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Bernard McGinn on the future of mysticism

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.

Professor McGinn
Professor McGinn

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.



The Dancing Cure

4368315Philosophy is a story told mainly by male intellectuals, nerds, thoughtful sedentry types. The hero of that story is the intellect, and the villain of that story is often the body, just as you’d expect. If accountants told the story of the human race, the hero of the story would be accountancy.

This story leaves a great deal out. There is very little in philosophy about sex, and what there is, is mainly negative. And there is very little in philosophy about dancing. In fact, there’s very little in philosophy about the arts at all, but of all the arts, dancing gets given the least treatment because it’s so unreasonable, all that whooping and shaking and gryating. So animalistic. Also, very few philosophers can dance.

Yet dancing is a much older and more fundamental activity than philosophising. It is as good for us, too. And perhaps it is more revealing of the truth of reality than the careful deliberation of rationality. Because rationality fixes things into concepts, wheras dance understands things are always moving and turning into something else. Consciousness is more of a dance than a concept.

Dance is good for us? Yes indeed. There is a dancing cure, found over and over in cultures around the world. It is a form of catharsis or exorcism for fatigue, stress, anxieties, phobias, possession, hysterical paralysis, and the whole strange cargo of psychosomatic disorders. It enables us to shake of the discontents of civilisation. If only Freud could dance, how much time and money neurotics would have saved, instead of lying on the couch talking about Mummy! I think of Jane Avril, one of the ‘hysterics’ in Jean-Marie Charcot’s Salpetriere clinic in the 1890s, who says she was cured of her nervous disorder when she learned how to dance – she went on to be one of the lead dancers at the Moulin Rouge, dancing ‘like an orchid in frenzy’. But alas no psychiatrist took her therapeutic advice seriously.

Modern medicine forgot the Dancing Cure. They knew it in ancient Greece, in the Bacchic and Corybantic dance rituals, which Plato said were a form of ‘divine madness’ that helped people to purge their feelings of guilt and ‘made them whole’. Aristotle likewise said the Bacchic rites were a necessary part of a healthy civilized society, because they enabled people to achieve katharsis, purging or shaking off their irrational nervous tensions.

In various cultures around the world, as IM Lewis notes in his book Ecstatic Religion, one finds ecstatic dance cults used as an important spiritual and therapeutic ritual in ancient societies, as a way to cure people of things like anxiety or possession. In Ethiopia and Sudan, for example, one meets the Zar cult. If a wife is feeling overlooked or ignored, she may claim to be possessed by a djinn. She starts to be very rude and unruly to her husband (this behaviour is only allowed in these very patriarchal societies if a woman is possessed). The husband knows what must be done to cure her – he must pay for a Zar dance party, to which only women are invited. When the possessed wife has had a thoroughly good dance, she may return to the role of dutiful wife, although she may decide to leave the marriage and become a Zar priestess.

What does dance do to us? David Byrne, the lead-singer of Talking Heads and something of an anthropologist of dance, told me it helps us to ‘cool down’ – to work off the nervous jitters that comes from the emotional inhibition of civilization. The anthropologist Robert Farris Thompson quotes a tribe-leader in his book African Art in Motion: ‘it cools the town down when you dance…you are restored to repose’.  John Miller Chernoff, another of Byrne’s favourite anthropologists, writes: ‘the possessed shaman is a specialist at cooling down ‘hot’ people’. Coolness, writes Thompson, is ‘all-embracing positive attribute which combines notions of composure, silence, vitality, healing and social purification. Composure intersects with silence, vitality intersects with healing in the sense of restoration of shining health, the body politic is healed in social reconciliation’.

I remember someone saying after an ecstatic dance session, ‘This was a good session. We reached the calm.’ It was a strange comment after two hours of ecstatic tranc, but I know what she meant – after a really good dance, you reach the calm. You have shaken off the nervousness of the body and the emotions. You are made whole, centred, calm.  But how? It would seem to be connected to the Autonomic Nervous System, which (I am told) is composed of two networks – the sympathetic nervous system, which helps us to be aroused, alarmed, on edge; and the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to relax, and which is important for healing and rest. Our sympathetic nervous system is constantly aroused, which is exhausting, so we need to be able to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, to calm down and heal. Dance seems to help us do this, by over-stimulating the sympathetic nervous system until it gets exhausted, switches off, and we switch to the parasympathetic system, and feel cooled down. It is the cool rain after the long humidity, the cool of the fever breaking.

The connection between dance and the Autonomic Nervous System seems to be why dance can be therapeutic for disorders of the autonomic system like Parkinson’s. Watch this clip: ‘I feel like an evil has been blown out of me’, says one participant:

Dance also allows us to step outside of our conventional social role, as the Zar does for marginalized or oppressed women in Sudan and Ethiopia. It allows the marginalized to assert themselves. You ever seen a friend who is quiet and introverted suddenly come to life on the dancefloor? They are free to lose themselves to dance.

Dance gives us the joy of synchronizing with others, of being freed from what Nietzsche called the pain of individuation, so we feel ourselves part of one greater organism – the dance-floor. This is why synchronized dance routines in musicals give us joy – they are an expression of joyful collective solidarity. This is why the wedding dance is an important ritual – it’s an expression of the synchronization of two lives, two spirits. Is this a paradox – that dance gives us both the ability to express repressed parts of us, and also the chance to overcome individualism? No, it’s only in the world of concepts and logic that such contradictions exist. Dance is more protean and flickering than that.

At its best, dance lets us achieve trance consciousness  – we feel re-connected to our body, re-connected to the paleomammalian limbic system, re-connected to each other. The wound of dismemberment is healed. What I mean by that is, the evolution of the human brain, roughly 40,000 years ago, must have been a traumatic birth, with various systems – the rational, the emotional, the social, the spiritual, the physical – split apart and at war. This is perhaps what is referrred to in ancient myths like the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus, or the punishment of Prometheus. The evolution of human consciousness felt like a crime, and the punishment was disintegration. But in dance, and in trance consciousness, what is split apart is put back together. That is what ‘the groove’ is – the achievement of reintegration, coherence, wholeness.

It was a bad thing for European health when, during the Enlightenment, we started to listen to music sitting down and keeping still. It required the response of rock & roll, so that we could once again shake off the discontents of our civilisation. ‘My music is the healing music’, Little Richard would declare. ‘It inspires and uplifts people. I’ve had old women tell me I made them feel they were nineteen years old. It uplifts the soul, you see everybody’s movin’, they’re happy, it regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter, the knees freeze.’ Philosophers don’t understand this – Roger Scruton has nothing but scorn for pop music, he prefers Wagner. But Scruton can’t dance.

The only contemporary philosopher I know who talks about dance a little is Martha Nussbaum, when she writes about Rabinandrath Tagore and the central place of dance in his educational system. Amartya Sen’s mother was a lead-dancer at Tagore’s school, by the by. But I’m not sure that Nussbaum ever shakes it loose – she seems a control freak to me.

So, this weekend, at Notting Hill Carnival, at Burning Man, at a house-party, in your bedroom, wherever. Dance. Get up. Get into the groove. Get back into your body. Shake it off. Work it out. Turn it loose. Shake it like a polaroid picture. Find the calmness. Dance until ‘you are the music, while the music lasts’.