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19.09.14 Cornet, The Arnhem Mystical Sermons

19.09.14 Cornet, The Arnhem Mystical Sermons

In The Arnhem Mystical Sermons, Ineke Cornet presents a systematic study of one sixteenth-century sermon collection from the canonnesses of St. Agnes in Arnhem, the Netherlands. The spirituality of these sermons combines mystical, liturgical, and Trinitarian elements: "Sink with a fathomless nothingness of yourself in God's great almightiness, and worship, honour and praise with an abyssal sinking and bowing the high divinity in Christ's spirit" (251). The sermons thus explore the inner ascent to union with God as an inner celebration of the liturgy. When the sisters read from the Missal and meditate on the material, they make their way into a mystical Mass.

The book has six chapters. In the first chapter, Cornet introduces the manuscript, the audience, the authorship, and the function of the text. She also gives a short description of the historical context of St. Agnes Monastery in the age of Catholic Reform. In the second chapter, Cornet studies the textual and conceptual parallels with Ruusbroec and Eckhart. The Arnhem Sermons "creatively integrate" both Brabantine and Rhineland mysticism. In the third chapter, Cornet examines the parallels with the "liturgical mysticism" of similar texts, including the contemporaneous treatises Evangelical Pearl and Temple of Our Soul and the sermons of the fourteenth-century German Dominican Johannes Tauler. These works are part of the same "literary network" (99). In the fourth chapter, Cornet dives deeper into the theme of the text: the mystical understanding of the liturgy. Central is the mystical dimension of Church dedication, of the Scriptures and liturgical texts, and of (Mary's) priesthood and the Eucharist. The connection between liturgy and mysticism has a long tradition, going back to Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Benedict of Nursia, Richard of St. Victor, and others. In the fifth chapter, Cornet describes the tripartite structure of the human person as an image of God and the inner ascent in relation to the imitation of Christ in these sermons. Important concepts are spirit, ground, mind, and memory. In the final chapter, Cornet explains the understanding of union with God in these sermons as a mutual enjoyment, a transformation, a contemplation of the Trinity, and a reflection of Christ's uniqueness. The book ends with four appendices (a transcription of Sermon 128 and lists of the manuscripts of St. Agnes, of hapax legomena, and of marginal decorations), a bibliography, and a short index.

Due to Cornet's in-depth study of this one collection and her close-reading approach with many quotations and illustrations from the source, The Arnhem Mystical Sermons draws the reader into the very particular spirituality of the text and, in a way, also into oneself. In my experience, reading this book is a meditation in itself. What sets these sixteenth-century sermons apart from many others is their strong liturgical-meditative focus based on a fourteenth-century mystical interest. The function of the outer liturgy is to lead into an inner experience and enjoyment of the divine in a union enjoyed by God as well. When the senses turn inward during liturgical acts performed in the outer temple, the human person is purified, illuminated, and united with God in the spirit and thus becomes a temple himself. In the same way, in lectio divina, when the storm of the mind calms down in liturgical-mystical meditation, the soul starts to see with the inner eye and becomes strengthened by holy virtues. Inner worship itself is characterized by various oppositions and contrasts: ascent and descent, activity and passivity, slow progress and unexpected experience (unity with God being "swift, secret, and supernatural," 300), and so forth. Aiming at the systematic integration of liturgy into the inner ascent and the structure of the human person (288), the sermons combine a positive with a negative theology.

The Arnhem Mystical Sermons thus covers a double mysticalization: on the one hand, the process of achieving mystical union through the reading of the Missal and the celebration of the Mass; on the other hand, the process of interiorization of a synthesized and vernacularized Latin tradition, including Ps.-Augustine, Jordanus of Quedlinburg, and Jan Mombaer. If precisely this is what sets this fascinating text apart from many other works, it remains unclear what sets its owners apart from many other "female, monastic, praying" communities (9). Whereas the--male or female--maker remains unknown, almost nothing is said about the practice of liturgical mysticism in the convent or beyond. Where the inner spirituality of the text is linked to the outer life of the Arnhem sisters and the background of their mystical culture (of living spirituality?), statements remain vague and sketchy: "The Arnhem mystical sermons are also embedded in movements to reform the Church, in which mystical literature played an important role" (41); "The analysis above shows that the Arnhem mystical sermons and the Temple of Our Soul not only share many common themes and their literary network" (148); and "The sermons are part of a sixteenth-century literary network of authors and publishers" (351). Missing throughout the book is historical context, especially with regard to the use of this sermon collection in the convent and its interconnectedness with the Modern Devout, the Carthusians of Cologne, and female networks. Furthermore, interior reformation and inner celebration as a gift from God ("Only God can bring this about in whomever he wants and whenever he wants," 178) are nowhere explicitly connected to the Reformation.

Very laudable is Cornet's commitment to a systematic, source-based investigation of the spiritual core of these sermons. Explaining key concepts, schemes, and metaphors with great theological competence, she offers a clear treatment of the main message of this sixteenth-century mystical text. Refreshing is the lack of modern ideological frameworks which unnecessarily complicate the understanding of medieval theology. I am reminded here of a new publication on "ambiguous women in medieval art," a volume whose contributors "approach the question of ambiguity in relation to different case-studies where the represented women do not follow the ever-present dichotomy exemplified by Eve and Mary. In doing so, they demonstrate the complexities of a topic that is as contemporary as it is ancient. Through them, we can get valuable insights on the understanding and experience of gender in the past and the ways in which these experiences have shaped our own understanding of this topic." Cornet's presentation of these mystical sermons intended for cloistered nuns that are praying the Latin Office shows that we really do not need such deconstructive vagueness in order to understand female imagery and spirituality in the Middle Ages. These sermons, which "exhort religious women to live up to their vocation, not just externally, but through a complete inner dedication to God" (15), convey neither ambiguity nor complexity, but rather a considerable portion of the plain female spiritual power found not only in praying communities in sixteenth-century Arnhem.