Bernard McGinn delivers the Étienne Gilson Lecture in Toronto April 4. Laura Ieraci

Renowned scholar of Christian mysticism receives honorary degree in Toronto

  • April 29, 2023

CHICAGO -- Sitting at his desk in his cozy home office in Chicago, eminent Catholic theologian Bernard McGinn describes his most recent book project over a Zoom call, his warm personality emanating through the computer screen.

The 85-year-old native New Yorker and renowned professor emeritus of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School had learned a few weeks prior he would be conferred an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (PIMS) at the University of Toronto and would deliver the institute’s prestigious Étienne Gilson Lecture.

“I have my diminishments of age,” the scholar said modestly at the time, but was able to attend the PIMS convocation April 3 with Pat, his wife of more than 50 years. The presentation of McGinn to the university community cited his extensive scholarship and prolific writing on mystical theology, as well as his decades-long commitment to “understand and communicate” medieval cultural heritage.

McGinn is the most well-known and well-respected scholar of Western mysticism, contributing to the revival of mystical theology in the Church in the past 50 years. His major works include a nine-volume, 5,000-page series on the history of mystical theology, from the early Church to 1700. The last seven volumes were grouped into a collection titled The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.

The first volume, The Foundations of Mysticism, was published in 1991. The ninth, published 30 years later, documents the crisis in mysticism that followed the pope’s condemnation in the 17th century of contemplative prayer practices known as Quietism.

Catholic mysticism “was pushed to the margins and denigrated for a long time,” he said. “Mysticism in Catholicism was basically moribund — it was dead — for the next almost 200 years.”

McGinn also served on the founding editorial board of the well-known “Classics of Western Spirituality” series by Paulist Press and was its general editor from 1988 to 2015. The first volume — there are now more than 130 — was published in 1978. Millions of books in this series have sold, he said, evidence of the interest and need of contemporary people to be nourished by the mystical tradition.

McGinn’s Étienne Gilson Lecture on the theme “God and the One: A Critical Tribute to Étienne Gilson,” which is to be published by PIMS, was largely in homage of Gilson, whose writings were foundational in his own approach to medieval intellectual history. McGinn had first encountered the French scholar’s writings on medieval philosophy in 1959, during his studies at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

After completing a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1963, McGinn pursued his interest in medieval studies, earning a doctorate in medieval history in 1970.

In 1968, prior to completing his doctorate, he joined the theology faculty at Catholic University of America. The next year, McGinn was recruited by the University of Chicago, one of several prominent Protestant Divinity Schools across the United States at the time seeking to recruit Catholic professors in response to the increased enrolment of Catholic students post-Vatican II.

McGinn was hired to teach medieval and patristic theology. However, his students’ interest in the mystical literature he had introduced as part of his class readings reoriented his career.

His students mirrored the fervent interest in spirituality and mysticism that emerged as a general cultural phenomenon in the 1960s. He described it as “a movement of the Holy Spirit” that revealed the importance of this dimension of the human person that needs to be nourished, and McGinn went about the work of publishing apt resources to meet that need.

Although retired from the University of Chicago since 2003, McGinn continues his association with the school and gives at least two lectures per year at the Lumen Christi Institute, a Catholic nonprofit organization on campus dedicated to promoting the Catholic intellectual tradition.

His two lectures this year were drawn from his new book, Modern Mystics: An Introduction, fresh off the press April 10. Written as a popular book for a wider audience, the 348-page volume profiles 10 mystics — five women and five men — who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. They include Catholic monks and nuns, but also lay people and non-Catholics.

McGinn said his selection was motivated by his interest in “teasing out some distinctive themes of modern mysticism,” such as interreligious dialogue, the relationship between the political and the mystical, and mystics as living on the margins of society.

Erudite in Eastern Christian theology as well, McGinn’s stay in Toronto also saw him take part as one of three panelists at the inaugural “Theologia Colloquium” of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College.

Ever the indefatigable scholar, McGinn is considering writing a new book on the interpretation of the Gospel of John by the great mystics and theologians of the early and medieval Church.

Reflecting on the past 50 years, McGinn said the Church today is not as threatened by mysticism as it once was. However, he admits to having spent much of his career “trying to overcome the error” that to be mystical is to have visions.

“All the great mystics have insisted that the essence of mystical consciousness or contemplation is greater love of God and greater love of neighbour and … of an immediate sense of God’s presence,” he explained. “This is part of the vocation of Christian baptism, that you are called to an increasingly deeper sense of God’s presence in your life, which is all that mysticism is.”

To be a mystic simply requires devoting time to some form of contemplative prayer, to silence and openness to God, he said, a practice he keeps faithfully.

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