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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

By James Harpur
New Seeds Books, 241 pages, $16.95
Lives of the mystics

Author notes divine union, like fortune, favors the prepared


It is all too easy to forget mysticism’s central role in the history of Christianity. And the body of writings on the subject, from St. Paul’s account of his conversion on the road to Damascus to Thomas Merton’s works, is so rich that the general reader may be forgiven for not knowing where to start. James Harpur’s survey of Christian mystics, then, is a useful guide to this tradition, which in his view we ignore at our peril. “The experiences and teachings and example of the mystics,” he writes, “are crucial to the prosperity, and perhaps even the survival of Christianity.” Love Burning in the Soul tells us why.

Mr. Harpur takes a historical approach, providing a brief overview of church matters from the New Testament era to the modern, short biographies of nearly 50 mystics from a variety of places and denominations, lucid summaries of their thinking, and a sense of the context in which they lived and worked. Many of these men and women combined lives of contemplation and action. Paul was a tireless traveler on behalf of the new faith, Augustine stressed the “social nature of final beatitude,” and Merton’s correspondence reveals that even in solitude he engaged with the problems of the world. It is heartening to recognize that in addition to imitating Christ these spiritual athletes were committed to sharing the fruits of their discoveries -- ministering to the poor and the sick, administering monasteries and convents, becoming living witnesses of the Word.

Two thousand years of mystical practice and writings are not easily summarized. But certain common themes emerge. Mr. Harpur notes that “the experience of mystics has usually revolved around a direct apprehension or awareness of God -- an experience that goes beyond the rational faculty of the mind and self-willed activity.” Divine union, like fortune, favors the prepared -- that is, those who embark upon a journey of prayer and grace, penitence and purification, humility and love. Mystics may employ poetic language to describe the indescribable -- climbing mountains and ladders are favorite tropes for the soul’s ascent to God -- and Mr. Harpur, who has published three books of poems, includes in his survey the Romantic poets William Blake and William Wordsworth, whose visions of the link between human and divine, nature and eternity, still inform our thought.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is a particularly interesting figure. A nun, poet, composer, healer, abbess, she is remembered for a trilogy of visionary works -- Scivias, The Book of Life’s Merits and The Book of Divine Works -- and for the musical works that in recent years have received wide play around the world. Her visions came to her when she was awake, through the eyes of her soul, which “ascended to the heights of the firmament” and spread itself out “among various peoples ... in far away regions.” And in the face of poor health the light of illumination, brighter than a “sun-struck chord,” led her to travel and preach, to found convents and correspond with kings and popes, to advocate church reforms. Indeed she shaped the church for the better.

But it must be said that if mysticism is an underground river that resurfaces from time to time to reinvigorate Christian thinking and practice, it is also often viewed with suspicion by clerical authorities. Sobering as it is to read about the difficulties faced by some mystics to translate into action the discoveries they made in their surrender to the will of God, we follow their spiritual adventures with a mixture of awe and regret -- awe at their courage and tenacity, regret that their words do not play a more prominent role in our spiritual practice. These seers are the lifeblood of Christianity. And Mr. Harpur argues that the contemporary hunger for the fruits of mysticism is better satisfied by the works of the Christian mystics than in the shops selling candles, incense and statuettes.

There are hazards aplenty in compiling any survey of mystics -- omitting crucial figures, reducing complex ideas to inanities, and so on. Nor does Mr. Harpur avoid every pitfall, the absence of St. Maximos the Confessor being the most glaring. He tends to gloss over controversial doctrinal matters. And Eastern Orthodox readers will wonder why their mystical theology merits but a single chapter. (The Philokalia, a multivolume collection of mystical writings assembled by St. Nikodemus of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, which has profoundly shaped the modern Eastern church, receives but passing mention.) But this is an important work, which offers an alternative history of Christianity -- the history of the spirit burning with the fire of God.

Christopher Merrill’s most recent book is Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. He directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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