The Terror of History: Lectures 19-24 (Witchcraft, Part 2 & Conclusion)

The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum was one of the most influential books in early modern culture. It was written by two Dominican monks sent to investigate rural areas. They claimed that there was widespread use of witchcraft. What this most likely amounted to was a confrontation between the part of the Western world that was fully Christianized and the other part that was only partially Christianized. Also known as the Hammer of Witches, the Malleus showed the connection between women and the devil and was used to prosecute witches by both Catholicism and Protestantism. Persecution would have happened anyway, but it would not have happened on such a large-scale without the Malleus.

The Compendium Maleficarum

The Compendium Maleficarum was also very popular and describes in detail the steps to becoming a witch…

  1. Sign a pact with the Devil. Satan offers you something you want: wealth, power, knowledge, revenge… The pact is written in blood and placed in a crossroads. Crossroads were thought to be frequented by devils. Crosses were placed in the crossroads to scare away the devil.
  2. Receive the mark of the Devil. You are branded with a small mark in the form of a bat or a toad found in your genitalia, armpits, etc.  (probably a birthmark that looks similar.) The marks are insensitive to pain – they don’t hurt when they are pricked with a needle. (What a great job pricking must have been!) A third nipple could also be a mark, but this was sometimes a bit tricky because people would testify that they had seen a third nipple on someone, but when investigators would look for themselves, it would be gone! Magic, no doubt!! There was a sexual connotation to being branded with a mark. Slaves began to be branded on the forehead to indicate ownership during this time period, too.
  3. Abjure your faith.
  4. Cast away your rosaries and scapulars.
  5. Pay homage to the devil or his representatives. Witches were said to kiss the devil in his behind while the devil emitted a cold, fetid, filthy wind.
  6. Sacrilegious baptism. You are given new godparents and a new name. Naming is very important because it gives power.
  7. Cut a piece of clothing or hair and give it to the devil. This gives the devil power over you.
  8. Enter into the magic circle. (The Pentagram.)
  9. Promise to perform sacrifices for the Devil.

The Gathering of Witches

Of course, the Compendium Maleficarum is a hostile source. Not only does it describe how to become a witch, it describes the places where witches gather (known as Sabbath which comes from Sabazius Phyrigian deity and is not related to the Jewish Sabbath.). These were nocturnal gathering of witches and there are many books written about these gatherings. This can be linked with agrarian cults, too. It is well-accepted that people in Europe during this time period truly believed that at certain times of the weeks, the witches gathered to engage in orgies, do evil deeds, and worship the devil.

The Eve of May Day is the night of the witches. May Day is a very important day in ancient Europe because it marks the end of winter and the beginning of  spring. The Eve of May Day was considered "the night of terror". Other important days for witch gatherings were the Eve of St. John’s Day, June 23rd, Christmas Eve. (Basically the Eve of any big Christian celebration was considered an important day for witch gatherings.

According to the hostile sources, during these witch gatherings, people are dressed in animal skins (usually goats). They eat great amounts of foods prepared without salt and they drink monsie, a sweet wine considered to be an aphrodisiac. They engage in orgies. The devil will provide an incubus or succubus which will satisfy everything you want sexually. It takes the form of a little cat or other small animal and can turn into a human form. There is orgiastic dancing. The use of artificial phalluses is common. (Artificial phalluses were quite popular in Europe during this time period.) Children were sacrificed, their blood shed, and they were made into pies and eaten.

Murder and Cannibalism

People were often accused of cannibalism and child murder. These accusations were typically made against midwives because children died regularly during the time period. These same charges were made against the Jews, Native Americans, Gypsies… Those who are said to commit murder and cannibalism are easily identified as being utterly different from you. They have gone beyond the boundaries of humanity and therefore do not deserve to live.

Child sacrifice lies at the very roots of our civilization for Westerners. Judaism and Christianity are based on child sacrifice. (Think Abraham and Isaac/God and Jesus.) At the very roots of these accusations, is a series of charges that are as old as humanity, itself.

Witches of Loudon

Ruiz presents the case of the witches of Loudon as an example of how politics, new sexual mores, and handy accusations of witchcraft could be used to get rid of an enemy. It is also a good example of how witch trials functioned in early modern Europe when the witch craze was beginning to wane.

France, as elsewhere, was experiencing radical social, political, and cultural shifts. France, as well as other parts of Western Europe, had fully entered the post-Renaissance world of the Baroque. This was a culture of luxury and sensuousness. France had offered premier places of learning for the intellectual elite during this time period. Urbain Grandier was an intellectual elite who attended La Flèche, the same school Descartes had attended.

The Scientific Revolution and the Cartesian Method were creating new cultural fields and new cultural production that challenged the established order. The Counter-Reformation had created new standards for clergy and laity.

Loudon was a small city in France that was deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics. It was experiencing conflict with the Crown and was facing economic transition. The Protestants were literate and middle class. The Catholics were the lower illiterate classes and upper class elites.

Urbain Grandier was ordained a Jesuit in 1615. He felt that becoming a clergyman would be more promising so left the Jesuits and became a priest at Loudon. He was a personable and handsome man who was very popular with the fashionable female parishioners. He had several sexual liaisons, getting the daughter of the local persecutor pregnant. This got him into trouble. The scandal was put aside, but he made powerful enemies.

A young, rich, beautiful widow who was much sought after by powerful men, fell in love with Grandier. He performed a marriage ceremony for the woman and himself, which also angered many people. Grandier obviously openly opposed celibacy (writing papers on it), which went counter to Church views. Another mistake was snubbing a young man who later became Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu never forgave Grandier for the snub.

In 1629, Grandier was imprisoned for sexual improprieties. He appealed to the higher court in Paris and was released back to clerical duties. Meanwhile, a new Ursulines convent opened in Loudon where middle class and impoverished aristocratic women became nuns. The head nun liked Grandier and asked him to become the nun’s confessor. He refused, which created another enemy.

Young novices at Ursuline, partly as prank, partly as constructed allegations, began to claim demonic possession. Grandier was accused of being the devil’s representative and imprisoned. Grandier was found guilty. He was tortured and condemned to death by burning. After terrible torture, he was burned in Loudon Square, pleading his innocence.

After his death, demonic possessions and lurid public exorcisms continued for 3 years, which delighted the onlookers of all denominations, and especially the Protestants who saw it as an example of Catholic misbehavior.

Essex Shire

Essex Shire in the 17th century was experiencing many of the major transformations that other areas were experiencing. Beggars were under attack. Peasants were taking to the streets to look for work and they were mistrusted. Authorities in Essex began persecuting witches in earnest. There was no torture in England, but the accused confessions were similar to those who were tortured. (The accused were not burned, although their bodies could be burned after death.)

Those accused as witches were primarily women who were past child-bearing years. Those doing the accusing were evenly divided between men and women. Many were in-laws of the accused. The accused were usually of a lower social class than their accusers, and were usually people who were lewd, begged for food, or had a propensity for cursing.

Salem Witch Trials

In 17th century Salem, a small colonial town in Massachusetts, the accusations and trials for witchcraft created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. In Salem, unlike Essex, the accusers were of a lower socioeconomic status than the accused. Salem marks the conclusion of two centuries of the witch craze.

Pre-Christian Agricultural Cults

As mentioned previously, there is much evidence to support the survival of pre-Christian agricultural cults in Europe. In Italy, there are the "good walkers" of Friuli. They were believed to be born with the inner fetal membrane of higher vertebrates and have unusual powers. When the harvests were at stake, they would go out to the fields and march with fennel stalks to do battle against the witches who were armed with sorghum stalks. It was believed this would save the crops.

When the inquisitors encountered this behavior, it was accused of witchcraft. The "good walkers" refused to admit guilt and claimed they were good Christians, too. The proceedings lasted for decades. After many years, they began to confess. Most were punished, but not executed.

Deep and Mysterious Past

Another influential tradition in the making of Western culture is the belief in a deep and mysterious past. Celtic lure is an excellent example. Many Druidic beliefs survived, including the power of mistletoe, the fabled golden bough. It was supposed to have healing and magical power so was placed on the door to defend against the power of witches. May Day is related to mistletoe. The Maypole is a phallic symbol and celebrations are related to fertility rites and the renewal of life in spring.

Magical Places

Another influential tradition is the belief in magical places that offer portals into a different world of nature and imagination. This was a pre-Christian belief that made its way into Christianity. Other folklore that survived was the belief in fairies, trolls, dragons, wizards, etc. This is not a widespread belief, but was quite popular in Celtic homelands. Celtic lore remains a powerful cultural motif.

The Golden Bough by James Frazer is an extraordinary record of Celtic folklore. Celts are a remarkable people. They brought their Druid religion and the sense of the mysterious which entered 12th century literature through Courtly Love.

From the Golden Bough, we learn of great fire festivals. The building of fires on the top of mountains probably goes back to human sacrifice. Man was sacrificed as a way to replenish the fertility of the earth. We also learn about the use of Mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the oak tree. It is the most important anti-witchcraft plant, the plant of the gods. The Oak Tree is the sacred tree of the Indo-European people and other groups. On the solstice and equinox, the fire festivals take place. When you burn the oak, you return the fire. It was believed the sun resides in the heart of the oak. This guarantees that the sun will burn brightly for another year.


Today, May Day is Labor day because a group of workers in Chicago were killed on May Day while demonstrating. May Day had long been a day off for Europeans. Labor Day harkens back to a day no one worked. (It was eventually moved to September in the U.S. for political reasons.)

Today, there are still places so sacred that people flock to them. Pantheon in Rome. Stone Circles in England (Stonehenge). Cathedral of Chartres built on an old Celtic sacred place (you travel a maze in the building to the very center of the world).

The making and construction of ideas are the ways in which human beings deal with the terror of history. It isn’t just a medieval and early modern tradition. It lives on with us. There has never been a more cruel and irrational century than the 20th century. We’ve had one genocide and after another, without end.

History is made by the elites. It is written by those on the top. History is constructed. It is a way in which we try to explain what is often unexplainable. It is a way to give reason to things that are not reasonable. We live at the very edge of doom. We live in danger all the time. Around us is the uncertainty and irrationality of the world. It is our own actions that terrorize us. In order to deal with this and make meaning of it, we create religion, scapegoats and sacred places.

The terror of history remains with us. And as in earlier periods, society continues to formulate responses that seek an escape from history.

The Terror of History: Lectures 16-19 (Witchcraft, Part 1)

Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it!  While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in  Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.

In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)

Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.

Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.

In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.

During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.

The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.

The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.

There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.

In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".

War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.

That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".

New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.

Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.

By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.

Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.

In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.

The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.

Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.

For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.

The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.

Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.

The Terror of History: Lectures 9-13 (Heresy and the Millennium)

The first part of Prof. Teo Ruiz’s Great Courses lecture series, The Terror of History, was on mysticism. The second part is on Heretical and Millenarian Movements.

I find it so very interesting (although not surprising) that there is such a fine line between what is considered mystical and what is considered heretical. A mystic could very easily cross the line into heresy if they get too far away from what is considered orthodox, and what is orthodox varies. (What is now orthodox may have been heretical, yesterday.)


Heresy is the denial of established dogmas or dissent from established truth. You can only be a heretic of the religion of which you are a part. Therefore, if you are Jewish, you wouldn’t be considered heretical by the Catholic Church even though your beliefs go completely counter to church dogma because you are not Catholic. You would have to be Catholic to be considered heretical by the Church. (Or more generally, Christian to be considered a Christian heretic.)

Heresy is defined by the victor. Many of the Catholic Church dogmas came out of what was once considered heretical. (An example is transubstantiation.)

Many of the heresies that swept Europe during the middle ages were a result of the Investiture Conflict (a conflict between the church and state) that occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries and later Church Reform. There was a lot of religious dissent during this period and five main heretical groups emerged:

  • The Reformers – those swept away by the spirit of reforming the church, like Martin Luther.
  • Eccentrics – usually isolated and held outdated and sometimes bizarre beliefs.
  • Dualism or Manichaeism like the Cathars.
  • Reactionaries – those who objected to Church reform and favored of an allegiance to tradition.
  • Heterodox views that came out of intellectual thought like that of Baruch Spinoza who was expelled from his synagogue.
  • Millenarian Movements

Millenarian movements are based on the idea that time has a beginning and end. This view of time comes out of the Persian/Iranian concepts of time and the constant struggle between good and evil. Cultural and social constructs created this notion and it has had a lasting impact on the making of Western culture.

There are two orthodox millennial traditions within Christianity. One can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Book of Revelation. Revelation holds the classic example: the devil is seized and imprisoned which leads to a faithful reign for 1000 years before the final battle between good and evil when time will come to an end. (There were several other concepts floating around as well.)

The heresy and millenarian beliefs deeply affected the social, political and cultural structures of Western Europe. Millenarian and Apocalyptic beliefs were triggered by the violence after the first popular crusade, and a good argument can be made that the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Europe in the 20th century are directly related to millenarian ideas. (Norman Cohn)


Catharism arose in southern France which was very different, culturally, than northern France. Ideas of courtly love, which originated in southern France, were widespread in the area. Therefore, female spirituality was given more importance and the observance of Catholicism was very lax.

Catharism held a Manichaean duality and while it is considered a heresy (and therefore Christian), it was technically a completely different religion that was in competition with Christianity.

Most of the Cathars were the mercantile classes and lower nobility. The role of women was much more significant in Catharism than in Catholicism, too, which was no doubt thanks to the idea of courtly love so prevalent in the area.

The Catholic Church attempted to bring the Cathars back into the fold but their attempts didn’t work so they launched a crusade against them. This was the first time the Church had launched a crusade against Christians. The church eventually defeated the heretics, but Catharism remained alive.

(As a side note, it often happens that radical movements that begin as orthodox end up heretical.)

The Birth of the Inquisition

As was mentioned earlier, the Church failed to completely wipe out the Cathars and the violence that had erupted from attempts to wipe them out set the stage for a climate of persecution. The French desire to pacify the region led to the creation of the Inquisition around 1220. It was organized in southern France by the papal order and placed in charge of the Dominicans. The Pope had the highest authority, the bishops next highest and then local inquisitors.

The inquisition persecuted anyone they considered to be a heretic, and it was largely supported by the masses. People were brought to trial and punishment included torture, burning, confiscation and penance.

The construction of “otherness” came into being during this time period. Differences were exaggerated and persecuted. Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups were excluded from communal and national projects. This was the beginning of the rise of persecuting societies. The Inquisition also provided a way to confiscate the property of those believed to be the enemy. Whole societies developed around the wealth of confiscated properties.

Before the 12th century, the church would make attempts to bring heretics back into the fold. By the late 12th century, extreme punishment was employed to bring them back, and this punishment was acceptable to the public! It provided a way of binding together community. However, the persecution in the 12th century is calm in comparison to what came in the 15th century with the persecution of witches. And the persecution of witches is much more calm than the persecution that arose in the 20th century. (Western culture gets more and more violent as time goes on…)

Free Spirits

Another heretical movement that arose was that of the Free Spirits (the beghards and beguines). Adherents were accused of letchery and sexual excesses. They were also accused of claiming to reach a state of perfection where they were equal to God and no longer bound by moral laws. These stories, however, were not true. They were spread by the enemies of the movement as a way to dispel it. (Church Propaganda.)

Groups like the Free Spirit emerged because the Church had put a moratorium on new religious orders. This caused lay orders to become popular which paved the way for new forms of spirituality. The Free Spirit (or beguines and beghards – a female lay order) were the most important in defining the new forms of lay spirituality.

Marguerite Porete, one of the leading thinkers of the Free Spirit, was executed in Paris. Others were persecuted as well. These women did not see themselves as heretics. They believed themselves to be orthodox believers who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Millennium in the 16th Century

At the end of the middle ages and beginning of the modern era, unstable conditions came into being that challenged the established order. In Germany (and throughout Western Europe), the village structure that had been in place for centuries in rural areas changed dramatically. This affected the social structure of rural societies. A few wealthy citizens began buying up the village common lands which caused large numbers of peasants to become landless proletariats. Their traditional ways of life were eroded beyond recognition.

Another change, of course, is the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. He denied transubstantiation, ecclesiastical celibacy, and the supremacy of the pope. He also wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular, which he did himself. One of the reasons Luther was successful was because of the political infighting going on in Germany at the time. The German princes were threatened by the growing power of Charles V and looked to Luther as a way to legitimize their resistance to imperial power.

The German peasants began making social, economic and religious demands, asking for a more egalitarian society. There were outbreaks of widespread violence which often led to attacks on the monasteries and to the peasants appropriations of church land. Muntzer, a follower of Luther who became even more radical, led to the rise of the Anabaptists and the Great Peasant War. The rebels defeated nobel armies but the war ended with a nobel victory, and untold numbers of peasants were slaughtered, partially thanks to Luther’s condemnation of them.

Millenarian agitation continued in Germany and throughout the West. In the mid 17th century, Puritans overthrew King Charles I and established a commonwealth. (“No king but King Jesus”.) The Puritans had millenarian views, but not radical ones. However, they paved the way for more radical views, both utopian and millenarian.

The first wave of Americans was composed of Puritans and other religious radicals. The New Englanders thought of their land as the blessed recreation of Jerusalem, which ushered in American exceptionalism. The country continued to be a magnet for religious radicals and utopian thinkers who saw North America as the ideal place to create a perfect society.

Jewish Millennial Expectations

The Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain (Sefarad) for more than 1400 years. In 1391, persecution of the Jews, as well as a series of pogroms, led the Jews to convert in large numbers. Some did so voluntarily, others were forced to convert. Those who did so voluntarily sought the economic and political gains that were available to Christians in the area.

The once thriving Jewish community of Iberia became two antagonistic bodies: the Conversos (those who had converted to Christianity) and Jews that remained faithful to their ancestral beliefs, despite the persecution and their diminished role in Spanish society.

Those who refused to convert were marginalized. They moved to small towns where they could find protection. Some of the Conversos still practiced Judaism in secret while others became faithful Christians. Some were religiously confused and followed neither religion.

Those who remained Jewish became more faithful to Jewish law and traditional practices, giving up the once wide held fascination with Aristotelian thought. (It was the Aristotelian thought that may have made it easy for many to convert to Christianity.)

The growing Jewish interest in Judaism spurred a greater interest in apocalyptic expectations. These were messianic beliefs linked with Kabbalah mysticism and became an important part of 15th century Spanish Judaism.

The Spanish Inquisition appeared in the 1480s with a savage attack against the Conversos. Some Jews supported this attack on the Conversos, which supported the “rightness” of their decision to remain Jewish. (The Jews did not fall under the Inquisitions jurisdiction, but the Conversos, did.) The Inquisition brought with it much distrust among the Conversos and Jews, as well as great instability.

By the 1490s, life for the Jews had deteriorated so significantly that normal life on the peninsula was now impossible. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion which gave Jews 3 months to convert or get out. Half of the Jews converted, the other half went into difficult exile. This was very difficult for the Jews because they thought of Spain as their country and now they were no longer allowed to identify with it.

Many of the wealthier and politically influential Jews were convinced by their Catholic peers to convert. One who refused was Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508). He was one of the main financial advisers to the Catholic monarchs. He was also well-versed in the Torah and had written on planetary conjunctions and their effect on the age.

In choosing exile, he became one of the leading (and richest) intellectuals among the exiled Jews, and he created an elaborate doctrine on the coming of the Messiah. People were told to turn away from rational pursuits and return to a faithful observance of the Torah. He claimed the beginning of the 16th century, which was marked by the expulsion out of Sefarad, ushered in the Jews return to God. Repentance was viewed as a condition of redemption. He said the conflict between the Christians and the Turks (who were Muslim) was a sign of the coming final wars that would usher in the Messiah. This would lead to the restoration of religious life and to the political rehabilitation of Israel. This new Israel was a utopia.

Another messianic leader was Sabbatai Sevi who conducted an apocalyptic mission between 1665-1676. Nathan of Gaza (well-known theologian and Kabbalist) promoted Sabbatai as the long-awaited Messiah and with Sabbatai’s visit to Jerusalem in 1662, a period of intense religious activity began that culminated with his pronouncement that he was the Messiah in 1665. Many Jews sold their possessions and traveled to Palestine to await the end of days. The Jewish disturbances came to the attention of the Ottoman Empire and Sabbatai was imprisoned in 1666. Surprisingly, Sabbatai, converted to Islam. This did not put an end to his Messiahship, however. Many argued that it was a necessary step for the Messiah to become a Converso before redemption of the Jewish people could take place.

There remains an enduring quality of messianic belief among orthodox Jews to this day. It’s difficult to say exactly what the messiah will be – maybe a person, maybe some sort of divine intervention. All those who hold the to a messianic belief likewise believe that Israel plays a unique role in human history. Israel is redemptive.

The Terror of History: Lectures 4-8 (Mysticism)

Intro. to Mysticism

Is mysticism a superior form of grasping reality, or is it just another way to escape the terror of history? It’s not so clear because many of the mystics are very convincing that they have experienced reality.

We in the West have a very deeply ingrained sense of self (“I”). Mystics attempt to move away from the “I” and its demands and try to discover a deeper self. This is done through withdrawal and introspection, which brings about dramatic change that eventually transforms the individual into a new being.

The search involves either immanence or emanation. Emanation says God is on the outside so the mystics journey is upward and outward. Immanence means that God is within so the journey is inward. Most Western mystics practiced Emanation. (Immanence presented the problem of heresy.)

Common symbols of mystics are pilgrimage, love (often in the form of courtly love), and the attainment of perfection,

The mystic undergoes five stages:

  1. Awakening
  2. Self-knowledge/purgation – usually involves a return to the natural self but can also involve various acts of contrition.
  3. Illumination (hearing voices, seeing visions, automatic writing…)
  4. Surrender (dark night of the soul)
  5. Ecstasy (union with God). It is an involuntary act.

Mysticism in the 12th Century

Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen was born around 1098 into an aristocratic family with important political and social connections with the ruling elites in Bingen. She was literate and was well versed in both science and theology. (Most women were not educated in her day.) She made contributions to the medical field and presented what could be called a “feminist interpretation” of scientific evidence. She held an important place in the scientific culture of her day. She also composed music.

She was the first mystic to discuss Eve and Mary and the role of women in the church. She claimed Eve was the true mother of mankind, and that men and women held equal roles in conception. (Remember, this was back in the day when women were considered to be nothing more than incubators of what the man had to offer her.) She had a vision of a mystical pillar which joined Mother Mary to God.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux is one of the most important historical figures of the 12th century. He was born around 1090 and entered Citeaux, the mother house of the Cistercian Order after a spiritual conversion. Citeaux and the Cistercian Order were founded to escape the growing wealth and materialism of the Church. They mimicked the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers.

Bernard argued that freedom was a gift from God and that it requires man to love God completely. (But because our freedom is a gift, we are not free.) There are four stages of love…

  • self-love
  • the love of God
  • the sweetness of the love of God
  • surrender to God

Mysticism in the 13th Century

This was the time of the growth of urban societies and the rise of the bourgeoisie, which created tremendous change. Mass and the liturgy were formalized. Latin, although it was no longer used by the people, became the formal language of mass, and the priest would face the altar, away from the people, deliberately creating a sort of wall between the people and the Church.

Saint Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis was born around 1182. His father was a rich merchant. After being wounded in a war, Francis made a transformation. He was commanded by God to “rebuild his Church” and he took this to mean he was to rebuild the Church of Saint Damian, which he did.

After a public confrontation with his father, Francis removed all of his clothes and gave them to his father, claiming he no longer wanted the association to money his father represented. He traveled through Central Italy, gathering disciples, and gained approval for his Order. (Pope Innocent III had a vision that it was Francis who saved the Church from falling.)

Important messages:

  • Sanctity of poverty and the renunciation of wealth.
  • An awareness of nature and the presence of God in the world.
  • An emphasis on the manger which represents the humanity and vulnerability of Christ.
  • A new type of teaching to “infidels” who need love. (Rather than raging war against them.)

He was betrayed by his order (they agreed to the owning of property and teaching in universities) and so he withdrew to Mt. Verna where he received the stigmata. Shortly afterward, he wrote "The Canticle of the Sun" while waiting to die.

Dante Alighieri.

Dante was born around 1265 to a patrician family in Florence. When he was 9, he had his first encounter with Beatrice which had a profound and lasting impact on his later life. Because of political factors, Dante was exiled from Florence which was extremely difficult for him. His exile led to the writing of La Vita Nuova and later, The Divine Comedy which provides a guide to the culture and politics of medieval Europe and the Italian city-states of the early 14th century. The Comedy is the pilgrimage of a mystic from sin and despair to a vision of God. The end of The Comedy shows a mystical union with God that is deeply influenced by an Aristotelian worldview.

Jewish Mysticism

This lecture focuses on The Zohar, considered to be one of the most important Kabbalistic texts ever written. No one is sure how to date it. Gershom Scholem claims it was written in late 13th century Castile. More religious scholars claim it was an earlier text. (You run into the same problems with the authors of the New Testament. The religious folks tend to date texts earlier than history scholars.)

Scholem says that Jewish mysticism was far less “feminine” than its Christian counterparts. (For instance, the marriage between soul and God do not take place in Judaism as they do in Christianity, no bridal bed, etc.)

The Zohar says the commandments given to Moses are a mixture of confirmation and denial. (Do this, don’t do that.) It also claims the scriptures can be interpreted in 4 ways:

  • peshat (simple interpretation)
  • remez (allusion)
  • derash (homilitic)
  • sod (mysteries behind the words of sacred texts)

The ten sefiroths are a step by step plan for revealing the divine and are arranged hierarchically from God to man.

  • kether – consciousness of God
  • hokhmah – wisdom of God
  • binah – intelligence
  • hesed – God’s love
  • din – judgement
  • tifereth – God’s beauty
  • sefirah – divine victory
  • hod – glory
  • yesod – justice
  • malkuth – the feminine principle

This is a movement from the unknowable to the knowable (the transcendental to the understandable). Man is the focal point by which emanations of God return to God. One returns to God through repentance (teshubah).

Also important is the doctrine of the seven heavens, seven earths, seven earthly paradises, and seven hells.

The Kabbalah had a significant impact on the West, especially upon the Italian Renaissance (and on Dante). The Kabbalah was an esoteric practice meant only for a few initiates, but it spread throughout the Christian world among scholars in the 14th century. Many of the most important scholars in early modern Europe were deeply influenced by the Kabbalah. The power of letters and numbers also took on significance throughout the West which caused the Kabbalah to become linked to a magical tradition.

Mysticism in Early Modern Europe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, developments in learning (especially in the sciences), the emergence of economies of scale, rapid political centralization, and religious conflict undermined the power of the ancient religious traditions. There was a growing interest in detachment from the world and an increase in mystical activity, despite the growing materialism. Many scholars, even though they were scientists, maintained a deep commitment to transcendence and the divine. People everywhere were searching for a spirituality that could counter the growing materialism.

Mysticism during this period was expressed differently by Catholics and Protestants. Protestants tended to be wary of Catholic mysticism and expressed transcendence as a direct experience of God, usually through scripture.

St. Ignatius Loyola.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit society, wrote The Spiritual Exercises which had a strong martial quality.

St. Teresa of Avila.

St. Teresa of Avila, born in 1515 to a family of aristocrats, joined the Carmelite Order which had become a very opulent in her day. She attempted to reform it by making it more ascetic. (The entire Roman Catholic Church was undergoing reform at this time thanks to the Protestant Reformation.) She was hugely influential on the literary world. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for instance, was heavily patterned on Teresa’s story.

St. John of the Cross.

John of the Cross was born in 1542 and wrote Dark Night of the Soul which explains his mystical experiences and acts as a guide to help others lose their sense of self. He says God can be known in 5 ways:

  • through self-knowledge
  • by seeing the world
  • through faith
  • through the via negativa – going beyond the knowable
  • by union with God

Quick Summary

Mysticism in the West provided authority to those who would not otherwise have it, especially women. Also, mysticism was always on the brink of what was considered heretical. There was the continual threat that a mystic would be turned over to the Inquisition or other authority. What was seen as mystical during one period would have been viewed as heretical by a different period because the difference between heretics and mystics was political.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 29-35 – Sufi Mysticism

Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam.  It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam.   No one is quite sure what influenced it, either.  There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism.  Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists.  Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia.  Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that.  Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.

Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions.  This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.

According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq).  The empirical world is not what is most real.  It is illusory.  The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real.  Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real.  This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”.  One must move past appearances to find what is most real.  This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.

The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.

  • knowledge
  • love
  • prayer

The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first.  A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control.  A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.

Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge.   Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis.  There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a.   The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers.  They are very short sayings.  Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah.  Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.

There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries.  With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology.  Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time.  Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries.  It took a while for Europe to catch up.

But there were also tensions in Islam.  Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers.  Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law?  Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge?  Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself?  Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?

There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable?  This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed.  Judgment is on the basis of what humans do.  So how can God be both just and powerful?  Perhaps God must be weak and just?

There were three stances taken on this topic.  The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach.  God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice.  Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word.  The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure.  We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does.  The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason.  Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure.  He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah.  This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.

Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so.  Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies).  Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy.  He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time.  He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095.  Then he became Sufi.  The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”   His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude.  He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind.  Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus  which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation.  Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion.  For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything.  Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real.  Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law).  The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge.  The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.

Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240).  He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time.   He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran.  It is Breathing.  His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters.  He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry.  Rumi’s religion is one of love.  He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history.  The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.

Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan.  It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa.  And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton).  It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics.  The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.

Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253).  He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry.  He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit.  Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity.  The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.

Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom.  He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification.  One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states.  One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you.  Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It.  But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it.  And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything.  Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.”  For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else.  The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is.  One is not simply looking at Realy.  One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.

The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390).  He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah.  Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.

Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…

Islam was in Persia from the start.  Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually.  He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith.  He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist.  “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.”  He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God.  He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.

At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely.  He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis.  His primary interest was esoteric gnosis.  He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry.  As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.

Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism.  There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people.  There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.

Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm.  He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy.  He found a teacher and escaped into the woods.  After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher.  He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression.  It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors.  Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.

Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism.  Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam.  It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world.  At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.

Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism.  Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.

Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old.  She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path.   She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did.  It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.

Idries Shah (1924-1996)  was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master.  He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam.  In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism.   Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion.  He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.

Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated.  Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion.  The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 25 – 20th Century Christian Mystics

Continuing with notes on Christian Mysticism from Dr. Johnson’s Mystical Tradition lecture series

Mysticism flourished in the Middle Ages because the Biblical cosmology assumed at the time provided a coherent reading of the empirical world view.  But then along came the Enlightenment which upset that world view and made it much more difficult for mysticism to flourish.

The Enlightenment created an intellectual upheaval.  First, it claimed that if revelation exists, it must be answerable to the measure of human reason which, by definition, excludes the miraculous.  Second, technological progress had convinced humans that there was a better way of knowing and valuing the world – physics was thought to give a better account of the world than metaphysics.  There is no veil.  What you see IS what you get.  Third, the symbolic world of the Bible was the target of historical inquiry – if the stories of the Bible are not accurate, in what sense are they true?

Besides the intellectual upheaval there was a social and political upheaval as well that led to the collapse of Christendom (the balance between religion and the political order).  A secular, anti-religious state took its place.  Social theory and the social construction of reality take hold.   Society is constructed by human wants and desires, not God.  The theological tendencies within Christianity took on a “this worldly” activist ideal.  Christianity ceased to be about the transformation of the individual and became about the transformation of the world into more righteous, social structures.

Mysticism did manage to continue, and even flourish, in three major forms within Christianity.  In Roman Catholicism, the spiritual life is cultivated among religious and lay people.  Monastic orders have spread throughout the world.  In the U.S. alone, there are 63 Benedictine monastaries and 28 Jesuit Retreat Houses.  In Protestantism, mysticism survived through revivals, tent meetings and faith sharing groups and denominations that have their roots in mysticism (Pentecostal worship, for instance.)  Significant theologians have also emerged whose roots are in mysticism.

Thomas Merton (1915-1963) was a Trappist Monk.  He remained an intellectual but sought the desert experience.  He was profoundly connected with Roman Catholic mysticism but was also deeply modern.  He moved out into the world from his monasticism and sought wisdom from other traditions: Buddhist, Taoist, Sufi, and Christian.  He was truly ecumenical.  He was also active politically.  He believed the contemplative had a critical role to play in society – they were to be like the innocent child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who keeps saying that the Emperor has no clothes, even if it means being condemned as criminals.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was  Jesuit Priest and scientist.  He tried to fuse evolutionary science and faith.  He presented a sort of reversal of Gnosticism.  Gnostics claim that spirit loses itself in matter.  For Teilhard de Chardin, spirit emerges out of matter as it evolves toward ever more complex forms.  Spirit/consciousness arises out of the complexification of matter in accordance with God’s plan, which leads to the development of a cosmic Noosphere (the sphere of human consciousness). The greatest challenge to humanity is therefore moral – will human beings evolve toward unity (God) or toward divisiveness?  Teilhard de Chardin (1965) was also intensely mystical.

And last, but not least, Dr. Johnson presents the first female mystic in the lecture series who wasn’t required to have her writing, ideas and experiences approved by a male confessor… Simone Weil (1909-1943).   Weil was a brilliant philosopher and a political activist.  She was raised in an agnostic Jewish family and identified with the poor and outcast.  She was a Marxist, fought in the Spanish Civil War and worked for a time in a factory.  She engaged in a form of severe fasting which may have been anorexia and died of tuberculosis when she was 34. In 1937, she visited the church where St. Francis had prayed and had a powerful mystical experience.  Similar experiences continued for the rest of her life. This drew her to Catholicism but she refused to get baptized on principle.  Her biggest obstacle to joining the church was an anathema sanctioned by the Church, “may it be cursed”.  As long as the church excludes, she felt she must place herself among the excluded.  Her published work is strikingly similar to Kabbalism.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 18 – 22 – Western Christian Mysticism – Roman Catholicism

Dr. Johnson provides the most lectures for Western Christian Mysticism in his series, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam, because he says it is by far the most diverse.  The more central a religion makes its symbol, the more divisions the religion is going to have. The symbol of Jesus Christ is absolutely central to Christianity, therefore the religion is diverse and often divisive.

Greek had always been the language of the Bible and worship for Christians, but in the west, it was eventually replaced by Latin. Greek in the west, was largely forgotten, which means the traditions associated with the language were also lost. Also, with the fall of the Roman order in the 5th & 6th centuries, the Bishops in Rome became much more centralized and powerful while the power of the Bishops in the east remained regionally based.  Not surprisingly, these changes in the west led to theological and cultural misunderstandings with the east and the result was a schism in 1054. The church was divided into Roman Catholicism in the west and Eastern Orthodoxy in the east.

Monastic Tradition

Thanks to the inspiration of the Desert Fathers, a monastic tradition began in the west.  One of the first was Benedictine Monasticism which was founded by Benedict of Nursia (480-550).  He focused on providing a stable structure for cenobites (those living in monastic communities).  He wanted to strike a balance between “ora et labora” – prayer and work.  He avoided harsh asceticism and said that contemplation was not of value in itself, but rather, common life is of value in itself.

Gregory the Great (540-604) was Pope Gregory I from 590-604.  He was both committed to the monastic life and had mystical experiences.  He wrote, “Scripture is like a river again broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

What typically happens in monasticism is that people live together and grow.  They gain and prosper which makes them lose their radical edge.  That is why monasticism in the west is constantly splitting off into monastic units.  Cistercian monasticism was one of the great reforming traditions.

Bernard of Clairvaoux (1090-1153) is one of the key figures in the spread of Cistercian reform, he was an active sponsor of the Second Crusade, and he helped found the Order of the Knights Templar.  He was also viciously opposed to the development of scholastic theology in the universities (especially Peter Abelard who introduced dialectic into scripture and wanted to make thinking more critical) .  He wrote 86 sermons on The Song of Psalms, and these writings exemplify the emerging mysticism of Western Monasticism which resembled the the interpretation of Jewish Scholars.  Monastic spirituality was primarily about reading scripture historically, allegorically and morally.

William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) sided with Bernard against Abelard.  He provides some of the best examples of an interpretation of scripture known as Lectio Devina.  This was not a scholarly exposition, it was contemplative prayer.

Richard of St. Victor (died in 1173), on the other hand, was more open to Abelard’s approach.  As is true of much of Jewish mysticism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Victor represents the movement of the Western tradition toward an emphasis on the ontological union with God and the constraints of the human mind in regards to this union.

Medieval Female Mystics

I found the lecture on female mysticism in the medieval times a little disturbing.

Female mysticism is essentially lacking in almost every single institutionalized religion that exists – this includes Eastern religions.  You have the occasional female sage, but they are few and far between.  They show up in a big way in Roman Catholicism in the middle ages, possibly because women had learned to play the system.  According to Dr. Johnson, they didn’t voice their thoughts on their own.  Their thoughts had to be approved by male confessors, and these male confessors offered heavy instruction on how their thoughts should be voiced.

Dr. Johnson says the reason women were given a voice in the medieval period is because Christianity is one of the few institutionalized religions that maintains a belief in spirit possession.  This belief allowed the marginal and lowly to assert an authoritative place through the claims of spiritual possession.  Women would have had no say otherwise. Claim spiritual possession and you gain power.

Obviously, these women had to be really careful about what they said and how they said it.  Only women who were virgins or widows were allowed to have any say at all.  According to Dr. Johnson, the celibate life was highly attractive to females in the Medieval Ages because women married around the age of 13 and had lots and lots of kids and eventually died in childbirth.  Married life was short and hard.  This made virginity a desirable option.

Religious life was a female’s only hope of a “profession”.  No other options were available to her.  If you were female and wanted an education, you had to enter into the religious life.  And if you wanted any authority whatsoever, you had to have prophetic visions.  If you were female, the only way you could be heard in a patriarchal society was through prophetic visions.

The most well-known female visionaries came from extremely wealthy households.  Which makes you wonder – maybe these females were politically savvy?  Not to say they didn’t have authentic mystical experiences, but maybe the reason these particular females were heard was because they were either virgins or widows and were savvy to the political game?

In Judaism and Islam, marriage and physical erotic love is viewed as a symbol of mysticism.  The same is true in Buddhism.  So at least women are valued in this sense.  In Western Christianity, physical love is taboo.  Why the shift from the Jewish perspective to the Christian perspective? Why are women so severely marginalized?

In Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert (The Eat, Love, Pray lady),  says marriage itself was viewed as unholy until around 1215, when the Roman Catholic Church realized it wasn’t going to be able to keep people from marrying.  Instead, it claimed authority over marriage and imposed all kinds of rules and regulations to try and control it.  Marriage had been a secular institution monitored by families and civil courts until the Roman Catholic Church claimed it for its own.  Erotic love, however, remains taboo – especially in Roman Catholicism.

What has always bothered me about Catholicism (both eastern and western forms) is not just the refusal to allow for female leaders in the Church, but the apparent hatred toward females in general (especially in Roman Catholicism).  Male spiritual leaders aren’t allowed to get married and the women that are presented as important to the church are forced, in a sense, to speak through men. I suppose Islam suffers from some of the same phobias as Catholicism (although female Imams do exist) but women are extremely influential in Judaism, Buddhism, Protestant Christianity and other World Religions these days. Why not Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? 


A Mendicant is a beggar and this tradition arose within Christianity at the same time Sufi wandering beggars appeared.  The two largest Mendican orders are the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Both contained a second order of females and a third order of lay people and were committed to the radical ideal of evangelical poverty.  Instead of withdrawing from life, members of these orders had a working life among the poor.  These orders thrived because highly energetic, frugal people tend to get rich.  So there was a constant struggle to maintain poverty.  The more institutionalized the orders became, the more they thrived.  This was especially problematic for the Franciscan order which split early on.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is the founder of the Franciscans.  He had a vision of Christ crucified and received the stigmata which he bore for the rest of his life.  He wrote very little.  Much of what we understand about St. Francis comes from Bonaventure (1221-1274) who taught at the University of Paris.  He was a Bishop, Cardinal and great mystic.  Bonaventure creates a theological and mystical compression that links St. Francis’ mysticism to that of the mysticism in the East and Islamic spirituality.  It is an emphasis of the heart (Love of God).  At some point, the mind must give up. There is a leap – a passing over.

Dominican spirituality, on the other hand, is very intellectual.  It was founded by Dominic of Calaruega (1170-1221) and is represented by Thomas Aquinas (1200-1280) and his student Albert the Great (1225-1274), and the Rhineland Mystics: Eckhart von Hocheim (Meister Eckhardt 1260-1328), Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), and Henry Suso (1300-1366).  The Rhineland Mystics were all connected with the University of Paris, they were all from the Rhineland, and they were all very intellectual.

Meister Eckhardt used negative theology like Dionysius.  He was extraordinarily bold which got him into trouble as a heretic.  From 1327-1338, he spent much of his time defending his theology in front of inquisitors that wanted to excommunicate him.   What we find in Eckhardt is a truth that the highest form of mysticism and atheism are very closely related.  God is All is very close to God is Nothing.  God is no “thing” – otherness of God is stretched to the point that God’s isness appears as much as God’s abscence.

Johannes Tauler (1300-1361) was a student of Meister Eckhardt and was Martin Luther’s favorite German theologian.  He managed to soften Meister Eckhardt’s emphasis without rejecting Eckhardt.

Henry Suso (1300-1366) claimed the highest point of the mystical life was not about the individual, it was about God.  In order to become aware of God’s presence in other people, we must allow for the passing away of self.

English Mystics of the 14th Century

The most famous of the mystics at this time was the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.  This is a 14th century masterpiece.  It borrows from Dionysius the Aeropagite, but we know it is a 14th century work because of its prose.  This presents the Apophatic tradition of the East in Western garb.  It claims that it is not knowledge, but desire and love that penetrates into the divine

Julian of Norwich (1342-1423) is thought to be one of the outstanding mystics of the medieval period.  She was a natural metaphysician who moved easily from what “Is” to what has been brought into being.  She is known for her female language for God and for Jesus and has an outstanding way of presenting this female language which allowed her to break the paternal barriers of language.  For instance, she emphasizes the motherhood in God; the motherhood of grace; and the motherhood of work.

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) who wrote The Imitation of Christ is actually from the Netherlands rather than England, but Johnson threw him into this lecture.  Kempis says the meaning of life is to be found in the journey to God.  Suffering is a way to follow in the way of Jesus and involves a personal relationship with Jesus.

Johnson concludes this lecture emphasizing that these writers show us the characteristics of medieval spirituality which is concentrated on the figure/humanity of Jesus.  Jesus IS the way to God.  We don’t get to God by doing what he did, but by accepting, embracing, and living out Jesus’ suffering.

15th & 16th Spanish Mystics

Dr. Johnson claims these are a special group of Christian mystics that came about as part of the counter to the Protestant Reformation. It includes Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and three great mystics…

Francisco de Osuna (1492-1540) is this first of these.  He emphasized the prayer of quiet recollection.  He said the way in is through Christ’s divinity and we come out through his humanity.  His was an experiential mysticism rather than a cognitive mysticism and he had a huge affect on Teresa of Avila who is considered a Doctor of the Church and was part of the Order of Mount Carmel.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) suffered from chronic illness and had a vision of hell which inspired her to create a more vigorous Carmelite order than the order she belonged to.  Most of her life was spent founding communities within this order and teaching.  Teresa made a distinction between “busy prayer” and “quiet prayer” and said that the real proof of maturity in mystical life is the actual behavior of the person who is the mystic.  She said there is a mystical betrothal which is the experience of unity, but this doesn’t last.  What lasts is mystical marriage.

Teresa of Avila was friends with John of the Cross (1542-1591).  With Teresa, he helped found the Discalced Carmelites which was the reform of the Order of Mount Carmel (mentioned above).  He is also considered a Doctor of the Church.  His writing is Apophatic (Nothing, Nothing, Nothing) which is reminiscent of The Cloud of Unknowing.  There is a point in spiritual development when approaching God feels exactly the same as approaching nothing.  He calls this the dark night of the soul.  Union with God is not through knowledge.  Knowledge is “nada, nada, nada” (nothing, nothing, nothing).  It is through the embrace of the heart – the giving of self completely to God in love.