Visions Of God: Four Medieval Mystics And Their Writings, by Karen Armstrong
It should come as little surprise that I would read a book like this given my fondness for reading books by Christian mystics , but I found this book a surprisingly unpleasant read. The best part of the book is when we get to read from the four medieval English mystics themselves, but those selections are framed by a deeply unpleasant introduction from the editor, who manages to give too little of the texts that I had come to read and give too many reasons why I feel deeply ambivalent about the popularity of mysticism in the contemporary world. The author presents these mystics as representing a spiritual elite that strikes of gnosticism on the one hand, while also playing up the similarities between the works-based religion of these Catholic mystics and the works-based mystical traditions among the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and others. In appealing to one-world religion that is simultaneously the same around the world and also something that people apparently create for themselves, the editor makes these mystical works far more unappealing than they would otherwise be, simply because she frames them as relevant and timely in all the wrong ways.
Thankfully, though, the four English mystics whose works are excerpted here are far more interesting and enjoyable than the editor herself, who is apparently a lapsed nun. The first of the selections is from Richard Rolle of Hampole, whose “Fire Of Love” is a discussion of his own private and egotistical journey into mysticism with all of the fervor of a bipolar solitary in the vein of the Gospel of Thomas. This book sets the whole work off in a bad frame, showing the need for discipline as well as charity towards others that the author does not have. After this comes excerpts from the generally excellent Cloud of Unknowing , which shows a heavy influence of Greek mysticism and shows a considerable amount of humility from an author who has successfully remained anonymous despite the fact that many have tried to pin a name for the book. The third work, “The Ladder Of Perfection” by Walter Hilton, has a feel similar to St. Theresa of Avila with the progressive nature of the journey of the mystic from reading and memorizing scripture and discipline in prayer to deeper explorations of the mystery of the psyche. The fourth and final work, “Revelations Of Divine Love” by Dame Julian or Norwich, shows the fragile emotional state that many mystics had and the way that dreams and visions could serve both to bring people closer to God in their mind but also close to despair, making an unusual ending to this book.
This book is clearly aimed at an audience that wants to read selections of work with a contemplative and ecumenical focus. It seems very likely that the author wants the reader to believe that their interest in or skill in contemplation of the mysteries of God and the unconscious make them a spiritual elite in a world that has floundered in its attempts to live apart from God. Yet as a reader who dislikes being pandered to, I found that this book floundered particularly badly, especially as it included so little of the works itself by the medieval mystics that I came here for. This would have been a much more enjoyable work had the editor written far less and attempted far less ambitiously to show the reader that she was an agnostic expert of the history of religion, and included far the complete texts of the mystics rather than snippets of them which fail to satisfy the curious reader and only lead them to want to read more of the original works, and less writing by Karen Armstrong.
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