Enduring Grace by Carol Lee Hinders, Harper Collins, £8.99 English Mediaeval Mystics by Marion Glasscoe, Longman, £13.99
T1E FASHIONABLENESS of
mystics, especially women ones, is a cause for great cheer. In the free marketplace of religions the consumer who is inclined to favour New Ageish, neofeminist sorts of spiritual identity can be captivated with the combined individualism and fervour of the mystics.
The stumbling block for many of the buyers is that the women and men concerned aren't entirely independent spirits in that they operate in what is essentially an institutional context the Church, with its all male hierarchy and prescriptive doctrine and look outwards to a transcendent God who who Was incarnate in Christ, rather than inwards to themselves. But these handicaps can be
forgiven in the light of their passion and poetry.
Both these books are written for the non-committed, for the non-Catholic. Indeed, I found a bit chilling the glossary of Christian terms that was included at the end of English Mediaeval Mystics for the benefit of the ignorant agnostic. I mean, have we really come to the point when we need to have explained to us what "Mass (the)" is?
Marion Glasscoe's book is written consciously from a non-theological viewpoint, to make it more accessible. But it was unsettling to have the mystics treated as part of Christian tradition that is not accepted as the norm.
In both books indeed, Christianity is interpreted in the light of Buddhism, with which many of the readers may indeed be more familiar. For Carol Lee Flinders it is almost a matter of palpable regret that the mystics she describes do not seek to become part of the divine reality; that God is, for Catholics, something which stubbornly remains as the "other"rather than the God within, as He is for Eastern mystics.
But it is heartening to have the subversiveness and radicalness of the mystics appreciated by outsiders. And once one's got over the strangeness of having Catholicism interpreted for the reader as some exotic and peculiar belief system, then one can learn a great deal from the sheer enthusiasm of the two writers.
There is a chapter of real value in the Glasscoe on Walter Hilton, an exCambridge, 14th century don, who addressed himself to what is now the chief problem for us all, on how to reconcile a life in the world, with all its pressures on time, with the demands of piety. Glasscoe recalls the charming image used in 14th century devotion of "the lord who aspires to kiss Christ's mouth in spiritual devotions and in doing so neglects acts of charity and so treads on his feet."
What Hilton felt was that you could do your work in the world without any conflict with the requirements of the soul: it's a line of thought that's worth exploring.
And Carol Lee Hinders, who is, apparently, best known as a cookery writer with a very Californiansounding interest in ecology, has tremendous zest in the way that she tackles Teresa of Avila, Mechtild of Magdeburg et al from the perspective of an enthusiast in Eastern religions.And she recalls stories of great charm, like the one about Catherine of Siena which tells of her stopping off on her way to heaven after dying, to assist an old friend who needed help in making lunch.
Sometimes it is outsiders who can best make us appreciate our own tradition. How many of us were ever properly introduced to these remarkable saints as guides for own journey? At the same time it is worth remembering that the mystics are the common property of mankind.
These are men andsvomen who express, by stretching language to its utmost limits, the reality of being subsumed in the transcendent God, of being in love with God.
They art, just now, the best ambassadors for Catholicism for those outside the Church who aren't really attracted by rational arguments. We should be thankful for them and take the trouble to become acquainted with them ourselves.