In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri

Jonathan Robinson
Angelico Press, 308 pages, $19.95

Jonathan Robinson has written a book that interlaces a biography of St. Philip Neri with classical teachings of Catholic spiritual life. What emerges is a well-informed history of sixteenth century Florence and Rome, a lucid theological biography of Neri, and a study of mysticism in its Catholic context.

Robinson’s book ended up being a welcome relief. When it first arrived in my mailbox, I believed that Philip eschewed intellectual life, and I feared I would find yet one more bit of ammunition for the assault on reason that has become popular in the postmodern climate in which we have been living too long. I myself had been long ensnared in a fog of anti-intellectualism espoused by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Western practitioners of Taoism. I accept the fact (then as well as now) that created intellect, by its very nature, has a limited capacity to know. God is infinitely knowable, however, and, therefore, as Robinson eloquently concludes, “The intellectual search is itself the door through which Christ enters.” Reason and mystical experience are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as Robinson shows, they go hand in hand.

The first mark of mystical experience, according to William James, is ineffability; mystical experience defies the logic of human language and reason. The second mark, again according to James, is a noetic quality in which the mystical state seems to be a mode of both knowing and feeling. The mystic has gained access to a place inaccessible to others. Because the mystical experience cannot be communicated through human language, though, the mystic cannot really explain it. It may be that he has been set free from the confines of earthly existence through divine intervention, but he is destined to walk alone, isolated from his fellow human beings precisely by the fact that reason is insufficient to communicate that which is beyond it. Reason, according to this conception, is powerless when transported into the strange land of the divine. This view of reason and its relationship (or lack thereof) to the divine is common in religious teachings such as Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Christian thinkers, too (i.e. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith into the absurd, to name one example), often discount reason in its ability to connect to the divine.

The Catholic tradition, however, has a long history of faith seeking understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas, the most notable of Dominican friars, believed that philosophy can prove, through reason unaided by mystical experience, some truths proposed by Christian faith. Reason is also capable of clarifying truths that cannot be proved, and it can defend the principles of Christian faith against detractors. The mystical experience, it follows, because it can be explored through reason (in that reason can clarify truths which cannot be proved), must be approachable through some kind of intellectual activity. It is here, for Aquinas, and for Robinson as well, that the mystical experience becomes a special sort of theology.

Robinson emphasizes that unless there is some account of how mystical experiences works out in individual cases, it becomes challenging to envision a way in which the mystical life could ever convince an unbeliever of the existence of God, let alone of Redemption of the world by his Son. In order to unite these two facets of mysticism, that of the ineffability of James and the intellectual activity of Aquinas, Robinson proposes an embodied mysticism that takes into account the individual that engages in the subjective mystical experience. This is to say that mystical experiences germinate, sprout, and come to fruition within the religious tradition in which an individual unfolds his life. That same individual, of course, lives in a particular community in a particular time and culture. In the case of Philip, this culture was that of the Catholic Church of Renaissance Florence and its version of Christianity.

After introducing his framework of embodied mysticism, Robinson proceeds to unfold a study that is part biography, part history lesson, and part contemplation on the mystical body of Jesus Christ which is the Church. This approach, on the one hand, highlights a type of knowledge, mystical knowledge, as a feeling and a knowing that is akin to Aquinas’: “The Word as I want its meaning to be understood is a knowledge accompanied by love.”On the other hand, because the mystical experience is an experience, James’ emphasis must be taken into account. For Robinson, human experience requires reason in order to be human. This does not mean that reason is necessarily of the common subject-object variety of ordinary consciousness. Mystical experience is an elevated reason that is transformed into wisdom. Wisdom, for Aquinas, “implies a certain righteousness in judging according to divine norms.” Instead of being devoid of reason, then, the mystic takes reason one step further into the realm of wisdom. Wisdom may be difficult to define, but one knows it when one experiences it, and it necessarily entails reason.

Robinson goes on to show that historical figures such as Gregory of Nyssa and St. Bonaventure maintained that “the intellect’s search for truth is an integral aspect of the mystic’s journey into God.” Philip, too, contrary to the manner in which he is often portrayed, believed that the use of reason was basic to the practice of Catholicism. For example, after his conversion, Philip first opted to study philosophy and theology to see what they could teach him about the meaning of his religious experience. Robinson provides plenty of other evidence to support the claim that Philip embraced reason as basic to the Catholic experience, the most telling, perhaps, the fact that there were 515 books in Philip’s possession when the Fathers made an inventory of his room just two days after his death.

If there were no possibility of locating meaning in an intellectual pursuit of truth, I, for one, would be alone and without hope. It appears, thanks to Robinson, that I am not alone, far from it. In fact, I find myself in the very best company. Robinson has helped to make me feel as if I am home where I belong, a place where reason and mystical experience work together with faith in seeking to understand.

John M. Gist is Associate Professor of Humanities at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico.

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