The Medieval Review 11.06.03

Kallendorf, Hilaire. A New Companion to Hispanic Mysticism. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. 516. $229. 978-90-04-18350-6. .

Reviewed by:

Barbara Mujica
Georgetown University

This new collection of essays enriches our understanding of Hispanic mysticism in several ways. For one thing, it highlights the intrinsic interdisciplinarity of the subject by including essays by specialists in disparate fields, among them religion, history, literature, music, and women's studies. The multiple perspectives enable readers to establish connections between mysticism and such unexpected subjects as horticulture, architecture, music, Islamic influence in Spain, and twentieth-century existentialism. For another thing, the collection draws attention to centrality of female voices in the Hispanic mystical tradition, showing how women living in an intensely patriarchal culture were able to carve out a spiritual space for themselves. In addition, the book expands the "mystical canon" by including studies of not only the best known mystics (Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross), but also of others, such as Luisa de Carvajal and María de la Visitación. Finally, by focusing on Hispanic rather than Spanish mystics, Kallendorf enhances our appreciation of the reach of Spanish mysticism beyond Spain and into the New World.

A provocative Prologue by Colin Thompson introduces the collection. Thompson urges readers to embrace the paradoxes of mysticism, rather than to resort to facile explanations. The mystic's struggle to express the inexpressible and the tensions between the power of the centralized Church hierarchy and the powerlessness of mystics, always on the margins, provide fertile ground for exploration, suggests Thompson. Although modern scholars sometimes dismiss the mystics' claim to supernatural experience, Thompson believes we have much to learn from the spiritual sensitivities of earlier generations. He challenges readers to put aside their preconceived notions about mysticism and allow themselves to question our own culture's notion of what it means to be human. He notes that a healthier appreciation for the spiritual dimension might actually help us to lead more fruitful lives.

The collection is divided into three parts. The first, entitled "Larger Trends," includes essays dealing with general topics. One of the best of this group is "Religious Autobiography," by Fernando Durán López, which argues that early modern Vidas, or life stories, were not only vehicles for expressing spiritual restlessness and devotion, but also for control and repression. Because nuns were barred from participating in doctrinal debates, they channeled their thoughts through autobiographies in which they recounted their lived experience. Early modern nuns produced myriad Vidas under obedience, but unlike Saint Teresa's Life, which reached a wide readership, most of these circulated only intraconventually. These texts came increasingly under the control of authorities who focused on the didactic and the exemplary in order to avoid challenges to orthodoxy. If the manuscript was published for a wider audience (usually after the nun's death), distrust of autonomous female authors made it essential that the name of a male confessor or hagiographer appear on her book instead of her own.

Another outstanding essay in this section is Alastair Hamilton's "The Alumbrados: Dejamiento and Its Practitioners." Hamilton explains that although it is difficult to pinpoint the beliefs of the dejados, we de know that they practiced a form of "abandonment," or relinquishment of the self to God, and considered themselves as divinely inspired people of the spirit. Mostly of converso origin, they flourished around Guadalajara, where they had contacts with Franciscans and several aristocratic households, from the beginning of the sixteenth century until their arrests between 1524 and the late 1530s. The practices of the dejados reflected the spiritual unrest of the time. As more and more works by Luther were smuggled into Spain, Inquisitors began to associate Lutheranism with conversos and their esoteric spiritual practices. Dejamiento was a hybrid movement, mystical in essence, with roots in reformed Franciscanism, but also similar to Lutheranism in its criticism of certain Catholic practices and the emphasis on individual sinfulness. It was also compatible with the Lutheran teaching of justification by faith. For these reasons, it was soon declared heretical.

Although the article on Portuguese mysticism by José Adriano de Frietas Carvalho is essentially an inventory of texts by Portuguese authors, the sheer number of books he cites gives the reader a sense of the extensiveness of interest in mysticism in early modern Portugal. Francisco Morales reinforces the sense of mysticism's reach in "New World Franciscan Mystical Practice," in which he explores the role of mysticism in the cultural exchange between Franciscans and the sixteenth-century Nahuas of central Mexico. Morales shows that intercultural dialogue was possible because Franciscans and Nahuas shared many concepts and traditions. In particular, Franciscan penitential practices coincided with those of the native religion. In addition, dreams and revelations were an important part of both cultures. The classical works of the Devotio moderna were translated into Nahuatl and found an audience among Nahua converts. Morales concludes with an appeal for more study of Nahua Christian literature.

Part II, "Specific Figures," contains studies of individual mystics. In her article on the influence of Juana de la Cruz, who claimed to be a prophet and visionary through whom Christ spoke, Jessica A. Boon shows how this late fifteenth/early-sixteenth century nun managed to encroach on the male spheres of theology and preaching without incurring censure. Boon explains that Juana understood her activities through her relationship with Mary, not Christ. Mary played an important role in both her profession and visionary experience, and Juana saw her authority to serve as a vehicle for Christ's words as a result of her Marian identification. In "John of the Cross, the Difficult Icon," Jane Ackerman helps to elucidate one of the fundamental problems of mysticism: the pedagogical role of language for the contemplative. Ackerman argues that although John wrote treatises on mystical union, he never wanted his readers to simply accept words as religious signs. Although he preached and wrote efficaciously, he saw language as marginal to spiritual transformation. He meant for mature readers to forgo seeking meaning in his texts and rather respond to divine agency. Luce López-Baralt argues in "Teresa of Jesus and Islam" that Teresa's most powerful image, the multi-mansioned castle, has parallels in Islamic culture dating from the early Middle Ages, but she does not present evidence of direct links between Teresa's writing and Islamic sources. Darcy Donahue's essay on Saint Ignatius of Loyola summarizes what is known about the saint's life and explains how his mystical experiences and spiritual practices influenced his activism, especially the founding of the Society of Jesus.

The last four essays in this section deal with lesser known religious figures, all of them women. Cecilia del Nacimiento, the subject of the contribution by Evelyn Toft, is just beginning to attract intense scholarly attention. Toft argues that the beatification (1614) and canonization (1622) of Saint Teresa provided a degree of protection for women's cultivation of contemplative experience and production of spiritual texts. Cecilia's poetry and prose offer a detailed exploration of her spiritual experiences, and her treatise on mystical union is so deft and insightful that it rivals Saint John's. The autobiography of the Colombian nun Jerónima Nava y Saavedra, elucidated by Clara E. Herrera, demonstrates the difficulty of establishing the authorship of some significant Vidas authored by women. Signed by her confessor, Father Juan de Olmos y Zapiaín, the work is now believed to have been written by Jerónima. Herrera shows how the structure of Catherine of Siena's writing and the rhetorical strategies used by Saint Teresa influenced Teresa. It should be mentioned, however, that several of the devices used by Teresa (for example, the rhetoric of humility and the language of erotic spirituality) are common in much of the spiritual writing of the time, not only Teresa's, and are particularly common in that of women. In her article on Luisa de Carvajal, Glyn Redworth departs from the predominant Teresian model, arguing that Carvajal was influenced mainly by Jesuit activism. Redworth suggests that although Carvajal expressed moments of euphoria in her youth, she did not see herself as a mystic and would probably wish to be remembered for her active public life rather than for her ecstasies. Freddy Domínguez's essay on María de la Visitación, "La monja de Lisboa," (The Nun of Lisbon) deals with another religious "celebrity" whose classification as a mystic is problematic. María was famous in her time for her piety, her raptures, and her miracles. However, her fame incited jealousy among other nuns, who alleged that her spiritual experiences were feigned. Furthermore, María's vitriolic prophesies against the Spanish Habsburgs created animosity from the political elite. Eventually, she fell from grace when the Inquisition deemed fraudulent her claims to mystical experience.

"Interdisciplinary Applications," Part III of Kallendorf's collection, brings together essays relating mysticism to diverse topics. Maryrica Ortiz Lottman's "The Gardens of Teresa of Avila" explores Teresa's depictions of flora and fauna, which were inherited from Christian and Islamic traditions. Lottman argues that Teresa was probably influenced by the gardens of Saint Augustine's Confessions, New Testament sources, and the garden-like landscape of Mount Carmel, the legendary origin of the Carmelite order. In "Home, Sweet Home," María Mercedes Carrión investigates the convivencia of Christian and Islamic mystical signs present in Teresa's writing, in particular, El libro de las fundaciones, which describes not only the foundations Teresa made but also the physical spaces they occupied. Carrera argues that the canonization of Teresa has resulted in an over-identification of her images with architectural theories and practices that contradict the polysemic meaning of her writing and her convent buildings themselves. She suggests that closer attention to mudéjar architecture can help elucidate the architectural elements used by Teresa. In her fascinating article on mysticism in Cervantes' Persiles, Christina H. Lee shows how in the episode of Feliciana de la Voz Cervantes questions the authenticity of mystical experience. Although Cervantes shows a profound respect for the spiritual quest, argues Lee, he doubts the efficacy of the otherworldly to solve problems that arise in the temporal world. This article is particularly significant because it shows how attitudes toward mysticism in Spain began to change as Europe moved into the period of Cartesian rationalism. In "Suspensio Animi, or the Interweaving of Mysticism and Artistic Creation," Elena del Río Parra explores how detachment from the self becomes a creative force in the Renaissance and Baroque and then later in modern existentialist writing. The third section concludes with Tess Knighton's study of music and mysticism, a sensitive exploration of the role of music as a conduit between human devotion and the divine. Beginning with a reexamination of Fray Luis de Leon's "Oda a Salinas" and advancing through the thoughts of other religious thinkers, Knighton considers how music frees the mind for contemplation and ultimately for mystical union.

The reader emerges from reading Kallendorf's collection with a sense of the myriad possibilities for personal and cultural exploration that mysticism offers. With few exceptions the essays are well crafted (or well translated) and provide a wealth of information on religious thought, spiritual practice, early modern Spain, and a host of other subjects. The collection is not only a useful tool for scholars and students, but also a pleasurable read. Hilaire Kallendorf is to be congratulated.