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  • The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism ed. by Amy Hollywood, Patricia Z. Beckman
  • Louise Nelstrop (bio)
The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism. Edited by Amy Hollywood and Patricia Z. Beckman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 380pp. $30.99.

This multi-authored volume forms a welcome addition to the weighty Cambridge Companion series. A collection of essays that constitute a handbook on Christian mysticism presents its editors with no small challenge. Mysticism is a term that is applied to a wide variety of texts and practices, many retrospectively drawn within the ambit of this taxonomy. Although the title suggests that the book will encompass all of these, Amy Hollywood points out in the introduction that this would be an impossibility. The volume therefore sets out to concentrate on “the Christian mystical tradition, particularly as it is lived and practiced in the West from the third through the sixteenth centuries” (4). As such, it might perhaps have been more aptly entitled a companion to Western Christian Medieval Mysticism. Against this, the editors see it advancing an understanding of Christian mysticism that reaches beyond the confines of its historical and geographical focus, offering it as an anchor for envisaged subsequent volumes on Christian mysticism in the East and later historical periods. One real value of this volume lies in its highlighting the theological, ecclesial, liturgical and exegetical dimensions inherent within the development of Christian mysticism, without which our understanding is significantly diminished. If the companion has a core underlying agenda, it is that Christian mysticism is deeply grounded not only in historical contexts but also in religious traditions and practices from which it is often considered divorced. Thus even in the post-Reformation period, Hollywood stresses that Niklaus Largier is mistaken “in presuming that objective religious claims cease to be made in mystical terms” (31).

The volume is divided into three sections, each part building up a multi-faceted picture of Christian mysticism that stresses its complexity. Part I, “Contexts,” focuses on the monastic roots of the Christian mystical tradition; origins almost completely ignored in philosophical discussions of the topic. The four essays in this section offer an important corrective to contemporary understandings that overlook the contribution made by the Desert Fathers and the Benedictine tradition as a platform for later medieval and early modern ideas of the mystical. Discussion of the transformative center of Christian mysticism and its inseparability from the divine office and the daily recitation of the Psalms within a monastic context enables the reader to grasp how the mystical and exegetical are interwoven in Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs, for example, and how later developments gradually move these practices and ideas outside of the confines of the monastery. These essays set the tone of the volume, as it seeks to emphasize the religious and theological depths of Christian mysticism.

Part II, “Key Terms,” comprises eight essays, each of which briefly examines a topic that is readily associated with the mystical by medieval scholars. The monastic underpinnings are stressed through separate contributions on lectio divina, meditation and prayer—topics that one might expect to be more marginal in a volume on mysticism. These chapters serve to stress the liturgical and exegetical heart of Christian mysticism, which did not operate as an experiential phenomenon divorced from the ordinary life of Christian monasticism, at least in the Early and High Middle Ages. The range of topics discussed allows a sense of the integral nature [End Page 116] of the themes to emerge, as the three chapters of “Visio/Vision,” “Raptus/Rapture” and “Unio Mystica/Mystical Union” clearly illustrate. While it is not possible to discuss all the chapters in detail, Veerle Fraeter’s discussion of the gender issues at play within medieval accounts of visions and McGinn’s discussion of differentiated and undifferentiated union seem especially useful for those approaching these topics for the first time.

The final section of the volume, Part III, “Contemporary Questions,” comprises ten essays. Several of these essays begin to push the volume beyond its historical confines, drawing attention to some of the larger debates that have influenced scholarly understandings of mysticism from the eighteenth-century. One important issue...


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