Action Heroes

‘Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain: 1500–1650’
A seventeenth-century painting of Saint Teresa de Ávila

This volume of Bernard McGinn’s monumental history of Western Christian mysticism is the only one to date that has one particular country as its precise focus: Spain in its “Golden Age.” Three long chapters each running to nearly a hundred pages—almost mini monographs—discuss in detail the life and works of Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross. Framing those chapters are introductory discussions of the influence of Renaissance humanism, the reform impulses of religious orders, the importance of forms of mental prayer, the rise and influence of informal communities of (largely) women, and the impact of the Spanish Inquisition. Concluding chapters fill out the trajectory of Christian mysticism in Spain with a particularly fine discussion of the life and writings of that polyglot Augustinian biblical scholar, poet, and spiritual master, Luis de León. León was imprisoned by the Inquisition, but admired by Cervantes.

McGinn is at pains to erase caricatures of Spanish mystics. He not only affirms that Ignatius was a “contemplative in action” but has no hesitancy in affirming the same about Teresa. In doing so, he skirts (or, at least, reframes) the old discussion about contemplation being superior to action—Mary to Martha—a topic already reflected on by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. One could say the same about John of the Cross, since as a modern biographer has noted, John tramped hundreds of kilometers in his efforts to reform the Spanish Carmelite friars. McGinn is equally balanced in his observations about the “dark nights” so central to John’s thinking. He shows that those “nights” must be read dialectically against John’s affirmations about the apex of mystical experience rooted in the living flame of love. Finally, in his sensitive readings of these texts, McGinn shows how they reflected the tradition that came before (he has the advantage of having inspected that tradition so thoroughly) while also remaining sensitive to the particularities of the historical situation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He has grave reservations about those who seek Islamic sources for John of the Cross’s thinking and practice. Finally, McGinn points out that the major works of Teresa and John must be seen in the context of their efforts to reform the Carmelites. Their works were attempts to advance the life of prayer so that their members might more perfectly adhere to the life they had chosen. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises was a text not to be read but performed under direction for the greater glory of God. 

Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises was a text not to be read but performed under direction for the greater glory of God. 

In order to advance his entire project, McGinn has had to focus exclusively on his main subject, which is the nature of mysticism in the Christian West (in Volume 1 he has an extensive discussion about his method and his presuppositions). To do that he must keep his scholarly gaze on the subject at hand: How is the presence of God detected in the texts that the Tradition has bequeathed to us? We may read John of the Cross in light of the art of the time (El Greco or Zurbarán), but given the goals of McGinn’s larger project he cannot afford such cultural asides. What he has done in this volume, as in earlier ones, is to read texts closely and sympathetically, paying special attention to how God’s presence is reflected in the metaphors used by the authors. I have read these books with my students over the years and can testify that McGinn’s readings are consistently illuminating and an invaluable guide to one’s own reading of these spiritual classics.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the figures discussed in this volume for the subsequent history of Christian spirituality. Ignatian insistence on developing contemplatives in action had a profound impact on everything from education to mission theory and practice in the early modern (and contemporary) Catholic world. In a different fashion, it is clear that the export of Teresian spirituality to France at the end of Teresa’s life was a foundation stone for the rise of the so-called French School of Spirituality. Finally, with increasing awareness that the rift between theology and spirituality needs healing, McGinn’s work has taken on increased significance. Like all the previous volumes in The Presence of God, this one is a model of how serious scholarship should be done. 


Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain: 1500–1650
The Presence of God Volume 6

Bernard McGinn
Herder & Herder/Crossroad, $74.95, 500 pp.

Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: 

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Things Seen and Unseen: A Catholic Theologian's Notebook (Ave Maria Press).

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