Essay: Paul Baynes and Richard Sibbes, by Tom Schwanda

This essay appears in Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe, a multi-author collection of essays described as “an expansive view of the Protestant reception of mysticism, from the the beginnings of the Reformation through mid-seventeenth century.” Tom Schwanda begins his essay by saying that he will be using the language of “contemplative-mystical piety” which he defines as “the grateful and loving beholding of God through God’s mighty acts and Scripture, in which one experiences union and deepening communion with Jesus Christ through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.” The essay contributes to current research in Puritan mysticism by taking a close look at two important Puritans, Paul Baynes and Richard Sibbes, thereby “seeking to demonstrate their appreciation for medieval mysticism in the development of their own contemplative-mystical piety.”

Schwanda, Tom. “Paul Baynes and Richard Sibbes.” In Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe, edited by Ronald K. Rittgers and Vincent Evener, 369-388. St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History. Leiden:  Brill, 2019.

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Article: Spirituality & the Social: Some Reflections on the Basics, by Marc De Kesel

Central to this article’s discussion about the development of modern spirituality is the notion of “the social.” According to the article’s author, Marc De Kesel, a modern understanding of “social” emerged when the term “subject” became more identified with a human being than with the divine subiectum. Here is an excerpt from the opening paragraphs:

What then is ‘spirituality’? And why has it, despite its obvious connotation with religion and religiosity, a generally more appreciated place than religion? What grants spirituality, contrary to religion, such a positive fame within the social?

Instead of entering the question via a reflection on spirituality, this essay take a different, in some sense opposite direction and approaches spirituality via the problem of ‘the social’. What happened to the social that it reacts positively with respect to spirituality, but rather negatively with regard to religion? What happened to the social that made it so difficult for traditional religion to find its place in it, while spirituality seems to feel more at home there?

De Kesel, Marc. “Spirituality & the Social: Some Reflections on the Basics,” in Transforming Spirituality. Proceedings of the International Conference held at Soeterbeeck (the Netherlands) 6 and 7 May 2016, Studies in Spirituality 28 (2018): 65-81.
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Article: Urban Parks as Sacred Places: Pilgrimage, Solitude, and Access to Nature, by Chad Thralls

The Ramble in Central Park
CC BY-SA 3.0

Many of us would agree that green spaces in urban environments offer a welcome respite from the often hectic pace of city life. In Chad Thralls‘ article, we find an argument for considering a city park as a setting for a spiritual pilgrimage. Here is his article’s abstract:

The paper begins with an appreciation of the ‘turn to nature’ seen in recent scholarship in Christian spirituality, and then proceeds to offer a suggestion how this rich literature might be made relevant to those who connect with God through the natural world, yet live in cities far removed from wilderness areas. An urban park is often an oasis of green in a ‘desert’ of streets, sidewalks, and buildings. By offering access to natural scenery, parks provide relatively quiet spaces in stark contrast to the noise and distractions of the city surrounding them. To understand their spiritual use, the paper claims that parks serve as pilgrimage sites in cities because they provide spaces where it is possible to find a degree of solitude and access to scenic natural features such as trees, flowers, and small bodies of water. Using the author’s experience as an example (and Victor and Edith Turner’s work on pilgrimage as a guide), the paper concludes that walking out of Manhattan’s street grid into The Ramble, a wooded section at the heart of Central Park, can facilitate a transition of attention inward from the concerns of everyday life to the presence of Christ in the heart.

Thralls,Chad. “Urban Parks as Sacred Places: Pilgrimage, Solitude, and Access to Nature,” in Transforming Spirituality. Proceedings of the International Conference held at Soeterbeeck (the Netherlands) 6 and 7 May 2016, Studies in Spirituality 28 (2018): 211-231.
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Article: The Praxis of Spirituality: Experiencing God and Responding to that Relationship, by Janet K. Ruffing

Janet Ruffing begins her article by describing some of the questions facing Christian spirituality studies today. For Ruffing, practice begins with an inner experience of God followed by reflection and interpretation to discern its meaning. She then shows how mystical texts, theology and scientific disciplines can inform our understanding of spiritual practices. Here are the essay’s opening paragraphs:

As we reflect on the field of Christian spirituality over the last twenty-five years, . . . . methodological and definitional questions, philosophical questions, theological questions, and interdisciplinary contributions to our field remain in flux. We have witnessed a weakening of an assumed relationship between practicing a religion and spirituality in the West. And we have experienced an exponential growth in a variety of empirical approaches to the study of spirituality in psychology, business, neuroscience, health, and other social science approaches. It is timely that we ask whither is our field going?

In my reflections with you, I offer some preliminary remarks about the praxis of spirituality. Why do we engage in practices that facilitate deepening our experience of God and then shaping our basic relational life commitments, ministries, work, social and cultural life in response to this self-revealing God whose face is turned toward us as unconditional love and mercy?

Ruffing, Janet K. “The Praxis of Spirituality: Experiencing God and Responding to that Relationship,” in Transforming Spirituality. Proceedings of the International Conference held at Soeterbeeck (the Netherlands) 6 and 7 May 2016, Studies in Spirituality 28 (2018): 47-63.
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Article: Abbot Suger: A Trinitarian Space, by Dale M. Schlitt

Dale Schlitt’s article describes a particular medieval church’s history, showing how its architecture was designed to express a trinitarian spirituality. Here is the article’s abstract:

This article is a study of and reflection on the spiritual, indeed Trinitarian, significance of the Royal Chapel of Saint-Denis, located in the suburbs of Paris. The chapel was renovated around 1140 under the leadership of Abbot Suger, who commented at length on its architectural meaning and spiritual message. So renovated, the chapel marks the beginnings of Gothic architecture. The study notes the chapel’s past and present contexts. It considers both architectural and literary evidence suggesting that Abbot Suger intended to create a truly ‘Trinitarian space’. The study focuses at length on various aspects of the façade and the interior of the chapel which help those who visit it to appreciate the trinitarian character of the space he has created. The study suggests that the arched roof of triangles and the side walls, with light spreading down upon those within the chapel, have provided a sense of being embraced by the Trinity and that they can continue to do so. Abbot Suger has, as his commentaries and other considerations confirm, left an architectural gem in testimonial to experience of the Trinity. Within it the worshipping community provides the fullest testimonial to that experience.

Schlitt, Dale M. “Abbot Suger: A Trinitarian Space,” in Transforming Spirituality. Proceedings of the International Conference held at Soeterbeeck (the Netherlands) 6 and 7 May 2016, Studies in Spirituality 28 (2018): 189-209.
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Article: The Ascetic Life of the Ultrarunner, by Miriam Díaz-Gilbert

Miriam Díaz-Gilbert’s article describes how her experience training for a highly rigorous sport can be compared to Christian ascetic practices. Here are the article’s introductory paragraphs:

The early Christian ascetic body. The modern-day ultrarunner body. What kinship do they share? This personal narrative explores the similarities between the two and how the ascetics’ treatment of the body resonates with my spiritual ritual as an ultrarunner.

The early Christian ascetic experienced a demanding and difficult life of self-discipline, self-denial, prayer, fasting, repentance, and celibacy. The goal of the ascetic life was spiritual development, spiritual edification, and uniting body and soul with God. Paul introduced the practice of asceticism to Christianity by using athletic terms that emphasized the “self-sacrifice, discipline, and self-control” required in living as a purposeful and unwavering Christian. Christian ascetics such as Antony of Egypt, Evagrius Ponticus, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila, among others, are often described as athletes. As an ultrarunner, I draw strength and inspiration from their example and recognize our bodily connection. Today’s ultrarunners are literal ascetic athletes who engage in extreme, meaningful bodily experiences and practices very similar to the ascetics. Ultrarunning has a distinct spiritual dimension that lends itself to solitude and reflection, and is a kind of embodied spiritual practice that I call “ultrarunning spirituality.”

Ultrarunning is defined as running any distance beyond the standard 26.2-mile marathon. The most common are 50 and 100 miles, and 50 and 100 kilo-meters (31 and 62 miles). Six-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour, 48-hour, and multi-day races of five or more days are also ultramarathons, referred to as “ultras” or endurance runs. For the uninitiated, the thought of running a standard 26.2-mile marathon, let alone an ultramarathon, is unimaginable. This sentiment is understandable. As a young girl watching the Olympics, I was in complete awe of marathoners who ran 26.2 miles. They appeared to have super powers and to be superhuman. Now, as an adult, I have evolved from a marathoner to an ultra-endurance runner, and have experienced the exhilarating suffering and joy of this chosen path.

Achieving the feat of running such grueling distances requires discipline, training, and a love of exercise. These key words: discipline, training, and exercise define asceticism (taken from the Greek word askesis). The Greek, Latin, and Semitic roots of these words have historically been used to interpret the language of Christian discourse including “asceticism,” which is used to refer to athletic training and physical discipline, and to describe spiritual endeavor.

Miriam Díaz-Gilbert’s bio from the article:
Miriam Díaz-Gilbert is ABD in Christian Spirituality from LaSalle University, where she earned her MA in Theology & Ministry and was inducted into Theta Alpha Kappa. She has been running ultramarathons fourteen years. She recently completed her 23rd ultra and 9th 50-mile ultra endurance run. She currently teaches Spirituality & Healing at Rowan University. As an adjunct professor at Neumann University and Manor College, she taught theology and religious studies. She is also working on her memoir—Come What May; I Want to Run. The title comes from 2 Samuel 18:23.

The article’s citation:

Miriam Díaz-Gilbert. “The Ascetic Life of the Ultrarunner.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 18, no. 2 (2018): 201-217.

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Essay: Apocalypses and Mystical Texts: Investigating Prolegomena and the State of Affairs, by Pieter G. R. de Villiers

In this essay which introduces a volume of essays exploring the nature and origin of Jewish mysticism and its relation to Christian mysticism, Pieter de Villiers describes modern developments in the study of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and mystical texts.  Here is his summary of the essay:

Early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and mystical texts have a complicated history of interpretation. Eventually, many were discarded or neglected by faith communities, only to resurface and, ironically, to become a central theme of research in Jewish and Early Christian studies in modern times. The contemporary interest in both these collections of texts is the outcome of scholarly research of many centuries. Initially this research responded to the rediscovery of texts, but gradually it intensified as scholars came to appreciate their importance for the interpretation of biblical times. Of the two collections, apocalypses received more attention than mystical texts because faith communities had to account for the inclusion of Daniel and Revelation in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures while other apocalypses were excluded. This was not easy, given the large number of apocalypses that were in circulation. Over time, research on them became complex, not only because of new manuscript finds, but also because of the many debates about their nature, contents and function.

Mystical texts received less attention in biblical scholarship. It was only from the second half of the twentieth century that mystical texts were researched in more depth and explored as significant phenomena in the religious discourse of antiquity, especially in apocalypses. Research into mysticism resulted from the discovery of mystical texts and the realisation that they offered vital clues for the interpretation of apocalypses.

This essay also illuminates how apocalyptic research offers a significant hermeneutical key to the interpretation of Judaism and Christianity. This selective overview of a complicated history of reception will focus on how apocalyptic research, once it became a discipline within the academic discourse in late modernity, overcame its initial ignorance of mystical texts to embrace them as vital clues for its understanding of apocalypses. It analyzes the hurdles that apocalyptic research had to overcome to determine its relevant sources and, also, the process that ultimately led to its discovery of the intricate interaction with mystical texts.

The article then analyses the history of mystical research in modern times, with attention to the work of Gershom Scholem, who noted how the mystical experience was expressed primarily and uniquely through the notions of a heavenly ascent motif, supported by other motifs like the throne, angels in attendance and the seven heavens. It then discusses the contribution of Ithamar Gruenwald who accepted Scholem’s thesis of a shared mystical experience and tradition that stretched from apocalyptic texts to Hekhalot traditions. Unlike Scholem he traces the earliest post-biblical traces of Merkabah mysticism to apocalyptic literature and biblical texts. It then investigates how scholars reacted against this research by pointing out the many differences between mystical texts in the various historical periods, thereby challenging the claim that they reflect a unified development. Attention is then given to various readings within Jewish scholarship of mystical texts. There is, firstly, the interpretation of Idel, who, unlike Scholem and many other scholars, specifically embraced the notion of unio mystica as unitive factor and regarded it as central in mystical texts. Mysticism, he states, “seeks contact, and even unification, with God, in an experiential and subjective manner.” Idel’s work was criticized by Schäfer, who regarded it as an attempt to theologize mystical experience by interpreting mystical texts in terms of their shared spiritual contents. The essay then analyses religious practices as a key characteristic of mystical texts before focusing on the role and nature of experience in mystical thought. The article is concluded with a discussion of the common ground between all the different mystical texts.

Here is the essay’s citation:

De Villiers, Pieter, G. R. “Apocalypses and Mystical Texts: Investigating Prolegomena and the State of Affairs.” In Apocalypticism and Mysticism in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, edited by John J. Collins and Pieter G.R. de Villiers, 7 ff. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.

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