Review of Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete's "Mirror of Simple Souls"

by Joanne Maguire Robinson
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete's "Mirror of Simple Souls"
Book Author
Joanne Maguire Robinson
Book Publisher
State University of New York Press
Place of Publication
9780791449677 More info
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Paul Lachance
The Journal of Religion
Select License
September 17th, 2012

The Journal of Religion

Scholia on Colossians the centerpiece and frame of reference for the entire discus- sion. (Avery great strength of Wengert's research, by the way, is his thoroughness and clarity in mapping out the tangled history of this text, subtly edited in succes- sive versions from 1527 to 34.) But still more important is his sense of the text's on- going purpose as an intensely polemical work (my term, not Wengert's). Of course this demands that we seriously rethink standard notions about the supposed func- tion of all Melanchthon's major texts. Awareness of the depth and reach of this text disposes Wengert to use it as a means of illumining the wider world of its pur- poseful interaction, particularly with Erasmus. Although Melanchthon never mentioned him by name in any of the editions, Wengert shows beyond serious con- troversy that Erasmus was constantly in polemical view. In this space I cannot be- gin to comment adequately on the richness that comes through Wengert's metic- ulous following of one clue and another, especially in letters exchanged between Melanchthon and others, to make connections that are as sound in support of his argument as they are original.

Wengert's thesis is that in these years-the very time when Melanchthon is sup- posed to have begun caving in to "Erasmianism"-the disagreement with Erasmus (and thus basic agreement with Luther) on the free will could not have been sharper than it was. Conflict existed on every main level-in exegetical method, in use of patristic tradition, and in theology. Most central were Melanchthon's en- during convictions that human and divine righteousness were entirely different things, that this distinction was basic to Christianity itself, and that Erasmus never really did understand or accept that it was. All that being so, whatever changes Melanchthon made in his view of human freedom to make it seem more Eras- mian-notably from 1532 onward-fade in comparison with this unbridgeable (as they both saw it was) difference between the two men.

I believe that Wengert's discussion in chapter 4 ("Ratio seu Methodus Melanchthonis"), for all its incisive analysis, would be a good deal more com- prehensible to nonexperts had he included a brief summary of Melanchthon's uniquely integrated understanding of rhetoric, so that Melanchthon's idiosyn- cratic use of technical terms would not have come up piecemeal and thus in an unnecessarily difficult fashion for reading. I also suspect that Wengert sometimes presses the evidence too neatly into his larger interpretive view-for instance, perhaps minimizing too much Melanchthon's growing interest in reaching out to Erasmus himself when revising his presentation on free will and predestination (see arguments on pp. 149, 157-58). I also wonder if the explanation for these very momentous changes lies quite so completely in mere external (ecumenical) and internal (pastoral) concerns as Wengert asserts that it does. For the changes also came with fresh interest in the divine attributes (not discussed by Wengert), and (considering Melanchthon's passion for integration) these, too, may have pressed him for a more rationally coherent doctrine of divine election. But Wengert's book clearly ranks with the very best studies of Melanchthon that we have in print. JOHN R. SCHNEIDER,

Caluin College.


Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Poretek "Mirror of Simple Souls." SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2001. xvi+ 178 pp. $17.95 (paper).

In his magisterial history of Christian mysticism, Bernard McGinn describes Marguerite of Porete as one of the four "female evangelists" of thirteenth-century

Book Reviews

mysticism, the other three being Angela of Foligno, Hadewijch, and Mechthild of Magdeburg (Flowering of Mysticism [New York, 19981, pp. 141-42). He does so to underscore the daring ways in which these women mystics described their union with God and the divine authority that they claimed for their writings. Of the four, Marguerite has received the most recent scholarly attention, likely, because her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, is not only the most challenging but perhaps because it is also the most subversive and transgressive. Joanne Maguire Robin- son's is the first book-length study and is a welcome addition to the literature on this important mystic, which has been burgeoning these past fifty years ever since Romania Guarnieri identified its author in 1946. In this compact and well- wrought book, Robinson skirts issues already treated by others, such as whether Marguerite was a heretic or not and the religious and political motivations be- hind her being burned at the stake. Robinson also quite rightly contends that gender concerns, important as they are and which inform much of contemporary woman's scholarship, do not do full justice to the way in which Marguerite adopts and transmutes social ideas into her innovative theological speculations. Robin- son argues, and this is the focus of her book, that Marguerite's exceedingly com- plex treatise is based on "an explicitly nongendered classification of souls into noble and non-noble, a hierarchy based on a God-given inborn spiritual status" (xii). The focus of Marguerite's argument then is to demonstrate that because of its noble lineage it is possible for a soul to be totally annihilated and rediscover its own nothingness, its primal being in the Trinity. In the initial chapters Robin- son sets the stage for the development of her thesis by analyzing the complex and ambiguous medieval notion of nobility and by succinctly situating the Mirror? place in the maelstrom of medieval beguine spirituality She also summarizes, per- ha~stoo tidilv. the comvlex seven-stage vath-a 1 structure that defies structure-


that leads to the soul's annihilation. Furthermore, she duly notes that if in the early stages of the soul's annihilation the usual mediations, such as obeying the com- mandments, cultivating the virtues, and imitation of Christ are necessary, these are downplayed, and must be taken leave of in the final stages, which are marked by an emptying of the will, "a union without an intermediary" (p. 87). The fourth chapter is the one that develops most completely, the annihilation-spiritual no- bility motif and Marguerite's dialectical and esoteric speculations. It is because of the nobility of their lineage within the Trinitarian dispensation, one not earned by any merit, that some select souls can become aware at once of their own wretchedness and divine goodness; learn to live "without a why" (p. 39); and at- tain total annihilation in the "bottom without bottom of total humility" (p. 45), the "nothingness" before they were born (p. 60). This elitist bent of Marguerite's doctrine of election, as indicated by Robinson, would warrant further develop- ment, a more nuanced contrast between her unmediated path and the "work based ethics" of the medieval institutional church. A conclusion highlights the startling originality of Marguerite's message, how she is an anomaly and a class apart from other medieval mystics such as Hadewijch and Hildegard of Bingen. On the annihilation motif, however, reference could have been made to Angela of Foligno who also wrote of the soul's annihilation in the highest stages of mys- tical union or, more important, Jacopone da Todi, likely the most neglected of all medieval mystics, who makes extensive use of it ("alta nichilitate") in his Lauds. In one (Laud 91), Jacopone proclaims "this base of the highest of peaks is founded on nihil, shaped nothingness, made one with the Lord" (Questa si summa altezza en nichil e fundata, nichilita enformata, messa e lo suo Signore; Jncopone da Todi, trans. Serge and Elizabeth Hughes [New York, 19821, p. 271).

TheJournal of Religion

These minor blemishes notwithstanding, Robinson's book provides an excellent introduction to one of the most original mystics of the Christian tradition. An ap- pendix includes three texts related to Marguerite's condemnation, followed by extensive notes and a bibliography. PAULLACHANCE,

O.F.M., Chicago Theological Union.

FORMICOLA,JO RENEE.Pope John Paul II, Prophetic Politician. Washington, D.C. : Georgetown University Press, 2002. 227 pp. $19.95 (paper).

The thought of John Paul I1 has been the object of serious academic study for nearly twenty-five years. Over that time the nature of the scholarship has changed significantly. Early on, in the 1980s, most of the scholary writing focused on ex- amining his personal background and roughing out the thought of the new pon- tiff. Later, as his pontificate made distinct contributions to Catholic thought and geopolitics, the scholarly commentaries shifted to more detailed examinations of the pope's teachings and speculations about his agendas. This second period of John Paul I1 scholarship continues but is giving way to a third phase focused on assessing the legacy of John Paul 11. This third phase is exemplified in fine works like George Weigel's massive biography, Witness to Hope (New York, 1999), Jarosaw Kupczak'sDestined for Liberty: The Human Person in the Philosophy of Karol WojtylalJohn Paul I1 (Washington, D.C., 2000), a detailed study of the young Karol Wojtyla's phenomenological personalism, and Kevin I? Doran's Solidarity: A Synthesis of Per- sonalism and Communalism in the Thought of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II (New York, 1996), a study of his social teaching. To this growing list, Jo Renee Formicola's Pope John Paul 11, Prophetic Politician must now be added.

In the book's seven chapters, Formicola examines "the interrelationship be- tween John Paul's religious ideas and political practices." (p. 4) She sees in him a "prophetic politician," by which she means one for whom political activity must al- ways be oriented toward transcendent values. Like Moses, the prophetic politician brings divine criticism of earthly politics. The prophetic politics of John Paul is theologically grounded in the irreducible dignity of the person as the bearer of the imagio dei. It is therefore global, seeking to bring all persons within its scope. And it is nonideological, focused on reconciliation and religious engagement rather than the ideals of the political right or left.

The first chapter offers a brief but insightful discussion of the personal back- ground of the pope, and his first-hand experience of the two largest formulations of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, Nazi Fascism and Soviet Communism.

Chapter 2 examines John Paul 11's understanding of the traditional values of the Roman Catholic Church, focusing on early encyclicals, especially Laborem Exercens. The chapter contains a brief critique of the role of women as understood by the pope. Unfortunately, Formicola does not provide much depth in her analysis of issues, such as a critical engagement with the rationale for the Holy See's rejec- tion of the outcome of the Beijing Conference on Women or the steadfast reser- vation of ordination for men in the Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

The third chapter illustrates prophetic politics in action, presenting the pope's active concern with specific parts of the world, in particular Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines. Formicola uses the term "militant evangelization" to describe the pontiff's active preaching style, which she views as "a type of fearless preach- ing designed to advance transcendent values such as human rights, social justice and economic advancement" (p. 91). Although one might question the use of the

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