I am delighted to introduce the Syndicate symposium for Rachel Smith’s Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies. This book represents a genuinely exciting contribution to historical theology and Christian spirituality, while also challenging many commonly held assumptions about theological methodology. As Smith states, “The primary assertion of this book is that Thomas of Cantimpré’s hagiographical writings are sophisticated theological and literary documents” (3). It is not difficult to imagine that a hagiography could qualify as a sophisticated literary document, but perhaps less clear, and more interesting, is the question of the theological status of the hagiography. Smith argues that hagiographies, as a mode of medieval theology, “both represent and seek to reproduce ways of life and modes of thought,” (4) and in many cases “are filled with debate and experimentation” (6). “Experimental” is the right word here, and it gets at much of what makes Smith’s thought so exciting: as a theological genre that implicates and transforms the reader through a relation to the sanctified person, the reading and “taking up” of hagiography is itself a sort of alchemy, an experimentation, a rearrangement of the order of things producing novel results.
I am equally delighted to think alongside our panel of respondents. Elizabeth Angowski opens by reflecting on her engagement with saints as a child in Catholic school. Rather than “embodying” the holy through dress-up and enactment, her class gave reports and presentations, standing at a distance from the lives of the saints. The excessive quality of the saints’ lives was largely lost on her and her classmates. Instead, the saints were presented as “a rather tame class of exceptionally well-behaved people.” Rather than taming the lives of the saints, Angowski argues, Smith thinks with them. The lives of the saints, engaged in this way, become a kind of scripture that implicates the reader and, perhaps, inspires them to grow in holiness. The process of the interpretation of the lives of the saints, on this account, involves not just the acquisition of factual knowledge, but also the very transformation of the reader.
Patricia Dailey poses the question of the “where” of excess. She suggests that excess is not simply a one-time event, concerning a single body or life, but rather consists of a temporal pattern of repetition. Excess “is constantly overflowing and should continue to overflow so that it may be transmitted and remarked.” How is such a temporal excess exhibited by the mystic versus the saint? Dailey turns to Hadewijch of Brabant to compare the saints to the mystics. Whereas Hadewijch never understands her identification with Christ as finished, Thomas seems to treat his subjects as “presencing” the divine. Dailey suggests, then, at least some distance between Thomas’s hagiographical project on the one hand and negative theology and mysticism on the other.
Tamsin Jones brings Smith’s work into conversation with contemporary French phenomenology and hermeneutics. First, Jones engages Jean-Luc Marion. Marion’s concepts of negative certainty and the saturated phenomena both elucidate the epistemological and affective function of the saint as “dissimilar similarity” in Thomas’s corpus (particularly with reference to Christina the Astonishing, an especially eerie saint). Richard Kearney’s work, too, proves useful for Jones. Kearney’s work on welcoming otherness provides an ethical frame for engaging excess and the feelings of horror and admiration that accompany it. Last, Jones discusses the role of trauma in Claude Romano’s phenomenology. In Excessive Saints, Smith, Jones argues, offers “an important corrective to contemporary phenomenology” insofar as she refuses a binary choice between unassimilable trauma and transformative event. Rather, Smith depicts an ongoing process of interpretation, deformation, and reformation.
Ailie Posillico considers Thomas as a pedagogical model. Thomas encourages his readers to “take up” his text “by paradoxically, and perhaps even seductively, foregrounding his own limits and imperfection.” Through appeals to ineffability or recourse to humility, Thomas “renders his subjects objects of wonder, people who cannot be contained.” Posillico asks whether Thomas’s rhetoric ought to be termed “seductive” insofar as it cultivates the desire of the reader. Pointing to his own flaws, Thomas is able to cultivate a relationship of trust with his readers. Thomas’s humility makes room for the reader to “take up” the subject matter and “live them beyond the limits” of the author.
Patricia Zimmerman highlights the challenges in interpreting the lives of the saints for modern readers and Thomas’s performative method. While the paranormal spectacle of the women he treats may have been of initial interest to Thomas (and, presumably, for us moderns), “what sustained him in encounter was most assuredly the scintillating possibility of reproducing their affective, bodily encounters with the divine into others’ lives.” Thomas seeks to reproduce encounters with the divine precisely through a performative reading and writing that implicates the reader, even the modern reader. Zimmerman writes, “Thomas’s texts, then, and Smith’s recreation of their most creative affects, become less a portal to a historically interesting past and more a vivid, living, affective performance on readers of any era.” Likewise, Smith’s work functions as an “invitation, performance, and itinerary all in one.”
There is no way I could do justice to Smith’s work or the panel’s responses here in this short introduction. Fortunately, though, it is only that—an introduction. I hope to have provided a point of orientation here, but the real thinking occurs in these symposium posts, responses, and in Smith’s Excessive Saints. Please enjoy!