Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Exploring Christian Mysticism, Day 1

Warning: My next several posts will be about religion, spirituality, mysticism. I'm going to try not to preach, but I'm not going to hold back how excited I get about this topic. If religion offends you, come back later :-)

I must also warn the few of you who are still here that my ideas on this subject are not yet formed. You're not likely to get any eloquence out of me for a few days. In fact, for the next couple of days after today, I'll be stealing directly from and quoting my favorite mystical scholar. (Yes, I totally have a favorite scholar of mysticism.)


As an undergraduate student, I had the good fortune to take an elective on Mysticism. I was an English and psychology major, but religion, philosophy, and certain aspects of history have always fascinated me. In the class, we discussed Christian, Jewish, and Hindu mysticism from a few different perspectives. I fell in love with the varieties of religious experience (and with William James [brother of the less interesting Henry James, but that's another blotpost altogether], who wrote a book by that title) and wanted to know more. Bernard McGinn, a great scholar on the subject of mysticism, has written several books about mysticism in general and Christian mysticism in particular. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican monk and mystic of whom I am so fond, is a particular favorite of McGinn's. I was so taken with Eckhart in general and with McGinn's explorations of him that I took an ecumenical class through my church in Cleveland after I graduated. I was the youngest person by far in the small, not-for-credit seminar, but it helped challenge and enrich my understanding of my relationship with the divine. My first research paper in graduate school was about Eckhart as well. Unfortunately, I haven't read his work or written much about him since. Life changes have given me time to change my habits, though, and at least for now I'm devoting more time to such study. It's horribly trite, but I'm doing the whole personal renaissance thing.

I went to the library for one book this past Sunday and came home with four. Browsing the stacks is always a treat, and I think part of me knew what I was looking for. One of those four books is one I found while scanning the Dewey Decimals. It is the subject, or at least the resource, of the study I'm undertaking, and it's McGinn's 2006 Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. As of yet, I have only read his Introduction, but already I am eager to share with you some of his thoughts and words. I will probably be breaking his copyright to transcribe so much of what he has written, but I hope that if you're interested, many of you will go out and buy this book or at least pick it up from your library.

In his Introduction, McGinn talks about his definition of mysticism and how Christian mysticism has developed over the years. What does it mean? What is its relation to the Church (many churches)? How many different kinds of mysticism are there, and what do they have in common? Well, let's start.

First, here's what McGinn hopes for readers of this book: "that the collection will both provide a resource for those who have already tasted something of the spiritual wealth of Christian mysticism, as well as invite new readers to ponder the teachings of some of the most remarkable men and women of the Christian tradition" (xii). To that end, he arranges the book so that the first part gives the reader the foundations of mysticism, the second part lets us delve into some individual and very unique (but still rooted in something fundamental) flavors of mysticism, and the third part explores some implications of mysticism both for the mystics themselves and for contemporary readers and followers of these great people.

I'm totally biased. I don't consider myself a Christian anymore, but I've been steeped in Christianity, specifically Catholicism. I know amazing Catholics and respect a lot of their beliefs. And aside from some of the dogma that some of the mysticism comes out of, I identify with a lot of these mystical texts (especially Eckhart). I've gleaned a lot from them. I've been fed a lot of food for thought, for meditation, for dancing. It all sounds very romantic, but it's not limited to that. It's more than that. The 'high' of 'experience' that some people associate with mysticism is to some just a first step and to others a misleading precursor to the awesome void that comes with what some would call a more 'real' experience of the divine.

My hope for today was to transcribe the first part of McGinn's Introduction, but I realized I needed to write an introduction of my own to ease you into the subject. Tomorrow I - hopefully we - will explore McGinn's own beautiful, knowledgeable, and fervent introduction to mysticism. He can tell you better than I can what it is, why it's become so popular (relatively speaking) lately, and why it's important in the context of more orthodox faith traditions.

I hope my scattered introduction today is strong enough or at least excited enough to encourage you to come back tomorrow (or the next time I post) to begin the journey. Feel free to ask questions or even to argue (nicely) with me. It should be an exhilarating ride.

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