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Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism
Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism
Moshe Sluhovsky
University Of Chicago Press, 2007
384 pp., $58.00

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David Martin


Ambiguous Ecstasies

Visited by the Friend of Souls—or the Enemy?

This study of mysticism and possession in early modern Europe is a model of scrupulous scholarship, not only on account of its detailed scrutiny of a very complex historical literature in half a dozen languages, but on account of its refusal to apply reductionist frameworks at the expense of the integrity of the data. There are many questions and problems which inhere in specific human projects, in this case the pursuit of immersion in the pure love of God. Notoriously, the imposition of a modernist framework does violence to other discourses, other worlds, other vocabularies and motivations, because such a framework assumes that it occupies an objective scientific viewpoint capable of telling it as it really was. Rejecting this kind of violence is not to relapse into a post-modernist relativism, but it does at least require an initial respect for the specific trials and dangers entailed in the attempt to give oneself over to what St. Francis de Sales called high, dry acts of love, as well as the suspension of the spirit in the being of God. These trials and dangers cannot simply be tidied away under the heading of a transition from medieval cosmology to a modern cosmology, or construed as merely a hysterical female sexuality reacting against the imposition of an intolerable disciplinary rigor. That is to say nothing about the insistence of a dogmatic scientism on eliminating the category of soul altogether as primitive and pre-scientific.

Moshe Sluhovsky introduces his theme as the relation between bodies and souls, as well as a built-in uncertainty about whether body and/or soul were possessed by the Friend of souls or the Enemy of souls. Three quests for truth are involved: of the encounter with the divine; of the interior movements within the soul; and the truth of somatic signs in the body. For Sluhovsky, possession by spirits came to pose a major hermeneutic challenge between 1400 and 1700 in the course of which new explanatory frameworks were developed for the ...

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