Mysticism — whether Christian mysticism, or comparative (world) mysticism — is a vast subject, one to which you could easily devote your life without any fear of ever mastering (or exhausting) the literature associated with it. Recently two books have crossed my desk that should prove to be invaluable for anyone seeking to study mysticism on a scholarly level. But first, a word of warning: these books are priced for library or textbook sales, and so they are not cheap! If you’re on a budget, you might want to request your local library to acquire one or both of these books (frankly, even if you do purchase these books for your own collection, recommend them to your local library, since these would be excellent additions to their reference section).
The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, edited by Julia A. Lamm, gathers together forty essays on both the history and the current study of the topic. A glance at the table of contents reveals a number of familiar names in the academic study of mysticism: Barbara Newman, Don E. Saliers, Columba Stewart, Dennis E. Tamburello, Wendy M. Wright and Philip Sheldrake are among the contributors. As can be expected, the essays cover much familiar terrain, from “themes” of Christian mysticism such as the Song of Songs, gender, and Platonism; to key topics in the history of Christian mysticism such as the New Testament, St. Augustine, monasticism, and the Rhineland, English, and Spanish schools of mysticism; to contemporary issues such as questions related to mystical epistemology, neuroscience, and interreligious dialogue. Essays on the Judean-Jewish contexts of early Christian mysticism and Syriac mysticism are particularly interesting to me, since those are areas where I feel my own book on Christian mysticism is less than ideal. Likewise, essays on mysticism from the perspective of the Protestant Reformers and Pietism emphasize how mysticism appears even in forms of Christianity that are often considered to be hostile to the topic. And while I’m disappointed that figures like Raimon Panikkar and Caryll Houselander are not mentioned in the essay on twentieth century mysticism, there are far more hits than misses in that particular entry, with profiles of significant individuals such as Howard Thurman, Dag Hammarskjöld, Simone Weil, and even Nicholas Black Elk. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen essays on movements of “popular mysticism” such as Pentecostalism and Centering Prayer, but as I am tempted to quibble about matters such as these, I am reminded of the statement I made at the beginning of this review: for a subject so vast as Christian mysticism, any one-volume survey of the topic, no matter how scholarly, must inevitably have its omissions. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion remains a treasure-trove of scholarship that will delight anyone interested in the academic conversation around Christian mysticism.
Comparative Mysticism: An Anthology of Original Sources, edited by Steven T. Katz, fills a major gap in the literature of world mysticism: a survey of great mystical writings from the world over. This 600-page compendium features key texts from the literature of Judaism, Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, and Native American traditions. A different scholar assembled the anthology for each of the seven sections — for example, Bernard McGinn selected the texts for the Christian mysticism section; other “selectors” include Moshe Idel, Peter Awn, Arvind Sharma, John Powers, Livia Kohn, and John A. Grim. Each section includes an introductory essay on the mystical tradition within that particular religion or philosophy; furthermore, introductions are provided for the individual texts as well, making this not merely an anthology, but truly a textbook of world mysticism. The source material is arranged topically rather than chronologically, so that the material presented is less of a history of spiritualities but more of an actual survey of the key theories and practices which characterize each of the great wisdom traditions. Taken as a whole, this is a splendid overview of the breadth and diversity of the human quest for the Divine. And while I am not qualified to provide a detailed critique of the selections (or omissions) of all the traditions included, the Christian tradition, the one I am the most knowledgeable of, is covered in a thorough way, with all the major voices — Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Bernard of Clairvaux, — included, with the one glaring omission being The Cloud of Unknowing. What I think makes this book particularly exciting is that, since it is an anthology of actual mystical texts and is not merely an academic study, it could prove useful not only for scholars but also for contemplative practitioners, of any faith, who are seeking a deeper cross-cultural knowledge of the mystical wisdom of humankind. Anyone with a serious interest in the relationship between mysticism and interspirituality would find this an essential resource.
As I suggested at the beginning of this review: every seminary library should have both of these books, as well as any college, university, or even public library with a commitment to religious studies.
Disclosure: a complimentary review copy of each of the books mentioned in this post was supplied to me by the publisher. If you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.