Modern Mystics: The Latest from Bernard McGinn


I make the following statement in my forthcoming New Big Book of Christian Mysticism:

Some writers and scholars, who might humbly deny identifying themselves as mystics, nevertheless have contributed much to our understanding of mystical theology, philosophy, and spirituality. In our time, scholars like Bernard McGinn, Louise Nelstrop, Barbara Holmes, Mark McIntosh, Grace Jantzen, Andrew Louth, Joy Bostic, Michael Battle, Amy Hollywood, Denys Turner, Michael Casey, and many others have contributed immensely to our common knowledge about Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality. Anyone who wants to become immersed in the mystical way would benefit from the scholarly writings of these authors.

You will notice that in this long list of mystical scholars, the first name I list is Bernard McGinn. That is not by accident. I admire (and rely on) the work of every scholar listed there, but McGinn has consistently been my g0-to for the academic study of Christian mysticism. He has written wonderful essays with titles like “Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal,” “Ocean and Desert as Mystical Symbols” and “The Language of Love in Jewish and Christian Mysticism.” He is the curator of the single best one-volume anthology of mystical writings, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. And his nine (!) volume magnum opus, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, is simply brilliant, although I’m sad that he only traces the course of mystical history up to the quietest controversy in the seventeenth century.

But while McGinn hasn’t offered a “volume ten” of his history of Christian mysticism to cover the last few centuries, his newest book is still a cause for celebration. Titled simply Modern Mystics: An Introduction, this is Bernard McGinn’s consideration of ten significant Christian mystics of the past 150 years. I just got my copy yesterday and haven’t read it yet, but it looks like it could easily be seen as a kind of appendix to The Presence of God. McGinn is an academic writer but his work is engaging and accessible — I make no bones about being a contemplative practitioner, not a scholar (for example, my knowledge of Latin and French are minimal, and I don’t have any German or Greek), and yet I find his writing luminous and insightful. I’m sure you will too.

So for each of the ten modern mystics he discusses, McGinn offers a brief biography of the person, an overview of their writing, and a consideration of their key ideas and contribution to the ongoing tradition of western Christian mysticism.

Here are the mystics he profiles:

  • Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)
  • Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)
  • Elisabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906)
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
  • Edith Stein (1891-1942)
  • Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1963)
  • Simone Weil (1909-1943)
  • Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda) (1910-1973)
  • Etty Hillesum (1914-1943)
  • Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

McGinn admits in the preface, “This is a decidedly personal selection” — he goes on to note that originally he wanted to discuss as many as twenty recent mystics, but finally realized that would mean writing less about each figure, and he felt that short essays would not do justice to these important spiritual writers. He notes that his final list includes five men and five woman, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that more than half of the figures he writes about are French, and all are white. Interestingly, three are Jewish, although Jews who either converted to Christianity are who were significantly engaged with Christian spirituality. If I were his editor, I would have pushed for the inclusion of Howard Thurman, at the very least (let alone other significant non-white voices like Desmond Tutu, Anthony de Mello, or Ramon Panikkar). But I bring this up not to warn readers away from this book, but rather to simply point out how much more work needs to be done, especially in the larger project of acknowledging and amplifying voices of western Christian mystics who are not just caucasian or European in ancestry and cultural context. One of the reasons I wanted to revise my own Christian mysticism was because I was embarrassed that the first edition did not mention Thurman at all! Western Christian mysticism remains very much a product of white European culture, but it’s not monolithically white (for example, most of the desert fathers and mothers were from Africa or the Middle East) so I think we all need to be conscious of how to make our understanding of mystical spirituality more consistent with the universality of God’s action in the world, both in history and today.

When I worked in retail, we used to say that customers complaining about prices is a good thing, because that means they weren’t unhappy about anything else! Likewise, I suppose a book like Modern Mystics: An Introduction will always give critics an opportunity to gripe about who wasn’t included. But if that’s our biggest criticism of the book, then we need to celebrate what it represents: an opportunity to see the landscape of recently mystical theology and spirituality through the eyes of one of Christian mysticism’s most important living scholars. That is a cause for celebration indeed!

And Dr. McGinn, if for some reason this review comes to your attention: please write about Howard Thurman, and Ramon Panikkar, and Evelyn Underhill, and Bruno Barnhart, and Sebastian Painadath… ah, the list could go on!

Bernard McGinn

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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman

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