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  • The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition by Peter Tyler
  • Keith J. Egan (bio)
The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition. By Peter Tyler. New York: Continuum, 2011. 275 pp. $29.95

Teresa of Jesus, a Carmelite nun, reformer, saint, doctor of the church and author of widely read mystical texts, seems to be an improbable partner with the twentieth century, philosophical innovator Ludwig Wittgenstein. In The Return to the Mystical, Peter Tyler proposes that Teresa and Wittgenstein employ similar compositional strategies and that the latter offers a methodology for understanding the texts of the former. Tyler, Reader in Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at Saint Mary's University College, Twickenham, London, comes well prepared for his argument. He has published extensively on Carmelite subjects including The Way of Ecstasy: Praying with Teresa of Avila (The Canterbury Press, 1997). This more recent book originates from his doctoral thesis at the University of Durham: "Mystical Strategies and Performative Discourse in the theologica mystica of Teresa of Avila: A Wittgensteinian Analysis."

First, a glimpse of the improbability of partnership. Unlike the poetry and prose of her confrere, Saint John of the Cross, the writings of Teresa of Avila were in print by 1582, only six years after her death. The Augustinian friar and famed biblical scholar who had never met Teresa, Luis de León, expeditiously and enthusiastically edited and published most of Teresa's corpus of writings in 1588. John of the Cross' texts were more sparingly read because they were caught in the reaction to quietism that initiated the anti-mystical orientation of Western Christianity prevalent until the middle of the twentieth century. In some contrast, Teresa's remarkable gift as an engaging story teller has drawn avid readers throughout the [End Page 285] long anti-mystical era. Her words resonate with her readers' own spiritual aspirations. Readers frequently have the feeling that La Madre understands and cares for them not unlike the care she had for her "daughters." Moreover, Teresa has been recognized for her holiness and for her teachings. She was beatified in 1614 only thirty two years after her death, and eight years later in 1622, Teresa was canonized on the same day as Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Philip Neri and Isidore the Farmer. In 1970, she was declared the first woman doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. In 2012 there occurred the 450th anniversary of Teresa's first foundation, San José in Avila, and 2015 will offer additional conference opportunities to engage her work. Clearly, Avila's most famous daughter offers much for today's research and teaching.

The other protagonist of this study, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), has had a mixed reception within largely university discourse. He has avid and dedicated admirers, but also skeptics. Though a recognizable name in academic circles, Wittgenstein's philosophical tenets are not well known beyond philosophical circles of conversation where he made an enduring impact. Many declare that philosophical inquiry will never be the same since this Austrian-become-British citizen stepped on to the philosophical stage at Cambridge University. As a student at that university, I heard vivid stories in the 1960's told by those who had crossed paths with such a dynamic, erratic don before his death in 1951. Teresa of Jesus and Ludwig Wittgenstein seem improbable partners, at best.

This book on Wittgenstein and Teresa is divided into three Parts: 1) A Wittgensteinian View of the Mystical; 2) The Evolution of the theologica mystica; and 3) Wittgenstein and Teresa of Avila. Tyler's first chapter explores the use of the terms mystical, mysticism and mystic. He argues that ". . . Wittgenstein's work offers us an approach to the mystical that avoids the pitfalls of the 'modern mystic' approach while also avoiding the loss of the psychologistic content that often attends certain constructivist approaches" (25). This first chapter lays out a helpful delineation of various positions on the meaning of mysticism, especially from the contemporary debate on mysticism. We do not hear what Wittgenstein may have meant when he uses the word mystical, however.

Tyler next delinates...


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