|« Prev||IV. The Characteristics of Mysticism||Next »|
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 every age of thought. Both magic and mysticism in their full development bring the whole mental machinery, conscious and unconscious, to bear on their undertaking: both claim that they give their initiates powers unknown to ordinary men. But the centre round which that machinery is grouped, the reasons of that undertaking, and the ends to which those powers are applied differ enormously. In mysticism the will is united with the emotions in an impassioned desire to transcend the sense-world, in order that the self may be joined by love to the one eternal and ultimate Object of love; whose existence is intuitively perceived by that which we used to call the soul, but now find it easier to refer to as the “cosmic” or “transcendental” sense. This is the poetic and religious temperament acting upon the plane of reality. In magic, the will unites with the intellect in an impassioned desire for supersensible knowledge. This is the intellectual, aggressive, and scientific temperament trying to extend its field of consciousness, until it includes the supersensual world: obviously the antithesis of mysticism, though often adopting its title and style.
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 its love and will, the very source of its energy and life. The mystic is “in love with the Absolute” not in any idle or sentimental manner, but in that vital sense which presses at all costs and through all dangers towards union with the object beloved. Hence, whilst the practice of magic—like the practice of science—does not necessarily entail passionate emotion, though of course it does and must entail interest of some kind, mysticism, like art, cannot exist without it. We must feel, and feel acutely, before we want to act on this hard and heroic scale.
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 111111 See “Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 387, “The Drunken Consciousness is a bit of the Mystic Consciousness.” —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 sharp line, but rather an infinite series of gradations separate the two states. Hence we must look carefully at all the pilgrims on the road; discover, if we can, the motive of their travels, the maps which they use, the luggage which they take, the end which they attain.
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.” 112112 Llama de Amor Viva, II. 26. 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. 113113 Compare above, pp. 24, 26, 57.
“. . . 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.”
At such moments “Transcendental Feeling, welling up from another ‘Part of the Soul’ whispers to Understanding and Sense that they are leaving out something. What? Nothing less than the secret plan of the Universe. And what is that secret plan? The other ‘Part of the Soul’ indeed comprehends it in silence as it is, but can explain it to the Understanding only in the symbolical language of the interpreter, Imagination—in Vision.” 114114 J. A. Stewart, “The Myths of Plato,” p. 40.
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. 115115 “Descriptive Catalogue.” That “life-enhancing power” which has been recognized as the supreme quality of good painting, 116116 See T. Rolleston, “Parallel Paths.” 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 of the genius of rhythm, manifesting the living spirit of things with a clearer beauty and intenser power than the gross impediments of complex matter allow to be transmitted to, our senses in the visible world around us. A picture is conceived as a sort of apparition from a more real world of essential life.” 117117 Laurence Binyon, “Painting in the Far East,” p. 9.
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. 118118 “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” Pt. III, cap. 1. 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
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. 120120 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.”
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 different levels of experience from other people: and this of course means that he sees a different world, since the world as we know it is the product of certain scraps or aspects of reality acting upon a normal and untransfigured consciousness. Hence his mysticism is no isolated vision, no fugitive glimpse of reality, but a complete system of life carrying its own guarantees and obligations. As other men are immersed in and react to natural or intellectual life, so the mystic is immersed in and reacts to spiritual life. He moves towards that utter identification with its interests which he calls “Union with God.” He has been called a lonely soul. He might more properly be described as a lonely body: for his soul, peculiarly responsive, sends out and receives communications upon every side.
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. Beethoven heard the very voice of Reality, and little of it escaped when he translated it for our ears. 121121 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).
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.” 122122 Hugh of St. Victor, “Didascalicon de Studio Legendi.” 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.” 123123 “Fioretti.” Delle Istimati. (Arnold’s translation.)
“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.” 124124 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. He who experiences this joyous exaltation “says not his prayers like other righteous men” but “is taken into marvellous mirth: and, goodly sound being descended into him, as it were with notes his prayers he sings.” 125125 Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xxiii. Compare bk. ii. caps. v. and vi. So Gertrude More—“O lett me sitt alone, silent to all the world and it to me, that I may learn the song of Love.” 126126 “Spiritual Exercises,” p. 30.
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.” 127127 Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xv.
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.”
bk. ii. caps, iii. and xii. Shelley is of the same
“The world can hear not the sweet notes that move
The Sphere whose light is melody to lovers.”
(“The Triumph of Life “)
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 him as “visions” or “voices” which we must look upon as the garment he has himself provided to veil that Reality upon which no man may look and live. The nature of this garment will be largely conditioned by his temperament—as in Rolle’s evident bias towards music, St. Catherine of Genoa’s leaning towards the abstract conceptions of fire and light—and also by his theological education and environment. Cases in point are the highly dogmatic visions and auditions of St. Gertrude, Suso, St. Catherine of Siena, the Blessed Angela of Foligno; above all of St. Teresa, whose marvellous self-analyses provide the classic account of these attempts of the mind to translate transcendental intuitions into concepts with which it can deal.
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.” 129129 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. xv. 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. 130130 “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 3.
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. Mystical, no less than musical and poetic perception, tends naturally—we know not why—to present itself in rhythmical periods: a feature which is also strongly marked in writings obtained in the automatic state. So constant is this law in some subjects that Baron von Hügel adopted the presence or absence of rhythm as a test whereby to distinguish the genuine utterances of St. Catherine of Genoa from those wrongly attributed to her by successive editors of her legend. 131131 Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 189.
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 if we can the characteristics of true mysticism, I think that we have already reached a point at which William James’s celebrated “four marks” of the mystic state, Ineffability, Noetic Quality, Transiency, and Passivity, 132132 “Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 380. will fail to satisfy us. In their place I propose to set out, illustrate and, I hope, justify four other rules or notes which may be applied as tests to any given case which claims to take rank amongst the mystics.
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 towards ever higher levels of reality, ever closer identification with the Infinite. “The mystic experience,” says Récéjac, “ends with the words, ‘I live, yet not I, but God in me.’ This feeling of identification, which is the term of mystical activity, has a very important significance. In its early stages the mystic consciousness feels the Absolute in opposition to the Self . . . as mystic activity goes on, it tends to abolish this opposition. . . . When it has reached its term the consciousness finds itself possessed by the sense of a Being at one and the same time greater than the Self and identical with it: great enough to be God, intimate enough to be me.” 133133 “Les Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 45.
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
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. 135135 “Through Scylla and Charybdis,” p. 264. 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.” 136136 Ennead vi. 9. 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 to acknowledge that they “knew the doctrine” they must have “lived the life”; submitted to the interior travail of the Mystic Way, not merely have reasoned about the mystical experiences of others. We could not well dispense with our Christian Platonists and mystical philosophers. They are our stepping-stones to higher things; interpret to our dull minds, entangled in the sense-world, the ardent vision of those who speak to us from the dimension of Reality. But they are no more mystics than the milestones on the Dover Road are travellers to Calais. Sometimes their words—the wistful words of those who know but cannot be—produce mystics; as the sudden sight of a signpost pointing to the sea will rouse the spirit of adventure in a boy. Also there are many instances of true mystics, such as Eckhart, who have philosophized upon their own experiences, greatly to the advantage of the world; and others—Plotinus is the most characteristic example—of Platonic philosophers who have passed far beyond the limits of their own philosophy, and abandoned the making of diagrams for an experience, however imperfect, of the reality at which these diagrams hint. It were more accurate to reverse the epigram above stated, and say, that Platonism is the reaction of the intellectualist upon mystical truth.
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
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.” 138138 Schmölders, “Les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 55. “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.” 139139 Cap. xix. “It is not enough,” says Gerlac Petersen, “to know by estimation merely: but we must know by experience.” 140140 “Ignitum cum Deo Soliloquium,” cap. xi. So Mechthild of Magdeburg says of her revelations, “The writing of this book was seen, heard, and experienced in every limb. . . . I see it with the eyes of my soul, and hear it with the ears of my eternal spirit.” 141141 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. iv. cap, 13.
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.” 142142 Dialogo, cap. lx.
(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 . . . and there remains a secret, still union, without cloud or colour.” 143143 Tauler, Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday (Winkworth’s translation, p. 253). “I wish not,” said St. Catherine of Genoa, “for anything that comes forth from Thee, but only for Thee, oh sweetest Love!” 144144 Vita e Dottrina, cap. vi. “Whatever share of this world,” says Rabi’a, “Thou dost bestow on me, bestow it on Thine enemies, and whatever share of the next world thou dost give me, give it to Thy friends. Thou art enough for me!” 145145 M. Smith, “Rabi’a the Mystic,” p. 30. “The Soul,” says Plotinus in one of his most profound passages, “having now arrived at the desired end, and participating of Deity, will know that the Supplier of true life is then present. She will likewise then require nothing farther; for, on the contrary it will be requisite to lay aside other things, to stop in this alone, amputating everything else with which she is surrounded.” 146146 Ennead vi. 9.
(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.” 147147 “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.
“‘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.” 148148 Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. i. cap. xxvi.
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.” 149149 Ennead, vi. 9. “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.” 150150 “The Mending of Life,” cap. xi.
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.” 151151 “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 7. 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.” 152152 Dialogo, cap. xxvi.
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 the extremes of Eastern and Western thought: between A Kempis the Christian and Jalalu ‘d Din the Moslem saint.
“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.’” 153153 “De Imitatione Christi,” I. ii. cap. v.
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
Well might Hilton say that “Perfect love maketh God and the soul to be as if they both together were but one thing,” 155155 Treatise to a Devout Man, cap. viii. and Tauler that “the well of life is love, and he who dwelleth not in love is dead.” 156156 Sermon for Thursday in Easter Week (Winkworth’s translation, p. 294).
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 with the Absolute,”—how intensely actual to the mystic is the Object of his passion, how far removed from the spheres of pious duty or philosophic speculation, how concrete, positive and dominant such a passion may be—we must study the literature of autobiography, not that of poetry or exhortation. I choose for this purpose, rather than the well-known self-analyses of St. Augustine, St. Teresa or Suso, which are accessible to every one, the more private confessions of that remarkable mystic Dame Gertrude More, contained in her “Spiritual Exercises.”
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.” 157157 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.
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.” 158158 P. 138. “O let me love, or not live!” 159159 P. 181. 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 soul and thee, there ariseth such a knowledge in the soul that it loatheth all that is an impediment to her further proceeding in the Love of thee. O Love, Love, even by naming thee, my soul loseth itself in thee. . . . Nothing can Satiate a reasonable soul but only thou: and having of thee, who art indeed all, nothing could be said to be wanting to her. . . . Blessed are the cleans of hart for they shall see God. O sight to be wished, desired, and longed for; because once to have seen thee is to have learnt all things. Nothing can bring us to this sight but love. But what love must it be? not a sensible love only, a childish love, a love which seeketh itself more than the beloved. No, no, but it must be an ardent love, a pure love, a courageous love, a love of charity, an humble love, and a constant love, not worn out with labours, not daunted with any difficulties. . . . For that soul that hath set her whole love and desire on thee, can never find any true satisfaction, but only in thee.” 160160 Op. cit. pp. 9, 16, 25, 35, 138, 175.
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.“ 161161 Berger, “William Blake,” p. 72. “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.” 162162 Ibid ., p. 74. 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. 163163 Contemporary Review, April, 1899. 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 his First and only Fair. “I saw Him and sought Him: I had Him and I wanted Him,” says Julian of Norwich, in a phrase which seems to sum up all the ecstasy and longing of man’s soul. Only this mystic passion can lead us from our prison. Its brother, the desire of knowledge, may enlarge and improve the premises to an extent as yet undreamed of: but it can never unlock the doors.
(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.’” 164164 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. iii. cap. 1.
We have said 165165 Supra. p. 35. 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.” 166166 Récéjac, op. cit ., p. 35. 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 is no mystic: though he may well be a visionary, a prophet, a “mystical” poet.
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.” 167167 Revue Philosophique, July, 1902. “He is,” says Pacheu, “the pilgrim of an inward Odyssey.” 168168 “Psychologie des Mystiques Chrétiens,” p 14. 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?” 169169 “Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xxiii.
It is one of the many indirect testimonies to the objective reality of mysticism that the stages of this road, the psychology of the spiritual ascent, as described to us by different schools of contemplatives, always present practically the same sequence of states. The “school for saints” has never found it necessary to bring its curriculum up to date. The psychologist finds little difficulty, for instance, in reconciling the “Degrees of Orison” described by St. Teresa 170170 In “El Castillo Interior.” —Recollection, Quiet, Union, Ecstasy, Rapt, the “Pain of God,” and the Spiritual Marriage of the soul—with the four forms of contemplation enumerated by Hugh of St. Victor, or the Sufi’s “Seven Stages” of the soul’s ascent to God, which begin in adoration and end in spiritual marriage. 171171 See Palmer, “Oriental Mysticism,” pt. v. ch. v. Though each wayfarer may choose different landmarks, it is clear from their comparison that the road is one.
(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.” 172172 Vita, p. 8. Those who do otherwise are only, in the plain words of St. John of the Cross, “spiritual gluttons”: 173173 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. vii. 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.” 174174 “De Consideratione,” I. v. cap. xi. 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.” 175175 “Das Fliessende Light der Gottheit,” pt. vii. cap. 16.
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,” says Dionysius the Areopagite in words which are writ large on the annals of Christian ecstasy, “comes only by means of this sincere, spontaneous, and entire surrender of yourself and all things.” 176176 “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 1. Only with the annihilation of selfhood comes the fulfilment of love. Were the mystic asked the cause of his often extraordinary behaviour, his austere and steadfast quest, it is unlikely that his reply would contain any reference to sublime illumination or unspeakable delights. It is more probable that he would answer in some such words as those of Jacob Boehme, “I am not come to this meaning, or to this work and knowledge through my own reason or through my own will and purpose; neither have I sought this knowledge, nor so much as to know anything concerning it. I sought only for the heart of God, therein to hide myself.” 177177 “Aurora,” English translation, 1764, p. 237.
“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. 178178 Dionysius the Areopagite. “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 3. 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.” 179179 “Mystische Schriften,” p. 137. 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.” 180180 Plotinus, Ennead vi. 9.
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 hiddenness in the mystic, it gradually becomes the dominant factor in his life; subduing to its service, and enhancing by its saving contact with reality, those vital powers of love and will which we attribute to the heart, rather than those of mere reason and perception, which we attribute to the head. Under the spur of this love and will, the whole personality rises in the acts of contemplation and ecstasy to a level of consciousness at which it becomes aware of a new field of perception. By this awareness, by this “loving sight,” it is stimulated to a new life in accordance with the Reality which it has beheld. So strange and exalted is this life, that it never fails to provoke either the anger or the admiration of other men. “If the great Christian mystics,” says Leuba, “could by some miracle be all brought together in the same place, each in his habitual environment, there to live according to his manner, the world would soon perceive that they constitute one of the most amazing and profound variations of which the human race has yet been witness.” 181181 Op. cit.
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.
|« Prev||IV. The Characteristics of Mysticism||Next »|