A regular reader of this blog wrote to me and asked if I could recommend a good biography on Hildegard of Bingen. As I thought about what book to recommend, several noteworthy biographies — and autobiographies — of the renowned Christian mystics came to mind. So I figured to write an entire blog post about it, and here we are.
Hildegard of Bingen
Since the reader asked about Hildegard of Bingen, we’ll start with her. Because of her music, Hildegard is enough of a medieval “celebrity” that a variety of books, from scholarly studies to more accessible works for the general reader, continue to be published about her. I would suggest starting with Fiona Maddocks’ Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. Maddocks is a journalist, so this is a book that is readable and balanced in its presentation of one of the Christianity’s most colorful saints and mystics. After that, if you want to get a bit more academic, look for Barbara Newman’s Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Meanwhile, to begin to dig into Hildegard’s own words, check out Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader (which also includes a brief biography).
So, now let’s look at some other books about the mystics and their life stories. The following list includes both autobiographies (written or dictated by the mystics themselves) and biographies, written by scholars, historians or journalists.
First, if you are like me — a white, college educated, middle-class American Christian — one of the ways you may have discovered Christian mysticism is through Thomas Merton’s celebrated autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It’s certainly a book worth reading, although it has its flaws. On the positive side, it’s a relatively modern (published seventy-five years ago) insight into intentional contemplative/monastic spirituality; it’s beautifully written, and documents at least one beautiful mystical experience (that occurred while Merton attended a Sunday Mass in Havana, see “Magnetic North” in part three). But Merton was only 33 when the book was published, a perilously young age to be writing one’s memoir, and it shows: the book is by turns arrogant and smug, dismissive of non-Catholic religion, and too uncritically accepting of the kind of reward/punishment theology that was so prevalent before Vatican II (and unfortunately still is prevalent in some circles). Still, despite its flaws The Seven Storey Mountain is well worth reading — but it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, when it comes to mystical biographies and autobiographies.
I myself first encountered Merton through Monica Furlong’s accessible Merton: A Biography. But probably the most famous (or infamous) biography of Merton is Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, controversial when it was published because of how frankly it treated Merton’s affair with a young nurse that took place just a few years before he died.
I have previously praised Howard Thurman’s beautifully written memoir, With Head and Heart — so for now I’ll just reiterate that I think it is every bit as good and well-written and important as Merton’s more famous autobiography. In the long run, I think Howard Thurman will get the acclaim that he so richly deserves; not only was he a significant figure in the American Civil Rights Movement and deserves acclaim as a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., but his writings so richly reveal that he was a great mystic on top of everything else. For this reason, I also recommend Lerita Coleman Brown’s new book, What Makes You Come Alive — which is more of a spiritual reflection on Thurman’s teachings than just a straight biography, but it does tell his life story and presents it in the light of his rich and deep wisdom.
To my way of seeing, Merton and Thurman are two of the three greatest English-speaking mystics of the twentieth century: the other being Evelyn Underhill (yes, Bede Griffiths, Ruth Burrows, Richard Rohr and Caryll Houselander are all amazing as well, but I remain persuaded that the top three at least in the English language are Merton, Thurman and Underhill). Underhill, born in 1875 and dying in 1941, was the earliest of these three, and the only one not to write her own memoirs, so her story has had to be pieced together through her other writings (thankfully, we have many letters) and the memories of her friends and acquaintances. Fortunately, several biographies have been published over the years, but I would say the best is clearly Dana Greene’s Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Interior Life. But if you want to go further, Margaret Cropper (who knew Underhill) and Christopher Armstrong also documented her life story.
Before we leave the twentieth century, let’s take a look at two important French-speaking mystics. First up is Simone Weil, the radical Jewish philosopher who had mystical experiences of Christ and now is something of a patron saint of “religious outsiders” (it’s a matter of debate whether Weil was ever even baptized; if she was, it never got officially documented in a church). Two books to get to know this enigmatic but essential figure: Maria Clara Bingemer’s Simone Weil: Mystic of Passion and Compassion and Robert Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. Perhaps reading both of these together would be helpful, as sometimes when philosophers are mystics (and vice versa), biographers don’t always manage offer a well-rounded appraisal — so reading one biography that emphasizes the mystical dimension, and other that zeroes in on the ideas of the philosopher, probably makes for a fuller appreciation of the genius being celebrated (in this case, Simone Weil).
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Teilhard de Chardin is the other great French mystic of the twentieth century, and perhaps is the twentieth century Christian mystic mostly likely to be remembered a thousand years from now (although Thurman and perhaps Merton will probably have staying power as well). As Weil was a mystic-philosopher, so was de Chardin, although we could also rightly call him a mystic-scientist. Once again, I would recommend two studies of his life: Ursula King’s Spirit of Fire: The Life of Vision of Teilhard de Chardin and Kathleen Duffy’s Teilhard’s Mysticism: Seeing the Inner Face of Evolution (more recently, John Haught has authored The Cosmic Vision of Teilhard de Chardin which I haven’t read yet, and I believe it’s more of a study than a biography, but it looks pretty good so I’m giving it a mention).
Thérèse of Lisieux
Books by and about twentieth century mystics are pretty easy to come by, but let’s not lose sight of the some of the great figures of previous centuries. Since I’ve been talking about French mystics, we should acknowledge the Little Flower, the young Carmelite nun whose autobiography, The Story of a Soul, took the Catholic world by storm when they were published shortly after her premature death in 1897. If you want some other perspectives on this nineteenth century saint, check out Joseph Schmidt’s Everything is Grace: The Life and Way of Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Keating’s St. Thérèse of Lisieux: A Transformation in Christ.
John of the Cross
The Little Flower was a Carmelite nun, so let’s turn our attention to the two greatest of Carmelite mystics: first, John of the Cross. John was a poet rather than a memoirist, so we don’t have an autobiography, but if you can find a copy of Silvano Giordano’s God Speaks in the Night: The Life, Times and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, grab it. It’s a lavishly illustrated, coffee-table sized book that makes John (and his rather challenging mystical doctrine) truly come alive.
Teresa of Ávila
Teresa of Ávila, John’s mentor and a world-class mystic as well, did write her own memoir, published under several slightly different titles (I recommend the Mirabai Starr translation, published as The Book of My Life). Teresa is brilliant but very right-brained, so her writing is not always that easy to follow, so I would recommend supplementing her memoir with one or two good biographies: check out Shirley Du Boulay’s Teresa of Ávila: An Extraordinary Life and Cathleen Medwick’s Teresa of Ávila: The Progress of a Soul.
I don’t want to over-do this blog post, so I’ll just list a few more biographies that I think are worth checking out…
Ignatius of Loyola — his dictated in-the-third-person autobiography is bare bones, so I would recommend Brendan Comerford’s The Pilgrim’s Story: The Life and Spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And while I haven’t read it, Harvey Egan’s Ignatius Loyola The Mystic looks interesting.
Julian of Norwich — check out Amy Frykholm’s charming Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. Although it has its minor errors (in the fourteenth century Julian would not have been a tea drinker!), it does a lovely job of telling Julian’s story in a narrative way.
Margery Kempe — a contemporary of Julian’s, Margery is famous in her own right but especially loved in the contemplative world because she recounts going to Julian of Norwich for spiritual direction! The Book of Margery Kempe is her colorful and freewheeling biography, and while her spirituality is certainly more idiosyncratic than what we might think of as “mystical” today, it’s well worth reading; and if you can find a copy of Martin Thornton’s Margery Kempe, that’s worth picking up as well.
John Ruysbroeck — this gets an honorable mention because it’s one mystic writing about another: Evelyn Underhill’s short but insightful biography of the great Flemish mystic, titled simply Ruysbroeck, was published in 1915.
There are many other worthy biographies and autobiographies of mystics and contemplatives, from Augustine of Hippo to Bede Griffiths, but I’ll finish with one final book that I think anyone interested in Christian mysticism ought to read, and that’s Joel F. Harrington’s excellent biography of Meister Eckhart, Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within. Eckhart is another philosopher-mystic whose ideas can be frustratingly dense, but Harrington does an amazing job at making his work accessible even for the non-specialist reader. Don’t miss this one.
Well, that’s probably more reading material than you bargained for — but even if you find just one or two new books to check out here, then my work is done. Happy exploring!