Michel de Certeau and Theology: Finding God and seeking God again

Paul Gilbert, SJ

 Paul Gilbert, SJ / Church Thought / 25 July 2019

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The Jesuit Michel de Certeau (1925-86) is known for his work as an historian of mysticism, particularly on Peter Faber and Jean-Joseph Surin,[1] two Jesuits almost a century apart. Faber had very early entered the circle of the companions of Ignatius of Loyola in Paris, and for some years he had been the only priest of that group; he was always traveling in Europe, especially from Protestant Germany to the court of the King of Portugal, and back. Surin had also been itinerant, witnessing paranormal phenomena. He lost the ability to speak or understand spoken or written language, but in 1661 he wrote a Guide spirituel pour la perfection (“Spiritual Guide to Perfection”).

De Certeau’s reflections also extended to the work of an historian. His radical reflection called into question the traditional paradigms of philosophy and theology through the numerous questions he posed. His intellectual journey was marked by the historical sciences which developed outside ecclesiastical circles, in some way an area of mission for the Church. He first studied philosophy at the universities of Grenoble, Lyon and Paris; then he entered the seminary of Lyon in 1947, and then the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1950. He had plans to go to China as a “missionary,” but in 1956 he was commissioned to write for Christus, the French magazine of Ignatian spirituality and its series of connected works.

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