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A difficult mystic

06 December 2013

Esther de Waal looks at translated writings


Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Denis the Carthusian
Íde M Ni Riain, translator
The Columba Press £20.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.90  (Use code CT260 )

THIS is a translation from the original Latin of the writings of Denis the Carthusian, born, c.1402, in Limburg, Belgium. When he died in 1471, he left a rich legacy of 187 volumes, which soon became popular, especially in Counter-Reformation circles. This book presents us with four tracts on the Holy Spirit, explicating the teaching of the Fathers, in particular, and other theologians, aided by insights from venerable sources, including classical Greek philosophy. The absence of an index does not assist the reader, but the subdivision of each tract into smaller articles allows the reader to journey patiently through the gifts of fortitude, wisdom, fear, etc.

For some people, the word "Carthusian" immediately conjures up Into Great Silence, the virtually silent documentary film on monastic life filmed at the Grande Chartreuse, which captures the imagination with its evocation of Carthusian architecture and the Carthusian way of life. Here we have the contrast, as this is definitely a translation written by a scholar for a learned readership.

I looked in vain for the happy aphorism or the quotable phrase that I might use to encourage a more general readership. The lack of a rudimentary commentary on the text makes it a stark presentation. I felt that I was justified in this failure when I read on its dust jacket that the final tract "is subject to much debate and disagreement among theologians, who are not in total agreement about its meaning".

Esther de Waal is the author of Seeking Life (Canterbury Press, 2009) and other books.

JANET BURTON and Julie Kerr offer an account and analysis of The Cistercians in the Middle Ages, including the formation of the Order, its its distinctiveness, and practical issues (The Boydell Press, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-84383-667-4).

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