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The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – December 12, 2006

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Classics
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library (December 12, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812974212
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812974218
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 4.8 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #137,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Bernard McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelly Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. His books include Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher; Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons; Antichrist; and the Presence of God multivolume history of Western Christian mysticism. He lives in Chicago.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



Commentary on the Song of Songs


Origen of Alexandria (circa 180–254) was the greatest exegete of the early church. His spiritual reading of the Bible continued to influence later thinkers, despite the condemnation of aspects of his teaching in the sixth century. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Origen’s modern interpreters, once said, “No figure is more invisibly omnipresent in the history of Christian theology.” Origen can also be described as the church’s first explicit mystical theologian. While the mystical element was present in Christianity from the start, it is with the Alexandrian teacher that a formal biblically based mystical theory first emerges.

Origen was not the first to interpret the Song’s account of the bridegroom and bride as the story of the love between Christ and the church, but he furthered this mystical reading by applying it to the relations between Christ and each loving soul. The following four excerpts from the prologue of what survives of his commentary show how he created the elements that were to elevate the Song to the mystical text par excellence in Christian history. The first section describes his overall characterization of the Song as a dramatic account of the process of salvation. The second shows how his dual understanding of human nature (inner and outer person) allowed him to translate the sensual language of the Song into a message about the spiritual senses, the powers of inner perception lost in sin but gradually restored to the soul through the action of grace. In the third selection Origen argues that there is no essential difference between the language of passionate desire (erôs in Greek; amor in Latin) and the biblical word for God’s generous love poured out upon us (agapê/caritas). Finally, in the fourth selection Origen demonstrates how the three books ascribed to Solomon (a type of Christ) form the basis for a biblical paideia, or total education, by which we are brought back to God.

I. The Song of Songs as a Mystical Drama

It seems to me that this little book is an epithalamium, that is to say, a marriage-song, which Solomon wrote in the form of a drama and sang under the figure of the bride, about to wed and burning with heavenly love towards her Bridegroom, who is the Word of God. And deeply indeed did she love him, whether we take her as the soul made in his image, or as the church. But this same scripture also teaches us what words this august and perfect Bridegroom used in speaking to the soul, or to the church, who has been joined to him. And in this same little book that bears the title Song of Songs we recognize moreover things that the bride’s companions said, the maidens that go with her, and also some things spoken by the Bridegroom’s friends and fellows. For the friends of the Bridegroom also, in their joy at his union with the bride, have been enabled to say some things—at any rate those that they had heard from the Bridegroom himself. In the same way we find the bride speaking not to the Bridegroom only, but also to the maidens; likewise the Bridegroom’s words are addressed not to the bride alone, but also to his friends. And that is what we meant just now, when we said that the marriage-song was written in dramatic form. For we call a thing a drama, such as the enaction of a story on the stage, when different characters are introduced and the whole structure of the narrative consists in their comings and goings among themselves. And this work contains these things one by one in their own order, and also the whole body of it consists of mystical utterances.

But it behoves us primarily to understand that, just as in childhood we are not affected by the passion of love, so also to those who are at the stage of infancy and childhood in their interior life—to those, that is to say, who are being nourished with milk in Christ, not with strong meat, and are only beginning “to desire the rational milk without guile” (Heb 5:12)—it is not given to grasp the meaning of these sayings. For in the words of the Song of Songs there is that food, of which the Apostle says that “strong meat is for the perfect”; and that food calls for hearers “who by ability have their senses exercised to the discerning of good and evil” (Heb 5:14). And indeed, if those whom we have called children were to come on these passages, it may be that they would derive neither profit nor much harm, either from reading the text itself, or from going through the necessary explanations. But if any man who lives only after the flesh should approach it, to such a one the reading of this scripture will be the occasion of no small hazard and danger. For he, not knowing how to hear love’s language in purity and with chaste ears, will twist the whole manner of his hearing of it away from the inner spiritual man and on to the outward and carnal; and he will be turned away from the spirit to the flesh and will foster carnal desires in himself, and it will seem to be the divine scriptures that are thus urging and egging him on to fleshly lust!

II. The Inner and Outer Person and the Spiritual Senses

In the beginning of the words of Moses, where the creation of the world is described, we find reference to the making of two men, the first “in the image and likeness of God,” and the second “formed of the slime of the earth” (Gen 1:26, 2:7). Paul the Apostle knew this well; and, being possessed of a very clear understanding of the matter, he wrote in his letters more plainly and with greater lucidity that there are in fact two men in every single man. He says, for instance: “For if our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day”; and again: “For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man” (2 Cor 4:16; Rom 7:22). And he makes some other statements of a similar kind. I think, therefore, that no one ought any longer to doubt what Moses wrote in the beginning of Genesis about the making and fashioning of two men, since he sees Paul, who understood what Moses wrote much better than we do, saying that there are two men in every one of us. Of these two men he tells us that the one, namely, the inner man, is renewed from day to day; but the other, that is, the outer, he declares to be corrupted and weakened in all the saints and in such as he was himself. If anything in regard to this matter still seems doubtful to anyone, it will be better explained in the appropriate places. But let us now follow up what we mentioned before about the inner and the outer man.

The thing we want to demonstrate about these things is that the divine scriptures make use of homonyms; that is to say, they use identical terms for describing different things. And they even go so far as to call the members of the outer man by the same names as the parts and dispositions of the inner man; and not only are the same terms employed, but the things themselves are compared with one another. For instance, a person is a child in age according to the inner man, who has in him the power to grow and to be led onward to the age of youth, and thence by successive stages of development to come to the perfect man and to be made a father. Our own intention, therefore, has been to use such terms as would be in harmony with the language of sacred scripture, and in particular with that which was written by John; for he says: “I have written to you, children, because you have known the Father; I have written to you, fathers, because you have known him who was from the beginning; I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one” (1 Jn 2:12–14). It is perfectly clear; and I think nobody should doubt that John calls these people children or lads or young men or even fathers according to the soul’s age, not the body’s. Paul too says somewhere: “I could not speak to you as spiritual, but as to car- nal, little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat” (1 Cor 3:1). A little one in Christ is undoubtedly so called after the age of his soul, not after that of his flesh. And finally the same Paul says further: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I destroyed childish things” (1 Cor 13:11). And again on another occasion he says: “Until we all meet . . . unto a perfect man; unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). He knows that those who believe will “all meet unto a perfect man” and “unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ.” So, then, just as these different ages that we have mentioned are denoted by the same words both for the outer man and for the inner, so also will you find the names of the members of the body transferred to those of the soul; or rather the faculties and powers of the soul are to be called its members.

III. Amor and Caritas

In these places, therefore, and in many others you will find that divine scripture avoided the word “passion” (erôs) and put “charity” or “affection” (agapê) instead. Occasionally, however, though rarely, it calls the passion of love by its own name, and invites and urges souls to it; as when it says in Proverbs about Wisdom: “Desire her greatly and she will preserve you; encompass her, and she shall exalt you; honor her, that she may embrace you” (Prov 4:6, 8). And in the book that is called the Wisdom of Solomon it is written of Wisdom herself: “I became a passionate lover of her beauty” (Wis 8:2). I think that the word for passionate love was used only where there seemed to be no occa...

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Customer Reviews

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This book helps to ignite a passion for christ.
Nick Troiano
This wonderful collection of Christian mysticism is logically arranged, judiciously selected, and expertly commented on.
Kerry Walters
Thorough and profound overview of great Christian mystics writings.
Antonio Ramirez

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on December 12, 2007
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At last! I've been teaching college courses on philosophy & mysticism for years, and I've always been frustrated by the absence of a good anthology of Christian mysticism. So I've either had to order armfuls of primary texts or settle for mediocre anthologies. But Bernard McGinn, who knows more about Christian mysticism than anyone else, has saved me (and others!). This wonderful collection of Christian mysticism is logically arranged, judiciously selected, and expertly commented on. How wonderful!

Selections are from ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary mystics, and from western as well as orthodox traditions. Fathers of the Desert, the Beguines, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Hugh of St. Victor, Symeon, Macarius, Eckhart, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux: these and many other Christian mystics are excerpted in sections that cover topics such as Biblical Interpretation, Asceticism and Purgation, Inner and Outer Practices, Trinity, Christ, Vision, Deification, and Love and Knowledge. McGinn even concludes with a section that focuses on the social/moral relevance of Christian mysticism, which would be nicely complemented by a reading of Dorothee Soelle's The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance.

McGinn's book is bound to be the definitive collection for years to come. Highly, highly recommended--and highly welcome.
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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Diane Lombardo on March 2, 2009
Format: Paperback
For anyone on a spiritual journey, this book is fantastic. I have been carrying it around for over a year and read it through twice. From the teachings of Christian Mystics and Saints, you will understand how to be totally honest with yourself and permit the Holy Trinity to reign in your life. This book can become your "how-to" if you desire to achieve union with God.

Paperback has 559 pages. Includes: Contents of 3 Parts and 15 Sections, Preface, Introduction with a note on the translations, Bibliography with earliest citation "Studies of English Mystics" 1906, and a page About The Editor. The three Parts are entitled: Foundations of Mystical Practice (Origen of Alexandria c.180 to Madame Guyon c.1648), Aspects of Mystical Consciousness, Implications of the Mystical Life.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Gary Sprandel on August 2, 2009
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McGinnn presents a topically arranged selection of 17 hundred years of writing about Christian Mysticism. The broad topics start with Foundation of Mystical practice with highlights including Bernard of Clairvaux's sermon of the Song of Songs ("I feel that the Kind has not one bedroom only, but many", an Life of Mary of Oignies by James of Vitry ("at times she would rest sweetly with the Lord in a pleasant and blessed salience for thirty-five days, during this time taking no bodily food, and being unable to say anything but "I want the Body of Lord Jesus Christ". ". Throughout are introduced strong prayer elements as the Way of the Pilgrim ("Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner") and negative ("stripping away') dimensions as John of the Cross "Upon a Dark night.

The longest section is on aspects of mystical consciousness. Some remarkable sections there include Mechthild of Magdeburg on the Trinity ("I am an overflowing spring that no one can block"), and Julian of Norwich's love (`he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut in the palm on my hand. ... it is all that is made. ... It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it". The anonymous 14th century "beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing with the dart of your loving desire". There are some remarkable manifestations of the mystic life as St. Francis's stigmata, or Benedict seeing the bishop of Capua carried to heaven in a fiery sphere on angels. Perhaps my favorite quite is Meister Eckhart "The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me." Perhaps the chapter on distress and dereliction may be the most puzzling, but consoling.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Nick Troiano on September 2, 2009
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As christians we struggle with the do's and dont's of Christanity and lose what true christianity is and was meant to be. This book helps to ignite a passion for christ. To serve out of love, To become one with christ in a world that draws you farther away each day.It helps to show that no two lives are the same and there are no blueprints for our christian walk. It teaches that our relationship with GOD is the most important relationship we will ever have, and our only joy is in him.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By William Fulbright on June 18, 2009
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One of the very best compendiums of Christian mystical writers. Perfect for the beginning student to provide a broad spectrum of insight, as well as for the advanced/matured scholar who wants either a reference or exposure to the great authors.

I have found it an invaluable resource, authoritative and easy to use.

I will be buying ther books from Bernard McGinn!!!
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Long on October 19, 2008
Format: Paperback
Very well put together, this book is unique because it arranges the texts by theme rather than chronologically as in most anthologies of Christian mysticism. The depth of the book will really help to reader to become familiar with both the themes and authors of the Christian mystical tradition.
I must add that the notion that Christian mystics teach a unity of all religions and that Christ and the Trinity are just symbols of a deeper reality is an interpretive paradigm of modern scholars that is not reflected in the writings the Christian mystics themselves. They were simply devote Christians who experienced God in a deep and meaningful way.
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