in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 18 December 2017

Book Review: Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain, 1500- 1650, Bernard McGinn

Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain, 1500- 1650. (The Presence of God, Volume 6, A History of Western Christian Mysticism)

Author: Bernard McGinn

Date: 2017

Publisher: Herder and Herder: Crossroad

ISBN: 9780824500900

pp. 478, hbk


We live in a Golden Age of writing on Christian mysticism. McGinn’s own monumental and era-defining study now sails triumphantly into Spain’s own Golden Age and his galleon delivers us a wealth of riches to admire. From its origins in the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of Abbot García de Cisneros in the fastnesses of the Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia to the quarrelsome but brilliant Fray Luis de Léon, the professor of Hebrew at Salamanca University arrested for his controversial translation of the Song of Songs, the book takes us on an incredible and dazzling journey through this incomparable era of mystical writing. Thus, as well as the titans of the era, Ss. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, we are introduced to a host of unfamiliar mystics, saints and seers who populate this fabled time and place. We hear of the early visionary and mystic, Juana de la Cruz (1481 – 1534) who ran away from home at the age of fifteen disguised a a man in order to join a community of Franciscan holy women. Here she became a local celebrity famed for her sermons which will seem rather provocative to 21st Century sensibilities. Then there is the controversial figure of María de Jesús de Agreda (1602 – 1665) who had the remarkable ability of bi-locating between Spain and her transatlantic missions in New Mexico. I shall be praying to her from now on whenever I get on a Virgin Airways flight. As well as navigating us skillfully and tactfully through this colourful collection of characters McGinn presents us with thoughtful and arresting surveys of the life and works of the major players of the period. There is very little secondary literature on the great saints that is not thoughtfully assessed, weighed and incorporated into three fascinating central chapters that summarise the state of play with regards to contemporary scholarship on these key figures of Western mysticism. For any serious student of Spanish mysticism this book will become a must-have. We have to go back to Edgar Allison Peers’ three volume ‘Studies of the Spanish Mystics’, published in the middle of the twentieth century, to find anything comparable, and in many ways McGinn’s work will now supersede that masterpiece. Indeed, there is very little to compare with McGinn’s magnum opus. Now into the seventh volume, there are three more projected to come. In the present volume we already have signs of the ‘Crisis of Mysticism’ that will come with the Quietist affair of the seventeenth century and we await these last volumes with anticipation. In the meantime we pray for Professor McGinn’s continuing good health so that the final ships of his fleet may be brought safely into harbour.


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