Studies in Spirituality, Supplement 24. Leuven: Peeters, 2013. Pp. 233. Pb, $54.
The late Jesuit Michel de Certeau (1925–1986) is in the midst of a genuine posthumous renaissance, and the world is better off for it. The French historian and cultural critic exerts a fascination on scholars around the world, in fields as diverse as theology, history, anthropology, cultural studies, and political science. The executor of Certeau’s literary estate, Luce Giard, is planning a major global conference on Certeau for 2016 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of his death, to include scholars from Japan, Europe, China, the United States, and Latin America, all reflecting on Certeau’s legacy for a new generation. Much of the most recent scholarship on Certeau aims to reclaim him in the way he always understood himself, as a “historian of spirituality.” This complicates the more secular readings of Certeau that tended to predominate the scholarly approach of earlier years, particularly in the English-speaking world.
The present volume adds to this important scholarly conversation, and many of the contributions enrich it considerably. The eleven contributors all participated in a conference organized by the Titus Brandsma Institute for Spirituality in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The editor of this volume also directs the Institute. Although each chapter is written in English, a major advantage of the volume is its prodigious use of secondary sources on Certeau in German, French, and Spanish, as well as close readings of some of Certeau’s own writings that have not yet been translated into English. Many essays fruitfully engage François Dosse’s masterful biography of Certeau, Le marcheur blessé (Paris: Découverte, 2002), which regretfully has still not been translated into English. Spiritual Spaces help bring some of the wealth of this scholarship into the Anglo-Saxon world.
Each of the eleven chapters engage Certeau’s works on mysticism and spirituality in light of his more socially- and anthropologically-focused writings, such as his examinations of everyday practice and historiography. The chapters are diverse and incredibly wide-ranging: one, for example, is a personal reflection on Certeau by a former student, another a spiritual reading of Psalm 111 inspired by Certeau’s methodology. Other contributions engage aspects of Christianity history and thought (medieval ways of reading scripture and Martin Luther in particular) inspired by Certeau. Still others include close readings of de Certeau’s texts and details of his biography.
Three essays in particular stood out. The first is Willem Frijhoff’s excellent contribution “Michel de Certeau (1925–1986): A Multifaceted Intellectual,” one of the book’s opening chapters. Frijhoff employs a critical and understudied approach to intellectual history, taking seriously the profound personal connection so many readers and friends felt to Certeau. Certeau had a highly unusual way of writing that combined breath-taking erudition with a kind of intimacy and warmth that drew readers to the author as a person. This affective, charismatic element is not typically included in intellectual history, but it is critical for understanding Certeau’s legacy, even after his death. Second, Philip Sheldrake’s “Spiritual Horizons: Michel de Certeau, Everyday Practices & the City,” is a detailed and insightful reading of Certeau’s later writings on urbanism and space—but interestingly read against the backdrop of Certeau’s Jesuit training and immersion in Ignatian spirituality. He makes a compelling case that even Certeau’s writings on the most secular topics (like city planning) cannot be excised from his religious habitus and a kind of Ignatian vision that permeates these late writings. Finally, Johannes Hoff’s essay “Mysticism, Ecclesiology and the Body of Christ” explores Certeau’s relationship with his mentor Henri de Lubac SJ, and unpacks his “(mis)reading” of de Lubac’s Corpus mysticum. The essay creatively unearths what Hoff considers to be at the heart of disagreement between Certeau and his mentor: for de Lubac, the body of Christ, though absent, is mystically present in the church. Certeau’s symbol of Christianity was the empty tomb—the true body of Christ has vanished, remains out of reach, and his vision of faith is one of incessant wandering and seeking.
That said, some of the other essays are more uneven. The volume would have benefited enormously from an overall English-language proofreader. Typos and grammatical infelicities abound in several chapters, which makes the book tough to get through in some places. On the issue of content, simply because Certeau had such a keen interest in the margins of Christian history, and because his own writings on spirituality incline to voices off-center, like possessed nuns and women mystics like Teresa of Ávila, it would have been beneficial had the volume included an essay among the eleven by a woman scholar, or one that analyzed issues of women and gender in Certeau’s works. But these issues—women’s voices and proofreading—are fixable. The overall scholarly conversation engaged here is a rich and compelling one. Anyone interested in the life and works of the endlessly fascinating Michel de Certeau—and right now there are many—would benefit from reading this volume. Gone are the days of thinking about an early de Certeau, the young Christian seminarian, and the later, secular-social critic. He was far more interesting than that.