On the day before the publication of his ninth and final volume on the history of mystical theology in Christianity, Bernard McGinn was discussing plans for his next writing project — a brief, more popular book on 19th- and 20th-century mystics.
At 84, the native New Yorker and renowned professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School said his series would need a few more volumes to complete the history of mystical theology, from 1700 to the present, but he believes this work is best left for others to do.
“I just don’t have the time to write another two or three major volumes on that,” he said.
McGinn’s first volume of the nine, “The Foundations of Mysticism,” was published in 1991. The entire series covers the classic period, from the early church to 1700, and numbers more than 5,000 pages.
His prolific writings, as well as the precision and thoroughness in his research and analysis, have made McGinn the most well-known and well-respected scholar of Western mysticism today. The Catholic theologian has been most-readily associated with the revival of mystical theology in the past 50 years.
“This is part of the vocation of Christian baptism, that you are called to an increasingly deeper sense of God’s presence in your life, which is all that mysticism is.”
Mystical theology had gone dormant in Catholic theological circles since the Quietest condemnations of the late 17th century — the topic of his final book in the series, “The Crisis of Mysticism: Quietism in Seventeenth-Century Spain, Italy, and France” (Herder & Herder, 2021). The Lumen Christi Institute is planning a public event on “The Crisis of Mysticism” in May.
Quietism encouraged private, personal prayer and contemplation, aimed at union with God and a personal transformation in God, through a quieting of the mind and openness to God’s action.
“In the 17th century, there was a growing fear of interior prayer, particularly interior prayer that would overwhelm one’s practical life in the Christian domain,” McGinn explained.
“Some institutional leaders, not all, were very suspicious that too much stress on interior prayer, especially a prayer of quiet, a prayer in which you emptied yourself of all thoughts and practices, was dangerous to the ordinary life of the Christian, the life of devotion, of sacramental practice and even, sometimes, of your attitude toward the institutional church or even towards the proper observance of the commandments,” he said.
“So, it was a crisis, at least for Catholic mysticism, which was pushed to the margins and denigrated for a long time,” he said. “Mysticism in Catholicism was basically moribund — it was dead — for the next almost 200 years.”
However, a fervent interest in spirituality and a revival of mysticism emerged in the 1960s as a general cultural phenomenon, he said. McGinn had also noticed this keen interest in mysticism in his students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he began teaching in 1969.
After the Second Vatican Council, prominent Protestant Divinity Schools across the country saw an increase in Catholic students and decided to recruit Catholic professors. McGinn and Fr. David Tracy, both teaching at The Catholic University of America at the time, were among those recruited by the University of Chicago.
McGinn was hired to teach medieval and patristic theology primarily. However, his students’ profound interest in the mystical theology and literature he had introduced in his classes afforded him the opportunity to delve into this field, which was equally fascinating for him, and to make it a main professional focus.
“The growth of spirituality, meditation practices, contemplative prayer was remarkable,” McGinn recalled of the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think the revival of mysticism was also an attempt to correct the balance against an institution, the church, that was no longer feeding the mystical dimension of believers, but insisting upon a rigid institutional approach or an overly intellectual approach,” he said.
Today, the church is not as threatened by mysticism as it once was, said McGinn. He describes the 1960s revival of mysticism as “a movement of the Holy Spirit, which alerted most church leaders” to the importance of this dimension of the human person that needs to be nourished.
Despite the wider interest in such prayer, McGinn said he has spent much of his career “trying to overcome the error” that to be mystical is to have visions.
“All the great mystics have insisted that the essence of mystical consciousness or contemplation is greater love of God and greater love of neighbor and…of an immediate sense of God’s presence,” he explained. “This is part of the vocation of Christian baptism, that you are called to an increasingly deeper sense of God’s presence in your life, which is all that mysticism is.
“It’s not gifts or visions or stigmata or special kinds of things whatsoever,” he said.
To be a mystic simply requires devoting time to some form of contemplative prayer, to silence and openness to God — a practice he keeps faithfully as well, he said.
McGinn’s contributions to mystical theology extend beyond his nine volumes on the history of Christian mystical theology. He contributed to the publication of the 18-volume Encyclopedia of World Spirituality. He also served on the original editorial board for the well-known series, by Paulist Press, “Classics of Western Spirituality.” He was the series’ general editor for 25 years, from 1988 to 2015. The first volume — there are now 135 — was published in 1978. Millions of books in this series have sold, he said.
“It was a need of the times,” he added. “People were out there waiting for that material.”
McGinn retired from the University of Chicago in 2003, but has continued his association with the Divinity School and the Lumen Christi Institute at the university. McGinn recalled when the idea of starting a Catholic Studies program was bounced around at the University of Chicago. He was against it and proposed instead “some kind of institute, some kind of program, which could bring Catholic scholars to the university and make courses available.”
McGinn rejected the suggestion that the Lumen Christi Institute was his idea. Other scholars at the university had voiced the same preference, he said, adding his appreciation for all of the “heavy lifting” done by the institute’s current executive director, Thomas Levergood, and others in establishing Lumen Christi, and their ongoing work.
“I think he’s been extraordinarily successful,” McGinn said of Levergood’s work. “The institute has enriched the intellectual discourse at the university. At the same time, it’s shown the secular university the importance of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions.”
McGinn said he has been very pleased with his association with Lumen Christi, which still includes about two lectures per year.
“It gave me the opportunity to reach an audience that I might not have had, a broader audience from a number of different kinds of areas in the university and even outside the university,” he said.
Though retired from full-time teaching and from writing his historical series, McGinn’s work with the Christian mystics is not done, as he prepares to write his next book on the modern mystics for a wider readership.
“It’s one of the things that keeps me going, continuing to read these wonderful figures and their insights,” he said.