Harvey D. Egan, SJ Boston College

January 5, 2022

Over the years I have had the difficult but rewarding task of reviewing six volumes
of the most authoritative, commanding, synoptic, single-authored history of the
Western mystical tradition in any language. Bernard McGinn wisely divides the sixth
volume of his series—which comprises both a “monastic layer” and the new vernacular
mysticisms—into three fascicles: the first on mysticism in the Reformation, the
second and present volume on Spain’s Golden Age of mysticism, and a soon to be
published tome on the seventeenth-century French mystics. The final, seventh volume
will center on crises and renewal in mysticism—especially the Quietist controversy,
the Enlightenment, papal condemnations, and twentieth-century renewal.
Contradicting widely held views, M. views Ignatius as a reformer of sorts, but less
concerned with reforming church institutions than with transforming believers, ministering
to the poor, and educating youth. However, he did boldly write that if the
pope were to reform himself, his household, and the cardinals of Rome, everything
else would subsequently fall into place. Also, in contradistinction to popular conceptions,
M. underscores Ignatius’s profound mystical life and uses the term “apostolic
mysticism” to bring together the trinitarian, christocentric, ecclesial, priestly, and
other aspects of Ignatius’s mysticism. (The relative absence of the Holy Spirit in
Ignatius’s writings is due perhaps to the Inquisition’s suspicions of the Alumbrados,
a phenomenon M. treats with precision.)
Also salient is the paradox of a milieu marked not only by an Inquisitional suspicion
of interior spirituality but also by the bitter conflicts between and within the
religious orders that produced many mystical geniuses. M. rightly emphasizes that
Ignatius’s spiritual “tear” diary is one of the purest examples of direct reporting of
mystical experiences in Christian history and that the Spiritual Exercises is one of this
history’s most significant works. Although the Exercises do not say much about service
to others, they are a powerful means of effecting conversion through the interiorization
of the Christian life with an emphasis on discernment and finding God’s will.

But Ignatius’s Constitutions do shift the focus away from one’s personal salvation to
the perspective of apostolic love and service to all.
I was surprised to learn that Jesuit General Edward Mercurian forbade Jesuits from
teaching affective prayer and the prayer of quiet. Mercurian’s gross misunderstanding
of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises presupposed that intellectual meditation was more
Ignatian. His view contributed to the popular but incorrect notion that the Jesuits
opposed contemplative prayer whereas they were often mystics and guided many into
the deepest levels of mystical prayer.
M. focuses on Teresa of Avila as an ecstatic and also as an apostolic mystic. She
developed a theology that fused contemplation and action as the distinction of the
highest stage of union with God. Teresa may be unparalleled in the Christian tradition
for the precision of her descriptions of the psychosomatic effects that resulted from
her life of prayer. One example: she distinguished between the “spirit” aspect of her
being, which was always in contact with the Trinity and Christ (the contemplative
Mary), and the “soul” aspect that permitted her to undertake vigorous apostolic activity
(the active Martha).
Teresa understood mystical “experience” as knowing something in a vital and
holistic manner, analogous to the way experienced drivers instinctively drive their
cars. Although she preferred an experienced and learned confessor for herself and her
nuns, lacking that, a learned one with a “certain something” would do just fine. Teresa
rejected the naïve understanding of the deepest form of union as one characterized by
ecstasies, raptures, delights, and other secondary mystical phenomena. It was rather in
deeds done for one’s own spiritual growth and the good of others. Yet, is not Christian
mysticism a charism without which the deepest love of God and neighbor is
Because of her unusual vow of obedience to her friend and director Jerónimo
Gracián, Teresa described their relationship as a spiritual marriage. Moreover, she
was much less influenced by John of the Cross and more by Augustine on whose
Confessions she modeled many of her works. She tested everything she wrote by the
biblical witness and her learned theological advisers to become the first woman to
write with the Inquisition in mind. Her shrewd outmaneuvering of their toxic masculinity
and that of ecclesiastics and secular bureaucrats is impressive. M. rightly dismisses
the view that Teresa’s illnesses, diabolical attacks, and ecstasies were the
expressions of some degenerative pathology. Instead, they were the side effects of the
transformation of her consciousness from the selfish ego of Dona Therese to Teresa
of Jesus, the apostolic mystic. She also insisted that even in the highest stages of
mystical prayer one should practice a non-discursive presence of Christ, find oneself
in him, and savor the mysteries of his life through a simple gaze—analogous to
Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises that teach the exercitant to render the Christian mysteries
M. stresses that to understand the somewhat austere “all and nothing” mentality of
John of the Cross, it is imperative to read his works in the context of the awesome
descriptions of the deepening of loving union with God described in his masterpiece
on mystical marriage, The Living Flame of Love—a work to be read before attempting

his more intimidating work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel—The Dark Night. The hollowing-
out process described in the Ascent—Night must be understood in terms of the
being-filled-with-God process described in The Living Flame. John’s goal: a union
with God such that a person may reach out divinely to the enjoyment of all earthly and
heavenly things, with a general freedom of spirit in them all.
Remarkable is the fact that John’s cruel imprisonment unlocked his creativity.
Often overlooked, the nine romances, prison poems in imitation of contemporary ballads,
are perhaps the best source for the doctrine that underlies his teaching. They
indicate that his mysticism is rooted in the fundamental doctrines of Trinity, creation,
Incarnation, and theological anthropology. M. underscores that it is unnecessary to
choose between John the poet and John the commentator because his poetry and commentary
are two sides of the same coin. Still, they remain secondary, fallible instruments
for the inexpressible communication of love.
I agree with M. that John held a Scotistic view of the Incarnation, namely, that the
Father intended the Son’s incarnation as the goal and purpose of his creative love and
not because of sin. Since creation is beautiful when seen from God’s perspective, its
true beauty and meaning can be appreciated only by those who have rejected the
beauty of creatures taken in themselves. M. correctly contends that John’s mystical life
was the confirmation of what was taught by Scripture and the church and not exotic
experience. M. likewise maintains that it is incorrect to accuse him (or any genuine
Christian mystic) of basically altering the relation between experience and doctrine, or
being primarily concerned with some form of mystical experimentation.
Rather than causing sweetness and delight, God’s loving inflow into the soul—
which John calls both “infused contemplation” and “mystical theology”—instead produces
pain and suffering only because of the soul’s weakness and sinfulness. When the
mystic has attained psychosomatic integration, his soul is like a perfectly clean window
through which light passes, making it seem as if the light and the window are one.
John also wrote that the soul no longer wants a vision of God’s back, which Moses
saw, but desires the vision of his face, the essential communication of the divinity to
the spark of the soul. This transforming union between the two natures and the communication
of the divine to the human is such that even though neither change their
being, both appear to be God.
John teaches that once persons arrive at perfect union with God they should not
become involved in exterior works that might be of the slightest hindrance to the attentiveness
of love for God, even though the work be of great service to God. In short,
John clearly views bridal sleep, contemplative love, as an apostolic activity. I concur
with M. that John seems to teach that grace must cancel or, perhaps better said, suspend
nature if it is to have the ability eventually to restore the harmony of the human
person. Some kind of annihilation of the current state of the created soul is the only
way to guarantee its restoration through the grace of spiritual marriage. I prefer to
employ Rahner’s theory of sublation because human nature as obediential potency is
open to even the Word becoming flesh and taking human nature to its highest level.
I appreciate M.’s rejection of any form of reductionism in studying the mystics. For
example, although he stresses that in every respect the dark night is an objective

theological category, it nonetheless has an effect in the subject’s consciousness and is
therefore open to psychological investigation. Thus, while both depression and the
dark night are similar experiences of loss of identity, from the standpoint of prognosis
they differ.
M. highlights Tomás de Jesus’s definition of “Christian contemplation as a simple
gaze at truth that proceeds from love and charity” (374) and views him as the first to
define “acquired contemplation.” He explained it as a sincere and loving knowledge
of the triune God and his effects gained by our own efforts and thus open to all
Christians. Thus, Tomás is a representative of the new science of mysticism.
The fascinating Augustinian mystic Luis de León emphasized the role of both
earthly and heavenly music in lifting the soul to God. His strongly somatic view of
union and his cosmic mystical poems earn him a well-deserved place in the pantheon
of great mystics. The “loving anxiousness” of the Portuguese mystic Joana de Jesus
deserves mentioning both because of her creative approach to “recollection” and her
emphasis on “loving anxiousness.” When meditating on the passion, her christocentric
love resulted in a constricting anxiousness and a disquieting, desirous yearning so
excessive that she felt herself dying.
The term recollection (recogimiento) is central to the understanding of sixteenthcentury
Spanish mysticism. It is a physical withdrawal of the individual to a quiet and
secret place, but at the same time is both a gathering within of the powers of the soul
and a contemplation of God in the profoundest and most intimate part of the soul.
Interior affective prayer “thinks nothing” (ne pensar nada) but requires labor and technique—
a form of recollection in which the soul enters into itself (“the secret place”)
and rests in God’s presence, which affectively and effectively raises soul above all that
is not God. Nothing must be admitted other than the soul’s essential substance, so that
it alone may occupy itself in pure, naked, and unitive love. Yet Francisco de Osuna and
others distanced themselves from “abandonment” (dejamiento), a proto-quietism with
similarities to recogimiento.
I have long disputed with some scholars that one must distinguish between a mystic
and a visionary. Given the political, didactic, and localized message that visionaries
receive from their apparitions—as well as their lack of interest in personal and social
transformation—such people are not mystics. Of course, there were many mystics
who had transformative visions.
M.’s synthetic-analytic prowess in delineating mystics in their historical context
accounts for his volumes being definitive. If a manuscript dealing with the Western
mystical tradition that I am requested to evaluate contains no evidence of M.’s work, I
rarely suggest that it be published. Finally, without denying the fecundity of others in
the Christian mystical tradition, I can easily understand why Teresa of Avila and John
of the Cross are often held to be the mystical teachers against whom all others are to
be measured.

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