Last Monday, I had the joy and delight of giving a lecture about medieval mysticism, focussing on some foundations (so, Evagrius and Cassian, basically) and then really on the fourteenth-century English mystics — Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost. All of my students were required to read a large chunk of Julian of Norwich, and for-credit students will also have read one of the others for an essay assignment.
One student read The Cloud of Unknowing, Rolle’s Fire of Love, and then The Cloud of Unknowing again while working on the essay, and then Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love for class. She declared that she wanted to become a medieval mystic. Another student admitted to being bitter a lot of the time, but that reading The Cloud and Julian filled him with sweetness.
I, too, am fond of reading medieval mystics. Of those covered for this class, I like best Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. I also have a fondness (almost typed fandom!) for early Cistercians, especially St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. I have to admit, though, that my exposure to St Hildegard is too shallow, and the promising beginning I made in reading St Catherine of Siena was cut short by other affairs.
As you may guess, the contemplative/mystic types I spend more time with are late antique and Byzantine besides modern Orthodox pray-ers — St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Sophrony, Met. Anthony Bloom, and others.
I must confess, however, that I am very poor mystic/contemplative. Reading about high ideals stirs my heart, makes me want to climb those mountains and put in that hard labour. But acedia sets in. Sloth is easier than asceticism, right?
I recently went through a stretch where I had not been reading any Orthodox elders or late antique monks. One night, I decided to push through a portion of St Silouan the Athonite by St Sophrony (a very dense but powerful book). And I felt my spirits lightened and my resolve quickened by this experience. Reading holy literature is not wasted.
I remind myself of a story from the Egyptian desert about a monk complaining to an old man that he listens to the elders and hears the Scriptures but can’t for the life of him remember the teachings. The old man told him to take two clay pots that were dusty and dirty. Leave one alone, and pour oil into the other. Then pour the oil out. Then repeat several times. “Which is cleaner?” the old man asked. “The one I poured the oil into,” was the response.
Let’s bring this back to the mystics, then. I have expressed my misgivings about us unspiritual meatheads reading The Cloud of Unknowing on this blog. Yet perhaps the story from the desert is telling us that if we have the will or desire for these good things, then even advanced books like that are not lost on us.
So go on reading your medieval mystics, gentle reader. May you be made more pure of heart as a result.