Reviewed by: Scholastica Jacob
Centre for Catholic Studies, Durham University
The adage that mysticism ‘begins with mist and ends in schism’ is an old one, which has been attributed to a number nineteenth-century commentators on the mystical tradition. It is a tradition that requires careful definition and is readily open to abuse. In this monograph Liam P Temple does much to explain the development of a uniquely mystical spirituality and discuss the prejudice levelled at it in the early modern period.
His key argument is that the period was a moment of rupture in which the ‘mystical’ approach emerged as a distinct form of spirituality, no longer embedded in the wider religious experience and, as such, became increasingly distrusted by mainstream theologians. Criticisms levelled at its practitioners included the encouragement of hysteria, melancholy and ‘all manner of mischeifs’ (p.84). That these mystics were both Catholics and Protestants, and that there was to some extent a reciprocal relationship between the two may come as a revelation to some readers.
In focussing on the time-frame from civil war to early eighteenth-century and from an entirely English perspective, Temple provides an accessible study which supplements more over-arching histories of Christian mysticism, most notably of Bernard McGinn, and provides a companion piece to earlier work by David Lunn.
The first chapter in particular is recommended reading for all historians of English Benedictine women. This gives a helpful introduction to the life and teaching of the monk and mystic Augustine Baker and outlines his relationship with the Benedictine nuns at Cambrai. An understanding of Baker’s teaching is essential for an understanding of the spirituality and ‘independence of spirit’ of the nuns at Cambrai and Paris. Inevitably, one chapter in a larger work cannot do full justice to the subject and there are a few omissions and inaccuracies, for example the reasons given for the sending of Baker to Cambrai (which was specifically at the nuns’ request) on page 24 and the translation of the engraving of Saint Scholastica, sister of Saint Benedict on page 27). In addition, to the use of Jan T Rhode’s work on Baker’s Reading Lists it would also have been instructive to have cited her much larger piece, Catalogue des Livres Provenant des Religieuses Angloises de Cambray 1793 which contains details of the nuns’ book collection for the whole period and reflects the longer term impact of Baker on their reading habits.
This is a minor quibble, however, and reflects my own particular interest. The later chapters are instructive and revealing, and took me into lesser known areas of the history of mysticism. Temple does a good job of showing the centrality of Baker in the development of a distinctly English tradition which encompassed both Protestant and Catholic thought. These chapters set out the debates surrounding mystical experiences and writings within different faith groups in England. Those ‘accused’ of being mystics ran the spectrum from Jesuits to Quakers. The concept of ‘Puritan mysticism’ was new to me and the extent to which the pre-Reformation mystics influenced such non-confessing sectaries as the Ranters surprising. The irony that the mystical approach could be both a link between Anglicans, radicals and Catholics and also a stick with which to beat each other is not lost here.
The latter part of the book which contrasts the approaches of Edward Stillingfleet and Serenus Cressy, plunges deeper into areas which may be unknown to many readers. Again, it is most helpful in raising awareness of the centrality of the mystical debate in English Reformation polemics.
It was inevitable that the terms ‘monasticism’ and ‘mysticism’ should become confused in some circles and be associated with extreme and damaging religious practices. Liam Temple gives a balanced account of both the merits and excesses of mystical spirituality and discusses how it came to be associated with extreme penances, ecstasies, the occult, visions and mental illness in this period.
This book gives a detailed account of the emergence of a specifically ‘mystical’ form of Christian practice and argues convincingly that the years from approximately 1600 to–1750 were a particular watershed for this tradition in England. In addition to detailing the sometimes complex debates which surround the history it also provides a compendium of little known English texts by both Catholic and Protestant authors. It will provide a helpful insight into the complexities of Christian mystical development for both the general student of the early modern period and the more specialist scholar of religious history.