About Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness by Evelyn Underhill
Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness - Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Since this book first appeared, nineteen years ago, the study of mysticism—not only in England, but also in France, Germany and Italy—has been almost completely transformed. From being regarded, whether critically or favourably, as a byway of religion, it is now more and more generally accepted by theologians, philosophers and psychologists, as representing in its intensive form the essential religious experience of man. The labours of a generation of religious psychologists—following, and to some extent superseding the pioneer work of William James—have already done much to disentangle its substance from the psycho-physical accidents which often accompany mystical apprehension. Whilst we are less eager than our predecessors to dismiss all accounts of abnormal experience as the fruit of superstition or disease, no responsible student now identifies the mystic and the ecstatic; or looks upon visionary and other “extraordinary phenomena” as either guaranteeing or discrediting the witness of the mystical saints. Even the remorseless explorations and destructive criticisms of the psycho-analytic school are now seen to have effected a useful work; throwing into relief the genuine spiritual activities of the psyche, while explaining in a naturalistic sense some of their less fortunate psycho-physical accompaniments. The philosophic and theological landscape also, with its increasing emphasis on Transcendence, its new friendliness to the concept of the Supernatural, is becoming ever more favourable to the metaphysical claims of the mystics. On one hand the prompt welcome given to the work of Rudolf Otto and Karl Barth, on the other the renewed interest in Thomist philosophy, seem to indicate a growing recognition of the distinctness and independence of the Spiritual Order. and a revival
Were I, then, now planning this book for the first time, its arguments would be differently stated. More emphasis would be given (a) to the concrete, richly living yet unchanging character of the Reality over against the mystic, as the first term, cause and incentive of his experience; (b) to that paradox of utter contrast yet profound relation between the Creator and the creature, God and the soul, which makes possible his development; (c) to the predominant part played in that development by the free and prevenient action of the Supernatural—in theological language, by “grace”—as against all merely evolutionary or emergent theories of spiritual transcendence. I feel more and more that no psychological or evolutionary treatment of man’s spiritual history can be adequate which ignores the element of “given-ness” in all genuine mystical knowledge. Though the mystic Life means organic growth, its first term must be sought in ontology; in the Vision of the Principle, as St. Gregory the Great taught long ago. For the real sanction of that life does not inhere in the fugitive experiences or even the transformed personality of the subject; but in the metaphysical Object which that subject apprehends.
Again, it now seems to me that a critical realism, which found room for the duality of our full human experience—the Eternal and the Successive, supernatural and natural reality—would provide a better philosophic background to the experience of the mystics than the vitalism which appeared, twenty years ago, to offer so promising a way of escape from scientific determinism. Determinism—more and more abandoned by its old friends the physicists—is no longer the chief enemy to such a spiritual interpretation of life as is required by the experience of the mystics. It is rather a naturalistic monism, a shallow doctrine of immanence unbalanced by any adequate sense of transcendence, which now threatens to re-model theology in a sense which leaves no room for the noblest and purest reaches of the spiritual life.
Yet in spite of the adjustments required by such a shifting at the philosophic outlook, and by nearly twenty years of further
The recovery of the concept of the Supernatural—a word which no respectable theologian of the last generation cared to use—is closely linked with the great name of Friedrich von Hügel. His persistent opposition to all merely monistic, pantheist and immanental philosophies of religion, and his insistence on the need of a “two-step diagram” of the Reality accessible to man, though little heeded in his life-time, are now bearing fruit. This re-instatement of the Transcendent, the “Wholly Other,” as the religious fact, is perhaps the most fundamental of the philosophic changes which have directly affected the study of mysticism. It thus obtains a metaphysical background which harmonizes with its greatest declarations, and supports its claim to empirical knowledge of the Truth on which all religion rests. Closely connected with the transcendence of its Object, are the twin doctrines emphasized in all Von Hügel’s work. First, that while mysticism is an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole content of such religion. It requires to be embodied in some degree in history, dogma and institutions if it is to reach the sense-conditioned human mind. Secondly, that the antithesis between the religions of “authority” and of
Second in importance among the changes which have come over the study of mysticism, I should reckon the work done during the last decade upon the psychology of prayer and contemplation. I cannot comment here upon the highly technical discussions between experts as to the place where the line is to be drawn between “natural” and “supernatural,” “active” and “infused” operations of the soul in communion with God; or the exact distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” contemplation. But the fact that these discussions have taken place is itself significant; and requires from religious psychology the acknowledgement of a genuine two-foldness in human nature—the difference in kind between Animus the surface-self and Anima the transcendental self, in touch with supernatural realities. Here, the most important work has been done in France; and especially by the Abbé Bremond, whose “Prière et Poésie” and “Introduction a la Philosophie de la Prière”—based on a vast acquaintance with mystical literature—mark, I believe, the beginning of a new understanding of the character of contemplation. The Thomist philosophy of Maritain, and the psychological researches of Maréchal, tend to support this developing view of the mystical experience, even in its elementary forms, as an activity of the transcendental self; genuinely supernatural, yet not necessarily involving any abnormal manifestations, and linked by the ascending “degrees of prayer” with the subject’s “ordinary” religious life. This disentangling of the substance of mysticism from the psycho-physical accidents of trance, ecstasy, vision and other abnormal phenomena which often
Since this book was written, our knowledge of the mystics has been much extended by the appearance of critical texts of many writings which had only been known to us in garbled versions; or in translations made with an eye to edification rather than accuracy. Thus the publication of the authentic revelations of Angela of Foligno—one of the most interesting discoveries of recent years—has disclosed the unsuspected splendour of her mystical experience. The critical texts of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross which are now available amend previous versions in many important respects. We have reliable editions of Tauler and Ruysbroeck; of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and of Walter Hilton’s works. The renewed interest in seventeenth-century mysticism, due in part to the Abbé Bremond’s great work, has resulted in the publication of many of its documents. So too the literary, social and historical links between the mystics, the influence of environment, the great part played by forgotten spiritual movements and inarticulate saints, are beginning to be better understood. Advantage has been taken of these facts in preparing the present edition. All quotations from the mystics have been revised by comparison with the best available texts. The increased size of the historical appendix and bibliography is some indication of the mass of fresh material which is now at the disposal of students; material which must be examined with truth-loving patience, with sympathy, and above all with humility, by those who desire to make valid additions to our knowledge of the conditions under which the human spirit has communion with God.
Easter 1930 E. U.
This book falls naturally into two parts; each of which is really complete in itself, though they are in a sense complementary to one another. Whilst the second and longest part contains a somewhat detailed study of the nature and development of man’s spiritual or mystical consciousness, the first is intended rather to provide an introduction to the general subject of mysticism. Exhibiting it by turns from the point of view of metaphysics, psychology, and symbolism, it is an attempt to gather between the covers of one volume information at present scattered amongst many monographs and text-books written in divers tongues, and to give the student in a compact form at least the elementary facts in regard to each of those subjects which are most closely connected with the study of the mystics.
Those mystics, properly speaking, can only be studied in their works: works which are for the most part left unread by those who now talk much about mysticism. Certainly the general reader has this excuse, that the masterpieces of mystical literature, full of strange beauties though they be, offer considerable difficulties to those who come to them unprepared. In the first seven chapters of this book I have tried to remove a few of these difficulties; to provide the necessary preparation; and to exhibit the relation in which mysticism stands to other forms of life. If, then, the readers of this section are enabled by it to come to the encounter of mystical literature with a greater power of sympathetic comprehension than they previously possessed, it will have served the purpose for which it has been composed.
It is probable that almost every such reader, according to the angle from which he approaches the subject, will here find a good deal which seems to him superfluous. But different types of mind will find this unnecessary elaboration in different places. The psychologist, approaching from the scientific standpoint, eager for morbid phenomena, has little use for disquisitions on symbolism, religious or other. The symbolist, approaching from the artistic standpoint, seldom admires the proceedings of psychology. I believe, however, that none who wish to obtain an idea of mysticism in its wholeness, as a form of life, can afford
Specialists in any of these great departments of knowledge will probably be disgusted by the elementary and superficial manner in which their specific sciences are here treated. But this book does not venture to address itself to specialists. From those who are already fully conversant with the matters touched upon, it asks the indulgence which really kindhearted adults are always ready to extend towards the efforts of youth. Philosophers are earnestly advised to pass over the first two chapters, and theologians to practise the same charity in respect of the section dealing with their science.
The giving of merely historical information is no part of the present plan: except in so far as chronology has a bearing upon the most fascinating of all histories, the history of the spirit of man. Many books upon mysticism have been based on the historical method: amongst them two such very different works as Vaughan’s supercilious and unworthy “Hours with the Mystics” and Dr. Inge’s scholarly Bampton lectures. It is a method which seems to be open to some objection: since mysticism avowedly deals with the individual not as he stands in relation to the civilization of his time, but as he stands in relation to truths that are timeless. All mystics, said Saint-Martin, speak the same language and come from the same country. As against that fact, the place which they happen to occupy in the kingdom of this world matters little. Nevertheless, those who are unfamiliar with the history of mysticism properly so called, and to whom the names of the great contemplatives convey no accurate suggestion of period or nationality, may be glad to have a short statement of their order in time and distribution in space. Also, some knowledge of the genealogy of mysticism is desirable if we are to distinguish the original contributions of each individual from the mass of speculation and statement which he inherits
The second part of the book, for which the first seven chapters are intended to provide a preparation, is avowedly psychological. It is an attempt to set out and justify a definite theory of the nature of man’s mystical consciousness: the necessary stages of organic growth through which the typical mystic passes, the state of equilibrium towards which he tends. Each of these stages—and also the characteristically mystical and still largely mysterious experiences of visions and voices, contemplation and ecstasy—though viewed from the standpoint of psychology, is illustrated from the lives of the mystics; and where possible in their own words. In planning these chapters I have been considerably helped by M. Delacroix’s brilliant “Etudes sur le Mysticisme,” though unable to accept his conclusions: and here gladly take the opportunity of acknowledging my debt to him and also to Baron von Hügel’s classic “Mystical Element of Religion.” This book, which only came into my hands when my own was planned and partly written, has since been a constant source of stimulus and encouragement.
Finally, it is perhaps well to say something as to the exact sense in which the term “mysticism” is here understood. One of the most abused words in the English language, it has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics. On the other hand, it has been freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have criticized these things. It is much to be hoped that it may be restored sooner or later to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual life.
Meanwhile, those who use the term “Mysticism” are bound in self-defence to explain what they mean by it. Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood. This tendency, in great mystics, gradually captures the whole field of consciousness; it dominates their life and, in the experience called “mystic union,” attains its end. Whether that end be called the God of Christianity, the World-soul of Pantheism, the Absolute of Philosophy, the desire to attain it and the movement towards it—so long as this is a genuine
It is a pleasant duty to offer my heartiest thanks to the many kind friends and fellow students, of all shades of opinion, who have given me their help and encouragement. Amongst those to whom my heaviest debt of gratitude is due are Mr. W. Scott Palmer, for much valuable, generous, and painstaking assistance, particularly in respect of the chapter upon Vitalism: and Miss Margaret Robinson, who in addition to many other kind offices, has made all the translations from Meister Eckhart and Mechthild of Magdeburg here given.
Sections of the MS. have been kindly read by the Rev. Dr. Inge, by Miss May Sinclair, and by Miss Eleanor Gregory; from all of whom I have received much helpful and expert advice. To Mr. Arthur Symons my thanks and those of my readers are specially due; since it is owing to his generous permission that I am able to make full use of his beautiful translations of the poems of St. John of the Cross. Others who have given me much help in various directions, and to whom most grateful acknowledgments are here offered, are Miss Constance Jones, Miss Ethel Barker, Mr. J. A. Herbert of the British Museum—who first brought to my notice the newly discovered “Mirror of Simple Souls”—the Rev. Dr. Arbuthnot Nairn, Mr. A. E. Waite, and Mr. H. Stuart Moore, F.S.A. The substance of two chapters—those upon “The Characteristics of Mysticism” and “Mysticism and Magic”—has already appeared in the pages of The Quest and The Fortnightly Review. These sections are here reprinted by kind permission of their respective editors.
Feast of St. John of the Cross E. U.
“What the world, which truly knows nothing, calls ‘mysticism’ is the science of ultimates, . . . the science of self-evident Reality, which cannot be ‘reasoned about,’ because it is the object of pure reason or perception. The Babe sucking its mother’s breast, and the Lover returning, after twenty years’ separation, to his home and food in the same bosom, are the types and princes of Mystics.”
“The Rod, the Root, and the Flower”
T he most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce—sporadically it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external circumstances—a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” We meet these persons in the east and the west; in the ancient, mediaeval, and modern worlds. Their one passion appears to be the prosecution of a certain spiritual and intangible quest: the finding of a “way out” or a “way back” to some desirable state in which alone they can satisfy their craving for absolute truth. This quest, for them, has constituted the whole meaning of life. They have made for it without effort sacrifices which have appeared enormous to other men: and it is an indirect testimony to its objective actuality, that whatever the place or period in which they have arisen, their aims, doctrines and methods have been substantially the same. Their experience, therefore, forms a body of evidence, curiously self-consistent and often mutually explanatory, which must be taken into account before we can add up the sum of the energies and potentialities of the human spirit, or reasonably speculate on its relations to the unknown world which lies outside the boundaries of sense.
All men, at one time or another, have fallen in love with the veiled Isis whom they call Truth. With most, this has been a passing passion: they have early seen its hopelessness and turned to more practical things. But others remain all their lives the devout lovers of reality: though the manner of their love, the
Under whatsoever symbols they have objectified their quest, none of these seekers have ever been able to assure the world that they have found, seen face to face, the Reality behind the veil. But if we may trust the reports of the mystics—and they are reports given with a strange accent of certainty and good faith—they have succeeded where all these others have failed, in establishing immediate communication between the spirit of man, entangled as they declare amongst material things, and that “only Reality,” that immaterial and final Being, which some philosophers call the Absolute, and most theologians call God. This, they say—and here many who are not mystics agree with them—is the hidden Truth which is the object of man’s craving; the only satisfying goal of his quest. Hence, they should claim from us the same attention that we give to other explorers of countries in which we are not competent to adventure ourselves; for the mystics are the pioneers of the spiritual world, and we have no right to deny validity to their discoveries, merely because we lack the opportunity or the courage necessary to those who would prosecute such explorations for themselves.
It is the object of this book to attempt a description, and also—though this is needless for those who read that description in good faith—a justification of these experiences and the conclusions which have been drawn from them. So remote, however, are these matters from our ordinary habits of thought, that their investigation entails, in those who would attempt to understand them, a definite preparation: a purging of the intellect. As with those who came of old to the Mysteries, purification is here the gate of knowledge. We must come to this encounter with minds cleared of prejudice and convention, must deliberately break with our inveterate habit of taking the “visible world” for granted; our lazy assumption that somehow science is “real” and metaphysics is not. We must pull down our own card houses—descend, as the mystics say, “into our nothingness”—and examine for ourselves the foundations of all possible human experience,
Such a criticism of reality is of course the business of philosophy. I need hardly say that this book is not written by a philosopher, nor is it addressed to students of that imperial science. Nevertheless, amateurs though we be, we cannot reach our starting-point without trespassing to some extent on philosophic ground. That ground covers the whole area of first principles: and it is to first principles that we must go, if we would understand the true significance of the mystic type.
Let us then begin at the beginning: and remind ourselves of a few of the trite and primary facts which all practical persons agree to ignore. That beginning, for human thought, is of course the I, the Ego, the self-conscious subject which is writing this book, or the other self-conscious subject which is reading it; and which declares, in the teeth of all arguments, I AM. 1 Here is a point as to which we all feel quite sure. No metaphysician has yet shaken the ordinary individual’s belief in his own existence. The uncertainties only begin for most of us when we ask what else is .
To this I, this conscious self “imprisoned in the body like an oyster in his shell,” 2 come, as we know, a constant stream of messages and experiences. Chief amongst these are the stimulation of the tactile nerves whose result we call touch, the vibrations taken up by the optic nerve which we call light, and those taken up by the ear and perceived as sound.
What do these experiences mean? The first answer of the unsophisticated Self is, that they indicate the nature of the external world: it is to the “evidence of her senses” that she turns, when she is asked what the world is like. From the messages received through those senses, which pour in on her whether she will or no, battering upon her gateways at every instant and from every side, she constructs that “sense-world” which is the “real and solid world” of normal men. As the impressions come in—or rather those interpretations of the original impressions which her nervous system supplies—she pounces on them, much as players in the spelling game pounce on the separate letters dealt
It is immediately apparent, however, that this sense-world, this seemingly real external universe—though it may be useful and valid in other respects—cannot be the external world, but only the Self’s projected picture of it. 3 It is a work of art, not a scientific fact; and, whilst it may well possess the profound significance proper to great works of art, is dangerous if treated as a subject of analysis. Very slight investigation shows that it is a picture whose relation to reality is at best symbolic and approximate, and which would have no meaning for selves whose senses, or channels of communication, happened to be arranged upon a different plan. The evidence of the senses, then, cannot be accepted as evidence of the nature of ultimate reality: useful servants, they are dangerous guides. Nor can their testimony disconcert those seekers whose reports they appear to contradict.
The conscious self sits, so to speak, at the receiving end of a telegraph wire. On any other theory than that of mysticism, it is her one channel of communication with the hypothetical “external world.” The receiving instrument registers certain messages. She does not know, and—so long as she remains dependent on that instrument—never can know, the object, the reality at the other end of the wire, by which those messages are sent; neither can the messages truly disclose the nature of that object. But she is justified on the whole in accepting them as evidence that something exists beyond herself and her receiving instrument. It is obvious that the structural peculiarities of the telegraphic instrument will have exerted a modifying effect upon the message. That which is conveyed as dash and dot, colour and shape, may have been received in a very different form. Therefore this message, though it may in a partial sense be relevant to the supposed reality at the other end, can never be adequate to it. There will be fine vibrations which it fails to take up, others which it confuses together. Hence a portion of the message is always lost; or, in
The sphere of our possible intellectual knowledge is thus strictly conditioned by the limits of our own personality. On this basis, not the ends of the earth, but the external termini of our own sensory nerves, are the termini of our explorations: and to “know oneself” is really to know one’s universe. We are locked up with our receiving instruments: we cannot get up and walk away in the hope of seeing whither the lines lead. Eckhart’s words are still final for us: “the soul can only approach created things by the voluntary reception of images.” Did some mischievous Demiurge choose to tickle our sensory apparatus in a new way, we should receive by this act a new universe.
William James once suggested as a useful exercise for young idealists, a consideration of the changes which would be worked in our ordinary world if the various branches of our receiving instruments exchanged duties; if, for instance, we heard all colours and saw all sounds. Such a remark throws a sudden light on the strange and apparently insane statement of the visionary Saint-Martin, “I heard flowers that sounded, and saw notes that shone”; and on the reports of other mystics concerning a rare moment of consciousness in which the senses are fused into a single and ineffable act of perception, and colour and sound are known as aspects of one thing. 4
Since music is but an interpretation of certain vibrations undertaken by the ear, and colour an interpretation of other vibrations performed by the eye, this is less mad than it sounds and may yet be brought within the radius of physical science. Did such an alteration of our senses take place the world would still send us the same messages—that strange unknown world from which, on this hypothesis, we are hermetically sealed—but we should interpret them differently. Beauty would still be ours, though speaking another tongue. The bird’s song would then strike our retina as a pageant of colour: we should see the magical tones of the wind, hear as a great fugue the repeated and harmonized greens of the forest, the cadences of stormy skies. Did we realize how slight an adjustment of our organs is needed to initiate us into such a world, we should perhaps be less contemptuous of those mystics who tell us that they apprehended the Absolute as “heavenly music” or “Uncreated Light”: less fanatical in our determination to make the solid “world of common sense” the only standard of reality. This “world of common sense” is a conceptual
A direct encounter with absolute truth, then, appears to be impossible for normal non-mystical consciousness. We cannot know the reality, or even prove the existence, of the simplest object: though this is a limitation which few people realize acutely and most would deny. But there persists in the race a type of personality which does realize this limitation: and cannot be content with the sham realities that furnish the universe of normal men. It is necessary, as it seems, to the comfort of persons of this type to form for themselves some image of the Something or Nothing which is at the end of their telegraph lines: some “conception of being,” some “theory of knowledge.” They are tormented by the Unknowable, ache for first principles, demand some background to the shadow show of things. In so far as man possesses this temperament, he hungers for reality, and must satisfy that hunger as best he can: staving off starvation, though he many not be filled.
It is doubtful whether any two selves have offered themselves exactly the same image of the truth outside their gates: for a living metaphysic, like a living religion, is at bottom a strictly personal affair—a matter, as William James reminded us, of vision rather than of argument. 5 Nevertheless such a living metaphysic may—and if sound generally does—escape the stigma of subjectivism by outwardly attaching itself to a traditional School; as personal religion may and should outwardly attach itself to a traditional church. Let us then consider shortly the results arrived at by these traditional schools—the great classic theories concerning the nature of reality. In them we see crystallized the best that the human intellect, left to itself, has been able to achieve.
I. The most obvious and generally accepted explanation of the world is of course that of Naturalism, or naive Realism: the point of view of the plain man. Naturalism states simply that we see the real world, though we may not see it very well. What seems to normal healthy people to be there, is approximately there. It congratulates itself on resting in the concrete; it accepts material things as real. In other words, our corrected and correlated sense impressions, raised to their highest point of efficiency, form for it the only valid material of knowledge: knowledge itself being the classified results of exact observation.
Such an attitude as this may be a counsel of prudence, in view of our ignorance of all that lies beyond: but it can never satisfy
We have seen that the most elementary criticism, applied to any ordinary object of perception, tends to invalidate the simple and comfortable creed of “common sense”; that not merely faith but gross credulity, is needed by the mind which would accept the apparent as the real. I say, for instance, that I “see” a house. I can only mean by this that the part of my receiving instrument which undertakes the duty called vision is affected in a certain way, and arouses in my mind the idea “house.” The idea “house” is now treated by me as a real house, and my further observations will be an unfolding, enriching, and defining of this image. But what the external reality is which evoked the image that I call “house,” I do not know and never can know. It is as mysterious, as far beyond my apprehension, as the constitution of the angelic choirs. Consciousness shrinks in terror from contact with the mighty verb “to be.” I may of course call in one sense to “corroborate,” as we trustfully say, the evidence of the other; may approach the house, and touch it. Then the nerves of my hand will be affected by a sensation which I translate as hardness and solidity; the eye by a peculiar and wholly incomprehensible sensation called redness; and from these purely personal changes my mind constructs and externalizes an idea which it calls red bricks. Science herself, however, if she be asked to verify the reality of these perceptions, at once declares that though the material world be real, the ideas of solidity and colour are but hallucination. They belong to the human animal, not to the physical universe: pertain to accident not substance, as scholastic philosophy would say.
“The red brick,” says Science, “is a mere convention. In reality that bit, like all other bits of the universe, consists, so far as I know at present, of innumerable atoms whirling and dancing one about the other. It is no more solid than a snowstorm. Were you to eat of Alice-in-Wonderland’s mushroom and shrink to the dimensions of the infra-world, each atom with its electrons might seem to you a solar system and the red brick itself a universe. Moreover, these atoms themselves elude me as I try to grasp them. They are only manifestations of something else. Could I track matter to its lair, I might conceivably discover that it has no extension, and become an idealist in spite of myself. As for redness, as you
Further, there is no trustworthy standard by which we can separate the “real” from the “unreal” aspects of phenomena. Such standards as exist are conventional: and correspond to convenience, not to truth. It is no argument to say that most men see the world in much the same way, and that this “way” is the true standard of reality: though for practical purposes we have agreed that sanity consists in sharing the hallucinations of our neighbours. Those who are honest with themselves know that this “sharing” is at best incomplete. By the voluntary adoption of a new conception of the universe, the fitting of a new alphabet to the old Morse code—a proceeding which we call the acquirement of knowledge—we can and do change to a marked extent our way of seeing things: building up new worlds from old sense impressions, and transmuting objects more easily and thoroughly than any magician. “Eyes and ears,” said Heracleitus, “are bad witnesses to those who have barbarian souls”: and even those whose souls are civilized tend to see and hear all things through a temperament. In one and the same sky the poet may discover the habitation of angels, whilst the sailor sees only a promise of dirty weather ahead. Hence, artist and surgeon, Christian and rationalist, pessimist and optimist, do actually and truly live in different and mutually exclusive worlds, not only of thought but also of perception. Only the happy circumstance that our ordinary speech is conventional, not realistic, permits us to conceal from one another the unique and lonely world in which each lives. Now and then an artist is born, terribly articulate, foolishly truthful, who insists on “Speaking as he saw.” Then other men, lapped warmly in their artificial universe, agree that he is mad: or, at the very best, an “extraordinarily imaginative fellow.”
Moreover, even this unique world of the individual is not permanent. Each of us, as we grow and change, works incessantly and involuntarily at the re-making of our sensual universe. We behold at any specific moment not “that which is,” but “that which we are”, and personality undergoes many readjustments in the course of its passage from birth through maturity to death. The
You are not asked, as a result of these antique and elementary propositions, to wipe clean the slate of normal human experience, and cast in your lot with intellectual nihilism. You are only asked to acknowledge that it is but a slate, and that the white scratches upon it which the ordinary man calls facts, and the Scientific Realist calls knowledge, are at best relative and conventionalized symbols of that aspect of the unknowable reality at which they hint. This being so, whilst we must all draw a picture of some kind on our slate and act in relation therewith, we cannot deny the validity—though we may deny the usefulness—of the pictures which others produce, however abnormal and impossible they may seem; since these are sketching an aspect of reality which has not come within our sensual field, and so does not and cannot form part of our world. Yet as the theologian claims that the doctrine of the Trinity veils and reveals not Three but One, so the varied aspects under which the universe appears to the perceiving consciousness hint at a final reality, or in Kantian language, a Transcendental Object, which shall be, not any one, yet all of its manifestations; transcending yet including the innumerable fragmentary worlds of individual conception. We begin, then, to ask what can be the nature of this One; and whence comes the persistent instinct which—receiving no encouragement from sense experience—apprehends and desires this unknown unity, this all-inclusive Absolute, as the only possible satisfaction of its thirst for truth.
2. The second great conception of Being— Idealism— has arrived by a process of elimination at a tentative answer to this question. It whisks us far from the material universe, with its interesting array of “things,” its machinery, its law, into the pure, if thin, air of a metaphysical world. Whilst the naturalist’s world is constructed from an observation of the evidence offered by the senses, the Idealist’s world is constructed from an observation of the processes of thought. There are but two things, he says in effect, about which we are sure: the existence of a thinking subject, a conscious Self, and of an object, an Idea, with which that subject deals. We know, that is to say, both Mind and Thought. What we call the universe is really a collection of such thoughts; and
According to the form of Objective Idealism here chosen from amongst many as typical—for almost every Idealist has his own scheme of metaphysical salvation 6 —we live in a universe which is, in popular language, the Idea, or Dream of its Creator. We, as Tweedledum explained to Alice in the most philosophic of all fairy tales, are “just part of the dream.” All life, all phenomena, are the endless modifications and expressions of the one transcendent Object, the mighty and dynamic Thought of one Absolute Thinker, in which we are bathed. This Object, or certain aspects of it—and the place of each individual consciousness within the Cosmic Thought, or, as we say, our position in life, largely determines which these aspects shall be—is interpreted by the senses and conceived by the mind, under limitations which we are accustomed to call matter, space and time. But we have no reason to suppose that matter, space, and time are necessarily parts of reality; of the ultimate Idea. Probability points rather to their being the pencil and paper with which we sketch it. As our vision, our idea of things, tends to approximate more and more to that of the Eternal Idea, so we get nearer and nearer to reality: for the idealist’s reality is simply the Idea, or Thought of God. This, he says, is the supreme unity at which all the illusory appearances that make up the widely differing worlds of “common sense,” of science, of metaphysics, and of art dimly hint. This is the sense in which it can truly be said that only the supernatural possesses reality; for that world of appearance which we call natural is certainly largely made up of preconception and illusion, of the hints offered by the eternal real world of Idea outside our gates, and the quaint concepts which we at our receiving instrument manufacture from them.
There is this to be said for the argument of Idealism: that in the last resort, the destinies of mankind are invariably guided, not by the concrete “facts” of the sense world, but by concepts
In Idealism we have perhaps the most sublime theory of Being which has ever been constructed by the human intellect: a theory so sublime, in fact, that it can hardly have been produced by the exercise of “pure reason” alone, but must be looked upon as a manifestation of that natural mysticism, that instinct for the Absolute, which is latent in man. But, when we ask the idealist how we are to attain communion with the reality which he describes to us as “certainly there,” his system suddenly breaks down; and discloses itself as a diagram of the heavens, not a ladder to the stars. This failure of Idealism to find in practice the reality of which it thinks so much is due, in the opinion of the mystics, to a cause which finds epigrammatic expression in the celebrated phrase by which St. Jerome marked the distinction between religion and philosophy. “Plato located the soul of man in the head; Christ located it in the heart.” That is to say, Idealism, though just in its premises, and often daring and honest in their application, is stultified by the exclusive intellectualism of its own methods: by its fatal trust in the squirrel-work of the industrious brain instead of the piercing vision of the desirous heart. It interests man, but does not involve him in its processes: does not catch him up to the new and more real life which it describes. Hence the thing that matters, the living thing, has somehow escaped it; and its observations bear the same relation to reality as the art of the anatomist does to the mystery of birth.
3. But there is yet another Theory of Being to be considered: that which may be loosely defined as Philosophic Scepticism. This is the attitude of those who refuse to accept either the realistic or the idealistic answer to the eternal question: and, confronted in their turn with the riddle of reality, reply that there is no riddle to solve. We of course assume for the ordinary purposes of life that for every sequence a: b: present in our consciousness there exists a mental or material A: B: in the external universe, and that the first is a strictly relevant, though probably wholly inadequate,
The external world, say the sceptical schools, is—so far as I know it—a concept present in my mind. If my mind ceased to exist, so far as I know the concept which I call the world would cease to exist too. The one thing which for me indubitably is, isthe self’s experience, its whole consciousness. Outside this circle of consciousness I have no authority to indulge in guesses as to what may or may not Be. Hence, for me, the Absolute is a meaningless diagram, a superfluous complication of thought: since the mind, wholly cut off from contact with external reality, has no reason to suppose that such a reality exists except in its own ideas. Every effort made by philosophy to go forth in search of it is merely the metaphysical squirrel running round the conceptual cage. In the completion and perfect unfolding of the set of ideas with which our consciousness is furnished, lies the only reality which we can ever hope to know. Far better to stay here and make ourselves at home: only this, for us, truly is.
This purely subjective conception of Being has found representatives in every school of thought: even including by a curious paradox, that of mystical philosophy—its one effective antagonist. Thus Delacroix, after an exhaustive and even sympathetic analysis of St. Teresa’s progress towards union with the Absolute, ends upon the assumption that the God with whom she was united was the content of her own subconscious mind. 7 Such a mysticism is that of a kitten running after its own tail: a different path indeed from that which the great seekers for reality have pursued. The reductio ad absurdum of this doctrine is found in the so-called “philosophy” of New Thought, which begs its disciples to “try quietly to realize that the Infinite is really You.” 8 By its utter denial not merely of a knowable, but of a logically conceivable Transcendent, it drives us in the end to the conclusion of extreme pragmatism; that Truth, for us, is not an immutable reality, but merely that idea which happens to work out as true and useful
Logically carried out, this conception of Being would permit each man to regard other men as non-existent except within his own consciousness: the only place where a strict scepticism will allow that anything exists. Even the mind which conceives consciousness exists for us only in our own conception of it; we no more know what we are than we know what we shall be. Man is left a conscious Something in the midst, so far as he knows, of Nothing: with no resources save the exploring of his own consciousness.
Philosophic scepticism is particularly interesting to our present inquiry, because it shows us the position in which “pure reason,” if left to itself, is bound to end. It is utterly logical; and though we may feel it to be absurd, we can never prove it to be so. Those who are temperamentally inclined to credulity may become naturalists, and persuade themselves to believe in the reality of the sense world. Those with a certain instinct for the Absolute may adopt the more reasonable faith of idealism. But the true intellectualist, who concedes nothing to instinct or emotion, is obliged in the end to adopt some form of sceptical philosophy. The horrors of nihilism, in fact, can only be escaped by the exercise of faith, by a trust in man’s innate but strictly irrational instinct for that Real “above all reason, beyond all thought” towards which at its best moments his spirit tends. If the metaphysician be true to his own postulates, he must acknowledge in the end that we are all forced to live, to think, and at last to die, in an unknown and unknowable world: fed arbitrarily and diligently, yet how we know not, by ideas and suggestions whose truth we cannot test but whose pressure we cannot resist. It is not by sight but by faith—faith in a supposed external order which we can never prove to exist, and in the approximate truthfulness and constancy of the vague messages which we receive from it—that ordinary men must live and move. We must put our trust in “laws of nature” which have been devised by the human mind as a convenient epitome of its own observations of phenomena, must, for the purposes of daily life, accept these phenomena at their face value: an act of faith beside which the grossest superstitions of the Neapolitan peasant are hardly noticeable.
The intellectual quest of Reality, then, leads us down one of three blind alleys: (1) To an acceptance of the symbolic world of appearance as the real; (2) to the elaboration of a theory also of necessity symbolic—which, beautiful in itself, cannot help us
In answer to the “Why? Why?” of the bewildered and eternal child in us, philosophy, though always ready to postulate the unknown if she can, is bound to reply only, “Nescio! Nescio!” In spite of all her busy map-making, she cannot reach the goal which she points out to us, cannot explain the curious conditions under which we imagine that we know; cannot even divide with a sure hand the subject and object of thought. Science, whose business is with phenomena and our knowledge of them, though she too is an idealist at heart, has been accustomed to explain that all our ideas and instincts, the pictured world that we take so seriously, the oddly limited and illusory nature of our experience, appear to minister to one great end: the preservation of life, and consequent fulfilment of that highly mystical hypothesis, the Cosmic Idea. Each perception, she assures us, serves a useful purpose in this evolutionary scheme: a scheme, by the way, which has been invented—we know not why—by the human mind, and imposed upon an obedient universe.
By vision, hearing, smell, and touch, says Science, we find our way about, are warned of danger, obtain our food. The male perceives beauty in the female in order that the species may be propagated. It is true that this primitive instinct has given birth to higher and purer emotions; but these too fulfil a social purpose and are not so useless as they seem. Man must eat to live, therefore many foods give us agreeable sensations. If he overeats, he dies; therefore indigestion is an unpleasant pain. Certain facts of which too keen a perception would act detrimentally to the life-force are, for most men, impossible of realization: i.e. , the uncertainty of life, the decay of the body, the vanity of all things under the sun. When we are in good health, we all feel very real, solid, and permanent; and this is of all our illusions the most ridiculous, and also the most obviously useful from the point of view of the efficiency and preservation of the race.
But when we look closer, we see that this brisk generalization does not cover all the ground—not even that little tract of ground of which our senses make us free; indeed, that it is more remarkable for its omissions than for its inclusions. Récéjac has well said that “from the moment in which man is no longer content to devise things useful for his existence under the exclusive action of the will-to-live, the principle of (physical) evolution has been violated.” 9 Nothing can be more certain than that man is not so content. He has been called by utilitarian philosophers a tool-making animal—the highest praise they knew how to bestow.
Even the most ordinary human life includes in its range fundamental experiences—violent and unforgettable sensations—forced on us as it were against our will, for which science finds it hard to account. These experiences and sensations, and the hours of exalted emotion which they bring with them—often recognized by us as the greatest, most significant hours of our lives—fulfil no office in relation to her pet “functions of nutrition and reproduction.” It is true that they are far-reaching in their effects on character; but they do little or nothing to assist that character in its struggle for physical life. To the unprejudiced eye many of them seem hopelessly out of place in a universe constructed on strictly physico-chemical lines—look almost as though nature, left to herself, tended to contradict her own beautifully logical laws. Their presence, more, the large place which they fill in the human world of appearance, is a puzzling circumstance for deterministic philosophers; who can only escape from the dilemma here presented to them by calling these things illusions, and dignifying their own more manageable illusions with the title of facts.
Amongst the more intractable of these groups of perceptions and experiences are those which we connect with religion, with pain and with beauty. All three, for those selves which are capable of receiving their messages, possess a mysterious authority far in excess of those feelings, arguments, or appearances which they may happen to contradict. All three, were the universe of the naturalists true, would be absurd; all three have ever been treated with the reverence due to vital matters by the best minds of the race.
A. I need not point out the hopelessly irrational character of all great religions: which rest, one and all, on a primary assumption that can never be intellectually demonstrated, much less
B. Consider again the whole group of phenomena which are known as “the problem of suffering”: the mental anguish and physical pain which appear to be the inevitable result of the steady operation of “natural law” and its voluntary assistants, the cruelty, greed, and injustice of man. Here, it is true, the naturalist seems at first sight to make a little headway, and can point to some amongst the cruder forms of suffering which are clearly useful to the race: punishing us for past follies, spurring to new efforts, warning against future infringements of “law.” But he forgets the many others which refuse to be resumed under this simple formula: forgets to explain how it is that the Cosmic Idea involves the long torments of the incurable, the tortures of the innocent, the deep anguish of the bereaved, the existence of so many gratuitously agonizing forms of death. He forgets, too, the strange fact that man’s capacity for suffering tends to increase in depth and subtlety with the increase of culture and civilization; ignores the still more mysterious, perhaps most significant circumstance that the highest types have accepted it eagerly and willingly, have found in Pain the grave but kindly teacher of immortal secrets, the conferrer of liberty, even the initiator into amazing joys.
Those who “explain” suffering as the result of nature’s immense fecundity—a by-product of that overcrowding and stress through which the fittest tend to survive—forget that even were this demonstration valid and complete it would leave the real problem untouched. The question is not, whence come those conditions which provoke in the self the experiences called sorrow, anxiety, pain: but, why do these conditions hurt the self? The pain is mental; a little chloroform, and though the conditions continue
Pain, however we may look at it, indicates a profound disharmony between the sense-world and the human self. If it is to be vanquished, either the disharmony must be resolved by a deliberate and careful adjustment of the self to the world of sense, or, that self must turn from the sense-world to some other with which it is in tune. 11 Pessimist and optimist here join hands. But whilst the pessimist, resting in appearance, only sees “nature red in tooth and claw” offering him little hope of escape, the optimist thinks that pain and anguish—which may in their lower forms be life’s harsh guides on the path of physical evolution—in their higher and apparently “useless” developments are her leaders and teachers in the upper school of Supra-sensible Reality. He believes that they press the self towards another world, still “natural” for him, though “supernatural” for his antagonist, in which it will be more at home. Watching life, he sees in Pain the complement of Love: and is inclined to call these the wings on which man’s spirit can best take flight towards the Absolute. Hence he can say with A Kempis, “Gloriari in tribulatione non est grave amanti,” 12 and needs not to speak of morbid folly when he sees the Christian saints run eagerly and merrily to the Cross. 13
He calls suffering the “gymnastic of eternity,” the “terrible
Pain, then, which plunges like a sword through creation, leaving on the one side cringing and degraded animals and on the other side heroes and saints, is one of those facts of universal experience which are peculiarly intractable from the point of view of a merely materialistic philosophy.
C. From this same point of view the existence of music and poetry, the qualities of beauty and of rhythm, the evoked sensations of awe, reverence, and rapture, are almost as difficult to account for. The question why an apparent corrugation of the Earth’s surface, called for convenience’ sake an Alp, coated with congealed water, and perceived by us as a snowy peak, should produce in certain natures acute sensations of ecstasy and adoration, why the skylark’s song should catch us up to heaven, and wonder and mystery speak to us alike in “the little speedwell’s darling blue” and in the cadence of the wind, is a problem that seems to be merely absurd, until it is seen to be insoluble. Here Madam How and Lady Why alike are silent. With all our busy seeking, we have not found the sorting house where loveliness is extracted from the flux of things. We know not why “great” poetry should move us to unspeakable emotion, or a stream of notes, arranged in a peculiar sequence, catch us up to heightened levels of vitality: nor can we guess how a passionate admiration for that which we call “best” in art or letters can possibly contribute to the physical evolution of the race. In spite of many lengthy disquisitions on Esthetics, Beauty’s secret is still her own. A shadowy companion, half seen, half guessed at, she keeps step with the upward march of life: and we receive her message and respond to it, not because we understand it but because we must .
Here it is that we approach that attitude of the self, that point of view, which is loosely and generally called mystical. Here, instead of those broad blind alleys which philosophy showed us, a certain type of mind has always discerned three strait and narrow ways going out towards the Absolute. In religion, in pain, and in beauty—and not only in these, but in many other apparently useless peculiarities of the empirical world and of the perceiving consciousness—these persons insist that they recognize at least
Récéjac only develops this idea when he says, 16 “If the mind penetrates deeply into the facts of aesthetics, it will find more and more, that these facts are based upon an ideal identity between the mind itself and things. At a certain point the harmony becomes so complete, and the finality so close that it gives us actual emotion. The Beautiful then becomes the sublime; brief apparition, by which the soul is caught up into the true mystic state, and touches the Absolute. It is scarcely possible to persist in this Esthetic perception without feeling lifted up by it above things and above ourselves, in an ontological vision which closely resembles the Absolute of the Mystics.” It was of this underlying reality—this truth of things—that St. Augustine cried in a moment of lucid vision, “Oh, Beauty so old and so new, too late have I loved thee!” 17 It is in this sense also that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”: and as regards the knowledge of ultimate things which is possible to ordinary men, it may well be that
“That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
“Of Beauty,” says Plato in an immortal passage, “I repeat again that we saw her there shining in company with the celestial forms; and coming to earth we find her here too, shining in clearness through the clearest aperture of sense. For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses: though not by that is wisdom seen; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her, and the other ideas, if they had visible counterparts, would be equally lovely. But this is the privilege of Beauty, that being the loveliest she is also the most palpable to sight. Now
Most men in the course of their lives have known such Platonic hours of initiation, when the sense of beauty has risen from a pleasant feeling to a passion, and an element of strangeness and terror has been mingled with their joy. In those hours the world has seemed charged with a new vitality; with a splendour which does not belong to it but is poured through it, as light through a coloured window, grace through a sacrament, from that Perfect Beauty which “shines in company with the celestial forms” beyond the pale of appearance. In such moods of heightened consciousness each blade of grass seems fierce with meaning, and becomes a well of wondrous light: a “little emerald set in the City of God.” The seeing self is indeed an initiate thrust suddenly into the sanctuary of the mysteries: and feels the “old awe and amazement” with which man encounters the Real. In such experiences, a new factor of the eternal calculus appears to be thrust in on us, a factor which no honest seeker for truth can afford to neglect; since, if it be dangerous to say that any two systems of knowledge are mutually exclusive, it is still more dangerous to give uncritical priority to any one system. We are bound, then, to examine this path to reality as closely and seriously as we should investigate the most neatly finished safety-ladder of solid ash which offered a salita alle stelle.
Why, after all, take as our standard a material world whose existence is affirmed by nothing more trustworthy than the sense-impressions of “normal men”; those imperfect and easily cheated channels of communication? The mystics, those adventurers of whom we spoke upon the first page of this book, have always declared, implicitly or explicitly, their distrust in these channels of communication. They have never been deceived by phenomena, nor by the careful logic of the industrious intellect. One after another, with extraordinary unanimity, they have rejected that appeal to the unreal world of appearance which is the standard of
“Finite as we are,” they say—and here they speak not for themselves, but for the race—“lost though we seem to be in the woods or in the wide air’s wilderness, in this world of time and of chance, we have still, like the strayed animals or like the migrating birds, our homing instinct. . . . We seek. That is a fact. We seek a city still out of sight. In the contrast with this goal, we live. But if this be so, then already we possess something of Being even in our finite seeking. For the readiness to seek is already something of an attainment, even if a poor one.” 19
Further, in this seeking we are not wholly dependent on that homing instinct. For some, who have climbed to the hill-tops, that city is not really out of sight. The mystics see it and report to us concerning it. Science and metaphysics may do their best and their worst: but these pathfinders of the spirit never falter in their statements concerning that independent spiritual world which is the only goal of “pilgrim man.” They say that messages come to him from that spiritual world, that complete reality which we call Absolute: that we are not, after all, hermetically sealed from it. To all who will receive it, news comes of a world of Absolute Life, Absolute Beauty, Absolute Truth, beyond the bourne of time and place: news that most of us translate—and inevitably distort in the process—into the language of religion, of beauty, of love, or of pain.
Of all those forms of life and thought with which humanity has fed its craving for truth, mysticism alone postulates, and in the persons of its great initiates proves, not only the existence of the Absolute, but also this link: this possibility first of knowing, finally of attaining it. It denies that possible knowledge is to be limited (a) to sense impressions, (b) to any process of intellection,
In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram—impersonal and unattainable—the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, alive.
“Oh, taste and see!” they cry, in accents of astounding certainty and joy. “Ours is an experimental science. We can but communicate our system, never its result. We come to you not as thinkers, but as doers. Leave your deep and absurd trust in the senses, with their language of dot and dash, which may possibly report fact but can never communicate personality. If philosophy has taught you anything, she has surely taught you the length of her tether, and the impossibility of attaining to the doubtless admirable grazing land which lies beyond it. One after another, idealists have arisen who, straining frantically at the rope, have announced to the world their approaching liberty; only to be flung back at last into the little circle of sensation. But here we are, a small family, it is true, yet one that refuses to die out, assuring you that we have slipped the knot and are free of those grazing grounds. This is evidence which you are bound to bring into account before you can add up the sum total of possible knowledge; for you will find it impossible to prove that the world as seen by the mystics, ‘unimaginable, formless, dark with excess of bright,’ is less real than that which is expounded by the youngest and most promising demonstrator of a physicochemical universe. We will be quite candid with you. Examine us as much as you like: our machinery, our veracity, our results. We cannot promise that you shall see what we have seen, for here each man must adventure for himself;
1 Even this I AM, which has seemed safe ground to most metaphysicians, is of course combated by certain schools of philosophy. “The word Sum ,” said Eckhart long ago, “can be spoken by no creature but by God only: for it becomes the creature to testify of itself Non Sum .” In a less mystical strain Lotze, and after him Bradley and other modern writers, have devoted much destructive criticism to the concept of the Ego as the starting-point of philosophy: looking upon it as a large, and logically unwarrantable, assumption.
2 Plato, “Phaedrus,” § 250.
3 Thus Eckhart, “Every time that the powers of the soul come into contact with created things, they receive the create images and likenesses from the created thing and absorb them. In this way arises the soul’s knowledge of created things. Created things cannot come nearer to the soul than this, and the soul can only approach created things by the voluntary reception of images. And it is through the presence of the image that the soul approaches the created world: for the image is a Thing, which the soul creates with her own powers. Does the soul want to know the nature of a stone—horse—a man? She forms an image.”—-Meister Eckhart, Pred. i. (“Mystische Schriften,” p. 15).
4 Thus Edward Carpenter says of his own experience of the mystical consciousness, “The perception seems to be one in which all the senses unite into one sense” (quoted in Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness,” p. 198).
5 “A Pluralistic Universe,” p. 10.
6 There are four main groups of such schemes: (1) Subjective; (2) Objective; (3) Transcendental (Kantian); (4) Absolute (Hegelian). To this last belongs by descent the Immanental Idealism of Croce and Gentile.
7 Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 62.
8 E. Towne, “Just how to Wake the Solar Plexus,” p. 25.
9 “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 15.
10 Or, as Aristotle, and after him St. Thomas Aquinas, suggest, a contemplative animal, since “this act alone in man is proper to him, and is in no way shared by any other being in this world” (“Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iii, cap. xxxvii., Rickaby’s translation).
11 All the healing arts, from Aesculapius and Galen to Metchnikoff and Mrs. Eddy, have virtually accepted and worked upon these two principles.
12 “De Imitatione Christi.” I. ii. cap. vi.
13 “Such as these, I say, as if enamoured by My honour and famished for the food of souls, run to the table of the Most holy Cross, willing to suffer pain. . . . To these, My most dear sons, trouble is a pleasure, and pleasure and every consolation that the world would offer them are a toil” (St. Catherine ofSiena, Dialogo, cap. xxviii.). Here and throughout I have used Thorold’s translation.
14 “Philosophy of Religion,” vol. ii. p. 8.
15 “Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 148.
16 “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 74.
17 Aug. Conf., bk. x. cap. xxvii.
18 “Phaedrus,” § 250 (Jowett’s translation). The reference in the phrase “he whose initiation is recent” is to the rite of admission into the Orphic Mysteries. It is believed by some authorities that the neophyte may have been cast into an hypnotic sleep by his “initiator,” and whilst in this condition a vision of the “glories of the other world” suggested to him. The main phenomena of “conversion” would thus be artificially produced: but the point of attack being the mind rather than the heart, the results, as would appear from the context, were usually transient.
19 Royce, “The World and the Individual,” vol. i. p. 181.
20 The idea of Divine Union as man’s true end is of course of great antiquity. Its first definite appearance in the religious consciousness of Europe seems to coincide with the establishment of the Orphic Mysteries in Greece and Southern Italy in the sixth century B.C. See Rohde: “Psyche,” cap. 10, and Adam, “The Religious Teachers of Greece,” p. 92.
21 Coventry Patmore, “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Aurea Dicta,” cxxviii.
W e glanced, at the beginning of this inquiry, at the universes which result from the various forms of credulity practised by the materialist, the idealist, and the sceptic. We saw the mystic denying by word and act the validity of the foundations on which those universes are built: substituting his living experience for their conceptual schemes. But there is another way of seeing reality or, more correctly, one aspect of reality. This scheme of things possesses the merit of accepting and harmonizing many different forms of experience; even those supreme experiences and intuitions peculiar to the mystics. The first distinct contribution of the twentieth century to man’s quest of the Real, it entered the philosophic arena from several different directions; penetrating and modifying current conceptions not only of philosophy but of religion, science, art and practical life. It was applied by Driesch 22 and other biologists in the sphere of organic life. Bergson, 23 starting from psychology, developed its intellectual and metaphysical implications; whilst Rudolph Eucken 24 constructed from, or beside it, a philosophy of the Spirit, of man’s relations to the Real.
In all these we find the same principle; the principle of a free spontaneous and creative life as the essence of Reality. Not law but aliveness, incalculable and indomitable, is their subject-matter: not human logic, but actual living experience is their criterion of truth. Vitalists, whether the sphere of their explorations be biology, psychology or ethics, see the whole Cosmos, the physical and spiritual worlds, as instinct with initiative and spontaneity: as above all things free. For them, nature, though conditioned by the matter with which she works, is stronger than her chains. Pushing out from within, ever seeking expression, she buds and breaks forth into original creation. 25 The iron “laws” of the determinists are merely her observed habits, not her fetters: and man, seeing nature in the terms of “cause and effect,” has been the dupe of his own limitations and prejudices.
Bergson, Nietzsche, Eucken, differing in their opinion as to life’s meaning, are alike in this vision: in the stress which they lay on the supreme importance and value of life—a great Cosmic life transcending and including our own. This is materialism inside out: for here what we call the universe is presented as an expression of life, not life as an expression or by-product of the universe. The strange passionate philosophy of Nietzsche is really built upon an intense belief in this supernal nature and value of Life, Action and Strength: and spoilt by the one-sided individualism which prevented him from holding a just balance between the great and significant life of the Ego and the greater and more significant life of the All.
Obviously, the merit of vitalistic philosophy lies in its ability to satisfy so many different thinkers, starting from such diverse points in our common experience. On the phenomenal side it can accept and transfigure the statements of physical science. In its metaphysical aspect it leaves place for those ontological speculations which seem to take their rise in psychology. It is friendly to those who demand an important place for moral and spiritual activity in the universe. Finally—though here we must be content with deduction rather than declaration—it leaves in the hands of the mystics that power of attaining to Absolute Reality which they have always claimed: shows them as the true possessors of freedom, the torch-bearers of the race.
Did it acknowledge its ancestors with that reverence which is their due, Vitalism would identify itself with the mystic philosopher,
A philosophy which can harmonize such diverse elements as these, and make its influence felt in so many fields of thought, may be useful in our present attempt towards an understanding of mysticism: for it illustrates certain aspects of perceived reality which other systems ignore. It has the further recommendation of involving not a mere diagram of metaphysical possibilities, but a genuine theory of knowledge. Its scope includes psychology as well as philosophy: the consideration, not only of the nature of Reality but also of the self’s power of knowing it—the machinery of contact between the mind and the flux of things. Thus it has an inclusive quality lacking in the tidy ring-fenced systems of other schools of thought. It has no edges, and if it be true to itself should have no negations. It is a vision, not a map.
The primary difference between Vitalism and the classic philosophic schools is this. Its focal point is not Being but Becoming. 27 Translated into Platonic language, not the changeless One, the Absolute, transcending all succession, but rather His energizing Thought—the Son, the Creative Logos—is the supreme reality which it proposes as accessible to human consciousness.
“All things,” said Heracleitus, “are in a state of flux.” “Everything happens through strife.” “Reality is a condition of unrest.” 28 Such is also the opinion of Bergson and Alexander; who, agreeing in this with the conclusions of physical science, look upon the Real as dynamic rather than static, as becoming rather than being
“From the fixed lull of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds”— 29
said Rossetti of the Blessed Damozel. So Bergson, while ignoring if he does not deny the existence of the “fixed lull,” the still Eternity, the point of rest, finds everywhere the pulse of Time, the vast unending storm of life and love. Reality, says Bergson, is pure creative Life; a definition which excludes those ideas of perfection and finality involved in the idealist’s concept of Pure Being as the Absolute and Unchanging One. 30 This life, as he sees it, is fed from within rather than upheld from without. It evolves by means of its own inherent and spontaneous creative power. The biologist’s Nature “so careful of the type”; the theologian’s Creator transcending His universe, and “holding all things in the hollow of His hand”: these are gone, and in their place we have a universe teeming with free individuals, each self-creative, each evolving eternally, yet towards no term.
Here, then, the deep instinct of the human mind that there must be a unity, an orderly plan in the universe, that the strung-along beads of experience do really form a rosary, though it be one which we cannot repeat, is deliberately thwarted. Creation, Activity, Movement; this, says Vitalism, rather than any merely apparent law and order, any wholeness, is the essential quality of the Realms the Real: and life is an eternal Becoming, a ceaseless changefulness. At its highest it may be conceived as “the universe flowering into deity,” 31 As the Hermetic philosophers found in the principle of analogy, “Quod inferius sicut quod superius,” 32 the Key of Creation, so we are invited to see in that uninterrupted change which is the condition of our normal consciousness, a true image, a microcosm of the living universe as a part of which that consciousness has been evolved.
If we accept this theory, we must then impute to life in its fullness—the huge, many levelled, many coloured life, the innumerable worlds which escape the rhythm of our senses; not merely that patch of physical life which those senses perceive—a divinity, a greatness of destiny far beyond that with which it is credited by those who hold to a physico-chemical theory of the
How, then, may we knew this Life, this creative and original soul of things, in which we are bathed; in which, as in a river, swept along? Not, says Bergson bluntly, by any intellectual means. The mind which thinks it knows Reality because it has made a diagram of Reality, is merely the dupe of its own categories. The intellect is a specialized aspect of the self, a form of consciousness: but specialized for very different purposes than those of metaphysical speculation. Life has evolved it in the interests of life; has made it capable of dealing with “solids,” with concrete things. With these it is at home. Outside of them it becomes dazed, uncertain of itself; for it is no longer doing its natural work, which is to help life, not to know it. In the interests of experience, and in order to grasp perceptions, the intellect breaks up experience, which is in reality a continuous stream, an incessant process of change and response with no separate parts, into purely conventional “moments,” “periods,” or psychic “states.” It picks out from the flow of reality those bits which are significant for human life; which “interest” it, catch its attention. From these it makes up a mechanical world in which it dwells, and which seems quite real until it is subjected to criticism. It does, says Bergson, the work of a cinematograph: takes snapshots of something which is always moving, and by means of these successive static representations—none of which are real, because Life, the object photographed, never was at rest—it recreates a picture of life, of motion. This rather jerky representation of divine harmony, from which innumerable moments are left out, is useful for practical purposes: but it is not reality, because it is not alive. 34
This “real world,” then, is the result of your selective activity, and the nature of your selection is largely outside your control. Your cinematograph machine goes at a certain pace, takes its snapshots at certain intervals. Anything which goes too quickly for these intervals, it either fails to catch, or merges with preceding and succeeding movements to form a picture with which it can deal. Thus we treat, for instance, the storm of vibrations which we convert into “sound” and “light.” Slacken or accelerate its clock-time, change its rhythmic activity, and at once you take a different series of snapshots, and have as a result a different picture of the world. Thanks to the time at which the normal human machine is set, it registers for us what we call, in our simple way, “the natural world.” A slight accession of humility or common sense might teach us that a better title would be “ our natural world.”
Let human consciousness change or transcend its rhythm, and any other aspect of any other world may be ours as a result. Hence the mystics’ claim that in their ecstasies they change the conditions of consciousness, and apprehend a deeper reality which is unrelated to human speech, cannot be dismissed as unreasonable. Do not then confuse that surface-consciousness which man has trained to be an organ of utility and nothing more—and which therefore can only deal adequately with the “given” world of sense—with that mysterious something in you, that ground of personality, inarticulate but inextinguishable, by which you are aware that a greater truth exists. This truth, whose neighbourhood you feel, and for which you long, is Life. You are in it all the while, “like a fish in the sea, like a bird in the air,” as St. Mechthild of Hackborn said many centuries ago. 35
Give yourself, then, to this divine and infinite life, this mysterious Cosmic activity in which you are immersed, of which you are born. Trust it. Let it surge in on you. Cast off, as the mystics are always begging you to do, the fetters of the senses, the “remora of desire”; and making your interests identical with those of the All, rise to freedom, to that spontaneous, creative life which, inherent in every individual self, is our share of the life of the Universe. You are yourself vital —a free centre of energy—did you but know it. You can move to higher levels, to greater reality, truer self-fulfilment, if you will. Though you be, as Plato said, like an oyster in your shell, you can open that shell to the living waters without, draw from the “Immortal Vitality.” Thus only—by contact with the real—shall you know reality. Cot ad cot loquitur.
The Indian mystics declare substantially the same truth when they say that the illusion of finitude is only to be escaped by
“Pilgrimage to the place of the wise,” said Jalalu ‘ddin, “is to find escape from the flame of separation.” It is the mystics’ secret in a nutshell. “When I stand empty in God’s will and empty of God’s will and of all His works and of God Himself,” cries Eckhart with his usual violence of language, “then am I above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and evermore shall be.” 36 He attains, that is to say, by this escape from a narrow selfhood, not to identity with God—that were only conceivable upon a basis of pantheism—but to an identity with his own substantial life, and through it with the life of a real and living universe; in symbolic language, with “the thought of the Divine Mind” whereby union with that Mind in the essence or ground of the soul becomes possible. The first great message of Vitalistic philosophy is then seen to be—Cease to identify your intellect and your self: a primary lesson which none who purpose the study of mysticism may neglect. Become at least aware of, if you cannot “know,” the larger, truer self: that root and depth of spirit, as St. François de Sales calls it, from which intellect and feeling grow as fingers from the palm of the hand—that free creative self which constitutes your true life, as distinguished from the scrap of consciousness which is its servant.
How then, asks the small consciously-seeking personality of the normal man, am I to become aware of this, my larger self, and of the free, eternal, spiritual life which it lives?
Here philosophy, emerging from the water-tight compartment in which metaphysics have lived too long retired, calls in psychology; and tells us that in intuition, in a bold reliance on contact between the totality of the self and the external world—perhaps too in those strange states of lucidity which accompany
Such fragmentary, dim and unverifiable perceptions of the Real, however, such “excursions into the Absolute,” cannot be looked upon as a satisfaction of man’s hunger for Truth. He does not want to peep, but to live. Hence he cannot be satisfied with anything less than a total and permanent adjustment of his being to the greater life of reality. This alone can resolve the disharmonies between the self and the world, and give meaning and value to human life. 38 The possibility of this adjustment—of union between man’s life and that “independent spiritual life” which is the stuff of reality—is the theme alike of mysticism and of Eucken’s spiritual vitalism or Activistic Philosophy. 39 Reality, says Eucken, is an independent spiritual world, unconditioned by the apparent world of sense. To know it and to live in it is man’s true destiny. His point of contact with it is personality: the inward fount of his being: his heart, not his head. Man is real, and in the deepest sense alive, in virtue of this free personal life-principle within him; but he is bound and blinded by the ties set up between his surface-intelligence and the sense-world. The struggle for reality must be a struggle on man’s part to transcend the sense-world, escape its bondage. He must renounce it, and be “re-born” to a higher level of consciousness; shifting his centre of interest from the natural to the spiritual plane. According to the thoroughness with which he does this, will be the amount of real life he enjoys. The initial break with the “world,” the refusal to spend one’s life communing with one’s own cinematograph picture, is essential
The mystics, one and all, have answered this question in the same sense, and proved in their own experience that the premises of “Activism” are true. This application of the vitalistic idea to the transcendental world, does in fact fit the observed facts of mysticism far more closely even than it fits the observed facts of man’s ordinary mental life.
(1) The primary break with the sense-world. (2) The “new” birth and development of the spiritual consciousness on high levels—in Eucken’s eyes an essential factor in the attainment of reality. (3) That ever closer and deeper dependence on and appropriation of the fullness of the Divine Life; a conscious participation, and active union with the infinite and eternal. These three imperatives, as we shall see later, form an exact description of the psychological process through which the mystics pass. If then this transcendence is the highest destiny of the race, mysticism becomes the crown of man’s ascent towards Reality; the orderly completion of the universal plan.
The mystics show us this independent spiritual life, this fruition of the Absolute, enjoyed with a fullness to which others cannot attain. They are the heroic examples of the life of spirit; as the great artists, the great discoverers, are the heroic examples of the life of beauty and the life of truth. Directly participating, like all artists, in the Divine Life, they are usually persons of great vitality: but this vitality expresses itself in unusual forms, hard of understanding for ordinary men. When we see a picture or a poem, hear a musical composition, we accept it as an expression of life, an earnest of the power which brought it forth. But the deep contemplations of the great mystic, his visionary reconstructions of reality, and the fragments of them which he is able to report, do not seem to us—as they are—the equivalents, or more often the superiors of the artistic and scientific achievements of other great men.
Mysticism, then, offers us the history, as old as civilization, of a race of adventurers who have carried to its term the process of a deliberate and active return to the divine fount of things. They have surrendered themselves to the life-movement of the universe, hence have lived with an intenser life than other men can ever know; have transcended the “sense-world” in order to live on high levels the spiritual life. Therefore they witness to all that our latent spiritual consciousness, which shows itself in the “hunger for the Absolute,” can be made to mean to us if we develop it; and have in this respect a unique importance for the race. It is the mystics, too, who have perfected that method of intuition, that knowledge by union, the existence of which philosophy has been driven to acknowledge. But where the metaphysician obtains at best a sidelong glance at that Being “unchanging yet elusive,” whom he has so often defined but never discovered, the artist a brief and dazzling vision of the Beauty which is Truth, they gaze with confidence into the very eyes of the Beloved.
The mystics, again, are, by their very constitution, acutely conscious of the free and active “World of Becoming,” the Divine Immanence and its travail. It is in them and they are in it: or, as they put it in their blunt theological way, “the Spirit of God is within you.” But they are not satisfied with this statement and this knowledge; and here it is that they part company with vitalism. It is, they think, but half a truth. To know Reality in this way, to know it in its dynamic aspect, enter into “the great life of the All”: this is indeed, in the last resort, to know it supremely from the point of view of man—to liberate from selfhood the human consciousness—but it is not to know it from the point of view of God. There are planes of being beyond this; countries dark to the intellect, deeps into which only the very greatest contemplatives have looked. These, coming forth, have declared with Ruysbroeck that “God according to the Persons is Eternal Work, but according to the Essence and Its perpetual stillness He is Eternal Rest.” 41
The full spiritual consciousness of the true mystic is developed not in one, but in two apparently opposite but really complementary directions:—
“. . . io vidi
Ambo le corte del ciel manifeste.” 42
On the one hand he is intensely aware of, and knows himself to be at one with that active World of Becoming, that immanent Life, from which his own life takes its rise. Hence, though he has broken
On the other hand, the full mystic consciousness also attains to what is, I think, its really characteristic quality. It develops the power of apprehending the Absolute, Pure Being, the utterly Transcendent: or, as its possessor would say, can experience “passive union with God.” This all-round expansion of consciousness, with its dual power of knowing by communion the temporal and eternal, immanent and transcendent aspects of reality—the life of the All, vivid, flowing and changing, and the changeless, conditionless life of the One—is the peculiar mark, the ultimo sigillo of the great mystic, and must never be forgotten in studying his life and work.
As the ordinary man is the meeting-place between two stages of reality—the sense-world and the world of spiritual life—so the mystic, standing head and shoulders above ordinary men, is again the meeting-place between two orders. Or, if you like it better, he is able to perceive and react to reality under two modes. On the one hand he knows, and rests in, the eternal world of Pure Being, the “Sea Pacific” of the Godhead, indubitably present to him in his ecstasies, attained by him in the union of love. On the other, he knows—and works in—that “stormy sea,” the vital World of Becoming which is the expression of Its will. “Illuminated men,” says Ruysbroeck, “are caught up, above the reason, into naked vision. There the Divine Unity dwells and calls them. Hence their bare vision, cleansed and free, penetrates the activity
Though philosophy has striven since thought began—and striven in vain—to resolve the paradox of Being and Becoming, of Eternity and Time, she has failed strangely enough to perceive that a certain type of personality has substituted experience for her guesses at truth; and achieved its solution, not by the dubious processes of thought, but by direct perception. To the great mystic the “problem of the Absolute” presents itself in terms of life, not in terms of dialectic. He solves it in terms of life: by a change or growth of consciousness which—thanks to his peculiar genius—enables him to apprehend that two-fold Vision of Reality which eludes the perceptive powers of other men. It is extraordinary that this fact of experience a central fact for the understanding of the contemplative type—has received so little attention from writers upon mysticism. As we proceed with our inquiry, its importance, its far-reaching implications in the domains of psychology, of theology, of action, will become more and more evident. It provides the reason why the mystics could never accept the diagram of the Vitalists or Evolutionists as a complete statement of the nature of Reality. “Whatever be the limits of your knowledge, we know”—they would say—“that the world has another aspect than this: the aspect which is present to the Mind of God.” “Tranquillity according to His essence, activity according to His nature: perfect stillness, perfect fecundity,” 45 says Ruysbroeck again, this is the two-fold character of the Absolute. That which to us is action, to Him, they declare, is rest, “His very peace and stillness coming from the brimming fullness of His infinite life.” 46 That which to us is Many, to that Transcendent Knower is One. Our World of Becoming rests on the bosom of that Pure Being which has ever been the final Object of man’s quest: the “river in which we cannot bathe twice” is the stormy flood of life flowing toward that divine sea. “How glorious,” says the Voice of the Eternal to St. Catherine of Siena, “is that soul which has indeed been able to pass from the stormy ocean to Me, the Sea Pacific, and in that Sea, which is Myself, to fill the pitcher of her heart.” 47
The evolution of the mystic consciousness, then, brings its possessors to this transcendent point of view: their secret is this unity in diversity, this stillness in strife. Here they are in harmony with Heracleitus rather than with his modern interpreters. That
If it be objected—and this objection has been made by advocates of each school of thought—that the existence of the idealists’ and mystics’ “Absolute” is utterly inconsistent with the deeply alive, striving life which the Vitalists identify with reality, I reply that both concepts at bottom are but symbols of realities which the human mind can never reach: and that the idea of stillness, unity and peace is and has ever been humanity’s best translation of its intuition of the achieved Perfection of God. “‘In the midst of silence a hidden word was spoken to me.’ Where is this Silence, and where is the place in which this word is spoken? It is in the purest that the soul can produce, in her noblest part, in the Ground, even the Being of the Soul.” 49 So Eckhart: and here he does but subscribe to a universal tradition. The mystics have always insisted that “Be still, be still, and know ” is the condition of man’s purest and most direct apprehensions of reality: that he experiences in quiet the truest and deepest activity: and Christianity when she formulated her philosophy made haste to adopt and express this paradox.
“Quid es ergo, Deus meus?” said St. Augustine, and gave an answer in which the vision of the mystic, the genius of the philosopher, combined to hint something at least of the paradox of intimacy and majesty in that all-embracing, all-transcending One. “Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novus, nunquam vetus. . . . Semper agens, semper quietus: colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protegens; creans et nutriens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi. . . . Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sancta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit?” 50
It has been said that “Whatever we may do, our hunger for the Absolute will never cease.” This hunger—that innate craving for, and intuition of, a final Unity, an unchanging good—will go on, however heartily we may feed on those fashionable systems which offer us a dynamic or empirical universe. If, now, we admit in all living creatures—as Vitalists must do—an instinct of self-preservation, a free directive force which may be trusted and which makes for life: is it just to deny such an instinct to the human soul? The “entelechy” of the Vitalists, the “hidden steersman,” drives the phenomenal world on and up. What about that other sure instinct embedded in the race, breaking out again and again, which drives the spirit on and up; spurs it eternally towards an end which it feels to be definite yet cannot define? Shall we distrust this instinct for the Absolute, as living and ineradicable as any other of our powers, merely because philosophy finds it difficult to accommodate and to describe?
“We must,” says Plato in the “Timaeus,” “make a distinction of the two great forms of being, and ask, ‘What is that which Is and has no Becoming, and what is that which is always becoming and never Is?’“ 51 Without necessarily subscribing to the Platonic answer to this question, we may surely acknowledge that the question itself is sound and worth asking; that it expresses a perennial demand of human nature; and that the analogy of man’s other instincts and cravings assures us that these his fundamental demands always indicate the existence of a supply. 52 The great defect of Vitalism, considered as a system, is that it only answers half the question; the half which Absolute Idealism disdained to answer at all.
We have seen that the mystical experience, the fullest all-round experience in regard to the transcendental world which humanity has attained, declares that there are two aspects, two planes of discoverable Reality. We have seen also that hints of these two planes—often clear statements concerning them—abound in mystical literature of the personal first-hand type. 53 Pure Being,
Its manifestation as Power, then, is for us in the dynamic World of Becoming, amidst the thud and surge of that life which is compounded of paradox, of good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death. Here, Boehme declares that the Absolute God is voluntarily self-revealing. But each revelation has as its condition the appearance of its opposite: light can only be recognized at the price of knowing darkness, life needs death, love needs wrath. Hence if Pure Being—the Good, Beautiful and True—is to reveal itself, it must do so by evoking and opposing its contrary: as in the Hegelian dialectic no idea is complete without its negative. Such a revelation by strife, however, is rightly felt by man to be incomplete. Absolute Reality, the Player whose sublime music is expressed at the cost of this everlasting friction between bow and lyre, is present, it is true, in His music. But He is best known in that “light behind,” that unity where all these opposites are lifted up into harmony, into a higher synthesis; and the melody is perceived, not as a difficult progress of sound, but as a whole.
We have, then, ( a ) The achieved Reality which the Greeks, and every one after them, meant by that seemingly chill abstraction which they called Pure Being: that Absolute One, unconditioned and undiscoverable, in Whom all is resumed. In the undifferentiated Godhead of Eckhart, the Transcendent Father of orthodox Christian theology, we see the mind’s attempt to conceive that “wholly other” Reality, unchanging yet changer of all. It is the great contribution of the mystics to humanity’s knowledge of the real that they find in this Absolute, in defiance of the metaphysicians, a personal object of love, the goal of their quest, a “Living One who lives first and lives perfectly, and Who, touching me, the inferior, derivative life, can cause me to live by Him and for His sake” 55 .
( b ) But, contradicting the nihilism of Eastern contemplatives, they see also a reality in the dynamic side of things: in the seething pot of appearance. They are aware of an eternal Becoming, a striving, free, evolving life; not merely as a shadow-show, but as an implicit of their Cosmos felt also in the travail of their own souls—God’s manifestation or showing, in which He is immanent, in which His Spirit truly works and strives. It is in this plane of
The mystic knows his task to be the attainment of Being, Eternal Life, union with the One, the “return to the Father’s heart”: for the parable of the Prodigal Son is to him the history of the universe. This union is to be attained, first by cooperation in that Life which bears him up, in which he is immersed. He must become conscious of this “great life of the All,” merge himself in it, if he would find his way back whence he came. Vae soli . Hence there are really two distinct acts of “divine union,” two distinct kinds of illumination involved in the Mystic Way: the dual character of the spiritual consciousness brings a dual responsibility in its train. First, there is the union with Life, with the World of Becoming: and parallel with it, the illumination by which the mystic “gazes upon a more veritable world.” Secondly, there is the union with Being, with the One: and that final, ineffable illumination of pure love which is called the “knowledge of God.” It is through the development of the third factor, the free, creative “spirit,” the scrap of Absolute Life which is the ground of his soul, that the mystic can (a) conceive and (b) accomplish these transcendent acts. Only Being can know Being: we “behold that which we are, and are that which we behold.” But there is a spark in man’s soul, say the mystics, which is real—which in fact is—and by its cultivation we may know reality. “Thus,” says Von Hügel “a real succession, real efforts, and the continuous sense of limitation and inadequacy are the very means in and through which man apprehends increasingly (if only he thus loves and wills) the contrasting yet sustaining Simultaneity, Spontaneity, Infinity, and pure action of the Eternal Life of God.” 56
Over and over again—as Being and Becoming, as Eternity and Time, as Transcendence and Immanence, Reality and Appearance, the One and the Many—these two dominant ideas, demands, imperious instincts of man’s self will reappear; the warp and woof of his completed universe. On the one hand is his intuition of a remote, unchanging Somewhat calling him: on the other there is his longing for and as clear intuition of an intimate, adorable Somewhat, companioning him. Man’s true Real, his only adequate God, must be great enough to embrace this sublime paradox, to take up these apparent negations into a higher synthesis. Neither the utter transcendence of extreme Absolutism, nor the utter immanence of the Vitalists will do. Both these, taken alone, are declared by the mystics to be incomplete. They conceive that Absolute Being who is the goal of their quest as manifesting Himself in a World of Becoming: working in it, at one with it
Absolute Being and Becoming, the All and the One, are found to be alike inadequate to their definition of this discovered Real; the “triple star of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.” Speaking always from experience—the most complete experience achieved by man—they assure us of an Absolute which overpasses and includes the Absolute of philosophy, far transcends that Cosmic life which it fills and sustains, and is best defined in terms of Transcendent Personality; which because of its unspeakable richness and of the poverty of human speech, they have sometimes been driven to define only by negations. At once static and dynamic, above life and in it, “all love yet all law,” eternal in essence though working in time, this vision resolves the contraries which tease those who study it from without, and swallows up whilst it kindles to life all the partial interpretations of metaphysics and of science.
Here then stands the mystic. By the help of two types of philosophy, eked out by the resources of symbolic expression and suggestion, he has contrived to tell us something of his vision and his claim. Confronted by that vision—that sublime intuition of eternity—we may surely ask, indeed are bound to ask, “What is the machinery by which this self, akin to the imprisoned and sense-fed self of our daily experience, has contrived to slip its fetters and rise to those levels of spiritual perception on which alone such vision can be possible to man? How has it brought within the field of consciousness those deep intuitions which fringe upon Absolute Life; how developed powers by which it is enabled to arrive at this amazing, this superhuman concept of the nature of Reality?” Psychology will do something, perhaps, to help us to an answer to this question; and it is her evidence which we must examine next. But for the fullest and most satisfying answer we must go to the mystics; and they reply to our questions, when we ask them, in the direct and uncompromising terms of action, not in the refined and elusive periods of speculative thought.
“Come with us,” they say to the bewildered and entangled self, craving for finality and peace, “and we will show you a way out that shall not only be an issue from your prison, but also a pathway to your Home. True, you are immersed, fold upon fold, in the World of Becoming; worse, you are besieged on all sides by the persistent illusions of sense. But you too are a child of the Absolute. You bear within you the earnest of your inheritance. At the apex of
THE changed philosophic outlook since this chapter was first written, eighteen years ago, has now given to it a somewhat old-fashioned air. The ideas of Bergson and Eucken no longer occupy the intellectual foreground. Were I now writing it for the first time, my examples would be chosen from other philosophers, and especially from those who are bringing back into modern thought the critical realism of the scholastics. But the position which is here defended—that a limited dualism, a “Two-step philosophy,” is the only type of metaphysic adequate to the facts of mystical experience remains in my own mind as true as before. Now that mysticism enjoys the patronage of many pious monists and philosophic naturalists, this view seems more than ever in need of strong and definite statement.
22 “The Science and Philosophy of Organism,” Gifford Lectures. 1907-8.
23 “Les Données Immédiates de la Conscience” (1889), “Matière et Mémoire” (1896), “L’Evolution Créatrice” (1907).
24 “Der Kampf um einen geistigen Lebensinhalt” (1896), “Der Sinn und Wert den Lebens” (1908), &c. See Bibliography.
25 The researches of Driesch ( op. cit .) and of de Pries (“The Mutation Theory,” 1910) have done much to establish the truth of this contention upon the scientific plane. Now particularly Driesch’s account of the spontaneous responsive changes in the embryo sea-urchin, and de Vries’ extraordinary description of the escaped stock of evening primrose, varying now this way, now that, “as if swayed by a restless internal tide.”
26 The debt to Heracleitus is acknowledged by Schiller. See “Studies in Humanism,” pp. 39, 40.
27 See, for the substance of this and the following pages, the works of Henri Bergson already mentioned. I am here also much indebted to the personal help of my friend “William Scott Palmer,” whose interpretations have done much towards familiarizing English readers with Bergson’s philosophy; and to Prof. Willdon Carr’s paper on “Bergson’s Theory of Knowledge, read before the Aristotelian Society, December 1908.
28 Heracleitus, Fragments, 46, 84.
29 First edition, canto x.
30 E.g. St. Augustine’s “That alone is truly real whichabides unchanged” (Conf., bk. vii. cap. 10), and among modern thinkers F. von Hügel: “An absolute Abidingness, pure Simultaneity, Eternity, in God . . . stand out, in man’s deepest consciousness, with even painful contrast, against all mere Succession, all sheer flux and change.” (“Eternal Life,” p. 365.)
31 S. Alexander, “Space, Time and Deity,” vol. ii, p. 410.
32 See below, Pt. I. Cap. VII.
33 Heracleitus, op. cit .
34 On the complete and undivided nature of our experience in its wholeness,” and the sad work our analytic brains make of it when they come to pull it to pieces, Bradley has some valuable contributory remarks in ho “Oxford Lectures on Poetry,” p. 15.
35 “Liber Specialis Gratiae,” I. ii. cap. xxvi.
36 Meister Eckhart, Pred. lxxxvii.
37 Willdon Carr, op. cit .
38 “It seems as if man could never escape from himself, and yet, when shut in to the monotony of his own sphere, he is overwhelmed with a sense of emptiness. The only remedy here is radically to alter the conception of man himself, to distinguish within him the narrower and the larger life, the life that is straitened and finite and can never transcend itself, and an infinite life through which he enjoys communion with the immensity and the truth of the universe. Can man rise to this spiritual level? On the possibility of his doing so rests all our hope of supplying any meaning or value to life” (“Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 81).
39 The essentials of Eucken’s teaching will be found conveniently summarized in “Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens.”
40 “Der Sinn und Wert den Lebens,” p. 121.
41 “De Septem Gradibus Amoral” cap. xiv.
42 Par. xxx. 95.
43 “Revelations of Divine Love.” cap. vi.
44 Ruysbroeck, “Samuel,” cap. viii.
45 Ibid., “De Vera Contemplatione,” cap. xii.
46 Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii. p. 132.
47 St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogo, cap. lxxxix.
48 Heracleitus, op. cit .
49 Meister Eckhart, Pred. i.
50 Aug. Conf., bk. i. cap. iv. “What art Thou, then, my God? . . . Highest, best, most potent [ i.e. , dynamic], most omnipotent [ i.e, transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hid and yet most near. Fairest, yet strongest: steadfast, yet unseizable; unchangeable yet changing all things: never new, yet never old. . . . Ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not: bearing, filling, guarding: creating, nourishing and perfecting; seeking though Thou hast no wants. . . . What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? or what can any say who speaks of Thee?” Compare the strikingly similar Sufi definition of the Nature of God, as given in Palmer’s “Oriental Mysticism,” pp. 22,23. “First and last, End and Limit of all things, incomparable and unchangeable, always near yet always far,” &c. This probably owes something to Platonic influence.
51 “Timaeus,” § 27.
52 “A natural craving,” said Aquinas, “cannot be in vain.” Philosophy is creeping back to this “mediaeval’ point of view. Compare “Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. ii. cap. lxxix.
53 Compare Dante’s vision in Par. xxx., where he sees Reality first as the streaming River of Light, the flux of things; and then, when his sight has been purged, as achieved Perfection, the Sempiternal Rose.
54 E. Boutroux, “Le Philosophe Allemand, Jacob Boehme.” p. 18.
55 F. von Hügel: “Eternal Life, p. 385.
56 Op. Cit ., p. 387.
W e come now to consider the mental apparatus which is at the disposal of the self: to ask what it can tell us of the method by which she may escape from the prison of the sense-world, transcend its rhythm, and attain knowledge of—or conscious contact with—a supra-sensible Reality. We have seen the normal self shut within that prison, and making, by the help of science and of philosophy, a survey of the premises and furniture: testing the thickness of the walls and speculating on the possibility of trustworthy news from without penetrating to her cell. Shut with her in that cell, two forces, the desire to know more and the desire to love more, are ceaselessly at work. Where the first of these cravings predominates, we call the result a philosophical or a scientific temperament; where it is overpowered by the ardour of unsatisfied love, the self’s reaction upon things becomes poetic, artistic, and characteristically—though not always explicitly—religious.
We have seen further that a certain number of persons declare that they have escaped from the prison. Have they done so, it can only be in order to satisfy these two hungry desires, for these, and these only, make that a prison which might otherwise be a comfortable hotel; and since, in varying degrees, these desires are in all of us, active or latent, it is clearly worth while to discover, if we can, the weak point in the walls, and method of achieving this one possible way of escape.
Before we try to define in psychological language the way in which the mystic slips the fetters of sense, sets out upon his journey towards home, it seems well to examine the machinery which is at the disposal of the normal, conscious self: the creature, or part of a creature, which we recognize as “ourselves.” The older psychologists were accustomed to say that the messages from the outer world awaken in that self three main forms of activity. (1) They arouse movements of attraction or repulsion, of desire or distaste; which vary in intensity from the semi-conscious cravings of the hungry infant to the passions of the lover, artist, or fanatic. (2) They stimulate a sort of digestive process, in which she combines and cogitates upon the material presented to her; finally absorbing a certain number of the resulting concepts and making them part of herself or of her world, (3) The movements of desire, or the action of reason, or both in varying combinations, awaken in her a determination by which percept and concept issue in action; bodily, mental, or spiritual. Hence, the main aspects of the self were classified as Emotion, Intellect, and Will: and the individual temperament was regarded as emotional, intellectual, or volitional, according to whether feeling, thought, or will assumed the reins.
Modern psychologists have moved away from this diagrammatic conception, and incline more and more to dwell upon the unity of the psyche—that hypothetical self which none have ever seen—and on some aspect of its energetic desire, its libido, or “hormic drive” as the ruling factor of its life. These conceptions are useful to the student of mysticism, though they cannot be accepted uncritically or regarded as complete.
Now the unsatisfied psyche in her emotional aspect wants, as we have said, to love more; her curious intellect wants to know more. The awakened human creature suspects that both appetites are being kept on a low diet; that there really is more to love, and more to know, somewhere in the mysterious world without, and further that its powers of affection and understanding are worthy of some greater and more durable objective than that provided by the illusions of sense. Urged therefore by the cravings of feeling or of thought, consciousness is always trying to run out to the encounter of the Absolute, and always being forced to return. The neat philosophical system, the diagrams of science, the “sunset-touch,” are tried in turn. Art and life, the accidents of our humanity, may foster an emotional outlook; till the moment in which the neglected intellect arises and pronounces such an outlook to have no validity. Metaphysics and science seem to offer to the intellect an open window towards truth; till the heart looks out and declares this landscape to be a chill desert in which
When Dionysius the Areopagite divided those angels who stand nearest God into the Seraphs who are aflame with perfect love, and the Cherubs who are filled with perfect knowledge, he only gave expression to the two most intense aspirations of the human soul, and described under an image the two-fold condition of that Beatific Vision which is her goal. 57
There is a sense in which it may be said, that the desire of knowledge is a part of the desire of perfect love: since one aspect of that all inclusive passion is clearly a longing to know, in the deepest, fullest, closest sense, the thing adored. Love’s characteristic activity—for Love, all wings, is inherently active, and “cannot be lazy,” as the mystics say—is a quest, an outgoing towards an object desired, which only when possessed will be fully known, and only when fully known can be perfectly adored. 58 Intimate communion, no less than worship, is of its essence. Joyous fruition is its proper end. This is true of all Love’s quests, whether the Beloved be human or divine—the bride, the Grail, the Mystic Rose, the Plenitude of God. But there is no sense in which it can be said that the desire of love is merely a part of the desire of perfect knowledge: for that strictly intellectual ambition includes no adoration, no self-spending, no reciprocity of feeling between Knower and Known. Mere knowledge, taken alone, is a matter of receiving, not of acting: of eyes, not wings: a dead alive business at the best. There is thus a sharp distinction to be drawn between these two great expressions of life: the energetic love, the passive knowledge. One is related to the eager, outgoing activity, the dynamic impulse to do somewhat, physical, mental, or spiritual, which is inherent in all living things and which psychologists call conation: the other to the indwelling consciousness, the passive knowing somewhat, which they call cognition.
Now “conation” is almost wholly the business of will, but of will stimulated by emotion: for wilful action of every kind, however intellectual it may seem, is always the result of interest, and
Here the lesson of psychology is the same as that which Dante brought back from his pilgrimage; the supreme importance and harmonious movement of il desiro and il velle. Si come rota ch’egualmente è mossa , 59 these move together to fulfil the Cosmic Plan. In all human life, in so far as it is not merely a condition of passive “awareness,” the law which he found implicit in the universe is the law of the individual mind. Not logic, not “common sense,”but l’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle the motive force of the spirit of man: in the inventors, the philosophers, and the artists, no less than in the heroes and in the saints.
The vindication of the importance of feeling in our life, and in particular its primacy over reason in all that has to do with man’s contact with the transcendental world, has been one of the great achievements of modern psychology. In the sphere of religion it is now acknowledged that “God known of the heart” gives a better account of the character of our spiritual experience than “God guessed at by the brain”; that the loving intuition is more fruitful and more trustworthy than the dialectic proof. One by one the commonplaces of mysticism are thus rediscovered by official science, and given their proper place in the psychology of the spiritual life. Thus Leuba, hardly a friendly witness, is found to agree with the Fourth Evangelist that “Life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is in the last analysis the end of
Further, “the heart has its reasons which the mind knows not of.” It is a matter of experience that in our moments of deep emotion, transitory though they be, we plunge deeper into the reality of things than we can hope to do in hours of the most brilliant argument. At the touch of passion doors fly open which logic has battered on in vain: for passion rouses to activity not merely the mind, but the whole vitality of man. It is the lover, the poet, the mourner, the convert, who shares for a moment the mystic’s privilege of lifting that Veil of Isis which science handles so helplessly, leaving only her dirty fingermarks behind. The heart, eager and restless, goes out into the unknown, and brings home, literally and actually, “fresh food for thought.” Hence those who “feel to think” are likely to possess a richer, more real, if less orderly, experience than those who “think to feel.”
This psychological law, easily proved in regard to earthly matters, holds good also upon the supersensual plane. It was expressed once for all by the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” when he said of God, “By love He may be gotten and holden, but by thought of understanding, never.” 61 That exalted feeling, that “secret blind love pressing,” not the neat deductions of logic, the apologist’s “proofs” of the existence of the Absolute, unseals the eyes to things unseen before. “Therefore,” says the same mystic “what time that thou purposest thee to this work, and feelest by grace that thou art called of God, lift then up thine heart unto God with a meek stirring of love; and mean God that made thee and bought thee, and that graciously hath called thee to thy degree and receive none other thought of God. And yet not all these but if thou list; for it sufficeth thee enough, a naked intent direct unto God without any other cause than Himself.” 62 Here we see emotion at its proper work; the movement of desire passing over at once into the act of concentration, the gathering up of all the powers of the self into a state of determined attention, which is the business of the Will. “This driving and drawing,” says Ruysbroeck, “we feel in the heart and in the unity of all our bodily powers, and especially in the desirous powers.” 63 This act of perfect concentration,
We have then arrived so far in our description of the mechanism of the mystic. Possessed like other men of powers of feeling, thought, and will, it is essential that his love and his determination, even more than his thought, should be set upon Transcendent Reality. He must feel a strong emotional attraction toward the supersensual Object of his quest: that love which scholastic philosophy defined as the force or power which causes every creature to follow out the trend of its own nature. Of this must be born the will to attain communion with that Absolute Object. This will, this burning and active desire, must crystallize into and express itself by that definite and conscious concentration of the whole self upon the Object, which precedes the contemplative state. We see already how far astray are those who look upon the mystical temperament as passive in type.
Our next concern, then, would seem to be with this condition of contemplation: what it does and whither it leads. What is (a) its psychological explanation and (b) its empirical value? Now, in dealing with this, and other rare mental conditions, we are of course trying to describe from without that which can only adequately be described from within; which is as much as to say that only mystics can really write about mysticism. Fortunately, many mystics have so written; and we, from their experiences and from the explorations of psychology upon another plane, are able to make certain elementary deductions. It appears generally from these that the act of contemplation is for the mystic a psychic gateway; a method of going from one level of consciousness to another. In technical language it is the condition under which he shifts his “field of perception” and obtains his characteristic outlook on the universe. That there is such a characteristic outlook, peculiar to no creed or race, is proved by the history of mysticism; which demonstrates plainly enough that in some men another sort of consciousness, another “sense,” may be liberated beyond the normal powers we have discussed. This “sense” has attachments at each point to emotion, to intellect, and to will. It can express itself under each of the aspects which these terms connote. Yet it differs from and transcends the emotional, intellectual, and volitional life of ordinary men. It was recognized by
It is infused with burning love, for it seems to its possessors to be primarily a movement of the heart: with intellectual subtlety, for its ardour is wholly spent upon the most sublime object of thought: with unflinching will, for its adventures are undertaken in the teeth of the natural doubts, prejudices, languors, and self-indulgence of man. These adventures, looked upon by those who stay at home as a form of the Higher Laziness, are in reality the last and most arduous labours which the human spirit is called to perform. They are the only known methods by which we can come into conscious possession of all our powers; and, rising from the lower to the higher levels of consciousness, become aware of that larger life in which we are immersed, attain communion with the transcendent Personality in Whom that life is resumed.
Mary has chosen the better, not the idler part; for her gaze is directed towards those First Principles without which the activity of Martha would have no meaning at all. In vain does sardonic common sense, confronted with the contemplative type, reiterate the sneer of Mucius, “Encore sont-ils heureux que la pauvre Marthe leur fasse la cuisine.” It remains a paradox of the mystics that the passivity at which they appear to aim is really a state of the most intense activity: more, that where it is wholly absent no great creative action can take place. In it, the superficial self compels itself to be still, in order that it may liberate another
“This restful travail,” said Walter Hilton, “is full far from fleshly idleness and from blind security. It is full of ghostly work but it is called rest, for grace looseth the heavy yoke of fleshly love from the soul and maketh it mighty and free through the gift of the holy ghostly love for to work gladly, softly, and delectably. . . . Therefore is it called an holy idleness and a rest most busy; and so is it in stillness from the great crying and the beastly noise of fleshly desires.” 71
If those who have cultivated this latent power be correct in their statements, the self was mistaken in supposing herself to be entirely shut off from the true external universe. She has, it seems certain tentacles which, once she learns to uncurl them, will stretch sensitive fingers far beyond that limiting envelope in which her normal consciousness is contained, and give her news of a higher reality than that which can be deduced from the reports of the senses. The fully developed and completely conscious human soul can open as an anemone does, and know the ocean in which she is bathed. This act, this condition of consciousness, in which barriers are obliterated, the Absolute flows in on us, and we, rushing out to its embrace, “find and feel the Infinite above all reason and above all knowledge,” 72 is the true “mystical state.” The value of contemplation is that it tends to produce this state, release this transcendental sense; and so turns the “lower servitude” in which the natural man lives under the sway of his earthly environment to the “higher servitude” of fully conscious dependence on that Reality “in Whom we live and move and have our being.”
What then, we ask, is the nature of this special sense—this transcendental consciousness—and how does contemplation liberate it?
Any attempt to answer this question brings upon the scene another aspect of man’s psychic life: an aspect of paramount importance to the student of the mystic type. We have reviewed the chief ways in which our surface consciousness reacts upon experience: a surface consciousness which has been trained through long ages to deal with the universe of sense. We know, however, that the personality of man is a far deeper and more mysterious thing than the sum of his conscious feeling, thought and will: that this superficial self—this Ego of which each of us is aware—hardly counts in comparison with the deeps of being which it hides. “There is a root or depth in thee,” says Law, “from whence all these faculties come forth as lines from a centre,
Since normal man is utterly unable to set up relations with spiritual reality by means of his feeling, thought, and will, it is clearly in this depth of being—in these unplumbed levels of personality—that we must search, if we would find the organ, the power, by which he is to achieve the mystic quest. That alteration of consciousness which takes place in contemplation can only mean the emergence from this “fund or bottom of the soul” of some faculty which diurnal life keeps hidden “in the deeps.”
Modern psychology, in its doctrine of the unconscious or subliminal personality, has acknowledged this fact of a range of psychic life lying below and beyond the conscious field. Indeed, it has so dwelt upon and defined this shadowy region—which is really less a “region” than a useful name—that it sometimes seems to know more about the unconscious than about the conscious life of man. There it finds, side by side, the sources of his most animal instincts, his least explicable powers, his most spiritual intuitions: the “ape and tiger,” and the “soul.” Genius and prophecy, insomnia and infatuation, clairvoyance, hypnotism, hysteria, and “Christian” science—all are explained by the “unconscious mind.” In his destructive moods the psychologist has little apparent difficulty in reducing the chief phenomena of religious and mystical experience to activities of the “unconscious,” seeking an oblique satisfaction of repressed desires. Where he undertakes the more dangerous duties of apologetic, he explains the same phenomena by saying that “God speaks to man in the subconsciousness,” 74 by which he can only mean that our apprehensions of the eternal have the character of intuition rather than of thought. Yet the “unconscious” after all is merely a convenient name for the aggregate of those powers, parts, or qualities of the whole self which at any given moment are not conscious, or that the Ego is not conscious of. Included in the unconscious region of an average healthy man are all those automatic activities by which the life of the body is carried on: all those “uncivilized” instincts and vices, those remains of the ancestral savage, which education has
It follows, then, that whilst we may find it convenient and indeed necessary to avail ourselves of the symbols and diagrams of psychology in tracking out the mystic way, we must not forget the large and vague significance which attaches to these symbols, and the hypothetical character of many of the entities they represent. Nor must we allow ourselves to use the “unconscious” as the equivalent of man’s transcendental sense. Here the mystics have surely displayed a more scientific spirit, a more delicate power of analysis, than the psychologists. They, too, were aware that in normal men the spiritual sense lies below the threshold of consciousness. Though they had not at their command the spatial metaphors of the modern school, and could not describe man’s ascent toward God in those picturesque terms of levels and uprushes, margins and fields, projection, repression, and sublimation, which now come so naturally to investigators of the spiritual life, they leave us in no doubt as to their view of the facts. Further, man’s spiritual history primarily meant for them, as it means for us, the emergence of this transcendental sense; its capture of the field of consciousness, and the opening up of those paths which permit the inflow of a larger spiritual life, the perception of a higher reality. This, in so far as it was an isolated act, was “contemplation.” When it was part of the general life process, and had permanent results, they called it the New Birth, which “maketh alive.” The faculty or personality concerned in the “New Birth”—the “spiritual man,” capable of the spiritual vision and life, which was dissociated from the “earthly man” adapted only to the natural life—was always sharply distinguished by them from the total personality, conscious or unconscious. It was something definite; a bit or spot of man which, belonging not to Time but to Eternity, was different in kind from the rest of his human nature, framed in all respects to meet the demands of the merely natural world. 75 The business of the mystic in the eyes of these old specialists was to remake, transmute, his total personality in the interest
The divine nucleus, the point of contact between man’s life and the divine life in which it is immersed and sustained, has been given many names in course of the development of mystical doctrine. All clearly mean the same thing, though emphasizing different aspects of its life. Sometimes it is called the Synteresis, 76 the keeper or preserver of his being: sometimes the Spark of the Soul, the Fünklein of the German mystics: sometimes its Apex the point at which it touches the heavens. Then, with a sudden flight to the other end of the symbolic scale, and in order to emphasize its participation in pure Being, rather than its difference from mere nature, it is called the Ground of the Soul, the foundation or basal stuff indwelt by God, whence springs all spiritual life. Clearly all these guesses and suggestions aim at one goal and are all to be understood in a symbolic sense; for, as Malaval observed in answer to his disciples’ anxious inquiries on this subject, “since the soul of man is a spiritual thing and thus cannot have divisions or parts, consequently it cannot have height or depth, summit or surface. But because we judge spiritual things by the help of material things, since we know these better and they are more familiar to us, we call the highest of all forms of conception the summit, and the easier way of comprehending things the surface, of the understanding.” 77
Here at any rate, whatever name we may choose to give it, is the organ of man’s spiritual consciousness; the place where he meets the Absolute, the germ of his real life. Here is the seat of that deep “Transcendental Feeling,” the “beginning and end of metaphysics” which is, says Professor Stewart, “at once the solemn sense of Timeless Being—of ‘That which was and is and ever shall be’ overshadowing us—and the conviction that Life is good.” “I hold,” says the same writer, “that it is in Transcendental Feeling, manifested normally as Faith in the Value of Life, and ecstatically as sense of Timeless Being, and not in Thought proceeding by way of speculative construction, that Consciousness comes nearest to the object of metaphysics, Ultimate Reality.” 78
The existence of such a “sense,” such an integral part or function of the complete human being, has been affirmed and dwelt upon not only by the mystics, but by seers and teachers of all times and creeds: by Egypt, Greece, and India, the poets, the fakirs, the philosophers, and the saints. A belief in its actuality is the pivot of the Christian position; indeed of every religion worthy of the name. It is the justification of mysticism, asceticism, the whole machinery of the self-renouncing life. That there is an extreme point at which man’s nature touches the Absolute: that his ground, or substance, his true being, is penetrated by the Divine Life which constitutes the underlying reality of things; this is the basis on which the whole mystic claim of possible union with God must rest. Here, they say, is our link with reality; and in this place alone can be celebrated the “marriage from which the Lord comes.” 79
To use another of their diagrams, it is thanks to the existence within him of this immortal spark from the central fire, that man is implicitly a “child of the infinite.” The mystic way must therefore be a life, a discipline, which will so alter the constituents of his mental life as to include this spark within the conscious field; bring it out of the hiddenness, from those deep levels where it sustains and guides his normal existence, and make it the dominant element round which his personality is arranged.
It is clear that under ordinary conditions, and save for sudden gusts of “Transcendental Feeling” induced by some saving madness such as Religion, Art, or Love, the superficial self knows nothing of the attitude of this silent watcher—this “Dweller in the Innermost”—towards the incoming messages of the external world: nor of the activities which they awake in it. Concentrated on the sense-world, and the messages she receives from it, she knows nothing of the relations which exist between this subject and the unattainable Object of all thought. But by a deliberate inattention to the messages of the senses, such as that which is induced by contemplation, the mystic can bring the ground of the soul, the seat of “Transcendental Feeling,” within the area of consciousness: making it amenable to the activity of the will. Thus becoming unaware of his usual and largely fictitious “external world,” another and more substantial set of perceptions, which never have their chance under normal conditions, rise to the surface. Sometimes these unite with the normal reasoning faculties. More often, they supersede them. Some such exchange, such “losing to find,” appears to be necessary, if man’s transcendental powers are to have their full chance.
“The two eyes of the soul of man,” says the “Theologia
There is within us an immense capacity for perception, for the receiving of messages from outside; and a very little consciousness which deals with them. It is as if one telegraph operator were placed in charge of a multitude of lines: all may be in action, but he can only attend to one at a time. In popular language, there is not enough consciousness to go round. Even upon the sensual plane, no one can be aware of more than a few things at once. These fill the centre of our field of consciousness: as the object on which we happen to have focussed our vision dominates our field of sight. The other matters within that field retreat to the margin. We know, dimly, that they are there; but we pay them no attention and should hardly miss them if they ceased to exist.
Transcendental matters are, for most of us, always beyond the margin; because most of us have given up our whole consciousness to the occupation of the senses, and permitted them to construct there a universe in which we are contented to remain. Only in certain states—recollection, contemplation, ecstasy and their allied conditions—does the self contrive to turn out the usual tenants, shut the “gateways of the flesh,” and let those submerged powers which are capable of picking up messages from another plane of being have their turn. Then it is the sense-world which retreats beyond the margin, and another landscape that rushes in. At last, then, we begin to see something of what contemplation does for its initiates. It is one of the many names applied to that chain of processes which have for their object this alteration of the mental equilibrium: the putting to sleep of that “Normal Self” which usually wakes, and the awakening of that “Transcendental Self” which usually sleeps. To man, “meeting-point of various stages of reality,” is given—though he seldom considers it—this unique power of choosing his universe.
The phenomenon known as double or disintegrated personality may perhaps give us a hint as to the mechanical nature of the change which contemplation effects. In this psychic malady the total character of the patient is split up; a certain group of qualities
Now in persons of mystical genius, the qualities which the stress of normal life tends to keep below the threshold of consciousness are of enormous strength. In these natural explorers of Eternity the “transcendental faculty,” the “eye of the soul,” is not merely present in embryo, but is highly developed; and is combined with great emotional and volitional power. The result of the segregation of such qualities below the threshold of consciousness is to remove from them the friction of those counterbalancing traits in the surface mind with which they might collide. They are “in the hiddenness,” as Jacob Boehme would say. There they develop unchecked, until a point is reached at which their strength is such that they break their bounds and emerge into the conscious field: either temporarily dominating the subject as in ecstasy, or permanently transmuting the old self, as in the “unitive life.” The attainment of this point may be accelerated by processes which have always been known and valued by the mystics; and which tend to produce a state of consciousness classed by psychologists with dreams, reverie, and the results of hypnosis. In all these the normal surface-consciousness is deliberately or involuntarily lulled, the images and ideas connected with normal life are excluded, and images or faculties from “beyond the threshold” are able to take their place.
Of course these images or faculties may or may not be more valuable than those already present in the surface-consciousness. In the ordinary subject, often enough, they are but the odds and ends for which the superficial mind has found no use. In the mystic, they are of a very different order: and this fact justifies the means which he instinctively employs to secure their emergence. Indian mysticism founds its external system almost wholly
It need hardly be said that rationalistic writers, ignoring the parallels offered by the artistic and philosophic temperaments, have seized eagerly upon the evidence afforded by such instances of apparent mono-ideism and self-hypnotization in the lives of the mystics, and by the physical disturbances which accompany the ecstatic trance, and sought by its application to attribute all the abnormal perceptions of contemplative genius to hysteria or other disease. They have not hesitated to call St. Paul an epileptic. St. Teresa the “patron saint of hysterics”; and have found room for most of their spiritual kindred in various departments of the pathological museum. They have been helped in this grateful task by the acknowledged fact that the great contemplatives, though
It is certain that the abnormal and highly sensitized type of mind which we call mystical does frequently, but not always, produce or accompany strange and inexplicable modifications of the physical organism with which it is linked. The supernatural is not here in question, except in so far as we are inclined to give that name to natural phenomena which we do not understand. Such instances of psycho-physical parallelism as the stigmatizations of the saints—and indeed of other suggestible subjects hardly to be ranked as saints—will occur to anyone. 85 I here offer to the reader another less discussed and more extraordinary example of the modifying influence of the spirit on the supposed “laws” of bodily life.
We know, as a historical fact, unusually well attested by contemporary evidence and quite outside the sphere of hagiographic romance, that both St. Catherine of Siena and her namesake St. Catherine of Genoa—active women as well as ecstatics, the first a philanthropist, reformer, and politician, the second an original theologian and for many years the highly efficient matron of a large hospital—lived, in the first case for years, in the second for constantly repeated periods of many weeks, without other food than the consecrated Host which they received at Holy Communion. They did this, not by way of difficult obedience to a pious vow, but because they could not live in any other way. Whilst fasting, they were well and active, capable of dealing with the innumerable responsibilities which filled their lives. But the attempt to eat even a few mouthfuls—and this attempt was constantly repeated, for, like all true saints, they detested eccentricity 86 —at once made them ill and had to be abandoned as useless. 87
In spite of the researches of Murisier, 88 Janet, 89 Ribot, 90 and other psychologists, and their persevering attempts to find a pathological explanation which will fit all mystic facts, this and other marked physical peculiarities which accompany the mystical temperament belong as yet to the unsolved problems of humanity. They need to be removed both from the sphere of marvel and from that of disease—into which enthusiastic friends and foes force them by turn—to the sphere of pure psychology; and there studied dispassionately with the attention which we so willingly bestow on the less interesting eccentricities of degeneracy and vice. Their existence no more discredits the sanity of mysticism or the validity of its results than the unstable nervous condition usually noticed in artists—who share to some extent the mystic’s apprehension of the Real—discredits art. “In such cases as Kant and Beethoven,” says Von Hügel justly, “a classifier of humanity according to its psycho-physical phenomena alone would put these great discoverers and creators, without hesitation, amongst hopeless and useless hypochondriacs.” 91
In the case of the mystics the disease of hysteria, with its astounding variety of mental symptoms, its strange power of disintegrating, rearranging and enhancing the elements of consciousness, its tendencies to automatism and ecstasy, has been most often invoked to provide an explanation of the observed phenomena. This is as if one sought the source of the genius of Taglioni in the symptoms of St. Vitus’s dance. Both the art and the disease have to do with bodily movements. So too both mysticism and hysteria have to do with the domination of consciousness by one fixed and intense idea or intuition, which rules the life and is able to produce amazing physical and psychical results. In the hysteric patient this idea is often trivial or morbid 92 but has become—thanks to the self’s unstable mental condition—an obsession. In the mystic the dominant idea is a great one: so great in fact, that when it is received in its completeness by the human consciousness, almost of necessity it ousts all else. It is nothing less than the idea or perception of the transcendent reality and presence of God. Hence the mono-ideism of the mystic is rational, whilst that of the hysteric patient is invariably irrational.
On the whole then, whilst psycho-physical relations remain so little understood, it would seem more prudent, and certainly more scientific, to withhold our judgment on the meaning of the psychophysical
Our bodies are animal things, made for animal activities. When a spirit of unusual ardour insists on using its nerve-cells for other activities, they kick against the pricks; and inflict, as the mystics themselves acknowledge, the penalty of “mystical ill-health.” “Believe me, children,” says Tauler, “one who would know much about these high matters would often have to keep his bed, for his bodily frame could not support it.” 93 “I cause thee extreme pain of body,” says the voice of Love to Mechthild of Magdeburg. “If I gave myself to thee as often as thou wouldst have me, I should deprive myself of the sweet shelter I have of thee in this world, for a thousand bodies could not protect a loving soul from her desire. Therefore the higher the love the greater the pain.” 94
On the other hand the exalted personality of the mystic—his self-discipline, his heroic acceptance of labour and suffering, and his inflexible will—raises to a higher term that normal power of mind over body which all possess. Also the contemplative state—like the hypnotic state in a healthy person—seems to enhance life by throwing open deeper levels of personality. The self then drinks at a fountain which is fed by the Universal Life. True ecstasy is notoriously life-enhancing. In it a bracing contact with Reality seems to take place, and as a result the subject is himself more real. Often, says St. Teresa, even the sick come forth from ecstasy healthy and with new strength; for something great is then given to the soul. 95 Contact has been set up with levels of being which the daily routine of existence leaves untouched. Hence the extraordinary powers of endurance, and independence of external conditions, which the great ecstatics so often display.
If we see in the mystics, as some have done, the sporadic beginning of a power, a higher consciousness, towards which the race slowly tends; then it seems likely enough that where it appears nerves and organs should suffer under a stress to which they have not yet become adapted, and that a spirit more highly organized than its bodily home should be able to impose strange conditions on the flesh. When man first stood upright, a body long accustomed to go on all fours, legs which had adjusted themselves to bearing but half his weight, must have rebelled against this
In spite of such rebellion, and of the tortures to which it has subjected them, the mystics, oddly enough, are a long-lived race: an awkward fact for critics of the physiological school. To take only a few instances from amongst marked ecstatics, St. Hildegarde lived to be eighty-one, Mechthild of Magdeburg to eighty-seven, Ruysbroeck to eighty-eight, Suso to seventy, St. Teresa to sixty-seven, St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Peter of Alcantara to sixty-three. It seems as though that enhanced life which is the reward of mystical surrender enabled them to triumph over their bodily disabilities: and to live and do the work demanded of them under conditions which would have incapacitated ordinary men.
Such triumphs, which take heroic rank in the history of the human mind, have been accomplished as a rule in the same way. Like all intuitive persons, all possessors of genius, all potential artists—with whom in fact they are closely related—the mystics have, in psychological language, “thresholds of exceptional mobility.” That is to say, a slight effort, a slight departure from normal conditions, will permit their latent or “subliminal” powers to emerge and occupy the mental field. A “mobile threshold” may make a man a genius, a lunatic, or a saint. All depends upon the character of the emerging powers. In the great mystic, these powers, these tracts of personality lying below the level of normal consciousness, are of unusual richness; and cannot be accounted for in terms of pathology. “If it be true,” says Delacroix, “that the great mystics have not wholly escaped those nervous blemishes which mark nearly all exceptional organizations, there is in them a vital and creative power, a constructive logic, an extended scale of realization—in a word, a genius—which is, in truth, their essential quality. . . . The great mystics, creators and inventors who have found a new form of life and have justified it . . . join, upon the highest summits of the human spirit, the great simplifiers of the world.” 97
The truth, then, so far as we know it at present, seems to be
In those abnormal types of personality to which we give the name of genius, we seem to detect a hint of the relations which may exist between these deep levels of being and the crust of consciousness. In the poet, the musician, the great mathematician or inventor, powers lying below the threshold, and hardly controllable by their owner’s conscious will, clearly take a major part in the business of perception and conception. In all creative acts, the larger share of the work is done subconsciously: its emergence is in a sense automatic. This is equally true of mystics, artists, philosophers, discoverers, and rulers of men. The great religion, invention, work of art, always owes its inception to some sudden uprush of intuitions or ideas for which the superficial self cannot account; its execution to powers so far beyond the control of that self, that they seem, as their owner sometimes says, to “come from beyond.” This is “inspiration”; the opening of the sluices, so that those waters of truth in which all life is bathed may rise to the level of consciousness.
The great teacher, poet, artist, inventor, never aims deliberately at his effects. He obtains them he knows not how: perhaps from a contact of which he is unconscious with that creative plane of being which the Sufis call the Constructive Spirit, and the Kabalists Yesod, and which both postulate as lying next behind the world of sense. “Sometimes,” said the great Alexandrian Jew Philo,
To let oneself go, be quiet, receptive, appears to be the condition under which such contact with the Cosmic Life may be obtained. “I have noticed that when one paints one should think of nothing: everything then comes better,” says the young Raphael to Leonardo da Vinci. 100 The superficial self must here acknowledge its own insufficiency, must become the humble servant of a more profound and vital consciousness. The mystics are of the same opinion. “Let the will quietly and wisely understand,” says St. Teresa, “that it is not by dint of labour on our part that we can converse to any good purpose with God.” 101 “The best and noblest way in which thou mayst come into this Life,” says Eckhart, “is by keeping silence and letting God work and speak. Where all the powers are withdrawn from their work and images, there is this word spoken . . . the more thou canst draw in all thy powers and forget the creature the nearer art thou to this, and the more receptive.” 102
Thus Boehme says to the neophyte, 103 “When both thy intellect and will are quiet and passive to the expressions of the eternal Word and Spirit, and when thy soul is winged up above that which is temporal, the outward senses and the imagination being locked up by holy abstraction, then the eternal Hearing, Seeing, and Speaking will be revealed in thee. Blessed art thou therefore if thou canst stand still from self thinking and self willing, and canst stop the wheel of thy imagination and senses.” Then, the conscious mind being passive, the more divine mind below the threshold—organ of our free creative life—can emerge and present its reports. In the words of an older mystic, “The soul, leaving all things and forgetting herself, is immersed in the ocean
The “passivity” of contemplation, then, is a necessary preliminary of spiritual energy: an essential clearing of the ground. It withdraws the tide of consciousness from the shores of sense, stops the “wheel of the imagination.” “The Soul,” says Eckhart again, “is created in a place between Time and Eternity: with its highest powers it touches Eternity, with its lower Time.” 105 These, the worlds of Being and Becoming, are the two “stages of reality” which meet in the spirit of man. By cutting us off from the temporal plane, the lower kind of reality, Contemplation gives the eternal plane, and the powers which can communicate with that plane, their chance. In the born mystic these powers are great, and lie very near the normal threshold of consciousness. He has a genius for transcendental—or as he would say, divine—discovery in much the same way as his cousins, the born musician and poet, have a genius for musical or poetic discovery. In all three cases, the emergence of these higher powers is mysterious, and not least so to those who experience it. Psychology on the one hand, theology on the other, may offer us diagrams and theories of this proceeding: of the strange oscillations of the developing consciousness, the fitful visitations of a lucidity and creative power over which the self has little or no control, the raptures and griefs of a vision by turns granted and withdrawn. But the secret of genius still eludes us, as the secret of life eludes the biologist.
The utmost we can say of such persons is, that reality presents itself to them under abnormal conditions and in abnormal terms, and that subject to these conditions and in these terms they are bound to deal with it. Thanks to their peculiar mental make up, one aspect of the universe is for them focussed so sharply that in comparison with it all other images are blurred, vague, and unreal. Hence the sacrifice which men of genius—mystics, artists, inventors—make of their whole lives to this one Object, this one vision of truth, is not self-denial, but rather self-fulfilment. They gather themselves up from the unreal, in order to concentrate on the real. The whole personality then absorbs or enters into communion with certain rhythms or harmonies existent in the universe, which the receiving apparatus of other selves cannot take up. “Here is the finger of God, a flash of the Will that can!” exclaims Abt Vogler, as the sounds grow under his hand. “The numbers
So it is with the mystic. Madame Guyon states in her autobiography, that when she was composing her works she would experience a sudden and irresistible inclination to take up her pen; though feeling wholly incapable of literary composition, and not even knowing the subject on which she would be impelled to write. If she resisted this impulse it was at the cost of the most intense discomfort. She would then begin to write with extraordinary swiftness; words, elaborate arguments, and appropriate quotations coming to her without reflection, and so quickly that one of her longest books was written in one and a half days. “In writing I saw that I was writing of things which I had never seen: and during the time of this manifestation, I was given light to perceive that I had in me treasures of knowledge and understanding which I did not know that I possessed.” 106
Similar statements are made of St. Teresa, who declared that in writing her books she was powerless to set down anything but that which her Master put into her mind. 107 So Blake said of “Milton” and “Jerusalem,” “I have written the poems from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without premeditation and even against my will. The time it has taken in writing was thus rendered non-existent, and an immense poem exists which seems to be the labour of a long life, all produced without labour or study.” 108
These are, of course, extreme forms of that strange power of automatic composition, in which words and characters arrive and arrange themselves in defiance of their authors’ will, of which most poets and novelists possess a trace. Such composition is probably related to the automatic writing of “mediums” and other sensitives; in which the often disorderly and incoherent subliminal mind seizes upon this channel of expression. The subliminal mind of the great mystic, however, is not disorderly. It is abnormally sensitive, richly endowed and keenly observant—a treasure house, not a lumber room—and becomes in the course of its education, a highly disciplined and skilled instrument of knowledge. When, therefore, its contents emerge, and are presented to the normal consciousness in the form of lucidity, “auditions,” visions, automatic writing, or any other translations of the supersensible
Now, to sum up: what are the chief characteristics which we have found to concern us in this sketch-map of the mental life of man?
(1) We have divided that life, arbitrarily enough, along the fluctuating line which psychologists call the “threshold of his consciousness” into the surface life and the unconscious deeps.
(2) In the surface life, though we recognized its essential wholeness, we distinguished three outstanding and ever-present aspects: the Trinity in Unity of feeling, thought, and will. Amongst these we were obliged to give the primacy to feeling, as the power which set the machinery of thought and will to work.
(3) We have seen that the expression of this life takes the two complementary forms of conation, or outgoing action and cognition, or indwelling knowledge; and that the first, which is dynamic in type, is largely the work of the will stimulated by the emotions; whilst the second, which is passive in type, is the business of the intellect. They answer to the two main aspects which man discerns in the universal life: Being and Becoming.
(4) Neither conation nor cognition—action nor thought—as performed by this surface mind, concerned as it is with natural existence and dominated by spatial conceptions, is able to set up any relations with the Absolute or transcendental world. Such action and thought deal wholly with material supplied directly or indirectly by the world of sense. The testimony of the mystics, however, and of all persons possessing an “instinct for the Absolute,” points to the existence of a further faculty—indeed, a deeper self—in man; a self which the circumstances of diurnal life usually keep “below the threshold” of his consciousness, and which thus becomes one of the factors of his “subliminal life.” This hidden self is the primary agent of mysticism, and lives a “substantial” life in touch with the real or transcendental world. 109
(5) Certain processes, of which contemplation has been taken as a type, can so alter the state of consciousness as to permit the emergence of this deeper self; which, according as it enters more or less into the conscious life, makes man more or less a mystic.
The mystic life, therefore, involves the emergence from deep levels of man’s transcendental self; its capture of the field of consciousness; and the “conversion” or rearrangement of his feeling, thought, and will—his character—about this new centre of life.
We state, then, as the conclusion of this chapter, that the object of the mystic’s adventure, seen from within, is the apprehension of, or direct communion with, that transcendental Reality which we tried in the last section to define from without. Here, as in the fulfilment of the highest earthly love, knowledge and communion are the same thing; we must be “oned with bliss” if we are to be aware of it. That aspect of our being by which we may attain this communion—that “marrow of the Soul,” as Ruysbroeck calls it—usually lies below the threshold of our consciousness; but in certain natures of abnormal richness and vitality, and under certain favourable conditions, it may be liberated by various devices, such as contemplation. Once it has emerged, however, it takes up, to help it in the work, aspects of the conscious self. The surface must co-operate with the deeps, and at last merge with those deeps to produce that unification of consciousness upon high levels which alone can put a term to man’s unrest. The heart that longs for the All, the mind that conceives it, the will that concentrates the whole self upon it, must all be called into play. The self must be surrendered: but it must not be annihilated, as some Quietists have supposed. It only dies that it may live again. Supreme success,—the permanent assurance of the mystic that “we are more verily in heaven than in earth,”—says the Lady Julian, in a passage which anticipates the classification of modern psychology, “cometh of the natural Love of our soul, and of the clear light of our Reason, and of the steadfast Mind.” 110
But what is the order of precedence which these three activities are to assume in the work which is one ?All, as we have seen, must do their part; for we are concerned with the response of man in his wholeness to the overwhelming attraction of God. But which shall predominate? The ultimate nature of the self’s experience of reality will depend on the answer she gives to this question. What, here, are the relative values of Mind and Heart? Which will bring her closest to the Thought of God; the real life in which she is bathed? Which, fostered and made dominant, is most likely to put her in harmony with the Absolute? The Love of God, which is ever in the heart and often on the lips of the Saints, is the passionate desire for this harmony; the “malady of thought” is its intellectual equivalent. Though we may seem to escape God, we cannot escape some form of this craving; except at the price of utter stagnation.
57 The wise Cherubs, according to the beautiful imagery of Dionysius, are “all eyes,” but the loving Seraphs are “all wings.” Whilst the Seraphs, the figure of intensest Love, “ move perpetually towards things divine,” ardour and energy being their characteristics, the characteristic of the Cherubs is receptiveness their power of absorbing the rays of the Supernal Light. (Dionysius the Areopagite, “De Caelesti Ierarchia,” vi. 2, and vii. 1.)
58 So Récéjac says of the mystics, they desire to know, only that they may love; and their desire for union with the principle of things in God, Who is the sum of them all, is founded on a feeling which is neither curiosity nor self-interest” (“Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 50).
59 Par. xxxiii. 143.
60 The Monist , July, 1901, p. 572.
61 “The Cloud of Unknowing,” cap. vi.
62 Op. cit., cap. vii.
63 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. v.
64 See below, Pt. II. Cap. VI.
65 Plotinus, Ennead vi. 9.
66 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. vii. (trans. Winkworth).
67 Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. x.
68 A. Schmölders, “Essai sur les Écoles Philosophique chez les Arabes,” p. 68.
69 “De Consideration,” bk. ii. cap. ii.
70 “Summa Theologica,” ii. ii. q. clxxx, art. 3. eds. 1 and 3.
71 Walter Hilton, “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xl.
72 Ruysbroeck, “De Septem Gradibus Amoris,” cap. xiv.
73 “The Spirit of Prayer” (“Liberal and Mystical Writings of William Law,” p, 14). So too St. François de Sales says: “This root is the depth of the spirit, Mens , which others call the Kingdom of God.” The same doctrine appears, under various symbols, in all the Christian Mystics.
74 Cutten, “Psychological Phenomena of Christianity,” p. 18. James, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 155. For a temperate and balanced discussion, see Pratt: “The Religious Consciousness.”
75 Note to the 12th Edition. During the eighteen years which have elapsed since this chapter was written, much work has been done on the psychology of mysticism. After suffering severely at the hands of the “new psychologists” the contemplative faculty is once more taken seriously; and there is even some disposition to accept or restate the account of it given by the mystics. Thus Bremond (“Prière et Poésie” and “Introduction à la Philosophie de la Prière”) insists on the capital distinction between the surface-mind, capable of rational knowledge, and the deeper mind, organ of mystical knowledge, and operative in varying degrees in religion poetic, and Esthetic apprehensions.
76 An interesting discussion of the term “Synteresis” will be found in Dr. Inge’s “Christian Mysticism,” Appendix C, pp. 359, 360.
77 “La Pratique de la Vraye Theologie Mystique,” vol. 1. p. 204.
78 J. A. Stewart, ‘*The Myths of Plato,” pp. 41, 43. Perhaps I may point out that this Transcendental Feeling—the ultimate material alike of prayer and of poetry—has, like the mystic consciousness, a dual perception of Reality: static being and dynamic life. See above, p. 42.
79 Tauler, Sermon on St. Augustine (“The Inner Way,” p. 162).
80 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. vii. Compare “De Imitatione Christi,” 1. iii. cap. 38.
81 Morton Prince, “The Dissociation of a Personality,” p. 16.
82 Martensen, “Jacob Boehme,” p. 7.
83 Testament, cap. iii.
84 Starbuck, “The Psychology of Religion,” p. 388.
85 See, for instances, Cutten, ‘The Psychological Phenomena of Christianity,” cap. viii.
86 “Singularity,” says Gertrude More, “is a vice which Thou extremely hatest.” (‘The Spiritual Exercises of the most vertuous and religious Dame Gertrude More,” p. 40). All the best and sanest of the mystics are of the same opinion.
87 See E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” pp. 12and 48; and E. von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 135.
88 “Les Maladies des Sentiments Religieux.”
89 “L’État Mentale des Hysteriques,” and “Une Extatique” ( Bulletin de l’Institut Psychologique , 1901).
90 “La Psychologie des Sentiment,” 1896.
91 Op. cit ., vol. ii. p. 42.
92 For examples consult Pierre Janet, op. cit.
93 Sermon for First Sunday after Easter (Winkworth, p. 302).
94 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. ii. cap. xxv.
95 Vida, cap. xx. sect. 29.
96 Boyce Gibson (“God with Us,” cap. iii.) has drawn a striking parallel between the ferment and “interior uproar” of adolescence and the profound disturbances which mark man’s entry into a conscious spiritual life. His remarks are even more applicable to the drastic rearrangement of personality which takes place in the case of the mystic, whose spiritual life is more intense than that of other men.
97 Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. iii.
98 Dialogo, cap. lxxxvi.
99 Quoted by James (“Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 481) from Clissold’s “The Prophetic Spirit in Genius and Madness,” p. 67.
100 “Mérejkowsky, “Le Roman do Leonard de Vinci,” p. 638.
101 Vida, cap. xv. 9.
102 Meister Eckhart, Pred. i. (“Mystische Schriften,” p. 18).
103 “Three Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” p. 14.
104 Dionysius the Areopagite, “De Divinis Nominibus,” vii. 3.
105 Pred. xxiii. Eckhart obtained this image from St. Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. iii. cap. lxi. “The intellectual soul is created on the confines of eternity and time.”
106 Vie, t. ii. pp. 120, 223, 229. It might reasonably be objected that Madame Guyon does not rank high among the mystics and her later history includes some unfortunate incidents. This is true. Nevertheless she exhibit such a profusion of mystical phenomena and is so candid in her self-disclosures, that she provides much valuable material for the student.
107 G. Cunninghame Graham, “Santa Teresa,” vol. i. p. 202.
108 “Letters of William Blake,” April 25, 1803.
109 This insistence on the twofold character of human personality is implicit in the mystics. “It is” says Bremond, “the fundamental dogma of mystical psychology—the distinction between the two selves: Animus, the surface self; Anima , the deep self; Animus , rational knowledge; and Anima , mystical or poetic knowledge . . . the I, who feeds on notions and words, and enchants himself by doing so; the Me, who is united to realities” (Bremond “Prière et Poésie,” cap. xii.).
110 Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap, lv.
T he spiritual history of man reveals two distinct and fundamental attitudes towards the unseen; and two methods whereby he has sought to get in touch with it. For our present purpose I will call these methods the “way of magic” and the “way of mysticism.” Having said this, we must at once add that although in their extreme forms these methods are sharply contrasted, their frontiers are far from being clearly defined: that, starting from the same point, they often confuse the inquirer by using the same language, instruments, and methods. Hence, much which is really magic is loosely and popularly described as mysticism. They represent as a matter of fact the opposite poles of the same thing: the transcendental consciousness of humanity. Between them lie the great religions, which might be described under this metaphor as representing the ordinarily habitable regions of that consciousness. Thus, at one end of the scale, pure mysticism “shades off” into religion—from some points of view seems to grow out of it. No deeply religious man is without a touch of mysticism; and no mystic can be other than religious, in the psychological if not in the theological sense of the word. At the other end of the scale, as we shall see later, religion, no less surely, shades off into magic.
The fundamental difference between the two is this: magic wants to get, mysticism wants to give—immortal and antagonistic attitudes, which turn up under one disguise or another in
It will be our business later to consider in more detail the characteristics and significance of magic. Now it is enough to say that we may class broadly as magical all forms of self-seeking transcendentalism. It matters little whether the apparatus which they use be the incantations of the old magicians, the congregational prayer for rain of orthodox Churchmen, or the consciously self-hypnotizing devices of “New Thought”: whether the end proposed be the evocation of an angel, the power of transcending circumstance, or the healing of disease. The object is always the same: the deliberate exaltation of the will, till it transcends its usual limitations and obtains for the self or group of selves something which it or they did not previously possess. It is an individualistic and acquisitive science: in all its forms an activity of the intellect, seeking Reality for its own purposes, or for those of humanity at large.
Mysticism, whose great name is too often given to these supersensual activities, has nothing in common with this. It is non-individualistic. It implies, indeed, the abolition of individuality; of that hard separateness, that “I, Me, Mine” which makes of man a finite isolated thing. It is essentially a movement of the heart, seeking to transcend the limitations of the individual standpoint and to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; for no personal gain, to satisfy no transcendental curiosity, to obtain no other-worldly joys, but purely from an instinct of love. By the word heart, of course we here mean not merely “the seat of the affections,” “the organ of tender emotion,” and the like: but rather the inmost sanctuary of personal being, the deep root of
We see, then, that these two activities correspond to the two eternal passions of the self, the desire of love and the desire of knowledge: severally representing the hunger of heart and intellect for ultimate truth. The third attitude towards the supersensual world, that of transcendental philosophy, hardly comes within the scope of the present inquiry; since it is purely academic, whilst both magic and mysticism are practical and empirical. Such philosophy is often wrongly called mysticism, because it tries to make maps of the countries which the mystic explores. Its performances are useful, as diagrams are useful, so long as they do not ape finality; remembering that the only final thing is personal experience—the personal and costly exploration of the exalted and truth-loving soul.
What then do we really mean by mysticism? A word which is impartially applied to the performances of mediums and the ecstasies of the saints, to “menticulture” and sorcery, dreamy poetry and mediaeval art, to prayer and palmistry, the doctrinal excesses of Gnosticism, and the tepid speculations of the Cambridge Platonists—even, according to William James, to the higher branches of intoxication 111 —soon ceases to have any useful meaning. Its employment merely confuses the inexperienced student, who ends with a vague idea that every kind of supersensual theory and practice is somehow “mystical.” Hence the need of fixing, if possible, its true characteristics: and restating the fact that Mysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and that the mystic is the person who attains to this union, not the person who talks about it. Not to know about but to Be, is the mark of the real initiate.
The difficulty lies in determining the point at which supersensual experience ceases to be merely a practical and interesting extension of sensual experience—an enlarging, so to speak, of the boundaries of existence—and passes over into that boundless life where Subject and Object, desirous and desired, are one. No
Now we have said that the end which the mystic sets before him is conscious union with a living Absolute. That Divine Dark, that Abyss of the Godhead, of which he sometimes speaks as the goal of his quest, is just this Absolute, the Uncreated Light in which the Universe is bathed, and which—transcending, as it does, all human powers of expression—he can only describe to us as dark. But there is—must be—contact “in an intelligible where” between every individual self and this Supreme Self, this Ultimate. In the mystic this union is conscious, personal, and complete. “He enjoys,” says St. John of the Cross, “a certain contact of the soul with the Divinity; and it is God Himself who is then felt and tasted.” 112 More or less according to his measure, he has touched—or better, been touched by—the substantial Being of Deity, not merely its manifestation in life. This it is which distinguishes him from the best and most brilliant of other men, and makes his science, in Patmore’s words, “the science of self-evident Reality.” Gazing with him into that unsearchable ground whence the World of Becoming comes forth “eternally generated in an eternal Now,” we may see only the icy darkness of perpetual negations: but he, beyond the coincidence of opposites, looks upon the face of Perfect Love.
As genius in any of the arts is—humanly speaking—the final term of a power of which each individual possesses the rudiments, so mysticism may be looked upon as the final term, the active expression, of a power latent in the whole race: the power, that is to say, of so perceiving transcendent reality. Few people pass through life without knowing what it is to be at least touched by this mystical feeling. He who falls in love with a woman and perceives—as the lover really does perceive—that the categorical term “girl” veils a wondrous and unspeakable reality: he who, falling in love with nature, sees the landscape “touched with light divine,”—a charming phrase to those who have not seen it, but a scientific statement to the rest—he who falls in love with the Holy, or as we say “undergoes conversion”: all these have truly known for an instant something of the secret of the world. 113
“. . . Ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlement of Eternity,
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again.”
Here, in this spark or “part of the soul” where the spirit, as religion says, “rests in God who made it,” is the fountain alike of the creative imagination and the mystic life. Now and again something stings it into consciousness, and man is caught up to the spiritual level, catches a glimpse of the “secret plan.” Then hints of a marvellous truth, a unity whose note is ineffable peace, shine in created things; awakening in the self a sentiment of love, adoration, and awe. Its life is enhanced, the barrier of personality is broken, man escapes the sense-world, ascends to the apex of his spirit, and enters for a brief period into the more extended life of the All.
This intuition of the Real lying at the root of the visible world and sustaining its life, is present in a modified form in the arts: perhaps it were better to say, must be present if these arts are so justify themselves as heightened forms of experience. It is this which gives to them that peculiar vitality, that strange power of communicating a poignant emotion, half torment and half joy, which baffle their more rational interpreters. We know that the picture which is “like a photograph,” the building which is at once handsome and commodious, the novel which is a perfect transcript of life, fail to satisfy us. It is difficult to say why this should be so, unless it were because these things have neglected their true business; which was not to reproduce the illusions of ordinary men but to catch and translate for us something of that “secret plan,” that reality which the artistic consciousness is able, in a measure, to perceive. “Painting as well as music and poetry exists and exults in immortal thoughts,” says Blake. 115 That “life-enhancing power” which has been recognized as the supreme quality of good painting, 116 has its origin in this contact of the artistic mind with the archetypal—or, if you like, the transcendental—world: the underlying verity of things.
A critic, in whom poetic genius has brought about the unusual alliance of intuition with scholarship, testifies to this same truth when he says of the ideals which governed early Chinese painting, “In this theory every work of art is thought of as an incarnation
That “more real world of essential life” is the world in which the “free soul” of the great mystic dwells; hovering like the six-winged seraph before the face of the Absolute. 118 The artist too may cross its boundaries in his brief moments of creation: but he cannot stay. He comes back to us, bearing its tidings, with Dante’s cry upon his lips—
“. . . Non eran da ciò le proprie penne
se non che la mia mente fu percossa
da un fulgore, in che sua voglia venne.” 119
The mystic may say—is indeed bound to say—with St. Bernard, “My secret to myself.” Try how he will, his stammering and awestruck reports can hardly be understood but by those who are already in the way. But the artist cannot act thus. On him has been laid the duty of expressing something of that which he perceives. He is bound to tell his love. In his worship of Perfect Beauty faith must be balanced by works. By means of veils and symbols he must interpret his free vision, his glimpse of the burning bush, to other men. He is the mediator between his brethren and the divine, for art is the link between appearance and reality. 120
But we do not call every one who has these partial and artistic intuitions of reality a mystic, any more than we call every one a musician who has learnt to play the piano. The true mystic is the person in whom such powers transcend the merely artistic and visionary stage, and are exalted to the point of genius: in whom the transcendental consciousness can dominate the normal consciousness, and who has definitely surrendered himself to the embrace of Reality. As artists stand in a peculiar relation to the phenomenal world, receiving rhythms and discovering truths and beauties which are hidden from other men, so this true mystic stands in a peculiar relation to the transcendental world, there experiencing actual, but to us unimaginable tension and delight. His consciousness is transfigured in a particular way, he lives at
The earthly artist, because perception brings with it the imperative longing for expression, tries to give us in colour, sound or words a hint of his ecstasy, his glimpse of truth. Only those who have tried, know how small a fraction of his vision he can, under the most favourable circumstance, contrive to represent. The mystic, too, tries very hard to tell an unwilling world his secret. But in his case, the difficulties are enormously increased. First, there is the huge disparity between his unspeakable experience and the language which will most nearly suggest it. Next, there is the great gulf fixed between his mind and the mind of the world. His audience must be bewitched as well as addressed, caught up to something of his state, before they can be made to understand.
Were he a musician, it is probable that the mystic could give his message to other musicians in the terms of that art, far more accurately than language will allow him to do: for we must remember that there is no excuse but that of convenience for the pre-eminence amongst modes of expression which we accord to words. These correspond so well to the physical plane and its adventures, that we forget that they have but the faintest of relations with transcendental things. Even the artist, before he can make use of them, is bound to re-arrange them in accordance with the laws of rhythm: obeying unconsciously the rule by which all arts “tend to approach the condition of music.”
So too the mystic. Mysticism, the most romantic of adventures, from one point of view the art of arts, their source and also their end, finds naturally enough its closest correspondences in the most purely artistic and most deeply significant of all forms of expression. The mystery of music is seldom realized by those who so easily accept its gifts. Yet of all the arts music alone shares with great mystical literature the power of waking in us a response to the life-movement of the universe: brings us—we know not how—news of its exultant passions and its incomparable peace.
The mediaeval mind, more naturally mystical than ours, and therefore more sharply aware of the part which rhythmic harmony plays in the worlds of nature and of grace, gave to music a cosmic importance, discerning its operation in many phenomena which we now attribute to that dismal figment, Law. “There are three kinds of music,” says Hugh of St. Victor, “the music of the worlds, the music of humanity, the music of instruments. Of the music of the worlds, one is of the elements, another of the planets, another of Time. Of that which is of the elements, one is of number, another of weights, another of measure. Of that which is of the planets, one is of place, another of motion, another of nature. Of that which is of Time, one is of the days and the vicissitudes of light and darkness; another of the months and the waxing and waning of the moon; another of the years and the changes of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Of the music of humanity, one is of the body, another of the soul, another in the connexion that is between them.” 122 Thus the life of the visible and invisible universe consists in a supernal fugue.
One contemplative at least, Richard Rolle of Hampole, “the father of English mysticism,” was acutely aware of this music of the soul, discerning in it a correspondence with the measured harmonies of the spiritual universe. In those enraptured descriptions of his inward experience which are among the jewels of mystical literature, nothing is more remarkable than his constant and deliberate employment of musical imagery. This alone, it seems, could catch and translate for him the character of his experience of Reality. The condition of joyous and awakened love to which the mystic passes when his purification is at an end is to him, above all else, the state of Song. He does not “see” the spiritual world: he “hears” it. For him, as for St. Francis of Assisi, it is a “heavenly melody, intolerably sweet.” 123
“Song I call,” he says, “when in a plenteous soul the sweetness of eternal love with burning is taken, and thought into song is turned, and the mind into full sweet sound is changed.” 124 He who
Rolle’s own experience of mystic joy seems actually to have come to him in this form: the perceptions of his exalted consciousness presenting themselves to his understanding under musical conditions, as other mystics have received them in the form of pictures or words. I give in his own words the classic description of his passage from the first state of “burning love” to the second state of “songful love”—from Calor to Canor— when “into song of joy meditation is turned.” “In the night, before supper, as I my psalms sung, as it were the sound of readers or rather singers about me I beheld. Whilst, also praying, to heaven with all desire I took heed, suddenly, in what manner I wot not, in me the sound of song I felt; and likeliest heavenly melody I took, with me dwelling in mind. Forsooth my thought continually to mirth of song was changed, and my meditation to praise turned; and my prayers and psalm-saying, in sound I showed.” 127
The song, however, is a mystic melody having little in common with its clumsy image, earthly music. Bodily song “lets it”; and “noise of janglers makes it turn again to thought,” “for sweet ghostly song accords not with outward song, the which in churches and elsewhere is used. It discords much: for all that is man’s voice is formed with bodily ears to be heard; but among angels’ tunes it has an acceptable melody, and with marvel it is commended of them that have known it.” To others it is incommunicable. “Worldly lovers soothly words or ditties of our song may know, for the words they read: but the tone and sweetness of that song they may not learn.” 128
Such symbolism as this—a living symbolism of experience and action, as well as of statement—seems almost essential to mystical expression. The mind must employ some device of the kind if its transcendental perceptions—wholly unrelated as they are to the phenomena with which intellect is able to deal—are ever to be grasped by the surface consciousness. Sometimes the symbol and the perception which it represents become fused in that consciousness; and the mystic’s experience then presents itself to
The greatest mystics, however—Ruysbroeck, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa herself in her later stages—distinguish clearly between the ineffable Reality which they perceive and the image under which they describe it. Again and again they tell us with Dionysius and Eckhart, that the Object of their contemplation “hath no image”: or with St. John of the Cross that “the soul can never attain to the height of the divine union, so far as it is possible in this life, through the medium of any forms or figures.” 129 Therefore the attempt which has sometimes been made to identify mysticism with such forms and figures—with visions, voices, “supernatural favours” and other abnormal phenomena—is clearly wrong.
“The highest and most divine things which it is given us to see and to know,” says Dionysius the Areopagite plainly, “are but the symbolic language of things subordinate to Him who Himself transcendeth them all: through which things His incomprehensible Presence is shown, walking on those heights of His Holy Places which are perceived by the mind. 130
The mystic, as a rule, cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some side-long way, some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader, and convey, as all poetic language does, something beyond its surface sense. Hence the large part which is played in all mystical writings by symbolism and imagery; and also by that rhythmic and exalted language which induces in sensitive persons something of the languid ecstasy of dream. The close connection between rhythm and heightened states of consciousness is as yet little understood. Its further investigation will probably throw much light on ontological as well as psychological problems.
All kinds of symbolic language come naturally to the articulate mystic, who is often a literary artist as well: so naturally, that he sometimes forgets to explain that his utterance is but symbolic—a desperate attempt to translate the truth of that world into the beauty of this. It is here that mysticism joins hands with music and poetry: had this fact always been recognized by its critics, they would have been saved from many regrettable and some ludicrous misconceptions. Symbol—the clothing which the spiritual borrows from the material plane—is a form of artistic expression. That is to say, it is not literal but suggestive: though the artist who uses it may sometimes lose sight of this distinction. Hence the persons who imagine that the “Spiritual Marriage” of St. Catherine or St. Teresa veils a perverted sexuality, that the vision of the Sacred Heart involved an incredible anatomical experience, or that the divine inebriation of the Sufis is the apotheosis of drunkenness, do but advertise their ignorance of the mechanism of the arts: like the lady who thought that Blake must be mad because he said that he had touched the sky with his finger.
Further, the study of the mystics, the keeping company however humbly with their minds, brings with it as music or poetry does—but in a far greater degree—a strange exhilaration, as if we were brought near to some mighty source of Being, were at last on the verge of the secret which all seek. The symbols displayed, the actual words employed, when we analyse them, are not enough to account for such effect. It is rather that these messages from the waking transcendental self of another, stir our own deeper selves in their sleep. It were hardly an extravagance to say, that those writings which are the outcome of true and first-hand mystical experience may be known by this power of imparting to the reader the sense of exalted and extended life. “All mystics,” says Saint-Martin, “speak the same language, for they come from the same country.” The deep undying life within us came from that country too: and it recognizes the accents of home, though it cannot always understand what they would say.
Now, returning to our original undertaking, that of defining
1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.
2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. The mystic brushes aside that universe, even in its supernormal manifestations. Though he does not, as his enemies declare, neglect his duty to the many, his heart is always set upon the changeless One.
3. This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of Love; never an object of exploration. It draws his whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart.
4. Living union with this One—which is the term of his adventure—is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realization of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. Though these must be present they are not enough. It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process—the so-called Mystic Way—entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called “ecstasy,” but is better named the Unitive State.
Mysticism, then, is not an opinion: it is not a philosophy. It has nothing in common with the pursuit of occult knowledge. On the one hand it is not merely the power of contemplating Eternity: on the other, it is not to be identified with any kind of religious queerness. It is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better—for this means exactly the same thing—it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute.
The movement of the mystic consciousness towards this consummation, is not merely the sudden admission to an overwhelming vision of Truth: though such dazzling glimpses may from time to time be vouchsafed to the soul. It is rather an ordered movement
This is that mystic union which is the only possible fulfilment of mystic love: since
“All that is not One must ever
Suffer with the wound of Absence
And whoever in Love’s city
Enters, finds but room for One
And but in One-ness, Union.” 134
The history of mysticism is the history of the demonstration of this law upon the plane of reality.
Now, how do these statements square with the practice of the great mystics; and with the various forms of activity which have been classified at one time or another as mystical?
(1) Mysticism is practical, not theoretical.
This statement, taken alone, is not, of course, enough to identify mysticism; since it is equally true of magic, which also proposes to itself something to be done rather than something to be believed. It at once comes into collision, however, with the opinions of those who believe mysticism to be “the reaction of the born Platonist upon religion.”
The difference between such devout philosophers and the true mystic, is the difference which George Tyrrell held to distinguish revelation from theology. 135 Mysticism, like revelation, is final and personal. It is not merely a beautiful and suggestive diagram but experience in its most intense form. That experience, in the words of Plotinus, is the soul’s solitary adventure: “the flight of the Alone to the Alone.” 136 It provides the material, the substance, upon which mystical philosophy cogitates; as theologians cogitate upon the revelation which forms the basis of faith. Hence those whom we are to accept as mystics must have received, and acted upon, intuitions of a Truth which is for them absolute. If we are
Over and over again the great mystics tell us, not how they speculated, but how they acted. To them, the transition from the life of sense to the life of spirit is a formidable undertaking, which demands effort and constancy. The paradoxical “quiet” of the contemplative is but the outward stillness essential to inward work. Their favourite symbols are those of action: battle, search, and pilgrimage.
“In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went , none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be,” 137
said St. John of the Cross, in his poem of the mystic quest.
“It became evident to me,” says Al Ghazzali of his own search for mystic truth, “that the Sufis are men of intuition and not men of words. I recognized that I had learnt all that can be learnt of Sufiism by study, and that the rest could not be learnt by study or by speech.” 138 “Let no one suppose,” says the “Theologia Germanica,” “that we may attain to this true light and perfect knowledge . . . by hearsay, or by reading and study, nor yet by high skill and great learning.” 139 “It is not enough,” says Gerlac
Those who suppose mystical experience to be merely a pleasing consciousness of the Divine in the world, a sense of the “otherness” of things, a basking in the beams of the Uncreated Light, are only playing with Reality. True mystical achievement is the most complete and most difficult expression of life which is as yet possible to man. It is at once an act of love, an act of surrender, and an act of supreme perception; a trinity of experiences which meets and satisfies the three activities of the self. Religion might give us the first and metaphysics the third of these processes. Only Mysticism can offer the middle term of the series; the essential link which binds the three in one. “Secrets,” says St. Catherine of Siena, “are revealed to a friend who has become one thing with his friend and not to a servant.” 142
(2) Mysticism is an entirely Spiritual Activity.
This rule provides us with a further limitation, which of course excludes all the practisers of magic and of magical religion: even in their most exalted and least materialistic forms. As we shall see when we come to consider these persons, their object—not necessarily an illegitimate one—is to improve and elucidate the visible by help of the invisible: to use the supernormal powers of the self for the increase of power, virtue, happiness or knowledge. The mystic never turns back on himself in this way, or tries to combine the advantages of two worlds. At the term of his development he knows God by communion, and this direct intuition of the Absolute kills all lesser cravings. He possesses God, and needs nothing more. Though he will spend himself unceasingly for other men, become “an agent of the Eternal Goodness,” he is destitute of supersensual ambitions and craves no occult knowledge or power. Having his eyes set on eternity, his consciousness steeped in it, he can well afford to tolerate the entanglements of time. “His spirit,” says Tauler, “is as it were sunk and lost in the Abyss of the Deity, and loses the consciousness of all creature-distinctions. All things are gathered together in one with the divine sweetness, and the man’s being is so penetrated with the divine substance that he loses himself therein, as a drop of water is lost in a cask of strong wine. And thus the man’s spirit is so sunk in God in divine union, that he loses all sense of distinction . . .
(3) The business and method of Mysticism is Love.
Here is one of the distinctive notes of true mysticism; marking it off from every other kind of transcendental theory and practice and providing the answer to the question with which our last chapter closed. It is the eager, outgoing activity whose driving power is generous love, not the absorbent, indrawing activity which strives only for new knowledge, that is fruitful in the spiritual as well as in the physical world.
Having said this, however, we must add—as we did when speaking of the “heart”—that the word Love as applied to the mystics is to be understood in its deepest, fullest sense; as the ultimate expression of the self’s most vital tendencies, not as the superficial affection or emotion often dignified by this name. Mystic Love is a total dedication of the will; the deep-seated desire and tendency of the soul towards its Source. It is a condition of humble access, a life-movement of the self: more direct in its methods, more valid in its results—even in the hands of the least lettered of its adepts—than the most piercing intellectual vision of the greatest philosophic mind. Again and again the mystics insist upon this. “For silence is not God, nor speaking is not God; fasting is not God nor eating is not God; onliness is not God nor company is not God; nor yet any of all the other two such quantities, He is hid between them, and may not be found by any work of thy soul, but all only by love of thine heart. He may not be known by reason, He may not be gotten by thought, nor concluded by understanding; but he may be loved and chosen with the true lovely will of thine heart. . . . Such a blind shot with the sharp dart of longing love may never fail of the prick, the which is God.” 147
“‘Come down quickly,’” says the Incomprehensible Godhead to the soul that has struggled like Zaccheus to the topmost branches of the theological tree, “‘for I would dwell with you to-day.’ And this hasty descent to which he is summoned by God is simply a descent by love and desire in to that abyss of the Godhead which the intellect cannot understand. But where intelligence must rest without, love and desire can enter in.” 148
Volumes of extracts might be compiled from the works of the mystics illustrative of this rule, which is indeed their central principle. “Some there are,” says Plotinus, “that for all their effort have not attained the Vision; the soul in them has come to no sense of the splendour there. It has not taken warmth; it has not felt burning within itself the flame of love for what is there to know.” 149 “Love,” says Rolle, “truly suffers not a loving soul to bide in itself, but ravishes it out to the Lover, that the soul is more there where it loves, than where the body is that lives and feels it.” “Oh singular joy of love everlasting,” he says again, “that ravishes all his to heavens above all worlds, them binding with bands of virtue! Oh dear charity, in earth that has thee not is nought wrought, whatever it hath! He truly in thee that is busy, to joy above earthly is soon lifted! Thou makest men contemplative, heaven-gate thou openest, mouths of accusers thou dost shut, God thou makest to be seen and multitude of sins thou hidest. We praise thee, we preach thee, by thee the world we quickly overcome, by whom we joy and the heavenly ladder we ascend.” 150
Love to the mystic, then, is (a) the active, conative, expression of his will and desire for the Absolute; (b) his innate tendency to that Absolute, his spiritual weight. He is only thoroughly natural, thoroughly alive, when he is obeying its voice. For him it is the source of joy, the secret of the universe, the vivifying principle of things. In the words of Récéjac, “Mysticism claims to be able to know the Unknowable without any help from dialectics; and believes that, by the way of love and will it reaches a point to which thought alone is unable to attain.” Again, “It is the heart and never the reason which leads us to the Absolute.” 151 Hence in St. Catherine of Siena’s exquisite allegory it is the feet of the soul’s affection which brings it first to the Bridge, “for the feet carry the body as affection carries the soul.” 152
The jewels of mystical literature glow with this intimate and impassioned love of the Absolute; which transcends the dogmatic language in which it is clothed and becomes applicable to mystics of every race and creed. There is little difference in this between
“How great a thing is Love, great above all other goods: for alone it makes all that is heavy light, and bears evenly all that is uneven. . . .
“Love would be aloft, nor will it be kept back by any lower thing. Love would be free, and estranged from all worldly affection, that its inward sight be not hindered: that it may not be entangled by any temporal comfort, nor succumb to any tribulation.
“Nought is sweeter than love, nought stronger, nought higher, nought wider: there is no more joyous, fuller, better thing in heaven or earth. For love is born of God, and cannot rest save in God, above all created things.
“The lover flies, runs, and, rejoices: he is free, and cannot be restrained. He gives all for all, and has all in all; for he rests in One Supreme above all, from whom all good flows and proceeds.
“He looks not at the gift, but above all goods turns himself to the giver.
“. . . He who loves knows the cry of this voice. For this burning affection of the soul is a loud cry in the ears of God when it saith ‘My God, My Love, Thou art all mine, and I am all Thine.’” 153
So much for the Christian. Now for the Persian mystic.
“While the thought of the Beloved fills our hearts
All our work is to do Him service and spend life for Him.
Wherever He kindles His destructive torch
Myriads of lovers’ souls are burnt therewith.
The lovers who dwell within the sanctuary
Are moths burnt with the torch of the Beloved’s face.
O heart, hasten thither! for God will shine upon you,
And seem to you a sweet garden instead of a terror.
He will infuse into your soul a new soul,
So as to fill you, like a goblet, with wine.
Take up your abode in His Soul!
Take up your abode in heaven, oh bright full moon!
Like the heavenly Scribe, He will open your heart’s book
That he may reveal mysteries unto you.” 154
Well might Hilton say that “Perfect love maketh God and the soul to be as if they both together were but one thing,” 155 and Tauler that “the well of life is love, and he who dwelleth not in love is dead.” 156
These, nevertheless, are objective and didactic utterances; though their substance may be—probably is—personal, their form is not. But if we want to see what it really means to be “in love
This nun, great-great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas More, and favourite pupil of the celebrated Benedictine contemplative, the Ven. Augustine Baker, exhibits the romantic and personal side of mysticism more perfectly than even St. Teresa, whose works were composed for her daughters’ edification. She was an eager student of St. Augustine, “my deere deere Saint,” as she calls him more than once. He had evidently influenced her language; but her passion is her own.
Remember that Gertrude More’s confessions represent the most secret conversations of her soul with God. They were not meant for publication; but, written for the most part on blank leaves in her breviary, were discovered and published after her death. “She called them,” says the title-page with touching simplicity, “ Amor ordinem nescit: an Ideot’s Devotions. Her only spiritual father and directour, Father Baker, styled them Confessiones Amantis, A Lover’s Confessions. Amans Deum anima sub Deo despicit universa. A soul that loveth God despiseth all things that be inferiour unto God.” 157
The spirit of her little book is summed up in two epigrams: epigrams of which her contemporary, Crashaw, might have been proud. “To give all for love is a most sweet bargain.” 158 “O let me love, or not live!” 159 Love indeed was her life: and she writes of it with a rapture which recalls at one moment the exuberant poetry of Jacopene da Todi, at another the love songs of the Elizabethan poets.
“Never was there or can there be imagined such a Love, as is between an humble soul and thee. Who can express what passeth between such a soul and thee? Verily neither man nor Angell is able to do it sufficiently. . . . In thy prayse I am only happy, in which, my Joy, I will exult with all that love thee. For what can be a comfort while I live separated from thee, but only to remember that my God, who is more myne than I am my owne, is absolutely and infinitely happy? . . . Out of this true love between a
Who will not see that we have here no literary exercise, but the fruits of an experience of peculiar intensity? It answers exactly to one of the best modern definitions of mysticism as “in essence, the concentration of all the forces of the soul upon a supernatural Object, conceived and loved as a living Person.“ 161 “Love and desire,” says the same critic, “are the fundamental necessities; and where they are absent man, even though he be a visionary, cannot be called a mystic.” 162 Such a definition, of course, is not complete. It is valuable however, because it emphasizes the fact that all true mysticism is rooted in personality; and is therefore fundamentally a science of the heart.
Attraction, desire, and union as the fulfilment of desire; this is the way Life works, in the highest as in the lowest things. The mystic’s outlook, indeed, is the lover’s outlook. It has the same element of wildness, the same quality of selfless and quixotic devotion, the same combination of rapture and humility. This parallel is more than a pretty fancy: for mystic and lover, upon different planes, are alike responding to the call of the Spirit of Life. The language of human passion is tepid and insignificant beside the language in which the mystics try to tell the splendours of their love. They force upon the unprejudiced reader the conviction that they are dealing with an ardour far more burning for an Object far more real.
“This monk can give lessons to lovers!” exclaimed Arthur Symons in astonishment of St. John of the Cross. 163 It would be strange if he could not; since their finite passions are but the feeble images of his infinite one, their beloved the imperfect symbol of
(4) Mysticism entails a definite Psychological Experience.
That is to say, it shows itself not merely as an attitude of mind and heart, but as a form of organic life. It is not only a theory of the intellect or a hunger, however passionate, of the heart. It involves the organizing of the whole self, conscious and unconscious, under the spur of such a hunger: a remaking of the whole character on high levels in the interests of the transcendental life. The mystics are emphatic in their statement that spiritual desires are useless unless they initiate this costly movement of the whole self towards the Real.
Thus in the visions of Mechthild of Magdeburg, “The soul spake thus to her Desire, ‘Fare forth and see where my Love is. Say to him that I desire to love.’ So Desire sped forth, for she is quick of her nature, and came to the Empyrean and cried, ‘Great Lord, open and let me in!’ Then said the Householder of that place: ‘What means this fiery eagerness?’ Desire replied, ‘Lord I would have thee know that my lady can no longer bear to live. If Thou wouldst flow forth to her, then might she swim: but the fish cannot long exist that is left stranded on the shore.’ ‘Go back,’ said the Lord, ‘I will not let thee in unless thou bring to me that hungry soul, for it is in this alone that I take delight.’” 164
We have said 165 that the full mystic consciousness is extended in two distinct directions. So too there are two distinct sides to the full mystical experience. (A) The vision or consciousness of Absolute Perfection. (B) The inward transmutation to which that Vision compels the mystic, in order that he may be to some extent worthy of that which he has beheld: may take his place within the order of Reality. He has seen the Perfect; he wants to be perfect too. The “third term,” the necessary bridge between the Absolute and the Self, can only, he feels, be moral and spiritual transcendence—in a word, Sanctity— for “the only means of attaining the Absolute lies in adapting ourselves to It.” 166 The moral virtues are for him, then, the obligatory “ornaments of the Spiritual Marriage” as Ruysbroeck called them: though far more than their presence is needed to bring that marriage about. Unless this impulse for moral perfection be born in him, this travail of the inner life begun, he
Moreover, this process of transmutation, this rebuilding of the self on higher levels, will involve the establishment within the field of consciousness, the making “central for life,” of those subconscious spiritual perceptions which are the primary material of mystical experience. The end and object of this “inward alchemy” will be the raising of the whole self to the condition in which conscious and permanent union with the Absolute takes place and man, ascending to the summit of his manhood, enters into that greater life for which he was made. In its journey towards this union, the subject commonly passes through certain well-marked phases, which constitute what is known as the “Mystic Way.” This statement rules out from the true mystic kingdom all merely sentimental and affective piety and visionary poetry, no less than mystical philosophy. It brings us back to our first proposition—the concrete and practical nature of the mystical act.
More than the apprehension of God, then, more than the passion for the Absolute, is needed to make a mystic. These must be combined with an appropriate psychological make-up, with a nature capable of extraordinary concentration, an exalted moral emotion, a nervous organization of the artistic type. All these are necessary to the successful development of the mystic life process. In the experience of those mystics who have left us the records of their own lives, the successive stages of this life process are always traceable. In the second part of this book, they will be found worked out at some length. Rolle, Suso, St. Teresa, and many others have left us valuable self-analyses for comparison: and from them we see how arduous, how definite, and how far removed from mere emotional or intellectual activity, is that educational discipline by which “the eye which looks upon Eternity” is able to come to its own. “One of the marks of the true mystic,” says Leuba—by no means a favourable witness—“is the tenacious and heroic energy with which he pursues a definite moral ideal.” 167 “He is,” says Pacheu, “the pilgrim of an inward Odyssey.” 168 Though we may be amazed and delighted by his adventures and discoveries on the way, to him the voyage and the end are all. “The road on which we enter is a royal road which leads to heaven,” says St. Teresa. “Is it strange that the conquest of such a treasure should cost us rather dear?” 169
It is one of the many indirect testimonies to the objective reality of mysticism that the stages of this road, the psychology
(5) As a corollary to these four rules, it is perhaps well to reiterate the statement already made, that True Mysticism is never self-seeking. It is not, as many think, the pursuit of supernatural joys; the satisfaction of a high ambition. The mystic does not enter on his quest because he desires the happiness of the Beatific Vision, the ecstasy of union with the Absolute, or any other personal reward. That noblest of all passions, the passion for perfection for Love’s sake, far outweighs the desire for transcendental satisfaction. “O Love,” said St. Catherine of Genoa, “I do not wish to follow thee for sake of these delights, but solely from the motive of true love.” 172 Those who do otherwise are only, in the plain words of St. John of the Cross, “spiritual gluttons”: 173 or, in the milder metaphor here adopted, magicians of the more high-minded sort. The true mystic claims no promises and makes no demands. He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life. He never rests in that search for God which he holds to be the fulfilment of his highest duty; yet he seeks without any certainty of success. He holds with St. Bernard that “He alone is God who can never be sought in vain: not even when He cannot be found.” 174 With Mechthild of Magdeburg, he hears the Absolute saying in his soul, “O soul, before the world was I longed for thee: and I still long for thee, and thou for Me. Therefore, when our two desires unite, Love shall be fulfilled.” 175
Like his type, the “devout lover” of romance, then, the mystic serves without hope of reward. By one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life, he obtains satisfaction because he does not seek it; completes his personality because he gives it up. “Attainment,”
“Whether we live or whether we die,” said St. Paul, “we are the Lord’s.” The mystic is a realist, to whom these words convey not a dogma but an invitation: an invitation to the soul to attain that fullness of life for which she was made, to “lose herself in That which can be neither seen nor touched; giving herself entirely to this sovereign Object without belonging either to herself or to others; united to the Unknown by the most noble part of herself and because of her renouncement of knowledge; finally drawing from this absolute ignorance a knowledge which the understanding knows not how to attain. 178 Mysticism, then, is seen as the “one way out” for the awakened spirit of man; healing that human incompleteness which is the origin of our divine unrest. “I am sure,” says Eckhart, “that if a soul knew the very least of all that Being means, it would never turn away from it.” 179 The mystics have never turned away: to do so would have seemed to them a self-destructive act. Here, in this world of illusion, they say, we have no continuing city. This statement, to you a proposition, is to us the central fact of life. “Therefore, it is necessary to hasten our departure from hence, and detach ourselves in so far as we may from the body to which we are fettered, in order that with the whole of our selves, we may fold ourselves about Divinity, and have no part void of contact with Him.” 180
To sum up. Mysticism is seen to be a highly specialized form of that search for reality, for heightened and completed life, which we have found to be a constant characteristic of human consciousness. It is largely prosecuted by that “spiritual spark,” that transcendental faculty which, though the life of our life, remains below the threshold in ordinary men. Emerging from its
A discussion of mysticism, regarded as a form of human life, will therefore include two branches. First the life process of the mystic: the remaking of his personality; the method by which his peculiar consciousness of the Absolute is attained, and faculties which have been evolved to meet the requirements of the phenomenal, are enabled to do work on the transcendental, plane. This is the “Mystic Way” in which the self passes through the states or stages of development which were codified by the Neoplatonists, and after them by the mediaeval mystics, as Purgation, Illumination, and Ecstasy. Secondly, the content of the mystical field of perception; the revelation under which the contemplative becomes aware of the Absolute. This will include a consideration of the so called doctrines of mysticism: the attempts of the articulate mystic to sketch for us the world into which he has looked, in language which is only adequate to the world in which the rest of us dwell. Here the difficult question of symbolism, and of symbolic theology, comes in: a point upon which many promising expositions of the mystics have been wrecked. It will be our business to strip off as far as may be the symbolic wrapping, and attempt a synthesis of these doctrines; to resolve the apparent contradictions of objective and subjective revelations, of the ways of negation and affirmation, emanation and immanence, surrender and deification, the Divine Dark and the Inward Light; and finally to exhibits if we can, the essential unity of that experience in which the human soul enters consciously into the Presence of God.
111 See “Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 387, “The Drunken Consciousness is a bit of the Mystic Consciousness.”
112 Llama de Amor Viva, II. 26.
113 Compare above, pp. 24, 26, 57.
114 J. A. Stewart, “The Myths of Plato,” p. 40.
115 “Descriptive Catalogue.”
116 See T. Rolleston, “Parallel Paths.”
117 Laurence Binyon, “Painting in the Far East,” p. 9.
118 “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” Pt. III, cap. 1.
119 Par. xxxiii. 139. “Not for this were my wings fitted: save only that my mind was smitten by a lightning flash wherein came to it its desire.”
120 In this connexion Godfernaux ( Revue Philosophique, February, 1902) has a highly significant remark to the effect that romanticism represents the invasion of secular literature by mystic or religious emotion. It is, he says, the secularization of the inner life. Compare also Bremond, “Prière et Poesie.”
121 I take from Hebert’s monograph “Le Divin” two examples of the analogy between mystical and musical emotion. First that of Gay, who had “the soul, the heart, and the head full of music, of another beauty than that which is formulated by sounds.” Next that of Ruysbroeck, who, in a passage that might have been written by Keats, speaks of contemplation and Love as “two heavenly pipes” which, blown upon by the Holy Spirit, play “ditties of no tone” ( op. cit . p. 29).
122 Hugh of St. Victor, “Didascalicon de Studio Legendi.”
123 “Fioretti.” Delle Istimati. (Arnold’s translation.)
124 Richard Rolle, ‘The Fire of Love” (Early English Text Society), bk. i. cap. xv. In this and subsequent quotations from Rolle’s Incendium Amoris I have usually adopted Misyn’s fifteenth-century translation; slightly modernizing the spelling, and, where necessary, correcting from the Latin his errors and obscurities.
125 Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xxiii. Compare bk. ii. caps. v. and vi.
126 “Spiritual Exercises,” p. 30.
127 Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xv.
128 Op. cit., bk. ii. caps, iii. and xii. Shelley is of the same opinion:— “The world can hear not the sweet notes that move The Sphere whose light is melody to lovers.” (“The Triumph of Life “)
129 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. xv.
130 “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 3.
131 Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 189.
132 “Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 380.
133 “Les Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 45.
134 Jámí. Quoted in “Jalalu ‘d Din” (Wisdom of the East Series), p. 25.
135 “Through Scylla and Charybdis,” p. 264.
136 Ennead vi. 9.
137 “En una Noche Escura,” Stanza 1. I quote from Arthur Symons’s beautiful translation, which will be found in vol. ii. of his Collected Poems.
138 Schmölders, “Les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 55.
139 Cap. xix.
140 “Ignitum cum Deo Soliloquium,” cap. xi.
141 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. iv. cap, 13.
142 Dialogo, cap. lx.
143 Tauler, Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday (Winkworth’s translation, p. 253).
144 Vita e Dottrina, cap. vi.
145 M. Smith, “Rabi’a the Mystic,” p. 30.
146 Ennead vi. 9.
147 “An Epistle of Discretion.” This beautiful old English tract, probably by the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” is printed by E. Gardner, ‘ The Cell of Self Knowledge,” p. 108.
148 Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. i. cap. xxvi.
149 Ennead, vi. 9.
150 “The Mending of Life,” cap. xi.
151 “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 7.
152 Dialogo, cap. xxvi.
153 “De Imitatione Christi,” I. ii. cap. v.
154 Jalalu ‘d Din (Wisdom of the East Series), p. 79.
155 Treatise to a Devout Man, cap. viii.
156 Sermon for Thursday in Easter Week (Winkworth’s translation, p. 294).
157 They were printed in 1658, “At Paris by Lewis de la Fosse in the Carme Street at the Signe of the Looking Glass,” and have lately been republished. I quote from the original edition.
158 P. 138.
159 P. 181.
160 Op. cit. pp. 9, 16, 25, 35, 138, 175.
161 Berger, “William Blake,” p. 72.
162 Ibid ., p. 74.
163 Contemporary Review, April, 1899.
164 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. iii. cap. 1.
165 Supra. p. 35.
166 Récéjac, op. cit ., p. 35.
167 Revue Philosophique, July, 1902.
168 “Psychologie des Mystiques Chrétiens,” p 14.
169 “Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xxiii.
170 In “El Castillo Interior.”
171 See Palmer, “Oriental Mysticism,” pt. v. ch. v.
172 Vita, p. 8.
173 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. vii.
174 “De Consideratione,” I. v. cap. xi.
175 “Das Fliessende Light der Gottheit,” pt. vii. cap. 16.
176 “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 1.
177 “Aurora,” English translation, 1764, p. 237.
178 Dionysius the Areopagite. “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 3.
179 “Mystische Schriften,” p. 137.
180 Plotinus, Ennead vi. 9.
181 Op. cit.
I n the last chapter we tried to establish a distinction between the mystic who tastes supreme experience and the mystical philosopher who cogitates upon the data so obtained. We have now, however, to take account of the fact that often the true mystic is also a mystical philosopher; though there are plenty of mystical philosophers who are not and could never be mystics.
Because it is characteristic of the human self to reflect upon its experience, to use its percepts as material for the construction of a concept, most mystics have made or accepted a theory of their own adventures. Thus we have a mystical philosophy or theology—the comment of the intellect on the proceedings of spiritual intuition—running side by side with true or empirical mysticism: classifying its data, criticizing it, explaining it, and translating its vision of the supersensible into symbols which are amenable to dialectic.
Such a philosophy is most usually founded upon the formal creed which the individual mystic accepts. It is characteristic of him that in so far as his transcendental activities are healthy he is generally an acceptor and not a rejector of such creeds. The view which regards the mystic as a spiritual anarchist receives little support from history; which shows us, again and again,
Attempts, however, to limit mystical truth—the direct apprehension of the Divine Substance—by the formula of any one religion, are as futile as the attempt to identify a precious metal with the die which converts it into current coin. The dies which the mystics have used are many. Their peculiarities and excrescences are always interesting and sometimes highly significant. Some give a far sharper, more coherent, impression than others. But the gold from which this diverse coinage is struck is always the same precious metal: always the same Beatific Vision of a Goodness, Truth, and Beauty which is one. Hence its substance must always be distinguished from the accidents under which we perceive it: for this substance has an absolute, and not a denominational, importance.
Nevertheless, if we are to understand the language of the mystics, it is evident that we must know a little of accident as well as of substance: that is to say, of the principal philosophies or religions which they have used in describing their adventures to the world. This being so, before we venture to apply ourselves to the exploration of theology proper, it will be well to consider the two extreme forms under which both mystics and theologians have been accustomed to conceive Divine Reality: that is to say, the so-called “emanation-theory” and “immanence-theory” of the transcendental world.
Emanation and Immanence are formidable words; which though perpetually tossed to and fro by amateurs of religious philosophy, have probably, as they stand, little actuality for practical modern men. They are, however, root-ideas for the maker of mystical diagrams: and his best systems are but attempts towards their reconciliation. Since the aim of every mystic is union with God, it is obvious that the vital question in his philosophy must be the place which this God, the Absolute of his quest, occupies in the scheme. Briefly, He has been conceived—or, it were better to say,
(1) The opinion which is represented in its most extreme form by the theory of Emanations, declares His utter transcendence. This view appears early in the history of Greek philosophy. It is developed by Dionysius, by the Kabalists, by Dante: and is implied in the language of Rulman Merswin, St. John of the Cross and many other Christian ecstatics.
The solar system is an almost perfect symbol of this concept of Reality; which finds at once its most rigid and most beautiful expression in Dante’s “Paradiso.” 182 The Absolute Godhead is conceived as removed by a vast distance from the material world of sense; the last or lowest of that system of dependent worlds or states which, generated by or emanating from the Unity or Central Sun, become less in spirituality and splendour, greater in multiplicity, the further they recede from their source. That Source—the Great Countenance of the Godhead—can never, say the Kabalists, be discerned by man. It is the Absolute of the Neoplatonists, the Unplumbed Abyss of later mysticism: the Cloud of Unknowing wraps it from our sight. Only by its “emanations” or manifested attributes can we attain knowledge of it. By the outflow of these same manifested attributes and powers the created universe exists, depending in the last resort on the latens Deitas: Who is therefore conceived as external to the world which He illuminates and vivifies.
St. Thomas Aquinas virtually accepts the doctrine of Emanations when he writes: 183 “As all the perfections of Creatures descend in order from God, who is the height of perfection, man should begin from the lower creatures and ascend by degrees, and so advance to the knowledge of God. . . . And because in that roof and crown of all things, God, we find the most perfect unity, and everything is stronger and more excellent the more thoroughly it is one; it follows that diversity and variety increase in things, the further they are removed from Him who is the first principle of all.” Suso, whose mystical system, like that of most Dominicans, is entirely consistent with Thomist philosophy, is really glossing Aquinas when he writes: “The supreme and superessential Spirit has ennobled man by illuminating him with a ray from the Eternal Godhead. . . . Hence from out the great ring which represents the
Obviously, if this theory of the Absolute be accepted the path of the soul’s ascent to union with the divine must be literally a transcendence: a journey “upward and outward,” through a long series of intermediate states or worlds till, having traversed the “Thirty-two paths of the Tree of Life,” she at last arrives, in Kabalistic language, at the Crown: fruitive knowledge of God, the Abyss or Divine Dark of the Dionysian school, the Neoplatonic One. Such a series of worlds is symbolized by the Ten Heavens of Dante, the hierarchies of Dionysius, the Tree of Life or Sephiroth of the Kabalah: and receives its countersign in the inward experience, in the long journey of the self through Purgation and Illumination to Union. “We ascend,” says St. Augustine, “thy ways that be in our heart, and sing a song of degrees; we glow inwardly with thy fire, with thy good fire, and we go, because we go upwards to the peace of Jerusalem.” 185
This theory postulates, under normal and non-mystical conditions, the complete separation of the human and the divine; the temporal and the eternal worlds. “Never forget,” says St. John of the Cross, “that God is inaccessible. Ask not therefore how far your powers may comprehend Him, your feeling penetrate Him. Fear thus to content yourself with too little, and deprive your soul of the agility which it needs in order to mount up to Him.” 186 The language of pilgrimage, of exile, comes naturally to the mystic who apprehends reality under these terms. To him the mystical adventure is essentially a “going forth” from his normal self and from his normal universe. Like the Psalmist “in his heart he hath disposed to ascend by steps in this vale of tears” from the less to the more divine. He, and with him the Cosmos—for to mystical philosophy the soul of the individual subject is the microcosm of the soul of the world—has got to retrace the long road to the Perfection from which it originally came forth; as the fish in Rulman Merswin’s Vision of Nine Rocks must struggle upwards from pool to pool until they reach their Origin.
Such a way of conceiving Reality accords with the type of mind which William James called the “sick soul.” 187 It is the mood of the penitent; of the utter humility which, appalled by the sharp contrast between itself and the Perfect which it contemplates, can only cry “out of the depths.” It comes naturally to the temperament which leans to pessimism, which sees a “great gulf fixed” between itself and its desire, and is above all things sensitive
(2) Immanence. At the opposite pole from this way of sketching Reality is the extreme theory of Immanence, which plays so large a part in modern theology. To the holders of this theory, who commonly belong to James’s “healthy minded” or optimistic class, the quest of the Absolute is no long journey, but a realization of something which is implicit in the self and in the universe: an opening of the eyes of the soul upon the Reality in which it is bathed. For them earth is literally “crammed with heaven.” “Thou wert I, but dark was my heart, I knew not the secret transcendent,” says Téwekkul Bég, a Moslem mystic of the seventeenth century. 188 This is always the cry of the temperament which leans to a theology of immanence, once its eyes are opened on the light. “God,” says Plotinus, “is not external to anyone, but is present with all things, though they are ignorant that He is so.” 189 In other and older words, “The Spirit of God is within you.” The Absolute Whom all seek does not hold Himself aloof from an imperfect material universe, but dwells within the flux of things: stands as it were at the very threshold of consciousness and knocks awaiting the self’s slow discovery of her treasures. “He is not far from any one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being,” is the pure doctrine of Immanence: a doctrine whose teachers are drawn from amongst the souls which react more easily to the touch of the Divine than to the sense of alienation and of sin, and are naturally inclined to love rather than to awe.
Unless safeguarded by limiting dogmas, the theory of Immanence, taken alone, is notoriously apt to degenerate into pantheism; and into those extravagant perversions of the doctrine of “deification” in which the mystic holds his transfigured self to be identical with the Indwelling God. It is the philosophical basis of that practice of introversion, the turning inward of the soul’s faculties in contemplation, which has been the “method” of the great practical mystics of all creeds. That God, since He is in all—in a sense, is all—may most easily be found within ourselves, is the doctrine of these adventurers; 190 who, denying or ignoring the existence of those intervening “worlds” or “planes” between the material
This discovery of a “divine” essence or substance, dwelling, as Ruysbroeck says, at the apex of man’s soul is that fundamental experience—found in some form or degree in all genuine mystical religion—which provides the basis of the New Testament doctrine of the indwelling spirit. It is, variously interpreted, the “spark of the soul” of Eckhart, the “ground” of Tauler, the Inward Light of the Quakers, the “Divine Principle” of some modern transcendentalists; the fount and source of all true life. At this point logical exposition fails mystic and theologian alike. A tangle of metaphors takes its place. We are face to face with the “wonder of wonders”—that most real, yet most mysterious, of all the experiences of religion, the union of human and divine, in a nameless something which is “great enough to be God, small enough to be me.” In the struggle to describe this experience, the “spark of the soul,” the point of juncture, is at one moment presented to us as the divine to which the self attains: at another, as that transcendental aspect of the self which is in contact with God. On either hypothesis, it is here that the mystic encounters Absolute Being. Here is his guarantee of God’s immediate presence in the human heart; and, if in the human heart, then in that universe of which man’s soul resumes in miniature the essential characteristics.
According to the doctrine of Immanence, creation, the universe, could we see it as it is, would be perceived as the self-development, the self-revelation of this indwelling Deity. The world is not projected from the Absolute, but immersed in God. “I understood,” says St. Teresa, “how our Lord was in all things, and how He was in the soul: and the illustration of a sponge filled with water was suggested to me.” 193 The world-process, then, is the slow coming to fruition of that Divine Spark which is latent alike in the Cosmos and in man. “If,” says Boehme, “thou conceivest a small minute circle, as small as a grain of mustard seed, yet the Heart of God is wholly and perfectly therein: and if thou art born in God, then there is in thyself (in the circle of thy life) the whole
It is worth noticing that both the theological doctrines of reality which have been acceptable to the mystics implicitly declare, as science does, that the universe is not static but dynamic; a World of Becoming. According to the doctrine of Immanence this universe is free, self-creative. The divine action floods it: no part is more removed from the Godhead than any other part. “God,” says Eckhart, “is nearer to me than I am to myself; He is just as near to wood and stone, but they do not know it.” 195
These two apparently contradictory explanations of the Invisible have both been held, and that in their extreme form, by the mystics: who have found in both adequate, and indeed necessary, diagrams by which to suggest something of their rich experience of Reality. 196 Some of the least lettered and most inspired amongst them—for instance, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich—and some of the most learned, as Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart, have actually used in their rhapsodies language appropriate to both the theories of Emanation and of Immanence. It would seem, then, that both these theories convey a certain truth; and that it is the business of a sound mystical philosophy to reconcile them. It is too often forgotten by quarrelsome partisans of a concrete turn of mind that at best all these transcendental theories are only symbols, methods, diagrams; feebly attempting the representation of an experience which in its fullness is always the same, and of which the dominant characteristic is ineffability. Hence they insist with tiresome monotony that Dionysius must be wrong if Tauler be right: that it is absurd to call yourself the Friend of God if unknowableness be that God’s first attribute: that Plato’s Perfect Beauty and St. Catherine of Siena’s Accepter of Sacrifices cannot be the same: that the “courteous and dear-worthy Lord” who said to Lady Julian, “My darling, I am glad that thou art come to Me, in all thy woe I have ever been with thee,” 197 rules out the formless and impersonal One of Plotinus, the “triple circle” of Suso and Dante. Finally, that if God be truly immanent in the material world it is either sin or folly to refuse that world in order that we may find Him; and if introversion be right, a plan of the universe which postulates intervening planes between Absolute Being and the phenomenal world must be wrong.
Now as regards the mystics, of whom we hold both these
The mystic assumes—because he tends to assume an orderly basis for things—that there is a relation, an analogy, between this microcosm of man’s self and the macrocosm of the world-self. Hence his experience, the geography of the individual quest, appears to him good evidence of the geography of the Invisible. Since he must transcend his natural life in order to attain consciousness of God, he conceives of God as essentially transcendent to the natural world. His description of that geography, however—of his path in a land where there is no time and space, no inner and no outer, up or down—will be conditioned by his temperament, by his powers of observation, by the metaphor which comes most readily to his hand, above all by his theological education. The so-called journey itself is a psychological and spiritual experience: the purging and preparation of the self, its movement to higher levels of consciousness, its unification with that more spiritual but normally unconscious self which is in touch with the transcendental order, and its gradual or abrupt entrance into union with the Real. Sometimes it seems to the self that this performance is a retreat inwards to that “ground of the soul” where, as St. Teresa says, “His Majesty awaits us”: sometimes
He has got to find God. Sometimes his temperament causes him to lay most stress on the length of the search; sometimes the abrupt rapture which brings it to a close makes him forget that preliminary pilgrimage in which the soul is “not outward bound but rather on a journey to its centre.” The habitations of the Interior Castle through which St. Teresa leads us to that hidden chamber which is the sanctuary of the indwelling God: the hierarchies of Dionysius, ascending from the selfless service of the angels, past the seraphs’ burning love, to the God enthroned above time and space: the mystical paths of the Kabalistic Tree of Life which lead from the material world of Malkuth through the universes of action and thought, by Mercy, Justice and Beauty, to the Supernal Crown; 199 all these are different ways of describing this same pilgrimage.
As every one is born a disciple of either Plato or Aristotle, so every human soul leans to one of these two ways of apprehending reality. The artist, the poet, every one who looks with awe and rapture on created things, acknowledges in this act the Immanent God. The ascetic, and that intellectual ascetic the metaphysician, turning from the created, denying the senses in order to find afar off the uncreated, unconditioned Source, is really—though often he knows it not—obeying that psychological law which produced the doctrine of Emanations.
A good map then, a good mystical philosophy, will leave room for both these ways of interpreting our experience. It will mark the routes by which many different temperaments claim to have found their way to the same end. It will acknowledge both the aspects under which the patria splendida Truth has appeared to its lovers: the aspects which have called forth the theories of emanation and immanence and are enshrined in the Greek and Latin names of God. Deus, whose root means day, shining, the Transcendent Light; and Theos, whose true meaning is supreme desire or prayer—the Inward Love—do not contradict, but complete each other. They form, when taken together, an almost perfect definition of that Godhead which is the object of the mystic’s desire: the Divine Love which, immanent in the soul spurs on that soul to union with the transcendent and Absolute
The true mystic—the person with a genius for God—hardly needs a map himself. He steers a compass course across the “vast and stormy sea of the divine.” It is characteristic of his intellectual humility, however, that he is commonly willing to use the map of the community in which he finds himself, when it comes to showing other people the route which he has pursued. Sometimes these maps have been adequate. More, they have elucidated the obscure wanderings of the explorer; helped him; given him landmarks; worked out right. Time after time he puts his finger on some spot—some great hill of vision, some city of the soul—and says with conviction, “Here have I been.” At other times the maps have embarrassed him, have refused to fit in with his description. Then he has tried, as Boehme did and after him Blake, to make new ones. Such maps are often wild in drawing, because good draughtsmanship does not necessarily go with a talent for exploration. Departing from the usual convention, they are hard—sometimes impossible—to understand. As a result, the orthodox have been forced to regard their makers as madmen or heretics: when they were really only practical men struggling to disclose great matters by imperfect means.
Without prejudice to individual beliefs, and without offering an opinion as to the exclusive truth of any one religious system or revelation—for here we are concerned neither with controversy nor with apologetics—we are bound to allow as a historical fact that mysticism, so far, has found its best map in Christianity. Christian philosophy, especially that Neoplatonic theology which, taking up and harmonizing all that was best in the spiritual intuitions of Greece, India, and Egypt, was developed by the great doctors of the early and mediaeval Church, supports and elucidates the revelations of the individual mystic as no other system of thought has been able to do.
We owe to the great fathers of the first five centuries—to Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine; above all to Dionysius the Areopagite, the great Christian contemporary of Proclus—the preservation of that mighty system of scaffolding which enabled the Catholic mystics to build up the towers and bulwarks of the City of God. The peculiar virtue of this Christian philosophy, that which marks its superiority to the more coldly self-consistent systems of Greece, is the fact that it re-states the truths of metaphysics in terms of personality: thus offering a third term, a “living mediator” between the Unknowable God, the unconditioned Absolute, and the conditioned self. This was the priceless gift which the Wise Men
Where non-Christian mystics, as a rule, have made a forced choice between the two great dogmatic expressions of their experience, ( a ) the long pilgrimage towards a transcendent and unconditioned Absolute, ( b ) the discovery of that Absolute in the “ground” or spiritual principle of the self; it has been possible to Christianity, by means of her central doctrine of the Trinity, to find room for both of them and to exhibit them as that which they are in fact—the complementary parts of a whole. Even Dionysius, the godfather of the emanation doctrine, combines with his scheme of descending hierarchies the dogma of an indwelling God: and no writer is more constantly quoted by Meister Eckhart, who is generally considered to have preached immanence in its most extreme and pantheistic form.
Further, the Christian atmosphere is the one in which the individual mystic has most often been able to develop his genius in a sane and fruitful way; and an overwhelming majority of the great European contemplatives have been Christians of a strong impassioned and personal type. This alone would justify us in regarding it as embodying, at any rate in the West, the substance of the true tradition: providing the “path of least resistance” through which that tradition flows. The very heretics of Christianity have often owed their attraction almost wholly to the mystical element in their teachings. The Gnostics, the Fraticelli, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Quietists, the Quakers, are instances of this. In others, it was to an excessive reliance on reason when dealing with the suprarational, and a corresponding absence of trust in mystical intuition that heresy was due. Arius and Pelagius are heretics of this type.
The greatest mystics, however, have not been heretics but Catholic saints. In Christianity the “natural mysticism” which like “natural religion,” is latent in humanity, and at a certain point of development breaks out in every race, came to itself; and attributing for the first time true and distinct personality to its Object, brought into focus the confused and unconditioned God which Neoplatonism had constructed from the abstract concepts of philosophy blended with the intuitions of Indian ecstatics, and
The voice of that Truth which spoke once for all on Calvary, and there declared the ground plan of the universe, was heard more or less perfectly by all the great seers, the intuitive leaders of men, the possessors of genius for the Real. There are few of the Christian names of God which were not known to the teachers of antiquity. To the Egyptians He was the Saviour, to the Platonists the Good, Beautiful and True, to the Stoics the Father and Companion. The very words of the Fourth Gospel are anticipated by Cleanthes. Heracleitus knew the Energizing Fire of which St. Bonaventura and Mechthild of Magdeburg speak. Countless mystics, from St. Augustine to St. John of the Cross, echo again and again the language of Plotinus. It is true that the differentia which mark off Christianity from all other religions are strange and poignant: but these very differentia make of it the most perfect of settings for the mystic life. Its note of close intimacy, of direct and personal contact with a spiritual reality given here and now—its astonishing combination of splendour and simplicity, of the sacramental and transcendent—all these things minister to the needs of the mystical type.
Hence the Christian system, or some colourable imitation of it, has been found essential by almost all the great mystics of the West. They adopt its nomenclature, explain their adventures by the help of its creed, identify their Absolute with the Christian God. Amongst European mystics the most usually quoted exception to this rule is Blake; yet it is curious to notice that the more inspired his utterance, the more passionately and dogmatically Christian even this hater of the Churches becomes:—
Where Death eternal is put off eternally. O Lamb
Assume the dark satanic body in the Virgin’s womb!
O Lamb divine ! it cannot thee annoy! O pitying One
Thy pity is from the foundation of the world, and thy Redemption
Begins already in Eternity.” 201
This is the doctrine of the Incarnation in a nutshell: here St. Thomas himself would find little to correct. Of the two following extracts from “Jerusalem,” the first is but a poet’s gloss on
“If I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the forgiveness of sins. If I were holy I never could behold the tears
Of Love . . . O Mercy! O divine Humanity!
O Forgiveness, O Pity and Compassion! If I were pure I should never
Have known Thee.”
“Wouldst thou love one who never died
For thee, or ever die for one who had not died for thee?
And if God dieth not for man, and giveth not Himself
Eternally for Man, Man could not exist, for Man is Love
As God is Love. Every kindness to another is a little death
In the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by brotherhood.” 202
Whether the dogmas of Christianity be or be not accepted on the scientific and historical plane, then, those dogmas are necessary to an adequate description of mystical experience—at least, of the fully developed dynamic mysticism of the West. We must therefore be prepared in reading the works of the contemplatives for much strictly denominational language; and shall be wise if we preface the encounter by some consideration of this language, and of its real meaning for those who use and believe it.
No one needs, I suppose, to be told that the two chief features of Christian schematic theology are the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation. They correlate and explain each other: forming together, for the Christian, the “final key” to the riddle of the world. The history of practical and institutional Christianity is the history of the attempt to exhibit their meaning in space and time. The history of mystical philosophy is the history—still incomplete—of the demonstration of their meaning in eternity.
Some form of Trinitarian dogma is found to be essential, as a method of describing observed facts, the moment that mysticism begins either ( a ) to analyse its own psychological conditions, or ( b ) to philosophize upon its intuitive experience of God. It must, that is to say, divide the aspects under which it knows the Godhead, if it is to deal with them in a fruitful or comprehensible way. The Unconditioned One, which is, for Neoplatonic and Catholic mystic alike, the final object of their quest, cannot of itself satisfy the deepest instincts of humanity: for man is aware that diversity in unity is a necessary condition if perfection of character is to be expressed. Though the idea of unity alone may serve to define the End—and though the mystics return to it again and again as a relief from that “heresy of multiplicity” by which they are oppressed—it cannot by itself be adequate to the description of the All.
The first question, then, must be—How many of such aspects are necessary to a satisfactory presentment of the mystic’s position? How many faces of Reality does he see? We observe that his experience involves at least a twofold apprehension. ( a ) That Holy Spirit within, that Divine Life by which his own life is transfused and upheld, and of which he becomes increasingly conscious as his education proceeds. ( b ) That Transcendent Spirit without, the “Absolute,” towards union with which the indwelling and increasingly dominant spirit of love presses the developing soul. In his ecstasy, it seems to the mystic that these two experiences of God become one. But in the attempt to philosophize on his experiences he is bound to separate them. Over and over again the mystics and their critics acknowledge, explicitly or implicitly, the necessity of this discrimination for human thought.
Thus even the rigid monotheism of Israel and Islam cannot, in the hands of the Kabalists and the Sufis, get away from an essential dualism in the mystical experience. According to the Zohar “God is considered as immanent in all that has been created or emanated, and yet is transcendent to all.” 203 So too the Sufis. God, they say, is to be contemplated (a) outwardly in the imperfect beauties of the earth; (b) inwardly, by meditation. Further, since He is One, and in all things, “to conceive one’s self as separate from God is an error: yet only when one sees oneself as separate from God, can one reach out to God. ” 204
Thus Delacroix, speaking purely as a psychologist, and denying to the mystical revelation—which he attributes exclusively to the normal content of the subliminal mind—any transcendental value, writes with entire approval of St. Teresa, that she “set up externally to herself the definite God of the Bible, at the same time as she set up within her soul the confused God of the Pseudo-Areopagite: the One of Neoplatonism. The first is her guarantee of the orthodoxy of the second, and prevents her from losing herself in an indistinction which is non-Christian. The confused God within is highly dangerous. . . . St. Teresa knew how to avoid this peril, and, served by her rich subconscious life, by the exaltation of her mental images, by her faculty of self-division on the one hand, on the other by her rare powers of unification, she realized simultaneously a double state in which the two Gods [ i.e. , the two ways of apprehending God, transcendence and immanence] were guarantees of each other, mutually consolidating and enriching one another: such is the intellectual vision of the Trinity in the Seventh Habitation.” 205
It is probable that St. Teresa, confronted by this astonishing analysis, would have objected that her Trinity, unlike that of her eulogist, consisted of three and not two Persons. His language concerning confused interior and orthodox exterior Gods would certainly have appeared to her delicate and honest mind both clumsy and untrue: nor could she have allowed that the Unconditioned One of the Neoplatonists was an adequate description of the strictly personal Divine Majesty, Whom she found enthroned in the inmost sanctuary of the Castle of the Soul. What St. Teresa really did was to actualize in her own experience, apprehend in the “ground of her soul” by means of her extraordinarily developed transcendental perceptions, the three distinct and personal Aspects of the Godhead which are acknowledged by the Christian religion.
First, the Father, pure transcendent Being, creative Source and Origin of all that Is: the Unconditioned and Unknowable One of the Neoplatonists: Who is “neither This nor That” and must be conceived, pace M. Delacroix, as utterly transcendent to the subject rather than “set up within the soul.”
Secondly, in the Person of Christ, St. Teresa isolated and distinguished the Logos or Creative Word; the expression, or outbirth, of the Father’s thought. Here is the point at which the Divine Substance first becomes apprehensible by the spirit of man; that mediating principle “raised up between heaven and earth” which is at once the Mirror of Pure Being and the Light of a finite world. The Second Person of the Christian Trinity is for the believer not only the brightness or express image of Deity, but also the personal, inexhaustible, and responsive Fount of all life and Object of all love: Who, because of His taking up (in the Incarnation) of humanity into the Godhead, has become the Bridge between finite and infinite, between the individual and the Absolute Life, and hence in mystic language the “true Bridegroom” of every human soul.
Thirdly, she recognized within herself the germ of that Absolute Life, the indwelling Spirit which is the source of man’s transcendental consciousness and his link with the Being of God. That is to say, the Holy Spirit of Divine Love, the Real Desirous seeking for the Real Desired, without Whose presence any knowledge of or communion with God on man’s part would be inconceivable.
In the supreme Vision of the Trinity which was vouchsafed to St. Teresa in the Seventh Habitation of the soul, these three aspects became fused in One. In the deepest recesses of her spirit, in that abyss where selfhood ceases to have meaning, and the individual soul touches the life of the All, distinction vanished and she “saw God in a point.” Such an experience, such an intuition of simple and undifferentiated Godhead—the Unity—beyond
These statements, which appear when thus laid down to be hopelessly academic, violently divorced from life, were not for St. Teresa or any other Christian mystic abstract propositions; but attempts towards the description of first-hand experience.
“By some mysterious manifestation of the truth,” she says, “the three Persons of the most Blessed Trinity reveal themselves, preceded by an illumination which shines on the spirit like a most dazzling cloud of light. The three Persons are distinct from one another; a sublime knowledge is infused into the soul, imbuing it with a certainty of the truth that the Three are of one substance, power, and knowledge, and are one God. Thus that which we hold as a doctrine of faith, the soul now, so to speak, understands by sight, though it beholds the Blessed Trinity neither by the eyes of the body nor of the soul, this being no imaginary vision. All the Three Persons here communicate Themselves to the soul, speak to it, and make it understand the words of our Lord in the Gospel, that He and the Father and the Holy Ghost will come and make their abode with the soul which loves Him and keeps His commandments.
O my God, how different from merely hearing and believing these words is it to realize their truth in this way! Day by day a growing astonishment takes possession of this soul, for the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity seem never to depart; that They dwell far within its own centre and depths; though for want of learning it cannot describe how, it is conscious of the indwelling of these divine Companions.” 207
Mystical writers constantly remind us that life as perceived by the human minds shows an inveterate tendency to arrange itself in triads: that if they proclaim the number Three in the heavens, they can also point to it as dominating everywhere upon the earth. Here Christianity did but give form to a deep instinct of the human mind: an instinct which made Pythagoras call Three the number of God, because beginning, middle, and end were contained therein. Thus to Hindu thought the Absolute Godhead was unknowable, but He disclosed three faces to man—Brahma the
Man, that “thing of threes,” of body, soul and spirit, of understanding, memory and will, follows in his path towards unity the Threefold Way: for “our soul,” says Lady Julian, “is made-trinity like to the unmade blissful Trinity, known and loved from without beginning, and in the making oned to the Maker.” 208 We still tend to analyse our psychic life into emotional, volitional, and intellectual elements. Even the Subject and Object implied in every experience required a third term, the relation between them, without which no thought can be complete. Thus the very principle of analogy imposes upon man a Trinitarian definition of Reality as the one with which his mind is best able to cope. 209 It is easy for the hurried rationalist to demonstrate the absurdity of this fact but he will find it a very different matter when it comes to disproving it.
“I could wish,” says St. Augustine, “that men would consider these three things that are in themselves . . . To Be, to Know, and to Will. For I am, and I know, and I will, I am knowing and willing, and I know myself to be and to will; and I will to be and to know. In these three therefore let him who can, see how inseparable a life there is—even one life, one mind, one essence: finally how inseparable is the distinction, and yet a distinction. Surely a man hath it before him: let him look into himself and see and tell me. But when he discovers and can see anything of these, let him not think that he has discovered that which is above these Unchangeable: which Is unchangeably and Knows unchangeably and Wills unchangeably.” 210
In a well-known passage, Julian of Norwich tells us how she
Julian, a simple and deeply human Englishwoman of middle age dwelling alone in her churchyard cell, might well be called the poet of the Trinity. She treats this austere and subtle dogma—of which the mediaeval mystics write with a passion little understood by those who look upon it as “orthodoxy reduced to mathematics”—with an intimacy and vigour which carry with them a conviction of her own direct and personal apprehension of the theological truth she struggles to describe. “I beheld,” she says of a vision which is close to that of St. Teresa in the “Seventh Habitation of the Soul,” and more lucidly if less splendidly expressed, “the working of all the blessed Trinity: in which beholding, I saw and understood these three properties: the property of the Fatherhood, the property of the Motherhood, and the property of the Lordhood, in one God. In our Father Almighty we have our keeping and our bliss as anent our natural Substance, 212 which is to us by our making, without beginning. And in the Second Person in wit and wisdom we have our keeping as anent our Sense-soul: our restoring and our saving; for He is our Mother, Brother, and Saviour. And in our good Lord, the Holy Ghost, we have our rewarding and our meed-giving for our living and our travail, and endless overpassing of all that we desire, in His marvellous courtesy of His high plenteous grace. For all our life is in three: in the first we have our Being, in the second we have our Increasing, and in the third we have our Fulfilling; the first is Nature, the second is Mercy, and the third is Grace. 213 . . . The high Might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great Love of the Trinity is our Lord: and all this we have in Nature and in our Substantial Making.” 214
Again, in a passage of exquisite tenderness, “As verily as God
So Christopher Hervey—
“The whole world round is not enough to fill
The heart’s three corners, but it craveth still.
Only the Trinity that made it can
Suffice the vast triangled heart of Man.” 216
Any attempt towards a definition of God which does not account for and acknowledge these three aspects is found in experience to be incomplete. They provide objectives for the heart, the intellect, and the will: for they offer to the Self material for its highest love, its deepest thought, its act of supreme volition. Under the familiar Platonic terms of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, they represent the divine source and end of Ethics, Science, and Art, the three supreme activities of man. Thus the ideals of artist, student, and philanthropist, who all seek under different modes the same reality, are gathered up in the mystic’s One; as the pilgrimage of the three kings ended in the finding of one Star
“What is God?” says St. Bernard. “Length, breadth, height, and depth. ‘What,’ you say, ‘you do after all profess to believe in the fourfold Godhead which was an abomination to you?’ Not in the least. . . . God is designated One to suit our comprehension, not to describe his character. His character is capable of division, He Himself is not. The words are different, the paths are many, but one thing is signified; the paths lead to one Person.” 217
All possible ways of conceiving this One Person in His living richness are found in the end to range themselves under three heads. He is “above all and through all and in you all,” 218 said St. Paul, anticipating the Councils in a flash of mystic intuition and giving to the infant Church the shortest and most perfect definition of its Triune God. Being, which is above all, manifests itself as Becoming; as the dynamic omnipresent Word of Life. The Divine Love immanent in the heart and in the world comes forth from, and returns to, the Absolute One. “Thou, my God, who art
Thus “the Kingdom of Heaven,” says Law, “stands in this threefold life, where three are one, because it is a manifestation of the Deity, which is Three and One; the Father has His distinct manifestation in the Fire, which is always generating the Light; the Son has His distinct manifestation in the Light, which is always generated from the Fire; the Holy Ghost has His manifestation in the Spirit, that always proceeds from both, and is always united with them. It is this eternal unbeginning Trinity in Unity of Fire, Light, and Spirit, that constitutes Eternal Nature, the Kingdom of Heaven, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Divine Life, the Beatific Visibility, the majestic Glory and Presence of God. Through this Kingdom of Heaven, or Eternal Nature, is the invisible God, the incomprehensible Trinity, eternally breaking forth and manifesting itself in a boundless height and depth of blissful wonders, opening and displaying itself to all its creatures as in an infinite variation and endless multiplicity of its powers, beauties, joys, and glories.” 221
Perhaps an easier, better, more beautiful example of these abstract symbols of the Trinity than Law’s Fire, Light, and Spirit is that of Light, Life, and Love: a threefold picture of the Real which is constantly dwelt upon and elaborated by the Christian mystics. Transcendent Light, intangible but unescapable, ever emanating Its splendour through the Universe: indwelling, unresting, and energizing Life: desirous and directive Love—these are cardinal aspects of Reality to which they return again and again in their efforts to find words which will express something of the inexpressible truth.
( a ) LIGHT, ineffable and uncreated, the perfect symbol of pure undifferentiated Being: above the intellect, as St. Augustine reminds us, but known to him who loves. 222 This Uncreated Light is the “deep yet dazzling darkness” of the Dionysian school, “dark from its surpassing brightness . . . as the shining of the sun on his course is as darkness to weak eyes.” 223 It is St. Hildegarde’s lux vivens, Dante’s somma luce, wherein he saw multiplicity in unity, the ingathered leaves of all the universe 224 : the Eternal Father, or Fount of Things. “For well we know,” says Ruysbroeck “that the bosom of the Father is our ground and origin, wherein our life and being is begun.” 225
( b ) LIFE, the Son, hidden Steersman of the Universe, the Logos, Fire, or cosmic Soul of Things. This out-birth or Concept of the Father’s Mind, which He possesses within Himself, as Battista Vernazza was told in her ecstasy, 226 is that Word of Creation which since It is alive and infinite, no formula can contain. the Word eternally “spoken” or generated by the Transcendent Light. “This is why,” says Ruysbroeck again, “all that lives in the Father unmanifested in the Unity, is also in the Son actively poured forth in manifestation.” 227 This life, then, is the flawless expression or character of the Father, Sapientia Patris. It is at once the personal and adorable comrade of the mystic’s adventure and the inmost principle, the sustaining power, of a dynamic universe; for that which intellect defines as the Logos or Creative Spirit, contemplative love knows as Wonderful, Counsellor, and Prince of Peace.
Since Christ, for the Christian philosopher, is Divine Life Itself—the drama of Christianity expressing this fact and its implications “in a point”—it follows that His active spirit is to be discerned, not symbolically, but in the most veritable sense, in the ecstatic and abounding life of the world. In the rapturous vitality
“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”
Here then it is, on this pinnacle of faith, at the utmost boundaries of human speech, that mystical theology suddenly shows herself—not as the puzzle-headed constructor of impossible creeds, but as accepting and transmuting to a more radiant life those two profound but apparently contradictory metaphysical definitions of Reality which we have already discussed. 228 Eternal Becoming, God immanent and dynamic, striving with and in His world: the unresting “flux of things” of Heracleitus, the crying aloud of that Word “which is through all things everlastingly”—the evolutionary world-process beloved of modern philosophers—is here placed once for all in true relation with pure transcendent and unmoved Being; the Absolute One of Xenophanes and the Platonists. This Absolute is discerned by mystic intuition as the “End of Unity” in whom all diversities must cease; 229 the Ocean to which that ceaseless and painful Becoming, that unresting river of life, in which we are immersed, tends to return: the Son going to the Father.
( c ) LOVE, the principle of attraction, which seems to partake at once of the transcendental and the created worlds. If we consider the Father as Supreme Subject—“origin,” as Aquinas says, “of the entire procession of Deity” 230 —and the Son or generated Logos as the Object of His thought, in whom, says Ruysbroeck, “He contemplates Himself and all things in an eternal Now”; 231 then this personal Spirit of Love, il desiro e il velle, represents the relation between the two, and constitutes the very character of God. “The heavenly Father,” says Ruysbroeck, “as a living Ground, with all that lives in Him, is actively turned towards His Son as to His own Eternal Wisdom. And that same Wisdom, with all that lives in it, is actively turned back towards the Father, that is towards that very ground from which it comes forth. And of this meeting is born the third Person, between the Father and the
“The best masters say,” says Eckhart, “that the love wherewith we love is the Holy Spirit. 235 Some deny it. But this is always true: all those motives by which we are moved to love, in these is nothing else than the Holy Spirit.” 236
“God wills,” says Ruysbroeck, gathering these scattered symbols to unity again, “that we should come forth from ourselves in this Eternal Light; that we should reunite ourselves in a supernatural manner with that image which is our true Life, and that we should possess it with Him actively and fruitively in eternal blessedness . . . this going forth of the contemplative is also in Love: for by fruitive love he overpasses his created being and finds and tastes the riches and delights which are God Himself, and which He causes to pour forth without ceasing in the most secret chamber of the soul, at that place where it is most like unto the nobility of God.” 237
Here only, in the innermost sanctuary of being, the soul’s “last habitation,” as St. Teresa said, is the truth which these symbols express truly known: for “as to how the Trinity is one and the Trinity in the Unity of the nature is one, whilst nevertheless the Trinity comes forth from the Unity, this cannot be expressed in
Mystical philosophy, then, has availed itself gladly of the doctrine of the Trinity in expressing its vision of the nature of that Absolute which is found, by those who attain the deep Abyss of the Godhead, to be essentially One. But it is by the complementary Christian dogma of the Incarnation that it has best been able to describe and explain the nature of the inward and personal mystic experience. The Incarnation, which is for traditional Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and earthly life of Christ, is for mystics of a certain type, not only this but also a perpetual Cosmic and personal process. It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, the pure character of God, of which the one historical life dramatized the essential constituents. Hence the soul, like the physical embryo, resumes in its upward progress the spiritual life-history of the race. “The one secret, the greatest of all,” says Patmore, is “the doctrine of the Incarnation, regarded not as an historical event which occurred two thousand years ago, but as an event which is renewed in the body of every one who is in the way to the fulfilment of his original destiny.” 239
We have seen that for mystical theology the Second Person of the Trinity is the Wisdom of the Father, the Word of Life. The fullness of this Word could therefore only be communicated to the human consciousness by a Life. In the Incarnation this Logos, this divine character of Reality, penetrated the illusions of the sensual world—in other words, the illusions of all the selves whose ideas compose that world—and “saved” it by this infusion of truth. A divine, suffering, self-sacrificing Personality was then shown as the sacred heart of a living, striving universe: and for once the Absolute was exhibited in the terms of finite human existence. Some such event as this breaking through of the divine and archetypal life into the temporal world is perceived by the mystical philosopher to be a necessity, if man was ever to see in terms of life that greatness of life to which he belongs: learn to transcend the world of sense, and rebuild his life upon the levels of reality. “For Thou art,” says Nicolas of Cusa, “the Word of God humanified, and Thou art man deified.” 240 Thus it is that the
“The Son of God, the Eternal Word in the Father, who is the glance, or brightness, and the power of the light eternity” says Boehme, “must become man and be born in you, if you will know God: otherwise you are in the dark stable and go about groping.” 242 “The Word,” says Ruysbroeck finely, “is no other than See. And this is the coming forth and the birth of the Son of the Eternal Light, in Whom all blessedness is seen and known.” 243 Once at any rate, they say in effect, the measure of that which it was possible for the Spirit of Life to do and for living creatures to be, was filled to the brim. By this event, all were assured that the ladder of Creation was made whole; in this hypostatic union, the breach between appearance and reality, between God and man, was healed. The Bridge so made—to use St. Catherine of Siena’s allegory again—is eternal, since it was “laid before the foundation of the world” in the “Eternal Now.” Thus the voice of the Father says to her in that vision, “I also wish thee to look at the Bridge of My only-begotten Son, and see the greatness thereof, for it reaches from Heaven to earth; that is, that the earth of your humanity is joined to the greatness of the Deity thereby. I say, then, that this Bridge reaches from Heaven to earth, and constitutes the union which I have made with man. . . . So the height of the Divinity, humbled to the earth, and joined with your humanity made the Bridge and reformed the road. Why was this done? In order that man might come to his true happiness with the angels. And observe that it is not enough, in order that you should have life, that My son should have made you this Bridge, unless you walk thereon.” 244 “Our high Father God Almighty, which is Being,” says Lady Julian, “He knew and loved us from afore any time. Of which knowing, in His marvellous deep charity, and the foreseeing counsel of all the blessed Trinity, He willed that the Second Person should become our Mother.” 245
It is of course this assertion of the quickening communication
“Quivi è la sapienza e la possanza
ch’ aprì le strade intra il cielo e la terra
onde fu già sì lunga disianza.” 246
This is what the Christian mystics mean to express when they declare over and over again that the return to the Divine Substance, the Absolute, which is the end of the soul’s ascent, can only be made through the humanity of Christ. The Son, the Word, is the character of the Father: that in which the Ineffable Godhead knows Himself, as we only know ourselves in our own characters. He is thus a double link: the means of God’s self-consciousness, the means of man’s consciousness of God. How then, asks mystic theology, could such a link complete its attachments without some such process as that which the Incarnation dramatized in time and space? The Principle of Life is also the Principle of Restitution; by which the imperfect and broken life of sense is mended and transformed into the perfect life of spirit. Hence the title of Repairer applied by Boehme to the Second Person of the Trinity.
In the last resort, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the only safeguard of the mystics against the pantheism to which they always tend. The Unconditioned Absolute, so soon as it alone becomes the object of their contemplation, is apt to be conceived merely as Divine Essence; the idea of Personality evaporates. The union of the soul with God is then thought of in terms of absorption. The distinction between Creator and creature is obliterated and loving communion is at an end. This is probably the reason why many of the greatest contemplatives—Suso and St. Teresa are cases in point—have found that deliberate meditation upon the humanity of Christ, difficult and uncongenial as
Further, these mystics see in the historic life of Christ an epitome—or if you will, an exhibition—of the essentials of all spiritual life. There they see dramatized not only the cosmic process of the Divine Wisdom, but also the inward experience of every soul on her way to union with that Absolute “to which the whole Creation moves.” This is why the expressions which they use to describe the evolution of the mystical consciousness from the birth of the divine in the spark of the soul to its final unification with the Absolute Life are so constantly chosen from the Drama of Faith. In this drama they see described under veils the necessary adventures of the spirit. Its obscure and humble birth, its education in poverty, its temptation, mortification and solitude, its “illuminated life” of service and contemplation, the desolation of that “dark night of the soul” in which it seems abandoned by the Divine: the painful death of the self, its resurrection to the glorified existence of the Unitive Way, its final reabsorption in its Source—all these, they say, were lived once in a supreme degree in the flesh. Moreover, the degree of closeness with which the individual experience adheres to this Pattern is always taken by them as a standard of the healthiness, ardour, and success of its transcendental activities.
“Apparve in questa forma
Per dare a noi la norma.”
sang Jacopone da Todi. “And he who vainly thinketh otherwise,” says the “Theologia Germanica” with uncompromising vigour, “is deceived. And he who saith otherwise, lieth.” 247
Those to whom such a parallel seems artificial should remember that according to the doctrine of mysticism that drama of the self-limitation and self-sacrifice of the Absolute Life, which was once played out in the phenomenal world—forced, as it were, upon the consciousness of dim-eyed men—is eternally going forward upon the plane of reality. To them the Cross of Calvary is implicit in the Rose of the World. The law of this Infinite Life which was in the Incarnation expressing Its own nature in human terms, must then also be the law of the finite life; in so far as that life aspires to transcend individual limitations, rise to freedom, and attain union with Infinity. It is this governing idea which justifies the apparently fanciful allegorizations of Christian history which swarm in the works of the mystics.
To exhibit these allegorizations in detail would be tedious. All
This Birth is in its first, or cosmic sense, the welling forth of the Spirit of Life from the Divine Abyss of the unconditioned Godhead. “From our proper Ground, that is to say from the Father and all that which lives in Him, there shines,” says Ruysbroeck, “an eternal Ray, the which is the Birth of the Son.” 248 It is of this perpetual generation of the Word that Meister Eckhart speaks, when he says in his Christmas sermon, “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all Eternity: whilst this birth also comes to pass in Time and in human nature. Saint Augustine says this Birth is ever taking place.” At this point, with that strong practical instinct which is characteristic of the mystics, Eckhart turns abruptly from speculation to immediate experience, and continues “But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.” 249 Here in a few words the two-fold character of this Mystic Birth is exhibited. The interest is suddenly deflected from its cosmic to its personal aspect; and the individual is reminded that in him, no less than in the Archetypal Universe, real life must be born if real life is to be lived. “When the soul brings forth the Son,” says Eckhart in another place, “it is happier than Mary.” 250
Since the soul, according to mystic principles, can only perceive Reality in proportion as she is real, know God by becoming Godlike, it is clear that this birth is the initial necessity. The true and definitely directed mystical life does and must open with that most actual, though indescribable phenomenon, the coming forth into consciousness of man’s deeper, spiritual self, which ascetical and mystical writers of all ages have agreed to call Regeneration or Re-birth. Nothing that is within him is able of its own power to achieve this. It must be evoked by an energy, a quickening Spirit, which comes from beyond the soul, and “secretly initiates what He openly crowns.” 251
We nave already considered 252 the New Birth in its purely psychological aspect, as the emergence of the transcendental sense. Here its more profound and mystical side is exhibited. By a process which may indifferently be described as the birth of something new or the coming forth of something which has slept—since both these phrases are but metaphors for another and more secret operation—the eye is opened on Eternity, the self, abruptly made aware of Reality, comes forth from the cave of illusion like a child from the womb and begins to live upon the supersensual plane. Then she feels in her inmost part a new presence, a new consciousness—it were hardly an exaggeration to say a new Person—weak, demanding nurture, clearly destined to pass through many phases of development before its maturity is reached; yet of so strange a nature, that in comparison with its environment she may well regard it as Divine.
“This change, this upsetting, is called re-birth. To be born simply means to enter into a world in which the senses dominate, in which wisdom and love languish in the bonds of individuality. To be re-born means to return to a world where the spirit of wisdom and love governs and animal-man obeys.” 253 So Eckartshausen. It means, says Jane Lead, “the bringing forth of a new-created Godlike similitude in the soul.” 254 He is brought forth, says Eckartshausen again, in the stable previously inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice. 255 His mother, says Boehme, is the Virgin Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, or Mirror of the Being of God. With the emergence of this new factor into the conscious field—this spiritual birth—the mystic life begins: as the Christian epoch began with the emergence of Divine Spirit in the flesh. Paradise, says Boehme, is still in the world, but man is not in Paradise unless he be born again. In that case, he stands therein in the New Birth, 256 and tastes here and now that Eternal Life for which he has been made.
Here then are some characteristics of the map which the Christian mystics are most inclined to use. There are, of course, other great landmarks upon it: and these we shall meet as we follow in detail the voyages of the questing soul. One warning, however, must be given to amateur geographers before we go on. Like all other maps, this one at its best can but represent by harsh outline and conventional colour the living earth which those travellers trod and the mysterious seas on which they sailed. It is a deliberately schematic representation of Reality, a flat and sometimes arid symbol of great landscapes, rushing rivers, awful peaks:
Further, all such maps, and we who treat of them, can but set down in cold blood and with a dreadful pretence of precision, matters which the true explorers of Eternity were only able to apprehend in the ardours of such a passion, in the transports of such a union as we, poor finite slaves of our frittered emotions, could hardly look upon and live. “If you would truly know how these things come to pass,” says St. Bonaventura, in a passage which all students of theology should ever keep in mind, “ask it of grace, not of doctrine; of desire, not of intellect; of the ardours of prayer, not of the teachings of the schools; of the Bridegroom, not of the Master; of God, not of man; of the darkness, not of the day; not of illumination, but of that Fire which enflames all and wraps us in God with great sweetness and most ardent love. The which Fire most truly is God, and the hearth thereof is in Jerusalem.” 257
182 “La gloria di colui che tutto move per l’universo penetra, e resplende in una parte più e meno altrove” (Par. i. 1-3). The theological ground-plan of the Cantica is epitomized in this introductory verse.
183 “Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iv. cap. 1. (Rickaby’s translation).
184 Leben, cap. lvi.
185 Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. xi.
186 Avisos y Sentencias Espirituales, N. 51.
187 “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Lecture vi.
188 Quoted by W. L. Lilly, “Many Mansions,” p. 140.
189 Ennead vi. 9.
190 Thus Aquinas says, “Since God is the universal cause of all Being, in whatever region Being can be found, there must be the Divine Presence” (“Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iii. cap. lxviii.). And we have seen that the whole claim of the mystics ultimately depends on man’s possession of pure being in “the spark of the soul.”
191 “De Ornatu Spiritualium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. lxvii.
192 Op. cit., I. iii. cap. i.
193 Relaccion ix. 10. But this image of a sponge, which also suggested itelf to St. Augustine, proved an occasion of stumbling to his more metaphysical mind: tending to confuse his idea of the nature of God with the category of space. Vide Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. v.
194 “The Threefold Life of Man,” cap. vi. § 71.
195 Eckhart, Pred, lxix. So too we read in the Oxyrhyncus Papyri, “Raise the stone and there thou shalt find Me. Cleave the wood and there am I.”
196 Compare above, cap. ii.
197 “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. xl.
198 Boyce Gibson, “God with Us,” p. 24.
199 See A. E. Waite, “ TheDoctrine and Literature of the Kabalah,” pp. 36-53.
200 Par. xxxiii. 137.
201 “Vala,” viii. 237.
202 “Jerusalem,” lxi. 44 and xcv. 23.
203 A. E. Waite, “The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah,” p. 35.
204 Palmer. “Oriental Mysticism,” pt. i. cap. i
205 Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 75. The reference in the last sentence is to St. Teresa’s “Castillo Interior.”
206 See Tauler, Sermon on St. John Baptist, and Third Instruction (“ The Inner Way,” pp. 97 and 321); Suso, “Buchlein von der Warheit,” cap. v.; Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” 1. iii. caps, ii. and vi.
207 St. Teresa, “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas; Sétimas, cap. i.
208 Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love.” cap. lv. Julian here repeats a familiar Patristic doctrine. So St. Thomas says (“Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iv. cap. xxvi), “A likeness of the Divine Trinity is observable in the human mind.”
209 “The three Persons of the Trinity,” said John Scotus Erigena, “are less modes of the Divine Substance than modes under which our mind conceives the Divine Substance”—a stimulating statement of dubious orthodoxy.
210 Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. xi.
211 Op. cit., cap. v.
212 Substance is here, of course, to be understood in the scholastic sense, as the reality which underlies merely phenomenal existence.
213 I.e. , the Second Person of the Christian Trinity is the redemptive, “fount of mercy,” the medium by which Grace, the free gift of transcendental life, reaches and vivifies human nature: “permeates it,” in Eucken’s words, “with the Infinite and Eternal” (“Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 181).
214 “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lviii.
215 Op. cit. , cap. lix.
216 “The School of the Heart,” Epigram x. This book, which is a free translation of the “Scola Cordis” of Benedict Haeften (1635), is often, but wrongly attributed to Francis Quarles.
217 “De Consideratione,” bk. v. cap. viii.
219 “De Visione Dei,” cap. xvii.
220 Eucken, “Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 131.
221 “An Appeal to All who Doubt” (“Liberal and Mystical Writings of William Law” p. 54). Law’s symbols are here borrowed from the system of his master, Jacob Boehme. (See the “De Signatura Rerum” of Boehme, cap. xiv.)
222 Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. x.
223 Tauler, 3rd Instruction (“The Inner Way,” p. 324).
224 Par. xxxiii 67, 85.
225 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. iii. cap. iii.
226 Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 357.
227 Ruysbroeck, op. cit. ., loc. cit.
228 Supra, Cap. II.
229 Tauler, op. cit., loc. cit.
230 “Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. iv. cap. xxvi.
231 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. iv.
232 Op. cit., I. ii. cap. xxxvii.
233 Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. ix.
234 Introduction to “Three Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” p. xxx.
235 The doctrine is found in St. Augustine, and is frequently reproduced by the mediaeval mystics. Eckhart is perhaps here quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, a usual source of his more orthodox utterances. Compare “Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. iv. cap. xxiii: “Since the Holy Ghost proceeds as the love wherewith God loves Himself, and since God loves with the same love Himself and other beings for the sake of His own goodness, it is clear that the love wherewith God loves us belongs to the Holy Ghost. In like manner also the love wherewith we love God.”
236 Pred. xii.
237 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum “ I. iii. cap. iii.
238 Suso, Leben, cap. lvi.
239 “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Homo,” xix.
240 “De Visione Dei,” cap. xxiii.
241 “Because by the mystery of the Incarnate Word the new light of Thy brightness hath shone upon the eyes of our mind: that we, knowing God seen of the eyes, by Him may be snatched up into the love of that which eye hath not seen” (Missale Romanum. Praefatio Solemnis de Nativitate).
242 “The Threefold Life of Man, cap. iii. § 31.
243 Ruysbroeck, op. cit ., 1. iii. cap. i.
244 Dialogo, cap. xxii.
245 “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lix.
246 Par. xxiii. 37. “Here is the Wisdom and the Power which opened the ways betwixt heaven and earth, for which there erst had been so long a yearning.”
247 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. xviii.
248 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” 1. iii. cap. v. The extreme antiquity of this idea is illustrated by the Catholic practice, dating from Patristic times, of celebrating three Masses on Christmas Day. Of these the first, at midnight, commemorates the Eternal Generation of the Son; the second, at dawn, His incarnation upon earth; the third His birth in the heart of man. Compare the Roman Missal: also Kellner, “Heortology” (English translation, London, 1908), p. 156.
249 Eckhart, Pred. i., “Mystische Schriften,” p. 13. Compare Tauler, Sermon on the Nativity of Our Lady (“The Inner Way,” p. 167).
250 This idea of re-birth is probably of Oriental origin. It can be traced back to Egypt, being found in the Hermetic writings of the third century, B.C. See Petrie, “Personal Religion in Egypt before Christianity,” p. 167.
251 F. von Hügel, “The Life of Prayer,” p. 24.
252 Supra , p. 53.
253 “The Cloud upon the Sanctuary,” p. 77.
254 The Enochian Walks with God,” p. 3.
255 Op. cit ., p. 81.
256 “De Signatura Rerum,” viii. 47.
257 “De Itinerado Mentis in Deo,” cap. vii.
I n our study of theology we saw the Christian mystic adopting, as chart and pilot book of his voyages and adventures, the scheme of faith, and diagram of the spiritual world, which is accepted by ordinary Christian men. We saw that he found in it a depth and richness of content which the conventional believer in that theology, the “good churchman,” seldom suspects: and that which is true of the Christian mystic is also true in its measure and as regards their respective theologies, of the Pagan, the Mahommedan and the Buddhist.
But since the spiritual adventures of the mystic are not those of ordinary men, it will follow that this map, though always true for him, is not complete. He can press forward to countries which unmystical piety must mark as unexplored, Pushing out from harbour to “the vast and stormy sea of the divine,” he can take soundings, and mark dangers the existence of which such piety never needs to prove. Hence it is not strange that certain maps, artistic representations or symbolic schemes, should have come into being which describe or suggest the special experiences of the mystical consciousness, and the doctrines to which these experiences have given birth. Many of these maps have an uncouth, even an impious appearance in the eyes of those unacquainted with the facts which they attempt to translate: as the charts of the deep-sea sailor seem ugly and unintelligible things to those who have never been out of sight of land. Others—and these the most pleasing, most easily understood—have already been made familiar, perhaps tiresomely familiar, to us by the poets; who, intuitively recognizing their suggestive qualities, their links with
These special mystical diagrams, these symbolic and artistic descriptions of man’s inward history—his secret adventures with God—are almost endless in their variety: since in each we have a picture of the country of the soul seen through a different temperament. To describe all would be to analyse the whole field of mystical literature, and indeed much other literature as well; to epitomize in fact all that has been dreamed and written concerning the so-called “inner life”—a dreary and a lengthy task. But the majority of them, I think, express a comparatively small number of essential doctrines or fundamental ways of seeing things; and as regards their imagery, they fall into three great classes, representative of the three principal ways in which man’s spiritual consciousness reacts to the touch of Reality, the three primary if paradoxical facts of which that consciousness must be aware. Hence a consideration of mystic symbols drawn from each of these groups may give us a key with which to unlock some at least of the verbal riddles of the individual adventurer.
Thanks to the spatial imagery inseparable from human thinking and human expression, no direct description of spiritual experience is or can be possible to man. It must always be symbolic, allusive, oblique: always suggest, but never tell, the truth: and in this respect there is not much to choose between the fluid and artistic language of vision and the arid technicalities of philosophy. In another respect, however, there is a great deal to choose between them: and here the visionary, not the philosopher, receives the palm. The greater the suggestive quality of the symbol used, the more answering emotion it evokes in those to whom it is addressed, the more truth it will convey. A good symbolism, therefore, will be more than mere diagram or mere allegory: it will use to the utmost the resources of beauty and of passion, will bring with it hints of mystery and wonder, bewitch with dreamy periods the mind to which it is addressed. Its appeal will not be to the clever brain, but to the desirous heart, the intuitive sense, of man.
The three great classes of symbols which I propose to consider, appeal to three deep cravings of the self, three great expressions of man’s restlessness, which only mystic truth can fully satisfy. The first is the craving which makes him a pilgrim and wanderer. It is the longing to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a “better country”; an Eldorado, a Sarras, a Heavenly
These three cravings, I think, answer to three ways in which mystics of different temperaments attack the problem of the Absolute: three different formulae under which their transcendence of the sense-world can be described. In describing this transcendence, and the special adventures involved in it, they are describing a change from the state of ordinary men, in touch with the sense-world, responding to its rhythms, to the state of spiritual consciousness in which, as they say, they are “in union” with Divine Reality, with God. Whatever be the theological creed of the mystic, he never varies in declaring this close, definite, and actual intimacy to be the end of his quest. “Mark me like the tulip with Thine own streaks,” says the Sufi. 258 “I would fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man,” says the German contemplative. 259 “My me isGod, nor do I know my self-hood save in Him,” says the Italian saint. 260
But, since this Absolute God is for him substance, ground or underlying Reality of all that is : present yet absent, near yet far: He is already as truly immanent in the human soul as in the Universe. The seeker for the Real may therefore objectify his quest in two apparently contradictory, yet really mutually explanatory ways. First he may see it as an outgoing journey from the world of illusion to the real or transcendental world: a leaving of the visible for the invisible. Secondly, it may appear to him as an inward alteration, remaking or regeneration, by which his personality or character is so changed as to be able to enter into communion with that Fontal Being which he loves and desires; is united with and dominated by the indwelling God who is the fount of his spiritual life. In the first case, the objective idea “God” is the pivot of his symbolism: the Blazing Star, or Magnet of the Universe which he has seen far off, and seeing, has worshipped and desired. In the second case, the emphasis falls on the subjective idea “Sanctity,” with its accompanying consciousness of a disharmony to be abolished. The Mystic Way will then be described, not as a journey, but as an alteration of personality, the transmuting of “earthly” into “heavenly” man. Plainly these two aspects are obverse and reverse of one whole. They represent that mighty pair of opposites, Infinite and Finite, God and Self, which it is the business of mysticism to carry up into a higher synthesis.
From what has been said in the last chapter, it will be clear that the symbolism of outward search and of inward change will be adopted respectively by the two groups of selves whose experience of “union with the Divine” leans (1) to the Transcendent or external, (2) to the Immanent or internal way of apprehending Reality. A third or intermediate group of images will be necessary to express the experience of those to whom mystic feeling—the satisfaction of love—is the supreme factor in the mystic life. According, then, to whether man’s instinct prompts him to describe the Absolute Reality which he knows and craves for as a Place, a Person, or a State—all three of course but partial and inadequate translations of the one Indescribable Truth—so will he tend to adopt a symbolism of one or other of these three types.
A. Those who conceive the Perfect as a beatific vision exterior to them and very far off, who find in the doctrine of Emanations something which answers to their inward experience, will feel the process of their entrance into reality to be a quest, an arduous journey from the material to the spiritual world. They move away from, rather than transmute to another form, the life of sense. The ecstasies of such mystics will answer to the root-meaning of that much perverted word, as a “standing out” from themselves; a flight to happier countries far away. For them, the soul is outward bound towards its home.
B. Those for whom mysticism is above all things an intimate and personal relation, the satisfaction of a deep desire—who can say with Gertrude More, “never was there or can there be imagined such a love, as is between an humble soul and Thee”—will fall back upon imagery drawn largely from the language of earthly passion. Since the Christian religion insists upon the personal aspect of the Godhead, and provides in Christ an object of such intimacy, devotion and desire, an enormous number of Christian mystics inevitably describe their experiences under symbolism of this kind.
C. Those who are conscious rather of the Divine as a Transcendent Life immanent in the world and the self, and of a strange spiritual seed within them by whose development man, moving to higher levels of character and consciousness, attains his end,
These three groups of mystics, then, stand for three kinds of temperament; and we may fairly take as their characteristic forms of symbolic expression the Mystic Quest, the Marriage of the Soul, and the “Great Work” of the Spiritual Alchemists.
The pilgrimage idea, the outgoing quest, appears in mystical literature under two different aspects. One is the search for the “Hidden Treasure which desires to be found.” Such is the “quest of the Grail” when regarded in its mystic aspect as an allegory of the adventures of the soul. The other is the long, hard journey towards a known and definite goal or state. Such are Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; each in their manner faithful descriptions of the Mystic Way. The goal of the quest—the Empyrean of Dante, the Beatific Vision or fulfilment of love—is often called Jerusalem by the Christian mystics: naturally enough since that city was for the mediaeval mind the supreme end of pilgrimage. By Jerusalem they mean not only the celestial country Heaven, but also the spiritual life, which is “itself a heaven.” 262 “Right as a true pilgrim going to Jerusalem,” says Hilton, “leaveth behind him house and land, wife and child, and maketh himself poor and bare from all that he hath, that he may go lightly without letting: right so, if thou wilt be a ghostly pilgrim, thou shalt make thyself naked from all that thou hast . . . then shalt thou set in thy heart wholly and fully that thou wouldst be at Jerusalem, and at none other place but there.” “Jerusalem,” he says in this same chapter, “is as much as to say a sight of peace; and betokeneth contemplation in perfect love of God.” 263
Under this image of a pilgrimage—an image as concrete and practical, as remote from the romantic and picturesque, for the mediaeval writers who used it, as a symbolism of hotel and railway train would be to us—the mystics contrived to summarize and suggest much of the life history of the ascending soul; the developing spiritual consciousness. The necessary freedom and detachment of the traveller, his departure from his normal life and interests, the difficulties, enemies, and hardships encountered on
The Traveller, says the Sufi ‘Aziz bin Mahommed Nafasi, in whose book, “The Remotest Aim,” the pilgrimage-symbolism is developed in great detail, is the Perceptive or Intuitive Sense of Man. The goal to which he journeys is Knowledge of God. This mysterious traveller towards the only country of the soul may be known of other men by his detachment, charity, humility, and patience. These primary virtues, however—belonging to ethical rather than to spiritual life—are not enough to bring his quest to a successful termination. They make him, say the Sufis, “perfect in knowledge of his goal but deficient in the power of reaching it.” Though he has fraternal love for his fellow-pilgrims, detachment from wayside allurements, untiring perseverance on the road, he is still encumbered and weakened by unnecessary luggage. The second stage of his journey, therefore, is initiated like that of Christian by a casting off of his burden: a total self-renouncement, the attainment of a Franciscan poverty of spirit whereby he becomes “Perfectly Free.”
Having got rid of all impediments to the spiritual quest, he must now acquire or develop in their stead the characteristic mystical qualities, or Three Aids of the Pilgrim; which are called in this system Attraction, Devotion, and Elevation. Attraction is consciousness of the mutual desire existing between man’s spirit and the Divine Spirit: of the link of love which knits up reality and draws all things to their home in God. This is the universal law on which all mysticism is based. It is St. Augustine’s “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts can find no rest except in Thee.” This “natural magnetism,” then, once he is aware of it, will draw the pilgrim irresistibly along the road from the Many to the One. His second aid, Devotion, says the “Remotest Aim” in a phrase of great depth and beauty, is “the prosecution of the journey to God and in God.” 264 It embraces, in fact, the whole contemplative life. It is the next degree of spiritual consciousness after the blind yielding to the attraction of the Real, and the setting in order of man’s relation to his source.
The Traveller’s journey to God is complete when he attains
The Sufi poet ‘Attar, in his mystical poem, “The Colloquy of the Birds,” has described the stages of this same spiritual pilgrimage with greater psychological insight, as the journey through “Seven Valleys.” The lapwing, having been asked by other birds what is the length of the road which leads to the hidden Palace of the King, replies that there are Seven Valleys through which every traveller must pass: but since none who attain the End ever come back to describe their adventures, no one knows the length of the way.
(1) The first valley, says the lapwing, is the Valley of the Quest. It is long and toilsome: and there the traveller must strip himself of all earthly things, becoming poor, bare, and desolate: and so stay till the Supernal Light casts a ray on his desolation. It is in fact, Dante’s Purgatorio, the Christian Way of Purgation: the period of self-stripping and purification which no mystic system omits.
(2) When the ray of Supernal Light has touched the pilgrim he enters the limitless Valley of Love: begins, that is to say, the mystic life. It is Dante’s “Earthly Paradise,” or, in the traditional system of the mystics, the onset of Illumination.
(3) Hence he passes to the Valley of Knowledge or Enlightenment—the contemplative state—where each finds in communion with Truth the place that belongs to him. No Dante student will fail to see here a striking parallel with those planetary heavens where each soul partakes of the Divine, “not supremely in the absolute sense,” as St. Bonaventura has it, but “supremely in respect of himself.” The mystery of Being is now revealed to the traveller. He sees Nature’s secret, and God in all things. It is the height of illumination.
(4) The next stage is the Valley of Detachment, of utter absorption in Divine Love—the Stellar Heaven of the Saints—where Duty is seen to be all in all. This leads to—
(5) The Valley of the Unity, where the naked Godhead is the one object of contemplation. This is the stage of ecstasy, or the Beatific Vision: Dante’s condition in the last canto of the “Paradiso.” It is transient, however, and leads to—
(6) The Valley of Amazement; where the Vision, far transcending the pilgrim’s receptive power, appears to be taken from him and he is plunged in darkness and bewilderment. This is the state which Dionysius the Areopagite, and after him many mediaeval mystics, called the Divine Dark, and described as the truest and closest of all our apprehensions of the Godhead. It is the Cloud of Unknowing, “dark from excessive bright.” The final stage is—
(7) The Valley of Annihilation of Self: the supreme degree of union or theopathetic state, in which the self is utterly merged “like a fish in the sea” in the ocean of Divine Love. 267
Through all these metaphors of pilgrimage to a goal—of a road followed, distance overpassed, fatigue endured—there runs the definite idea that the travelling self in undertaking the journey is fulfilling a destiny, a law of the transcendental life; obeying an imperative need. The chosen Knights are destined or called to the quest of the Grail. “All men are called to their origin,” says Rulman Merswin, and the fishes which he sees in his Vision of Nine Rocks are impelled to struggle, as it were “against nature,” uphill from pool to pool towards their source. 268
All mystical thinkers agree in declaring that there is a mutual attraction between the Spark of the Soul, the free divine germ in man, and the Fount from which it came forth. “We long for the Absolute,” says Royce, “only in so far as in us the Absolute also longs, and seeks, through our very temporal striving, the peace that is nowhere in Time, but only, and yet Absolutely, in Eternity.” 269 So, many centuries before the birth of American philosophy, Hilton put the same truth of experience in lovelier words. “He it is that desireth in thee, and He it is that is desired. He is all and He doth all if thou might see Him.” 270
The homeward journey of man’s spirit, then, may be thought of as due to the push of a divine life within, answering to the pull of
Here, then, we run through the whole gamut of symbolic expression; through Transcendence, Desire, and Immanence. All are seen to point to one consummation, diversely and always allusively expressed: the need of union between man’s separated spirit and the Real, his remaking in the interests of transcendent life, his establishment in that Kingdom which is both “near and far.”
“In the book of Hidden Things it is written,” says Eckhart, “‘I stand at the door and knock and wait’ . . . thou needst not seek Him here or there: He is no farther off than the door of the heart. There He stands and waits and waits until He finds thee ready to open and let Him in. Thou needst not call Him from a distance; to wait until thou openest is harder for Him than for thee. He needs thee a thousand times more than thou canst need Him. Thy opening and His entering are but one moment .” 273 “God,” he says in another place, “can as little do without us, as we without Him.” 274 Our attainment of the Absolute is not a one-sided ambition, but the fulfilment of a mutual desire. “For our natural Will,” says Lady Julian, “is to have God, and the Good will of
So, in the beautiful poem or ritual called the “Hymn of Jesus,” contained in the apocryphal “Acts of John” and dating from primitive Christian times, the Logos, or Eternal Christ, is thus represented as matching with His own transcendent, self-giving desire every need of the soul. 276
The Soul says:—
“‘I would be saved.’”
“‘And I would save.’ Amen.”
The Dialogue continues:—
“‘I would be loosed.’
‘And I would loose.’ Amen.
‘I would be pierced.’
‘And I would pierce.’ Amen.
‘I would be born.’
‘And I would bear.’ Amen.
‘I would eat.’
‘And I would be eaten.’ Amen.
‘I would hear.’
‘And I would be heard.’ Amen.”
“‘I am a Lamp to thee who beholdest Me,
I am a Mirror to thee who perceivest Me,
I am a Door to thee, who knockest at Me,
I am a Way to thee a wayfarer.’”
The same fundamental idea of the mutual quest of the Soul and the Absolute is expressed in the terms of another symbolism by the great Mahommedan mystic:—
“No lover ever seeks union with his beloved,
But his beloved is also seeking union with him.
But the lover’s love makes his body lean
While the beloved’s love makes her fair and lusty.
When in this heart the lightning spark of love arises,
Be sure this love is reciprocated in that heart.
When the love of God arises in thy heart,
Without doubt God also feels love for thee.” 277
The mystic vision, then, is of a spiritual universe held within
Whatever their outward sense, all true mystic symbols express aspects of this “secret of the world,” this primal verity. But whereas such great visionary schemes as those of ‘Attar and of Dante show it in its cosmic form, in many symbolic descriptions—particularly those which we meet in the writings of the ecstatic saints—the personal subjective note, the consciousness of an individual relation between that one self and the Supernal Self, overpowers all general applications. Then philosophy and formal allegory must step aside: the sacramental language of exalted emotion, of profoundly felt experience, takes its place. The phases of mutual love, of wooing and combat, awe and delight—the fevers of desire, the ecstasy of surrender—are drawn upon and made to contribute something to the description of the great and secret drama of the soul.
To such symbolic transcripts of intimate experience belongs one amazing episode of the spiritual life-history which, because it has been given immortal expression by the greatest mystical poet of modern times, is familiar to thousands of readers who know little or nothing of the more normal adventures incidental to man’s attainment of the Absolute. In “The Hound of Heaven” Francis Thompson described with an almost terrible power, not the self’s quest of adored Reality, but Reality’s quest of the unwilling self. He shows to us the remorseless, untiring seeking and following of the soul by the Divine Life to which it will not surrender: the inexorable onward sweep of “this tremendous Lover,” hunting the separated spirit, “strange piteous futile thing” that flees Him “down the nights and down the days.” This idea of the love-chase, of the spirit rushing in terror from the overpowering presence of God, but followed, sought, conquered in the end, is common to all the mediaeval mystics: it is the obverse of their general doctrine of the necessary fusion of human and divine life, “escape from the flame of separation.”
“I chased thee, for in this was my pleasure,” says the voice of Love to Mechthild of Magdeburg; “I captured thee, for this was my desire; I bound thee, and I rejoice in thy bonds; I have
So in the beautiful Middle English poem of “Quia amore langueo,”—
“I am true love that fals was nevere,
Mi sistyr, mannis soule, I loved hir thus;
Bicause we wolde in no wise discevere
I lefte my Kyngdom glorious.
I purveyde for hir a paleis precious;
She fleyth, I folowe, I sought hir so.
I suffride this peyne piteous
Quia amore langueo,” 281
Meister Eckhart has the same idea of the inexorable Following Love, impossible to escape, expressed under less personal images. “Earth,” he says, “cannot escape the sky; let it flee up or down, the sky flows into it, and makes it fruitful whether it will or no. So God does to man. He who will escape Him only runs to His bosom; for all corners are open to Him.” 282
We find in all the mystics this strong sense of a mysterious spiritual life—a Reality—over against man, seeking him and compelling him to Its will. It is not for him, they think, to say that he will or will not aspire to the transcendental world. 283 Hence sometimes this inversion of man’s long quest of God. The self resists the pull of spiritual gravitation, flees from the touch of Eternity; and the Eternal seeks it, tracks it ruthlessly down. The Following Love, the mystics say, is a fact of experience, not a poetic idea. “Those strong feet that follow, follow after,” once set upon the chase, are bound to win. Man, once conscious of Reality, cannot evade it. For a time his separated spirit, his disordered loves, may wilfully frustrate the scheme of things: but he must be conquered in the end. Then the mystic process unfolds itself: Love triumphs: the “purpose of the worlds” fulfils itself in the individual life.
It was natural and inevitable that the imagery of human love and marriage should have seemed to the mystic the best of all images of his own “fulfilment of life”; his soul’s surrender, first to the call, finally to the embrace of Perfect Love. It lay ready to
It has been said that the constant use of such imagery by Christian mystics of the mediaeval period is traceable to the popularity of the Song of Songs, regarded as an allegory of the spiritual life. I think that the truth lies rather in the opposite statement: namely, that the mystic loved the Song of Songs because he there saw reflected, as in a mirror, the most secret experiences of his soul. The sense of a desire that was insatiable, of a personal fellowship so real, inward, and intense that it could only be compared with the closest link of human love, of an intercourse that was no mere spiritual self-indulgence, but was rooted in the primal duties and necessities of life—more, those deepest, most intimate secrets of communion, those self-giving ecstasies which all mystics know, but of which we, who are not mystics, may not speak—all these he found symbolized and suggested, their unendurable glories veiled in a merciful mist, in the poetry which man has invented to honour that august passion in which the merely human draws nearest to the divine.
The great saints who adopted and elaborated this symbolism, applying it to their pure and ardent passion for the Absolute, were destitute of the prurient imagination which their modern commentators too often possess. They were essentially pure of heart; and when they “saw God” they were so far from confusing that unearthly vision with the products of morbid sexuality, that the dangerous nature of the imagery which they employed did not occur to them. They knew by experience the unique nature of spiritual love: and no one can know anything about it in any other way.
Thus for St. Bernard, throughout his deeply mystical sermons on the Song of Songs, the Divine Word is the Bridegroom, the human soul is the Bride: but how different is the effect produced by his use of these symbols from that with which he has been charged by hostile critics! In the place of that “sensuous imagery” which is so often and so earnestly deplored by those who have hardly a nodding acquaintance with the writings of the saints, we find images which indeed have once been sensuous; but which are here anointed and ordained to a holy office, carried up, transmuted, and endowed with a radiant purity, an intense and spiritual life.
“ ‘Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth.’ Who is it speaks these words? It is the Bride. Who is the Bride? It is the Soul thirsting for God. . . . She who asks this is held by the bond of love to him from whom she asks it. Of all the sentiments of nature,
To women mystics of the Catholic Church, familiar with the antique and poetic metaphor which called every cloistered nun the Bride of Christ, that crisis in their spiritual history in which they definitely vowed themselves to the service of Transcendent Reality seemed, naturally enough, the veritable betrothal of the soul. Often, in a dynamic vision, they saw as in a picture the binding vows exchanged between their spirits and their God. 285 That further progress on the mystic way which brought with it a sharp and permanent consciousness of union with the Divine Will, the constant sustaining presence of a Divine Companion, became, by an extension of the original simile, Spiritual Marriage. The elements of duty, constancy, irrevocableness, and loving obedience involved in the mediaeval conception of the marriage tie, made it an apt image of a spiritual state in which humility, intimacy, and love were the dominant characteristics. There is really no need to seek a pathological explanation of these simple facts. 286 Moreover with few exceptions, the descriptions of spiritual marriage which the great mystics have left are singularly free from physical imagery. “So mysterious is the secret,” says St. Teresa, “and so sublime the favour that God thus bestows instantaneously on the soul, that it feels a supreme delight, only to be described by saying that our Lord vouchsafes for the moment to reveal to it His own heavenly glory in a far more subtle way than by any vision or spiritual delight. As far as can be understood, the soul, I mean the spirit of this soul, is made one with God, who is
The great Richard of St. Victor, in one of his most splendid mystical treatises, 288 has given us perhaps the most daring and detailed application of the symbolism of marriage to the adventures of the spirit of man. He divides the “steep stairway of love,” by which the contemplative ascends to union with the Absolute, into four stages. These he calls the betrothal, the marriage, the wedlock, and the fruitfulness of the soul. 289 In the betrothal, he says, the soul “thirsts for the Beloved”; that is to say, it longs to experience the delights of Reality. “The Spirit comes to the Soul, and seems sweeter than honey.” It is conversion, the awakening to mystical truth; the kindling of the passion for the Absolute. “Then the Soul with pertinacity demands more”: and because of her burning desire she attains to pure contemplation, and so passes to the second degree of love. In this she is “led in bridal” by the Beloved. Ascending “above herself” in contemplation, she “sees the Sun of Righteousness.” She is now confirmed in the mystic life; the irrevocable marriage vows are made between her spirit and her God. At this point she can “see the Beloved,” but “cannot yet come in to Him,” says Richard. This degree, as we shall see later, answers more or less to that which other mystics call the Illuminative Way: but any attempt to press these poetic symbols into a cast-iron series, and establish exact parallels, is foredoomed to failure, and will merely succeed in robbing them of their fragrance and suggestive power. In Richard’s “third stage,” however, that of union, or wedlock, it is clear that the soul enters upon the “Unitive Way.” She has passed the stages of ecstatic and significant events, and is initiated into the Life. She is “deified,” “passes utterly into God, and is glorified in Him”: is transfigured, he says, by immediate contact with the Divine Substance, into an utterly different quality of being. “Thus,” says St. John of the Cross, “the soul, when it shall have driven away from itself all that is contrary to the divine will, becomes transformed in God by love. 290
“The Soul,” says Richard again, “is utterly concentrated on the One.” She is “caught up to the divine light.” The expression of
We come now to the symbols which have been adopted by those mystics in whom temperamental consciousness of their own imperfection, and of the unutterable perfection of the Absolute Life for which they longed, has overpowered all other aspects of man’s quest of reality. The “seek, and ye shall find” of the pilgrim, the “by Love shall He be gotten and holden” of the bride, can never seem an adequate description of experience to minds of this type. They are intent on the inexorable truth which must be accepted in some form by both these classes: the crucial fact that “we behold that which we are,” or, in other words, that “only the Real can know Reality.” Hence the state of the inward man, the “unrealness” of him when judged by any transcendental standard, is their centre of interest. His remaking or regeneration appears to them as the primal necessity, if he is ever to obtain rights of citizenship in the “country of the soul.”
We have seen that this idea of the New Birth, the remaking or transmutation of the self, clothed in many different symbols, runs through the whole of mysticism and much of theology. It is the mystic’s subjective reading of those necessary psychological
Of all the symbolic systems in which this truth has been enshrined none is so complete, so picturesque, and now so little understood as that of the “Hermetic Philosophers” or Spiritual Alchemists. This fact would itself be sufficient to justify us in examining some of the chief features of their symbolism. There is a further excuse for this apparently eccentric proceeding, however, in the fact that the language of alchemy was largely—though not always accurately and consistently—used by the great mystic Jacob Boehme, and after him by his English disciple, William Law. Without, then, some knowledge of the terms which they employed, but seldom explained, the writings of this important school can hardly be understood.
The alchemic symbols, especially as applied to the mystic life, are full of an often deliberate obscurity; which makes their exact interpretation a controversial matter at the best. Moreover, the authors of the various Hermetic writings do not always use them in the same sense, and whilst many of these writings are undoubtedly mystical, others clearly deal with the physical quest of gold: nor have we any sure standard by which to divide class from class. The elements from which the spiritual alchemists built up their allegories of the mystic life are, however, easily grasped: and these elements, with the significance generally attributed to them, are as much as those who are not specialists can hope to unravel from this very tangled skein. First, there are the metals; of course the obvious materials of physical alchemy. These are usually called by the names of their presiding planets: thus in Hermetic language Luna means silver, Sol gold, etc. Then there is the Vessel, or Athanor, in which the transmutation of base metal to gold took place: an object whose exact nature is veiled in much mystery. The Fire, and various solvents and waters, peculiar to the different alchemistic recipes, complete the apparatus necessary to the “Great Work.”
The process of this work, sometimes described in chemical, and sometimes in astrological terms, is more often than not disguised in a strange heraldic and zoological symbolism dealing with Lions, Dragons, Eagles, Vultures, Ravens and Doves: which,
Coming, then, to the “contemplation of the Metaphor set up,”—by far the most judicious course for modern students of the Hermetic art—we observe first that the prime object of alchemy was held to be the production of the Philosopher’s Stone, that perfect and incorrupt substance or “noble Tincture,” never found upon our imperfect earth in its natural state, which could purge all baser metals of their dross, and turn them to pure gold. The quest of the Stone, in fact, was but one aspect of man’s everlasting quest of perfection, his hunger for the Absolute; and hence an appropriate symbol of the mystic life. But this quest was not conducted in some far off transcendental kingdom. It was prosecuted in the Here and Now within the physical world.
Gold, the Crowned King, or Sol, as it is called in the planetary symbolism of the alchemists, was their standard of perfection, the “Perfect Metal.” Towards it, as the Christian towards sanctity, their wills were set. It had for them a value not sordid but ideal. Nature, they thought, is always trying to make gold, this incorruptible and perfect thing; and the other metals are merely the results of the frustration of her original design. Nor is this aiming at perfection and achieving of imperfection limited to the physical world. Quod superius, sicut quod inferius. Upon the spiritual plane also they held that the Divine Idea is always aiming at “Spiritual Gold”—divine humanity, the New Man, citizen of the transcendental world—and “natural man” as we ordinarily know him is a lower metal, silver at best. He is a departure from the “plan,” who yet bears within himself, if we could find it, the spark or seed of absolute perfection: the “tincture” which makes gold. “The
The art of the alchemist, whether spiritual or physical, consists in completing the work of perfection, bringing forth and making dominant, as it were, the “latent goldness” which “lies obscure” in metal or man. The ideal adept of alchemy was therefore an “auxiliary of the Eternal Goodness.” By his search for the “Noble Tincture” which should restore an imperfect world, he became a partner in the business of creation, assisting the Cosmic Plan. Thus the proper art of the Spiritual Alchemist, with whom alone we are here concerned, was the production of the spiritual and only valid tincture or Philosopher’s Stone; the mystic seed of transcendental life which should invade, tinge, and wholly transmute the imperfect self into spiritual gold. That this was no fancy of seventeenth-century allegorists, but an idea familiar to many of the oldest writers upon alchemy—whose quest was truly a spiritual search into the deepest secrets of the soul—is proved by the words which bring to an end the first part of the antique “Golden Treatise upon the Making of the Stone,” sometimes attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. “This, O Son,” says that remarkable tract, “is the Concealed Stone of Many Colours, which is born and brought forth in one colour; know this and conceal it . . . it leads from darkness into light, from this desert wilderness to a secure habitation, and from poverty and straits to a free and ample fortune.” 296
Man, then, was for the alchemists “the true laboratory of the Hermetic art”; which concealed in an entanglement of vague and contradictory symbols the life-process of his ascension to that perfect state in which he was able to meet God. This state must not be confused with a merely moral purity, but is to be understood as involving utter transmutation into a “new form.” It
“In this stone there lieth hidden, whatsoever God and the Eternity, also heaven, the stars and elements contain and are able to do. There never was from eternity anything better or more precious than this, and it is offered by God and bestowed upon man; every one may have it . . . it is in a simple form, and hath the power of the whole Deity in it.” 298
Boehme is here using alchemic symbols, according to his custom, in a loose and artistic manner; for the true Hermetic Philosopher’s Stone is not something which can be found but something which must be made. The alchemists, whether their search be for a physical or a spiritual “tincture,” say always that this tincture is the product of the furnace and Athanor: and further that it is composed of “three numbers” or elements, which they call Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury. These, when found, and forced into the proper combination, form the “Azoth” or “Philosopher’s Egg”—the stuff or First Matter of the Great Work. Sulphur, Salt,
Of these three ingredients, the important one is the spiritual principle, the unseizable Mercury; which is far from being the metal which we ordinarily know by that name. The Mercury which the alchemists sought—often in strange places—is a hidden and powerful substance. They call it “Mercury of the Wise”; and he who can discover it, they say, is on the way towards success. The reader in search of mystical wisdom already begins to be bewildered; but if he persevere in this labyrinth of symbolism, he presently discovers—as Basil the Monk indeed hints—that the Sulphur and the Salt, or “metallic soul and body” of the spiritual chemistry, represent something analogous to the body and mind of man—Sulphur his earthly nature, seasoned with intellectual Salt. The Mercury is Spirit in its most mystic sense, the Synteresis or holy Dweller in the Innermost, the immanent spark or Divine Principle of his life. Only the “wise,” the mystically awakened, can know this Mercury, the agent of man’s transmutation: and until it has been discovered, brought out of the hiddenness, nothing can be done. “This Mercury or Snowy Splendour, is a Celestial Body drawn from the beams of the Sun and the Moon. It is the only Agent in the world for this art.” 300 It is the divine-human “spark of the soul,” the bridge between Gold and Silver, God and man.
The Three Principles being enclosed in the vessel, or Athanor, which is man himself, and subjected to a gentle fire—the Incendium Amoris —the process of the Great Work, the mystic transmutation of natural into spiritual man, can begin. This work, like the ingredients which compose it, has “three numbers”: and the first matter, in the course of its transmutation, assumes three successive colours: the Black, the White, and the Red. These three colours are clearly analogous to the three traditional stages of the Mystic Way: Purgation, Illumination, Union.
The alchemists call the first stage, or Blackness, Putrefaction. In it the three principles which compose the “whole man” of body, soul and spirit, are “sublimated” till they appear as a black powder full of corruption, and the imperfect body is “dissolved and purified by subtle Mercury”; as man is purified by the darkness,
“This,” says the author of “A Suggestive Enquiry,” “is the union supersentient, the nuptials sublime, Mentis et Universi . . . . Lo! behold I will open to thee a mystery, cries the Adept, the bridegroom crowneth the bride of the north [ i.e. , she who comes out of the cold and darkness of the lower nature]. In the darkness of the north, out of the crucifixion of the cerebral life, when the sensual dominant is occultated in the Divine Fiat, and subdued, there arises a Light wonderfully about the summit, which wisely returned and multiplied according to the Divine Blessing, is made substantial in life.” 302
I have said, that side by side with the metallic and planetary language of the alchemists, runs a strange heraldic symbolism in which they take refuge when they fear—generally without reason—that they are telling their secrets too plainly to an unregenerate world. Many of these heraldic emblems are used in an utterly irresponsible manner; and whilst doubtless conveying a meaning to the individual alchemist and the disciples for whom he wrote, are, and must ever be, unintelligible to other men. But others are of a more general application; and appear so frequently in seventeenth-century literature, whether mystical or non-mystical, that some discussion of them may well be of use.
Perhaps the quaintest and most celebrated of all these allegories
“Our lyon wanting maturitie
Is called greene for his unripeness trust me:
And yet full quickly he can run,
And soon can overtake the Sun.” 304
The Green Lion, then, in his strength and wholeness is the only creature potentially able to attain Perfection. It needs the adoption and purification of all the wealth and resources of man’s nature, not merely the encouragement of his transcendental tastes, if he is to “overtake the Sun” and achieve the Great Work. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence, not by amiable aspiration. “The Green Lion,” says one alchemist, “is the priest by whom Sol and Luna are wed.” In other words, the raw stuff of indomitable human nature is the means by which man is to attain union with the Absolute. The duty of the alchemist, the transmuting process, is therefore described as the hunting of the Green Lion through the forest of the sensual world. He, like the Hound of Heaven, is on a love chase down the nights and down the days.
When the lion is caught, when Destiny overtakes it, its head must be cut off as the preliminary to the necessary taming process. This is called by the alchemists “the head of the Raven,” the Crow, or the Vulture, “for its blackness.” It represents the fierce and corrupt life of the passions: and its removal is that “death of the lower nature” which is the object of all asceticism— i.e. , Purgation. The lion, the whole man, Humanity in its strength, is as it were “slain to the world,” and then resuscitated; but in a very different shape. By its passage through this mystic death or the “putrefaction
For the Spiritual Chemistry, then, the Red Dragon represents Deified Man; whose emergence must always seem like the birth of some monstrous and amazing creature when seen from the standpoint of the merely natural world. With his coming forth, the business of the alchemist, in so far as he be a mystic, is done. Man has transcended his lower nature, has received wings wherewith to live on higher levels of reality. The Tincture, the latent goldness, has been found and made dominant, the Magnum Opus achieved. That the trite and inward business of that Work, when stripped of its many emblematic veils, was indeed the reordering of spiritual rather than material elements, is an opinion which rests on a more solid foundation than personal interpretations of old allegories and alchemic-tracts. The Norwich physician—himself deeply read in the Hermetic science—has declared to us his own certainty concerning it in few but lovely words. In them is contained the true mystery of man’s eternal and interior quest of the Stone: its reconciliation with that other, outgoing quest of “the Hidden Treasure that desires to be found.”
“Do but extract from the corpulency of bodies, or resolve things beyond their First Matter, and you discover the habitation of Angels: which, if I call it the ubiquitary and omnipresent Essence of God, I hope I shall not offend Divinity.” 305
258 Jámi, “Joseph and Zulaikha. The Poet’s Prayer.”
259 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. x.
260 St. Catherine of Genoa, “ Vita e Dottrina,” cap. xiv.
261 “Vita e Dottrina,” p. 36.
262 This image seems first to have been elaborated by St. Augustine, from whom it was borrowed by Hugh of St. Victor, and most of the mediaeval mystics.
263 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxi.
264 So too Ruysbroeck says that “the just man goes towards God by inward love in perpetual activity and in God in virtue of his fruitive affection in eternal rest” (“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum.” I. ii. cap. lxv).
265 I need not remind the reader of the fact that this symbolism, perverted to the purposes of his skeptical philosophy, runs through the whole of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám.
266 See Palmer’s “Oriental Mysticism,” pt. I. caps. i., ii., iii., and v.
267 An abridged translation of ‘Attar’s allegory of the Valleys will be found in “The Conference of the Birds,” by R. P. Masani (1924). See also W. S. Lilly’s “Many Mansions,” p. 130.
268 Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 27.
269 Royce, “The World and the Individual,” vol. ii. p. 386.
270 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxiv.
271 Compare Récéjac (“Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 252). “According to mysticism, morality leads the soul to the frontiers of the Absolute and even gives it an impulsion to enter, but this is not enough. This movement of pure Freedom cannot succeed unless there is an equivalent movement within the Absolute itself.”
272 Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. 9. “All those who love,” says Ruysbroeck, “feel this attraction: more or less according to the degree of their love.” (“De Calculo sive de Perfectione filiorum Dei.”)
273 Meister Eckhart, Pred. iii.
274 Ibid ., Pred. xiii.
275 “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. vi.
276 The Greek and English text will be found in the “Apocrypha Anecdota” of Dr. M. R. James, series 2 (Cambridge, 1897), pp. 1-25. I follow his translation. It will be seen that I have adopted the hypotheses of Mr. G. R. S. Mead as to the dramatic nature of this poem. See his “Echoes from the Gnosis,” 1896.
277 Jalalu d’ Din Rumi (Wisdom of the East Series), p. 77.
278 So Dante—
“ Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna legato con amore in un volume cio che per l’universo si squaderna.”
“ Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna
legato con amore in un volume
cio che per l’universo si squaderna.”(Par. xxxiii. 85.)
279 “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Aurea Dicta,” ccxxviii.
280 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. i. cap. iii.
281 “Quia amore langueo,” an anonymous fifteenth-century poem. Printed from the Lambeth MS. by the E.E.T.S., 1866-67.
282 Pred. lxxxviii.
283 So we are told of St. Francis of Assisi, that in his youth he “tried to flee God’s hand.” Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. ii.
284 Sr. Bernard, “Cantica Canticorum,” Sermon vii. For a further and excellent discussion of St. Bernard’s mystical language, see Dom Cuthbert Butler, “Western Mysticism,” 2nd ed., pp. 160 seq .
285 Vide infra, Pt. II. cap. v.
286 Professor Pratt, by no means an enthusiastic witness, most justly observes “There are several excellent reasons why the mystics almost inevitably make use of the language of human love in describing the joy of the love of God. The first and simplest is this: that they have no other language to use . . . the mystic must make use of expressions drawn from earthly love to describe his experience, or give up the attempt of describing it at all. It is the only way he has of even suggesting to the non-mystical what he has felt” (“The Religious Consciousness,” p. 418).
287 “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sétimas, cap ii.
288 “De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. cxcvi. col. 1207).
289 “In primo gradu fit desponsatio, in secundo nuptiae, in tertio copula, in quarto puerperium. . . . De quarto dicitur, Coucepimus, et quasi parturivimus et peperimus spiritum” (Isa. xviii . 26). ( Op. cit., 1216, D.)
290 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” lii. cap. v.
291 Vide infra , pt. ii. caps. i. and x.
292 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. i.
293 “A Short Enquiry Concerning the Hermetic Art,” p. 29.
294 “Religio Medici,” pt. i.
295 “A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery,” p. 143. This rare and curious study of spiritual alchemy was the anonymous work of the late Mrs. Atwood. She attempted to suppress it soon after publication under the impression—common amongst mystics of a certain type—that she had revealed matters which might not be spoken of; as Coventry Patmore for the same reason destroyed his masterpiece, “Sponsa Dei.”
296 Quoted in “A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery,” p. 107. The whole of the “Golden Treatise” will be found set out in this work.
297 Jacob Boehme, “The Threefold Life of Man,” cap. iv. § 23.
298 Boehme, “The Threefold Life of Man,” cap. vi. § 98; cap. x. §§ 3, 4; and cap. xiii. § 1.
299 “The Golden Tripod of the Monk Basilius Valentinus” (“The Hermetic Museum, “ vol. i. p. 319).
300 “A Short Enquiry Concerning the Hermetic Art,” p. 17.
301 “The Hermetic Museum,” vol. i. p. 272.
302 “A Suggestive Enquiry,” p. 345.
303 See “A Short Enquiry,” p. 17, and “A Suggestive Enquiry,” pp. 297 et seq ., where the rhymed Alchemic tract called “Hunting the Greene Lyon” is printed in full.
304 Op. cit.
305 Sir Thomas Browne, “Religio Medici,” pt. i.
I t is unnecessary to examine in detail the mistakes—in ecclesiastical language, the heresies—into which men have been led by a feeble, a deformed, or an arrogant mystical sense. The number of these mistakes is countless; their wildness almost inconceivable to those who have not been forced to study them. Too often the loud voices and strange declarations of their apostles have drowned the quieter accents of the orthodox.
It seems as though the moment of puberty were far more critical in the spiritual than it is in the physical life: the ordinary dangers of adolescence being intensified when they appear upon the higher levels of consciousness. In the condition of psychic instability which is characteristic of his movement to new states, man is unusually at the mercy of the suggestions and impressions which he receives. Hence in every period of true mystical activity we find an outbreak of occultism, illuminism, or other perverted spirituality and—even more dangerous and confusing for the student—a borderland region where the mystical and psychical meet. In the youth of the Christian Church, side by side with genuine mysticism descending from the Johannine writings or brought in by the Christian Neoplatonists, we have the arrogant and disorderly transcendentalism of the Gnostics: their attempted fusion of the ideals of mysticism and magic. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there are the spurious mysticism of the
The root idea from which these varied beliefs and practices develop is always the same; and, since right doctrine is often most easily defined by contrast with its opposite, its study is likely to help us to fix more precisely the true characters of mysticism. Leaving therefore the specifically mystical error of Quietism until we come to the detailed discussion of the contemplative states, we will consider here some of those other supernormal activities of the self which we have already agreed to classify as magic: and learn through them more of those hidden and half-comprehended forces which she has at her command.
The word “magic” is out of fashion, though its spirit was never more widely diffused than at the present time. Thanks to the gradual debasement of the verbal currency, it suggests to the ordinary reader the production of optical illusions and other parlour tricks. It has dragged with it in its fall the terrific verb “to conjure,” which, forgetting that it once undertook to compel the spirits of men and angels, is now content to produce rabbits from top-hats. These facts would have little importance, were it not that modern occultists—annoyed, one supposes, by this abuse of their ancient title—constantly arrogate to their tenets and practices the name of “Mystical Science.” Vaughan, in his rather supercilious survey of the mystics, classed all forms of white magic, alchemy, and occult philosophy as “theurgic mysticism,” 306 and, on the other side of the shield, the occultists display an increasing eagerness to claim the mystics as masters in their school. 307 Even the “three-fold way” of mysticism has been adopted by them and relabelled “Probation, Enlightenment, Initiation.” 308
In our search for the characteristics of mysticism we have already marked the boundary which separates it from magic: and tried to define the true nature and intention of occult philosophy. 309 We saw that it represented the instinctive human “desire to know more” applied to suprasensible things. For good or ill this desire, and the occult sciences and magic arts which express it, have haunted humanity from the earliest times. No student of man
Though fragments of this enormous claim seem able to justify themselves in experience, the whole of it cannot be admitted. The last phrase in particular is identical with the promise which we have seen to be characteristic of mysticism. It presents magic as a pathway to reality; a promise which it cannot fulfil, for the mere transcending of phenomena does not entail the attainment of the Absolute. Magic even at its best extends rather than escapes the boundaries of the phenomenal world. It stands, where genuine, for that form of transcendentalism which does abnormal things, but does not lead anywhere: and we are likely to fall victims to some kind of magic the moment that the declaration “I want to know” ousts the declaration “I want to be” from the chief place in our consciousness. The true “science of ultimates” must be a science of pure Being, for reasons which the reader is now in a position to discover for himself. But magic is merely a system whereby the self tries to assuage its transcendental curiosity by extending the activities of the will beyond their usual limits; sometimes, according to its own account, obtaining by this means an experimental knowledge of planes of existence usually—but inaccurately—regarded as “supernatural.”
Even this modified claim needs justification. For most persons who do not specialize in the eccentric sciences the occultist can only be said to exist in either the commercial or the academic sense. The fortune-teller represents one class; the annotator of improper grimoires the other. In neither department is the thing supposed
Such a view is far from accurate. In magic, whether regarded as a superstition or a science, we have at any rate the survival of a great and ancient tradition, the true meaning of whose title should hardly have been lost in a Christian country; for it claims to be the science of those Magi whose quest of the symbolic Blazing Star brought them once, at least, to the cradle of the Incarnate God. Its laws, and the ceremonial rites which express those laws, have come down from immemorial antiquity. They appear to enshrine a certain definite knowledge, and a large number of less definite theories, concerning the sensual and supersensual worlds, and concerning powers which man, according to occult thinkers, may develop if he will. Orthodox persons should be careful how they condemn the laws of magic: for they unwittingly conform to many of them whenever they go to church. All ceremonial religion contains some elements of magic. The art of medicine will never wholly cast it off: many centuries ago it gave birth to that which we now call modern science. It seems to possess inextinguishable life. This is not surprising when we perceive how firmly occultism is rooted in psychology: how perfectly it is adapted to certain perennial characteristics of the human mind—its curiosity, its arrogance, its love of mystery.
Magic, in its uncorrupted form, claims to be a practical, intellectual, highly individualistic science; working towards the declared end of enlarging the sphere on which the human will can work, and obtaining experimental knowledge of planes of being usually regarded as transcendental. It is the last descendant of a long line of teaching—the whole teaching, in fact, of the mysteries of Egypt and Greece—which offered to initiate man into a certain secret knowledge and understanding of things. “In every man,” says a modern occultist, “there are latent faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself knowledge of the higher worlds . . . as long as the human race has existed there have always been schools in which those who possessed these higher faculties gave instruction to those who were in search of them. Such are called the occult schools, and the instruction which is imparted therein is called esoteric science or the occult teaching.” 311
These occult schools, as they exist in the present day, state their doctrine in terms which seem distressingly prosaic to the romantic inquirer; borrowing from physics and psychology theories of vibration, attraction, mental suggestion and subconscious activity which can be reapplied for their own purposes. According to its modern teachers, magic is simply an extension of the theory
These cardinal doctrines, in fact, have varied little since their first appearance early in the world’s history: though, like the doctrines of theology, they have needed re-statement from time to time. In discussing them I shall quote chiefly from the works of Eliphas Lévi; the pseudonym under which Alphonse Louis Constant, the most readable occult philosopher of the nineteenth century, offered his conclusions to the world.
The tradition of magic, like most other ways of escape which man has offered to his own soul, appears to have originated in the East. It was formulated, developed, and preserved by the religion of Egypt. It made an early appearance in that of Greece. It has its legendary grand master in Hermes Trismegistus, who gave to it its official name of Hermetic Science, and whose status in occultism is much the same as that occupied by Moses in the tradition of the Jews. Fragmentary writings attributed to this personage and said to be derived from the Hermetic books, are the primitive scriptures of occultism: and the probably spurious Table of Emerald, which is said to have been discovered in his tomb, ranks as the magician’s Table of Stone. 313 In Gnosticism, in the allegories of the Kabalah, in theosophy, in secret associations which still exist in England, France, and Germany—and even in certain practices embedded in the ceremonial of the Christian Church—
Like the world which it professes to interpret, magic has a body and a soul: an outward vesture of words and ceremonies and an inner doctrine. The outward vesture, which is all that the uninitiated are permitted to perceive, consists of a series of confusing and often ridiculous symbolic veils: of strange words and numbers, grotesque laws and ritual acts, personifications and mystifications. The outward vestures of our religious, political, and social systems—which would probably appear equally irrational to a wholly ignorant yet critical observer—offer an instructive parallel to this aspect of occult philosophy. Stripped of these archaic formulae, symbols, and mystery-mongerings, however, magic as described by its apologists, is found to rest upon three fundamental axioms which can hardly be dismissed as ridiculous by those who listen respectfully to the ever-shifting hypotheses of psychology and physics.
(1) The first axiom declares the existence of an imponderable “medium” or “universal agent,” which is described as beyond the plane of our normal sensual perceptions yet interpenetrating and binding up the material world. This agent, which is not luminous and has nothing to do with the stars, is known to the occultists by the unfortunate name of “Astral Light”: a term originally borrowed from the Martinists by Eliphas Lévi. To live in conscious communication with the “Astral Light” is to live upon the “Astral Plane,” or in the Astral World: to have achieved, that is to say, a new level of consciousness. The education of the occultist is directed towards this end.
This doctrine of the Astral Plane, like most of our other diagrams of the transcendent, possesses a respectable ancestry, and many prosperous relations in the world of philosophic thought. Traces of it may even be detected under veils in the speculations of orthodox physics. It is really identical with the “Archetypal World” or Yesod of the Kabalah—the “Perfect Land” of old Egyptian religion—in which the true or spirit forms of all created things are held to exist. It may be connected with the “real world” described by such visionaries as Boehme and Blake, many of whose
Further, the Astral Plane is regarded as constituting the “Cosmic Memory,” where the images of all beings and events are preserved, as they are preserved in the memory of man.
“The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky”—
all are living in the Astral World. There too the concepts of future creation are present in their completeness in the Eternal Now before being brought to birth in the material sphere. On this theory prophecy, and also clairvoyance—one of the great objects of occult education—consist in opening the eyes of the mind upon this timeless Astral World: and spiritualists, evoking the phantoms of the dead, merely call them up from the recesses of universal instead of individual remembrance. The reader who feels his brain to be whirling amidst this medley of solemn statement and unproven fairy tale must remember that the dogmatic part of the occult tradition can only represent the attempt of an extended or otherwise abnormal consciousness to find an explanation of its own experiences.
Further, our whole selves—not merely our sentient selves—are regarded as being bathed in the Astral Light, as in the ether of physics. Hence in occult language it is a “universal agent” connecting soul with soul, and becomes the possible vehicle of hypnotism, telepathy, clairvoyance, and all those supernormal phenomena which are the subject-matter of “psychical research.” This hypothesis also accounts for the confusing fact of an initial similarity of experience in many of the proceedings of mystic and occultist. Both must pass through the plane of consciousness which the concept of the “Astral” represents, because this plane
From earliest times, occult philosophy has insisted on the existence of this medium: as a scientific fact, outside the range of our normal senses, but susceptible of verification by the trained powers of the “initiate.” The possessor of such trained powers, not the wizard or the fortune-teller, is regarded as the true magician: and it is the declared object of occult education, or initiation, to actualize this supersensual plane of experience, to give the student the power of entering into conscious communion with it, and teach him to impose upon its forces the directive force of his own will, as easily as he imposes that will upon the “material” things of senses. 317
(2) This brings us to the second axiom of magic, which also has a curiously modern air: for it postulates simply the limitless power of the disciplined human will. This dogma has been “taken over” without acknowledgment from occult philosophy to become the trump card of menticulture, “Christian Science,” and “New Thought.” The preachers of “Joy Philosophy” and other dilute forms of mental discipline, the Liberal Catholic “priest” producing “a vast bubble of etheric astromental matter, a thought-edifice, ethereal, diaphanous, a bubble which just includes the congregation—“ 318 these are the true hierophants of magic in the modern world. 319
The first lesson of the would-be magus is self-mastery. “By means of persevering and gradual athletics,” says Eliphas Lévi, “the powers of the body can be developed to an amazing extent. It is the same with the powers of the soul. Would you govern yourself and others? Learn how to will. How may one learn how to will? This is the first secret of magical initiation; and it was to make the foundations of this secret thoroughly understood that the antique keepers of the mysteries surrounded the approach to the sanctuary with so many terrors and illusions. They did not believe in a will until it had given its proofs; and they were right.
This last sentence alone is enough to define the distinction between mysticism and magic, and clear the minds of those who tend to confuse the mystical and magical elements of religion. In accordance with it, real “magical initiation” is in essence a form of mental discipline, strengthening and focussing the will. This discipline, like that of the religious life, consists partly in physical austerities and a deliberate divorce from the world, partly in the cultivation of will-power: but largely in a yielding of the mind to the influence of suggestions which have been selected and accumulated in the course of ages because of their power over that imagination which Eliphas Lévi calls “The eye of the soul.” There is nothing supernatural about it. Like the more arduous, more disinterested self-training of the mystic, it is character-building with an object, conducted upon an heroic scale. In magic the “will to know” is the centre round which the personality is rearranged. As in mysticism, unconscious factors are dragged from the hiddenness to form part of that personality. The uprushes of thought, the abrupt intuitions which reach us from the subliminal region, are developed, ordered, and controlled by rhythms and symbols which have become traditional because the experience of centuries has proved, though it cannot explain, their efficacy: and powers of apprehension which normally lie below the threshold may thus be liberated and enabled to report their discoveries.
“The fundamental principle,” says A. E. Waite, speaking of occult evocations, “was in the exercise of a certain occult force resident in the magus, and strenuously exerted for the establishment of such a correspondence between two planes of nature as would effect his desired end. This exertion was termed the evocation, conjuration, or calling of the spirit, but that which in reality was raised was the energy of the inner man ; tremendously developed and exalted by combined will and aspiration, this energy germinated by sheer force a new intellectual faculty of sensible psychological perception. To assist and stimulate this energy into the most powerful possible operation, artificial means were almost invariably used. . . . The synthesis of these methods and processes
This is the psychological explanation of those apparently absurd rituals of preparation, doctrines of signs and numbers, pentacles, charms, angelical names, the “power of the word” which made up ceremonial magic. The power of such artifices is known amongst the Indian mystics; who, recognizing in the Mantra, or occult and rhythmic formula, consciously held and repeated, an invaluable help to the attainment of the true ecstatic state, are not ashamed to borrow from the magicians. So, too, the modern American schools of mental healing and New Thought recommend concentration upon a carefully selected word as the starting-point of efficacious meditation. This fact of the psychical effect of certain verbal combinations, when allowed to dominate the field of consciousness, may have some bearing upon that need of a formal liturgy which is felt by nearly every great religion; for religion, on its ceremonial side, has certain affinities with magic. It, too, seeks by sensible means to stimulate supra-sensible energies. The true magic “word” or spell is untranslatable; because its power resides only partially in that outward sense which is apprehended by the reason, but chiefly in the rhythm, which is addressed to the subliminal mind. Symbols, religious and other, and symbolic acts which appear meaningless when judged by the intellect alone, perform a similar office. They express the deep-seated instinct of the human mind that it must have a focus on which to concentrate its volitional powers, if those powers are to be brought to their highest state of efficiency. The nature of the focus matters little: its office matters much.
“. . . All these figures, and acts analogous to them,” says Lévi, “all these dispositions of numbers and of characters [ i.e. sacred words, charms, pentacles, etc.] are, as we have said, but instruments for the education of the will, of which they fix and determine the habits. They serve also to concentrate in action all the powers of the human soul, and to strengthen the creative power of the imagination. . . . A practice, even though it be superstitious and foolish, may be efficacious because it is a realization of the will. . . . We laugh at the poor woman who denies herself a ha’porth of milk in the morning, that she may take a little candle to burn upon the magic triangle in some chapel. But those who laugh are ignorant, and the poor woman does not pay too dearly for the courage and resignation which she thus obtains. 322
Magic symbols, therefore, from penny candles to Solomon’s seal, fall in modern technical language into two classes. The first contains instruments of self-suggestion, exaltation, and will direction. To this belong all spells, charms, rituals, perfumes: from the magician’s vervain wreath to the “Youth! Health! Strength!” which the student of New Thought repeats when she is brushing her hair in the morning. The second class contains autoscopes: i.e. , material objects which focus and express the subconscious perceptions of the operator. The dowser’s divining rod, fortuneteller’s cards, and crystal-gazer’s ball, are characteristic examples. Both kinds are rendered necessary rather by the disabilities of the human than by the peculiarities of the superhuman plane: and the great adept may attain heights at which he dispenses with these “outward and visible signs.” “Ceremonies being, as we have said, artificial methods of creating certain habits of the will, they cease to be necessary when these habits have become fixed.” 323 These facts, now commonplaces of psychology, have long been known and used by students of magic. Those who judge the philosophy by the apparent absurdity of its symbols and ceremonies should remember that the embraces, gestures, grimaces, and other ritual acts by which we all concentrate, liberate, or express love, wrath, or enthusiasm, will ill endure the cold revealing light of a strictly rational inquiry.
(3) The dogmas of the “Astral Light” or universal agent and the “power of the will” are completed by a third: the doctrine of Analogy, of an implicit correspondence between appearance and reality, the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the universe the seen and the unseen worlds. In this, occultism finds the basis of its transcendental speculations. Quod superius sicut quod inferius —the first words of that Emerald Table which was once attributed to Hermes Trismegistus himself—is an axiom which must be agreeable to all Platonists. It plays a great part in the theory of mysticism; which, whilst maintaining an awed sense of the total “otherness” and incomprehensibility of the Divine, has always assumed that the path of the individual soul towards loving union with the Absolute is somehow analogous with the path on which the universe moves to its consummation in God.
The notion of analogy ultimately determines the religious concepts of every race, and resembles the verities of faith in the breadth of its application. It embraces alike the appearances of the visible world—which thus become the mirrors of the invisible—the symbols of religion, the tiresome arguments of Butler’s “Analogy,” the allegories of the Kabalah and the spiritual alchemists, and that childish “doctrine of signatures” on which
The argument by analogy is carried by the occultists to lengths which cannot be described here. Armed with this torch, they explore the darkest, most terrible mysteries of life: and do not hesitate to cast the grotesque shadows of these mysteries upon the unseen world. The principle of correspondence is no doubt sound so long as it works within reasonable limits. It was admitted into the system of the Kabalah, though that profound and astute philosophy was far from giving to it the importance which it assumes in Hermetic “science.” It has been eagerly accepted by many of the mystics. Boehme and Swedenborg availed themselves of its method in presenting their intuitions to the world. It is implicitly acknowledged by thinkers of many other schools: its influence permeates the best periods of literature. Sir Thomas Browne spoke for more than himself when he said, in a well-known passage of the “Religio Medici”: “The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes [ i.e. , Trismegistus] that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible, wherein, as in a portrait, things are not truly but in equivocal shapes, and as they counterfeit some real substance in that invisible framework.” Such a sense of analogy, whatever the “severe schools” may say, is indeed the foundation of every perfect work of art. “Intuitive perception of the hidden analogies of things,” says Hazlitt in “English Novelists,” “or, as it may be called, his instinct of the imagination, is perhaps what stamps the character of genius on the productions of art more than any other circumstance.”
The central doctrine of magic may now be summed up thus:—
(1) That a supersensible and real “cosmic medium” exists, which interpenetrates, influences, and supports the tangible and apparent world, and is amenable to the categories both of philosophy and of physics.
(2) That there is an established analogy and equilibrium between the real and unseen world, and the illusory manifestations which we call the world of sense.
(3) That this analogy may be discerned, and this equilibrium controlled, by the disciplined will of man, which thus becomes master of itself and of fate.
We must now examine in more detail the third of these propositions—that which ascribes abnormal powers to the educated and disciplined will—for this assumption lies at the root of all magical practices, old and new. “Magical operations,” says Eliphas Lévi, “are the exercise of a power which is natural, but superior to the ordinary powers of nature. They are the result of a science, and of habits, which exalt the human will above its usual limits.” 325 This power of the will is now recognized as playing an important part both in the healing of the body and the healing of the soul; for our most advanced theories on these subjects are little more than the old wine of magic in new bottles. The ancient occultists owed much of their power, and also of their evil reputation, to the fact that they were psychologists before their time. Effective methods of suggestion, recipes for the alteration and exaltation of personality and enhancement of will-power, the artificial production of hypnotic states, photisms, automatism and ecstasy, with the opening up of the subliminal field which accompanies these phenomena—concealed from the profane by a mass of confusing allegories and verbiage—form the backbone of all genuine occult rituals. Their authors were aware that ceremonial magic has no objective importance, but depends solely on its effect upon the operator’s mind. That this effect might be enhanced, it was given an atmosphere of sanctity and mystery; its rules were strict, its higher rites difficult of attainment. These rules and rites constituted at once a test of the student’s earnestness and a veil guarding the sanctuary from the profane. The long and difficult preparations, majestic phrases, and strange ceremonies of an evocation had power, not over the spirit of the dead, but over the consciousness of the living; who was thus caught up from the world of sense to a new plane of perception. Thus, according to its apologists, the education of the genuine occult student tends to awaken in him a new view and a new attitude. It adjusts the machinery of his cinematograph to the registering of new intervals in the stream of things, which passed it by before; and thus introduces new elements into that picture by which ordinary men are content to know and judge the—or rather their— universe.
So much for the principles which govern occult education. Magic therapeutics, or as it is now called, “mental healing,” is but the application of these principles upon another plane. It results, first, from a view of humanity which sees a difference only of degree between diseases of body and of soul, and can state seriously and in good faith that “moral maladies are more contagious than physical, and there are some triumphs of infatuation and fashion which are comparable to leprosy or cholera.” 326 Secondly, it is
This simple truth was in the possession of occult thinkers at a time when Church and State saw no third course between the burning or beatification of its practitioners. Now, under the polite names of mental hygiene, suggestion, and psycho-therapeutics, it is steadily advancing to the front rank of medical shibboleths. Yet it is still the same “magic art” which has been employed for centuries, with varying ritual accompaniments, by the adepts of occult science. The methods of Brother Hilarian Tissot, who is described as curing lunacy and crime by “the unconscious use of the magnetism of Paracelsus,” who attributed his cases “either to disorder of the will or to the perverse influence of external wills,” and would “regard all crimes as acts of madness and treat the wicked as diseased,” 328 anticipated in many respects those of the most modern psychologists.
The doctrine of magic which has here been described shows us the “Secret Wisdom” at its best and sanest. But even on these levels, it is dogged by the defects which so decisively separate the occultist from the mystic. The chief of these is the peculiar temper of mind, the cold intellectual arrogance, the intensely individual point of view which occult studies seem to induce by their conscious quest of exclusive power and knowledge, their implicit neglect of love. At bottom, every student of occultism is striving towards a point at which he may be able to “touch the button” and rely on the transcendental world “springing to do the rest.” In this hard-earned acquirement of power over the Many, he tends to forget the One. In Levi’s words, “Too deep a study of the mysteries of nature may estrange from God the careless investigator, in whom mental fatigue paralyses the ardours of the heart.” 329 When he wrote this sentence Lévi stood, as the greater occultists have often done, at the frontiers of mysticism. The best of the Hermetic philosophers, indeed, are hardly ever without such mystical hankerings, such flashes of illumination; as if the transcendental powers of man, once roused from sleep, cannot wholly ignore the true end for which they were made.
In Levi’s case, as is well known, the discord between the occult and mystical ideals was resolved by his return to the Catholic Church. Characteristically, he “read into” Catholicism much
There are obvious objections to the full working out of this subject in a book which is addressed to readers of all shades of belief; but any student who is interested in this branch of religious psychology may easily discover for himself the occult elements in the liturgies of the Christian—or indeed of any other—Church. There are invocative arrangements of the Names of God which appear alike in grimoire and in Missal. Sacred numbers, ritual actions, perfumes, purifications, words of power, are all used, and rightly used by institutional religion in her work of opening up the human mind to the messages of the suprasensible world. In certain minor observances, and charm-like prayers, we seem to stand on the very borderland between magician and priest.
It is surely inevitable that this should be so. The business of the Church is to appeal to the whole man, as she finds him living in the world of sense. She would hardly be adequate to this task did she neglect the powerful weapons which the occultist has developed for his own ends. She, who takes the simplest and most common gifts of nature and transmutes them into heavenly food, takes also every discovery which the self has made concerning its own potentialities, and turns them to her own high purposes. Founding her external system on sacraments and symbols, on
But she pays for this; sharing some of the limitations of the system which her Catholic nature has compelled her to absorb. It is true, of course, that she purges it of all its baser elements—its arrogance, its curiosity—true also that she is bound to adopt it, because it is the highest common measure which she can apply to the spirituality of that world to which she is sent. But she cannot—and her great teachers have always known that she cannot—extract finality from a method which does not really seek after ultimate things. This method may and does teach men goodness, gives them happiness and health. It can even induce in them a certain exaltation in which they become aware, at any rate for a moment, of the existence of the supernatural world—a stupendous accomplishment. But it will not of itself make them citizens of that world: give to them the freedom of Reality.
“The work of the Church in the world,” says Patmore, “is not to teach the mysteries of life, so much as to persuade the soul to that arduous degree of purity at which God Himself becomes her teacher. The work of the Church ends when the knowledge of God begins.” 330
306 R. A. Vaughan, “Hours with the Mystics,” vol. i. bk. i. ch. v.
307 In a list published by Papus from the archives of the Martinists, we find such diverse names as Averroes, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vincent of Beauvais, and Swedenborg, given as followers of the occult tradition!
308 See R. Steiner, “The Way of Initiation,” p. 111.
309 Supra, pp. 70 seq .
310 A. E. Waite, “The Occult Sciences,” p. 1.
311 Steiner, “The Way of Initiation,” p. 66.
312 See E. Towne, “Joy Philosophy” (1903) and “Just How to Wake the Solar Plexus” (1904); R. D. Stocker, “New Thought Manual” (1906) and “Soul Culture” (1905); Floyd Wilson, “Man Limitless” (1905). The literature of these sects is enormous. For a critical and entertaining account, see C. W. Ferguson, ‘The Confusion of Tongues.” (1929).
313 It must here be pointed out that the genuine “Hermetica”—a body of ancient philosophic and religious pieces collected under this general title—are entirely unconnected with occultism. Cf. “Hermetica,” ed. with English translation by W. Scott. 3 vols. 1924-8.
314 A. E. Waite, a life-long student of these byeways of thought, gives, as the main channels by which “an arcane knowledge is believed to have been communicated to the West,” Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, the occult associations which culminated in Freemasonry, and, finally, “an obscure sheaf of hieroglyphs known as Tarot cards.” He places in another class “the bewitchments and other mummeries of Ceremonial Magic.” (“The Holy Kabbalah,” pp. 518-19.)
315 For a discussion of the Gnostic and Theosophic elements in Blake’s work see D. Surat, “Blake and Modern Thought” (1929).
316 A. E. Waite, “Doctrine and Literature of the Kabbalah,” p. 48.
317 I offer no opinion as to the truth or falsity of these “occult” claims. For a more detailed discussion the reader is referred to Steiner’s curious little book, “The Way of Initiation.”
318 C. W. Leadbeater, “The Science of the Sacraments,” p. 38.
319 Compare the following: “Imagine that all the world and the starry hosts are waiting, alert and with shining eyes, to do your bidding. Imagine that you are to touch the button now, and instantly they will spring to do the rest. The instant you say, ‘I can and I will,’ the entire powers of the universe are to be set in motion” (E. Towne, “Joy Philosophy,” p. 52).
320 “Rituel de la Haute Magie,” pp. 35, 36.
321 “The Occult Sciences,” p. 14. But references in Mr. Waite’s most recent work to “the puerilities and imbecility of ceremonial magic” suggest that he has modified his views. Cf. “The Holy Kabbalah” (1929), p. 521.
322 “Rituel de la Haute Magie,” p. 71.
323 “Rituel de la Haute Magie,” p. 139.
324 “Dogme de la Haute Magie,” p. 361 et seq.
325 “Rituel de la Haute Magie,” p. 32.
326 “Dogme de la Haute Magie,” p. 129.
327 “Rituel,” p. 312.
328 “Dogma,” p. 134.
329 “Histoire de la Magie,” p. 514.
330 “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Knowledge and Science,” xxii.
“As the Pilgrim passes while the Country permanent remains
So Men pass on; but the States remain permanent forever.”
W e are now to turn from general principles and study those principles in action: to describe the psychological process, or “Mystic Way,” by which that peculiar type of personality which is able to set up direct relations with the Absolute is usually developed. The difficulty of this description will lie in the fact that all mystics differ one from another; as all the individual objects of our perception, “living” and “not living,” do. The creative impulse in the world, so far as we are aware of it, appears upon ultimate analysis to be free and original not bound and mechanical: to express itself, in defiance of the determinists, with a certain artistic spontaneity. Man, when he picks out some point of likeness as a basis on which to arrange its productions in groups, is not discovering its methods; but merely making for his own convenience an arbitrary choice of one or two—not necessarily characteristic—qualities, which happen to appear in a certain number of different persons or things. Hence the most scientific classification is a rough-and-ready business at the best. 331
When we come to apply such classification to so delicate and elusive a series of psychological states as those which accompany the “contemplative life,” all the usual difficulties are increased. No one mystic can be discovered in whom all the observed characteristics of the transcendental consciousness are resumed, and
Take, however, a number of such definitely mystical selves and make of them, so to speak, a “composite portrait”: as anthropologists do when they wish to discover the character of a race. From this portrait we may expect a type to emerge, in which all the outstanding characteristics contributed by the individual examples are present together, and minor variations are suppressed. Such a portrait will of course be conventional: but it will be useful as a standard, which can be constantly compared with, and corrected by, isolated specimens.
The first thing we notice about this composite portrait is that the typical mystic seems to move towards his goal through a series of strongly marked oscillations between “states of pleasure” and “states of pain.” The existence and succession of these states—sometimes broken and confused, sometimes crisply defined—can be traced, to a greater or less degree, in almost every case of which we possess anything like a detailed record. Gyrans gyrando radii spiritus . The soul, as it treads the ascending spiral of its road towards reality, experiences alternately the sunshine and the shade. These experiences are “constants” of the transcendental life. “The Spiritual States of the Soul are all Eternal,” said Blake, with the true mystical genius for psychology. 332
The complete series of these states—and it must not be forgotten that few individuals present them all in perfection, whilst in many instances several are blurred or appear to be completely suppressed—will be, I think, most conveniently arranged under five heads. This method of grouping means, of course, the abandonment of the time-honoured threefold division of the Mystic Way, and the apparent neglect of St. Teresa’s equally celebrated Seven Degrees of Contemplation; but I think that we shall gain more than we lose by adopting it. The groups, however, must be looked upon throughout as diagrammatic, and only as answering loosely and generally to experiences which seldom present themselves in so rigid and unmixed a form. These experiences, largely conditioned as they are by surroundings and by temperament, exhibit all the variety and spontaneity which are characteristic of life in its highest manifestations: and, like biological specimens, they lose something of their essential reality in being prepared for scientific investigation. Taken all together, they constitute phases in a
Here, then, is the classification under which we shall study the phases of the mystical life.
(1) The awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. This experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense feelings of joy and exaltation.
(2) The Self, aware for the first time of Divine Beauty, realizes by contrast its own finiteness and imperfection, the manifold illusions in which it is immersed, the immense distance which separates it from the One. Its attempts to eliminate by discipline and mortification all that stands in the way of its progress towards union with God constitute Purgation: a state of pain and effort.
(3) When by Purgation the Self has become detached from the “things of sense,” and acquired those virtues which are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage,” its joyful consciousness of the Transcendent Order returns in an enhanced form. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Cave of Illusion,” it has awakened to knowledge of Reality, has struggled up the harsh and difficult path to the mouth of the cave. Now it looks upon the sun. This is Illumination: a state which includes in itself many of the stages of contemplation, “degrees of orison,” visions and adventures of the soul described by St. Teresa and other mystical writers. These form, as it were, a way within the Way: a moyen de parvenir, a training devised by experts which will strengthen and assist the mounting soul. They stand, so to speak, for education; whilst the Way proper represents organic growth. Illumination is the “contemplative state” par excellence. It forms, with the two preceding states, the “first mystic life.” Many mystics never go beyond it; and, on the other hand, many seers and artists not usually classed amongst them, have shared, to some extent, the experiences of the illuminated state. Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.
(4) In the development of the great and strenuous seekers after God, this is followed—or sometimes intermittently accompanied—by the most terrible of all the experiences of the Mystic Way: the final and complete purification of the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the “mystic pain” or “mystic death,”
(5) Union: the true goal of the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination: but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by intense certitude. To call this state, as some authorities do, by the name of Ecstasy, is inaccurate and confusing: since the term Ecstasy has long been used both by psychologists and ascetic writers to define that short and rapturous trance—a state with well-marked physical and psychical accompaniments—in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision. Ecstasies of this kind are often experienced by the mystic in Illumination, or even on his first conversion. They cannot therefore be regarded as exclusively characteristic of the Unitive Way. In some of the greatest mystics—St. Teresa is an example—the ecstatic trance seems to diminish rather than increase in frequency after the state of union has been attained: whilst others achieve the heights by a path which leaves on one side all abnormal phenomena.
Union must be looked upon as the true goal of mystical growth; that permanent establishment of life upon transcendent levels of reality, of which ecstasies give a foretaste to the soul. Intense forms of it, described by individual mystics, under symbols such as those of Mystical Marriage, Deification, or Divine Fecundity, all prove on examination to be aspects of this same experience “seen through a temperament.”
It is right, however, to state here that Oriental Mysticism insists upon a further stage beyond that of union, which stage it regards as the real goal of the spiritual life. This is the total annihilation or reabsorption of the individual soul in the Infinite.
“O, let me not exist! for Non-Existence
Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.’” 333
It is at least doubtful, however, whether the interpretation which has been put by European students upon such passages as this be correct. The language in which Al Ghazzali attempts to describe the Eighth Stage is certainly more applicable to the Unitive Life as understood by Christian contemplatives, than to the Buddhistic annihilation of personality. “The end of Sufi-ism,” he says, “is total absorption in God. This is at least the relative end to that part of their doctrine which I am free to reveal and describe. But in reality it is but the beginning of the Sufi life, for those intuitions and other things which precede it are, so to speak, but the porch by which they enter. . . . In this state some have imagined themselves to be amalgamated with God, others to be identical with Him, others again to be associated with Him: but all this is sin .” 334
The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a Dark, a Self-loss. Further it will be found that this language is often an attempt to describe the conditions of transitory perception, not those of permanent existence: the characteristics, that is to say, of the Ecstatic Trance, in which for a short time the whole self is lifted to transcendent levels, and the Absolute is apprehended by a total suspension of the surface consciousness. Hence the Divine Dark, the Nothing, is not a state of non-being to which the mystic aspires
In the mystics of the West, the highest forms of Divine Union impel the self to some sort of active, rather than of passive life: and this is now recognized by the best authorities as the true distinction between Christian and non-Christian mysticism. “The Christian mystics,” says Delacroix, “move from the Infinite to the Definite; they aspire to infinitize life and to define Infinity; they go from the conscious to the subconscious, and from the subconscious to the conscious. The obstacle in their path is not consciousness in general, but self -consciousness, the consciousness of the Ego. The Ego is the limitation, that which opposes itself to the Infinite: the states of consciousness free from self, lost in a vaster consciousness, may become modes of the Infinite, and states of the Divine Consciousness.” 335 So Starbuck: “The individual learns to transfer himself from a centre of self-activity into an organ of revelation of universal being, and to live a life of affection for and one-ness with, the larger life outside.” 336
Hence, the ideal of the great contemplatives, the end of their long education, is to become “modes of the Infinite.” Filled with an abounding sense of the Divine Life, of ultimate and adorable reality, sustaining and urging them on, they wish to communicate the revelation, the more abundant life, which they have received. Not spiritual marriage, but divine fecundity is to be their final state. In a sense St. Teresa in the Seventh Habitation, Suso when his great renunciation is made, have achieved the quest, yet there is nothing passive in the condition to which they have come. Not Galahad, but the Grail-bearer is now their type: and in their life, words or works they are impelled to exhibit that “Hidden Treasure which desires to be found.”
“You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa, “that the soul in this state [of union] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.” 337
No temperament is less slothful than the mystical one; and the “quiet” to which the mystics must school themselves in the early stages of contemplation is often the hardest of their tasks. The abandonment of bodily and intellectual activity is only
All records of mysticism in the West, then, are also the records of supreme human activity. Not only of “wrestlers in the spirit” but also of great organizers, such as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross; of missionaries preaching life to the spiritually dead, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, Eckhart, Suso Tauler, Fox; of philanthropists, such as St. Catherine of Genoa or St. Vincent de Paul; poets and prophets, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg, Jacopone da Todi and Blake, finally, of some immensely virile souls whose participation in the Absolute Life has seemed to force on them a national destiny. Of this St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Siena, and Saint Joan of Arc are the supreme examples. “The soul enamoured of My Truth,” said God’s voice to St. Catherine of Siena, “never ceases to serve the whole world in general.” 338
Utterly remade in the interests of Reality, exhibiting that dual condition of fruition and activity which Ruysbroeck described as the crowning stage of human evolution, the “Supreme summit of the Inner Life,” 339 all these lived, as it were, with both hands towards the finite and towards the Infinite, towards God and man. It is true that in nearly every case such “great actives” have first left the world, as a necessary condition of establishing communion with that Absolute Life which reinforced their own: for a mind distracted by the many cannot apprehend the One. Hence something equivalent to the solitude of the wilderness is an essential part of mystical education. But, having established that communion, re-ordered their inner lives upon transcendent levels—being united with their Source not merely in temporary ecstasies, but in virtue of a permanent condition of the soul, they were impelled to abandon their solitude; and resumed, in some way, their contact with the world in order to become the medium whereby that Life flowed out to other men. To go up alone into the mountain and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends. This systole-and-diastole motion of retreat as the preliminary to a return remains the true ideal of Christian Mysticism in its highest development. Those in
Thus St. Catherine of Siena spent three years in hermit-like seclusion in the little room which we still see in her house in the Via Benincasa, entirely cut off from the ordinary life of her family. “Within her own house,” says her legend, “she found the desert; and a solitude in the midst of people.” 340 There Catherine endured many mortifications, was visited by ecstasies and visions: passed, in fact, through the states of Purgation and Illumination, which existed in her case side by side. This life of solitude was brought to an abrupt end by the experience which is symbolized in the vision of the Mystic Marriage, and the Voice which then said to her, “Now will I wed thy soul, which shall ever be conjoined and united to Me!” Catherine, who had during her long retreat enjoyed illumination to a high degree, now entered upon the Unitive State, in which the whole of her public life was passed. Its effect was immediately noticeable. She abandoned her solitude, joined in the family life, went out into the city to serve the poor and sick, attracted and taught disciples, converted sinners, and began that career of varied and boundless activity which has made her name one of the greatest in the history of the fourteenth century. Nor does this mean that she ceased to live the sort of life which is characteristic of mystical consciousness: to experience direct contact with the Transcendental World, to gaze into “the Abyss of Love Divine.” On the contrary, her practical genius for affairs, her immense power of ruling men, drew its strength from the long series of visions and ecstasies which accompanied and supported her labours in the world. She “descended into the valley of lilies to make herself more fruitful,” says her legend. 341 The conscious vehicle of some “power not herself,” she spoke and acted with an authority which might have seemed strange enough in an uneducated daughter of the people, were it not justified by the fact that all who came into contact with her submitted to its influence.
Our business, then, is to trace from its beginning a gradual and complete change in the equilibrium of the self. It is a change whereby that self turns from the unreal world of sense in which it is normally immersed, first to apprehend, then to unite itself with Absolute Reality: finally, possessed by and wholly surrendered to this Transcendent Life, becomes a medium whereby the spiritual world is seen in a unique degree operating directly in the world of sense. In other words, we are to see the human mind advance from the mere perception of phenomena, through the
The completed mystical life, then, is more than intuitional: it is theopathetic. In the old, frank language of the mystics, it is the deified life .
331 Science seems more and more inclined to acquiesce in this judgment. See especially A. N. Whitehead: “Man and the Modern World” and “Religion in the Making.”
332 “Jerusalem,” pt. iii.
333 Quoted by R. A. Nicholson, “The Mystics of Islam,” p. 168.
334 Schmölders, “Les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 61.
335 “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 235.
336 “The Psychology of Religion,” p. 147.
337 “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sétimas, cap. i.
338 Dialogo, cap. vii.
339 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. lxxiii.
340 E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 15.
341 S. Catherine Senensis Vitae (Acta SS. Aprilis t. iii.), ii. ii. § 4.
F irst in the sequence of the mystic states, we must consider that decisive event, the awakening of the transcendental consciousness.
This awakening, from the psychological point of view, appears to be an intense form of the phenomenon of “conversion”; and closely akin to those deep and permanent conversions of the adult type which some religious psychologists call “sanctification.” 342 It is a disturbance of the equilibrium of the self, which results in the shifting of the field of consciousness from lower to higher levels, with a consequent removal of the centre of interest from the subject to an object now brought into view: the necessary beginning of any process of transcendence. It must not, however, be confused or identified with religious conversion as ordinarily understood: the sudden and emotional acceptance of theological beliefs which the self had previously either rejected or treated as conventions dwelling upon the margin of consciousness and having no meaning for her actual life. The mechanical process may be much the same; but the material involved, the results attained, belong to a higher order of reality.
“Conversion,” says Starbuck, in words which are really far more descriptive of mystical awakening than of the revivalistic phenomena encouraged by American Protestantism, “is primarily an unselfing. The first birth of the individual is into his own little world. He is controlled by the deep-seated instincts of self-preservation and self-enlargement—instincts which are, doubtless, a direct
All conversion entails the abrupt or gradual emergence of intuitions from below the threshold, the consequent remaking of the field of consciousness, an alteration in the self’s attitude to the world. “It is,” says Pratt, “a change of taste—the most momentous one that ever occurs in human experience.” 344 But in the mystic this process is raised to the nth degree of intensity, for in him it means the first emergence of that passion for the Absolute which is to constitute his distinctive character: an emergence crucial in its effect on every department of his life. Those to whom it happens, often enough, are already “religious”: sometimes deeply and earnestly so. Rulman Merswin, St. Catherine of Genoa, George Fox, Lucie-Christine—all these had been bred up in piety, and accepted in its entirety the Christian tradition. They were none the less conscious of an utter change in their world when this opening of the soul’s eye took place.
Sometimes the emergence of the mystical consciousness is gradual, unmarked by any definite crisis. The self slides gently, almost imperceptibly, from the old universe to the new. The records of mysticism, however, suggest that this is exceptional: that travail is the normal accompaniment of birth. In another type, of which George Fox is a typical example, there is no conversion in the ordinary sense; but a gradual and increasing lucidity, of which the beginning has hardly been noticed by the self, intermittently accompanies the pain, misery of mind, and inward struggles characteristic of the entrance upon the Way of Purgation. Conversion and purification then go hand in hand, finally shading off into the serenity of the Illuminated State. Fox’s “Journal” for the year 1647 contains a vivid account of these “showings” or growing transcendental perceptions of a mind not yet at one with itself, and struggling towards clearness of sight. “Though my exercises and troubles,” he says, “were very great, yet were they not so continual but I had some intermissions, and was sometimes brought into such a heavenly joy that I thought I had been in Abraham’s bosom. . . . Thus in the deepest miseries, and in the greatest sorrows and temptations that many times
The great oscillations of the typical mystic between joy and pain are here replaced by a number of little ones. The “two thirsts” of the superficial and spiritual consciousness assert themselves by turns. Each step towards the vision of the Real brings with it a reaction. The nascent transcendental powers are easily fatigued, and the pendulum of self takes a shorter swing. “I was swept up to Thee by Thy Beauty, and torn away from Thee by my own weight,” says St. Augustine, crystallizing the secret of this experience in an unforgettable phrase. 346
Commonly, however, if we may judge from those first-hand accounts which we possess, mystic conversion is a single and abrupt experience, sharply marked off from the long, dim struggles which precede and succeed it. It usually involves a sudden and acute realization of a splendour and adorable reality in the world—or sometimes of its obverse, the divine sorrow at the heart of things—never before perceived. In so far as I am acquainted with the resources of language, there are no words in which this realization can be described. It is of so actual a nature that in comparison the normal world of past perception seems but twilit at the best. Consciousness has suddenly changed its rhythm and a new aspect of the universe rushes in. The teasing mists are swept away, and reveal, if only for an instant, the sharp outline of the Everlasting Hills. “He who knows this will know what I say, and will be convinced that the soul has then another life.” 347
In most cases, the onset of this new consciousness seems to the self so sudden, so clearly imposed from without rather than developed from within, as to have a supernatural character. The typical case is, of course, that of St. Paul: the sudden light, the voice, the ecstasy, the complete alteration of life. We shall see, however, when we come to study the evidence of those mystics who have left a detailed record of their preconverted state, that
When, however, the subconscious intuitions, long ago quickened, are at last brought to birth and the eyes are opened on new light—and it is significant that an actual sense of blinding radiance is a constant accompaniment of this state of consciousness—the storm and stress, the vague cravings and oscillations of the past life are forgotten. In this abrupt recognition of reality “all things are made new”: from this point the life of the mystic begins. Conversion of this sort has, says De Sanctis, three marked characteristics: a sense of liberation and victory: a conviction of the nearness of God: a sentiment of love towards God. 349 We might describe it as a sudden, intense, and joyous perception of God immanent in the universe; of the divine beauty and unutterable power and splendour of that larger life in which the individual is immersed, and of a new life to be lived by the self in correspondence with this now dominant fact of existence. “Suddenly,” says the French contemplative Lucie-Christine of the beginning of her mystical life, “I saw before my inward eyes these words— God only . . . they were at the same time a Light, an Attraction and a Power. A Light which showed me how I could belong completely to God alone in this world, and I saw that hitherto I had not well understood this; an Attraction by which my heart was subdued and delighted; a Power which inspired me with a generous resolution and somehow placed in my hands the means of carrying it out.” 350
I will here set down for comparison a few instances of such mystical conversion; quoting, where this is available, the actual description left by the subject of his own experience, or in default of it, the earliest authentic account. In these cases, when grouped together, we shall see certain constant characteristics, from which it may be possible to deduce the psychological law to which they owe their peculiar form.
First in point of time, and perhaps also in importance, amongst those I have chosen, is the case of that great poet and contemplative, that impassioned lover of the Absolute, St. Francis of Assisi. The fact that St. Francis wrote little and lived much, that his actions were of unequalled simplicity and directness, long blinded his admirers to the fact that he is a typical mystic: the only one, perhaps, who forced the most trivial and sordid circumstances of sensual life to become perfect expressions of Reality.
Now the opening of St. Francis’s eyes, which took place in A.D. 1206 when he was twenty-four years old, had been preceded by a long, hard struggle between the life of the world and the persistent call of the spirit. His mind, in modern language, had not unified itself. He was a high-spirited boy, full of vitality: a natural artist, with all the fastidiousness which the artistic temperament involves. War and pleasure both attracted him, and upon them, says his legend, he “miserably squandered and wasted his time.” 351 Nevertheless, he was vaguely dissatisfied. In the midst of festivities, he would have sudden fits of abstraction: abortive attempts of the growing transcendental consciousness, still imprisoned below the threshold but aware of and in touch with the Real, to force itself to the surface and seize the reins. “Even in ignorance,” says Thomas of Celano again, “he was being led to perfect knowledge.” He loved beauty, for he was by nature a poet and a musician, and shrank instinctively from contact with ugliness and disease. But something within ran counter to this temperamental bias, and sometimes conquered it. He would then associate with beggars, tend the leprous, perform impulsive acts of charity and self-humiliation. 352
When this divided state, described by the legend as “the attempt to flee God’s hand,” had lasted for some years, it happened one day that he was walking in the country outside the gates of Assisi, and passed the little church of S. Damiano, “the which” (I again quote from Thomas of Celano’s “Second Life”) “was almost ruinous and forsaken of all men. And, being led by the Spirit, he went in to pray; and he fell down before the Crucifix in devout supplication, and having been smitten by unwonted visitations, found himself another man than he who had gone in.”
Here, then, is the first stage of conversion. The struggle between two discrepant ideals of life has attained its term. A sudden and apparently “irrational” impulse to some decisive act reaches the surface-consciousness from the seething deeps. The impulse is followed; and the swift emergence of the transcendental sense
In a moment of time, Francis’s whole universe has suffered complete rearrangement. There are no hesitations, no uncertainties. The change, which he cannot describe, he knows to be central for life. Not for a moment does he think of disobeying the imperative voice which speaks to him from a higher plane of reality and demands the sacrifice of his career.
Compare now with the experience of St. Francis that of another great saint and mystic, who combined, as he did, the active with the contemplative life. Catherine of Genoa, who seems to have possessed from childhood a religious nature, was prepared for the remaking of her consciousness by years of loneliness and depression, the result of an unhappy marriage. She, like St. Francis—but in sorrow rather than in joy—had oscillated between the world, which did not soothe her, and religion, which helped her no more. At last, she had sunk into a state of dull wretchedness, a hatred alike of herself and of life.
Her emancipation was equally abrupt. In the year 1474, she being twenty-six years old, “The day after the feast of St. Benedict (at the instance of her sister that was a nun), Catherine went to make her confession to the confessor of that nunnery; but she was not disposed to do it. Then said her sister, ‘At least go and recommend yourself to him, because he is a most worthy religious’; and in fact he was a very holy man. And suddenly, as she knelt before him, she received in her heart the wound of the unmeasured Love
Of this experience Von Hügel says, “If the tests of reality in such things are their persistence and large and rich spiritual applicability and fruitfulness, then something profoundly real and important took place in the soul of that sad and weary woman of six-and-twenty, within that convent-chapel, at that Annunciation-tide.” 355 It is certain that for St. Catherine, as for St. Francis, an utterly new life did, literally, begin at this point. The centre of interest was shifted and the field of consciousness remade. She “knew in an instant that which words cannot express.” Some veil about her heart was torn away; so abruptly, that it left a wound behind. For the first time she saw and knew the Love in which life is bathed; and all the energy and passion of a strong nature responded to its call.
The conversion of Madame Guyon to the mystic life, as told by herself in the eighth chapter of Part I. of her Autobiography—“How a holy Religious caused her to find God within her heart, with Admirable Results,” is its characteristic title—is curiously like a dilute version of this experience of St. Catherine’s. It, too, followed upon a period of mental distress; also the result of an uncongenial marriage. But since Madame Guyon’s unbalanced, diffuse, and sentimental character entirely lacks the richness and dignity, the repressed ardours and exquisite delicacy of
Madame Guyon’s value to the student of mysticism partly consists in this feeble quality of her surface-intelligence, which hence had little or no modifying or contributory effect upon her spiritual life and makes her an ideal “laboratory specimen” for the religious psychologist. True to her great principle of passivity or “quiet,” it lets the uncriticized interior impulses have their way; thus we are able to observe their workings uncomplicated by the presence of a vigorous intellect or a disciplined will. The wind that bloweth where it listeth whistles through her soul: and the response which she makes is that of a weathercock rather than a windmill. She moves to every current; she often mistakes a draught for the divine breath; she feels her gyrations to be of enormous importance. But in the description of her awakening to the deeper life, even her effusive style acquires a certain dignity. 357
Madame Guyon had from her childhood exhibited an almost tiresome taste for pious observances. At twelve years old she studied St. François de Sales and St. Jeanne Françoise de Chantal; begged her confessor to teach her the art of mental prayer; and when he omitted to do so, tried to teach herself, but without result. 358 She wished at this time to become a nun of the Visitation, as St. Catherine at the same age wanted to be an Augustinian canoness; but as the longings of little girls of twelve for the cloister are seldom taken seriously, we are not surprised to find the refusal of her parents’ consent chronicled in the chapter which is headed “ Diverses croix chez M. son père .” Growing up into an unusually beautiful young woman, she went into society, and for a short time enjoyed life in an almost worldly way. Her marriage with Jacques Guyon, however—a marriage of which she signed the articles without even being told the bridegroom’s name—put an end to her gaiety. “The whole town was pleased by this marriage; and in all this rejoicing only I was sad . . . hardly was I married, when the remembrance of my old desire to be a nun overcame me.” 359
Her early married life was excessively unhappy. She was soon
When these interior struggles had lasted for nearly two years, and Madame Guyon was nineteen, the long desired, almost despaired of, apprehension came—as it did to St. Catherine—suddenly, magically almost; and under curiously parallel conditions. It was the result of a few words spoken by a Franciscan friar whom a “secret force” acting in her interest had brought into the neighbourhood, and whom she had been advised to consult. He was a recluse, who disliked hearing the confessions of women, and appears to have been far from pleased by her visit; an annoyance which he afterwards attributed to her fashionable appearance, “which filled him with apprehension.” “He hardly came forward, and was a long time without speaking to me. I, however, did not fail to speak to him and to tell him in a few words my difficulties on the subject of orison. He at once replied, ‘Madame, you are seeking without that which you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your own heart, and you will find him.’ Having said this, he left me. The next morning he was greatly astonished when I again visited him and told him the effect which these words had had upon my soul: for, indeed, they were as an arrow, which pierced my heart through and through. I felt in this moment a profound wound, which was full of delight and of love—a wound so sweet that I desired that it might never heal. These words had put into my heart that which I sought for so many years, or, rather, they caused me to find that which was there. O, my Lord, you were within my heart, and you asked of me only that I should return within, in order that I might feel your presence. O, Infinite Goodness, you were so near, and I running here and there to seek you, found you not!” She, too, like St. Catherine, learned in this instant the long-sought practice of orison, or contemplation. “From the moment of which I have spoken, my orison was emptied of all form, species, and images; nothing of my orison passed through the mind; but it was an orison of joyous possession in the Will, where the taste for God was so great, pure,
Take now the case of a less eminent mystic, who has also left behind him a vivid personal description of his entrance upon the Mystic Way. Rulman Merswin was a wealthy, pious, and respected merchant of Strassburg. In the year 1347, when he was about thirty-six years old, he retired from business in order that he might wholly devote himself to religious matters. It was the time of that spiritual revival within the Catholic Church in Germany which, largely influenced by the great Rhenish mystics Suso and Tauler, is identified with the “Friends of God”; and Merswin himself was one of Tauler’s disciples. 363
One evening, in the autumn which followed his retirement, “about the time of Martinmas,” he was strolling in his garden alone. Meditating as he walked, a picture of the Crucifix suddenly presented itself to his mind. In such an imaginary vision as this there is nothing, of course, that we can call abnormal. The thoughts of a devout Catholic, influenced by Tauler and his school, must often have taken such a direction during his solitary strolls. This time, however, the mental image of the Cross seems to have released subconscious forces which had long been gathering way. Merswin was abruptly filled with a violent hatred of the world and of his own free-will. “Lifting his eyes to heaven he solemnly swore that he would utterly surrender his own will, person, and goods to the service of God.” 364
This act of complete surrender, releasing as it were the earthbound self, was at once followed by the onset of pure mystical perception. “The reply from on high came quickly. A brilliant light shone about him: he heard in his ears a divine voice of
The conversion of Merswin’s greater contemporary, Suso, seems to have been less abrupt. Of its first stage he speaks vaguely at the beginning of his autobiography, wherein he says that “he began to be converted when in the eighteenth year of his age.” 366 He was at this time, as St. Francis had been, restless, dissatisfied; vaguely conscious of something essential to his peace, as yet unfound. His temperament, at once deeply human and ardently spiritual, passionately appreciative of sensuous beauty yet unable to rest in it, had not “unified itself”: nor did it do so completely until after a period of purgation which is probably unequalled for its austerity in the history of the mysticism of the West. “He was kept of God in this, that when he turned to those things that most enticed him he found neither happiness nor peace therein. He was restless, and-it seemed to him that something which was as yet unknown could alone give peace to his heart. And he suffered greatly of this restlessness. . . . God at last delivered him by a complete conversion. His brothers in religion were astonished by so quick a change: for the event took them unawares. Some said of it one thing, and some another: but none could know the reason of his conversion. It was God Who, by a hidden light, had caused this return to Himself.” 367
This secret conversion was completed by a more violent uprush of the now awakened and active transcendental powers. Suso, whom one can imagine as a great and highly nervous artist if his
“In the first days of his conversion it happened upon the Feast of St. Agnes, when the Convent had breakfasted at midday, that the Servitor went into the choir. He was alone, and he placed himself in the last stall on the prior’s side. And he was in much suffering, for a heavy trouble weighed upon his heart. And being there alone, and devoid of all consolations—no one by his side, no one near him—of a sudden his soul was rapt in his body, or out of his body. Then did he see and hear that which no tongue can express.
“That which the Servitor saw had no form neither any manner of being; yet he had of it a joy such as he might have known in the seeing of the shapes and substances of all joyful things. His heart was hungry, yet satisfied, his soul was full of contentment and joy: his prayers and hopes were all fulfilled. And the Friar could do naught but contemplate this Shining Brightness, and he altogether forgot himself and all other things. Was it day or night? He knew not. It was, as it were, a manifestation of the sweetness of Eternal Life in the sensations of silence and of rest. Then he said, ‘If that which I see and feel be not the Kingdom of Heaven, I know not what it can be: for it is very sure that the endurance of all possible pains were but a poor price to pay for the eternal possession of so great a joy.’”
The physical accompaniments of ecstasy were also present. “This ecstasy lasted from half an hour to an hour, and whether his soul were in the body or out of the body he could not tell. But when he came to his senses it seemed to him that he returned from another world. And so greatly did his body suffer in this short rapture that it seemed to him that none, even in dying, could suffer so greatly in so short a time. The Servitor came to himself moaning, and he fell down upon the ground like a man who swoons. And he cried inwardly, heaving great sighs from the depth of his soul and saying, ‘Oh, my God, where was I and where
Finally, the last phrases of the chapter seem to suggest the true position of this exalted pleasure-state as a first link in the long chain of mystical development. “This foretaste of the happiness of heaven,” he says, “the which the Servitor enjoyed for many days, excited in him a most lively desire for God.” 368
Mystical activity, then, like all other activities of the self, opens with that sharp stimulation of the will, which can only be obtained through the emotional life.
Suso was a scholar, and an embryo ecclesiastic. During the period which elapsed between his conversion and his description of it, he was a disciple of Meister Eckhart, a student of Dionysius and St. Thomas Aquinas. His writings show familiarity with the categories of mystical theology; and naturally enough this circumstance, and also the fact that they were written for purposes of edification, may have dictated to some extent the language in which his conversion-ecstasy is described. As against this, I will give two first-hand descriptions of mystical conversion in which it is obvious that theological learning plays little or no part. Both written in France within a few years of one another, they represent the impact of Reality on two minds of very different calibre. One is the secret document in which a great genius set down, in words intended only for his own eyes, the record of a two hours’ ecstasy. The other is the plain, unvarnished statement of an uneducated man of the peasant class. The first is, of course, the celebrated Memorial, or Amulet, of Pascal; the second is the Relation of Brother Lawrence.
The Memorial of Pascal is a scrap of parchment on which, round a rough drawing of the Flaming Cross, there are written a few strange phrases, abrupt and broken words; all we know about one of the strangest ecstatic revelations chronicled in the history of the mystic type. After Pascal’s death a servant found a copy of this little document, now lost, sewn up in his doublet. He seems always to have worn it upon his person: a perpetual memorial of the supernal experience, the initiation into Reality, which it describes. Though Bremand has shown that the opening
The Memorial opens thus:—
“L’an de grace 1654
lundi, 23 novembre, jour de Saint Clément, pape
et martyr, et autres au martyrologe,
veille de Saint Chrysogone, martyr et autres
depuis environ dix heures et demie du soir jusques
environ minuit et demie,
“From half-past ten till half-past twelve, Fire!” That is all, so far as description is concerned; but enough, apparently, to remind the initiate of all that passed. The rest tells us only the passion of joy and conviction which this nameless revelation—this long, blazing vision of Reality—brought in its train. It is but a series of amazed exclamations, crude, breathless words, placed there helter-skelter, the artist in him utterly in abeyance; the names of the overpowering emotions which swept him, one after the other, as the Fire of Love disclosed its secrets, evoked an answering flame of humility and rapture in his soul.
“Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu de Jacob,
Non des philosophes et des savants.
Certitude. Certitude. Sentiment. Joie. Paix”.
“Not the God of philosophers and of scholars!” cries in amazement this great scholar and philosopher abruptly turned from knowledge to love.
“Oubli du monde et de tout hormis Dieu,” he says again, seeing his universe suddenly swept clean of all but this Transcendent Fact. Then, “Le monde ne t’a point connu, mais je t’ai connu. Joie! joie joie! pleurs de joie!” Compare with the classic style, the sharp and lucid definition of the “Pensées,” the irony and glitter of the “Provinciales,” these little broken phrases—this child-like stammering speech—in which a supreme master of language has tried to tell his wonder and his delight. I know few things in the history of mysticism at once more convincing, more poignant than this hidden talisman; upon which the brilliant
“ Mon Dieu, me quitterez vous?” he says again; the fire apparently beginning to die down, the ecstasy drawing to an end. “ Que je n’en sois pas séparé éternellement!” “Are you going to leave me? Oh, let me not be separated from you for ever!—the one unendurable thought which would, said Aquinas, rob the Beatific Vision of its glory, were we not sure that it can never fade. 370 But the rhapsody is over, the vision of the Fire has gone; and the rest of the Memorial clearly contains Pascal’s meditations upon his experience, rather than a transcript of the experience itself. It ends with the watchword of all mysticism, Surrender—“ Renonciation, totale et douce” in Pascal’s words—the only way, he thinks, in which he can avoid continued separation from Reality. 371
Pascal’s vision of Light, Life, and Love was highly ecstatic; an indescribable, incommunicable experience, which can only be suggested by his broken words of certitude and joy. By his simple contemporary, Brother Lawrence, that Transcendent Reality Who “is not the God of philosophers and scholars,” was perceived in a moment of abrupt intuition, peculiarly direct, unecstatic and untheological in type, but absolutely enduring in its results. Lawrence was an uneducated young man of the peasant class; who first served as a soldier, and afterwards as a footman in a great French family, where he annoyed his masters by breaking everything. When he was between fifty and sixty years of age, he entered the Carmelite Order as a lay brother; and the letters, “spiritual maxims,” and conversations belonging to this period of his life were published after his death in 1691. “He told me,” says the anonymous reporter of the conversations, supposed to be M. Beaufort, who was about 1660 Grand Vicar to the Cardinal de Noailles, “that God had done him a singular favour in his conversion at the age of eighteen. That in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul. That this
Such use of visible nature as the stuff of ontological perceptions, the medium whereby the self reaches out to the Absolute, is not rare in the history of mysticism. The mysterious vitality of trees, the silent magic of the forest, the strange and steady cycle of its life, possess in a peculiar degree this power of unleashing the human soul: are curiously friendly to its cravings, minister to its inarticulate needs. Unsullied by the corroding touch of consciousness, that life can make a contact with the “great life of the All”; and through its mighty rhythms man can receive a message concerning the true and timeless World of “all that is, and was, and evermore shall be.” Plant life of all kinds, indeed, from the “flower in the crannied wall” to the “Woods of Westermain” can easily become, for selves of a certain type, a “mode of the Infinite.” So obvious does this appear when we study the history of the mystics, that Steiner has drawn from it the hardly warrantable inference that “plants are just those natural phenomena whose qualities in the higher world are similar to their qualities in the physical world.” 373
Though the conclusion be not convincing, the fact remains. The flowery garment of the world is for some mystics a medium of ineffable perception, a source of exalted joy, the veritable clothing of God. I need hardly add that such a state of things has always been found incredible by common sense. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy,” says Blake, who possessed in an eminent degree this form of sacramental perception, “is in the Eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the Way.” 374
Such a perception of the Divine in Nature, of the true and holy meaning of that rich, unresting life in which we are immersed, is really a more usual feature of Illumination than of Conversion. All the most marked examples of it must be referred to that state; and will be discussed when we come to its consideration. Sometimes, however, as in the case of Brother Lawrence, the first awakening of the self to consciousness of Reality does take this form. The Uncreated Light manifests Itself in and through created things. This characteristically immanental discovery of the Absolute occurs chiefly in two classes: in unlettered men who have lived close to Nature, and to whom her symbols are more familiar than those of the Churches or the schools, and in temperaments of the mixed or mystical type, who are nearer to the poet than to the true contemplative, for whom as a rule the Absolute
Amongst modern men, Walt Whitman possessed in a supreme degree the permanent sense of this glory, the “light rare, untellable, lighting the very light.” 377 But evidences of its existence, and the sporadic power of apprehending it, are scattered up and down the literature of the world. Its discovery constitutes the awakening of the mystical consciousness in respect of the World of Becoming: a sharp and sudden break with the old and obvious way of seeing things. The human cinematograph has somehow changed its rhythm, and begins to register new and more real aspects of the external world. With this, the self’s first escape from the limitations of its conventional universe, it receives an immense assurance of a great and veritable life surrounding, sustaining, explaining its own. Thus Richard Jefferies says, of the same age as that at which Suso and Brother Lawrence awoke to sudden consciousness of Reality, “I was not more than eighteen when an inner and esoteric meaning began to come to me from all the visible universe.” “I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe . . . and losing thus my separateness of being, came to seem like a part of the whole.” “I feel on the margin of a life unknown, very near, almost touching it—on the verge of powers which, if I could grasp, would give men an immense breadth of existence.” 378
What was this “life unknown” but the Life known to the great mystics, which Richard Jefferies apprehended in these moments of insight, yet somehow contrived to miss?
Such participation in the deep realities of the World of Becoming, the boundless existence of a divine whole—which a modern
Rolle, Jefferies’s fellow countryman, and his predecessor by close upon six hundred years in the ecstatic love and understanding of natural things, shall be our last example of the mystical awakening. He, like his spiritual brother St. Francis, and other typical cases, had passed through a preliminary period of struggle and oscillation between worldly life and a vague but growing spirituality: between the superficial and the deeper self. “My youth was fond, my childhood vain, my young age unclean,” 380 but “when I should flourish unhappily, and youth of wakeful age was now come, the grace of my Maker was near, the which lust of temporal shape restrained, and unto ghostly supplications turned my desires, and the soul, from low things lifted, to heaven has borne.” 381
The real “life-changing,” however, was sharply and characteristically marked off from this preparatory state. Rolle associates it with the state which he calls “Heat”: the form in which his ardour of soul was translated to the surface consciousness. “Heat soothly I call when the mind truly is kindled in Love Everlasting, and the heart on the same manner to burn not hopingly but verily is felt. The heart truly turned into fire, gives feeling of burning love.” 382 This burning heat is not merely a mental experience. In it we seem to have an unusual but not unique form of psychophysical parallelism: a bodily expression of the psychic travail and distress accompanying the “New Birth.” 383 “More have I marvelled than I show, forsooth,” he says in his prologue, “when I first felt my heart wax warm, and truly, not imaginingly, but as it were with a sensible fire , burned. I was forsooth marvelled, as this burning burst up in my soul, and of an unwonted solace; for
To this we must add a passage which I cannot but think one of the most beautiful expressions of spiritual joy to be found in mystical literature. Based though it certainly is upon a passage in St. Augustine—for the nightingale is not a Yorkshire bird—its sketch of the ideal mystic life, to the cultivation of which he then set himself, reveals in a few lines the most charming aspect of Rolle’s spirituality, its poetic fervour, its capacity for ardent love.
“In the beginning truly of my conversion and singular purpose, I though I would be like the little bird that for love of her lover longs, but in her longing she is gladdened when he comes that she loves. And joying she sings, and singing she longs, but in sweetness and heat. It is said the nightingale to song and melody all night is given, that she may please him to whom she is joined. How muckle more with greatest sweetness to Christ my Jesu should I sing, that is spouse of my soul by all this present life, that is night in regard of clearness to come.” 386
Glancing back at the few cases here brought together, we can see in them, I think, certain similarities and diversities which are often of great psychological interest and importance: and have their influence upon the subsequent development of the mystic life. We see in particular at this point—before purification, or the remaking of character, begins—the reaction of the natural self, its heart and its mind, upon that uprush of new truth which operates “mystical conversion.” This reaction is highly significant,
We have said 387 that this consciousness in its full development seems to be extended not in one but in two directions. These directions, these two fundamental ways of apprehending Reality may be called the eternal and temporal, transcendent and immanent, absolute and dynamic aspects of Truth. They comprise the twofold knowledge of a God Who is both Being and Becoming near and far: pairs of opposites which the developed mystical experience will carry up into a higher synthesis. But the first awakening of the mystic sense, the first breaking in of the suprasensible upon the soul, commonly involves the emergence of one only of these complementary forms of perception. One side always wakes first: the incoming message always choosing the path of least resistance. Hence mystical conversion tends to belong to one of two distinctive types: tends also, as regards its expression, to follow that temperamental inclination to objectivize Reality as a Place, a Person, or a State which we found to govern the symbolic systems of the mystics. 388
There is first, then, the apprehension of a splendour without: an expansive, formless, ineffable vision, a snatching up of the self, as it were, from knowledge of this world to some vague yet veritable knowledge of the next. The veil parts, and the Godhead is perceived as transcendent to, yet immanent in, the created universe. Not the personal touch of love transfiguring the soul, but the impersonal glory of a transfigured world, is the dominant note of this experience: and the reaction of the self takes the form of awe and rapture rather than of intimate affection. Of such a kind was the conversion of Suso, and in a less degree of Brother Lawrence. Of this kind also were the Light which Rulman Merswin saw, and the mystical perception of the Being of the universe reported by Richard Jefferies and countless others.
This experience, if it is to be complete, if it is to involve the definite emergence of the self from “the prison of I-hood,” its setting out upon the Mystic Way, requires an act of concentration on the self’s part as the complement of its initial act of expansion. It must pass beyond the stage of metaphysical rapture or fluid splendour, and crystallize into a willed response to the Reality perceived; a definite and personal relation must be set up between the self and the Absolute Life. To be a spectator of Reality is not enough. The awakened subject is not merely to perceive transcendent life, but to participate therein; and for this, a drastic and costly life-changing is required. In Jefferies’s case this crystallization, this heroic effort towards participation did not take place, and
In most cases this crystallization, the personal and imperative concept which the mind constructs from the general and ineffable intuition of Reality, assumes a theological character. Often it presents itself to the consciousness in the form of visions or voices: objective, as the Crucifix which spoke to St. Francis, or mental, as the visions of the Cross experienced by Rulman Merswin and St. Catherine of Genoa. Nearly always, this concept, this intimate realization of the divine, has reference to the love and sorrow at the heart of things, the discord between Perfect Love and an imperfect world; whereas the complementary vision of Transcendence strikes a note of rapturous joy. “The beatings of the Heart of God sounded like so many invitations which thus spake: Come and do penance, come and be reconciled, come and be consoled, come and be blessed; come, My love, and receive all that the Beloved can give to His beloved. . . . Come, My bride, and enjoy My Godhead.” 389
It is to this personal touch, to the individual appeal of an immediate Presence, not to the great light and the Beatific Vision, that the awakened self makes its most ardent, most heroic response. Not because he was rapt from himself, but because the figure on the Cross called him by name, saying, “Repair My Church” did St. Francis, with that simplicity, that disregard of worldly values which constituted his strength, accept the message in a literal sense and set himself instantly to the work demanded; bringing stones, and, in defiance alike of comfort and convention, building up with his own hands the crumbling walls.
In many conversions to the mystic life, the revelation of an external splendour, the shining vision of the transcendent spiritual world, is wholly absent. The self awakes to that which is within, rather than to that which is without: to the immanent not the transcendent God, to the personal not the cosmic relation. Where those who look out receive the revelation of Divine Beauty, those who look in receive rather the wound of Divine Love: another aspect of the “triple star.” Emotional mystics such as Richard Rolle and Madame Guyon give us this experience in an extreme form. We find in St. Catherine of Genoa a nobler example of the same type of response. That inward revelation in its anguish and abruptness, its rending apart of the hard tissues of I-hood and vivid disclosures of the poverty of the finite self, seemed, says the legend of St. Catherine “the wound of Unmeasured Love,” an image in which we seem to hear the very accents of the saint. “A wound full of delight,” says the effusive Madame Guyon, “I wished that it
Love, passionate and all-dominant, here takes the place of that joyous awe which we noticed as the characteristic reaction upon reality in conversions of the Transcendent type. In the deep and strong temperaments of the great mystics this love passes quickly—sometimes instantly—from the emotional to the volitional stage. Their response to the voice of the Absolute is not merely an effusion of sentiment, but an act of will: an act often of so deep and comprehensive a kind as to involve the complete change of the outward no less than of the inward life. “Divine love,” says Dionysius “draws those whom it seizes beyond themselves: and this so greatly that they belong no longer to themselves but wholly to the Object loved.” 391
Merswin’s oath of self-surrender: St. Catherine of Genoa’s passionate and decisive “No more world! no more sins!”: St. Francis’s naive and instant devotion to church-restoration in its most literal sense: these things are earnests of the reality of the change. They represent—symbolize as well as they can upon the sensual plane—the spontaneous response of the living organism to a fresh external stimulus: its first effort of adjustment to the new conditions which that stimulus represents. They complete the process of conversion; which is not one-sided, not merely an infusion into the surface-consciousness of new truth, but rather the beginning of a life-process, a breaking down of the old and building up of the new. A never to be ended give-and-take is set up between the individual and the Absolute. The Spirit of Life has been born: and the first word it learns to say is Abba, Father. It aspires to its origin, to Life in its most intense manifestation: hence all its instincts urge it to that activity which it feels to be inseparable from life. It knows itself a member of that mighty family in which the stars are numbered: the family of the sons of God, who, free and creative, sharing the rapture of a living, striving Cosmos, “shout for joy.”
So, even in its very beginning, we see how active, how profoundly organic, how deeply and widely alive is the true contemplative life; how truly on the transcendent as on the phenomenal plane, the law of living things is action and reaction, force and energy. The awakening of the self is to a new and more active plane of being, new and more personal relations with Reality; hence to a new and more real work which it must do.
342 See Starbuck, “The Psychology of Religion,” cap. xxix.
343 Op. cit., cap. xii.
344 J. B. Pratt, “The Religious Consciousness,” cap. xiii. The whole chapter deserve careful study.
345 Journal of George Fox, cap. i.
347 Plotinus, Ennead vi. 9.
348 “It is certain,” says De Sanctis, “that when we attempt to probe deeper in our study of sudden converts, we discover that the coup de foudre , which in the main is observable in only a small minority of conversions, is in fact the least significant, though the most Esthetic, moment of the conversion.” (“Religious Conversion,” Eng. trans., p. 65. Compare St. Augustine’s Confessions, with their description of the years of uncertainty and struggle which prepared him for the sudden and final “Tolle, lege!” that initiated him into the long-sought life of Reality.)
349 Op. cit. , p. 171.
350 “Journal Spirituel de Lucie-Christine,” p. 11.
351 Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. 1.
352 Thomas of Celano, Legenda Secunda, cap. v. Compare P. Sabatier. “Vie de S. François d’Assise,” cap. ii., where the authorities are fully set out.
353 Thomas of Celano, Legenda Secunda, cap. vi.
354 “Vita e Dottrina di Santa Caterina da Genova,” cap ii.
355 Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii p. 29.
356 It is clear from the heading of cap. x. (pt. i.) of her Autobiography that Madame Guyon’s editors were conscious, if she was not, of some of the close coincidences between her experiences and those of St. Catherine of Genoa. The parallel between their early years is so exact and descends to such minute details that I am inclined to think that the knowledge of this resemblance, and the gratification with which she would naturally regard it, has governed or modified her memories of this past. Hence a curious and hitherto unnoticed case of “unconscious spiritual plagiarism.”
357 For a thoroughly hostile account see Leuba: ‘The Psychology of Religious Mysticism,” cap. iv.
358 Vie, pt. i. cap. iv.
359 Op. cit., pt. i. cap. vi.
360 “Madame Guyon,” p. 36.
361 Vie, pt. i. cap. viii.
362 Op. cit., loc. cit.
363 One of the best English accounts of this movement and the great personalities concerned in it is in Rufus Jones, “Studies in Mystical Religion,” cap. xiii.
364 A. Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 19. M. Jundt has condensed his account which I here translate, from Merswin’s autobiographical story of his conversion, published in Breiträge zu den theologischen Wissenschaften , v . (Jena, 1854). Our whole knowledge of Merswin’s existence depends on the group of documents which includes this confession, the “Book of Two Men,” the “Vision of Nine Rocks,” and his other reputed works. The authenticity of these documents has been much questioned, and they have doubtless suffered severely from the editorial energy of his followers. Some critics even regard them as pious fictions, useless as evidence of the incidents of Merswin’s life. With this view, upheld by Karl Reider (“Der Gottesfreund von Oberland,” 1905), I cannot agree. A possible solution of the many difficulties is that of M. Jundt, who believes that we have in Merswin and the mysterious “Friend of God of the Oberland,” who pervades his spiritual career, a remarkable case of dissociated personality. Merswin’s peculiar psychic make up, as described in his autobiography, supports this view: the adoption of which I shall assume in future references to his life. It is incredible that the vivid account of his conversion which I quote should be merely “tendency-literature,” without basis in fact. Compare Jundt’s monograph, and also Rufus Jones, op. cit. pp . 245-253, where the whole problem is discussed.
365 Jundt, op. cit., loc. cit.
366 “Leben und Schriften” (Diepenbrock), cap. i. Suso’s autobiography is written in the third person. He refers to himself throughout under the title of “Servitor of the Eternal Wisdom.”
367 Op. cit., loc. cit.
368 Leben, cap. iii.
369 Bremond, “Histoire Littérario du Sentiment Religieux en France.” vol. iv. pp. 359 seq.
370 “Summa contra Gentiles,” I. iii. cap. lxii.
371 The complete test of the Memorial isprinted, among other places, in Faugère’s edition of the “Pensées, Fragments et Lettres de Blaise Pascal,” 2nd ed., Paris, 1897. Tome i. p. 269; and is reproduced in facsimile by Bremond loc. cit. Bremond holds that the Memorial is the record of two distinct experiences: a “mystical experience in the proper meaning of the word,” and an “affective meditation arising from it.” This view does not seem incompatible with my original description, which I therefore retain. (Note to 12th ed.)
372 Brother Lawrence, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” p. 9.
373 “The Way of Initiation,” p. 134.
374 “Letters of William Blake,” p. 62.
375 “The Psychology of Religion,” p. 120.
376 James, “Varieties of Religion Experience,” p. 253. This phenomenon receives brilliant literary expression in John Masefield’s poem “The Everlasting Mercy” (1911).
377 Whitman, “The Prayer of Colombus.”
378 “The Story of My Heart,” pp. 8, 9, 45, 181.
379 Bucke, “Cosmic Consciousness, a Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.” Philadelphia. 1905.
380 “Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. xii.
381 Ibid. , bk. i. cap. xv.
382 Ibid., cap. xiv.
383 Hilton and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” both refer to “sensible heat” as a well-known but dubious concomitant of spiritual experience. Compare the confession of a modern convert, “I was siezed and possessed by an interior flame, for which nothing had prepared me; waves of fire succeeding one another for more than two hours.” (“Madeleine Sémer, Convertie et Mystique,” 1874-1921, p. 71.)
384 “Fire of Love,” bk. i. Prologue.
385 Ibid ., bk. i. cap. xv.
386 Ibid ., bk. ii. cap. xii.
387 Supra , p. 35.
388 Ibid ., p. 128.
389 St. Mechthild of Hackborn, “Liber Specialis Gratiae,” I. ii. cap. i
390 “The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. i.
391 Dionysius the Areopagite, “De Divinis Nominibus,” iv. 13.
H ere , then, stands the newly awakened self: aware, for the first time, of reality, responding to that reality by deep movements of love and of awe. She sees herself, however, not merely to be thrust into a new world, but set at the beginning of a new road. Activity is now to be her watchword, pilgrimage the business of her life. “That a quest there is, and an end, is the single secret spoken.” Under one symbol or another, the need of that long slow process of transcendence, of character building, whereby she is to attain freedom, become capable of living upon high levels of reality, is present in her consciousness. Those in whom this growth is not set going are no mystics, in the exact sense in which that word is here used; however great their temporary illumination may have been.
What must be the first step of the self upon this road to perfect union with the Absolute? Clearly, a getting rid of all those elements of normal experience which are not in harmony with reality: of illusion, evil, imperfection of every kind. By false desires and false thoughts man has built up for himself a false universe: as a mollusk by the deliberate and persistent absorption of lime and rejection of all else, can build up for itself a hard shell which shuts it from the external world, and only represents in
In the plain language of old-fashioned theology “man’s sin is stamped upon man’s universe.” We see a sham world because we live a sham life. We do not know ourselves; hence do not know the true character of our senses and instincts; hence attribute wrong values to their suggestions and declarations concerning our relation to the external world. That world, which we have distorted by identifying it with our own self-regarding arrangements of its elements, has got to reassume for us the character of Reality, of God. In the purified sight of the great mystics it did reassume this character: their shells were opened wide, they knew the tides of the Eternal Sea. This lucid apprehension of the True is what we mean when we speak of the Illumination which results from a faithful acceptance of the trials of the Purgative Way.
That which we call the “natural” self as it exists in the “natural” world—the “old Adam” of St. Paul—is wholly incapable of supersensual adventure. All its activities are grouped about a centre of consciousness whose correspondences are with the material world. In the moment of its awakening, it is abruptly made aware of this disability. It knows itself finite. It now aspires to the infinite. It is encased in the hard crust of individuality: it aspires to union with a larger self. It is fettered: it longs for freedom. Its every sense is attuned to illusion: it craves for harmony with the Absolute Truth. “God is the only Reality,” says Patmore, “and we are real only as far as we are in His order and He is in us.” 392 Whatever form, then, the mystical adventure may take it, must begin with a change in the attitude of the subject; a change which will introduce it into the order of Reality, and enable it to set up permanent relations with an Object which is not normally part of its universe. Therefore, though the end of mysticism is not adequately defined as goodness, it entails the acquirement of goodness. The virtues are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage” because that marriage is union with the Good no less than with the Beautiful and the True.
Primarily, then, the self must be purged of all that stands between it and goodness: putting on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or “sin.” It longs ardently to do this from the first moment in which it sees itself in the all-revealing radiance of the Uncreated Light. “When love
So, with Dante, the first terrace of the Mount of Purgatory is devoted to the cleansing of pride and the production of humility: the inevitable—one might almost say mechanical—result of a vision, however fleeting, of Reality, and an undistorted sight of the earthbound self. All its life that self has been measuring its candlelight by other candles. Now for the first time it is out in the open air and sees the sun. “This is the way,” said the voice of God to St. Catherine of Siena in ecstasy. “If thou wilt arrive at a perfect knowledge and enjoyment of Me, the Eternal Truth, thou shouldst never go outside the knowledge of thyself; and by humbling thyself in the valley of humility thou wilt know Me and thyself, from which knowledge thou wilt draw all that is necessary. . . . In self knowledge, then, thou wilt humble thyself; seeing that, in thyself, thou dost not even exist.” 394
The first thing that the self observes, when it turns back upon itself in that awful moment of lucidity—enters, as St. Catherine says, into “the cell of self-knowledge,”—is the horrible contrast between its clouded contours and the pure sharp radiance of the Real; between its muddled faulty life, its perverse self-centred drifting, and the clear onward sweep of that Becoming in which it is immersed. It is then that the outlook of rapture and awe receives the countersign of repentance. The harbinger of that new self which must be born appears under the aspect of a desire: a passionate longing to escape from the suddenly perceived hatefulness of selfhood, and to conform to Reality, the Perfect which it has seen under its aspect of Goodness, of Beauty, or of Love—to be worthy of it, in fact to be real. “This showing,” says Gerlac Petersen of that experience, “is so vehement and so strong that the whole of the interior man, not only of his heart but of his body, is marvellously moved and shaken, and faints within itself, unable to endure it. And by this means, his interior aspect is made clear without any cloud, and conformable in its own measure to Him whom he seeks.” 395
The lives of the mystics abound in instances of the “vehemence of this showing”: of the deep-seated sense of necessity which urges the newly awakened self to a life of discomfort and conflict, often to intense poverty and pain, as the only way of replacing false experience by true. Here the transcendental consciousness, exalted
To the true lover of the Absolute, Purgation no less than Illumination is a privilege, a dreadful joy. It is an earnest of increasing life. “Let me suffer or die!” said St. Teresa: a strange alternative in the ears of common sense, but a forced option in the spiritual sphere. However harsh its form, however painful the activities to which it spurs him, the mystic recognizes in this breakup of his old universe an essential part of the Great Work: and the act in which he turns to it is an act of loving desire, no less than an act of will. “Burning of love into a soul truly taken all vices purgeth: . . . for whilst the true lover with strong and fervent desire into God is borne, all things him displease that from the sight of God withdrawn.” 397 His eyes once opened, he is eager for that costly ordering of his disordered loves which alone can establish his correspondences with Transcendental Life. “Teach me, my only joy,” cries Suso, “the way in which I may bear upon my body the marks of Thy Love.” “Come, my soul, depart from outward things and gather thyself together into a true interior silence, that thou mayst set out with all thy courage and bury and lose thyself in the desert of a deep contrition.” 398
It is in this torment of contrition, this acute consciousness of unworthiness, that we have the first swing back of the oscillating self from the initial state of mystic pleasure to the complementary state of pain. It is, so to speak, on its transcendental side, the reflex
“I saw full surely,” says Julian of Norwich, “that it behoveth needs to be that we should be in longing and in penance, until the time that we be led so deep into God that we verily and truly know our own soul.” 400
Dante’s whole journey up the Mount of Purgation is the dramatic presentation of this one truth. So, too, the celebrated description of Purgatory attributed to St. Catherine of Genoa 401 is obviously founded upon its author’s inward experience of this Purgative Way. In it, she applies to the souls of the dead her personal consciousness of the necessity of purification; its place in the organic process of spiritual growth. It is, as she acknowledges at the beginning, the projection of her own psychological adventures upon the background of the spiritual world: its substance being simply the repetition after death of that eager and heroic acceptance of suffering, those drastic acts of purification, which she has herself been compelled to undertake under the whip of the same psychic necessity—that of removing the rust of illusion, cleansing the mirror in order that it may receive the divine light. “It is,” she says, “as with a covered object, the object cannot respond to the rays of the sun, not because the sun ceases to shine—for it shines without intermission—but because the covering intervenes. Let the covering be destroyed, and again the object will be exposed to the sun, and will answer to the rays which beat against it in proportion as the work of destruction advances. Thus the souls are covered by a rust—that is, by sin—which is gradually consumed away by the fire of purgatory. The more it is consumed, the more they respond to God their true Sun. Their happiness increases as the rust falls off and lays them open to the divine ray . . . the instinctive tendency to seek happiness in
“Mostratene la via di gire al monte!” cry the souls of the newly-dead in Dante’s vision, 403 pushed by that “instinctive tendency” towards the purifying flames. Such a tendency, such a passionate desire, the aspiring self must have. No cool, well-balanced knowledge of the need of new adjustments will avail to set it on the Purgative Way. This is a heroic act, and demands heroic passions in the soul.
“In order to overcome our desires,” says St. John of the Cross, who is the classic authority upon this portion of the mystic quest, “and to renounce all those things, our love and inclination for which are wont so to inflame the will that it delights therein, we require a more ardent fire and a nobler love—that of the Bridegroom. Finding her delight and strength in Him, the soul gains the vigour and confidence which enable her easily to abandon all other affections. It was necessary, in her struggle with the attractive force of her sensual desires, not only to have this love for the Bridegroom, but also to be filled with a burning fervour, full of anguish . . . if our spiritual nature were not on fire with other and nobler passions we should never cast off the yoke of the senses, nor be able to enter on their night, neither should we have the courage to remain in the darkness of all things, and in denial of every desire.” 404
“We must be filled with a burning fervour full of anguish.” Only this deep and ardent passion for a perceived Object of Love can persuade the mystic to those unnatural acts of abnegation by which he kills his lesser love of the world of sense, frees himself from the “remora of desire,” unifies all his energies about the new and higher centre of his life. His business, I have said, is transcendence: a mounting up, an attainment of a higher order of reality. Once his eyes have been opened on Eternity, his instinct for the Absolute roused from its sleep, he sees union with that Reality as his duty no less than his joy: sees too, that this union can only be consummated on a plane where illusion and selfhood have no place.
The inward voice says to him perpetually, at the least seasonable moments, “Dimitte omnia transitoria, quaere aeterna.” 405 Hence the purgation of the senses, and of the character which they have helped to build is always placed first in order in the Mystic Way; though sporadic flashes of illumination and ecstasy may, and often
In this sense, then, purification is a perpetual process. That which mystical writers mean, however, when they speak of the Way of Purgation, is rather the slow and painful completion of Conversion. It is the drastic turning of the self from the unreal to the real life: a setting of her house in order, an orientation of the mind to Truth. Its business is the getting rid, first of self-love; and secondly of all those foolish interests in which the surface-consciousness is steeped.
“The essence of purgation,” says Richard of St. Victor, “is self-simplification.” Nothing can happen until this has proceeded a certain distance: till the involved interests and tangled motives of the self are simplified, and the false complications of temporal life are recognized and cast away.
“No one,” says another authority in this matter, “can be enlightened unless he be first cleansed or purified and stripped.” 406 Purgation, which is the remaking of character in conformity with perceived reality, consists in these two essential acts: the cleansing of that which is to remain, the stripping of that which is to be done away. It may best be studied, therefore, in two parts: and I think that it will be in the reader’s interest if we reverse the order which the “Theologia Germanica” adopts, and first consider Negative Purification, or self-stripping, and next Positive Purification, or character-adjustment. These, then, are the branches into which this subject will here be split. (1) The Negative aspect, the stripping or purging away of those superfluous, unreal, and harmful things which dissipate the precious energies of the self. This is the business of Poverty, or Detachment . (2) The Positive aspect:
Apart from the plain necessity of casting out imperfection and sin, what is the type of “good character” which will best serve the self in its journey towards union with the Absolute?
The mystics of all ages and all faiths agree in their answer. Those three virtues which the instinct of the Catholic Church fixed upon as the necessities of the cloistered life—the great Evangelical counsel of voluntary Poverty with its departments, Chastity, the poverty of the senses, and Obedience, the poverty of the will—are also, when raised to their highest term and transmuted by the Fire of Love, the essential virtues of the mystical quest.
By Poverty the mystic means an utter self-stripping, the casting off of immaterial as well as material wealth, a complete detachment from all finite things. By Chastity he means an extreme and limpid purity of soul, cleansed from personal desire and virgin to all but God: by Obedience, that abnegation of selfhood, that mortification of the will, which results in a complete self-abandonment, a “holy indifference” to the accidents of life. These three aspects of perfection are really one: linked together as irrevocably as the three aspects of the self. Their common characteristic is this: they tend to make the subject regard itself, not as an isolated and interesting individual, possessing desires and rights, but as a scrap of the Cosmos, an ordinary bit of the Universal Life, only important as a part of the All, an expression of the Will Divine. Detachment and purity go hand in hand, for purity is but detachment of the heart; and where these are present they bring with them that humble spirit of obedience which expresses detachment of will. We may therefore treat them as three manifestations of one thing: which thing is Inward Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is the motto of all pilgrims on this road.
“God is pure Good in Himself,” says Eckhart, “therefore will He dwell nowhere but in a pure soul. There He can pour Himself out: into that He can wholly flow. What is Purity? It is that a man should have turned himself away from all creatures and have set his heart so entirely on the Pure Good that no creature is to him a comfort, that he has no desire for aught creaturely, save so far as he may apprehend therein the Pure Good, which is God. And as little as the bright eye can endure aught foreign in it, so
“To it all creatures are pure to enjoy!” This is hardly the popular concept of the mystic; which credits him, in the teeth of such examples as St. Francis, St. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Rolle, Suso, and countless others, with a hearty dread of natural things. Too many examples of an exaggerated asceticism—such as the unfortunate story told of the holy Curé d’Ars, who refused to smell a rose for fear of sin—have supported in this respect the vulgar belief; for it is generally forgotten that though most mystics have practised asceticism as a means to an end, all ascetics are not mystics. Whatever may be the case with other deniers of the senses, it is true that the soul of the great mystic, dwelling on high levels of reality, his eyes set on the Transcendental World, is capable of combining with the perfection of detachment that intense and innocent joy in natural things, as veils and vessels of the divine, which results from seeing “all creatures in God and God in all creatures.” “Whoso knows and loves the nobleness of My Freedom,” said the voice of God to Mechthild of Magdeburg, “cannot bear to love Me alone, he must love also Me in the creatures.” 408 That all-embracing love is characteristic of the illumination which results from a faithful endurance of the Purgative Way; for the corollary of “blessed are the pure in heart” is not merely a poetic statement. The annals of mysticism prove it to be a psychological law.
How then is this contradiction to be resolved: that the mystic who has declared the fundamental necessity of “leaving all creatures” yet finds them pure to enjoy? The answer to the riddle lies in the ancient paradox of Poverty: that we only enjoy true liberty in respect of such things as we neither possess nor desire. “That thou mayest have pleasure in everything, seek pleasure in nothing. That thou mayest know everything, seek to know nothing. That thou mayest possess all things, seek to possess nothing. . . . In detachment the spirit finds quiet and repose, for coveting nothing, nothing wearies it by elation, and nothing oppresses it by dejection, because it stands in the centre of its own humility. For as soon as it covets anything, it is immediately fatigued thereby.” 409
It is not love but lust—the possessive case, the very food of selfhood—which poisons the relation between the self and the external world and “immediately fatigues” the soul. Divide the world into “mine” and “not mine,” and unreal standards are
This was the truth which St. Francis of Assisi grasped, and applied with the energy of a reformer and the delicate originality of a poet to every circumstance of the inner and the outer life. This noble liberty it is which is extolled by his spiritual descendant, Jacopone da Todi, in one of his most magnificent odes:—
“Povertá, alto sapere,
a nulla cosa sojacere,
en desprezo possedere
tutte le cose create. . . .
Dio non alberga en core stretto,
tant’é grande quant’ hai affetto,
povertate ha si gran petto
che ci alberga deitate. . . .
Povertate è nulla avere
e nulla cosa poi volere;
ad omne cosa possedere
en spirito de libertate.” 412
“Oh Mother Earth, Father Sky,
Brother Wind, Friend Light, Sweetheart Water,
Here take my last salutation with folded hands!
For to-day I am melting away into the Supreme
Because my heart became pure,
And all delusion vanished,
Through the power of your good company.”
It is the business of Lady Poverty to confer on her lovers this freedom of the Universe, to eradicate delusion, cut out the spreading growth of claimfulness, purify the heart, and initiate them into the “great life of the All.” Well might St. Francis desire marriage with that enchantress, who gives back ten-fold all that she takes away. “Holy poverty,” he said, “is a treasure so high excelling and so divine that we be not worthy to lay it up in our vile vessels; since this is that celestial virtue whereby all earthly things and fleeting are trodden underfoot, and whereby all hindrances are lifted from the soul, so that freely she may join herself to God Eternal.” 414
Poverty, then, prepares man’s spirit for that union with God to which it aspires. She strips off the clothing which he so often mistakes for himself, transvaluates all his values, and shows him things as they are. “There are,” says Eckhart, “four ascending degrees of such spiritual poverty. 1. The soul’s contempt of all things that are not God. 2. Contempt of herself and her own works. 3. Utter self-abandonment. 4. Self-loss in the incomprehensible Being of God.” 415 So, in the “Sacrum Commercium,” when the friars, climbing “the steeps of the hill,” found Lady Poverty at the summit “enthroned only in her nakedness,” she “preventing them with the blessings of sweetness,” said, “Why hasten ye so from the vale of tears to the mount of light? If, peradventure, it is me that ye seek, lo, I am but as you behold, a little poor one, stricken with storms and far from any consolation.” Whereto the brothers answer, “ Only admit us to thy peace; and we shall be saved .” 416
The same truth: the saving peace of utter detachment from everything but Divine Reality—a detachment which makes those
“There was a learned man who, eight years long, desired that God would show him a man who would teach him the truth. And once when he felt a very great longing, a voice from God came to him and said, ‘Go to the church, and there shalt thou find a man who shalt show thee the way to blessedness.’ And he went thence and found a poor man whose feet were torn and covered with dust and dirt: and all his clothes were hardly worth three farthings. And he greeted him, saying:—
“‘God give you good day!’
“He answered: ‘I have never had a bad day.’
“‘God give you good luck.’
“‘I have never had ill luck.’
“‘May you be happy! but why do you answer me thus?’
“‘I have never been unhappy.’
“‘Pray explain this to me, for I cannot understand it.’
“The poor man answered, ‘Willingly. You wished me good day. I never had a bad day; for if I am hungry I praise God; if it freezes, hails, snows, rains, if the weather is fair or foul, still I praise God; am I wretched and despised, I praise God, and so I have never had an evil day. You wished that God would send me luck. But I never had ill luck, for I know how to live with God, and I know that what He does is best; and what God gives me or ordains for me, be it good or ill, I take it cheerfully from God as the best that can be, and so I have never had ill luck. You wished that God would make me happy. I was never unhappy; for my only desire is to live in God’s will, and I have so entirely yielded my will to God’s, that what God wills, I will.’
“‘But if God should will to cast you into hell,’ said the learned man, ‘what would you do then?’
“‘Cast me into hell? His goodness forbids! But if He did cast me into hell, I should have two arms to embrace Him. One arm is true humility, that I should lay beneath Him, and be thereby united to His holy humanity. And with the right arm of love, which is united with His holy divinity, I should so embrace Him that He would have to go to hell with me. And I would rather be in hell and have God, then in heaven and not have God.’
“Then the Master understood that true abandonment with utter humility is the nearest way to God.
“The Master asked further: ‘Whence are you come?’
“‘Where did you find God?’
“‘When I forsook all creatures.’
“‘Where have you left God?’
“‘In pure hearts, and in men of good will.’
“The Master asked: ‘What sort of man are you?’
“‘I am a king.’
“‘Where is your kingdom?’
“‘My soul is my kingdom, for I can so rule my senses inward and outward, that all the desires and power of my soul are in subjection, and this kingdom is greater than a kingdom on earth.’ 418
“‘What brought you to this perfection?’
“‘My silence, my high thoughts, and my union with God. For I could not rest in anything that was less than God. Now I have found God; and in God have eternal rest and peace.’” 419
Poverty, then, consists in a breaking down of man’s inveterate habit of trying to rest in, or take seriously, things which are “less than God”: i.e. , which do not possess the character of reality. Such a habit is the most fertile of all causes of “world-weariness,” disillusion and unrest: faults, or rather spiritual diseases, which the mystics never exhibit, but which few who are without all mystic feeling can hope to escape. Hence the sharpened perceptions of the contemplatives have always seen poverty as a counsel of prudence, a higher form of common sense. It was not with St. Francis, or any other great mystic, a first principle, an end in itself. It was rather a logical deduction from the first principle of their science—the paramount importance to the soul of an undistracted vision of reality.
Here East and West are in agreement: “Their science,” says Al Ghazzali of the Sufis, who practised, like the early Franciscans, a complete renunciation of worldly goods, “has for its object the uprooting from the soul of all violent passions, the extirpation from it of vicious desires and evil qualities; so that the heart may become detached from all that is not God, and give itself for its only occupation meditation upon the Divine Being.” 420
All those who have felt themselves urged towards the attainment of this transcendental vision, have found that possessions interrupt the view; that claims, desires, attachments become centres of conflicting interest in the mind. They assume a false air of importance, force themselves upon the attention, and complicate
Others have reconciled self-surrender with a more moderate abandonment of outward things; for possessions take different rank for almost every human soul. The true rule of poverty consists in giving up those things which enchain the spirit, divide its interests, and deflect it on its road to God—whether these things be riches, habits, religious observances, friends, interests, distastes, or desires—not in mere outward destitution for its own sake. It is attitude, not act, that matters; self-denudation would be unnecessary were it not for our inveterate tendency to attribute false value to things the moment they become our own. “What is poverty of spirit but meekness of mind, by which a man knows his own infirmity?” says Rolle, “seeing that to perfect stableness he may not come but by the grace of God, all thing that him might let from that grace he forsakes, and only in joy of his Maker he sets his desire. And as of one root spring many branches, so of wilful poverty on this wise taken proceed virtues and marvels untrowed. Not as some, that change their clothes and not their souls; riches soothly it seems these forsake, and vices innumerable they cease not to gather. . . . If thou truly all thing for God forsake, see more what thou despised than what thou forsaketh. ” 422
The Poverty of the mystics, then, is a mental rather than a material state. Detachment of the will from all desire of possessions is the inner reality, of which Franciscan poverty is a sacrament to the world. It is the poor in spirit, not the poor in substance, who are to be spiritually blessed. “Let all things be forsaken of me,” says Gerlac Petersen, “so that being poor I may be able in great inward spaciousness, and without any hurt, to suffer want of all those things which the mind of man can desire; out of or excepting God Himself.” 423
“The soul,” says St. John of the Cross, “is not empty, so long as the desire for sensible things remains. But the absence of this desire for things produces emptiness and liberty of soul; even when there is an abundance of possessions.” 424
Every person in whom the mystical instinct awakes soon discovers in himself certain tastes or qualities which interrupt the
The nature of these distracting factors which “confuse and enchain the mind” will vary with almost every individual. It is impossible to predict what those things will be which a self must give up, in order that the transcendental consciousness may grow. “It makes little difference whether a bird be held by a slender thread or by a rope; the bird is bound, and cannot fly until the cord that holds it is broken. It is true that a slender thread is more easily broken; still notwithstanding, if it is not broken the bird cannot fly. This is the state of a soul with particular attachments: it never can attain to the liberty of the divine union, whatever virtues it may possess. Desires and attachments affect the soul as the remora is said to affect a ship; that is but a little fish, yet when it clings to the vessel it effectually hinders its progress.” 426
Thus each adventurer must discover and extirpate all those interests which nourish selfhood, however innocent or even useful these interests may seem in the eyes of the world. The only rule is the ruthless abandonment of everything which is in the way. “When any man God perfectly desires to love, all things as well inward as outward that to God’s love are contrary and from His love do let, he studies to do away.” 427 This may mean the prompt and utter self-stripping of St. Francis of Assisi, who cast off his actual clothing in his relentless determination to have nothing of his own: 428 the reluctant bit-by-bit renunciations which at last set his follower Angela of Foligno free, or the drastic proceedings of Antoinette Bourignan, who found that a penny was enough to keep her from God.
“Being one night in a most profound Penitence,” says the biographer of this extraordinary woman, “she said from the bottom
An admirable example of the mystic’s attitude towards the soul-destroying division of interests, the natural but hopeless human struggle to make the best of both worlds, which sucks at its transcendental vitality, occurs in St. Teresa’s purgative period. In her case this war between the real and the superficial self extended over many years; running side by side with the state of Illumination, and a fully developed contemplative life. At last it was brought to an end by a “Second Conversion” which unified her scattered interests and set her firmly and for ever on the Unitive Way. The virile strength of Teresa’s character, which afterwards contributed to the greatness of her achievement, opposed the invading transcendental consciousness; disputed every inch of territory; resisted every demand made upon it by the growing spiritual self. Bit by bit it was conquered, the sphere of her deeper life enlarged; until the moment came in which she surrendered, once for all, to her true destiny. 430
During the years of inward stress, of penance and growing knowledge of the Infinite, which she spent in the Convent of the Incarnation, and which accompanied this slow remaking of character, Teresa’s only self-indulgence—as it seems, a sufficiently innocent one—was talking to the friends who came down from Avila to the convent-parlour, and spoke to her through the grille. Her confessors, unaccustomed to the education of mystical genius, saw nothing incompatible between this practice and the pursuit of a high contemplative life. But as her transcendental consciousness, her states of orison grew stronger, Teresa felt more and more the distracting influence of these glimpses of the outer world. They were a drain upon the energy which ought to be wholly given to that new, deep, more real life which she felt stirring within her, and which could only hope to achieve its mighty destiny by complete concentration upon the business in hand. No genius can afford to dissipate his energies: the mystic genius least of all. Teresa knew that so long as she retained these personal satisfactions, her life had more than one focus; she was not whole-hearted in her surrender to the Absolute. But though her inward voices, her deepest instincts, urged her to give them up, for years she felt herself incapable of such a sacrifice. It was round the question of their retention or surrender that the decisive battle of her life was fought.
“The devil,” says her great Augustinian eulogist, Fray Luis de Leon, in his vivid account of these long interior struggles, “put before her those persons most sympathetic by nature; and God came, and in the midst of the conversation discovered Himself aggrieved and sorrowful. The devil delighted in the conversation and pastime, but when she turned her back on them and betook herself to prayer, God redoubled the delight and favours, as if to show her how false was the lure which charmed her at the grating, and that His sweetness was the veritable sweetness. . . . So that these two inclinations warred with each other in the breast of this blessed woman, and the authors who inspired them each did his utmost to inflame her most, and the oratory blotted out what the grating wrote, and at times the grating vanquished and diminished the good fruit produced by prayer, causing agony and grief which disquieted and perplexed her soul: for though she was resolved to belong entirely to God, she knew not how to shake herself free from the world: and at times she persuaded herself that she could enjoy both, which ended mostly, as she says, in complete enjoyment of neither. For the amusements of the locutorio were embittered and turned into wormwood by the memory of the secret and sweet intimacy with God; and in the same way when she retired to be with God, and commenced to speak with Him,
Compare with these violent oscillations between the superficial and mystical consciousness—characteristic of Teresa’s strong volitional nature, which only came to rest after psychic convulsions which left no corner of its being unexplored—the symbolic act of renunciation under which Antoinette Bourignan’s “interior self” vanquished the surface intelligence and asserted its supremacy. Teresa must give up her passionate delight in human friendship. Antoinette, never much tempted in that direction, must give up her last penny. What society was to Teresa’s generous, energetic nature, prudence was to the temperamentally shrewd and narrow Antoinette: a distraction, a check on the development of the all-demanding transcendental genius, an unconquered relic of the “lower life.”
Many a mystic, however, has found the perfection of detachment to be consistent with a far less drastic renunciation of external things than that which these women felt to be essential to their peace. The test, as we have seen, does not lie in the nature of the things which are retained, but in the reaction which they stimulate in the self. “Absolute poverty is thine,” says Tauler, “when thou canst not remember whether anybody has ever owed thee or been indebted to thee for anything; just as all things will be forgotten by thee in the last journey of death.” 432 Poverty, in this sense, may be consistent with the habitual and automatic use of luxuries which the abstracted self never even perceives. Thus we are told that St. Bernard was reproached by his enemies with the inconsistency of preaching evangelical poverty whilst making his journeys from place to place on a magnificently caparisoned mule, which had been lent to him by the Cluniac monks. He expressed great contrition: but said that he had never noticed what it was that he rode upon. 433
Sometimes, the very activity which one self has rejected as an impediment becomes for another the channel of spiritual perception. I have mentioned the Curé d’Ars, who, among other inhibitions, refused to allow himself to smell a rose. Yet St. Francis preached to the flowers, 434 and ordered a plot to be set aside for their cultivation when the convent garden was made, “in order that all who saw them might remember the Eternal Sweetness.” 435
To say that some have fallen short of this difficult ideal and taken refuge in mere abnegation is but to say that asceticism is a human, not a superhuman art, and is subject to “the frailty of the creature.” But on the whole, these excesses are mainly found amongst saintly types who have not exhibited true mystic intuition. This intuition, entailing as it does communion with intensest Life, gives to its possessors a sweet sanity, a delicate balance, which guards them, as a rule, from such conceptions of chastity as that of the youthful saint who shut himself in a cupboard for fear he should see his mother pass by: from the obedience which identifies the voice of the director with the voice of God; from detachment such as that exhibited by the Blessed Angela of Foligno, who, though a true mystic, viewed with almost murderous satisfaction the deaths of relatives who were “impediments.” 438 The detachment of the mystic is just a restoration to the liberty in which the soul was made: it is a state of joyous humility in which he cries, “Nought I am, nought I have, nought I lack.” To have arrived at this is to have escaped from the tyranny of selfhood: to be initiated into the purer air of that universe which knows but one rule of action—that which was laid down once for all by St. Augustine when he said, in the most memorable and misquoted of epigrams: “Love, and do what you like.”
By mortification, I have said, is to be understood the positive aspect of purification: the remaking in relation to reality of the permanent elements of character. These elements, so far, have
In psychological language, the process of mortification is the process of setting up “new paths of neural discharge.” That is to say, the mystic life has got to express itself in action: and for this new paths must be cut and new habits formed—all, in spite of the new self’s enthusiasm, “against the grain”—resulting in a complete sublimation of personality. The energy which wells up incessantly in every living being must abandon the old road of least resistance and discharge itself in a new and more difficult way. In the terms of the hormic psychology, the conative drive of the psyche must be concentrated on new objectives; and the old paths, left to themselves, must fade and die. When they are dead, and the new life has triumphed, Mortification is at an end. The mystics always know when this moment comes. Often an inner voice then warns them to lay their active penances aside.
Since the greater and stronger the mystic, the stronger and more stubborn his character tends to be, this change of life and turning of energy from the old and easy channels to the new is often a stormy matter. It is a period of actual battle between the inharmonious elements of the self, its lower and higher springs of action: of toil, fatigue, bitter suffering, and many disappointments. Nevertheless, in spite of its etymological associations, the object of mortification is not death but life: the production of health and strength, the health and strength of the human consciousness viewed sub specie aeternitatis . “In the truest death of all created things, the sweetest and most natural life is hidden.” 440
“This dying,” says Tauler again, “has many degrees, and so has this life. A man might die a thousand deaths in one day and find at once a joyful life corresponding to each of them. This is as
No more than detachment, then, is mortification an end in itself. It is a process, an education directed towards the production of a definite kind of efficiency, the adjustment of human nature to the demands of its new life. Severe, and to the outsider apparently unmeaning—like their physical parallels the exercises of the gymnasium—its disciplines, faithfully accepted, do release the self from the pull of the lower nature, establish it on new levels of freedom and power. “Mortification,” says the Benedictine contemplative Augustine Baker, “tends to subject the body to the spirit and the spirit to God. And this it does by crossing the inclinations of sense, which are quite contrary to those of the Divine Spirit . . . by such crossing and afflicting of the body, self-love and self-will (the poison of our spirits) are abated, and in time in a sort destroyed; and instead of them there enter into the soul the Divine love and Divine will, and take possession thereof.” 442 This transformation accomplished, mortification may end, and often does, with startling abruptness. After a martyrdom which lasted sixteen years, says Suso—speaking as usual in the third person—of his own experience, “On a certain Whitsun Day a heavenly messenger appeared to him, and ordered him in God’s name to continue it no more. He at once ceased, and threw all the instruments of his sufferings [irons, nails, hair-shirt, etc.] into a river.” 443 From this time onward, austerities of this sort had no part in Suso’s life.
The Franco-Flemish mystic who wrote, and the English contemplative
To this astounding utterance the English translator has added a singularly illuminating gloss. “I am stirred here,” he says, “to say more to the matter, as thus: First: when a soul giveth her to perfection, she laboureth busily day and night to get virtues, by counsel of reason, and striveth with vices at every thought, at every word and deed that she perceiveth cometh of them, and busily searcheth vices, them to destroy. Thus the virtues be mistresses, and every virtue maketh her to war with its contrary, the which be vices. Many sharp pains and bitterness of conscience feeleth the soul in this war. . . . But so long one may bite on the bitter bark of the nut, that at last he shall come to the sweet kernel. Right so, ghostly to understand, it fareth by these souls that be come to peace. They have so long striven with vices and wrought by virtues, that they be come to the nut kernel, that is, to the love of God, which is sweetness. And when the soul hath deeply tasted this love, so that this love of God worketh and hath his usages in her soul, then the soul is wondrous light and gladsome. . . . Then is she mistress and lady over the virtues, for she hath them all within herself. . . . And then this soul taketh leave of virtues, as of the thraldom and painful travail of them that she had before, and now she is lady and sovereign, and they be subjects.” 444
Jacopone da Todi speaks to the same effect:—
“La guerra è terminata
de le virtu battaglia,
de la mente travaglia
cosa nulla contende”. 445
Thus, St. Catherine of Genoa, after a penitential period of four years, during which she was haunted by a constant sense of sin, and occupied by incessant mortifications, found that “all thought
Mortification takes its name from the reiterated statement of all ascetic writers that the senses, or “body of desire,” with the cravings which are excited by different aspects of the phenomenal world, must be mortified or killed; which is, of course, a description of psychological necessities from their special point of view. All those self-regarding instincts—so ingrained that they have become automatic—which impel the self to choose the more comfortable part, are seen by the awakened intuition of the embryo mystic as gross infringements of the law of love. “This is the travail that a man behoveth, to draw out his heart and his mind from the fleshly love and the liking of all earthly creatures, from vain thoughts and from fleshly imaginations, and out from the love and the vicious feeling of himself, that his soul should find no rest in no fleshly thought, nor earthly affection.” 447 The rule of Poverty must be applied to the temper of normal consciousness as well as to the tastes and possessions of the self. Under this tonic influence, real life will thrive, unreal life will wither and die.
This mortifying process is necessary, not because the legitimate exercise of the senses is opposed to Divine Reality, but because those senses have usurped a place beyond their station; become the focus of energy, steadily drained the vitality of the self. “The dogs have taken the children’s meat.” The senses have grown stronger than their masters, monopolized the field of perception, dominated an organism which was made for greater activities, and built up those barriers of individuality which must be done away if true personality is to be achieved, and with it some share in the boundless life of the One. It is thanks to this wrong distribution of energy, this sedulous feeding of the cuckoo in the nest, that “in order to approach the Absolute, mystics must withdraw from everything, even themselves.” 448 “The soul is plunged in utter
The death of selfhood in its narrow individualistic sense is, then, the primary object of mortification. All the twisted elements of character which foster the existence of this unreal yet complex creature are to be pruned away. Then, as with the trees of the forest, so with the spirit of man, strong new branches will spring into being, grow towards air and light. “I live, yet not I” is to be the declaration of the mystic who has endured this “bodily death.” The self-that-is-to-be will live upon a plane where her own prejudices and preferences are so uninteresting as to be imperceptible. She must be weaned from these nursery toys: and weaning is a disagreeable process. The mystic, however, undertakes it as a rule without reluctance: pushed by his vivid consciousness of imperfection, his intuition of a more perfect state, necessary to the fulfilment of his love. Often his entrance upon the torments of the Purgative Way, his taking up of the spiritual or material instruments of mortification, resembles in ardour and abruptness that “heroic plunge into Purgatory” of the newly dead when it perceives itself in the light of Love Divine, which is described in the “Treatise” of St. Catherine of Genoa as its nearest equivalent. “As she, plunged in the divine furnace of purifying love, was united to the Object of her love, and satisfied with all he wrought in her, so she understood it to be with the souls in Purgatory.” 451
This “divine furnace of purifying love” demands from the ardent soul a complete self-surrender, and voluntary turning from all impurity, a humility of the most far-reaching kind: and this means the deliberate embrace of active suffering, a self-discipline in dreadful tasks. As gold in the refiner’s fire, so “burning of love into a soul truly taken all vices purgeth.” Detachment may be a counsel of prudence, a practical result of seeing the true values of things; but the pain of mortification is seized as a splendid opportunity, a love token, timidly offered by the awakened spirit to that all-demanding Lover from Whom St. Catherine of Siena heard the terrible words “I, Fire, the Acceptor of sacrifices, ravishing
The mystics have a profound conviction that Creation, Becoming, Transcendence, is a painful process at the best. Those who are Christians point to the Passion of Christ as a proof that the cosmic journey to perfection, the path of the Eternal Wisdom, follows of necessity the Way of the Cross. That law of the inner life, which sounds so fantastic and yet is so bitterly true—“No progress without pain”—asserts itself. It declares that birth pangs must be endured in the spiritual as well as in the material world: that adequate training must always hurt the athlete. Hence the mystics’ quest of the Absolute drives them to an eager and heroic union with the reality of suffering, as well as with the reality of joy. 454
This divine necessity of pain, this necessary sharing in the travail of a World of Becoming, is beautifully described by Tauler in one of those “internal conversations” between the contemplative soul and its God, which abound in the works of the mystics and are familiar to all readers of “The Imitation of Christ.” “A man once thought,” says Tauler, “that God drew some men even by pleasant paths, while other were drawn by the path of pain. Our Lord answered him thus, ‘What think ye can be pleasanter or nobler than to be made most like unto Me? that is by suffering. Mark, to whom was ever offered such a troubled life as to Me? And in whom can I better work in accordance with My true nobility than in those who are most like Me? They are the men who suffer. . . . Learn that My divine nature never worked so nobly in human nature as by suffering; and because suffering is so efficacious, it is sent out of great love. I understand the weakness of human nature at all times, and out of love and righteousness I lay no heavier load on man than he can bear. The crown must be firmly
Pain, therefore, the mystics always welcome and often court: sometimes in the crudely physical form which Suso describes so vividly and horribly in the sixteenth chapter of his Life, more frequently in those refinements of torture which a sensitive spirit can extract from loneliness, injustice, misunderstanding—above all, from deliberate contact with the repulsive accidents of life. It would seem from a collation of the evidence that the typical mystical temperament is by nature highly fastidious. Its passionate apprehension of spiritual beauty, its intuitive perception of divine harmony, is counterbalanced by an instinctive loathing of ugliness, a shrinking from the disharmonies of squalor and disease. Often its ideal of refinement is far beyond the contemporary standards of decency: a circumstance which is alone enough to provide ample opportunity of wretchedness. This extreme sensitiveness, which forms part of the normal psychophysical make-up of the mystic, as it often does of the equally highly-strung artistic type, is one of the first things to be seized upon by the awakened self as a disciplinary instrument. Then humility’s axiom, “Naught is too low for love” is forced to bear the less lovely gloss, “Naught must be too disgusting.”
Two reasons at once appear for this. One is the contempt for phenomena, nasty as well as nice—the longing to be free from all the fetters of sense—which often goes with the passion for invisible things. Those mystics to whom the attractions of earth are only illusion, are inconsistent if they attribute a greater reality to the revolting and squalid incidents of life. St. Francis did but carry his own principles to their logical conclusion, when he insisted that the vermin were as much his brothers as the birds. Real detachment means the death of preferences of all kinds: even of those which seem to other men the very proofs of virtue and fine taste.
The second reason is nobler. It is bound up with that principle of self-surrender which is the mainspring of the mystic life. To the contemplative mind, which is keenly conscious of unity in multiplicity—of Gods in the world—all disinterested service is service of the Absolute which he loves: and the harder it is, the more opposed to his self-regarding and aesthetic instincts, the
It is told of St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the love of lovely things was always paramount, how he forced himself to visit the lepers whose sight and smell disgusted him: how he served them and even kissed them. 456 “Then as he departed, in very truth that which had aforetime been bitter unto him, to wit, the sight and touch of lepers, now changed into sweetness. For, as he confessed, the sight of lepers had been so grievous unto him that he had been minded to avoid not only seeing them, but even going nigh their dwelling. And if at any time he chanced to pass their abodes, or to see them, albeit he were moved by compassion to do them an alms through another person, yet alway would he turn aside his face, stopping his nostrils with his hand. But through the grace of God he became so intimate a friend of the lepers that, even as he recorded in his will, he did sojourn with them and did humbly serve them.”
Also, after his great renunciation of all property, he, once a prosperous young man who had been “dainty in his father’s home,” accustomed himself to take a bowl and beg scraps of food from door to door: and here too, as in the case of the lepers, that which at first seemed revolting became to him sweet. “And when he would have eaten that medley of various meats,” says the legend, “at first he shrank back, for that he had never been used willingly even to see, much less to eat, such scraps. At length, conquering himself, he began to eat; and it seemed to him that in eating no rich syrup had he ever tasted aught so delightsome.” 457
The object, then, of this self-discipline is, like the object of all purgation, freedom: freedom from the fetters of the senses, the “remora of desire,” from the results of environment and worldly education, from pride and prejudice, preferences and distaste: from selfhood in every form. Its effect is a sharp reaction to the joy of self-conquest. The very act that had once caused in the enchained self a movement of loathing becomes not merely indifferent, but an occasion of happiness. So Margery Kempe “had great mourning and sorrowing if she might not kiss a leper when she met them in the way for the love of our Lord, which was all
I spare the sensitive reader a detailed account of the loathsome ordeals by which St. Catherine of Genoa and Madame Guyon strove to cure themselves of squeamishness and acquire this liberty of spirit. 459 They, like St. Francis, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and countless other seekers for the Real, sought out and served with humility and love the sick and the unclean; deliberately associated themselves with life in its meanest forms; compelled themselves to contact with the most revolting substances; and mortified the senses by the traditional ascetic expedient of deliberately opposing all—even their most natural and harmless—inclinations. “In the first four years after she received the sweet wound from her Lord,” says the Life of St. Catherine of Genoa, she “made great penances: so that all her senses were mortified. And first, so soon as she perceived that her nature desired anything at once she deprived it thereof, and did so that it should receive all those things that it abhorred. She wore harsh hair, ate no meat nor any other thing that she liked; ate no fruit, neither fresh nor dried . . . and she lived greatly submitted to all persons, and always sought to do all those things which were contrary to her own will; in such a way that she was always inclined to do more promptly the will of others than her own.” . . . “And while she worked such and so many mortifications of all her senses it was several times asked of her ‘Why do you do this?’ And she answered ‘I do not know, but I feel myself drawn inwardly to do this . . . and I think it is God’s will.’” 460
St. Ignatius Loyola, in the world a highly bred Spanish gentleman of refined personal habits, found in those habits an excellent opportunity of mortification. “As he was somewhat nice about the arrangement of his hair, as was the fashion of those days and became him not ill, he allowed it to grow naturally, and neither combed it nor trimmed it nor wore any head covering by day or night. For the same reason he did not pare his finger or toe nails; for on these points he had been fastidious to an extreme.” 461
Madame Guyon, a delicate girl of the leisured class, accustomed to the ordinary comforts of her station, characteristically chose the most crude and immoderate forms of mortification in her efforts towards the acquirement of “indifference.” But the peculiar psychic constitution which afterwards showed itself in the forms
In the earlier stages of their education, a constant agere contra, even in apparently indifferent things, seems essential to the mystics; till the point is reached at which the changes and chances of mortal life are accepted with a true indifference and do not trouble the life of the soul. This established ascendancy of the “interior man,” the transcendental consciousness, over “sensitive nature”—the self in its reactions to the ups and downs and manifold illusions of daily life—is the very object of Purgation. It is, then, almost impossible that any mystic, whatever his religion, character or race, should escape its battles: for none at the beginning of their growth are in a position to dispense with its good offices. Neoplatonists and Mahommedans, no less than the Christian ascetics, are acquainted with the Purgative Way. All realize the first law of Spiritual Alchemy, that you must tame the Green Lion before you give him wings. Thus in ‘Attar’s allegory of the Valleys, the valley of self-stripping and renunciation comes first. 463 So too Al Ghazzali, the Persian contemplative, says of the period immediately following his acceptance of the principles of Sufi ism and consequent renunciation of property, “I went to Syria, where I remained more than two years; without any other object than that of living in seclusion and solitude, conquering my desires, struggling with my passions, striving to purify my soul, to perfect my character, and to prepare my heart to meditate upon God.” At the end of this period of pure purgation circumstances forced him to return to the world; much to his regret, since he “had not yet attained to the perfect ecstatic state, unless it were in one or two isolated moments.” 464
Such gleams of ecstatic vision, distributed through the later stages of purification, seem to be normal features of mystical development. Increasing control of the lower centres, of the surface intelligence and its scattered desires, permits the emergence of the transcendental perceptions. We have seen that Fox in his early stages displayed just such an alternation between the light and shade of the mystic way. 465 So too did that least ascetic of visionaries, Jacob Boehme. “Finding within myself a
In these words Boehme bridges the gap between Purgation and Illumination: showing these two states or ways as coexisting and complementary one to another, the light and dark sides of a developing mystic consciousness. As a fact, they do often exist side by side in the individual experience: 467 and any treatment which exhibits them as sharply and completely separated may be convenient for purposes of study, but becomes at best diagrammatic if considered as a representation of the mystic life. The mystical consciousness, as we have seen, belongs—from the psychological point of view—to that mobile or “unstable” type in which the artistic temperament also finds a place. It sways easily between the extremes of pleasure and pain in its gropings after transcendental reality. It often attains for a moment to heights in which it is not able to rest: is often flung from some rapturous vision of the Perfect to the deeps of contrition and despair.
The mystics have a vivid metaphor by which to describe that alternation between the onset and the absence of the joyous transcendental consciousness which forms as it were the characteristic intermediate stage between the bitter struggles of pure Purgation, and the peace and radiance of the Illuminative Life. They call it Ludus Amoris , the “Game of Love” which God plays with the desirous soul. It is the “game of chess,” says St. Teresa, “in which game Humility is the Queen without whom none can checkmate the Divine King.” 468 “Here,” says Martensen, “God plays a blest game with the soul.” 469 The “Game of Love” is a reflection in consciousness of that state of struggle, oscillation and unrest which precedes the first unification of the self. It ceases when this has taken place and the new level of reality has been
Such prolonged coexistence of alternating pain and pleasure states in the developing soul, such delay in the attainment of equilibrium, is not infrequent, and must be taken into account in all analyses of the mystic type. Though it is convenient for purposes of study to practise a certain dissection, and treat as separate states which are, in the living subject, closely intertwined, we should constantly remind ourselves that such a proceeding is artificial. The struggle of the self to disentangle itself from illusion and attain the Absolute is a life-struggle. Hence, it will and must exhibit the freedom and originality of life: will, as a process, obey artistic rather than scientific laws. It will sway now to the light and now to the shade of experience: its oscillations will sometimes be great, sometimes small. Mood and environment, inspiration and information, will all play their part.
There are in this struggle three factors.
(1) The unchanging light of Eternal Reality: that Pure Being “which ever shines and nought shall ever dim.”
(2) The web of illusion, here thick, there thin; which hems in, confuses, and allures the sentient self.
(3) That self, always changing, moving, struggling—always, in fact, becoming— alive in every fibre, related at once to the unreal and to the real; and, with its growth in true being, ever more conscious of the contrast between them.
In the ever-shifting relations between these three factors, the consequent energy engendered, the work done, we may find a cause of the innumerable forms of stress and travail which are called in their objective form the Purgative Way. One only of the three is constant: the Absolute to which the soul aspires. Though all else may fluctuate, that goal is changeless. That Beauty so old and so new, “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning,” which is the One of Plotinus, the All of Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, the Eternal Wisdom of Suso, the Unplumbed Abyss of Ruysbroeck, the Pure Love of St. Catherine of Genoa, awaits yesterday, to-day, and for ever the opening of Its creature’s eyes.
In the moment of conversion those eyes were opened for an instant: obtained, as it were, a dazzling and unforgettable glimpse of the Uncreated Light. They must learn to stay open: to look steadfastly into the eyes of Love: so that, in the beautiful imagery of the mystics, the “faithful servant” may become the “secret friend.” 473 Then it is, says Boehme, that “the divine glimpse and
To use another and more domestic metaphor, that Divine Child which was, in the hour of the mystic conversion, born in the spark of the soul, must learn like other children to walk. Though it is true that the spiritual self must never lose its sense of utter dependence on the Invisible; yet within that supporting atmosphere, and fed by its gifts, it must “find its feet.” Each effort to stand brings first a glorious sense of growth, and then a fall: each fall means another struggle to obtain the difficult balance which comes when infancy is past. There are many eager trials, many hopes, many disappointments. At last, as it seems suddenly, the moment comes: tottering is over, the muscles have learnt their lesson, they adjust themselves automatically, and the new self suddenly finds itself—it knows not how—standing upright and secure. That is the moment which marks the boundary between the purgative and the illuminative states.
The process of this passage of the “new” or spiritual man from his awakening to the illuminated life, has been set out by Jacob Boehme in language which is at once poetic and precise. “When Christ the Corner-Stone [ i.e. , the divine principle latent in man] stirreth himself in the extinguished Image of Man in his hearty Conversion and Repentance,” he says, “then Virgin Sophia appeareth in the stirring of the Spirit of Christ in the extinguished Image, in her Virgin’s attire before the Soul; at which the Soul is so amazed and astonished in its Uncleanness that all its Sins immediately awake in it, and it trembleth before her; for then the judgment passeth upon the Sins of the Soul, so that it even goeth back in its unworthiness, being ashamed in the Presence of its fair Love, and entereth into itself, feeling and acknowledging itself utterly unworthy to receive such a Jewel. This is understood by those who are of our tribe and have tasted of this heavenly
392 “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Magna Moralia,” xxii.
393 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxxvii.
394 Dialogo, cap. iv.
395 “Ignitum cum Deo Soliloquium.” cap. xi.
396 Richard Rolle, “The Mending of Life,” cap. i.
397 Ibid ., “The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap, xxiii.
398 “Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” cap. v.
399 Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 19.
400 Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lvi.
401 I offer no opinion upon the question of authorship. Those interested may consult Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i., Appendix. Whoever may be responsible for its present form, the Treatise is clearly founded upon first-hand mystic experience: which is all that our present purpose requires.
402 “Trattato di Purgatorio,” caps. ii. and iii.
403 Purg. ii., 60.
404 “Subida del Monte Carmelo I. i. cap. xiv.
405 “De Imitatione Christi,” I. iii. cap. i.
406 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. xiv.
407 Meister Eckhart, quoted by Wackernagel, “Altdeutsches Lesebuch,” p. 891.
408 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit.” pt. vi., cap. 4.
409 St. John of the Cross, “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” bk. i. cap. xiii.
410 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. v.
411 Ennead vi. 9.
412 “Oh Poverty, high wisdom! to be subject to nothing, and by despising all to possess all created things. . . . God will not lodge in a narrow heart; and it is as great as thy love. Poverty has so ample a bosom that Deity Itself may lodge therein. . . . Poverty is naught to have, and nothing to desire: but all things to possess in the spirit of liberty.”— Jacopone da Todi. Lauda lix.
413 “Fioretti,” cap. xvi., and “Speculum,” cap. cxx.
414 Ibid ., cap. xiii. (Arnold’s translation).
415 Pfeiffer, Tractato x. (Eng. translation., p, 348).
416 “Sacrum Commercium Beati Francisci cum Domina Paupertate,” caps. iv. and v. (Rawnsley’s translation).
417 Op. cit ., cap. xxii.
418 So Ruysbroeck, “Freewill is the king of the soul . . . he should dwell in the chief city of that kingdom: that is to say, the desirous power of the soul” (“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. i. cap. xxiv.).
419 Meister Eckhart. Quoted in Martensen’s monograph, p. 107.
420 Schmölders, “Essai sur les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 54.
421 Schmölders, “Essai sur les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” op. cit., p. 58.
422 Richard Rolle, “The Mending of Life,” cap. iii.
423 “Ignitum cum Deo Soliloquium,” cap. i.
424 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. i. cap. iii.
425 Gerlac Petersen, op. cit., cap. xi.
426 St. John of the Cross, op. cit ., cap. xi.
427 Richard Rolle, “The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. xix.
428 Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. vi.
429 “An Apology for Mrs. Antoinette Bourignan,” pp. 269-70.
430 St. Teresa’s mystic states are particularly difficult to classify. From one point of view these struggles might be regarded as the preliminaries of conversion. She was, however, proficient in contemplation when they occurred, and I therefore think that my arrangement is the right one.
431 Quoted by G. Cunninghame Graham, “Santa Teresa,” vol. i. p. 139. For St. Teresa’s own account, see Vida, caps. vii-ix.
432 Sermon on St. Paul (“The Inner Way,” p. 113).
433 Cotter Morison, “Life and Times of St. Bernard,” p. 68.
434 Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. xxix.
435 Ibid ., Legenda Secunda, cap. cxxiv.
436 Anne Macdonell, “St. Douceline,” p. 30.
437 Vida, cap. ix., p. 6.
438 “In that time and by God’s will there died my mother, who was a great hindrance unto me in following the way of God: soon after my husband died likewise, and also all my children. And because I had commenced to follow the Aforesaid Way, and had prayed God that He would rid me of them, I had great consolation of their deaths. (Ste Angèle de Foligno: “Le Livre de l’Expérience des Vrais Fidèles.” Ed. M. J. Ferry p. 10.)
439 “De Imitatione Christi,” I. i. caps. iii. and ix.
440 Tauler, Sermon on St. Paul (“The Inner Way,” p. 114).
441 Tauler, Second Sermon for Easter Day. (This is not included in either of the English collections.)
442 Augustine Baker, “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise ii. Sect. i., cap. 3.
443 Suso, Leben. cap. xvii.
444 “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” edited by Clare Kirchberger, p. 12.
445 “The war is at an end: in the battle of virtues, in travail of mind, there is no more striving” (Lauda xci.).
446 “Vita e Dottrina,” cap. v.
447 Walter Hilton “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. i. cap. 8, xlii.
448 Récéjac, “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 78. This, however, is to be understood of the initial training of the mystic; not of his final state.
449 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. i. cap. v.
450 Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xv.
451 S. Caterina di Genova, “Trattato di Purgatorio,” cap. i.
452 Dialogo, cap. lxxxv.
453 Leben, cap. iv.
454 “This truth, of which she was the living example,” says Huysmans of St. Lydwine, “has been and will be true for every period. Since the death of Lydwine, there is not a saint who has not confirmed it. Hear them formulate their desires. Always to suffer, and to die! cries St. Teresa; always to suffer, yet not to die, corrects St. Magdalena dei Pazzi; yet more, oh Lord, yet more! exclaims St. Francis Xavier, dying in anguish on the coast of China; I wish to be broken with suffering in order that I may prove my love to God, declares a seventeenth century Carmelite, the Ven. Mary of the Trinity. The desire for suffering is itself an agony, adds a great servant of God of our own day, Mother Mary Du Bourg; and she confided to her daughters in religion that ‘if they sold pain in the market she would hurry to buy it there.’” (J. K. Huysmans, “Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam,” 3rd edition, p. 225).Examples can be multiplied indefinitely from the lives and works of the mystics of all periods.
455 Tauler, Sermon on St. Paul (“The Inner Way,” p. 114).
456 Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. vii.; 3 Soc. cap. iv.
457 3 Soc. cap. vii.
458 “A Short Treatise of Contemplation taken out of the boke of Margery Kempe ancresse of Lynne.” London, 1521. Reprinted and ed. by F. Gardner in “The Cell of Self-Knowledge,” 1910, p. 49.
459 The curious are referred to the original authorities. For St. Catherine chapter viii. of the “Vita e Dottrina”: for Madame Guyon, Vie, pt. i. ch. x.
460 “Vita e Dottrina,” cap. v.
461 Testament, cap. ii. (Rix’s translation).
462 Vie, pt. i. cap. x.
463 Supra , p. 131.
464 Schmölders, “Essay sur les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 59.
465 Supra , p. 177.
466 Hartmann, “Life and Doctrines of Jacob Boehme,” p. 50.
467 Compare the case of St. Teresa already cited, supra , p. 213.
468 “Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xvii.
469 Martensen, “Meister Eckhart,” p. 75.
470 Dialogo, cap. lxxviii.
471 Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” pp. 10 and 20.
472 We recognize here the chief symptoms of the “cyclic type” of mentality, with its well-marked alternations of depression and exaltation. This psychological type is found frequently, but not invariably, among the mystics: and its peculiarities must be taken into account when studying their experiences. For a technical description, see W. McDougall: “An Introduction to Abnormal Psychology,” caps. xxii and xxviii.
473 See Ruysbroeck, “De Calculo,” cap. vii. The metaphor is an ancient one and occurs in many patristic and mediaeval writers.
474 “The Epistles of Jacob Boehme,” p. 19.
475 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. vii.
476 Jacob Boehme, “The Way to Christ,” pt. i. p. 23 (vol. iv. of the complete English translation of Boehme’s works).
I n illumination we come to that state of consciousness which is popularly supposed to be peculiar to the mystic: a form of mental life, a kind of perception, radically different from that of “normal” men. His preceding adventures and experiences cannot be allowed this quality. His awakening to consciousness of the Absolute—though often marked by a splendour and intensity which seem to distinguish it from other psychic upheavals of that kind—does but reproduce upon higher levels those characteristic processes of conversion and falling in love which give depth and actuality to the religious and passional life. The purification to which he then sets himself—though this possesses as a rule certain features peculiar to mystical development—is again closely related to the disciplines and mortifications of ascetic, but not necessarily mystical, piety. It is the most exalted form with which we are acquainted of that catharsis— that pruning and training of the human plant—which is the essence of all education, and a necessary stage in every kind of transcendence. Here, the mystic does but adopt in a more drastic form the principles which all who would live with an intense life, all seekers after freedom, all true lovers must accept: though he may justly claim with Ophelia that these wear their rue with a difference. 477
But in the great swing back into sunshine which is the reward of that painful descent into the “cell of self-knowledge,” he parts company with these other pilgrims. Those who still go with him a little way—certain prophets, poets, artists, dreamers do so in virtue of that mystical genius, that instinct for transcendental reality, of which all seers and creators have some trace. The initiates of beauty or of wisdom, as the great mystic is the initiate of love, they share in some degree the experiences of the way of illumination. But the mystic has now a veritable foothold in that transcendental world into which they penetrate now and again: enjoys a certain fellowship—not yet union—with the “great life of the All,” and thence draws strength and peace. Really and actually, as one whose noviciate is finished, he has “entered the Inner Choir, where the Soul joineth hands and danceth with Sophia, the Divine Wisdom”: and, keeping time with the great rhythms of the spiritual universe, feels that he has found his place.
This change of consciousness, however abrupt and amazing it may seem to the self which experiences it, seems to the psychologist a normal phase in that organic process of development which was initiated by the awakening of the transcendental sense. Responding to the intimations received in that awakening, ordering itself in their interest, concentrating its scattered energies on this one thing, the self emerges from long and varied acts of purification to find that it is able to apprehend another order of reality. It has achieved consciousness of a world that was always there, and wherein its substantial being—that Ground which is of God—has always stood. Such a consciousness is “Transcendental Feeling” in excelsis : a deep, intuitional knowledge of the “secret plan.”
“We are like a choir who stand round the conductor,” says Plotinus, “but do not always sing in tune, because their attention is diverted by looking at external things. So we always move round the One—if we did not, we should dissolve and cease to exist—but we do not always look towards the One.” Hence, instead of that free and conscious co-operation in the great life of the All which alone can make personal life worth living, we move like slaves or marionettes, and, oblivious of the whole to which our little steps contribute, fail to observe the measure “whereto the worlds keep time.” Our minds being distracted from the Corypheus in the midst the “energetic Word” who sets the rhythm, we do not behold Him. We are absorbed in the illusions of sense; the “eye which looks on Eternity” is idle. “But when we do behold Him,” says Plotinus again, “we attain the end of our existence and our rest. Then we no longer sing out of tune, but form a truly divine chorus about Him; in the which chorus dance the soul beholds the Fountain of life
It will be observed that in these passages the claim of the mystic is not yet to supreme communion; the “Spiritual Marriage” of the Christian mystic, or that “flight of the Alone to the Alone” which is the Plotinian image for the utmost bliss of the emancipated soul. He has now got through preliminaries; detached himself from his chief entanglements; re-orientated his instinctive life. The result is a new and solid certitude about God, and his own soul’s relation to God: an “enlightenment” in which he is adjusted to new standards of conduct and thought. In the traditional language of asceticism he is “proficient” but not yet perfect. He achieves a real vision and knowledge, a conscious harmony with the divine World of Becoming: not yet self-loss in the Principle of Life, but rather a willing and harmonious revolution about Him, that “in dancing he may know what is done.” This character distinguishes almost every first-hand description of illumination: and it is this which marks it off from mystic union in all its forms. All pleasurable and exalted states of mystic consciousness in which the sense of I-hood persists, in which there is a loving and joyous relation between the Absolute as object and the self as subject, fall under the head of Illumination: which is really an enormous development of the intuitional life at high levels. All veritable and first-hand apprehensions of the Divine obtained by the use of symbols, as in the religious life; all the degrees of prayer lying between meditation and the prayer of union; many phases of poetic inspiration and “glimpses of truth,” are activities of the illuminated mind.
To “see God in nature,” to attain a radiant consciousness of the “otherness” of natural things, is the simplest and commonest form of illumination. Most people, under the spell of emotion or of beauty, have known flashes of rudimentary vision of this kind. Where such a consciousness is recurrent, as it is in many poets, 479 there results that partial yet often overpowering apprehension of the Infinite Life immanent in all living things, which some modern writers have dignified by the name of “nature-mysticism.”
“Dear Sir,” says that great genius in one of his most characteristic letters, written immediately after an onset of the illuminated vision which he had lost for many years, “excuse my enthusiasm, or rather madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand.” 480 Many a great painter, philosopher, or poet, perhaps every inspired musician, has known this indescribable inebriation of Reality in those moments of transcendence in which his masterpieces were conceived. This is the “saving madness” of which Plato speaks in the “Phaedrus”; the ecstasy of the “God-intoxicated man,” the lover, the prophet, and the poet “drunk with life.” When the Christian mystic, eager for his birthright, says “Sanguis Christi, inebria me!” he is asking for just such a gift of supernal vitality, a draught of that Wine of Absolute Life which runs in the arteries of the world. Those to whom that cup is given attain to an intenser degree of vitality, hence to a more acute degree of perception, a more vivid consciousness, than that which is enjoyed by other men. For though, as Ruysbroeck warns us, this “is not God,” yet it is for many selves “the Light in which we see Him.” 481
Blake conceived that it was his vocation to bring this mystical illumination, this heightened vision of reality, within the range of ordinary men: to “cleanse the doors of perception” of the race. They thought him a madman for his pains.
“. . . I rest not upon my great task
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
O Saviour, pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness and love,
Annihilate the Selfhood in me: be thou all my life.” 482
The Mysteries of the antique world appear to have been attempts—often by way of a merely magical initiation—to “open the immortal eyes of man inwards”: exalt his powers of perception until they could receive the messages of a higher degree of reality. In spite of much eager theorizing, it is impossible to tell how far they succeeded in this task. To those who had a natural genius for the Infinite, symbols and rituals which were doubtless charged with ecstatic suggestions, and often dramatized the actual course of
“O blessèd he in all wise,
Who hath drunk the Living Fountain
Whose life no folly staineth
And whose soul is near to God:
Whose sins are lifted pall-wise
As he worships on the Mountain.” 484
Thus sang the initiates of Dionysus; that mystery-cult in which the Greeks seem to have expressed all they knew of the possible movement of consciousness through rites of purification to the ecstasy of the Illuminated Life. The mere crude rapture of illumination has seldom been more vividly expressed. With its half-Oriental fervours, its self-regarding glory in personal purification achieved, and the spiritual superiority conferred by adeptship, may be compared the deeper and lovelier experience of the Catholic poet and saint, who represents the spirit of Western mysticism at its best. His sins, too, had been “lifted pall-wise” as a cloud melts in the sunshine of Divine Love: but here the centre of interest is not the little self which has been exalted, but the greater Self which deigns thus to exalt.
“O burn that burns to heal!
O more than pleasant wound!
And O soft hand, O touch most delicate
That dost new life reveal
That dost in grace abound
And, slaying, dost from death to life translate.” 485
Here the joy is as passionate, the consciousness of an exalted life as intense: but it is dominated by the distinctive Christian concepts of humility, surrender, and intimate love.
We have seen that all real artists, as well as all pure mystics, are sharers to some degree in the Illuminated Life. They have drunk, with Blake, from that cup of intellectual vision which is the chalice of the Spirit of Life: know something of its divine inebriation whenever Beauty inspires them to create. Some have only sipped
In one of the most beautiful passages of the “Fioretti” it is told how Brother Jacques of la Massa, “unto whom God opened the door of His secrets,” saw in a vision this Chalice of the Spirit of Life delivered by Christ into the hands of St. Francis, that he might give his brothers to drink thereof.
“Then came St. Francis to give the chalice of life to his brothers. And he gave it first to Brother John of Parma: who, taking it drank it all in haste, devoutly; and straightway he became all shining like the sun. And after him St. Francis gave it to all the other brothers in order: and there were but few among them that took it with due reverence and devotion and drank it all. Those that took it devoutly and drank it all, became straightway shining like the sun; but those that spilled it all and took it not devoutly, became black, and dark, and misshapen and horrible to see; but those that drank part and spilled part, became partly shining and partly dark, and more so or less according to the measure of their drinking or spilling thereof. But the aforesaid Brother John was resplendent above all the rest; the which had more completely drunk the chalice of life, whereby he had the more deeply gazed into the abyss of the infinite light divine .” 486
No image, perhaps, could suggest so accurately as this divine picture the conditions of perfect illumination: the drinking deeply, devoutly, and in haste—that is, without prudent and self-regarding hesitation—of the heavenly Wine of Life; that wine of which Rolle says that it “fulfils the soul with a great gladness through a sweet contemplation.” 487 John of Parma, the hero of those Spiritual Franciscans in whose interest this exquisite allegory was composed, stands for all the mystics, who, “having completely drunk,” have attained the power of gazing into the abyss of the infinite light divine. In those imperfect brothers who dared not drink the cup of sacrifice to the dregs, but took part and spilled part, so that they became partly shining and partly dark, “according to the measure of their drinking or spilling thereof,” we may see an image of the artist, musician, prophet, poet, dreamer, more or less illuminated according to the measure of courage and self-abandonment in which he has drunk the cup of ecstasy: but always in comparison with the radiance of the pure contemplative, “partly shining and partly dark.” “Hinder me not,” says the soul to the
We have seen that a vast tract of experience—all the experience which results from contact between a purged and heightened consciousness and the World of Becoming in which it is immersed; and much, too, of that which results from contact set up between such a consciousness and the Absolute Itself—is included in that stage of growth which the mystics call the Illuminative Way. This is the largest and most densely populated province of the mystic kingdom. Such different visionaries as Suso and Blake, Boehme and Angela of Foligno, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Fox, Rolle, St. Teresa, and countless others have left us the record of their sojourn therein. Amongst those who cannot be called pure mystics we can detect in the works of Plato and Heracleitus, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Walt Whitman indications that they too were acquainted, beyond most poets and seers, with the phenomena of the illuminated life. In studying it then, we shall be confronted by a mass of apparently irreconcilable material: the results of the relation set up between every degree of lucidity, every kind of character, and the suprasensible world.
To say that God is Infinite is to say that He may be apprehended and described in an infinity of ways. That Circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, may be approached from every angle with a certainty of being found. Mystical history, particularly that which deals with the Illuminative Way, is a demonstration of this fact. Here, in the establishment of the “first mystic life,” of conscious correspondence with Reality, the self which has oscillated between two forms of consciousness, has alternately opposed and embraced its growing intuitions of the Absolute, comes for a time to rest. To a large extent, the discordant elements of character have been purged away. Temporally at least the mind has “unified itself” upon high levels, and attained, as it believes, a genuine consciousness of the divine and veritable world. The depth and richness of its own nature will determine how intense that consciousness shall be.
Whatever its scope, however, this new apprehension of
reality generally appears to the illuminated Self as final and complete. As the
true lover is always convinced that he has found in his bride the one Rose of
the World, so the mystic, in the first glow of his initiation, is sure that his
quest is now fulfilled. Ignorant as yet of that consummation of love which
overpasses the proceedings of the inward eye and ear, he exclaims with entire
assurance “Beati oculi qui
exterioribus clausi, interioribus autem sunt
It is in these descriptions of the joy of illumination—in the outpourings of love and rapture belonging to this state—that we find the most lyrical passages of mystical literature. Here poet, mystic, and musician are on common ground: for it is only by the oblique methods of the artist, by the use of aesthetic suggestion and musical rhythm, that the wonder of that vision can be expressed. When essential goodness, truth, and beauty—Light, Life, and Love—are apprehended by the heart, whether the heart be that of poet, painter, lover, or saint, that apprehension can only be communicated in a living, that is to say, an artistic form. The natural mind is conscious only of succession: the special differentia of the mystic is the power of apprehending simultaneity. In the peculiarities of the illuminated consciousness we recognize the effort of the mind to bridge the gap between Simultaneity and Succession: the characters of Creator and Creation. Here the successive is called upon to carry the values of the Eternal.
Here, then, genius and sanctity kiss one another; and each, in that sublime encounter, looks for an instant through the other’s eyes. Hence it is natural and inevitable that the mystic should here call into play all the resources of artistic expression: the lovely imagery of Julian and Mechthild of Magdeburg, Suso’s poetic visions, St. Augustine’s fire and light, the heavenly harmonies of St. Francis and Richard Rolle. Symbols, too, play a major part, not only in the description, but also in the machinery of illumination: the intuitions of many mystics presenting themselves directly to the surface-mind in a symbolic form. We must therefore be prepared for a great variety and fluidity of expression, a constant and not always conscious recourse to symbol and image, in those
There are three main types of experience which appear again and again in the history of mysticism; nearly always in connection with illumination, rather than any other phase of mystical development. I think that they may fairly be regarded as its main characteristics, though the discussion of them cannot cover all the ground. In few forms of spiritual life is the spontaneity of the individual so clearly seen as here: and in few is the ever-deadly process of classification attended with so many risks.
These three characteristics are:—
1. A joyous apprehension of the Absolute: that which many ascetic writers call “the practice of the Presence of God.” This, however, is not to be confused with that unique consciousness of union with the divine which is peculiar to a later stage of mystical development. The self, though purified, still realizes itself as a separate entity over against God. It is not immersed in its Origin, but contemplates it. This is the “betrothal” rather than the “marriage” of the soul.
2. This clarity of vision may also be enjoyed in regard to the phenomenal world. The actual physical perceptions seem to be strangely heightened, so that the self perceives an added significance and reality in all natural things: is often convinced that it knows at last “the secret of the world.” In Blake’s words “the doors of perception are cleansed” so that “everything appears to man as it is , infinite.” 491
In these two forms of perception we see the growing consciousness of the mystic stretching in two directions, until it includes in its span both the World of Being and the World of Becoming; 492 that dual apprehension of reality as transcendent yet immanent which we found to be one of the distinguishing marks of the mystic type.
3. Along with this two-fold extension of consciousness, the energy of the intuitional or transcendental self may be enormously increased. The psychic upheavals of the Purgative Way have tended to make it central for life: to eliminate from the character all those elements which checked its activity. Now it seizes upon
Illumination, then, tends to appear mainly under one or all of these three forms. Often all are present; though, as a rule, one is dominant. The balance of characteristics will be conditioned in each case by the self’s psychic make-up; its temperamental leaning towards “pure contemplation,” “lucid vision,” or automatic expression; emanation or immanence, the metaphysical, artistic, or intimate aspects of truth. The possible combinations between these various factors are as innumerable as the possible creations of Life itself.
In the wonderful rhapsodies of St. Augustine, in St. Bernard’s converse with the Word, in Angela of Foligno’s apprehensions of Deity, in Richard Rolle’s “state of song,” when “sweetest heavenly melody he took, with him dwelling in mind,” or in Brother Lawrence’s “practice of the Presence of God,” we may see varied expressions of the first type of illuminated consciousness. Jacob Boehme is rightly looked upon as a classic example of the second; which is also found in one of its most attractive forms in St. Francis of Assisi. Suso and St. Teresa, perhaps, may stand for the third, since in them the visionary and auditory phenomena were peculiarly well marked. A further study of each characteristic in order, will help us to disentangle the many threads which go to the psychical make-up of these great and complex mystic types. The rest of this chapter will, then, be given to the analysis of the two chief forms of illuminated consciousness: the self’s perception of Reality in the eternal and temporal worlds. The important subject of voices and visions demands a division to itself.
This consciousness, in its various forms and degrees, is perhaps the most constant characteristic of Illumination; and makes it, for the mystic soul, a pleasure-state of the intensest kind. I do not mean by this that the subject passes months or years in a continuous ecstasy of communion with the Divine. Intermittent periods of spiritual fatigue or “aridity”—renewals of the temperamental conflicts experienced in purgation—the oncoming gloom of the Dark Night—all these may be, and often are, experienced
This “sense of God” is not a metaphor. Innumerable declarations prove it to be a consciousness as sharp as that which other men have, or think they have, of colour, heat, or light. It is a well-known though usually transitory experience in the religious life: like the homing instinct of birds, a fact which can neither be denied nor explained. “How that presence is felt, it may better be known by experience than by any writing,” says Hilton, “for it is the life and the love, the might and the light, the joy and the rest of a chosen soul. And therefore he that hath soothfastly once felt it he may not forbear it without pain; he may not undesire it, it is so good in itself and so comfortable. . . . He cometh privily sometimes when thou art least aware of Him, but thou shalt well know Him or He go; for wonderfully He stirreth and mightily He turneth thy heart into beholding of His goodness, and doth thine heart melt delectably as wax against the fire into softness of His love.” 494
Modern psychologists have struggled hard to discredit this “sense of the presence”; sometimes attributing it to the psychic mechanism of projection, sometimes to “wish-fulfilments” of a more unpleasant origin. 495 The mystics, however, who discriminate so much more delicately than their critics between true and false transcendental experience, never feel any doubt about its validity. Even when their experience seems inconsistent with their theology, they refuse to be disturbed.
Thus St. Teresa writes of her own experience, with her usual simplicity and directness, “In the beginning it happened to me that I was ignorant of one thing—I did not know that God was in all things: and when He seemed to me to be so near, I thought it impossible. Not to believe that He was present was not in my
Again, “An interior peace, and the little strength which either pleasures or displeasures have to remove this presence (during the time it lasts) of the Three Persons, and that without power to doubt of it, continue in such a manner that I clearly seem to experience what St. John says, That He will dwell in the soul, and this not only by grace, but that He will also make her perceive this presence.” 497 St. Teresa’s strong “immanental” bent comes out well in this passage.
Such a sense of the divine presence may go side by side with the daily life and normal mental activities of its possessor; who is not necessarily an ecstatic or an abstracted visionary, remote from the work of the world. It is true that the transcendental consciousness has now become, once for all, his centre of interest, its perceptions and admonitions dominate and light up his daily life. The object of education, in the Platonic sense, has been achieved: his soul has “wheeled round from the perishing world” to “the contemplation of the real world and the brightest part thereof.” 498 But where vocation and circumstances require it, the duties of a busy outward life continue to be fulfilled with steadiness and success: and this without detriment to the soul’s contemplation of the Real.
In many temperaments of the unstable or artistic type, however, this intuitional consciousness of the Absolute becomes ungovernable: it constantly breaks through, obtaining forcible possession of the mental field and expressing itself in the “psychic” phenomena of ecstasy and rapture. In others, less mobile, it wells up into an impassioned apprehension, a “flame of love” in which the self seems to “meet God in the ground of the soul.” This is “pure contemplation”: that state of deep orison in which the subject seems to be “seeing, feeling and thinking all at once.” By this spontaneous exercise of all his powers under the dominion of love, the mystic attains that “Vision of the Heart” which, “more interior, perhaps, than the visions of dream or ecstasy,” 499 stretches
St. Bernard gives in one of his sermons a simple, ingenuous and obviously personal account of such “privy touchings,” such convincing but elusive contacts of the soul with the Absolute. “Now bear with my foolishness for a little,” he says, “for I wish to tell you, as I have promised, how such events have taken place in me. It is, indeed, a matter of no importance. But I put myself forward only that I may be of service to you; and if you derive any benefit I am consoled for my egotism. If not, I shall but have displayed my foolishness. I confess, then, though I say it in my foolishness, that the Word has visited me, and even very often. But, though He has frequently entered into my soul, I have never at any time been sensible of the precise moment of His coming. I have felt that He was present, I remember that He has been with me; I have sometimes been able even to have a presentiment that He would come: but never to feel His coming nor His departure. For whence He came to enter my soul, or whither He went on quitting it, by what means He has made entrance or departure, I confess that I know not even to this day; according to that which is said, Nescis unde veniat aut quo vadat . Nor is this strange, because it is to Him that the psalmist has said in another place, Vestigia tua non cognoscentur .
“It is not by the eyes that He enters, for He is without form or colour that they can discern; nor by the ears, for His coming is without sound; nor by the nostrils, for it is not with the air but with the mind that He is blended. . . . By what avenue then has He entered? Or perhaps the fact may be that He has not entered at all, nor indeed come at all from outside: for not one of these things belongs to outside. Yet it has not come from within me, for it is good, and I know that in me dwelleth no good thing. I have ascended higher than myself, and lo! I have found the Word above me still. My curiosity has led me to descend below myself also, and yet I have found Him still at a lower depth. If I have looked without myself, I have found that He is beyond that which is outside of me, and if within, He was at an inner depth still. And thus have I learned the truth of the words I have read, In ipso enim vivimus et movemur et sumus .” 500
Such a lifting up, such a condition of consciousness as that which St. Bernard is here trying to describe, seems to snatch the spirit for a moment into a state which it is hard to distinguish from that of true “union.” This is what the contemplatives call passive or infused contemplation, or sometimes the “orison of union”: a brief foretaste of the Unitive State, often enjoyed for short periods in the Illuminative Way, which reinforces their conviction that they have now truly attained the Absolute. It is but a foretaste, however, of that attainment: the precocious effort of a soul still in that stage of “Enlightening” which the “Theologia Germanica” declares to be “belonging to such as are growing.” 501
This distinction between the temporary experience of union and the achievement of the Unitive Life is well brought out in a fragment of dialogue between Soul and Self in Hugh of St. Victor’s mystical tract, “De Arrha Animae.”
The Soul says, “Tell me, what can be this thing of delight that merely by its memory touches and moves me with such sweetness and violence that I am drawn out of myself and carried away, I know not how? I am suddenly renewed: I am changed: I am plunged into an ineffable peace. My mind is full of gladness, all my past wretchedness and pain is forgot. My soul exults: my intellect is illuminated: my heart is afire: my desires have become kindly and gentle: I know not where I am, because my Love has embraced me. Also, because my Love has embraced me I seem to have become possessed of something, and I know not what it is; but I try to keep it, that I may never lose it. My soul strives in gladness that she may not be separated from That which she desires to hold fast for ever: as if she had found in it the goal of all her desires. She exults in a sovereign and ineffable manner, seeking nought, desiring nought, but to rest in this. Is this, then, my Beloved? Tell me that I may know Him, and that if He come again I may entreat Him to leave me not, but to stay with me for ever.”
Man says, “It is indeed thy Beloved who visits thee; but He comes in an invisible shape, He comes disguised, He comes incomprehensibly. He comes to touch thee, not to be seen of thee: to arouse thee, not to be comprehended of thee. He comes not to give Himself wholly, but to be tasted by thee: not to fulfil thy desire, but to lead upwards thy affection. He gives a foretaste of His delights, brings not the plenitude of a perfect satisfaction: and the earnest of thy betrothal consists chiefly in this, that He who shall afterwards give Himself to be seen and possessed by thee perpetually, now permits Himself to be sometimes tasted, that thou mayest learn how sweet He is. This shall console thee
The real distinction between the Illuminative and the Unitive Life is that in Illumination the individuality of the subject—however profound his spiritual consciousness, however close his apparent communion with the Infinite—remains separate and intact. His heightened apprehension of reality lights up rather than obliterates the rest of his life: and may even increase his power of dealing adequately with the accidents of normal existence. Thus Brother Lawrence found that his acute sense of reality, his apprehension of the Presence of God, and the resulting detachment and consciousness of liberty in regard to mundane things, upheld and assisted him in the most unlikely tasks; as, for instance, when he was sent into Burgundy to buy wine for his convent, “which was a very unwelcome task to him, because he had no turn for business, and because he was lame, and could not go about the boat but by rolling himself over the casks. That, however, he gave himself no uneasiness about it, nor about the purchase of the wine. That he said to God, It was His business he was about: and that he afterwards found it very well performed. . . . So likewise in his business in the kitchen, to which he had naturally a great aversion.” 503
The mind, concentrated upon a higher object of interest, is undistracted by its own anxieties, likes, or dislikes; and hence performs the more efficiently the work that is given it to do. Where it does not do so, then the normal make-up or imperfect discipline of the subject, rather than its mystical proclivities, must be blamed. St. Catherine of Genoa found in this divine companionship the power which made her hospital a success. St. Teresa was an administrator of genius and an admirable housewife, and declared that she found her God very easily amongst the pots and pans. 504 Appearances notwithstanding, Mary would probably have been a better cook than Martha, had circumstances required of her this form of activity.
In persons of feeble or diffuse intelligence, however, and above all in victims of a self-regarding spirituality, this deep absorption in the sense of Divine Reality may easily degenerate into monoideism. Then the “shady side” of Illumination, a selfish preoccupation with transcendental joys, the “spiritual gluttony” condemned by St. John of the Cross, comes out. “I made many mistakes,” says Madame Guyon pathetically, “through allowing myself to
Here we see Madame Guyon basking like a pious tabby cat in the beams of the Uncreated Light, and already leaning to the extravagances of Quietism, with its dangerous “double character of passivity and beatitude.” The heroic aspect of the mystic vocation is in abeyance. Those mystical impressions which her peculiar psychic make-up permitted her to receive, have been treated as a source of personal and placid satisfactions; not as a well-spring, whence new vitality might be drawn for great and self-giving activities.
It has been claimed by the early biographers of St. Catherine of Genoa, that she passed in the crisis of her conversion directly through the Purgative to the Unitive Life; and never exhibited the characteristics of the Illuminative Way. This has been effectually disproved by Baron von Hügel, 506 though he too is inclined in her case to reject the usual sequence of the mystic states. Yet the description of Catherine’s condition after her four great penitential years were ended, as given in cap. vi. of the “Vita e Dottrina,” is an almost perfect picture of healthy illumination of the inward or “immanental” type; and makes an effective foil to the passage which I have quoted from Madame Guyon’s life.
No doubt there were hours in which St. Catherine’s experience, as it were, ran ahead; and she felt herself not merely lit up by the Indwelling Light, but temporally merged in it. These moments are responsible for such passages as the beautiful fragment in cap. v.; which does, when taken alone, seem to describe the true unitive state. “Sometimes,” she said, “I do not see or feel myself to have either soul, body, heart, will or taste, or any other thing except Pure Love.” 507 Her normal condition of consciousness, however, was clearly not yet that which Julian of Norwich calls being “oned with bliss”; but rather an intense and continuous communion with an objective Reality which was clearly realized as distinct from herself. “After the aforesaid four years,” says the next chapter of the “Vita,” “there was given unto her a purified mind, free, and filled with God: insomuch that no other thing
“Non voglio quello che esce da te.” When the growing soul has reached this level of desire, the Illuminative Way is nearly at an end. It has seen the goal, “that Country which is no mere vision, but a home,” 509 and is set upon the forward march. So Rabia, the Moslem saint: “O my God, my concern and my desire in this world, is that I should remember thee above all the things of this world, and in the next that out of all who are in that world, I should meet with thee alone.” 510 So Gertrude More: “No knowledge which we can here have of thee can satisfy my soul seeking and longing without ceasing after thee. . . . Alas, my Lord God, what is all thou canst give to a loving soul which sigheth and panteth after thee alone, and esteemeth all things as dung that she may gain thee? What is all I say, whilst thou givest not thyself, who art that one thing which is only necessary and which alone can satisfy
What is the nature of this mysterious mystic illumination? Apart from the certitude it imparts, what is the form which it most usually assumes in the consciousness of the self? The illuminatives seem to assure us that its apparently symbolic name is really descriptive; that they do experience a kind of radiance, a flooding of the personality with new light. A new sun rises above the horizon, and transfigures their twilit world. Over and over again they return to light-imagery in this connection. Frequently, as in their first conversion, they report an actual and overpowering consciousness of radiant light, ineffable in its splendour, as an accompaniment of their inward adjustment.
“Sopr’ onne lengua amore,
bontá senza figura,
lume fuor di mesura
resplende nel mio core,” 512
sang Jacopone da Todi. “Light rare, untellable!” said Whitman. “The flowing light of the Godhead,” said Mechthild of Magdeburg, trying to describe what it was that made the difference between her universe and that of normal men. “Lux vixens dicit,” said St. Hildegarde of her revelations, which she described as appearing in a special light, more brilliant than the brightness round the sun. 513 It is an “infused brightness,” says St. Teresa, “a light which knows no night; but rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it.” 514
“De subito parve giorno a giorno
exclaims Dante, initiated into the atmosphere of heaven; “Lume è lassù”is his constant declaration:
“Cio ch’ io dico è un semplice lume,”
his last word, in the effort to describe the soul’s apprehension of the Being of God. 515
It really seems as though the mystics’ attainment of new levels of consciousness did bring with it the power of perceiving a splendour always there, but beyond the narrow range of our poor sight; to which it is only a “luminous darkness” at the best.
Consider the accent of realism with which St. Augustine speaks of his own experience of Platonic contemplation; a passage in which we seem to see a born psychologist desperately struggling by means of negations to describe an intensely positive state. “I entered into the secret closet of my soul, led by Thee; and this I could do because Thou wast my helper. I entered, and beheld with the mysterious eye of my soul the Light that never changes, above the eye of my soul, above my intelligence. It was not the common light which all flesh can see, nor was it greater yet of the same kind, as if the light of day were to grow brighter and brighter and flood all space. It was not like this, but different: altogether different from all such things. Nor was it above my intelligence in the same way as oil is above water, or heaven above earth; but it was higher because it made me, and I was lower because made by it. He who knoweth the truth knoweth that Light: and who knoweth it, knoweth eternity. Love knoweth it.” 518
Here, as in the cases of St. Teresa, St. Catherine of Genoa, and Jacopone da Todi, we have a characteristically “immanental” description of the illuminated state. The self, by the process which mystics call “introversion,” the deliberate turning inwards of its attention, its conative powers, discerns Reality within the heart: “the rippling tide of love which flows secretly from God into the soul, and draws it mightily back into its source.” 519 But the opposite or transcendental tendency is not less frequent. The cosmic vision of Infinity, exterior to the subject—the expansive, outgoing movement towards a Divine Light,
“Che visible face
lo Creatore a quella creatura,
che solo in lui vedere ha la sua pace,”520