Mystical and Missional: Elaine Heath on Phoebe Palmer

Heath Naked Faith the Mystical Theology of Phoebe PalmerI’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.

Phoebe PalmerFor 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 Diary155).

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.

Phoebe Palmer via cyberhymnalI 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.

Book Review – Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community

Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker, both professors of evangelism as United Methodist seminaries, wrote Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010) as a contribution to the “New Monastic Library” series, from Wipf and Stock.   The book is an engagement with the “new monasticism” movement from a specifically United Methodist perspective.  The authors are both advocates for new monasticism as a renewal movement, and both are involved in new monastic communities.   Heath and Kisker see the new monasticism as a way forward in the quest to renew the Methodist tradition in America.

New monasticism is a relatively recent movement of Christians who are banding together and forming intentional communities of radical discipleship, often (but not always) including communal living in what New Monastics call “the abondoned places of empire.”  Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way community in Philadelphia are probably the most well-known examples of new monasticism, but there are many others.  If you’re trying to get a sense of what the movement is about, look up the 12 Marks of New Monasticism.  For a book-length introduction, see Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).

Heath and Kisker have written a book which is aimed at a United Methodist audience.   That means they document new monastic communities within the UMC, locating them within the broader new monastic movement, and they also lay out a proposal for further development of new monastic communities in the UMC.   In doing this, they argue that the new monasticism resonates with the heart of the Wesleyan vision for Christian community.  That is, they argue that Methodists can embrace the new monasticism as an authentic re-envisioned embodiment of the original Methodist communities.

After an opening chapter in which the authors recount their personal stories, the book spends two chapters looking at the history of intentional communities in the church: an initial chapter focused mainly on the history of monasticism in the early church and the middle ages, followed by a chapter discussing “Protestant Models of Intentional Community.”  The book does not present detailed scholarship (that is not its purpose), but provides an interesting narrative of church history from the perspective of intentional communities and their role in renewing the church.  So, the Anabaptist, Pietist, Moravian, and Methodist movements are laid out as part of a history of intentional communities of radical discipleship – a history that extends back to the ancient monks of the Egyptian desert.  The point is not to say that Methodism (which is the main focus of the book) was “monastic,” but that it shared many of the aims and features of monastic communities, in its own way, even as its forms of life were more directly borrowed from the Anglican religious societies and the Moravians.

Next, in chapter four, Heath and Kisker briefly describe the new monasticism, focusing particularly on how United Methodists have become involved.  The fifth chapter was the one I found most interesting, because it makes some concrete suggestions about how the UMC could embrace new monasticism.  For example, a rule of life is offered, based on United Methodist membership vows.  Phoebe Palmer is presented as a potential “patron saint” of new monasticism, someone who “embodied just about everything that the new monasticism holds dear” (53).  And the chapter deals with such concrete issues as appointments and the possibilities of bi-vocational ministry.   The book closes with reports from three United Methodist new monastic communities.

This is a very short book, and as I said above, it is not an attempt at rigorous scholarship, though it is well written.  It’s very accessible, and it offers an interesting window on the new monastic movement from a Methodist perspective.  Because it is aimed specifically at a United Methodist audience, I did feel at times like I was listening in to someone else’s conversation.   But I think this was a necessary consequence of the authors’ choice to write specifically for United Methodists.

As a Wesleyan who is interested in the history and theology of renewal movements I find the prospect of a “Methodist new monasticism” to be very intriguing.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, the origin of Methodism as a religious society in the Church of England means that Methodists have inherited a somewhat ambiguous ecclesial status.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Methodists longing for renewal would attempt to return to radical forms of intentional community as a way of re-connecting with the Methodist ethos in a new context.