I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Elaine Heath’s Naked Faith: the Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer (Eugene OR: Pickwick, 2009). Palmer had a massive influence in Wesleyan circles and beyond in the nineteenth century, but, as Heath notes, she has been largely forgotten or marginalized – even within her own tradition. She certainly hasn’t been taken seriously as a theologian, though Thomas Oden sounded an enthusiastic call for the retrieval of her voice in his introduction to the collection of her writings he edited for publication (Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist, 1988)). John Farina, general editor of the series “Sources of American Spirituality,” of which the Oden volume was a part, briefly located Palmer in “that great mystical stream that runs like a golden river down through the ages” in his general introduction to the book, noting especially the interest in Catherine of Genoa in Palmer’s circles. Heath has taken up this idea and written a book that attempts to both offer an interpretation of Palmer’s thought as an expression of mystical theology, and to hold out “Saint Phoebe” as a guide for the renewal of contemporary Methodism.
Palmer, for her part, would have resisted the “mystical” label, but Heath shows, through a discussion of the mystical tradition, that Palmer’s resistance was really to the antinomian perversions of the mystical tradition which she encountered (35ff). Heath identifies mysticism as “the radically transformative experience of the Divine that is described by the great Christian mystics and saints throughout the ages” (41). She also notes that genuine Christian mysticism will be Trinitarian, ecclesial, and transformational (42).
While a great deal could be said about the reception of mysticism in Protestant circles, and the degree to which John Wesley himself embraced some aspects of mystical theology at various points in his life (Heath deals with these issues), I was particularly taken by the way in which she connected mysticism with Christian mission.
For Palmer, the primary way this was expressed was in her own calling to a ministry of preaching and teaching, which followed immediately upon her “day of days” experience of sanctification. Her profound mystical experience, then, became the source of an unprecedented (for a woman) ministry which had massive influence on the history of the Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions. Even those experiences of “union” with God that make some Protestants nervous, Heath contends, impel the mystic to service, rather than retreat from the world (as many suppose):
“The fruit of unitive experiences is a powerful desire in the mystic to help all people experience salvation and sanctification. This desire partly originates in visions of the mysic being made one with the Trinity, whose goal in the church is to seek and to save the lost. Thus the life of the mystic increasingly becomes one of humble service in the world” (59).
Heath also carefully distinguishes problematic mystical “Quietism” from a healthy sense of “quiet,” an active passivity that bears fruit in missional activity:
“The result of true mystical passivity is an increase of strength and spiritual energy, an increase of love for God and neighbour so that the individual is increasingly alive to God in the community and world as the process of passivity progresses” (75).
Interestingly, in some other reading I recently found Henri Nouwen making a similar claim: “Mysticism is the opposite of withdrawal from the world. Intimate union with God leads to the most creative involvement in the contemporary world” (The Genesee Diary, 155).
Heath’s work seems to break new ground on several fronts: a sustained interpretation of Palmer as a mystical theologian, a retrieval of her theology by distinguishing it from the ways in which it was distorted by her later followers, and a contribution to research into the mystical aspect of Wesleyan spirituality – and I could go on.
I think it is particularly important as a contribution to contemporary discussions of the “missional” character of the church. I’ve sometimes worried in the past that some strands of missional thinking are anti-ecclesial, and create a false dichotomy between the church’s inner life (thinking here in terms of spirituality) and its mission. In other words, the church is not only sent into the world, but also gathered together, and it is in the gathering that we are centred on the particular identity of the God of the gospel, who then sends us out. Heath’s work on mysticism and mission helps to bridge this perceived gap between “inner” life its fruit in “outward” activity. There is a strong connection between the arguments in this book and the account of the new monasticism in Longing for Spring, which Heath co-wrote with Scott Kisker (see my review here). I still need to do some further reading of my own on mystical spirituality, as it is not an area with which I’m familiar, but my initial reaction to Heath’s work on Palmer is to give it a hearty endorsement. Next on my list is her 2008 book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism.