Sacred-Texts Christianity Angelus Silesius
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THE vicissitudes which the fame of Angelus Silesius has undergone since his death reflect the revolutions of popular taste and philosophic temper. As soon as the blaze of the religious controversies of the seventeenth century had smouldered out, the dust of their ashes settled thickly over his polemical writings. The vital experience which inspired his devotional poetry kept it afloat long after most of the religious versification or his day had sunk into oblivion. The piety of Germany never ceased to find an appropriate voice in the language of his hymns. But after the publication of the complete edition of the Cherubinic Wanderer in 1737 that work shared in the contempt with which the exponents of the Aufklärung dismissed the heritage of German mystical literature. It emerged to view, however, at the turn of the century, when the troubled and questing soul of Romanticism began to re-explore the forgotten habitations of man's spirit. An article by Friedrich Schlegel in 1819 reawakened interest in the seventeenth-century mystic. Both Hegel and Schopenhauer acknowledged the depth of his spiritual insight. Monographs, in which the Christian orthodoxy of his doctrines were debated, followed one another in the succeeding years. The generation that experienced the wave of prosperity following the establishment of the Empire lent a less attentive ear to the spokesman p. 66 of the mystical tradition, but the definitive editions of Georg Ellinger and H. L. Held are proofs that the voice of the Silesian mystic still finds a response in the modern world.
The work by which the name of Angelus Silesius will always be primarily remembered appeared in 1657 under the title of Geist-reiche Sinn- und Schluss-reime zur göttlichen Beschaulichkeit anleitend (Sapiential Rhyming Sentences and Epigrams Conducive to Divine Contemplation). It was divided into five books, containing in all 1,413 verses, mostly couplets, together with ten supplementary sonnets. To the second edition, printed at Glatz in 1675 and bearing the title of Cherubinischer Wandersmann, a sixth book was added. A third edition, the last to appear during the author's lifetime, was issued without change in the following year at Glogau.
The first five books may be presumed to have been written after Scheffler's arrival at Oels and before his public confession of the Catholic faith, that is to say, between the years 1651 and 1653. In substance they carry on the thought of the medieval German mystics, modified by the speculation of those post-Reformation writers, notably Sebastian Franck, Valentine Weigel and Jacob Böhme, who chiefly influenced the members of the Franekenberg circle. In their concentration upon inward spiritual experience and in their freedom from specific dogmatic tenets these books may be said to represent that Cor Religionum, the kernel of the Christian faith, which Franckenberg claimed to have exemplified. The soul needs no induction into the presence of God. "Away with mediation!" the poet p. 67 cries, "no man must build a wall before my sight." There is no magical virtue in baptism—lilies can be trampled into the mire. The Eucharist is transcended in the spiritual experience of every man who has become one with God (vergöttet), for such an one eats and drinks God in every piece of bread. The authority of the Book is no more binding than that of the Church. Scripture is mere writing (Die Schrift ist Schrift, sonst nichts). God speaks his word only to the heart. The doctrine of justification by faith is dismissed as worthless—belief unaccompanied by love is like an empty cask, "it soundeth but within is naught."
In the third book and first part of the fourth a change of tone is noticeable. The gaze which had sought to pierce beyond the stars now turns towards the person of the human Saviour and to the figures of the saints. Verses dedicated to St. Teresa and St. Ignatius suggest a new orientation towards the literature of Neo-Catholicism. The epitaphs for St. Gertrude and St. Mechtild may furnish an indication of the date of this section if they are taken in conjunction with Franckenberg's gift of the book containing their Revelations, which Scheffler caused to be so preciously rebound in March 1652. In the later portion of the fourth and the whole of the fifth book the Christological motives once again recede into the background and the wider themes of the first and second books are resumed. The transition to overt Catholicism appears not yet to have taken place.
The supplementary sixth book, first published in 1675, breathes a different atmosphere. The mystical p. 68 element is overlaid by a severe didacticism. The gleams of purest spiritual insight which light up its pages show like rifts of blue between threatening clouds. The emphasis falls principally upon the need for action. The dominant image is that of the soldier. The drums roll and the bugle summons the Christian to rouse himself from the bed of sloth, to cast away all the impediments of worldly goods and to devote himself to a life of ceaseless vigilance and warfare. Exhortation passes occasionally from expostulation into abuse. As in the Sinnliche Beschreibung der vier letzten Dinge the reader is to be shocked and goaded into the narrow path. The assertion that "wisdom in God" belongs exclusively to the Catholic Christian measures the distance traversed from the undogmatic detachment of the earlier books. The poet is writing no longer for the mystical initiate but for the practising Catholic whom he seeks to spur to more strenuous moral effort. Nevertheless the intercurrence of the earlier mystical strain links the sixth book with the preceding five and suggests that its composition, at least in part, antedates by a considerable period its publication in 1675.
The Cherubinic Wanderer consists of a series of detached reflections upon the spiritual world and the moral life, for the most part expressed in a more or less epigrammatic form. Its range embraces metaphysical and theological speculation, moral apophthegms, hortatory maxims, outpourings of personal devotion, spontaneous expressions of hope, endeavour, joy and compunction. The sources of these brief notations of the phases of religious experience are widely various. p. 69 Many of them are condensed transcriptions of passages taken from the classic pages of the literature of Christian mysticism. Others owe their occasions to meditation upon an incident of Scripture, the succession of the Christian feasts, an aspect of nature, an encounter with a friend, the introspection of the depths of the soul. No general design governs the arrangement of the individual books or of the work as a whole. There are frequent repetitions and, consequent upon the poet's changing moods, frequent contradictions. The only unity which the work possesses is that of the author's mind; it follows the path traced by his wandering footsteps as he explores, with confidence or misgiving, the realm of the spirit.
The explorer was not adventuring upon uncharted regions. However obscure or bewildering the landscape that presented itself to his gaze, it had been surveyed and described by innumerable travellers before him. The Cherubinic Wanderer made no new discoveries, added nothing to the reports which had been compiled by the great Christian mystics in the thousand years between St. Augustine and St. John of the Cross. In his Preface, Angelus Silesius acknowledges his indebtedness to St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventura, Tauler, Ruysbroeck, the author of the Theologia Germanica, Thomas a Jesu, Nicolaus a Jesu, Harphius, Ludovicus Blosius, Maria de Escobar and others. Eckhart, to whom perhaps his debt was the greatest, he passes over in silence, mindful no doubt of his condemnation by the Holy See; still less does he care to acknowledge his obligations to his Protestant p. 70 mentors, Weigel, Böhme, Czepko and Franckenberg, in a book which was required to receive the Catholic imprimatur.
As in the content of his verse so also in its form Angelus Silesius can claim no large measure of originality. The rhymed hexametric couplet was already established as a popular vehicle for epigram and aphorism, spiritual as well as profane, and had been skilfully handled by the poets Martin von Opitz, Friedrich von Logau and Andreas Gryphius, all of whom, it is of interest to note, were natives of Silesia. Among the members of the Franckenberg circle it had provided a convenient means for the concise formulation of their distinctive doctrines. By far the most proficient versifier of the group was Daniel von Czepko, whose Sexcenta Monodisticha Sapientium was certainly in Franckenberg's hands, and therefore accessible to Angelus Silesius, in 1651. It may indeed have been this work that gave him the immediate stimulus to the composition of the Cherubinic Wanderer. Certainly it served him as a model, and even in certain instances as a quarry, from which he appropriated with but slight verbal alterations the finished products of Czepko's workmanship.1
It was not, however, in the writings of his contemporaries, but in the classical works of the great German mystics of the fourteenth century, that Angelus Silesius discovered the major part of his treasure-trove. His achievement was to melt down the gold of the Gothic mintage and reissue it with a stamp that would give it currency in the age of Baroque. His task was facilitated by the nature of the material that he worked upon. Eckhart, the father of German speculative mysticism, found the most effective channel for the conveyance of his teaching in the popular sermon. In order to impress his message most sharply upon his hearers, he sought for the vivid image, the startling paradox, the brief, pregnant, incisive, unforgettable phrase. These were further shaped in passing from mouth to mouth and from pen to pen until they attained complete independence of their context and came to constitute a kind of corpus of mystical wisdom, forming the elements from which subsequent discourses and tractates were built up. Hence the Spruch—the sentence, the gnomic saying, the epigram—tended to become the unit of mystic literature.
The bulk of his matter, therefore, came to Angelus Silesius already cast in a more or less epigrammatic, at any rate in an aphoristic, mould. The answer to the inquiry as to whether and how far he was able to improve upon his originals must of necessity rest upon the adoption of a particular standard of taste. To the age of Opitz the diction of Eckhart sounded as uncouth as that of Chaucer to the age of Dryden. A later generation may find the ruggedness of the Gothic p. 72 enunciation more agreeable than the refinement of the accent of Baroque. It must be remembered, moreover, that while Eckhart had at his command an organ with a multitude of stops, Angelus played upon an instrument of far smaller compass. Nevertheless, as a French critic remarked, even a distich may have its longueurs. Böhme's diamond phrases—"In der Uberwindung ist Freude," "So du heiligl ebest, so bist du selher Gott," "In Ja und Nein bestehen alle Dinge"1—may lose their sparkle when reset in pairs of hexameters. The alexandrine couplet was a Procrustean bed, the fixed dimensions of which necessitated a forced stretching or curtailment, both alike capable of inflicting injury upon the limbs of speech destined to be fitted to it.
In general, however, the locus classicus of mystical literature emerged from its transmutation into the couplet of the Cherubinic Wanderer with sharper precision and not seldom with greater vigour. Angelus Silesius was a match for any of his predecessors in audacity of phrase. His common practice was to arrest the attention immediately by an assertion designed to provoke astonishment. "I am as great as God," "I am myself Eternity," "I must be Mary," "I disbelieve in Death," "God is a sheer Nothing," "God is not high or deep," "'Tis thou thyself that makest Time," "To practise love is troublesome"—may be cited as instances of his method of posing in the initial phrase an enigma which the remainder of the couplet p. 73 is devoted to elucidating. Conversely the surprise may be delayed till the conclusion, following upon the enunciation of a commonplace. To the moderation of "Too much is never good" succeeds the seeming immoderation of "and yet I wish I were as full of God as Jesus is!" The orthodoxy of the opening clause, "We pray God's will be done," leads to the unexpected sequel "and lo! He hath no will." Aiming always at inducing a condition of breathlessness in the reader, Angelus intensified the effect of surprise by multiplying contrasts. "Go out—God goeth in; die to thyself—and live to God; be not—He is; do naught—His bidding's done"—so rapid a discharge of antitheses is suggestive of an almost strained determination to allow no breathing-space even within the brief span of a couplet. Yet another means of vivifying his statements was sought in the use of unfamiliar images. "Load a live charge into your gun" enforces the necessity of the heart being filled with the explosive quality of love. Tolerate differences in others, "for the nightingale finds no fault with the cuckoo's note." God drives a merchant's trade, seraphim cart dung, the devil is seen sitting upon God's throne and anger in the heart burns up the "little bed" whereon the Holy Ghost doth rest.
It was precisely in his search for astonishing novelties and unprecedented effects of chiaroscuro that Angelus Silesius reveals most unmistakeably the influence of the spirit of Baroque. In his translation of the script of mysticism it cannot but be admitted that he occasionally lapsed from the purity of his models. Fertility in the invention of the conceit was demanded p. 74 of the Baroque poet, and Angelus Silesius followed the fashion of the time when he indulged in a sophistication which sometimes disfigured rather than illuminated his thought.1 In this respect his verse suggests a comparison with the interiors of the churches of his native Breslau, in which a specious and irrelevant incrustation overlays the simplicity of the Gothic shell.
If the rank of Angelus Silesius as a poet is to be measured by the degree of the resonance and sweetness of those overtones which detach themselves from the bare logical sense of the words and without which verse is only formally distinguished from prose, he can scarcely be assigned a very exalted place in the poetic hierarchy. He did not possess the poet's magical Open Sesame to aid him in forcing the locks of the doors which open upon infinity. A great part of the content of his verse was indeed intractable to the transmuting touch of poetry. He was a moralist as well as a mystic; and while the field of morals yields a rich harvest to the aphorist, it affords but a scanty gleaning to the poet. It was much if by a happy stroke of the pen he promoted many of his moral truisms to the rank of epigrams. But the temper which makes the fortune of the aphorist, the aroused tolerance spiced p. 75 with malice, could not exist side by side with the passionate concern of one for whom the most trivial of human actions was weighty with tremendous issues. For Angelus the spectacle of human life was not a comedy but a tragedy; and if at times his voice became strident and shrill he could plead in excuse that it was not his business to amuse but to warn and exhort.
In his view also of the natural world he never attained to that disinterestedness of gaze by virtue of which brooks and stones possess a precious value for the spirit apart from the books and sermons which a moralizing eye may find inscribed in them. For the poet the least of the objects of sense exists in its own right and in its own integrity; but for Angelus Silesius even the noblest shone only with the splendour of its unseen original, for a glimpse of which he was willing to barter all the fragmentary gleams of merely earthly beauty. If it is inferred from this inevitable bias of vision that the mystic is self-excluded from the company of the poets—a conclusion which would have to meet a challenging citation of names—the inference may be allowed to hold good of the medieval mystics who followed the Negative Way, and it was from them rather than from their post-Reformation successon, who read delightedly in the open book of Nature, that the author of the Cherubinic Wanderer traced his lineage. Mysticism did indeed give wings to his verse, but only to enable him to soar above the world of sense until at last words themselves proved too opaque and ponderous to serve as pinions in so pure an ether. He addressed himself to the impossible task of saying the p. 76 unsayable. He endeavoured to speak in the local idiom of the mystics, with its meagre and well-thumbed vocabulary of symbols, the secrets which can only be uttered by tongues of fire. But so long as this idiom is spoken and listened to, not a few of the cadences of Angelus Silesius will always linger in the memory.
To review even summarily the basic ideas embodied in the Cherubinic Wanderer would involve a recapitulation of the philosophy of mysticism. All that can be attempted here is to gather into a few major strands the discrete utterances which Angelus Silesius made no endeavour to co-ordinate, and to offer a few clues which may help in the unravelling of the paradoxical expression of his thought.
Any thread in the skein which we may choose to take hold of leads, if followed to its conclusion, to the central fact of the mystical doctrine, namely, the union, or according to a more radical interpretation, the identity, of the true self of the individual with the larger self of the All, whether it be termed God, the Absolute, or Ultimate Reality. This conception or experience found its earliest and briefest expression in the formula of the Upanishads, "That art Thou." Let us consider the two terms of the synthesis, first the That and then the Thou.
One of the essential keys in the elucidation of mystical thought consists in the distinction between the twofold aspect under which the That, the divine Reality, may be viewed, namely as personal or impersonal, p. 77 God or Godhead. Not a little of the obscurity which involves the utterance of Angelus Silesius is due to the fact that he did not always articulate this distinction clearly. The term God is understood as the creative principle whose fiat called man and the universe into being. God stands over against the world as its Maker. The Creator is the correlative or the Creation. He is revealed to us in the universe which he has created. He is conceived as possessing attributes analogous to the qualities of our human nature. He is moved to love, to wrath, to sorrow, to pity. He continually sustains the world which he has created and watches over his children with paternal solicitude. He is in a word a Person, with whom man can enter into personal relations, and is most perfectly revealed to our heart and understanding under the type of Father.
But in conceiving a Creator who stands above or outside Creation we have already broken up the indivisible unity of the All. We are still in a world of relatives and have not yet reached the Absolute, which by definition has nothing relative to it. When the quest of unity is pursued to its utmost limit it issues in "the One" who is above all relations and determinations. This ultimate Reality—Deitas, Gottheit, Godhead—comprehends but is not comprehended by the generative energy which manifested itself in creation. God is revealed in and through Creation—without the creatures, Eckhart said, God would not be God; but the Godhead lies eternally unrevealed behind and beyond all its manifestations, as the unplumbed depth p. 78 of ocean lies beneath the lighted surface visible to the eye. It is an undifferentiated unity, unknown, unknowable, anonymous, colourless.
It follows, therefore, that we can affirm nothing positive of the Godhead. In ascribing to it any definite attribute we thereby exclude the opposite of this attribute, and nothing must be excluded from the That which comprehends everything. To define is to limit and to diminish. If we say that God is good or that he is wise, Eckhart declares, it is not true. "There is no knowing what God is. Something we do know, namely, what God is not." All that we can truthfully say about the Godhead is that it is "not this," "not that," since to describe it by any adjective would be to determine it, and the Absolute is indetermination itself. Un Dieu difini est un Dieu fini.
This trend of reflection brings us to the via negativa—the familiar Negative Way of mysticism. Being indefinable, or definable only in negative terms, the Godhead must appear from our human standpoint as the very essence of Negation, and the mystics did not scruple to designate it by the term Nihil. For Eckhart the Deity was the "Nameless Nothing," the "Super-essential Naught," "the Still Wilderness where no one is at home." Expressions of a similar nature occur in the Cherubinic Wanderer: "God is a sheer Naught—the more thou graspest after Him the more He escapes thee," "The Godhead is a Super-Naught," "a colourless Sea," "God is not high or deep," "God neither loves nor lives."
These and many other riddling statements in the p. 79 Cherubinic Wanderer lose their effect of bewilderment if they are interpreted as expressions of the inability of the human mind to describe an Absolute which transcends an distinctions. They are so many warnings, inscribed in the boldest characters, against the naturally anthropomorphic tendency of our thought. If they seem to reduce the Godhead to an impenetrable darkness, "the fault is in our eye and not in that great Light." The Light which is beyond all light is but "dark with excessive bright." It is the absence of the finitude that characterizes our thinking that gives to infinite Fullness the appearance of infinite Void.
Like the That, the divine Essence, so also the Thou, the self, possesses a twofold aspect. "God and Godhead," Eckhart states, "are as different from one another as heaven is from earth. And I maintain still further that the outer and the inner man are as infinitely different as heaven and earth." The outer man is the empirical or personal I, the mortal body with its psychic filling, the earthly, creaturely I which constitutes a distinguishable person and makes a man a Henry or a Conrad. This all-too-human I, which appears and passes away, accidental and fundamentally unreal, can never aspire to become one with the divine Reality. It is but the outward shell which encloses the inner or essential I.
The central thought which runs through the Cherubinic Wanderer may be summed up in Eckhart's phrase, "Wouldst thou have the kernel, then must the shell be broken." For kernel and shell Angelus employs the scholastic terms essence and accident.
|Become essential, Man. When the world fails at last,|
Accident falls away, But Essence, that stands fast.
In order to liberate the inward, essential self, the outward, accidental self must be abandoned. Self-abandonment (Gelassenheit) constitutes the indispensable mystical technique by means of which the goal of union with the divine is to be attained. The corner-stone upon which the whole structure of mysticism rests is the gospel paradox that the self is saved by being lost, lives by dying. In the mouth of Angelus Silesius this was no mere rhetorical trope. He accepted it in its fullest significance and pursued it to its furthest conclusion. The truth that selflessness is the apex of the spiritual life doubtless represents in a general sense the open secret of all the higher religions. But the paradox implicit in the selflessness of self is usually eluded by diluting selflessness to an amiable altruism. For Angelus, however, self-abandonment meant not merely the abandonment of egoistic motives, but the abandonment, the radical annihilation, of the self itself. The self must make an unconditional surrender of its selfhood. It must lose all sense of self-identity, of particularity, of otherness. Above all, it must be quit of all desires, whether for rewards, for happiness, for a future life, or even for God himself; for the persistence of any desire attests the fact that the desiring self still lives on. It must die. It must cease to be. The categorical imperative of Angelus Silesius is Sei nicht—Be not.
If this were the conclusion of the whole matter, if the goal to be attained were merely cessation of existence, p. 81 the doctrine embodied in the Cherubinic Wanderer might appear to be scarcely distinguishable from that of Buddhistic nihilism, culminating in the total extinction of self in Nirvana. But just at this point is disclosed the radiant secret which transforms mysticism from a religion of despair to one of rapture. The self, having shed off everything which constituted it a self, is seen to be one with the divine Essence! The Other, for which the self craved so long as it was a self, is no longer other. Rid of its selfhood the self finds that in its inmost essence it is abiding in the Godhead whence it has never "gone out."
|Im Grenzenlose sich zu finden|
Wird gern der Einzelne verschwinden.1
Gladly does the self surrender its individuality in order to find itself in the boundless Whole. The relation of subject to object, of creature to Creator, ceases to exist. The problem of how the finite can ever know the Infinite finds its solution in the obliteration of the distinction between Knower and Known. I and Thou are indistinguishable terms. The Thou discovers itself to be one with the That. There remains, as Angelus phrased it, "a single Light and a single Splendour."
What appears at first sight to be the arrogance or an overweening egoism in many of the assertions of the Cherubinic Wanderer loses all its outrageousness if construed in the light of this distinction, not always clear in the text, between the accidental and the essential self.
|Once I was God in God, or ever I was I,|
And can be God again if this I could but die.
When the I of Angelus Silesius perishes, not by physical death but by the death of its selfhood, then the I of the soul's uncreated essence alone remains, inseverable from the Deity as it was before the Creation. Strictly speaking there is no "before," since Creation is not a temporal process. The essential, eternal I is occluded by the temporal I, which must "unself" itself and become an "Unthing" in order that its immortal companion may be freed and reabsorbed in the ocean of the Godhead.
The shell, therefore, which must be broken before the inner kernel can be found is Selfhood. That which impedes the union of the self with God is the self's sense of "I" and "Me" and "Mine." "It is the property of God," says the author of the Theologia Germanica, "to be without this and that, and without Self and Me, and without equal or fellow; but it is the nature and property of the creature to seek itself and its own things, and this and that, here and there; and in all that it doeth and leaveth undone its desire is to its own advantage and profit. Now where a creature or man forsaketh and cometh out of himself and his own things, there God entereth in with his own, that is, with himself." "Where the creature ends, there God begins," Eckhart declares. "Now God demands of thee nothing more imperatively than that thou shalt go out of thyself, so far as thou art creaturely, and let God be God in thee." The same theme is recurrent in various forms in the Cherubinic Wanderer. "Go out and so God p. 83 cometh in," "The more thou canst pour thyself out of thyself, the more must God with all his Godhead flow into thee," "The more thou canst annul thyself, the more thou hast of Deity." The quality of selfhood is like a prison wall; only when the wall is thrown down can the prisoner escape and breathe again the native air of heaven. Selfhood is sin. Angelus enforces this view in a daring image when he says that if the Devil could only lose his "His-ness" straightway we should see the Devil sitting upon God's throne. Nothing separates the Devil from God but the fact of selfhood. Conversely he asserts that if there were a trace of selfwill in Christ, "believe me, he would fall."
The abandonment of self, with all its desire for its own advantage and profit, with its craving for a particular this or that, with its longing even for God, constitutes the spiritual death which is the prerequisite of absorption in the Godhead. The outward man must die hourly. "Die ere thou diest—then, dying, thou diest not"; that is, do not let physical death overtake you before you have died the spiritual death. For the spiritual death is death unto life. The death of the outward, accidental man is the birth of the inward, essential man. "That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die." Thus far this is the norm of Christian doctrine. But the thought of Angelus Silesius, following that of Eckhart, proceeds to unveil a more hidden mystery. This birth of the inner man in the Godhead is identified with the birth of the divine Son. The birth of the Son, like the creation of the world, is an eternal process. "God eternally brings forth his Son p. 84 like unto himself," Eckhart declares. "But I say, furthermore, he has brought him forth in my soul. Not merely is she with him and he equally with her, but he is in her, and the Father gives birth to the Son in the soul in the very same way as he gives him birth in eternity, and in none other." Eckhart pursues the mystery still farther. The birth of the Son is God's realization of his own essence. For Eckhart proceeds: "Yea, I declare moreover, not only doth God give birth to me as his Son, he gives birth to me as himself and himself as me, he gives birth to me as his own essence and as his own nature." Angelus expresses this thought in such phrases as "I must give birth to God," "I must be pregnant with God," "I help him to sustain his being as much as he helps to sustain mine." Here the mystical doctrine of the oneness of the uncreated essence of the soul with the essence of Deity loses itself in an O Altitudo!
The relation between the accidental and the essential self is presented in the Cherubinic Wanderer as corresponding with the relation between Time and Eternity. The empirical individual occupies a particular station in time and place, but simultaneously with the spiritual birth all temporal and spatial fetters fall away. Eternity is the sphere or habitat of Reality, Time the abode of the fragmentary and unreal. It is the illusion of the accidental self. "'Tis thou thyself that makest Time." Time is made by the unrest of the senses which continually crave for a particular this and that. The aim of the mystic is to pass from Time into Eternity, a p. 85 process which is identical with the spiritual birth or divine union.
Eternity, as Angelus Silesius understands it, has nothing to do with perpetuity of existence or infinite longevity. It is another dimension of being. It is rather an experience or a state, the state of perfection, in which futurity is inconceivable, for there is nothing further to seek. It is the desired state (der gewünschte Stand) to which the soul aspires. Nothing could be falser from this point of view than the notion that at death we are, as the common phrase goes, "launched into eternity." The merely physical destruction of the psycho-physical organism does not automatically bring in its train so great a prize. Death is not a kind of magic which converts accident into essence. The only death that can win admittance to Eternity is the spiritual death, which is also the spiritual birth. Hence we do not have to wait until our earthly, creaturely life has run its course before we can enter upon the Eternal Life. The art of spiritual living consists in the faculty of living in Eternity here and now. Time and Eternity are in a sense interpenetrating; both are present simultaneously as two different perspectives are present to the eye from the same point of view. The one presents a view of reality, the other its unreal reflection in the mirror of time. The aim of the mystic is to pass from the temporal to the Eternal Now. "If there is any difference between Time and Eternity," Angelus Silesius says, paraphrasing the verse of Böhme quoted by Franckenberg, "it is because the difference is made by you yourself." His twofold summons, "Be p. 86 Eternity" and "Become essential," have one and the same significance.1
Just as little reality attaches to space as to time. Both are perspectives viewed from the finite individual's station in a particular here and now. Both issue from his finitude and ignorance. It is we who create space just as we create time. We are not in space, but space is in us. Place being unreal, it follows that Heaven and Hell have no local status. And just as it is possible to be in eternity while still in the midst of time, so it is possible to be in Heaven or Hell while still upon earth. Heaven and Eternity are terms denoting the same blessed state of the soul which has lost the sense of selfhood.
In his view of the relation of the soul to the created world Angelus Silesius follows the main line of thought traced out by Eckhart in his sermons. God did not create the world in time, since in the Godhead there is neither Before nor After. Creation is coeval with God. "For as soon as He was God," Eckhart asserts, "as soon as He begat His coeternal and coequal Son, He created the world." Angelus restates the essence of this passage in his favourite form of question and answer: after inquiring how we ought to date the p. 87 year of the world's creation, he replies, "Not otherwise than thus, the first year of God's origin." The world, which is the outcome of this never-ceasing creative process, is not, however, the world of phenomena but of essences or prototypes. It is the thinking out of God's thoughts. When God, as it were, turning his gaze inwards upon himself, becomes conscious of himself he beholds the infinite riches of his nature, and in this self-contemplation, or self-objectification, the divine Ideas are born, or rather not born but discovered. True being belongs only to this world of perfect and changeless essences, of which the world of time and place is but a transitory and shadowy reflection. When Angelus says that the world does not pass away but only the darkness in which it is involved, he is speaking of the world of essences which are God's thoughts. Through every created thing shines as through a crystal the light of its uncreated essence.
|The rose which here thou seest with thine outward eye|
Hath blossomed in God from all eternity.1
The things of this world are fleeting embodiments in a perishing substance of divine Ideas. In this sense, as the thoughts of God, they are all perfect and all alike of equal worth—the common pebble is not less precious than the ruby, the frog is as beautiful as the seraph and its harsh croaking as melodious in the ear of God as the song of the lark. It is only our human estimation which gives to things their relative values of better and worse.
The author of the Cherubinic Wanderer, like his master Eckhart, has frequently been charged with holding views of the nature of the world which are indistinguishable from pantheism, and it can scarcely be denied that many of his utterances, if taken at their face-value, give colour to this supposition. He himself, while rebutting the charge in his Introduction, admits that owing to their brevity and compression his verses were liable to misinterpretation. If pantheism is understood as the identification of the material universe with God, then Angelus is anything but a pantheist. The burden of his message is the unreality of creatures in themselves. For the pantheist Nature is divine and there is no God above or beyond Nature. For Angelus, Nature is but a medium which imperfectly transmits the light of the divine reality. Things are real only so far as they exist in God, and so far as they are not in God their existence is illusory. It is when they claim reality for themselves by virtue of an independent selfhood that they are most unreal. The assertion of a self, the exercise of selfwill, is an act by which the creature alienates itself from God and cuts itself loose from the roots of Being.
God has manifested himself in Creation, yet be is infinitely more than the sum of his manifestations. "The fullness of the creatures," says Eckhart, "can as little express God as a drop of water can express the sea." The question, then, arises whether our aspiration to know God in his fullness will be forwarded or hindered by our contemplation of Nature or "creatures." Eckhart maintained that creatures were a mere naught. p. 89 "I do not say that they are insignificant or that they are anything at all; they are merely nothing. What has no being is nothing. Creatures have no real being, for their being consists in the presence of God," Angelus echoes this view in the verse in which he says, "Thou lovest actually nothing if thou lovest a something. God is not This or That—therefore let the something go." So far from leading the soul to God, creatures are rather an obstacle in the soul's upward progress, for they entangle it in the illusory world of time and space from which it would fain be free. In his passionate apprehension of God as the unity underlying all diversity Angelus tended to view the diversity of nature with an almost disparaging eye, as if its broken hues literally stained the white radiance of eternity. The ocean of the Godhead is colourless. Colour, distinction, individuation—all these denote a kind of separatism from the undivided reality and therefore to rest in them is to linger on the way that leads to union with the Godhead. "If thou wilt find perfect comfort and delight, see that thou art quit of all creatures," Eckhart counsels, "and of all comforts of creatures. It is quite certain that so long as creatures comfort thee, are able to comfort thee, so long thou wilt never find true comfort." He who has God, Angelus constantly iterates, has all; to wish for anything beside is a kind of infidelity, like that of the bride who wishes for other lovers beside her spouse. He who has the sun has no need to scarch the sky for stars.
This is a harsh doctrine for a poet, and it may be that Angelus would have been a better poet if he had never p. 90 embraced it. We continually discern in him a kind of violence done to his poetic nature, a strain between his esthetic and his metaphysic. Mundus pulcherrimum nihil—his metaphysic led him to the conclusion that the phenomenal world is a mere nothing, but his senses assured him none the less of its beauty. He resolved this contradiction by referring the beauty to the divine essence of which the phenomenon was the pale reflection; but it has been justly remarked that a "view of the world as a pale reflection of the Ideas leads in practice to a contempt for visible things."1 In Angelus Silesius it led not so much to contempt as to a kind of dread of the suasion of beauty. He seems almost to resent the pleadingness with which the transitory beauties of earth solicited his attention and sought to draw it away from fixation upon the Unity which is above diversity. It does not clearly appear, however, how a divine Idea or essence can be known and loved except through its manifestation in a temporal appearance; and in several verses in the Cherubinic Wanderer the poet suggests that the beauty of appearances may lead the soul to an apprehension of the infinitely more glorious beauty of the divine Reality. With one who complains that creatures are a hindrance he remonstrates, "How so?—to me all creatures must be a way to God."
Nevertheless his attitude in face of the beauty of the world remains a wavering one. For though the myriad forms of nature reflect the beauty of the divine Countenance they also obscure it, as a mirror that is p. 91 shattered into fragments distorts the image which is perfect only in its unity. The poet, we feel, would willingly let his eyes rest upon everything that the sun illuminates with its light, but the mystic must keep his gaze turned upon the sun itself, even though its intolerable brightness blinds his sight. He must strip himself of his selfhood, and with his selfhood of his awareness of other selves, of every particular this and that. He must pass beyond creatures, beyond even the Creator, if he would lose himself in the Divine Darkness where there is neither seeing nor hearing. He must close both eyes and ears to the distractions of sense before he can make the salto mortale into the lap of the Absolute.
The mystic must walk warily if he is to maintain his balance on the razor edge of orthodoxy. Quietism, no less than pantheism, threatens to engulf him; and in the seventeenth century, under the influence of Miguel de Molinos, it captured the hearts of many of the devouter members of the Catholic Church. The suspension of thought in prayer and contemplation and the passivity of the will, which the Quietist upheld as the highest stage of the spiritual life, ran counter to the Church's insistence upon the necessity of active co-operation with divine grace. Angelus Silesius emphasizes alternately and with a seeming contradiction the need of both the quickening and the deadening of the will. "By thy will thou art saved," he asserts, and contrarily, "The dead will ruleth." The contradiction is not insoluble, for the death of the will is self-inflicted and therefore in itself an act of voluntarism. p. 92 The goal of willing is willessness. For Eckhart, Tauler and the author of the Theologia Germania, selfwill (Eigenwille), the assertion of a separate selfhood, was the very essence of sin, the sole real evil in the world. Its eradication demanded the exercise of the supreme powers of the soul. But when once the victory was won and all the exorbitant desires of the lower creaturely self annihilated, then the will had nothing more to do but to remain passive and expectant; for a void had been created which God alone could fill. The creature acts no more, but God acts in him. The silence has been established in which God speaks. The Soul, having emptied her house of all her ruinous and turbulent guests, having swept and garnished it, has nothing further to do but to wait in stillness and solitude the coming of her Lord and Master.
A mystic has been described as one who is in love with the Absolute, and the religion of Angelus Silesius, at all events in its earlier phase, was a longing to penetrate through all the veils of sense and thought to an experience of immediate contact with pure Being. Bleak and frigid as such a religion must appear in its exaltation of a Deity so void of all known or conceivable qualities, of all the colour and warmth belonging to familiar finite existences, that it can be spoken of only in terms of negation as a Dark Night or a Silent Wilderness, nevertheless it has always possessed an attraction for a certain type of mind and one that is frequently far from insensible to the delightful variegation of the landscape of the world of appearances. Especially to spirits sensitive to the transience and p. 93 tragedy of human life there is a soothing balm in the assurance that all the broken and conflicting elements of existence as we know it somehow constitute a perfect and harmonious Whole, that beyond the flux of change there is One who changes not, that at the heart of the tumult there is a perpetual calm. Even one to whom the tumult had brought only wounds and disaster might be contented, like a fallen soldier, if he but heard "the distant strains of triumph break agonized and clear." To the mystic, however, the triumph is not distant and future but immediate and present. The blissful harmonious experience of the Absolute is his experience. But yet—and here reason stumbles—in what sense is it "his"? For the very condition of participation in that experience is the abandonment of self, of the personal I as a self-conscious separate entity. The finite can only attain to ultimate reality by ceasing to be finite. The ocean of the Absolute drowns all those who would swim in it. This is a price which those can scarcely be willing to pay for whom religion means principally the promise of personal immortality, the guarantee of a future world in which the dear familiar self can continue its thrilling and delightful adventures with indefinitely enhanced possibilities of success and happiness. Nor can those whose longing is for a God of love and sympathy find the satisfaction of their needs in an impersonal Absolute. "The Deity which they want is of course finite, a person much like themselves, with thoughts and feelings mutable in the process or time. They desire a person in the sense of a self among and over against other selves, moved by p. 94 personal relations and feelings towards these others—feelings and relations which are altered by the conduct of others. And for their purpose, what is not this, is really nothing."1
The Absolute is neither personal nor interested in persons. It stands above every particular This and That. It identifies itself with no partial interest, not even with the interest of goodness. To call God good, Eckhart declares to be as absurd as to call the sun black; and Angelus Silesius asserts that "in his self of Deity God feels no pain for sin in thee." And thus when he seeks for an ultimate answer to the riddle of existence he finds it only in the supposition that it is but a kind of divine game which has no other purpose beyond the playing of it.
|All this is but a game, which God|
Fashioneth for Himself alone.
We are reminded of the reply of the Indian saint who, when asked by his disciple why the divine Mother has bound us hand and foot with the chains of the world, answered, "Well, I suppose it is Her pleasure. It is Her pleasure to go on with Her sport with all the things that She has brought into existence."2
To suggest, however, that the spiritual intuition of Angelus Silesius culminated in this vision of divine apathy would be to misrepresent his fundamental conviction. He who is truly in love with the Absolute must not look to be loved in return, and the craving p. 95 for love was at the very root of his nature. It was perhaps the tragedy of his life that he experienced so little of it in human relationships. All the greater, therefore, was his need to find it in heaven. It is questionable whether the religious consciousness can ever find satisfaction in the Absolute unless it surreptitiously introduces into the object of its worship the element of personality.
The God of his metaphysic may have been the impassive Deity that plays its divine game for itself alone, but the God of his heart was "a person in the sense of a self, among and over against other selves, moved by personal relations and feelings." Angelus discovers the essential nature of the Godhead to be love. "Even the Trinity hath been in thrall to love from all eternity." God loves himself and thus be begets his Son. The chasm between the eternal and the human consciousness is bridged in the divine Son, Jesus Christ. The birth of the Son is necessarily an eternal proccss, since God is outside of time and space; but its manifestation to mankind takes place as an event in human history. For Angelus the historical Christ stands out with a distinctness of human feature, with a gaze of love and pity so profound that he is swept away in an outgush of personal devotion. In the whole range of Christian devotional literature it would be difficult to find the expression of a greater warmth of love for the person of Jesus or of a more intimate sympathy with his earthly life and sufferings than that of Angelus Silesius. This side of his nature is most fully revealed in the Spiritual Pastorals, but verses no p. 96 less glowing with tender affection abound in the pages of the Cherubinic Wanderer. Unable to sustain his lonely flight to an altitude to which even the pinions of cherubin were powerless to attain, he dropped back to rest in a loved Personality, at once human and divine, like a tired lark to the warmth of its earthly nest. It would be an unprofitable search to seek to discover in the poetical writings of Angelus Silesius a coherent system of thought or even the expression of a unified mode of feeling. We should mistake his purpose if we were to credit him with the intention or laying the distinct foundations of a metaphysic or even of a theosophy. He was one of that numerous company of spirits who feel themselves to be in exile on the earth and whose chief concern is to find a way back to their native country. He explored both the Negative Way of mysticism and the devotional way of the Cross. He was responsive to the signals and beckonings or the many travellers who had set out before him on the way to the far country. An arresting paradox from Eckhart, a lightning flash from Böhme, an ecstatic cry from St. Mechtild or St. Teresa, an epigram from Czepko, these were the sparks which, falling upon his inflammable imagination, lit up the momentary visions he engraved in the incisive lines of his verse. He was too much at the mercy of his impulses and enthusiasms to stay to reflect upon the connection of his thoughts or to weave them into a continuous tissue. He was like a child picking up coloured pebbles on a beach, indifferent to the diversified geological strata from which they originated. It is after all for the variety as well as p. 97 for the depth of its intuitions that the religious verse of Angelus Silesius is to be valued. All the audacity and extravagance, all the practical sagacity and the childish simplicity, all the aspiration, all the triumphs and despairs, which are involved in the effort of mysticism to penetrate into the heart of reality, are resumed in him and together constitute the thousand-faceted jewel of the Cherubinic Wanderer.
1 An example of Angelus Silesius's method of adaptation is offered in the following comparison:
|Indem der Teufel ist, ist er so gut als du|
Dem Wesen nach, in Gott, nichts mangelt ihm als Ruh.
|Sexcenta Monodisticha Sapientum.|
|Der Teufel ist so gut dem Wesen nach als du.|
Was gehet ihm denn ab? Gestorbner Will und Ruh.
1 "Joy is in overcoming," "If thou livest holily then art thou thyself God," "All things consist in Yea and Nay."
1 An example of the faults of taste into which he was betrayed by the lure of the conceit is afforded by the Collowing couplet:
|Wie kocht man Gott das Herz? Es muss gestossen sein,|
Gepresst und stark verguld't, sonst geht es ihm nicht ein.
|Cherubinic Wanderer. V. 100.|
(How shall the heart be cooked for God? It must be brayed, compressed and thickly gilded, else He will not swallow it.)
1 In an entry dated July 22, 1652, in the friendship album of his old school-fellow, Elias Major (presented in the Stadt Bibliothek at Breslau), Angelus Silesius wrote "Aeternitas Esto" (Be Eternity). It is of interest to note that Elias Major had adopted as his "Symbolum" or device the phrase "Aeternitatem Cogita" (Think of Eternity). We may imagine Angelus Silesius turning to the first page and reading his friend's motto before making his entry. The turn which he gave to the phrase is deeply significant.
1 Cherubinic Wanderer, I. 108. To the couplet he adds in a note the explanatory word, idealiter.
1 Christian Mysticism, by W. R. Inge, p. 304.
1 Appearance and Reality, by F. H. Bradley, p. 532.
2 The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Madras, p. 174.