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.
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.