Mystical Theology and Contemporary Spiritual Practice

Renewing the Christian Contemplative Tradition

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Christopher C. H. Cook, Julienne McLean, Peter Tyler
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This illuminating and darkening collection of essays explores the deep yet relatively unfathomed ground between mystical theology and contemplative practice. The essays derive from a gathering of scholars, clergy, contemplatives, and pastoral workers at St. John’s College, Durham in September 2014, now arriving on the shelves as part of Routledge’s (formerly Ashgate’s) series, Contemporary Theological Explorations in Christian Mysticism. The book is comprised of seven distinctive and erudite essays, neatly bookended by introductory and concluding reflections on “renewing the contemplative tradition.” Attention to such encounters as prayer, pilgrimage, new monasticism, and the numinous spaces of Durham Cathedral illustrate a valiant emphasis upon the “much maligned” category of “experience” (121) that appears almost academically counter-cultural. This courage and conviction is rewarding, most of all for those grateful readers who are concerned above all with questions of meaning and living. Without thinking on such concerns, the current flourishing of interest in mystical theology risks becoming sterile. By devoting space to affectivity, suffering (passio), and compassion (co-suffering), the book gives voice to everyday pilgrims and visitors alongside luminaries from the canon of mystical theology. As such, it draws together worlds that do not belong apart.

The editors of Mystical Theology and Contemporary Spiritual Practice bring substantial collaborative expertise in theology, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, and spiritual direction. This considerable expertise is further enriched by the selection of contributors: Kallistos Ware, Andrew Louth, Corinne Saunders, Rosalind Brown, Bernadette Flanagan, Peter Tyler, and Julienne McLean. Through their carefully focused and original essays, heartfelt light is cast upon Friedrich von Hügel, Vladimir Lossky, Margery Kempe, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Merton, and Francisco de Osuna. I call this light “heartfelt” deliberately, but not pejoratively. The overall focus of the essays is distinctly more affectus than intelectus. But in the finer details, an intimacy emerges between contributor and subject that gives genuine heart to the book–though not, of course, at the expense of scholarly proficiency. This sense of intimacy is, however, both a strength and potential weakness (not that “weakness” is necessarily a vice, as this book reminds us well). The book is intimate in its rather slender form (just 198 pages) as well as, inevitably to some extent, its scope and diversity. This intimacy suggests a rather curtailed exploration of a vast and promising topic, occasionally giving more the impression of proceedings from a “gathering” of like-minded individuals than an interdisciplinary international conference. 

The introduction offers the possibility that “mystical theology is not only very much alive but in many respects may hold the key to the solution of various issues in such diverse areas as philosophy, pastoral care, psychology, theology, gender studies and aesthetics” (2). By the end, this possibility is certainly unlocked but the door needs to be cast wide open. Doing so remains a challenge incumbent upon the field as a whole, rather than an inadequacy inherent to this book. The contemporary “renaissance” (1) of mystical theology needs to delve deeper into the conversations this book opens up if it is to become anything of the sort. At a time when various forms of “mindfulness” are offered, with mixed results, as a panacea for all varieties of unease and distress, “renewing the contemplative tradition” offers a live option from a half-forgotten past. As such, this valuable, heartfelt, and deeply enlightening book belongs equally to the future of mystical theology and practice. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Simon D. Podmore is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Liverpool Hope University.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher C. H. Cook is Professor of Spirituality, Theology & Health in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University, an honorary consultant psychiatrist with Tees, Esk & Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, and an honorary minor canon at Durham Cathedral. He trained at St George's Hospital Medical School, London, and worked in the psychiatry of substance misuse for over 25 years. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2001.


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