What is mysticism? William Harmless answers the question through a series of biographical case studies, avoiding the imposition of a rigid definition of mysticism on a varied cast of characters, thereby allowing us to see the flesh-and-blood reality of mystics, their groundedness, even the "ordinariness" of their mystical experiences. This book is fluently written and provides an excellent introduction to several figures: Thomas Merton, the 20th-century American Christian; Evagrius Ponticus, a desert mystic; medieval Christian mystics including Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure and Meister Eckhart; Rumi, from the Islamic Sufi tradition, and Dogen, the Zen Buddhist, both from the 13th century.
A mystic claims to have experienced the mystery that is God: the ineffable. These case studies ably demonstrate the sheer variety of experiences and writings that come under the umbrella of "mysticism", but common themes emerge: the union of God and human being; mapping the path to union with God through stages of prayer; the balance between the visionary and the study of Scripture and tradition.
Harmless is out to explode several modern myths about mysticism. The first myth is that the mystic is an otherworldly figure who hears strange voices and has visions. Thomas Merton counters this: openly sceptical about such phenomena, Merton was both an activist, fiercely opposed to war and racism, and a solitary, making little distinction between the two. For Merton, the journey to God is a journey through an ordinary landscape made extraordinary by the presence of God.
The second myth, for Harmless, is that all religions are the same at the top, and Rumi and Dogen are used to show that the differences between religious traditions far outweigh the similarities. Here, Harmless is countering a theme that emerged in the early 20th-century classic studies of mysticism by Evelyn Underhill and William James: that all mystics share a common experience in becoming one with the Absolute, and in being aware of that oneness. This "sunny universalism", as Harmless terms it, has become unfashionable, as scholars have turned against the comparative study of religion. Harmless therefore argues strongly against the possibility of an unmediated universal mystical experience that can be tracked across cultures.
The third myth for Harmless also emerges from William James, who emphasised the individual, experiential and psychological nature of mysticism. Harmless takes mystics firmly back to their religious traditions and their community contexts: "Mystics understand themselves not as mystics but as Christians, as Muslims, as Buddhists and so on." For his case studies this is largely true, and he illustrates how those mystics were rooted in the scriptures and practices of their traditions. But mystics often find themselves on the margins of institutional religion precisely because the visionary nature of their claims puts them at odds with it. Harmless repeatedly describes Meister Eckhart's work as "shocking" in his day and outlines Hildegard's brushes with authority without analysing why both figures might have attracted controversy.
More female case studies - Hildegard of Bingen is the only woman here - would have enabled a clearer analysis of the mystic's often awkward relationship with authority, precisely because religious women so frequently negotiate that relationship, as the Counter-reformation mystic Teresa of Avila - strikingly absent here - clearly illustrates.
For Harmless, the mystic is an institutional figure, and here he fails to contextualise James's analysis: at the beginning of the 20th century, many people claimed mystical experiences but had little or no religious affiliation. Harmless is right in saying that we must not map that modern context back on to medieval mystics, but he is wrong in assuming that we won't find mystics outside institutional religion.
By William Harmless
Oxford University Press
£60.00 and £10.99
ISBN 9780195300383 and 5300390
Published 20 December 2007