The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism

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This clear and comprehensive anthology, culled from the vast corpus of Christian mystical literature by the renowned theologian and historian Bernard McGinn, presents nearly one hundred selections, from the writings of Origen of Alexandria in the third century to the work of twentieth-century mystics such as Thomas Merton.

Uniquely organized by subject rather than by author, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism explores how human life is transformed through the search ...

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This clear and comprehensive anthology, culled from the vast corpus of Christian mystical literature by the renowned theologian and historian Bernard McGinn, presents nearly one hundred selections, from the writings of Origen of Alexandria in the third century to the work of twentieth-century mystics such as Thomas Merton.

Uniquely organized by subject rather than by author, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism explores how human life is transformed through the search for direct contact with God. Part one examines the preparation for encountering God through biblical interpretation and prayer; the second part focuses on the mystics’ actual encounters with God; and part three addresses the implications of the mystical life, showing how mystics have been received over time, and how they practice their faith through private contemplation and public actions.

In addition to his illuminating Introduction, Bernard McGinn provides accessible headnotes for each section, as well as numerous biographical sketches and a selected bibliography.

Praise for The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism
“No one is better equipped than Bernard McGinn to provide a thorough and balanced guide to this vast literature….This is an anthology which deserves to be read not only by those who study Christian history and theology, but by believers who long to deepen their own lives of prayer and service.” — Anglican Theological Review

“Bernard McGinn, a preeminent historian and interpreter of the Christian mystical tradition, has edited this fine collection of mystical writings, organizing them thematically....McGinn offers helpful introductions to each thematic section, author and entry, as well as a brief critical bibliography on mysticism. Published in the Modern Library Classic series, this is a great value.” – Christian Century

"No-one is better equipped than Professor McGinn to provide a thorough and balanced guide to this vast literature. A first-class selection, by a first-class scholar." — Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

“This accessible anthology by the scholarly world’s leading historian of the Western Christian mystical tradition easily outstrips all others in its comprehensiveness, the aptness of its selection of texts, and in the intelligent manner of its organization.” — Denys Turner, Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology, Yale Divinity School

"An immensely rich anthology, assembled and introduced by our foremost student of mysticism. Both the scholar and the disciple will find God’s plenty here." — Barbara Newman, Professor of English, Religion, and Classics, John Evans Professor of Latin, Northwestern University

"An unusually clear and insightful exposition of major texts selected by one of the greatest scholars in the field of Christian mysticism, based on his vast erudition and uniquely sensitive interpretation. Like his other books, this one too is destined to become a classic.” — Professor Moshe Idel, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Many today seek a more meaningful, personal spirituality than they have found in established Western religions, Eastern religions, and the writings of an earlier Christianity. McGinn (historical theology & history of Christianity, emeritus, Divinity Sch., Univ. of Chicago; Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of the Spiritual Masters) has crafted an extraordinary shortcut to the thinking of Christian mystics from the earliest patristic period to the 20th-century musings of French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil and American Trappist priest and writer Thomas Merton. The anthology is organized into three broad parts-"Foundations of Mystical Practice," "Aspects of Mystical Consciousness," and "Implications of the Mystical Life"-which are further divided into a total of 15 sections containing some 90 chronologically ordered selections. General readers will find the work of prominent mystics (e.g., Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux) as well contributions from those less well known (e.g., James of Vitry) and 15 excerpts representing the writing of women. McGinn's life of scholarship is evident in his introduction to each of the sections, which, when read together, comprise an outstanding introduction to Christian mysticism. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-James R. Kuhlman, Univ. of North Carolina Lib., Asheville Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812974218
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/12/2006
  • Series: Modern Library Classics Series
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 165,783
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernard McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelly Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. His books include Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher; Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons; Antichrist; and the Presence of God multivolume history of Western Christian mysticism. He lives in Chicago.

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Commentary on the Song of Songs


Origen of Alexandria (circa 180–254) was the greatest exegete of the early church. His spiritual reading of the Bible continued to influence later thinkers, despite the condemnation of aspects of his teaching in the sixth century. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Origen’s modern interpreters, once said, “No figure is more invisibly omnipresent in the history of Christian theology.” Origen can also be described as the church’s first explicit mystical theologian. While the mystical element was present in Christianity from the start, it is with the Alexandrian teacher that a formal biblically based mystical theory first emerges.

Origen was not the first to interpret the Song’s account of the bridegroom and bride as the story of the love between Christ and the church, but he furthered this mystical reading by applying it to the relations between Christ and each loving soul. The following four excerpts from the prologue of what survives of his commentary show how he created the elements that were to elevate the Song to the mystical text par excellence in Christian history. The first section describes his overall characterization of the Song as a dramatic account of the process of salvation. The second shows how his dual understanding of human nature (inner and outer person) allowed him to translate the sensual language of the Song into a message about the spiritual senses, the powers of inner perception lost in sin but gradually restored to the soul through the action of grace. In the third selection Origen argues that there is no essential difference between the language of passionate desire (erôs in Greek; amor in Latin) and the biblical word for God’s generous love poured out upon us (agapê/caritas). Finally, in the fourth selection Origen demonstrates how the three books ascribed to Solomon (a type of Christ) form the basis for a biblical paideia, or total education, by which we are brought back to God.

I. The Song of Songs as a Mystical Drama

It seems to me that this little book is an epithalamium, that is to say, a marriage-song, which Solomon wrote in the form of a drama and sang under the figure of the bride, about to wed and burning with heavenly love towards her Bridegroom, who is the Word of God. And deeply indeed did she love him, whether we take her as the soul made in his image, or as the church. But this same scripture also teaches us what words this august and perfect Bridegroom used in speaking to the soul, or to the church, who has been joined to him. And in this same little book that bears the title Song of Songs we recognize moreover things that the bride’s companions said, the maidens that go with her, and also some things spoken by the Bridegroom’s friends and fellows. For the friends of the Bridegroom also, in their joy at his union with the bride, have been enabled to say some things—at any rate those that they had heard from the Bridegroom himself. In the same way we find the bride speaking not to the Bridegroom only, but also to the maidens; likewise the Bridegroom’s words are addressed not to the bride alone, but also to his friends. And that is what we meant just now, when we said that the marriage-song was written in dramatic form. For we call a thing a drama, such as the enaction of a story on the stage, when different characters are introduced and the whole structure of the narrative consists in their comings and goings among themselves. And this work contains these things one by one in their own order, and also the whole body of it consists of mystical utterances.

But it behoves us primarily to understand that, just as in childhood we are not affected by the passion of love, so also to those who are at the stage of infancy and childhood in their interior life—to those, that is to say, who are being nourished with milk in Christ, not with strong meat, and are only beginning “to desire the rational milk without guile” (Heb 5:12)—it is not given to grasp the meaning of these sayings. For in the words of the Song of Songs there is that food, of which the Apostle says that “strong meat is for the perfect”; and that food calls for hearers “who by ability have their senses exercised to the discerning of good and evil” (Heb 5:14). And indeed, if those whom we have called children were to come on these passages, it may be that they would derive neither profit nor much harm, either from reading the text itself, or from going through the necessary explanations. But if any man who lives only after the flesh should approach it, to such a one the reading of this scripture will be the occasion of no small hazard and danger. For he, not knowing how to hear love’s language in purity and with chaste ears, will twist the whole manner of his hearing of it away from the inner spiritual man and on to the outward and carnal; and he will be turned away from the spirit to the flesh and will foster carnal desires in himself, and it will seem to be the divine scriptures that are thus urging and egging him on to fleshly lust!

II. The Inner and Outer Person and the Spiritual Senses

In the beginning of the words of Moses, where the creation of the world is described, we find reference to the making of two men, the first “in the image and likeness of God,” and the second “formed of the slime of the earth” (Gen 1:26, 2:7). Paul the Apostle knew this well; and, being possessed of a very clear understanding of the matter, he wrote in his letters more plainly and with greater lucidity that there are in fact two men in every single man. He says, for instance: “For if our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day”; and again: “For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man” (2 Cor 4:16; Rom 7:22). And he makes some other statements of a similar kind. I think, therefore, that no one ought any longer to doubt what Moses wrote in the beginning of Genesis about the making and fashioning of two men, since he sees Paul, who understood what Moses wrote much better than we do, saying that there are two men in every one of us. Of these two men he tells us that the one, namely, the inner man, is renewed from day to day; but the other, that is, the outer, he declares to be corrupted and weakened in all the saints and in such as he was himself. If anything in regard to this matter still seems doubtful to anyone, it will be better explained in the appropriate places. But let us now follow up what we mentioned before about the inner and the outer man.

The thing we want to demonstrate about these things is that the divine scriptures make use of homonyms; that is to say, they use identical terms for describing different things. And they even go so far as to call the members of the outer man by the same names as the parts and dispositions of the inner man; and not only are the same terms employed, but the things themselves are compared with one another. For instance, a person is a child in age according to the inner man, who has in him the power to grow and to be led onward to the age of youth, and thence by successive stages of development to come to the perfect man and to be made a father. Our own intention, therefore, has been to use such terms as would be in harmony with the language of sacred scripture, and in particular with that which was written by John; for he says: “I have written to you, children, because you have known the Father; I have written to you, fathers, because you have known him who was from the beginning; I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one” (1 Jn 2:12–14). It is perfectly clear; and I think nobody should doubt that John calls these people children or lads or young men or even fathers according to the soul’s age, not the body’s. Paul too says somewhere: “I could not speak to you as spiritual, but as to car- nal, little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat” (1 Cor 3:1). A little one in Christ is undoubtedly so called after the age of his soul, not after that of his flesh. And finally the same Paul says further: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I destroyed childish things” (1 Cor 13:11). And again on another occasion he says: “Until we all meet . . . unto a perfect man; unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). He knows that those who believe will “all meet unto a perfect man” and “unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ.” So, then, just as these different ages that we have mentioned are denoted by the same words both for the outer man and for the inner, so also will you find the names of the members of the body transferred to those of the soul; or rather the faculties and powers of the soul are to be called its members.

III. Amor and Caritas

In these places, therefore, and in many others you will find that divine scripture avoided the word “passion” (erôs) and put “charity” or “affection” (agapê) instead. Occasionally, however, though rarely, it calls the passion of love by its own name, and invites and urges souls to it; as when it says in Proverbs about Wisdom: “Desire her greatly and she will preserve you; encompass her, and she shall exalt you; honor her, that she may embrace you” (Prov 4:6, 8). And in the book that is called the Wisdom of Solomon it is written of Wisdom herself: “I became a passionate lover of her beauty” (Wis 8:2). I think that the word for passionate love was used only where there seemed to be no occasion of falling. For who could see anything sensuous or unseemly in the passion for Wisdom, or in a man’s professing himself her passionate lover? Whereas had Isaac been spoken of as having a passion for Rebecca or Jacob for Rachel, some unseemly passion on the part of the saints of God might have been inferred from the words, especially by those who do not know how to rise up from the letter to the spirit. Most clearly, however, even in this our little book of which we are now treating, the appellation of “passionate love” has been changed into the word “charity” in the place where it says: “I have adjured you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my ‘Nephew,’ to tell him that I have been wounded by charity” (Song 5:8). For that is as much as to say: “I have been smitten through with the dart of His passionate love.” It makes no difference, therefore, whether the sacred scriptures speak of love, or of charity, or of affection; except that the word “charity” is so highly exalted that even God himself is called Charity, as John says: “Dearly beloved, let us love one another, for charity is of God; and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. But he that loves not knows not God, for God is Charity” (1 Jn 4:7–8).

IV. The Place of the Song of Songs Among the Works of Solomon (i.e., Christ)

Now, therefore, calling upon God the Father, who is Charity, through that same charity that is of him, let us pass on to discuss the other matters. And let us first investigate the reason why, when the churches of God have adopted three books from Solomon’s pen, the Book of Proverbs has been put first, that which is called Ecclesiastes second, while the Song of Songs is found in the third place. The following are the suggestions that occur to us here.

The branches of learning by means of which men generally attain to knowledge of things are the three which the Greeks called Eth- ics, Physics and Epoptics; these we may call respectively moral, natu- ral, and inspective. Some among the Greeks, of course, add a fourth branch, logic, which we may describe as rational. Others have said that logic does not stand by itself, but is connected and intertwined throughout with the three studies that we mentioned first. For this logic is, as we say, rational, in that it deals with the meanings and proper significances and their opposites, the classes and kinds of words and expressions, and gives information as to the form of each and every saying; and this branch of learning certainly requires not so much to be separated from the others as to be mingled and woven in with them. That study is called moral, on the other hand, which inculcates a seemly manner of life and gives a grounding in habits that incline to virtue. The study called natural is that in which the nature of each single thing is considered; so that nothing in life may be done which is contrary to nature, but everything is assigned to the uses for which the Creator brought it into being. The study called inspective is that by which we go beyond things seen and contemplate something of things divine and heavenly, beholding them with the mind alone, for they are beyond the range of bodily sight.

It seems to me, then, that all the sages of the Greeks borrowed these ideas from Solomon, who had learned them by the Spirit of God at an age and time long before their own, and that they then put them forward as their own inventions and, by including them in the books of their teachings, left them to be handed down also to those that came after. But, as we said, Solomon discovered and taught these things by the wisdom that he received from God before anyone; as it is written: “And God gave understanding to Solomon and wisdom exceeding great, and largeness of heart as the sand that is on the seashore. And wisdom was multiplied in him above all the sons of men that were of old, and above all the sages of Egypt” (3 Kgs 4:29–30). Wishing, therefore, to distinguish one from another of those three branches of learning, which we called general just now (that is, the moral, the natural, and the inspective), and to differentiate between them, Solomon issued them in three books, arranged in their proper order. First, in Proverbs he taught the moral science, putting rules for living into the form of short and pithy maxims, as was fitting. Secondly, he covered the science known as natural in Ecclesiastes; in this, by discussing at length the things of nature, and by distinguishing the useless and vain from the profitable and essential, he counsels us to forsake vanity and cultivate things useful and upright. The inspective science likewise he has propounded in this little book that we now have in hand—that is, the Song of Songs. In this he instills into the soul the love of things divine and heavenly, using for his purpose the figure of the bride and Bridegroom, and teaches us that communion with God must be attained by the paths of charity and love. . . .

This book comes last so that a person may come to it when his manner of life has been purified and he has learnt to know the difference between things corruptible and things incorruptible, so that nothing in the metaphors used to describe and represent the love of the bride for her celestial Bridegroom—that is, of the perfect soul for the Word of God—may cause him to stumble. For when the soul has completed these studies, by means of which it is cleansed in all its actions and habits and is led to discriminate between natural things, it is competent to proceed to doctrinal and mystical matters, and in this way advances to the contemplation of the Godhead with pure and spiritual love.

From Origen. The Song of Songs. Commentary and Homilies, translated and annotated by R. P. Lawson (New York: Paulist Press, 1957. Ancient Christian Writers), 21–22, 24–27, 31–32, 39–41, and 44. Used with permission of Paulist Press.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Introduction xiii
Part 1 Foundations of Mystical Practice
Section 1 Biblical Interpretation
Introduction 3
1 Commentary on the Song of Songs 6
2 The Life of Moses 13
3 Sermon on Psalm 41 (Vulgate) 21
4 Sermons on the Song of Songs 23 27
5 Sermon 2 35
6 Commentary on the Song of Songs 41
Section 2 Asceticism and Purgation
Introduction 47
1 The Life of St. Antony 49
2 Praktikos 55
3 The Life of Mary of Oignies 60
4 Purgation and Purgatory 66
5 The Ascent of Mount Carmel 72
Section 3 Prayer, Liturgy, and Sacraments
Introduction 79
1 Prayer 81
2 Armenian Hymn No. 1 86
3 Conferences 9 and 10 89
4 The Third Ethical Discourse 97
5 Vision VII 102
6 Sermon 39 105
7 On the Four Stages of Prayer 110
8 The Way of the Pilgrim 118
Section 4 Inner and Outer Practices
Introduction 123
1 The Philokalia, "Discourse on Abba Philimon" 125
2 Carthusian Customs 131
3 Spiritual Friendship 135
4 Letters of Spiritual Direction 140
5 The Spiritual Guide 144
Section 5 Mystical Itineraries
Introduction 149
1 The Threefold Way 150
2 The Four Degrees of Violent Charity 155
3 The Mind's Journey into God 162
4 The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls 172
5 Sermon 39 180
6 The Ladder of Perfection 184
Part 2 Aspects of Mystical Consciousness
Section 6 Living the Trinity
Introduction 191
1 On the Trinity 193
2 The Mirror of Faith 197
3 The Flowing Light of the Godhead 202
4 The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters 208
5 The Living Flame of Love 213
Section 7 Encountering Christ
Introduction 221
1 Sermons on the Song of Songs 74 222
2 Francis of Assisi and the Stigmata 225
3 The Clock of Wisdom 231
4 Revelations of Divine Love 238
5 Encounters with Christ 246
Section 8 Love and Knowledge
Introduction 251
1 The Golden Letter 253
2 Sermons on the Song of Songs 83 256
3 The Cloud of Unknowing 262
4 Two Letters on Mystical Theology 269
5 True Christianity 276
Section 9 Positive and Negative Ways to God
Introduction 281
1 The Mystical Theology 283
2 Two Songs of Praise 290
3 The Granum Sinapis: Poem and Commentary 293
4 English Poets on God in Nature 298
5 Hymn of the Universe 303
Section 10 Vision, Contemplation, and Rapture
Introduction 309
1 Contemplation in the Fathers 311
2 Augustine on Vision and Rapture 316
3 Dialogues 2.35 324
4 Hymn 18 327
5 Hildegard of Bingen as Visionary and Theorist of Visions 331
6 Contemplation and Its Forms 336
7 The Fire of Love 341
8 On the Vision of God 347
9 Autobiography 353
10 Life 357
11 Excerpts from The Journal 360
Section 11 Distress and Dereliction
Introduction 365
1 Moral Interpretation of Job 367
2 The Memorial 374
3 Sermon 3 379
4 The Dark Night of the Soul 384
5 Story of a Soul 389
Section 12 Deification and Birthing
Introduction 395
1 Deification Among the Fathers 397
2 Birthing in Patristic and Medieval Texts 402
3 Questions to Thalassius 408
4 Sermon 101 412
5 Theologia Deutsch 421
Section 13 Union with God
Introduction 427
1 Homily 10 430
2 On Loving God 434
3 Sermon 52 438
4 The Little Book of Enlightenment 444
5 The Interior Castle 7.1-2 451
6 The Spiritual Canticle 460
7 The Treatise on the Love of God 465
8 The Relation of 1654 472
Part 3 Implications of the Mystical Life
Section 14 Mysticism and Heresy
Introduction 481
1 Mystical Heresy in Early Christianity 483
2 The Heresy of the Free Spirit 489
3 Meister Eckhart's Condemnation 495
4 The Condemnations of Quietism 501
5 Francois Fenelon, Explication of the Maxims of the Saints Regarding the Interior Life 509
Section 15 Contemplation and Action
Introduction 519
1 Pastoral Care 2.5 521
2 Sermons on the Song of Songs 50 525
3 Selections from Sermon 86 529
4 The Cloud of Unknowing 535
5 The Dialogue 540
6 New Seeds of Contemplation 545
A Brief Critical Bibliography on Christian Mysticism 553
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  • Posted March 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    The Shotgun Approach to Christian Mysticism

    This is, to say the least, a daunting task. The author has sought to provide a clear and concise compilation of two millenia of Christian mystical thought, be it Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. What has been done is to include excerpts from various texts in sections devoted to a single concept. However, the excerpts are not arranged chronologically or even by the branch of Christianity to which they belong. In one manner, this is an admirable achievement of ecumenicism. On the other hand, the reader can easily become confused as to what the editor's intentions are, and how well such is being accomplished. However, this is a handy introduction to the lately-neglected field of Christian mysticism, and if one person reads an excerpt in this book and is then motivated to seek out the larger text as a whole, then the editor has succeeded in his job. Recommended, but with a few reservations.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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