By Harvey D. Egan
Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010
Harvey Egan is one of the big names in the academic study of Christian mysticism; he is the editor of one of the best anthologies of Christian mystical writings, and has penned insightful studies into the work of Jesuit mystics like Ignatius of Loyola and Karl Rahner. But this most recent offering of his may be one of the most useful books for anyone wishing to learn more about the great mystics themselves. Like Evelyn Underhill’s Mystics of the Church or John MacQuarrie’s Two Worlds Are Ours, Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition functions as a basic history of Christian mysticism, offering a chronological survey from Biblical times to the present day. But what sets this book apart is how almost every chapter is devoted to one particular mystic, offering a biography of the subject, a look at the historical and theological issues that would have been part of his or her cultural milieu, and how the subject’s mystical relationship with Christ arose in response to the realities of the time — and, most significant for us, how the writings and ideas of each particular mystic still speak to us today. In other words, Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition functions almost like a dictionary of mystical biography, a “who’s who” in the history of mystics functioning within the Christian tradition.
Egan profiles over 75 mystics, offering a survey of mysticism in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and then galloping through twenty centuries beginning with Origen of Alexandria and culminating with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Of course, all the usual suspects are present (Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing) along with a few surprises (Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Benet of Canfield) and, it seems to me, a willingness to include devotional women whose writings or lives are primarily ecstatic or visionary (Gemma Galgani, Maria Faustina Kowalska), perhaps subtly reinforcing the stereotype that mysticism is about extraordinary phenomena. That in itself is not terribly problematic (after all, I have a “big tent” understanding of mysticism), but the exclusion of living or recently deceased figures who I believe have made more significant contributions to the tradition (Ramon Panikkar, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Maggie Ross) is bothersome. Certainly Egan was not overly concerned with Catholic political correctness, or else he would have omitted Teilhard de Chardin and Merton. Considering that Panikkar was still alive when this book was in production, I’ll assume that Egan intentionally did not include any living contemplatives in his survey — an understandable if regrettable move.
But never mind my nitpicking over who did and did not get included: the survey offers a wealth of information and would be deeply useful to anyone trying to navigate through the history of Christian mystical writing. What I found especially helpful was a distinction that Egan offered in the book’s introduction, highlighting the difference between mystics, mystical theologians, and mystagogues. Mystics actually live the contemplative life ordered toward union with God; mystical theologians write about such a life, seeking to understand and articulate the theory/theology of such a life; and mystagogues teach and lead others in seeking the mystical life. Writers in the Christian mystical tradition may belong to any one of these three categories, or more than one; but it is helpful to recognize that the writings of Julian of Norwich represent a profound expression of mysticism in itself, whereas The Cloud of Unknowing is a work of mystagogy, and the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius represent mystical theology. This is not to say that the Cloud-author or Pseudo-Dionysius were not truly mystics, but just to point out helpful distinctions in the writings themselves. Scholars sometimes quibble about whether Evelyn Underhill is properly understood as a mystic (she does not appear in Egan’s table of contents, another lamentable omission in my opinion), which is understandable considering that her writings are more about the theory and practice of mysticism than creative expressions of her own spiritual life.
This book works well as a handy reference tool, enabling the seeker after Christian mystical wisdom access to intelligent summaries of the lives and thoughts of (most of) the great contemplative writers. But I’d like to commend it as a work to read through from cover to cover. Each chapter is short (6 – 8 pages) making it useful as a daily supplement to your devotional reading. But in reading the text as a whole, you get a sense of Egan’s own understanding of how Christian mystical theology has evolved over time, particularly the emergence in the late twentieth century (beginning with Lonergan) of the recognition that mystical spirituality involves the evolution of human consciousness. This is a significant understanding, and I’ve never before seen an author trace it so lucidly. It puts the living contemplatives like Keating and Rohr into context. Since mysticism is about relating to the living God, it only stands to reason that mysticism itself is a living, evolving thing. Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition offers a useful summary of Christian mysticism as God’s work in progress.
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