- The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism ed. by Julia A. Lamm
In the introductory essay to this impressive volume, editor Julia Lamm notes that “[i]n studying Christian mysticism, we must rely inevitably, albeit not exclusively, on texts” (5). With few exceptions, the authors of the thirty-nine essays that follow appear to share her view without reservation or regret. In many ways this resolute focus on mystical texts makes for a cohesive and satisfying book that will assist beginning students and advanced scholars alike. As Lamm acknowledges, the influence of Bernard McGinn’s magisterial multi-volume history of Western Christian mysticism is evident throughout these essays, perhaps especially in his insistence that since scholars have no direct access to anyone else’s experience, they must concentrate their attention on the written documents that prepare for, guide, and attempt to record events that take place in the unfathomable depths of human consciousness. Arguments over what really happens inside another person’s mind or heart are futile, as is speculation over the degree to which someone has actually attained union with the divine. All (or nearly all) that can be studied is what people have written about mystical experience. Fortunately, as the evidence presented in this volume makes clear, there is an abundance of such texts in existence from every period of Christian history.
Following the editor’s introduction, the volume is divided into five parts. Part I comprises five thematic essays on the Song of Songs (Ann Astell and Catherine Rose Cavadini), gender (Barbara Newman), Platonism (Willemien Otten), aesthetics (Don Saliers), and heresy (J. Patrick Hornbeck II). Each essay proceeds chronologically but selectively through the history of mysticism, highlighting examples of the theme and showing how it has developed over time. It is interesting to speculate how many of these themes would have received attention in a study of mysticism published fifty years ago. Platonism would probably have been in the list, and the Song of Songs might have been treated in an essay on Scripture, but the other three topics reflect contemporary interests that would not have been appreciated in an earlier time.
The three central parts of the volume are devoted to what the editor calls “sub-traditions” in the history of Christian mysticism. Part II covers the New Testament through Benedictine monasticism in the early medieval period. Part III deals [End Page 118] with the manifold varieties of medieval mysticism from the twelfth century through the fifteenth. Part IV begins with the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers and concludes with an essay on “Mystics of the Twentieth Century.” All of the essays in these three central parts are authoritative and accessible, usually with ample bibliographies to suggest further reading. The authors are without exception among the most highly respected experts in their respective fields. For the most part, the essays present the current consensus of scholarly opinion, illustrated with generous and well-chosen quotations from primary sources. A few authors, however, offer new interpretations that challenge conventional views. For example, Charles Stang’s essay is a revisionist account of the early development of negative theology, in which he argues that the “orthodox” apophaticism of Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite was in part a reaction against the anti-mysticism of the Neo-Arians Aetius and Eunomius. Another such example is John Peter Kenney’s reading of the ascension narratives and the so-called vision at Ostia in Augustine’s Confessions, which he recasts not as accounts of mystical experience but as part of Augustine’s determined attempt to present a “consistent Christian portrait of his soul’s discovered limitations and his need for a divine mediator” (192).
After the sixth century, the volume’s main emphasis is on the Western Christian traditions of Europe, but there are single essays on the Byzantine tradition and on Russian mysticism. The only references to Christian mysticism in Asia come in Mary Frohlich’s evocative essay on mystics of the twentieth century and Leo Lefebure’s chapter on “Mysticism in Interreligious Perspective.” Unfortunately, there is...