‘Lived from the Heart’: an interview with Bernard McGinn, part two

By Kenneth L. Woodward, 29 January 2022
Image: Joe Yates/Unsplash


Catholic Outlook recently shared Part One of an interview with renowned scholar Bernard McGinn. In Part One, McGinn spoke of the call of all Christians to mysticism, explored the lives of Mother Teresa and St Paul, and clarified that God exists in a realm beyond our own human comprehension.

Part Two of the interview is presented below.


KW: We talked earlier about Mother Teresa as a mystic. But what people remember most about her are her actions. It’s hard to picture mystics as activists.

BM: Most of the great mystics are also supremely active when you think about it.

KW: Give me some examples.

BM: Augustine is one of the founding fathers of Christian mysticism. He is also an extremely busy bishop of Hippo. He is an important writer and doctrinal figure, combating heresy, running his diocese, doing all sorts of things. Or take someone like Teresa of Ávila. She founded seventeen different Carmelite houses in Spain against great opposition. The best mystics are also the best activists, in a certain sense. They use their mystical sense of God’s presence as the wellspring for their tremendous apostolic activities. The mystic who only retreats to the mountaintop or the desert is actually the odd person out.

Augustine is one of the founding fathers of Christian mysticism. He is also an extremely busy bishop of Hippo. He is an important writer and doctrinal figure, combating heresy, running his diocese, doing all sorts of things. Or take someone like Teresa of Ávila. She founded seventeen different Carmelite houses in Spain against great opposition. The best mystics are also the best activists, in a certain sense. They use their mystical sense of God’s presence as the wellspring for their tremendous apostolic activities. The mystic who only retreats to the mountaintop or the desert is actually the odd person out.

KW: You have argued that all baptized Christians are called to the mystical consciousness of God, but in your history of Christian mysticism it’s mainly monastics you write about.

BM: It’s true I write about many monastics, but that’s not the whole story. Monasticism is a special movement, originating at the end of the third century, one that provided a kind of institutional matrix within which mysticism could flourish as part of a tradition that is handed down and carried forward to this day, particularly in periods of social and political turmoil. It was within the monasteries that most of the faithful practice, most of the learning, and most of what we could call the mystical tradition continued to exist down through the twelfth century.

KW: Isn’t that because most Christians outside the monasteries couldn’t read or write?

BM: Yes, 90, maybe 95 percent of educated Christians in the early Middle Ages were in the monasteries. So most of the major mystics from the fifth to twelfth centuries are monastics—have to be, almost by definition.

KW: What changed in the thirteenth century?

BM: Four things. First, mysticism gradually moves beyond the level of the educated clergy and monastics to involve the whole Christian community. It’s more democratic. Second, it’s more secular—that is, it’s out in the world, no longer just in the monasteries. It’s in the marketplaces. It’s in the new mendicant orders, chiefly the Franciscan and Dominican friars, who are preaching to the people in the towns. It’s also moving into the vernacular. Before 1200, almost everything is in Latin, or in Greek in the East. After that, mystical literature spreads into all the new vernaculars: French, German, Dutch, Italian, English.

KW: What about the women mystics?

BM: In the thirteenth century, for the first time educated women began to write mystical literature, though a couple of women like Hildegard of Bingen wrote earlier. From this time on, women, if they’re going to make a theological contribution, make 98 percent of it through mystical literature. This begins the age of the great women mystics that continues into the seventeenth century, with various permutations. That’s the fourth change.

KW: If I read the male mystics alongside the female mystics, what am I going to notice that’s different about the women’s texts?

BM: You’re going to notice differences of nuance, but you’re not going to notice a basic contrast. There’s a continuing interaction between male and female mystics from this time onwards. As [Medieval historian] Caroline Walker Bynum has shown, there are some different attitudes between men and women, for instance, in their relation to the role of food and blood in the spiritual life. Many female mystics have distinctive traits here, but these are shared by some male mystics. So, it is difficult to say that anything is distinctive just of women or just of men. You can say that certain women tend to use motifs, images, and some theological doctrines in different ways than men do, but there’s no stark contrast to my mind. You can talk about women who are mystics, but I would not talk about “women’s mysticism.”

KW: Is the bridal imagery in the mystical love poetry of St. John of the Cross an example of male-female mystical interaction?

BM: Yes, and bridal mysticism is very strong in Bernard of Clairvaux, among others. Remember, the soul is feminine in these languages, so they can identify their inner self or soul as a bride in love with the celestial bridegroom. That’s part of the tradition. In mysticism, I like to talk about gender malleability. Gender isn’t as fixed among mystics as it is in society in general. In the mystical tradition, there’s a gender fluidity, and men can identify as being women and women can identify as being men. Hadewijch of Antwerp, the great thirteenth-century Flemish mystic, talks about herself as a questing knight in pursuit of God, a male categorization.

KW: In the last volume of your history of Christian mysticism you describe the seventeenth century as a time of crisis. What was the crisis?

BM: It was the culmination, building from the thirteenth century on, of tensions between some teachers of mystical piety who pushed the envelope of orthodoxy and those in the Church responsible for maintaining it—bishops, popes, Church councils.

KW: Who were some of the envelope-pushers?

BM: Early on, some of them were Beguines, women who belonged to independent and generally small communities, who were trying to live an apostolic life. This was one of the important innovations of the New Mysticism of the period after 1200. Many of the famous women mystics of the thirteenth century—such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch of Antwerp—were Beguines. By 1312 we find the Council of Vienne condemning the “free spirit” mystics among the Beguines for making claims to absolute liberty. Did they actually do so? Perhaps, perhaps not. Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine, was condemned and burned at the stake in 1310 for disseminating her mystical book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. Still, it was widely read in the later Middle Ages and has become popular again today. Meister Eckhart gets condemned after his death for certain articles that the pope says are close to the errors of the Beguines. And in the sixteenth century there were the condemnations of people in Spain called the alumbrados, the “enlightened ones,” whom the Spanish Inquisition saw as dangerous people because they appealed to inner illumination so strongly that they seemed to deny obedience to external authority.

KW: I would think that, beginning with the Gnostics and moving forward through Christian history, there would always be a tension between private and interior illuminations and the Church as a public and external society.

BM: Yes, there are inherent tensions, but this doesn’t always lead to open conflict. I’ve described Gnosticism as the first great Christian mystical heresy. Many of the things that the Gnostics were appealing to, such as special forms of interior experience, were probably not conformable to the external practices of the Church. What was even more dangerous was their esotericism—“I’ve got the true religion and the rest of the believers don’t have it.” This is one of the great dangers in Christianity. Because the truth is given to the whole baptized community, no special group has a unique access to it.

KW: Is that the problem you refer to as “the crisis of mysticism”?

BM: It’s part of the deep background. What happens is that the tensions between mysticism and Church authority building through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries explode at the end of the seventeenth into a real down-and-out fight between Church leaders and certain mystics in Spain and Italy and especially France, who get condemned under the rubric of “Quietism.” That was the name given to various movements that so stressed the need for passivity in one’s spiritual life that all activity, whether of prayer or asceticism, seems undervalued or even rejected. Some of the Quietists may have gone this far, but certainly not all who were condemned.

KW: Then why the explosion?

BM: Because the situation had changed. I think that the Enlightenment papacy, plus a kind of rigidification of doctrine, no longer allowed enough room for the interior religion that we find in many mystical authors, including some of unimpeachable orthodoxy. So, the result is the condemnation of Quietism, and after that mysticism was pushed to the margins. Then, for two centuries in the Western Christian Catholic tradition, there’s little serious mysticism until its revival in the late nineteenth century. That’s the crisis. It’s not a stop sign, but it is a caesura in the history of the classic mystical tradition.

KW: Well, you put a stop sign in the seventeenth century to your seven-volume history. Why there?

BM: Mainly because I just don’t think there were very many important Catholic mystics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time when mysticism was marginalized by the institutional and intellectual life of the Church. Most of the mystics we hear of—like Anna Katherina Emmerich [1774–1824]—were simple women stage-managed by clerical Svengalis who wrote down their visionary experiences. But there were a lot of Protestant mystics during this time.

KW: Really! I always thought Protestants rejected mysticism as a Catholic thing.

BM: The reason that people think Protestantism had no mysticism is because there was a school in nineteenth-century German theology, represented especially by Albrecht Ritschl [1822–89], who said mysticism and Protestantism are like oil and water: you’ve got to keep them separate. Hence, they thought there were no Protestant mystics. But Protestant scholars today, especially the Lutherans, admit that mysticism is important to the Protestant tradition.

KW: Was, say, Martin Luther a mystic?

BM: Not in any traditional sense. But mystical traditions inform much of his theology. He loved Bernard of Clairvaux and Gregory the Great. He read and appreciated John Tauler, a follower of Meister Eckhart. He loved the mystical text he called the Theologica Deutsch. These formed his view of Jesus and his view of obedience to Jesus, and also his stress on the necessity for the Christian to undergo dereliction and affliction.

KW: His notion of “the hidden God” sounds like a mystical idea.

BM: Yes, the fact that God hides himself is a theme that runs through the great Christian mystics. That’s part of the whole apophatic tradition. So, it is no surprise that in the Lutheran tradition there are many mystics—Johann Arndt [1555–1621], author of the spiritual classic True Christianity, is a good example. And in the radical Reformation of the sixteenth century there are numerous mystics. Anabapist Hans Denck and Lutheran Valentine Weigel are two of the influential figures. There are also strong mystical elements in the Protestant Pietist movements that emerged in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Pietists stressed interior religion, the religion of the heart, as opposed to doctrines and external norms. Their descendants eventually formed communities in the American colonies. George Fox [founder of the Quakers] certainly was a mystic. So there’s a strong mystical element in Protestantism, not least in the free-church tradition.

KW: What about the English Reformation?

BM: Anglicanism is filled with great mystics—especially mystical poets of the first rank like George Herbert and Thomas Traherne. Methodism also comes out of Protestant Pietism and is influenced in that way. John Wesley read classic mystics like Teresa of Ávila, and he also wrote books about the mystics in which he edited them to make them conform to his own theological ideas.

KW: You haven’t mentioned anyone from the Reformed tradition.

BM: Calvin was deeply critical of mysticism in a way that Luther was not. The fact that Calvin was so anti-mystical, I think, makes mysticism marginal in the Reformed tradition.

KW: If you discovered the fountain of youth, or at least a fountain of energy, how many more periods of mysticism would you delineate?

BM: Well, I am writing a book called An Introduction to Some Modern Mystics. I think there is an important modern mysticism that begins in late nineteenth century and grows exponentially in the twentieth century on into the twenty-first, both in terms of new mystical teachers of great importance—Thérèse of Lisieux is a good example of an early one in this period—and new forms of mystical life.

KW: What’s modern in the mysticism of Thérèse of Lisieux?

BM: I think she has a unique new form of mysticism in her Little Way, a way that is open to all Christians, not just for vowed religious like herself. It’s a recognition that it’s not the great way—the highway of Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross whom she was reading. Instead, it’s an acceptance of her own limitations with a stress on humility as the way to come into close contact with God, to allow God to act in us because of our littleness. That’s not a totally new message in Christianity. Christians have always said that humility is absolutely essential for mysticism, but Thérèse’s sense of her littleness and her humility as the only way that she is going to be able to find God—I think that’s definitely a new emphasis within the context of the modern world.

KW: What’s your assessment of more recent figures, like Thomas Merton?

BM: Merton is such a wide-ranging figure that he is hard to summarize. But some of his books, like New Seeds of Contemplation and Bread in the Wilderness are deeply mystical books. He rediscovered much of the Christian contemplative tradition and put it in conversation with mystical traditions from other faiths. Simone Weil is another recent figure. I think she had a very deep mystical life. In her notebooks, she talks about a kind of experience that she had of the presence of Christ. As I recall, she says: “He came to see me in my garret room and we talked,” and you can tell that this is some kind of direct experience of Christ. In a similar way she said she had experienced God as she was praying the Our Father with real attention—a key word in her thought.

KW: It seems to me that the whole Hasidic tradition, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov in the late eighteenth century, is mystical.

BM: Agreed.

KW: Here’s a quote from one of his modern disciples, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In every man’s life, there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal. We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense, or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell. And when applying our ear to its lips, we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.” Was Heschel a modern mystic?

BM: From what I’ve read of him he is one of the great modern mystics.

KW: You’ve studied mysticism in Judaism and Islam. What do Christian mystics have in common with mystics in those traditions?

BM: We believe in the one God, although we name God in different ways. More particularly, I’ve written some essays on comparative mysticism. I usually work with Christianity and Judaism, to a lesser extent with Islam. What I look for are shared dynamic structures. By that I mean there are certain aspects of Judaism and Christianity, and to a lesser degree Islam, that these three traditions share as revealed, monotheistic religions. Let me give you an example. For Christians, God is a dynamic trinity of three persons, although we believe in one God. In Kabbalistic Judaism, there is of course one God, but there are ten divine energies, the Sephirot, that describe how God relates both within the divine realm and to creation. The comparison between what Kabbalists say about the action of the Sephirot and what Christians say about the Trinity offers some fascinating parallels. And in the same way, some Sufi mystics talk about the ninety-nine names of God, which are manifestations of divine energy, and, again, which are in some ways analogous to what Jews and Christians say about God. They’re not the same—but they’re parallel to what the Jews say about the Sephirotic system and what Christians say about the Trinity.

KW: Some poetry is described as mystical. Does that stretch your understanding of mysticism too far?

BM: Not at all. Mysticism and poetry are very closely allied. Both stress the limits of language and the depth of meaning of texts. Both try to say things that cannot quite be said. Many prose mystical treatises are really quite poetic—suggestive, rather than didactic in character. There’s a long history of mystical poetry. And, of course, the Sufi tradition is primarily poetry rather than prose.

KW: How about poets who are not known as mystics? T. S. Eliot, for example.

BM: The Four Quartets is very much a mystical poem. It’s both apophatic and cataphatic. I actually just published an article on apophatic theology among some modern poets, using Paul Celan, Rainer Maria Rilke, and R. S. Thomas. Thomas is a Welsh Anglican priest, a wonderful poet, widely known in the U.K., but not so much in the U.S.

KW: Karl Rahner famously remarked that Christians in the future will either be mystics or cease to be anything at all. Do you agree?

BM: I think he was absolutely correct. And I think this is now the general sense of those who study mysticism. Unless the Christian religion is lived from the heart, from the experience of God in some way, it will be empty and will not be attractive. If it’s a purely institutional form of life, or even if it’s an interesting intellectual exercise, it doesn’t have the vitality that comes from the interior experience of the presence of God. And that, as I have been saying in all my work, is the mystical element in religion.


Read part one of this interview here.

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was the religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years and is currently writer-in-residence at the Lumen Christi Institute.

With thanks to Kenneth L. Woodward and Commonweal, where this article originally appeared.


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