Mystics of the Christian Tradition

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Mystics of the Christian Tradition


    Steven Fanning

London and New York


    First published 2001

    by Routledge

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    British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

    A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

    Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

    Fanning, Steven

    Mystics of the Christian tradition / Steven Fanning p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Mysticism-History. 2. Mystics. I. Title.

    BV5075 .F36 2001 248.2′2-dc21 00-068358 ISBN 0-415-22467-5 (hbk)

    ISBN 0-415-22468-3 (pbk)



     List of plates and timelines vii

     Acknowledgements viii

     Plates ix

     Prologue 1

     I Origins 6

     Mysticism in the Greco-Roman world 6

     Mysticism and the foundation of Christianity 14

     The Post-Apostolic Church 20

     II The Eastern Church 22

     The Alexandrian Ascetics 22

     The Desert Fathers 27

     The Byzantine Church 30

     The Russian Church 45

     III The Western Church in the Middle Ages 75

     The earlier Middle Ages 75

     The New Mysticism 85

     The Beguines 94

     The age of repression and the mystics of the Rhineland and the Low

    Countries 101

     English mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries 119

     Mystics in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries 128

     IV Mystics in Early Modern Europe: the Reformation, the effloresence of

    mysticism in Spain and France 139

     Anabaptists and Lutherans 140

     Spanish mystics of the Golden Age 149

     French mystics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries 158


     V Post-Reformation mystics in England and America: the twentieth-century

    revival of mysticism 175

     English mysticism 175

     American Protestant mysticism 190

     Twentieth-century Catholic mysticism 202

     Twentieth-century mystical writers on mysticism 209

     Epilogue 216

     Notes 221

     Glossary 253

     Timelines 257

     Bibliography 259

     Index 272



     1 The Desert Fathers as depicted in a fifteenth-century Italian painting by

    Gherardo Starnina (The Thebaid: Hermits in the Wilderness; Uffizi,

    Florence) x

     2 View of Mount Athos by Edward Lear, 1857 (Mount Athos and the

    Monastery of Stavroniketes) xii

     3 A Russian monk's cell (cell of Nicholas of Valaam) xii

     4 St. Sergius and the Bear xiii

     5 Hildegard of Bingen receives the Holy Spirit, illumination from a twelfth-

    century manuscript xiv

     6 St. Francis renounces his worldly goods, detail of fresco in the Cappella

    Bardi, S. Croce, Florence, by Giotto di Bondone xv

     7 Julian's cell at the church of St. Julian, Norwich, rebuilt after bomb

    damage in 1942 xv

     8 Detail of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Cornaro

    Chapel, S. Maria della Vittoria, Rome xvi

     9 View of Crucifixion of Jesus by St. John of the Cross xvii

     10 William Blake, The Ancient of Days, from Europe: A Prophecy (1794),

    Plate i xviii

     11 William Blake, The Soul in the Mystical Embrace of God, from

    Jerusalem (1804), Plate 99 (Jerusalem: 'All Human Forms identified…') xix

     Timeline 1 Timeline of mystics before the eleventh century 257

     Timeline 2 Timeline of mystics, eleventh-twentieth centuries 258



    I am greatly indebted to a number of people for making this book possible. The deans of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Illinois at Chicago under whom I served, Sidney B. Simpson, Jr., Eric A. Gislason and Stanley E. Fish, kindly allowed me research time in the midst of my administrative duties, without which I could not have written this book. I am grateful to the library staff members of the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago for their invaluable assistance in acquiring books from libraries in the Illinet Online system and on Interlibrary Loan. I am also very indebted to those who read the manuscript in the various stages of its incarnation and provided me with their most helpful comments, criticisms and encouragement: Annette Chapman-Adisho, Suzanne A. Wells, Carlene Thissen, and my friend and colleague at UIC, Dr. Mary Sinclair. I am especially indebted to my wife Sarah, who not only read the entire manuscript but also cheerfully carried home many books for my use from the Cudahy Library of Loyola University Chicago.



    The modern Anglican priest and mystic Robert Llewelyn, former chaplain of the shrine of Julian in Norwich, wrote that there were two ways of knowing Christ: one can either know all about him or one can know him. He added that knowing Christ "is the only knowledge which ultimately matters. We Christians have a great start in being able to know about Christ from the Gospels, but if we do 1 This dichotomy represents the two different though intimately not know him it is as nothing."

    related Christianities that coexist uneasily within each other. One Christianity emphasizes human intellect and reason and is a theology, a set of beliefs to be accepted and rules to be followed, a creed that is proclaimed. The other Christianity is that of the mystics, who seek the experience of the God of the former and stress the inability of human reasoning to know the incomprehensible deity. These two Christianities present different means by which one can know God, either through the divine self-revelation to be found in the Scriptures and in Christian theology or through the direct revelation of the divine to the individual. Fr. Llewelyn's preference for the mystical approach as the essential aspect of Christianity fits easily with the view of Evelyn Underhill, one of the twentieth century's best-known writers and teachers on mysticism, who argued that "mysticism represents the very soul 2of religion."

    This book is concerned with the mystics of the Christian tradition, those who have gained the direct experience of the divine. However, the central problem in the study of mystics and of mysticism remains one of definition, for there is an astonishingly wide variety of connotations associated with those terms, which was pointed out from the beginning of the "modern" study of mysticism. In 1899 William Ralph Inge, later dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, published Christian Mysticism, 3which "almost single-handedly caused an English revival of interest in Christian mysticism." In

    that work he wrote that no word in the English language

    has been employed more loosely than "Mysticism." Sometimes it is used as an equivalent for symbolism or allegorism, sometimes for theosophy or occult science; and sometimes it merely suggests the mental state of a dreamer, or vague and fantastic opinions about God and the world. In Roman Catholic writers, "mystical phenomena" mean supernatural suspensions of physical law. Even those writers who have made a special study of the subject, show by their definitions of the 4word how uncertain is its connotation.

    Dean Inge then provided twenty-six definitions of mysticism in a Christian context as "specimens" of the possibilities. At one extreme is the philosophical and theological


    concept of mysticism as a union with the divine so close that all distinction between the mystic and the divine is obliterated. At the other extreme "mystical" is sometimes regarded as a synonym for the occult or simply for the weird, or as William James said, "The words 'mysticism' and 'mystical' are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and 5sentimental and without a base in either facts or logic." James, however, pointed out that

    Churches, when once established, live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every

    church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine. Not only the superhuman founders, the Christ, the Buddha, Mahomet, but all the originators of 6Christian sects have been in this case.

Between these extremes is the approach of those who "focus on mysticism almost exclusively as a 7psychological moment of inspired rapture." However, debates about the definition of mysticism, 8"while interesting, lend themselves to scholastic quibbling."

    From the various possibilities, the definition of mysticism employed in this present work is that of 9Evelyn Underhill, "the direct intuition or experience of God," or, to put it differently, mysticism is

    "every religious tendency that discovers the way to God direct through inner experience without the mediation of reasoning. The constitutive element in mysticism is immediacy of contact with the 1011deity." This definition is in wide use in the study of mysticism, although when discussing

    mysticism in world religions, "God" is often replaced by more general terms such as "Absolute Reality," "the Ultimate," or "the One." Moreover, it also permits a very broad horizon for the investigation of mystics. If mystics are defined as those who have gained the direct experience of the divine, the term can comprise not only those who attained a distinctionless union with God but also those whose experience of the divine was less complete, for example it can include those in the constant presence of God or those within whom the Holy Spirit dwelled and who received the spiritual gifts accompanying the signs of that indwelling, such as divinely infused knowledge, clairvoyance, healing powers, as well as what are sometimes taken to be the typical mystical manifestations, visions and voices.

    One can study either mysticism or mystics. Both methods are useful but they tend to have different effects and to be more valuable to different audiences. The study of mysticism is important, being concerned with phenomenology and methodology, but it also carries limitations, especially in introductory works. Inevitably examples from the writings of mystics are produced to illustrate particular aspects of mysticism; this tends to overwhelm the beginning reader with a seemingly endless series of disembodied and decontextualized quotations attributed to authors who are largely unknown, leaving one to ponder the significance of the isolated quotations. However, ideas have contexts and cannot always be judged simply at face value, for at times the historical context is vital for an understanding of mystical works. For example, the condemnations of Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porete had a chilling effect on particular


    expressions of mystical ideas and shaped the framework of acceptable mystical language for two centuries to come. Or again, the devaluation of visions and voices by St. John of the Cross is often cited as if it were an abstract judgment on the matter by this acknowledged master of the mystical life while ignoring the fact that in the Spain of his day visionary mystics were being prosecuted by the Inquisition and it was vital for mystics who wished to avoid inquisitorial scrutiny to disassociate themselves from those who were considered heretics. Additionally, for those not already familiar with the authors of the quotations, the effect of the presentation of a series of excerpts from writers bearing unfamiliar and sometimes exotic names can often be bewildering and discouraging, needlessly emphasizing a mysterious and impenetrable element to mysticism. Moreover, a study of mysticism tends to present a specific mystical paradigm as a model by which particular expressions of mysticism are to be judged.

    A study of mystics can produce a different effect. Attention can be drawn to the particular context in which a mystic lived and moved, influences of previous mystics can be more easily observed and the position of the mystics and their ideas in the long perspective of the mystical tradition can be discerned. The effect of a focus on mystics is to make one aware that the direct experience of the divine has come in many different ways and paths and has been expressed in a variety of forms.

    Thus rather than there being a favored paradigm of mysticism, one more readily sees that there is tremendous variation in Christian mysticism alongside the many areas of commonality shared by the mystics. Moreover, many find it easier to focus on individuals than on abstractions. Thus an introduction to mysticism can often be gained more profitably first by examining individual mystics before attempting to construct an Ism from their experiences.

    This work is concerned primarily with mystics but not to the exclusion of the larger topic of mysticism. Its focus is to place the mystics in the context of their own lives as well as in the times in which they lived and, as much as is possible in something that is not an anthology, the mystics will be allowed to speak their own words. A particular emphasis here is the mystical experience itself, that is, on what it is like to be a mystic, which leads to considerable attention being given to mystical visions and voices. This is not to imply that mysticism is to be equated with the reception of these phenomena, for that is indeed not the case, but such manifestations have long been regarded as a certain indication that the recipient was in fact a mystic and were usually emphasized by the mystics' biographers, hagiographers and contemporaries as evidence that their subjects had in fact been graced by divine visitations. Moreover, the visions frequently were crucial, catalytic events in the mystical life of the mystics and are thus inseparable from an understanding of their lives and careers. For the most part, the individuals considered here are mystics and not simply writers on mysticism. There are some exceptions - the unknown authors of highly influential mystical works, such as Pseudo-Macarius, Pseudo-Dionysius or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. However, for the

    first thousand years of Christian mysticism there was a pronounced bias against claiming mystical experiences for oneself, preferring instead to attribute them to another person. Thus the assumption in this work, as in most which have considered figures such as Augustine or Gregory the


    Great, is that when virtually all of authors' works are permeated with mysticism and provide exquisite descriptions of mystical experiences, they indeed were mystics.

    A work intended to be a wieldy one-volume introduction to two millennia of Christian mystics necessarily entails limitations of its own. The requisite brevity mandates that each individual be discussed succinctly, to the omission of many aspects of the mystics' lives, writings and teachings. Regrettably, many mystics have been excluded, for a work twice this size could easily be produced that would still not encompass all Christian mystics. Therefore this work serves as an introduction to Christian mystics that will perhaps encourage readers to investigate particular mystics in greater depth and to take up the broader topic of mysticism with more profit. For those wishing to study Christian mysticism well-placed in historical context, one should consult the volumes now appearing in Bernard McGinn's outstanding series The Presence of God, A History of Western Christian 12Mysticism.

    13As seen, William James argued that the founders of every church and Christian sect were mystics, as were the great founders of three of the world's great religions, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Indeed, the claim of the mystics to immediate contact with the Transcendent is to be found in virtually all of the world's religions and commonly is the source of those religions: Not only has mysticism its fount in what is the raw material of all religion, but also all the most profound insights of religious truth have their origin in the mystical experiences of those who have 14led the spiritual progress of the human race.

    Perhaps the figure of the shaman making spiritual journeys into the other world on behalf of individuals as well as the community is the oldest type of mystic, a figure who has been traced back to the paleolithic period: "The lifeway of the shaman is nearly as old as human consciousness itself, 15predating the earliest recorded civilizations by thousands of years." Among the Plains Indians of

    North America, the vision quest, the individual's search for direct contact with a guardian spirit, was "the most characteristic feature of North American religions outside the Pueblo area" and "provided 16an opportunity for direct contact with the supernatural."

    The religions and philosophies of the East are marked strongly by mysticism. It has been remarked that in the religion of the subcontinent of India "mystical experience holds a central place" and that in Hinduism in particular there is the appeal "to the soul's immediate knowledge and experience of 17God." The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563 to ca. 483 BC), "both at his enlightenment and death … attained to a unifying vision and passed through trance states before the 18final peace of Nirvana," and Nirvana has been described as "the core of Buddhist mysticism," 19which is "an immediate apprehension of supreme Reality." In China, the Taoists sought union

    with the Tao, which is the Infinite and Eternal, that is, Supreme Reality. When Buddhism reached China in the first century AD, it blended with Taoism to produce Zen Buddhism, whose goal is enlightenment (satori) - "Zen's version of the


    mystical experience, which, wherever it appears, brings joy, at-one-ment, and a sense of reality that 20defies ordinary language."

    In the ancient Greek world, contact with the divine could be achieved through intermediaries, such as the famous oracle at Delphi, who were important channels of communication between the two 21worlds, as "seers and oracle mongers were omnipresent." Moreover, as will also be seen in the

    next chapter, at the same time the widespread and increasingly popular mystery cults of the Mediterranean world offered individuals unmediated personal access to communion as well as union with the gods. The Jewish world of antiquity was also familiar with mystics, such as the Essenes who will be discussed in the next chapter, and in medieval and modern Judaism the mysticism of the Kabbalists and Hassidists has been of profound influence on Jewish spirituality. At the same time, in the other great world religion related to Judaism and Christianity, Islam's prophet Mohammed (ca. 572-632) was the recipient of divine revelations on Mount Hira outside Mecca, including the word of God, the Qu'ran, and by the beginning of the ninth century AD the Islamic mystical movement of the Sufis had arisen. "From its origins in the Prophet Muhammed and the Qu'ranic revelation, the mystical trend among Muslims has played an extraordinary role in the public and private 22development of the Islamic faith."

    Thus in considering the Christian mystics, it is important to remember that among the seemingly myriad differences of Christian denominations and the competing claims of the world's faiths, it is in mysticism that they meet on a common ground of the experience of the divine. The Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton, who will be seen again in chapter V, expressed this commonality of divine revelation to the individual:

    Everywhere we find at least a natural striving for interior unity and intuitive communion with the Absolute. And everywhere we find expressions of some kind of spiritual experience, often natural, sometimes supernatural. Supernatural mystical experience is at least theoretically possible anywhere

under the sun, to any man of good conscience who sincerely seeks the truth and responds to the 23inspirations of divine grace.

    The Christian mystics prove the strength and persistence of the element in Christianity that is the core, fount and energizing spirit of all religion, the direct encounter with God.





    The Roman world in which Christianity arose was one steeped in mystical religion. The traditional Greco-Roman pantheon of gods had been in decline since the mid-fourth century BC when the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-23 BC) reduced the significance of the Greek city-states whose public cults were based on the worship of the state gods. Previously religion in Greece had been based on the city-state and had as its purpose the welfare of the entire community. But the Hellenistic world of the eastern Mediterranean that succeeded Alexander's empire was international and cosmopolitan, in which one's local or national identity and its associated religion were overwhelmed by the reality of belonging to large, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural states unconnected to the old civic gods. To a great extent, individuals were isolated individuals in a great sea of humanity to the diminution of a consciousness of being members of a close and clearly-defined community. Consequently, religions appealing to individuals of every ethnic or national origin were readily adopted throughout the Hellenistic world, often blending both Greek and non-Greek elements. These tendencies were strengthened by the expansion of the Roman Empire to the East in the second and first centuries BC, tending to render meaningless the previous local or national cultures that were now dominated by a state centered far away to the West.

    What these new and altered religions offered was salvation from the sufferings of this world, immortality in the next world and a direct communication with salvific deities. These new and rapidly growing religions featured esoteric teachings known only to their initiates, who took the strictest oaths of secrecy, pledging never to reveal the secrets of the cult to outsiders. Hence these cults are known collectively as the Mystery Religions, with the word "mystery" etymologically related to "mysticism." Like mysticism, the Greek word mysterion, "mystery," was derived from

    myein, "to close," in this case indicating the closed mouth of the initiates of the cults. The adherents of these mysteries kept their oaths so well that we know almost nothing of their esoteric secrets. The Mystery Religions arose all over the Eastern world and spread easily throughout the Mediterranean, becoming universal cults. From Greece itself the mysteries of Eleusis developed out of a local agricultural cult celebrating the deliverance of Demeter's daughter Persephone from the clutches of Pluto, ruler of the underworld. In the Hellenistic period, the religion began admitting non-Athenians and even non-Greeks, including a number of Roman emperors. The vernal renewal of life that resulted from Persephone's annual liberation was allegorized into a symbol of the


    triumph over death, that is, an immortality that was available to participants in the mysteries of Eleusis. The cult attached to the Greek god Dionysos, a god of vegetation and especially of wine, was also associated with the annual celebration of the return of spring, but it was too marked by

    orgiastic elements and wild intoxication to be widely adopted outside of Greece. The essence of the worship of Dionysos was taken over and tamed by the Orphic mysteries, which, on the basis of the rebirth of Dionysos after he was killed by the Titans, also celebrated the possibility of immortality. The cult of the Great Mother was found under a number of names from Asia Minor to Syria and on to Mesopotamia, and at Rome she was generally called Cybele. Here, too, there was the promise of rebirth and immortality, expressed in the myth of her consort Attis, who was killed, or died after castrating himself, and was restored to life each spring. From Egypt a Hellenized version of the worship of Isis and Osiris emerged, based on the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search of his wife Isis for the parts of his body and his resurrection when she found them. Thus resurrection and rebirth again symbolized the promise of immortality to the adherents of the cult. All of these Mystery Religions featured a dying male figure who was mourned by the female goddess, with the male being reborn or resurrected as a symbol of new life and immortality. Very different was the religion devoted to the Persian figure Mithras, or Mithra, which was a form of sun worship. In myth, Mithras, a deity of deliverance, slew a bull from whose body and blood grew plants, herbs and crops, again linking death with life, rebirth and immortality.

    These Mystery Religions all had the same purpose, the salvation of the individual in a blessed and happy immortality and, with the exception of Mithras, they shared core elements of mythological symbolism. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods they were also remarkably syncretic as elements from one cult were adopted by various other cults, making them increasingly similar over time. All of them, including Mithras, existed on two levels. One was a public side for the purpose of proselytization and evangelization by which the essentials of the cult were explained and potential initiates were recruited. At the same time there was the private aspect of the cult, wherein its inner, hidden and secret face was revealed only after the aspirants underwent elaborate ritualistic initiation ceremonies. One of the most important functions of the initiation was to bring the initiate into direct contact and communion with the deity.

    Unfortunately the initiation rites of the Mystery Religions are obscure to us but it is clear that the mystical contact with the deity concerned was achieved through various means. The preparatory stages of fasting, vigils and meditation might be combined with initiation rites, usually held in darkness with dancing and music to produce a state of ecstasy whereby the initiates "leave their own 1identity, become at home with the gods, and experience divine possession." At the same time, the

    believers might encounter their deity in the forms of dreams or visions, as when Isis came to Lucius in The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses) of Apuleius, reassuring him, "I am here to take pity on your

    ills; I am here to give aid and solace. Cease then from tears and wailings, set aside your sadness; 2there is now dawning for you, through my providence, the day of salvation." The rites were also

    intended to bring about the assimilation of the believer with the deity through a number of means. The ceremonies might


    lead to the initiate's being transformed into a divine being either through the bestowal of immortality or by a divine indwelling within the believer. At the climax of the initiation in The Golden Ass,

    Lucius reported,

    At the dead of night I saw the sun flashing with bright effulgence. I approached close to the gods above and the gods below and worshipped them face to face. Behold, I have related things about 3which you must remain in ignorance.

    Some of the cults featured a mystical marriage with the deity to indicate the most intimate union possible for humans, while virtually all of them offered some sort of sacramental meal of food and drink wherein one was thought actually to consume the deity and thus to be united with it. Through one or many of these means the adherent of the cult could receive the deity's direct theophany, often expressed in terms of brightness and light and the reception of unutterable revelations. Thus the Mysteries offered, and the population eagerly desired, direct contact with the divine, whether in the form of dreams and visions, the indwelling of the divine, a spiritual marriage with the deity, consuming the divine and making it one with the believer, or rebirth and assimilation with the deity. 4Put simply, the Mysteries "conduce to Mysticism."

    Very similar to the Mystery Religions was Gnosticism, whose name falsely implies a coherency and unity to what was a number of schools, movements and philosophies that shared only a basic world-view. However, ignoring the myriad of differences among the various strands of thought within the core of Gnosticism, in general Gnostics were dualists, opposing the spiritual and the good to the material and the evil. To the Gnostics, God was purely spiritual and absolutely unknowable and incomprehensible to humans and thus could not have had a direct role in the creation of the material world or of humanity. The world, including human bodies, was created by intermediary powers who placed divine light (or "the divine spark," that is, the human spirit) inside the material human body, making humans both material and divine. However, the human condition was one of absolute ignorance of the truth of the human condition and of anything of the world of the divine. As long as humans remained in that condition, they were doomed to a cycle of birth and rebirth into this prison of the corrupt, evil, material world dominated by evil powers and Fate. On their own, humans were unable to escape.

    The means of salvation, therefore, must come from outside, by a divine revelation or illumination of truth providing knowledge (gnosis in Greek, from which word Gnosticism is derived), that is, by

    means of mystical experience. One text describes this illuminatory vision, "in an instant everything 5was immediately opened to me. I saw an endless vision in which everything became light." The

    one who had been chosen was given knowledge of the entire human condition, of "who we were, what we became, where we were, where we have been thrown, towards what end we haste, from 6where we are redeemed, what birth is, and what rebirth is." This gnosis was also the knowledge of

    God, which can come only by means of a revelation from the deity, and was thus a means to liberation. This salvation meant the return of the divine spark to God, "the final end for those who


    7have received knowledge: to be made god." While the Gnostics had no mythology in common with

    the Mystery Religions, they did share much of the basic outlook of the Mysteries, especially those of Orpheus, in teaching that a piece of the divine was trapped in the prison of the body with liberation possible only by means of a direct illuminatory revelation from the deity.

    The surviving Gnostic literature is generally fragmentary and derived from a number of differing Gnostic traditions, especially from the hostile writings of their Christian and Neoplatonic opponents, making it difficult to discover the origins and early progress of the Gnostic thought. The first traces of Gnosticism appear only in the mid-first century AD and within a century there was a distinctive Gnostic form of Christianity that drew the bitter opposition of such writers as Irenaeus and Tertullian, who treated Gnosticism as an heretical Christian sect. However, there were also Jewish Gnostics as well as Gnostics outside of Christianity and Judaism, whom the Neoplatonist Plotinus attacked. The scanty information available limits our knowledge of who the Gnostics were or how widespread

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