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The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism Edited by Julia A. Lamm (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 100, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 97-98 | 10.1353/cat.2014.0002

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Julia Lamm has assembled a valuable collection of forty articles by leading scholars in this treasury of studies of (mainly) Christian mysticism. A lengthy and expert introduction by Lamm leads to the first section: five articles on “Themes in Christian Mysticism.” These include an exploration of the Song of Songs, gender, Platonism, aesthetics, and heresy, which, although incisive and richly detailed, seem somewhat randomly selected. The more explicitly historical sections include scriptural and early Christian elements, late-ancient Christian (i.e., “Patristic”) contributions (including Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Augustine, and St. Benedict), eleven essays on medieval mystics and mysticism (the largest section), and eight on Reformed traditions and “modernity” (including the twentieth century). The concluding section provides six articles on “Critical Perspectives” from theology, epistemology, linguistics, and neuroscience, including brief examinations of the social-scientific study of mysticism and interreligious aspects of the comparative study of mysticism, two excellent and heuristic contributions.

As with the introductory essays, much more could be said in this section and elsewhere, but at more than 600 pages, much has been. Perhaps unavoidably in so wide-ranging a compendium, some repetitiveness occurs, not least in the medieval section. Topics include St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians; the Victorines; the Byzantine tradition; the principal Franciscans (Ss. Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure) as well as the Spiritual Franciscans; the Nuns of Helfta; the Beguines and the Low Countries (including Ruusbroec); the Rhineland tradition of Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, and Johannes Tauler; the English mystics of the fourteenth century; Italian women mystics of the later Middle Ages; and Nicholas Cusa and his era. Under the rubric of “Reformation and Modernity” are found an essay on the Protestant reformers (mainly Martin Luther and John Calvin), the great Spanish mystics (mainly Ss. Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross), the French “School,” Pietism, Russian mysticism, and five contributions that cover the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Despite its largely sequential organization and the emphasis on historical figures and movements, the volume is a semi-encyclopedic resource, not a history of Christian mysticism on the order of the monumental series by Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God (New York, 1991–), although McGinn’s presence is felt throughout. It is difficult to find an essay that does not appeal in one way or another to his investigations, which have, quite rightly, set a very high watermark for comparative studies as well as history. However, there is no contribution by McGinn himself, although several of his former students contribute to the collection.

Some muddle results from a lingering reluctance adequately to distinguish religious experience from mystical experience—indeed, the whole matter of the interpretation of experience versus textual analysis dogs the volume as a whole despite Lamm’s strenuous effort to tilt the balance toward textual study. But mystical texts tend to refer to experience, and the circle remains unbroken. Here the breakthrough work of William E. Hocking early in the twentieth century, particularly The Meaning of God in Human Experience (New Haven, 1912), would have helped clarify the issue, just as closer attention to the seminal essay of Louis Bouyer on the history of the word mysticism would have spared repeated forays into sometimes questionable etymological inquiries. Bouyer is at least noted several times in passing. Hocking is never mentioned, nor are other pioneers of mystical study such as William Inge, Josiah Royce, Georgia Harkness, and Msgr. Ronald Knox. Samuel Terrien’s masterwork, The Elusive Presence (San Francisco, 1978), could have been profitably consulted for insight into Hebrew and Christian scriptural antecedents. The Jesuit writer William Johnston is also ignored. Surprisingly, the development of the Holiness-Pentecostal movement was bypassed, as was the manifestation of mystical exuberance by George Fox and the early Quakers, the Shakers, Ranters, and other enthusiasts. But a single volume cannot include all possible subjects or references, and a scattering of absences does not detract from the overall excellence of the contributions or the book as a whole.

A few infelicities of translation appear. Typographical errors are fortunately rare. Inexplicably, however, the issuance of the 1329 papal bull In Agro Dominico, in which eleven propositions of Eckhart were (erroneously, as it turned out) condemned...

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