Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Bernard McGinn and
Patricia Ferris McGinn
The Crossroad Publishing Co.,
255 pages, $18.95
The secrets of 12 spiritual masters

Authors trace themes of Christian mystical tradition


A number of years ago, a correspondent inquired with some astonishment how anyone could possibly find it interesting to read early patristic writers and medieval mystics. What could be found in that outdated material, fit only for historians of literature, he wondered. The presumption was that these works were not only difficult and passé, but were definitely at odds with our worldview. To top it off, some of the authors were embroiled with teachings later deemed to be unorthodox. Was not Origen condemned? Did not Evagrius pass on Origen’s suspect teaching to monastic authors? Wasn’t it all written for monks, anyway? Did lay Christians have an equal chance to get to heaven with their monastic counterparts? And so on.

To read the classics of spirituality with profit for oneself, I acknowledged, is indeed a challenge, but “there’s gold in them thar hills.” To go into the mines with experienced guides offers the chance of discovering great treasure.

Such guides to the prayer traditions in Western Christianity are Bernard and Patricia Ferris McGinn. Bernard McGinn’s three-volume Foundations of Mysticism, already a classic in its own right, has a worthy successor in Early Christian Mystics, a fruitful collaboration between Bernard and Patricia Ferris McGinn.

What definition of “mysticism” is operative here? McGinn explains that it is “that part of belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the reaction to what the mystics understand as a direct, immediate and transformative encounter with the presence of God.”

After a helpful, concise, readable introduction, Early Christian Mystics launches into the teaching of 12 spiritual masters whose works have influenced the Christian West. The 12 chapters are divided into two parts of six chapters each. Part One, demonstrating that the given authors offer more than theory alone, emphasizes “Practices for finding God.” Part Two emphasizes the theme of “Transformation in God.” Each section proceeds chronologically.

Each chapter commences with a brief biographical note on the spiritual master and presents an insight into that master’s particular contribution to the development of the spiritual tradition. A paragraph of conclusion for each puts the magic touch on the chapter, showing what a 21st-century author can admire, if not imitate. Here is where the authors expertly deal with the challenge of a modern reading of the classics.

Then, for readers whose taste has been whetted by these companions in the communion of saints and now wish to delve more deeply into the writings currently available in English, there is a bibliographical section of “Suggested Reading.”

The given exemplars in the “Practices” section are Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, Gregory the Great, Hildegard of Bingen and Richard of St. Victor. The early challenge was to read the holy scriptures in ways appropriate to hearing the voice of God in each person’s life and in the Christian community. How they did it is still helpful, even to an age steeped in historical-critical exegesis. Asceticism (Evagrius) also developed as a way of attentiveness to that Word. Purity of heart (Cassian) and compunction (Gregory the Great) are ways to make that attention more acute. Hildegard is the exemplar of the visionary element. Richard of St. Victor deals with modes of contemplation of the Trinity.

In the consideration of “Transformation in God,” the McGinns certainly could not pass over Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of epektasis or “straining ahead.” (Whenever the McGinns use such technical terminology, it is well explained; footnotes are neither given nor required.) Augustine’s view of the body of Christ gives a particularly sacramental and ecclesial emphasis to his prayer, and ours. The sixth-century Dionysius had more influence than he ever would have imagined in his paradoxical “unknowing knowing,” language familiar to Western mystics particularly through the Cloud of Unknowing. John the Scot’s contribution to an understanding of “Cosmic Unification” is worth a rereading in the light of Teilhard de Chardin’s theology in the 20th century. And the great St. Bernard’s language of spousal love of God in his unfinished commentaries on the Song of Songs influenced the language (if not the experience itself) of countless mystics, male and female, who were to come after him. Bernard’s friend and monastic disciple, William of St. Thierry, is coming into his own as an eminent monastic theologian and practitioner of prayer, whose prayer is imbued with Trinitarian consciousness. (“I must come back to this,” I told myself, as I read this portion again on Trinity Sunday).

In conclusion, we find two prayers: the first by John the Scot, the second by William of St. Thierry. “All the mystics presented here had only one reason for writing: to communicate to their contemporaries and to us, their successors, the message that God is near us, indeed in our very midst. … One [prayer] emphasizes the need for illumination of our knowing, another stresses the ordering of love through the action of the Holy Spirit poured out on our hearts.”

This is a book for the serious Christian, whether lay or religious, Catholic or Protestant, to take along for daily reading and reflection, as a book to come back to or to use as a jumping-off point for deepened understanding of any one of the 12 featured masters. It seems especially suitable for retreat times. One may well be inspired by these authors to put the Bible in the other pocket, to take and read with new attentiveness inspired by this collection of great teachers who have taught something so precious that the church never wanted to forget it.

Franciscan Sr. Helen Rolfson is associate professor of theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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