Book Review: The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism
My wife and I just finished a conversation wherein we both commented that we think Bernard McGinn is a phenomenal guy. Not just thinker, writer, theologian, etc. From everything we can discern from the little we’ve read from him, we just think he’s got to be a wonderful human being and a fine Christian.
The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (2006) just seems to reinforce this. His writing is clear and flows well while his inclusion of such a diversity of material demonstrates his phenomenal grasp of a wide range of historical figures (I suppose that’s not entirely surprising for a man who works in historical theology). But this is supposed to be more about the book than the man, so I’ve digressed before I’ve even begun.
I’ll start the discussion on the book with a quick confession: I haven’t finished reading the thing. Note, it’s an anthology, so I may never read through its entirety. I normally wouldn’t find an anthology particularly noteworthy except for two relevant aspects of it. First, the breadth of the collection is astonishing. Each selection is only about 3 to 7 pages, so they’re not complete texts by any means, but there are probably 90 selections from more than half that many different sources. McGinn’s choices are wide ranging to say the least and extensive. Second, most anthologies of historical texts tend to be organized chronologically, and McGinn comments in his introduction that he has been working on another text organized in this fashion. This book, however, is organized by three major headers (Foundations of Mystical Practice, Aspects of Mystical Consciousness, and Implications of the Mystical Life) and a number of sub-divisions within each. Other anthologies have attempted to collect selections topically, though I often find the choices to be rather arbitrary. McGinn’s work to separate them out into so many different aspects of the discipline and to do so meticulously makes the book’s organization feel far more sensible and understandable than most, allowing one to discern what is most interesting or valuable with little trouble, or if one is more interested in reading directly through the text, the topical organization seems to keep the line of thought and reasoning clear as you move along. In addition, the very last sub-division is one on Contemplation and Action, which is just an excellent reminder and a fine place to end on a topic that can easily degrade into passivity and self-absorption.
I like the text. If you’re curious about Christian mysticism, this is a pretty decent place to start. Admittedly, the selections themselves are often complex, but McGinn has chosen a number of very good and modern translations, occasionally editing them himself for clarity, which makes the reading as reachable as possible. And while I may disagree with some of the messages of the texts themselves (I always feel a little uneasy around Meister Eckhart) , I’ve little qualms about the collection.