The National Catholic Review
Rachelle Linner
In Wonderful and Dark Is This Road, Emilie Griffin, the respected author or co-editor of 14 books (including Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion and Clinging: The Experience of Prayer) has written, in a comfortably ruminative tone, an accessible introduction to mysticism. Griffin has synthesized scholarship and her own deep reading of original texts into a modest but nonetheless valuable book. (The title is taken from a passage in Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., about the way of pure faith that enables us to find God at every moment....Yet so wonderful and dark is this road that we need great faith to walk along it.)

Griffin provides a concise presentation of the stages of the mystic journey, from awakening (a person is summoned out of their ordinary existence in a direct meeting with God) through purification, detachment (a holy indifference’ to the accidents of life), darkness and purgation (necessary to cure the soul of the innate tendency to seek and rest in spiritual joys), illumination and the unitive life (an intimacy with God which continues in the day-to-day course of our existence). By reminding us that God offers particular gifts of grace suited to each person she avoids oversimplifying the distinctions between kataphatic (affirmative) and apophatic (negative) mysticism. She acknowledges the unusual phenomena that are sometimes used to discredit mysticism. Remarkable religious expressions may happen when hearts are on fire for God, but mysticism should not be equated with the strange or the paranormal. Griffin pays attention to and interprets the intimate, erotic love language of the mystics, which is the best they can do to speak of a love that is ineffable, unknowable, beyond imagining.

Griffin writes about the saints, poets, religious leaders and authors one associates with mysticism, but she also expands the discussion to include a thoughtful portrait of St. Paul as a mystic and prophet. The Hebrew prophet laid himself open to being possessed by the Divine. The prophetic ideal is a mystical ideal.... Paul’s discourse, she convincingly argues, is filled with ways of speaking about God and Christ which are rare, special, inspired by an intimate knowledge of the Almighty. She places George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, in the same prophetic tradition. A chapter on group mysticism ranges from Fox and the early Quaker communities to the contemporary Catholic charismatic renewal. She draws parallels between Quaker, Shaker and Catholic contemplative spirituality, Sufi mystics and John Wesley’s Methodist revival. An equally broad and eclectic chapter on everyday mysticism ranges from Jewish meditation and Kaballah to Karl Rahner’s mysticism of joy in the world, and includes figures like Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and St. Alphonsus Rodriguez.

Wonderful and Dark Is This Road includes numerous extracts, biographical profiles, summaries of historical developments and spiritual movements that, along with its fine bibliography, can serve as a good beginning for a study of mysticism. But Griffin also wants to foster an experiential appreciation of mysticism, and she does this in a balanced, prudent manner. Mystics may seem rare and strange to us precisely because they have given themselves to God so completely, as we ourselves lack the courage to do. Are they like us or different from us? Are we, too, called to follow the mystic path? She does not conflate contemplation and mysticism, and insists on distinctions between mystics and those who are merely far advanced in the spiritual life. To become a mystic is...to enter into a deep encounter with God in a humble, hidden, and entirely mysterious way. It is about God’s unfailing love. It is about the mystery of the cross. It is about an encounter with the power of God in the middle of things: an encounter that is hidden, inexpressible, ineffable, and real.

Griffin is a trustworthy guide to mysticism. She writes with the unmistakable authenticity and authority of a woman steeped in prayer and, like Evelyn Underhill (whom she both respects and quotes at length), she exhibits a healthy combination of practicality and spiritual integrity. Her straightforward prose contains an unspoken rebuke to attitudes of entitlement that have seeped into some popular spiritual writing. Humility and charitythe essential virtues and fruit of the spiritual lifeare the recurrent notes sounded in this book, because, as the author reminds us, the mystics do not desire to become mystics. They desire to know God at the greatest level of intimacy possible for themselves. And they know their limitations. They come as beggars to the throne, not saying, Lord, please make me a mystic, but rather, Lord, I want to know you better.

Rachelle Linner, a librarian and writer, lives in Boston, Mass.