Tag Archives: mysticism

“Sexy devotion” – C S Lewis, Margery Kempe, and the mystics’ erotic language of intimacy with Christ


Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa"

Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

The following is from the “affective devotion” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438)[1]

Margery was a middle-class laywoman (mother and business owner) who lived in the late 14th and early 15th century and provided us with the first biography of a woman written in English. This, by the way, was probably dictated to a clergyman, since she was almost certainly either illiterate or barely literate.

Margery is a great example of a layperson with a deep, even mystical piety who became an influence on the clergy and monastics of her day—although plenty of people simply wrote her off as a crazy lady because of the depth of her emotion during church services. But in that very trait, she was a reflection (if extreme) of the late medieval tradition of affective devotion: “Her spiritual life was centered, from the beginning and throughout her life, on the human Christ, the object of her prayers and her love. She identified very closely with the Virgin as woman and mother, and her participation in the Passion was enlarged and inspired by sharing Mary’s grief. Her enthusiasm, her ‘boisterous’ emotion, and her conspicuous humility were borrowed from the Franciscans and legitimated by their authority. And her method of meditation—that is, her personal involvement in the biblical story, placing herself among the holy figures—was exactly the method prescribed by writers of affective devotion.” (ATK, 155)

Margery’s book is earthy at points – even bawdy. She tells a particular story about an episode of sexual temptation in her life that is R-rated. And her language of intimacy with Christ is also direct and frank. When he sees a “comely [handsome] man” in the streets, it sets her to meditating on Jesus. And when she talks about her times of inner dialogue with her Lord, she uses a term usually reserved in her time for the kissing and cooing of young lovers: “dalliance.” We have not moved far from Bernard here! Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – The English affective tradition


Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” ...

Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” early 15th century; in the British Library (Cotton Ms. Faustina B. VI). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux, and the fifth part here, on Francis of Assisi.

The English affective tradition – devotional writers

Affective devotion came of age in late medieval England. For some reason it seems the English were particularly good at retaining the earthy and emotional elements of the Christian tradition—from relics and saints to mystery plays and mystical experiences. I want to look for a moment at the English affective tradition—first in overview, then through four of its leading figures: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe.

Summarizing English spirituality

It’s important to note that the English were no less Scriptural in their faith than other parts of Christendom: they read aloud (or had texts read to them), then meditated on what they had read or heard (ruminated, chewed and digested it) until they had memorized it, then prayed through what they had read, and finally rested in God’s presence, praising him for the privilege of union with him: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.[1] Having read, however, they also poured out their hearts in the tradition of affective piety, loving Christ’s humanity as Mary Magdalene had done.[2]

Richard Rolle (1290/1300 – 1349)

Richard Rolle’s spiritual  writings are striking for the earthy, empirical way he described the physical experience of passionate concourse with the Lord. In The Fire of Love, he describes actual bodily warmth he felt while in prayer. Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – Bernard of Clairvaux


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux, trapped in the first letter of his name – 13th-c. illuminated manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fourth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, and the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury:

Bernard (1090-1153)

Probably best known today for hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” Bernard of Clairvaux was by any measure a formative figure in medieval devotion.

A reforming monk of the Cistercian order, Bernard returned to the simplicity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, preached to recruit participants in the Second Crusade in 1146, and in later life he had so much power that he was the virtual pope of the Western church. Throughout his career, Bernard’s teaching focused on love—in a positive, personal vein, but not a sentimental one. He talked about the relationship between the self and God. Borrowing a good deal from Augustine, Bernard, in his treatise On Loving God, sets forth four degrees of this love. He sees the self first of all loving only itself, then loving the neighbor and God for its own sake. Third, the soul comes to love God for God’s sake, normally the highest plane of love. But there is a fourth level, in which the soul loves itself for God’s sake. This is found only fleetingly on earth but will be the constant state of the dead after the resurrection of the body.

Bernard emphasizes the importance of the human Jesus for Christian spirituality. He refers more frequently than his immediate predecessors to the New Testament portrait of Jesus, not merely as an example of a holy life, but as the divine action of love to change the hearts of human beings. Bernard’s sermons on Advent and Christmas rise to the heights of praise for the Incarnation. In his twentieth sermon on Song of Songs, Bernard argued that the Incarnation was actually for this purpose: to attract our affections: “‘I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.’” Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – early church: Origen & Augustine


Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo, playing hot potato with his heart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following introductory material from C S Lewis herehere, and here, the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis opens its tour of medieval heart religion with a peek into Origen, Augustine, and other early Church Fathers:

Origen, early fathers

Although affective piety was “a mood and form of expression which advanced over all of Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries,” (ATK: 130-131), the writers of that period, from Anselm to Bernard to Julian to Dante, were merely passing on a tendency from the early church, described by Robert Wilken: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Even in the most detailed theologizing of the early and medieval fathers, “The goal was not only understanding but love.”[1]

The very first systematic commentator on Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (185-254), interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the believer’s relationship with God—erotic emotions and all. In Origen’s reading, the song’s male lover is God or Christ and its female lover is Israel, the church, or the believer. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and a long line of medieval interpreters would pick up Origen’s approach to the Song of Songs, using similar sexual language of our desire for God. As Gregory mused, “‘what force of love exists in the bedchamber of the Bridegroom.’” Continue reading

McGrath teaches grace using Catholic sources (wait, what?)


teresaof-avila01 (1)Over at Peter Enns’s blog on PatheosReformed scholar Chuck DeGroat reflects, “imagine the experience in-the-flesh as a renowned Reformed scholar taught grace and union with Christ from a couple of Catholics.” He’s talking about an unexpected classroom experience at Oxford with Reformed historian Alister McGrath, and Chuck promises to further unfold his experience learning from McGrath in a second post. Together the two posts bear the title “Reformed and Contemplative: Discovering Both 16th Century Reformations.”

Yup, that’s one of the Catholics McGrath was talking about in the picture: Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila.

Kinda reminds me of this post byWestminster prof Carl Trueman similarly arguing for the value of the Catholic mystics.

Society sacralized from Rome’s fall to Charlemagne (400 – 800 A.D.)–glimpses from Bernard McGinn


Map of territorial boundaries ca. 450 AD

Image via Wikipedia

What follows are some acute observations on the Christian landscape of the early Middle Ages from Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994). For those interested in the monastic culture of the Middle Ages or the ins and outs of medieval spirituality, this is a wonderful text. McGinn has solidly mastered all that he writes about, and he communicates it in terms understandable to the nonspecialist reader.

The notes that follow are taken from Chapter 1, “The Making of Christendom.” Each note begins with the page number.

17        “The changes in Christian spirituality between 400 and 800 are especially significant for understanding the development of medieval Latin mysticism. No one disputes that these centuries saw the end of ancient Christianity, tied to the world of the late Roman city, and the birth of early medieval Christianity, more often than not rural and monastic in character. . . .” Continue reading

Does evangelical “immediatism,” or direct access to God in Jesus, mean we cannot learn from tradition? No.


One may say: well, if evangelical mysticism/immediatism (direct access to God in Jesus) has stunted our ecclesiology by making everything between the individual and God negotiable according to a sort of pragmatics of piety (see my previous post), then it must also militate against tradition in all senses of that term.

In other words, our tendency to emphasize direct experience of God must be the enemy of a full-orbed understanding and appropriation of the church fathers and other rich theological and spiritual sources from the shared Christian heritage. Yes?

But surprisingly, no. Or at least, not necessarily. And this suggests a program for evangelical renewal today, as I suggest in another section of my paper “Evangelicals and Tradition,” given at the 2007 meeting of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue in St. Paul:

Lest we think that the Augustinian-Platonic focus on direct inward experience of the divine works only against tradition, however, we need only remember the Reformers’ own deep engagement in the thought of the church fathers. The Reformation was precisely the story of a group of people who saw unacceptable (they would have said, “modern”!) innovations in their church and worked to reform and renew it by reengaging with . . . yes, the Bible; yes, the New Testament church; but also and very significantly, the church fathers. When the late Robert Webber talked about the “ancient-future church,” he was saying only what the Reformers themselves were saying. Continue reading