Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book
By Denise Nawakowski Baker
Princeton University Press, 215 pages, $29.95
Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics
Edited by Bernard McGinn
Continuum, 166 pages, $19.95
The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century
By Bernard McGinn
Crossroad, 630 pages, $49.50
Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction
By Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Lavina Cohn-Sherbok
Continuum, 186 pages, $22.50
Praying with Julian of Norwich
By Ritmary Bradley
Twenty-Third Publications, 184 pages, $12.95
It has been nearly twenty years since the great and surprising burst of interest in spirituality induced the publication in the late 1970s of several major series of books in English on Western mysticism. Those series were the result of an attempt to bring long-neglected masterpieces of Western thought to the attention not only of scholars but to an entire populace perceived to be starving in the desert of pop culture. Since then hundreds of works from the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish mystical traditions have been published. The five books reviewed here continue that process and, as such, are interesting not only as individual works of scholarship but as markers of still current trends.
Perhaps the most interesting development over the years is the growth of interpretive sophistication. Denise Nowakowski Baker’s Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book is a fine example. Baker’s work is not preoccupied with the textual details of Showings ”with questions of authorship and dating, or with debates about the provenance of manuscripts”as were some of the 1970s works on Julian. Baker presents us instead with a highly nuanced interpretation in which she attempts to trace Julian’s journey from mystical experience to mystical text. She delves into Julian’s fundamental experiences of her own body and her family”and finds in them the key for understanding her literary efforts. The result is believable and enlightening.
In no English works are the interpretive possibilities explored as comprehensively as in Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics , edited by Bernard McGinn, a collection of seven essays on the Beguine mystics Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. The book furthers the proposition, advanced by much recent scholarship, that the Beguine movement was one of the most fertile grounds for women’s spiritual expression during the Middle Ages. The little-known links between those women mystics, whose writing often drew the ire of the religious establishment, and Meister Eckhart, whose bold speculations resulted in his work often being misunderstood, are shown through a literary analysis of the texts and common themes. While it is probable that Eckhart read Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (which earned her death at the stake), it is not at all certain that Eckhart had any direct contact with Hadewijch or Mechtilde. The point of the essays is not to claim direct historical influence but to show what Eckhart shared with the thirteenth-century women mystics. The result is to rehabilitate further the image of the Beguines by placing their experience in the context of the thought of the greatest of the German mystics.
The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century is the second volume of McGinn’s history of Western mysticism. In The Foundations of Mysticism (1991), McGinn undertook the task of providing a more complete and critical knowledge of the history of Christian mysticism, as well as a more adequate contemporary theological appraisal of the phenomenon. Rejecting the classical distinction between mysticism and mystical theology, McGinn showed in that first volume that the interaction between conscious acts and their symbolic and theoretical thematizations is best seen as a piece and best uncovered through historical analysis.
The present volume continues the epic story with the same methodological brilliance that characterized the earlier work. McGinn narrates the development of Christian mysticism from the end of the Roman Empire to its full flowering in the Middle Ages. It was a time of transformation of culture, of economies, and of populations. The cultural fabric of the Empire, the res publica romana , was giving way to a new synthesis known as Christianitas . The urban culture of the late Empire, in which Christianity had grown as a city religion, was being replaced by de-urbanization, which brought with it the feudal system in which land owners constructed agriculturally based systems of social organization that replaced the urban middle classes. New peoples as well played increasingly visible roles in the civilization of those years. Barbarian tribes like the Franks with their wandering hunting societies or rural agricultural economies came to power and even supplied, in the person of Charlemagne, kingly leadership for the new society.
The Christian spirituality that developed during that time was a response to the age. There was a movement of the old Roman aristocracy into the Church during the late fifth century. As the Empire declined, the power of the Church and its leaders emerged. Especially pronounced was the birth of the concept of the primacy of Rome; Rome become the touchstone and rallying point for Christian orthodoxy in a world challenged from the outside by the centripetal forces of change.
Early medieval spirituality incorporated that sense of the political importance of Church leaders with the other great formative force of the age: monasticism. Rural in its geography, agricultural in its economy, and tribal in its polity, monasticism fit the time in which it was born and provided a Christian response to the forces shaping the world order. The amalgam of monasticism and clerical power formed what McGinn describes as a concrete sacrality in which subject and object came together in an undifferentiated whole. The focus on the ascetical holy man”a type of barbarian warrior chief”was balanced with an emphasis on moralism and adherence to external standards that fit the role of the Church as maintainer of the social order.
In all, McGinn’s treatment is richly detailed and compelling and furthers his goal of presenting the history of mystical theory and practice in the context of the wider sweep of civilization.
Another trend over the last twenty years has been the rise of comparative studies of spiritualities. Dan and Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok’s elegantly written Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction is a further indication of that hopeful trend. The work traces the development of Jewish mysticism from the first-century thought of Philo of Alexandria to the twentieth-century work of Abraham Isaac Kook. Aimed at a general audience, the book begins with the story of an American Jewish woman who, disgusted by the spiritually barren atmosphere of secular Judaism, left her faith and become a Hindu. She had been pushed over the edge by a book written by a popular rabbi, I’d Like to Call God But I Don’t Know the Number!
The Cohn-Sherboks begin with a survey of the works of the early rabbinic period in which the rich Neoplatonic speculations of Philo and his school produced the cosmological concepts of the divine agent Metatron who was believed to mediate between the cosmos and God and the ten sefirot, the mysterious paths by which the process of creation occurred. They then move to the medieval period and the development of the kabbalah . They trace the Rhineland mystics of the Hasidei Ashkenaz tradition and the Spanish kabbalists like Moses ben Shen Tov de Leon who produced the Zohar . They follow the traditions into the post-medieval period, which saw the development of Abraham ben Isaac of Granada’s Berit Menuhah and the work of the great Safed masters like Isaac Luria that developed after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain at the turn of the sixteenth century. They review the thought of nineteenth-century writers Aaron Roth and Isaac Joda Hehiel Safrin and end with a discussion of Kook’s earthly Zionism.
To that is appended a survey of Christian mysticism from Origen to the twentieth-century work of Henri Le Saux and Thomas Merton.
In the most interesting part of the work, the authors compare the two traditions and conclude that they share a belief in divine intermediaries and the via negativa as a true path of enlightenment. Although Jewish mystics obviously did not have the Christians’ emphasis on Christ as the second person of the Trinity, they did insist that divine intermediaries were an integral part of the presence of the one God in the world. For Philo, the mediation was accomplished through angels. For the rabbis who formulated the concept of Shekhinah, it was that indwelling presence of God by which He sanctified the world. And in the Middle Ages, the sefirot represented emanations of the divine that took on material expression in the world.
The via negativa , or the way of negation, was also a common feature of Jewish and Christian spiritualities. It was thought that any attempt to represent God was always flawed and risked limiting the Almighty. As a result, efforts to say what God is not were often closer to the mark for both the Jewish and Christian mystic. As the twelfth-century kabbalist Azriel of Gerona put it: Know that the Ayn Sof cannot be thought of, much less spoken of, even though there is a hint of it in all things, for there is nothing else apart from it. The Christian master of the negative way, the Pseudo-Dionysius, said it this way: Concerning the hidden super-essential Godhead we must not dare to speak or even to form any conception thereof except those things which are divinely revealed to us from the Holy Scriptures.
In all, this is an able and enjoyable work that provides an apt survey of two traditions plus some valuable insights on their similarities.
The last work in the quintet is from an accomplished scholar of Julian of Norwich, Ritmary Bradley. Praying With Julian of Norwich offers selections from Julian’s Showings plus commentary. It is aimed at popular devotion, a kind of prayerful reading of the text, or lectio devina . Each section is broken into texts from Julian about prayer, followed by a short commentary, followed by more text and another commentary. The book covers the style, subject matter, and theology of Julian’s prayers. Although Julian’s texts are clearly not as suited to lectio devina as are scriptures, they contain possibilities that Bradley illustrates. In short, this is a book that must be used rather than simply read.
And in that the real question about the study of spirituality emerges. We know we can learn about the times and places of the past when reading mystics of old, but can we gain anything of real value for our lives today? The assumption behind each of the works surveyed here is that indeed we can gain much. But these works must be read with care. And then they must be prayed.
John Farina is former Editor-in-Chief of Paulist Press’ Classics of Western Spirituality series and General Editor of Sources of American Spirituality . He is the General Editor of Crossroad’s Spiritual Legacy series.