Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Top 10 Greatest Works of Catholic Mysticism
Now, to narrow down to only ten the greatest of the writings in all of Catholic history is nearly an impossible task. No doubt, there are many entries missing on this list that should be present. But as with any list like this, it will undoubtedly reflect the tastes and worldview of the author, so I will state without further ado that these are my votes for what I feel are the ten greatest works of Catholic mysticism that I have hitherto come across in my short life.
Enjoy - and may the reading of these works deepen and enrich your spiritual life and love of Christ.
Note: If you are looking for an excellent brief overview of this subject, I can do no better than to heartily recommend Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life, found here.
"O gentle touch, and most gentle, for you touch me with your most simple and pure essence, which being infinite is infinitely gentle, therefore it is that this touch is so subtle, so loving, so deep, and so delicious that it savors of eternal life."1
Centuries earlier, it was said that a desert father "held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, 'If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.'"2 St. John of the Cross, I feel, has here expounded on these enigmatic words.
Now, of all the manifold writings of St. John of the Cross, the acknowledged master and doctor of mystical theology in the Church, most seem to gravitate towards his work The Dark Night of the Soul. Perhaps this is because it is the shortest and most approachable of his four major works, or perhaps it is indicative of the spiritual struggles of so many of the faithful.
But of all the writings of this wonderful saint, it is The Living Flame of Love that is to me his most exalted work. Comparing the soul to wood enveloped in the flames of divine love, to me it is represents the very height of St. John's mystical works. Find an affordable reprint here.
"Open up your heart. Let the beloved in."3
While the name of Meister Eckhart is well-known nowadays (unfortunately due to New Age attempts to co-opt his teachings into their own), the name of one of his chief disciples is unfortunately not. Bl. Henry Suso is one of my favorite writers in all of Christendom, and it is a pity that he is not more read.
One of the shining stars of the Dominican order, Bl Henry's work (which includes several sub-works including his auto/biography) avoids the unorthodox elements of Eckhart's thought, and straightens it out a bit. There's a reason why his work is not co-opted by New Age relativistic spirituality - all of it is saturated in a deep contemplation of the Passion of Christ, as well as an incredibly rich mystical approach to union with He Who is Wisdom Eternal. Beautiful, heart-rending, and profound. Find it here.
3. The Soul's (Mind's) Journey Into God - St. Bonaventure
"This fire is God, and his furnace is in Jerusalem; and Christ enkindles it in the heat of His burning passion, which only he truly perceives who says: My soul chooses hanging and my bones death."4
Inspired by his climb up Mount La Verna where St. Francis received the stigmata, St. Bonaventure's short and poetic treatise on mystical theology contains within it an entire Summa of knowledge and wisdom.
In what other theologians might take entire volumes to articulate, St. Bonaventure manages to do in only a few pages. Taking the six-wings of the Seraph as his model, he outlines six stages involved in the knowledge of and union with God. A classic treatise by one of the Church's greatest saints. An affordable copy is found here.
"I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places."5
Just recently declared a Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard's monumental magnum opus Scivias is to mystical thought much like St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica is to theology. In a series of visions and interpretations of them, St. Hildegard explains and relates their content to the reader with precision and clarity. Truth be told, there is more theological depth and profundity in this work than most that came after it. A masterpiece. Avoid the translations put out by New Age publishers (if you see Matthew Fox on the cover, RUN) - get the real thing here.
5. Treatise on Purgatory - St. Catherine of Genoa
"I see paradise has no gate, but that whoever wants to may enter in because God is all mercy and stands with open arms to admit us to His glory. But I also see that the essence of God is so pure... that should a soul see in itself even the least mote of imperfection, it would rather cast itself into a thousand hells than go with that spot into the presence of the divine majesty."6
Purgatory, for non-Catholics, is one of the more confusing aspects about our faith. But here, St. Catherine of Genoa (the other famed St. Catherine of Italy) masterfully dictates her own experience of Purgatory in her life. Describing it as the fire of God's love, St. Catherine channels loads of Catholic teaching on the subject into one short work. Riveting, beautiful, and clear. Find a copy here.
6. Insinuationes Divinae Pietatis - St. Gertrude the Great (and others)
"Come, My beloved, repose on My Heart..."7
Sadly, St. Gertrude the Great seems to live in the shadows of other well-known female saints. But long before St. Margaret Mary Alacoque related her visions of Jesus and the revelations surrounding the Sacred Heart, St. Gertrude had been writing of her own intimate experiences with Christ.
To read what is now commonly known as The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great is to give the soul some much-needed comfort in the travails of the Christian life. St. Gertrude's writings concerning our Lord highlight His infinite love toward mankind, foster devotion to His Sacred Heart, and reveal much concerning the deeper aspects of the spiritual life. Unfortunately, copies from TAN Books seem to be currently out of print (I must have picked up the last one!), but Paulist Press has her writings here.
"Into this supreme and dazzling darkness we pray that we may come, that by seeing and not knowing we may see and know Him who is beyond all seeing and knowing through this very act of not seeing or knowing; and at this supreme peak of being, by dismissing all things that are, that we may praise Him who is Himself above all."8
Of all the great works of mystical theology, I don't think many have ever surpassed in sheer profundity or beauty of style the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius. Though St. Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses is close, and The Cloud of Unknowing is better known, it is the Mystical Theology that reigns above them all. In essence, it goes deeper and far beyond the words of St. Gregory, and yet says in only a few pages what it takes The Cloud of Unknowing to say in many. In my mind, it is the blueprint for all mystical theology after it, an incredible and mind-blowing work. Find an affordable copy here.
8. Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska - St. Faustina
"A single act of pure love pleases Me more than a thousand imperfect prayers."9
I think by now this fantastic journal of a Polish nun's experiences of the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ towards souls is well-known, already a cherished work in the pantheon of devotional classics. But if you haven't perused it yet, I urge you to do so. St. Faustina's accounts of her conversations with Jesus and of Jesus' revelation of Divine Mercy to us all are some of the most consoling writings in all of Christendom for those of us who are poor sinners at best. A wonderful work. Find the paperback edition for cheap here.
9. Divine Intimacy - Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen
"Our love for God will be pure when we love Him so much that we seek only His glory and the accomplishment of His will..."10
Carmelite spirituality, in my experience, can be difficult to approach - dense and powerfully intimate, I have often found myself giving up when trying to get through some of the works of the great Carmelite saints. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen solves this problem masterfully by distilling the teachings and wisdom of the Carmelite saints into daily readings and meditations. Fr. Gabriel's writing is practical, warm, and yet exceedingly rich; in each reading, he invites the Christian into a deeper relationship with our Lord, all designed to lead to divine intimacy with God Himself. In my mind, it is a mystical Summa of Carmelite teaching, as well as that of the other great Catholic mystics and saints. An absolute must-own. Find a copy here for a very affordable price.
"Prayer is nothing other than the ascent of the mind to God."11
The Dominican John Tauler is considered one of the preeminent mystics of the Catholic Church, yet his life and writings remain in the shadow of his predecessor, Meister Eckhart. Perhaps it doesn't help as well that Tauler's thought became somehow associated with early Protestant thought as well; Luther was quite the fan from what I here. But to look at Tauler in this way is to do disservice to one of the most profound and yet completely approachable of all the mystics in the Church, as well as to misinterpret his thought completely. Tauler's sermons, the only authentic works of his to survive, avoid the abstract obscurities of Meister Eckhart and the heart-rending accounts of Bl. Henry Suso, and instead aim for a practical application of deep spiritual truths in the heart of the listener. Amazing, and somehow very easy to read through when compared to other mystical works of its kind. Find copies of his sermons here.
1 - St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, Stanza II
2 - Vitae Patrum, XII:viii
3 - Bl. Henry Suso, The Little Book of Letters, I
4 - St. Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey Into God, VII
6 - St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory, VIII
7 - Our Lord to St. Gertrude, Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great, III:44
8 - Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology, II
9 - Our Lord to St. Faustina, Diary, 1489
10 - Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, Divine Intimacy, 256
11 - John Tauler, "Sermon 3"