enclosed space of the hermitage, this functions, in Lefebvrian terms, as “representational space” whereby the physical enclosure of contemplation becomes the sign of a spiritual “enclosure” in God. In LT Chapter 54, Julian posits a reciprocal and paradoxical indwelling of God in the soul (described as an “honourable city” in LT 56) and of [End Page 115] the human soul in God. Compared to Rolle or the author of The Cloud, Julian has less to say about bodily space. Davis suggests that its major role is in Julian’s experience of illness where her inert body acts as a “transit point” to the suffering body of Christ which focuses everything else in the text of the “revelations.”

In the chapter on “Social Space,” Davis begins with the “space” of Christian society. Here, in...


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