The ninth guest of the Lowell Humanities Series, Bernard McGinn, spoke on Wednesday night to describe his recent writings on Spanish Mystic John of the Cross within his most recent publication Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Biography and Mysticism in the Reformation (1500-1650), the sixth volume in a seven volume history of Christian mysticism, which was published in November of 2016.
Started in 1957, the Lowell Humanities Series has hosted well-known authors and journalists such as George Saunders, Alison Bechdel, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The event, held in Devlin 100, was comprised of an hour lecture followed by a period of time for questions and a book signing.
McGinn, a Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies at The University of Chicago, has dedicated his life to studying works in the history of Christianity and Christian thought, with a focus on the medieval period. He has also written extensively on subjects such as the history of apocalyptic thought, with a recent interest in spirituality and mysticism, respectively.
What is a mystic? According to McGinn, it is one who is “committed to the search for a deeper contact with God.
The main focus of McGinn’s lecture was on the writings of 16th Century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, or San Juan de la Cruz. Born in 1542, John of the Cross was a part of the Carmelite order and a major figure in the Counter-Reformation who wrote the majority of his work during a tumultuous period in Spain. McGinn mainly discussed The Song of Songs (Canciónes del Alma), which contains perhaps some of John of the Cross’ most revered work. McGinn sees The Song of Songs as a collection of poems that both ‘deepens and widens’ the spiritual cavity in the history of John of the Cross’ mysticism.
Since McGinn’s name is a big one in modern theology, it was no surprise that the audience was filled mostly theology professors and doctoral students. The occasional undergraduate was scattered throughout the crowd, but as McGinn lectured, it became clear why the audience was so heavily skewed towards the faculty. McGinn’s speech was complex, difficult, and full of theological jargon. The audience members who were neither religious nor versed in theology faced an incredible challenge in trying to understand his delineation of John of the Cross. The saint is an obvious choice for a mystic and deserves to be spoken about, but it seemed that the hyper-focused approach excluded those who had come to this Lowell Series in the hopes of expanding their knowledge of theology as an academic level.
The most intriguing part of the whole night was when students and faculty presented their questions to McGinn, whose answers took on quite a different tone from his speech. Speaking more casually, McGinn provided a welcomed contrast to his more focused speech. Perhaps the most interesting questions asked had to do with the interpretation of John of the Cross’ art in the context of the contemporary societal trends in Spain.
In his response, McGinn cited John of the Cross’ painting that portrayed Jesus being crucified from above as an example of a piece of art that serves to comment upon and add to scripture, ultimately as an aim to subtly influence the interpretation of the scripture while staying within the confines of an oppressive Spanish government in the 16th Century.
Featured Image By Celine Lim / Heights Staff