Professor Bernard McGinn of the University of Chicago is the leading historian of Christian mysticism. He’s written five of a projected seven volumes of his history of mysticism, called The Presence of God, which have traced the evolution of Christian mysticism from Jesus to the 1550s. He’s now working on the sixth volume, exploring mysticism during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. I contacted him because I was impatient to hear his views about what happened to mysticism in the modern era. Did it lose its central place because of the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries? Did the rise of rationalism destroy it? Was it kept alive outside of monasteries by 17th century poets? Is it taking new forms in the New Age era, such as nature mysticism or sexual mysticism? Let’s find out!
Has contemplation become less central to Western Christianity?
Well, it certainly has a less public resonance than it did in the medieval period and even afterwards in Early Modernity. Fifty-sixty years ago, the answer would have been a strong “yes,” but the interest in Eastern religions and their meditative-contemplative traditions, beginning in the 1950s, has made a difference. Many Christians, lay and clerical (how many I don’t know), engage in contemplative practices today.
Did the Reformation and Counter-Reformation lead to a greater suspicion of mysticism?
Many Reformers, especially in the Calvinist tradition, were suspicious of mysticism. Luther was not a mystic, but praised some mystics and used their ideas. There is certainly a tradition of Protestant mysticism, especially in Lutheranism. Mysticism remained central, if at times controversial, in Roman Catholicism down to the Quietist controversy (ca. 1675-1700), when it was condemned and pushed to the margins.
What effect did the dissolution of the monasteries have on the contemplative tradition?
Remember there are two dissolutions: England in the sixteenth century and continental Europe during and after the Napoleonic Wars. In England, there was certainly an effect, because the Carthusian houses were centers for contemplation and the publication of mystical texts.
To what extent would you say that, in England, contemplative poetry (Donne, Traherne, Herbert etc) took up some of the role of contemplation for the laity, which used to be provided by devotional books created by monasteries?
I believe it had a strong effect in keeping mysticism alive in new contexts. As a matter of fact, I’m now writing a chapter on this for vol. 6 of my history of mysticism.
My own initial research suggests Protestant meditation endured and found new forms – but it seems the apophatic tradition of mysticism (which emphasizes the incomprehensibility of God) in particular was lost. Is that true?
I am learning more about this, but my ideas are still not firm. Louis Martz spoke about the ‘poetry of meditation‘ in the 16th and 17th century [ie that poets like Donne and Herbert adopted and kept alive monastic contemplative practices], and I think this may be correct. Apophaticism remained strong in 16th century Spain and in 17th century France, but I’m inclined to think it was diminished (not lost) in England.
Mysticism was visual / visionary as well as verbal in pre-Reformation culture. Considering the Protestant revolt aganst iconography and the triumph of the Biblical Word, did Protestant meditation become less visual / visionary and more verbal?
I would not over-generalize here. Late medieval mysticism had many visual aspects (see J. Hamburger et al.), but some Catholic and Protestant mystics in the 16th-17th centuries made use of visual materials, e.g., emblems and emblem books (like Jacob Boehme).
As mainstream christianity (Protestant and Catholic) became more rationalist and anti-enthusiast in the 17th century, would you say it lost the positive idea of ecstatic states beyond rationalism?
Definitely. The Enlightenment thinkers were very anti-ecstatic; but the Romantics were not.
You’ve written that mysticism is always changing with new layers appear over older layers – and that one new layer may be a new attitude to sexuality. Could you say a bit more about that? Where do you see this new layer appearing?
Yes, layering is one of the ways I use to understand the variety of the history of mysticism. Vol. 3 of my history tries to lay out a shift from a largely biblical eroticism based on the Song of Songs to a more a more personal, ecstatic, excessive eroticism beginning with Richard of St. Victor at the end of the 12th-century and developed in various ways, mostly (not solely) by female mystics, in the late Middle Ages. I’m afraid that’s all I can say on this complicated issue here.
What about attitudes to nature – do you see signs of the emergence of a more nature-focused mysticism or spirituality?
Nature mysticism has always been present in the West. See, for example, some of the Hermetic literature, Eriugena, some 12th century figures, Francis of Assisi, Luis de Leon, etc. I think it may be correct to see “nature mysticism,” which means different things to different folk, growing in the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Richard Jeffries). The current ecological awareness seems to have encouraged new forms of nature mysticism — all to the good.
To what extent do you think western Protestant christianity is overly suspicious and condemnatory of contemplation today? And where could interested lay people go to try and study / practice contemplation today?
It’s hard to generalize. Are the Evangelicals much interested in contemplation? I doubt it, but I have met Evangelicals who are. In the mainline Protestant denominations I sense a growing interest in contemplation and mysticism, but, not being a religious sociologist (nor a Protestant), my evidence is circumstantial.
Last weekend I went to Wilderness festival and gave a couple of talks. It was a magical festival – the musical acts weren’t that stunning, but there was lots of marvelous, weird, dreamy stuff happening that I wandered into, like a Mardi Gras parade and a mock fertility ritual with a man dressed as a penis and a woman dressed as a vagina. It was all very Dionysian.
I was there at the invitation of Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, and gave a talk in their Sunday service to around 1200 people – on the benefits of spiritual ecstasy! It felt an unusual topic for a humanist church, but good on Sunday Assembly for inviting me and embracing what I said, and even asking me back! The only time I’ve ever been invited to speak by a Christian church was to say how amazing the Alpha course is (I went down like a sausage at a bat-mitzvah when I started talking about Greek philosophy).
After that high-point, I went to do a talk at the Now mindfulness tent, which was full of people mindful-meditating, mindful-dancing, mindful-running, mindful-knitting, mindful-colouring, mindful-sleeping, and so on.
In my talk I asked whether there’s such a thing as western contemplation, and if it’s worth reviving. I noted that when I went to the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies last year, there were over 100 presentations, but only one on Greek philosophy, and one on Christian contemplation (and that was cancelled). All the other presentations were on non-Christian contemplation – probably 70% Buddhist, 20% yoga, and the rest Taoist and Sufi. Is it not odd, at a western conference, to so completely ignore the 2500-year-old indigenous traditions of western contemplation? Is that not a regrettable act of cultural forgetting?
In my talk, I tried to paint a brief history of western contemplation, starting with the Greeks – Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the NeoPlatonists – and then looking at Christian contemplation, and how it played a central role in the thought of the Church fathers (Augustine, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others) and then in later mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, St Theresa, and so on. It wasn’t a great talk at all – the material is too new to me, plus my practice is woeful – but you have to start somewhere.
My knowledge of Christian contemplation (or mysticism) is not very advanced, but it’s been hugely helped by two books. Firstly, Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism (1995), which is a wonderful collection of writings by the Church Fathers from the late fourth and early fifth century AD. Their writing is so beautiful, poetic and radiant with love and spirit, it’s been a revelation to read it. For example:
In the house of God there is never-ending festival; the angel choir makes eternal holiday; the presence of God’s face gives joy that never fails.
So sings that well-known raver, St Augustine. And here’s Gregory of Nyssa – another of the greatest theologians of the church:
The soul then says: ‘Bring me into the banqueting house. Spread over me the banner of love’ (Song of Songs 2.4)…Her thirst has become so strong that she is no longer satisfied with the ‘cup of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9.2). The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken into the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine. She wants to see the grapes squeezed into the vats and the vine that produces these grapes, and the vinedresser of the true vine who has cultivated these grapes…That is why she wants to enter the cellar where the mystery of the wine is performed. Once she has entered she aspires still more highly. She asks to be put under the banner of love.
Who knew those old Church Fathers could dance with such abandon! But then, they did invent the concept of perichoreisis, or the cosmic dance of love.
I particularly liked the excerpts from Origen and St Isaac of Nineveh. Origen was never canonized, because he believed in reincarnation and was therefore a Bad Thing, but he’s acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on Christian theology. Interestingly, both Origen and Isaac had great faith in God’s mercy and love, so much so, they believed it was possible that all would be saved, even Lucifer! ‘As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy’, writes Isaac. Origen agreed: ‘For the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure’. And Gregory of Nyssa wrote: ‘Our Lord…heals the inventor of evil himself’. Odd that the God of those stern Church Fathers should be so much more merciful and loving than the God of the modern church.
The other book that’s been really helpful and enjoyable is Bernard McGinn’s Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. It’s like Clemont’s book – a collection of extracts, organized by themes like ‘rapture’, ‘dereliction’, ‘mystical itineraries’ and so on. But McGinn’s book goes from the Church fathers all the way to modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton. It’s been very helpful for giving me an overview of the history of mysticism, something McGinn has explored at length in his seven-part history of mysticism (he’s written five parts so far). He makes the convincing case that mysticism / contemplation, far from being something on the dodgy fringes of Christianity, is or should be a central part of it.
The book is full of treasures, but a particular treat has been discovering the mystic philosophy of Nicholas de Cusa, a 15th century humanist and papal envoy whose scientific discoveries included the idea of measuring the pulse as an indicator of health, and also the idea (before Galileo and Copernicus) that the earth is not the centre of the universe, that it is likely that intelligent life exists on other planets, and that planets do not move in perfect circles. He saw no contradiction between his scientific and his mystical investigations, writing such Zen-like wonders as ‘What surpasses all reason involves a contradiction…the opposite of opposites is an opposite without opposite just as the end of things finite is the end without end.’
I’ve already written too long, so let me make three quick observations from my research so far.
First, the more one reads of the mystics, the more one realizes how deeply Christianity is influenced by Greek philosophy – the Stoics, Aristotle, and particularly Plato and the Neo-Platonists. As a lover of Greek philosophy, I feel much more at home in the writings of the early church than with modern Protestant theology, because there’s so much more Greek philosophy in the Church Fathers and in medieval mystics like Eckhart. Nietzsche went as far as to suggest Christianity was Platonism for the masses, but I’d rather put it like this: Christian culture is like a 2000-year-old musical improvisation, a fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy, in which successive musicians explore different themes – the nature of Christ, identity, the Feminine, God’s unity and trinity, the problem of evil, and so on – and perform calls and responses to each other over the centuries. That improvisation is ongoing – McGinn suggests one of the ‘new themes’ in modern mysticism is the body and sexuality, and their incorporation into the mystic life, as seen in Donne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Blake, DH Lawrence or Pentecostalism.
Secondly, many of the classic Christian mystical texts are by women. This is in contrast to Buddhism and Hinduism, where almost all the classic texts are by men. In Sufism there are some great female saints, but I think Christian mysticism is more female-dominated. Christian mystic women were cultural pioneers – the first book in English by a woman was by Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English nun; the first autobiography in English was by Margary Kempe, a 14th century lay-woman. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12-century German nun, is particularly remarkable, as one of the earliest-surviving female composers and female artists in Europe. They were also politically active, establishing and running nunneries, reforming movements.
Does this mean mysticism is gendered, that it’s a particularly feminine capacity to surrender one’s soul into ecstatic union with Christ? That was certainly argued by 19th century psychiatrists looking to pathologize ecstasy as ‘feminine hysteria’. I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps women and gays are more into visualzing ‘the kiss of the mouth’ from Jesus than heterosexual men. But in fact, what strikes me about mystical experience is that it’s gender-bending. Look at Tiresias, the Greek prophet, with both male and female genitalia. Look at Dionysus, the cross-dresser, how he made King Pentheus dress up as a woman. Or the followers of Cybele, also cross-dressers. Look, in medieval mysticism, at the gender-bending, where the soul is now described as the female bride awaiting the bridegroom, and now as male suckling at the breast of Jesus the mother or embracing Lady Wisdom.
This suggests to me that our soul – our fundamental identity – is not essentially male or female, but rather both, or neither…a dancing flickering fire of Being. It doesn’t surprise me that one of the proponents of mystical cinema – Larry Wachowski, director of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas – recently changed sex and became Lana. My soul is not male or female, introvert or extrovert, intellectual or emotional. It is all these things and more.
Third, and finally, what strikes me about Christian mystical books is their use of metaphor. They offer a dazzling array of metaphors for the soul and its transformation: the soul as mountain, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as garden, the soul as mirror, the soul as ladder, the soul as ark, the soul as bride.
This makes me think that metaphor is crucial to consciousness-exploration and inner work. We live in such a rational, empirical and literal era, when metaphor is seen as something slippery and suspicious. And there are those, like Sam Harris, who want the science of altered states to deal only in ‘empirical facts’, stripped of all ritual and metaphor. Harris writes: ‘Mysticism requires explicit instructions, [with] no more ambiguity in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.’
This is ultra-Protestantism: do away with all metaphors and symbols, leave just the facts! But, as the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explored, it is very difficult to talk about consciousness except through metaphor. And the metaphors we use for consciousness are not just descriptive, they are creative. They create new ways of thinking, new realities, new worlds. Among Jesus’ greatest gifts to us were new metaphors for the soul – it’s like a mustard seed, it’s like buried treasure. These were not just descriptions but creations. In the beginning was the metaphor!
The mystics likewise used metaphors as ways of remembering information, structuring thought and emotion, and exploring and expanding consciousness. Metaphor-maps play a crucial role in guiding the soul to new forms and realizations. One could think of mysticism as a forge where new metaphors are created, new ways of experiencing the inexhaustible play of Being. And the clash between the institutional and the mystic wings of religion is in part a clash over metaphor – the institutional wing wants to fix God into particular metaphors and insist they are true forever, rather than a way of putting it.
The central role of metaphor in experiencing and shaping consciousness is one reason why religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal is right that the humanities have a central role to play in consciousness-research – they help us to explore the metaphors and stories by which we structure and expand consciousness. Neuroscience is also very helpful in that process, but the metaphor of ‘brain as computer’ can only get us so far.