The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism


Bernard McGinn

Crossroad, $70, 721 pp.


Bernard McGinn’s The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism is the fifth volume of a projected seven-volume history of Western Christian mysticism. This encyclopedic undertaking is one of the most impressive works of scholarship by an American Catholic theologian in the past few decades. In the opening volume of the series, The Foundations of Mysticism (1991), McGinn argued at length that mysticism (a modern word) should be construed as a deepening sense of the presence of God in a person’s life and could be studied by careful analysis of texts that are not always patently autobiographical. As he notes about Jan van Ruusbroec in this volume, a sense of God’s presence is open to every Christian through the “life of prayer and the sacraments, the practices of the virtues, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism examines late medieval mysticism in the Low Countries, Italy, and England. The key word in the title is “vernacular” because it is precisely in this period that we find spiritual writers—both lay and religious, both men and women—addressing a readership that lacks either the taste or the education for the works of theology then being read at universities. Indeed, as McGinn points out more than once, it is in this period that a separation between “spirituality” and “theology” becomes more detectable, a separation lamented in our time by scholars such as Hans Urs von Balthasar.

There are substantial chapters on three paradigmatic figures (Ruusbroec, Catherine of Siena, and Richard Rolle), but McGinn is too sophisticated to think that any one of them sums up the period as a whole. He carefully shows what these various writers inherited from the past, how they reflected the exigencies of their own period, and, finally, which of their insights have reached through the centuries to our own day. Introducing the English mystics, McGinn summarizes the issues of interest throughout the Christian world during the late-medieval period: relationship between the active and the contemplative life; the emphasis on the humanity of Christ and on his Passion; the tension between “unknowing” (apophasis) and “knowing” (kataphasis) in prayer; the connection between knowing and loving God; the increased emphasis on affectivity; and the increasing importance of discernment, especially at a time when an extraordinary number of religious visions were being reported. Among the writers McGinn considers, the proposed solutions were often very different, but many of the concerns were the same.   

Educated readers will meet some familiar friends in this study: Thomas à Kempis, Catherine of Siena, the Cloud author, Julian of Norwich, and of course Dante. McGinn, not content with standard authors, also writes in detail about authors and texts that will be new to most nonspecialists. He gives full attention to the large number of women writers who were at work during this period but have been largely overlooked until recently.

When McGinn cites a text, he provides the untranslated original in the notes. The book also includes an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. As a consequence of this editorial care, interested readers get not only a comprehensive overview of the authors in question but also a valuable resource for further study. Thus, one can read both this volume and the one that came before it either as a continuous narrative or as an authoritative reference work. One hopes McGinn’s energy will not flag as he finishes last two volumes of this magnum opus.


Francis of Assisi

The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint

André Vauchez

Yale University Press, $35, 416 pp.

Every biographer of St. Francis of Assisi faces the dual challenge of avoiding the sentimental picture of the Poor Man of Assisi as a sort of medieval Dr. Doolittle and untangling the many sources of information about the saint’s life, which are often laced with hidden polemics and unacknowledged theological agendas. The distinguished French medievalist André Vauchez meets the challenge with great success in Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint. Not only is he judicious with respect to sources, but he is also conversant enough with the medieval world to resist the temptation to see Francis as a solitary flower blooming in a desert of medieval credulity and corruption.

Vauchez divides his book into four large parts. The first is a biography of Brother Francis; the second explains how Brother Francis became St. Francis only two years after his death. In part three Vauchez tells how Francis was received in the turbulent centuries after his death, as the Franciscan movement attempted to interpret the “true” mind of its founder. We also learn how Francis and what he represented was rejected, first by the Reformers and later by Enlightenment thinkers, only to be rediscovered and rehabilitated by the nineteenth-century Romantics. Vauchez has some fine pages on how Paul Sabatier’s late-nineteenth-century biography of the saint, which argued that the Roman Curia hijacked Francis’s evangelical impulses by turning his movement into a religious order, first raised the so-called Franciscan Question, which is still being discussed in current scholarship.

The final section of this estimable work ponders the originality of Francis’s thought and the character of his charism, with perceptive reflections on his pertinence in our own day. The best thing about this section is the nuanced way Vauchez addresses the inevitable tension between charism and institution. His reflections help us understand how it’s possible to see Francis both as a figure whose appeal seems to transcend Catholicism and as a saint who was completely faithful to the church.

In my opinion, this is the single best book about Francis now available in English, distinguished by both its scholarly fairness and its comprehensiveness. Yale University Press wisely chose Michael Cusato, himself a Franciscan friar and a fine scholar, to translate the book from the French original, and he demonstrates a mature feel for its historical and theological vocabulary. This past year also saw the publication of Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi (Cornell University Press), which I have praised elsewhere. Thompson’s book is much more narrowly focused, presenting a straightforward life of the saint that draws on a strict reading of the sources. It is a good book, but Vauchez must be given the crown. Both books remind us that a person like Francis provides us with an excess of meaning. And they come just in time for the first Pope Francis, whose choice of names has already inspired much interpretation.


Tasting Heaven on Earth

Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople

Walter D. Ray

Eerdmans, $28, 138 pp.

Walter D. Ray’s book about the Hagia Sophia—once a great church, now a mosque—is part of a series of studies on the context of Christian worship, under the general editorship of John Witvliet. If the other projected volumes are as ample and pedagogically sound as this one, the series will be a great boon not only to students in a classroom setting but to anyone who wants to experience the flesh and bones of the theology of worship.

The opening section of this handsome volume sets Byzantine liturgy in its proper landscape. The next section describes the materials used in worship at the Hagia Sophia, from vessels to sacred art. It then presents the actual architecture of Hagia Sophia, with the help of detailed drawings. The section ends with a description of the order of worship, sample sermons, and the eucharistic prayer(s) used in the liturgy. The selection of primary sources is generous, the commentary succinct. The reader has everything he needs to make sense of the mountain of information Ray offers. The book concludes with suggestions for discussion, a glossary of terms, and suggestions for further reading. Eerdmans is to be congratulated for producing such a user-friendly volume at such a reasonable price. The only thing that might improve this series would be the inclusion of a CD, so that readers could hear samples of the music that accompanied worship in places such as the Hagia Sophia.

An ancient text from around 1000 AD claims that Russia became Orthodox when emissaries to Byzantium returned to describe the splendor of worship in Constantinople, where they claimed to have seen angels ascending and descending under the great dome of the Hagia Sophia. This fine study helps us get a glimmer of the beauty these ancient travelers found there.


The Life of the Virgin

Maximus the Confessor

Translated by Stephen J. Shoemaker

Yale University Press, $35, 215 pp.

The seventh-century Greek The Life of the Virgin, sometimes attributed to Maximus the Confessor, was, until this English edition published by Yale University Press, available only in French and Old Georgian. Stephen J. Shoemaker has provided us not only with the translation but also with a thorough introduction to the whole work. The Life of the Virgin must once have been popular in Byzantine circles since Shoemaker is able to provide a matching schedule of liturgical readings used in the eleventh century by the monks of Mar Saba in the Holy Land.

I will leave it to the experts to argue about whether this book should still be ascribed to Maximus (von Balthasar evidently thought so). Whatever its authorship, this is a valuable work for anyone concerned with the development of the Marian cult in Christianity. As Shoemaker points out, this text is the first to put Mary in a prominent role in the public life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Most earlier accounts simply “bookended” his life with hers rather than weaving them together. In this text Mary is “portrayed as having a uniquely authoritative knowledge” of her son’s teaching, as well as having a leadership role, along with James, in the church in Jerusalem after the Ascension. Perhaps this portrayal is to be attributed to the author’s fecund imagination, but it also invites further study in order to discover what it owes to other apocryphal sources and ancient traditions.

The Life of the Virgin is a specialist work but hardly inaccessible to a theologically literate person with an interest in history. I congratulate both Yale and the author for this important addition to the literature on the woman this text calls “all holy, incorruptible, and most blessed queen, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary.”


This is the last installment of Religion Booknotes, a column I’ve been writing for more than twenty-five years. The task has hardly been onerous. On the contrary, it’s provided a hospitable outlet for my serious addiction to reading. Every valedictory worthy of its name should end in gratitude, and so: Thanks to the editors for reining in my errant prose; to the supporters of this excellent journal who take pride in being “Commonweal Catholics”; and to the community of writers who keep producing works worthy of attention. May all three tribes flourish!

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: View Contents
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