The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys
New Edition
By Andrew Louth
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007
Review by Carl McColman

Andrew Louth, Professor of Theology at Durham University in the UK, is that rarest of literary treasures: an academic writer whose prose is engaging and delightful to read. A survey like this one, covering the key philosophers and theologians whose work comprise the headwaters of the “Christian mystical tradition” could easily sink under the weight of its topical dullness, especially given how old the source material is (the youngest figure Louth treats in this book, Denys — more commonly known as Pseudo-Dionysius — flourished some 1500 years ago). The dramatic and colorful figures of the golden age of mysticism, from Meister Eckhart to Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, all lived centuries to a millennium after the period Louth is covering in this book; which means that he has to argue for the importance and relevance of writers whose ideas and arguments all too often seem so abstractly foreign to the twenty-first century as to be virtually meaningless. But Louth’s style is nimble and expository, he not only surveys the key ideas of the earliest writers in the mystical canon, but explains what makes them innovative or significant to the later tradition.

So who are these “earliest writers”? Beginning with three major pre- or non-Christian philosophers (Plato, Philo, and Plotinus), Louth begins to sketch out the earliest traces of mystical theology with Origen of Alexandria, whose impressive corpus of scriptural commentary not only revealed a rich Christian-Hellenic syncretism but also established the longstanding tradition of mystical (symbolic/spiritual) exegesis. The importance of the Nicene theological conflicts is noted by a look at Athanasius (whom Louth correctly pigeonholes as an “anti-mystic”) and the most mystical of the Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa. The influence of monasticism on mystical spirituality is examined through the great desert father Evagrius Ponticus and the author of the Macarian Homilies. Finally, the two most important mystical theologians of the west and east — Augustine and Denys, respectively — each merit their own chapter. As a sort of coda, Louth then considers how the tradition that first developed a voice through these seminal writers may have impacted the golden age of mysticism, looking particularly at the theology of John of the Cross.

If all these names made your head spin, you can see why I’m impressed at Louth’s ability to make the thought of largely-forgotten ancient mystics seem meaningful even for today. He is methodical in showing how the ideas of one writer impacted those of another from a generation or two later, but always with enough of a sense of narrative to keep the tale he tells interesting (at least for those who want to study this tradition).

So Louth considers how much impact pagan neoplatonism had on Christian spirituality in the early centuries of the church; he notes how the study of scripture, the formulation of doctrine, and finally the practice of contemplation all support the emergence of an authentic interior understanding of the experience of Christianity. So readers who want to learn if Origen or Evagrius had the same kind of “gee-whiz” mystical experiences as did Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila will be disappointed; for those early mystics rarely if ever wrote about their own supernatural experiences, and Louth wastes no time in pointless speculation. Instead, he offers what is truly valuable: not how the early Church experienced mysticism, but rather how its ideas and values were forged — ideas and values that would in time form the “container” in which mystical experience could occur.

But all of this ultimately seems to be just a lengthy prelude to what may arguably be the single most important element in this book: the new afterword, written in 2006 and only available in the 2007 edition of the book. If you have the original edition (from 1981), spend the extra money to get your hands on the newer revision (or at the very least, check it out from the library). In the afterword, Louth apologizes for making relatively few corrections to the text during its revision, and notes that to revise it more thoroughly than he did would likely entail rewriting the entire book. Why? Because in the quarter century since its first publication, Louth has come to question the very notion of a “Christian mystical tradition.” Following on Louis Bouyer’s “Essay on the History of the Word Mysticism” (found in Richard Woods’ anthology Understanding Mysticism), Louth notes how the words mystic and mystical in the early centuries of Christianity referred not so much to inner spiritual experience as to the sacramental or liturgical dimensions of theology, but eventually the more interior connotation of the words came to the forefront, particularly after Augustine’s rather individualistic understanding of spirituality had become so influential in the west. By the time of the great mystics, the notion of mysticism as a category of experiences or a canon of writings, was very much a novel concept within the Christian world, and Louth notes how this novel idea became linked to particular political or theological viewpoints (including the idea that one need not rely on the priesthood or the liturgy to gain direct access to God). Thus began a snowballing process of increasing importance placed on inner experience over and above tradition, which of coursed gained momentum with the reformation, even while Protestantism ironically tended to reject mysticism as tending toward schism and antinomianism. The snowball continues to roll merrily along today, with the latest forms of the idolatry of experience being the anything-goes chaos that characterizes much of the new age and neopagan subcultures.

So in the end, Louth deconstructs the very topic of the book he had written 25 years earlier. Why, then, did he consent to a second edition? As he puts it, “What I hope I have shown by this brief survey of what has come to be known as the Christian mystical tradition, starting from the Fathers, and looking at it from the perspective they suggest, is that mysticism is not some settled concept, with a clear definition; rather it is the name for a religious strategy…In particular, what we find in the Fathers undermines any tendency towards seeing mysticism as an elite, individualistic quest for ‘peak’ experiences; rather for them the ‘mystical life’ is the ‘life lived with Christ hid in God’ of Colossians 3:3, a life which is ecclesial, that is lived in the Body of Christ, which is nourished liturgically, and which is certainly a matter of experience, though not of ‘extraordinary experiences’.” Briefly put, Louth’s new afterword makes what was already a wonderful book even more essential: now it is not only to my knowledge the best short introduction to Christian mysticism available today, but it also draws significant conclusions that situate is subject matter squarely in the question of how the richest and most ancient sources of Christian mysticism can be understood (or, better put, recovered) for the future.

Mainline Neo-Monasticism?
The Silences of the Lamb (of God)
Sister Joan Chittister and the Way of Paradox
Three Wonderful New Julian of Norwich Books
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Tracie

    Looks very interesting. May have to check this out.

  • Peter

    May I make a suggestion linking this fascinating review with another of your brief blogs, What’s the Point of Christianity?
    Your developmental paradigm in that piece could apply here as well: as this author experienced the personal transition to a more mature faith, expressed and validated in the corporate community, his understanding of the mystical tradition followed this growth and found among the mystics the same transition into corporate spiritual experience. What a blessing! From this position we can look “back” and strongly affirm the experience of those who need to individuate in order to be sure their own experiences are valid–as, for instance, Carl found himself doing during his 7-year adventure in neo-paganism–and yet be confident that the vibrant, vital, experiential reality of the spiritual life of Christ in His “mystical” body will continue to thrive and to draw to itself those who have come to this point in their journey toward maturity in Him.
    Thank you, Carl, for this “food for thought.”