Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
In our study of the First Mystic Life, its purification and illumination, we have been analysing and considering a process of organic development; an evolution of personality. We may treat this either as a movement of consciousness towards higher levels, or as a remaking of consciousness consequent on the emergence and growth of a factor which is dormant in ordinary man, but destined to be supreme in the full-grown mystic type. We have seen the awakening of this factor—this spark of the soul—with its innate capacity for apprehending the Absolute. We have seen it attack and conquer the old sense-fed and self-centred life of the normal self, and introduce it into a new universe, lit up by the Uncreated Light. These were the events which, taken together, constituted the “First Mystic Life”; a complete round upon the spiral road which leads from man to God.
What we have been looking at, then, is a life-process, the establishment of a certain harmony between the created self and that Reality whose invitation it has heard: and we have discussed this life-process rather as if it contained no elements which were not referable to natural and spontaneous growth, to the involuntary p. 299 adjustments of the organism to that extended or transcendental universe of which it gradually becomes aware. But side by side with this organic growth there always goes a specific kind of activity which is characteristic of the mystic: an education which he is called to undertake, that his consciousness of the Infinite may be stabilized, enriched and defined. Already once or twice we have been in the presence of this activity, have been obliged to take its influence into account: as, were we studying other artistic types, we could not leave on one side the medium in which they work.
Contemplation is the mystic’s medium. It is an extreme form of that withdrawal of attention from the external world and total dedication of the mind which also, in various degrees and ways, conditions the creative activity of musician, painter and poet: releasing the faculty by which he can apprehend the Good and Beautiful, enter into communion with the Real. As “voice” or “vision” is often the way in which the mystical consciousness presents its discoveries to the surface-mind, so contemplation is the way in which it makes those discoveries, perceives the suprasensible over against itself. The growth of the mystic’s effective genius, therefore, is connected with his growth in this art: and that growth is largely conditioned by education.
The painter, however great his natural powers, can hardly dispense with some technical training; the musician is wise if he acquaint himself at least with the elements of counterpoint. So too the mystic. It is true that he sometimes seems to spring abruptly to the heights, to be caught into ecstasy without previous preparation: as a poet may startle the world by a sudden masterpiece. But unless they be backed by discipline, these sudden and isolated flashes of inspiration will not long avail for the production of great works. “Ordina quest’ amore, o tu che m’ami” is the imperative demand made by Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, by every aspect of Reality, upon the human soul. Lover and philosopher, saint, artist, and scientist, must alike obey or fail.
Transcendental genius, then, obeys the laws which govern all other forms of genius, in being susceptible of culture: and, indeed, cannot develop its full powers without an educative process of some kind. This strange art of contemplation, which the mystic tends to practise during the whole of his career—which develops step by step with his vision and his love—demands of the self which undertakes it the same hard dull work, the same slow training of the will, which lies behind all supreme achievement, and is the price of all true liberty. It is the want of such training—such “supersensual drill”—which is responsible for the mass of vague, ineffectual, and sometimes harmful mysticism which has p. 300 always existed: the dilute cosmic emotion and limp spirituality which hang, as it were, on the skirts of the true seekers of the Absolute, and bring discredit upon their science.
In this, as in all the other and lesser arts which have been developed by the race, education consists largely in a humble willingness to submit to the discipline, and profit by the lessons, of the past. Tradition runs side by side with experience; the past collaborates with the present. Each new and eager soul rushing out towards the only end of Love passes on its way the landmarks left by others upon the pathway to Reality. If it be wise it observes them: and finds in them rather helps towards attainment than hindrances to that freedom which is of the essence of the mystic act. This act, it is true, is in the last resort a solitary experience, “the flight of the Alone to the Alone”; even though no achievement of the soul truly takes place in vacao, or leaves the universe of souls unchanged. At the same time, here as elsewhere, man cannot safely divorce his personal history from that of the race. The best and truest experience does not come to the eccentric and individual pilgrim whose intuitions are his only law: but rather to him who is willing to profit by the culture of the spiritual society in which he finds himself, and submit personal intuition to the guidance afforded by the general history of the mystic type. Those who refuse this guidance expose themselves to all the dangers which crowd about the individualist: from heresy at one end of the scale to madness at the other. Vae Soli! Nowhere more clearly than in the history of mysticism do we observe the essential solidarity of mankind, the penalty paid by those who will not acknowledge it.
The education which tradition has ever prescribed for the mystic, consists in the gradual development of an extraordinary faculty of concentration, a power of spiritual attention. It is not enough that he should naturally be “aware of the Absolute,” unless he be able to contemplate it: just as the mere possession of eyesight or hearing, however acute, needs to be supplemented by trained powers of perception and reception, if we are really to appreciate—see or hear to any purpose—the masterpieces of Music or of Art. More, Nature herself reveals little of her secret to those who only look and listen with the outward ear and eye. The condition of all valid seeing and hearing, upon every plane of consciousness, lies not in the sharpening of the senses, but in a peculiar attitude of the whole personality: in a self-forgetting attentiveness, a profound concentration, a self-merging, which operates a real communion between the seer and the seen—in a word, in Contemplation.
Contemplation, then, in the most general sense is a power which we may—and often must—apply to the perception, not p. 301 only of Divine Reality, but of anything. It is a mental attitude under which all things give up to us the secret of their life. All artists are of necessity in some measure contemplative. In so far as they surrender themselves without selfish preoccupation, they see Creation from the point of view of God. 630 “Innocence of eye” is little else than this: and only by its means can they see truly those things which they desire to show the world. I invite those to whom these statements seem a compound of cheap psychology and cheaper metaphysics to clear their minds of prejudice and submit this matter to an experimental test. If they will be patient and honest—and unless they belong to that minority which is temperamentally incapable of the simplest contemplative act—they will emerge from the experiment possessed of a little new knowledge as to the nature of the relation between the human mind and the outer world.
All that is asked is that we shall look for a little time, in a special and undivided manner, at some simple, concrete, and external thing. This object of our contemplation may be almost anything we please: a picture, a statue, a tree, a distant hillside, a growing plant, running water, little living things. We need not, with Kant, go to the starry heavens. “A little thing the quantity of an hazel nut” will do for us, as it did for Lady Julian long ago. 631 Remember, it is a practical experiment on which we are set; not an opportunity of pretty and pantheistic meditation.
Look, then, at this thing which you have chosen. Wilfully yet tranquilly refuse the messages which countless other aspects of the world are sending; and so concentrate your whole attention on this one act of loving sight that all other objects are excluded from the conscious field. Do not think, but as it were pour out your personality towards it: let your soul be in your eyes. Almost at once, this new method of perception will reveal unsuspected qualities in the external world. First, you will perceive about you a strange and deepening quietness; a slowing down of our feverish mental time. Next, you will become aware of a heightened significance, an intensified existence in the thing at which you look. As you, with all your consciousness, lean out towards it, an answering current will meet yours. It seems as though the barrier between its life and your own, between subject and object, had melted away. p. 302 You are merged with it, in an act of true communion: and you know the secret of its being deeply and unforgettably, yet in a way which you can never hope to express.
Seen thus, a thistle has celestial qualities: a speckled hen a touch of the sublime. Our greater comrades, the trees, the clouds, the rivers, initiate us into mighty secrets, flame out at us “like shining from shook foil.” The “eye which looks upon Eternity” has been given its opportunity. We have been immersed for a moment in the “life of the All”: a deep and peaceful love unites us with the substance of all things, a “Mystic Marriage” has taken place between the mind and some aspect of the external world. Cor ad cor loquitur :Life has spoken to life, but not to the surface-intelligence. That surface-intelligence knows only that the message was true and beautiful: no more.
The price of this experience has been a stilling of that surface-mind, a calling in of all our scattered interests: an entire giving of ourselves to this one activity, without self-consciousness, without reflective thought. To reflect is always to distort: our minds are not good mirrors. The contemplative, on whatever level his faculty may operate, is contented to absorb and be absorbed: and by this humble access he attains to a plane of knowledge which no intellectual process can come near.
I do not suggest that this simple experiment is in any sense to be equated with the transcendental contemplation of the mystic. Yet it exercises on a small scale, and in regard to visible Nature, the same natural faculties which are taken up and used—it is true upon other levels, and in subjection to the transcendental sense—in his apprehension of the Invisible Real. Though it is one thing to see truthfully for an instant the flower in the crannied wall, another to be lifted up to the apprehension of “eternal Truth, true Love and loved Eternity,” yet both according to their measure are functions of the inward eye, operating in the “suspension of the mind.”
This humble receptiveness, this still and steady gazing, in which emotion, will, and thought are lost and fused, is the secret of the great contemplative on fire with love of that which he has been allowed to see. But whilst the contemplation of Nature entails an outgoing towards somewhat indubitably external to us, and has as its material the world of sensible experience: the contemplation of Spirit, as it seems to those who practise it, requires a deliberate refusal of the messages of the senses, an ingoing or “introversion” of our faculties, a “journey towards the centre.” The Kingdom of God, they say, is within you: seek it, then, in the most secret habitations of the soul. The mystic must learn so to concentrate all his faculties, his very self, upon the invisible and intangible, p. 303 that all visible things are forgot: to bring it so sharply into focus that everything else is blurred. He must call in his scattered faculties by a deliberate exercise of the will, empty his mind of its swarm of images, its riot of thought. In mystical language he must “sink into his nothingness”: into that blank abiding place where busy, clever Reason cannot come. The whole of this process, this gathering up and turning “inwards” of the powers of the self, this gazing into the ground of the soul, is that which is called Introversion.
Introversion is an art which can be acquired, as gradually and as certainly, by the born mystic, as the art of piano-playing can be acquired by the born musician. In both cases it is the genius of the artist which makes his use of the instrument effective: but it is also his education in the use of the instrument which enables that genius to express itself in an adequate way. Such mystical education, of course, presumes a something that can be educated: the “New Birth,” the awakening of the deeper self, must have taken place before it can begin. It is a psychological process, and obeys psychological laws. There is in it no element of the unexpected or the abnormal. In technical language, we are here concerned with “ordinary” not “extraordinary” contemplation.
In its early stages the practice of introversion is voluntary, difficult, and deliberate; as are the early stages of learning to read or write. But as reading or writing finally becomes automatic, so as the mystic’s training in introversion proceeds, habits are formed: and those contemplative powers which he is educating establish themselves amongst his normal faculties. Sometimes they wholly dominate these faculties, escape the control of the will, and appear spontaneously, seizing upon the conscious field. Such violent and involuntary invasions of the transcendental powers, when they utterly swamp the surface-consciousness and the subject is therefore cut off from his ordinary “external world,” constitute the typical experience of rapture or ecstasy. It is under the expansive formula of such abrupt ecstatic perception, “not by gradual steps, but by sudden ecstatic flights soaring aloft to the glorious things on high,” 632 that the mystical consciousness of Divine Transcendence is most clearly expressed. Those wide, exalted apprehensions of the Godhead which we owe to the mystics have usually been obtained, not by industrious meditation, but by “a transcending of all creatures, a perfect going forth from oneself: by standing in an ecstasy of mind.” 633 Hence the experiences peculiar to these ecstatic states have a great value for the student of mysticism. It will be our duty to consider them in detail in a p. 304 later section of this book. The normal and deliberate practice of introversion, on the contrary, is bound up with the sense of Divine Immanence. Its emphasis is on the indwelling God Who may be found “by a journey towards the centre”: on the conviction indeed that “angels and archangels are with us, but He is more truly our own who is not only with us but in us .” 634
Contemplation—taking that term in its widest sense, as embracing all the degrees and kinds of mystical prayer—establishes communion between the soul and the Absolute by way of these complementary modes of apprehending that which is One. A. The usually uncontrollable, definitely outgoing, ecstatic experience; the attainment of Pure Being, or “flight to God.” B. The more controllable ingoing experience; the breaking down of the barrier between the surface-self and those deeper levels of personality where God is met and known “in our nothingness,” and a mysterious fusion of divine and human life takes place. The one, says the Christian mystic, is the “going forth to the Father”; the other is the “marriage with the Son.” Both are operated by the Spirit whose dwelling is in the “spark of the soul.” Yet it is probable, in spite of the spatial language which the mystics always use concerning them, that these two experiences, in their most sublime forms, are but opposite aspects of one whole: the complementary terms of a higher synthesis beyond our span. In that consummation of love which Ruysbroeck has called “the peace of the summits” they meet: then distinctions between inward and outward, near and far, cease to have any meaning, in “the dim silence where lovers lose themselves.” “To mount to God,” says the writer of “De Adhaerando Deo,” “is to enter into one’s self. For he who inwardly entereth and intimately penetrateth into himself, gets above and beyond himself and truly mounts up to God.” 635
Says Tauler of this ineffable meeting-place, which is to the intellect an emptiness, and to the heart a fulfillment of all desire, “All there is so still and mysterious and so desolate: for there is nothing there but God only, and nothing strange. . . . This Wilderness is the Quiet Desert of the Godhead, into which He leads all who are to receive this inspiration of God, now or in Eternity.” 636 From this “quiet desert,” this still plane of being, so near to her though she is far from it, the normal self is separated by all the “unquiet desert” of sensual existence. Yet it stretches through and in her, the stuff of Reality, the very Ground of her being, since it is, in Julian’s words, “the Substance of all that is”: linking that p. 305 being at once with the universe and with God. “God is near us, but we are far from Him, God is within, we are without, God is at home, we are in the far country,” said Meister Eckhart, struggling to express the nature of this “intelligible where.” 637 Clearly, if the self is ever to become aware of it, definite work must be undertaken, definite powers of perception must be trained: and the consciousness which has been evolved to meet the exigencies of the World of Becoming must be initiated into that World of Being from which it came forth.
Plato long ago defined the necessity of such a perception, and the nature of that art of contemplation by which the soul can feed upon the Real, when he said in one of his most purely mystical passages, “When the soul returns into itself and reflects, it passes into . . . the region of that which is pure and everlasting, immortal and unchangeable: and, feeling itself kindred thereto, it dwells there under its own control, and has rest from its wanderings.” 638 In the “contemplation” of Plato and of the Platonic Schools generally, however, the emphasis lies at least as much on intellect as on intuition: with him the head and not the heart is the meeting-place between man and the Real. “Anciently,” says Augustine Baker, “there was a certain kind of false contemplation, which we may call philosophical, practised by some learned heathens of old, and imitated by some in these days, which hath for its last and best end only the perfection of knowledge, and a delightful complacency in it. . . . To this rank of philosophical contemplations may be referred those scholastic wits which spend much time in the study and subtle examination of the mysteries of faith, and have not for their end the increasing of divine love in their hearts.” 639
We cannot long read the works of the mystics without coming across descriptions—often first-hand descriptions of great psychological interest—of the processes through which the self must pass, the discipline which it must undertake, in the course of acquiring the art of contemplation. Most of these descriptions differ in detail; in the divisions adopted, the emotions experienced, the number of “degrees” through which the subject passes, from the first painful attempt to gather up its faculties to the supreme point at which it feels itself to be “lost in God.” In each there is that quality of uniqueness which is inherent in every expression of life: in each the temperamental bias and analytical powers of the writer have exerted a further modifying influence. All, however, describe a connected experience, the progressive concentration of the entire self under the spur of love upon the contemplation p. 306 of transcendental reality. As the Mystic Way involves transcendence of character, the sublimation of the instinctive life and movement of the whole man to higher levels of vitality, his attainment of freedom, so the ascent of the ladder of contemplation involves such a transcendence, or movement to high levels of liberty, of his perceptive powers.
The steps of the ladder, the substance of the progressive exercises undertaken by the developing self, its education in the art of contemplation, are usually know by the Christian mystics as the “degrees of prayer” or “orison.” But the common implications of the word “prayer,” with its suggestions of formal devotion, detailed petition—a definite something asked for, and a definite duty done, by means of extemporary or traditional allocutions—do not really suggest the nature of those supersensual activities which the mystics mean to express in their use of this term.
Mystical prayer, or “orison”—the term which I propose for the sake of clearness to use here—has nothing in common with petition. It is not articulate; it has no forms. “It is,” says “The Mirror of St. Edmund,” “naught else but yearning of soul.” 640 —the expression of man’s metaphysical thirst. In it, says Grou, “the soul is united to God in its ground, the created intelligence to the Intelligence Increate, without the intervention of imagination or reason, or of anything but a very simple attention of the mind and an equally simple application of the will.” 641 On the psychological side its development involves a steady discipline of the mystic’s rich subliminal mind, slowly preparing the channels in which the deeper consciousness is to flow. This discipline reduces to some sort of order, makes effective for life, those involuntary states of passivity, rapture and intuition which are the characteristic ways in which an uncontrolled, uncultivated genius for the Absolute breaks out. To the subject himself, however, his orison seems rather a free and mutual act of love; a supernatural intercourse between the soul and the divine, or some aspect of the divine, sometimes full of light and joy, sometimes dark and bare. 642 In some of its degrees it is a placid, trustful waiting upon messages from without. In others, it is an inarticulate communion, a wordless rapture, a silent gazing upon God. The mystics have exhausted all the resources of all tongues in their efforts to tell us of the rewards p. 307 which await those who will undertake this most sublime and difficult of arts.
As we come to know our friends better by having intercourse with them, so by this deliberate intercourse the self enters more and more deeply into the Heart of Reality. Climbing like Dante step by step up the ladder of contemplation, it comes at last to the Empyrean, “ivi è perfetta, matura ed intera ciascuna disianza.” 643 The true end of orison, like the true end of that mystical life within which it flowers, is the supreme meeting between Lover and Beloved, between God and the soul. Its method is the method of the mystic life, transcendence: a gradual elimination of sensible image, and bit by bit approximation of the contemplative self to reality, gradually producing within it those conditions in which union can take place. This entails a concentration, a turning inwards, of all those faculties which the normal self has been accustomed to turn outwards, and fritter upon the manifold illusions of daily life. It means, during the hours of introversion, a retreat from and refusal of the Many, in order that the mind may be able to apprehend the One. “Behold,” says Boehme, “if thou desirest to see God’s Light in thy Soul, and be divinely illuminated and conducted, this is the short way that thou art to take; not to let the Eye of thy Spirit enter into Matter or fill itself with any Thing whatever, either in Heaven or Earth, but to let it enter by a naked faith into the Light of the Majesty.” 644
“What this opening of the ghostly eye is,” says Hilton, “the greatest clerk on earth could not imagine by his wit, nor show fully by his tongue. For it may not be got by study nor through man’s travail only, but principally by grace of the Holy Ghost and with travail of man. I dread mickle to speak aught of it, for me thinketh I cannot; it passeth mine assay, and my lips are unclean. Nevertheless, for I expect love asketh and love biddeth, therefore I shall say a little more of it as I hope love teacheth. This opening of the ghostly eye is that lighty murkness and rich nought that I spake of before, and it may be called: Purity of spirit and ghostly rest, inward stillness and peace of conscience, highness of thought and onlyness of soul, a lively feeling of grace and privily of heart, the waking sleep of the spouse and tasting of heavenly savour burning in love and shining in light, entry of contemplation and reforming in feeling . . . they are divers in showing of words, nevertheless they are all one in sense of soothfastness.” 645
“Human industry,” says Hilton here, must be joined to “grace.” If the spiritual eye is to be opened, definite work must be done. So long as the “eye which looks upon Time” fills itself with things p. 308 and usurps the conscious field, that spiritual eye which “looks upon Eternity” can hardly act at all: and this eye must not only be opened, it must be trained, so that it may endure to gaze steadfastly at the Uncreated Light. This training and purging of the transcendental sight is described under many images; “diverse in showing of words, one in sense and soothfastness.” Its essence is a progressive cleaning of the mirror, a progressive self-emptying of all that is not real the attainment of that unified state of consciousness which will permit a pure, imageless apprehension of the final Reality which “hath no image” to be received by the self. “Naked orison,” “emptiness,” “nothingness,” “entire surrender,” “peaceful love in life naughted,” say the mystics again and again. Where apprehension of the divine comes by way of vision or audition, this is but a concession to human weakness; a sign, they think, that “sensitive nature” is not yet wholly transcended. It is a translation of the true tongue of angels into a dialect that the normal mind can understand. A steady abolition of sense imagery, a cutting off of all possible sources of illusion, all possible encouragements of selfhood and pride—the most fertile of all sources of deception—this is the condition of pure sight; and the “degrees of orison,” the “steep stairs of love” which they climb so painfully, are based upon this necessity.
The terms used by individual mystics, the divisions which they adopt in describing the self’s progress in contemplation, are bewildering in their variety. Here, more than elsewhere, the mania for classification has obsessed them. We find, too, when we come to compare one with another, that the language which they employ is not always so exact as it seems: nor are traditional terms always used in the same sense. Sometimes by the word “contemplation” they intend to describe the whole process of introversion: sometimes they reserve it for the “orison of union,” sometimes identify it with ecstasy. It has been pointed out by Delacroix that even St. Teresa’s classification of her own states is far from lucid, and varies in each of her principal works. 646 Thus in the “Life” she appears to treat Recollection and Quiet as synonymous, whilst in “The Way of Perfection” these conditions are sharply differentiated. In “The Interior Castle” she adopts an entirely different system; the prayer of quiet being there called “tasting of God.” 647 Finally, Augustine Baker, in treating of the “Prayer of Interior Silence and Quiet,” insists that by the term “Quiet” St. Teresa did not mean this at all, but a form of “supernatural contemplation.” 648 p. 309
Thus we are gradually forced to the conclusion that the so-called “degrees of orison” so neatly tabulated by ascetic writers are largely artificial and symbolic: that the process which they profess to describe is really, like life itself, one and continuous—not a stairway but a slope—and the parts into which they break it up are diagrammatic. Nearly every mystic makes these breaks in a different place, though continuing to use the language of his predecessors. In his efforts towards self-analysis he divides and subdivides, combines and differentiates his individual moods. Hence the confusion of mind which falls upon those who try to harmonize different systems of contemplation: to identify St. Teresa’s “Four Degrees” 649 with Hugh of St. Victor’s other four, 650 and with Richard of St. Victor’s “four steps of ardent love”: 651 or to accommodate upon this diagram Hilton’s simple and poetic “three steps of contemplations—Knowing, Loving, and Knowing-and-Loving—where the adventurer rather than the map-maker speaks. Such fine shades, says Augustine Baker in this connection, are “nicely distinguished” by the author “rather out of a particular experience of the effects passing in his own soul 652 which perhaps are not the same in all” than for any more general reason. 653
Some diagram, however, some set scheme, the writer on introversion must have, if he is to describe with lucidity the normal development of the contemplative consciousness: and so long as the methodological nature of this diagram is kept in mind, there can be little objection to the use of it. I propose then to examine under three divisions that continuous and orderly growth, that gradual process of change, by which the mystical consciousness matures, and develops its apprehension of God. We will give to these three divisions names familiar to all readers of ascetic literature: Recollection, Quiet, and Contemplation. Each of these three parts of the introversive experience may be discerned in embryo in that little experiment at which the reader has been invited to assist: the act of concentration, the silence, the new perception which results. Each has a characteristic beginning which links it with its predecessor, and a characteristic end which shades off into the next state. Thus Recollection commonly begins in Meditation and develops into the “Orison of Inward Silence or Simplicity,” which again melts into the true “Quiet.” “Quiet” as it becomes deeper passes into Ordinary Contemplation: and this p. 310 grows through Contemplation proper to that Orison of Passive Union which is the highest of the non-ecstatic introversive states. Merely to state the fact thus is to remind ourselves how smoothly continuous is this life-process of the soul.
It is the object of contemplative prayer, as it is the object of all education, to discipline and develop certain growing faculties. Here, the faculties are those of the “transcendental self,” the “new man”—all those powers which we associate with the “spiritual consciousness.” The “Sons of God,” however, like the sons of men, begin as babies; and their first lessons must not be too hard. Therefore the educative process conforms to and takes advantage of every step of the natural process of growth: as we, in the education of our children, make the natural order in which their faculties develop the basis of our scheme of cultivation. Recollection, Quiet, and Contemplation, then, answer to the order in which the mystic’s powers unfold. Roughly speaking, we shall find that the form of spiritual attention which is called “Meditative” or “Recollective” goes side by side with the Purification of the Self; that “Quiet” tends to be characteristic of Illumination; that Contemplation proper—at any rate in its higher forms—is most fully experienced by those who have attained, or nearly attained, the Unitive Way. At the same time, just as the self in its “first mystic life,” before it has passed through the dark night of the spirit, often seems to run through the whole gamut of spiritual states, and attain that immediate experience of the Absolute which it seeks—though as a fact it has not reached those higher levels of consciousness on which true and permanent union takes place—so too in its orison. At any point in its growth it may experience for brief periods that imageless and overpowering sense of identity with the Absolute Life—that loving and exalted absorption in God—which is called “passive union,” and anticipates the consciousness which is characteristic of the unitive life. Over and over again in its “prayerful process” it recapitulates in little the whole great process of its life. It runs up for an instant to levels where it is not yet strong enough to dwell: “seeks God in its ground” and finds that which it seeks. Therefore we must not be too strict in our identification of the grades of education with the stages of growth.
This education, rightly understood, is one coherent process: it consists in a steady and voluntary surrender of the awakened consciousness, its feeling, thought, and will, to the play of those transcendental influences, that inflowing vitality, which it conceives of as divine. In the preparative process of Recollection, the unruly mind is brought into subjection. In “Quiet” the eager will is silenced, the “wheel of imagination” is stilled. In Contemplation, p. 311 the heart at last comes to its own— Cor ad cor loquitur . In their simplest forms, these three states involve the deliberate concentration upon, the meek resting in, the joyous communing with, the ineffable Object of man’s quest. They require a progressive concentration of the mystic’s powers, a gradual handing over of the reins from the surface intelligence to the deeper mind; that essential self which alone is capable of God. In Recollection the surface-mind still holds, so to speak, the leading strings: but in “Quiet” it surrenders them wholly, allowing consciousness to sink into that “blissful silence in which God works and speaks.” This act of surrender, this deliberate negation of thought, is an essential preliminary of the contemplative state. “Lovers put out the candles and draw the curtains when they wish to see the god and the goddess; and in the higher communion the night of thought is the light of perception.” 654
The education of the self in the successive degrees of orison has been compared by St. Teresa, in a celebrated passage in her Life, to four ways of watering the garden of the soul so that it may bring forth its flowers and fruits. 655 The first and most primitive of these ways is meditation. This, she says, is like drawing water by hand from a deep well: the slowest and most laborious of all means of irrigation. Next to this is the orison of quiet, which is a little better and easier: for here soul seems to receive some help, i.e. , with the stilling of the senses the subliminal faculties are brought into play. The well has now been fitted with a windlass—that little Moorish water-wheel possessed by every Castilian farm. Hence we get more water for the energy we expend: more sense of reality in exchange for our abstraction from the unreal. Also “the water is higher, and accordingly the labour is much less than it was when the water had to be drawn out of the depths of the well. I mean that the water is nearer to it, for grace now reveals itself more distinctly to the soul.” In the third stage, or orison of union, we leave all voluntary activities of the mind: the gardener no longer depends on his own exertions, contact between subject and object is established, there is no more stress and strain. It is as if a little river now ran through our garden and watered it. We have but to direct the stream. In the fourth and highest stage, God Himself waters our garden with rain from heaven “drop by drop.” The attitude of the self is now that of perfect receptivity, “passive contemplation,” loving trust. Individual activity is sunk in the “great life of the All.” 656
The measure of the mystic’s real progress is and must always p. 312 be his progress in love; for his apprehension is an apprehension of the heart. His education, his watering of the garden of the soul, is a cultivation of this one flower—this Rosa Mystica which has its root in God. His advance in contemplation, then, will be accompanied step by step by those exalted feeling-states which Richard of St. Victor called the Degrees of Ardent Love. Without their presence, all the drill in the world will not bring him to the time contemplative state; though it may easily produce abnormal powers of perception of the kind familiar to students of the occult.
Thus our theory of mystic education is in close accord with our theory of mystic life. In both, there is a progressive surrender of selfhood under the steady advance of conquering love; a stilling of that “I, Me, and Mine,” which is linked by all the senses, and by all its own desires, to the busy world of visible things. This progressive surrender usually appears in the practice of orison as a progressive inward retreat from circumference to centre, to that ground of the soul, that substantial somewhat in man, deep buried for most of us beneath the great rubbish heap of our surface-interests, where human life and divine life meet. To clear away the rubbish-heap so that he may get down to this treasure-house is from one point of view the initial task of the contemplative. This clearing away is the first part of “introversion”: that journey inwards to his own centre where, stripped of all his cleverness and merit, reduced to his “nothingness,” he can “meet God without intermediary.” This ground of the soul, this strange inward sanctuary to which the normal man so seldom penetrates, is, says Eckhart, “immediately receptive of the Divine Being,” and “no one can move it but God alone.” 657 There the finite self encounters the Infinite; and, by a close and loving communion with and feeding on the attributes of the Divine Substance, is remade in the interests of the Absolute Life. This encounter, the consummation of mystical culture, is what we mean by contemplation in its highest form. Here we are on the verge of that great self-merging act which is of the essence of pure love: which Reality has sought of us, and we have unknowingly desired of It. Here contemplation and union are one. “Thus do we grow,” says Ruysbroeck, “and, carried above ourselves, above reason, into the very heart of love, there do we feed according to the spirit; and taking flight for the Godhead by naked love, we go to the encounter of the Bridegroom, to the encounter of His Spirit, which is His love; and thus we are brought forth by God, out of p. 313 our selfhood, into the immersion of love, in which we possess blessedness and are one with God.” 658
The beginning of the process of introversion, the first deliberate act in which the self turns towards the inward path, will not merely be the yielding to an instinct, the indulgence of a natural taste for reverie; it will be a voluntary and purposeful undertaking. Like conversion, it entails a break with the obvious, which must, of necessity, involve and affect the whole normal consciousness. It will be evoked by the mystic’s love, and directed by his reason; but can only be accomplished by the strenuous exercise of his will. These preparatory labours of the contemplative life—these first steps upon the ladder—are, says St. Teresa, very hard, and require greater courage than all the rest. 659 All the scattered interests of the self have here to be collected; there must be a deliberate and unnatural act of attention, a deliberate expelling of all discordant images from the consciousness a hard and ungrateful task. Since the transcendental faculties are still young and weak, the senses not wholly mortified, it needs a stern determination, a “wilful choice,” if we are to succeed in concentrating our attention upon the whispered messages from within, undistracted by the loud voices which besiege us from without.
“How,” says the Disciple to the Master in one of Boehme’s “Dialogues,” “am I to seek in the Centre this Fountain of Light which may enlighten me throughout and bring my properties into perfect harmony? I am in Nature, as I said before, and which way shall I pass through Nature and the light thereof, so that I may come into the supernatural and supersensual ground whence this true Light, which is the Light of Minds, doth arise; and this without the destruction of my nature, or quenching the Light of it, which is my reason?
“Master. Cease but from thine own activity, steadfastly fixing thine Eye upon one Point. . . . For this end, gather in all thy thoughts, and by faith press into the Centre, laying hold upon the Word of God, which is infallible and which hath called thee. Be thou obedient to this call, and be silent before the Lord, sitting alone with Him in thy inmost and most hidden cell, thy mind being centrally united in itself, and attending His Will in the patience of hope. So shall thy Light break forth as the morning, and after the redness thereof is passed, the Sun himself, which thou waitest for, shall arise unto thee, and under his most healing wings thou shalt greatly rejoice: ascending and descending in p. 314 his bright and health-giving beams. Behold, this is the true Supersensual Ground of Life.” 660
In this short paragraph Boehme has caught and described the psychological state in which all introversion must begin: the primary simplification of consciousness, steadfastly fixing the soul’s eye upon one point, and the turning inwards of the whole conative powers for a purpose rather believed in than known, “by faith pressing into the centre.”
The unfortunate word Recollection, which the hasty reader is apt to connect with remembrance, is the traditional term by which mystical writers define just such a voluntary concentration, such a first collecting or gathering in of the attention of the self to its “most hidden cell.” That self is as yet unacquainted with the strange plane of silence which so soon becomes familiar to those who attempt even the lowest activities of the contemplative life, where the self is released from succession, the noises of the world are never heard, and the great adventures of the spirit take place. It stands here between the two planes of its being; the Eye of Time is still awake. It knows that it wants to enter the inner world, that “interior palace where the King of Kings is guest”: 661 but it must find some device to help it over the threshold—rather, in the language of psychology, to shift that threshold and permit its subliminal intuition of the Absolute to emerge.
This device is as a rule the practice of meditation, in which the state of Recollection usually begins: that is to say, the deliberate consideration of and dwelling upon some one aspect of Reality—an aspect most usually chosen from amongst the religious beliefs of the self. Thus Hindu mystics will brood upon a sacred word, whilst Christian contemplatives set before their minds one of the names or attributes of God, a fragment of Scripture, an incident of the life of Christ; and allow—indeed encourage—this consideration and the ideas and feelings which flow from it, to occupy the whole mental field. This powerful suggestion, kept before the consciousness by an act of will, overpowers the stream of small suggestions which the outer world pours incessantly upon the mind. The self, concentrated upon this image or idea, dwelling on it more than thinking about it—as one may gaze upon a picture that one loves—falls gradually and insensibly into the condition of reverie; and, protected by this holy day-dream from the more distracting dream of life, sinks into itself, and becomes in the language of asceticism “recollected” or gathered together. Although it is deliberately ignoring the whole of its usual “external universe,” its faculties are wide awake: all have had their part in p. 315 the wilful production of this state of consciousness: and this it is which marks off meditation and recollection from the higher or “infused” degrees of orison.
Such meditation as this, says Richard of St. Victor, is the activity proper to one who has attained the first degree of ardent love. By it, “God enters into the mind,” and “the mind also enters into itself”; and thus receives in its inmost cell the “first visit of the Beloved.” It is a kind of half-way house between the perception of Appearance and the perception of Reality. To one in whom this state is established consciousness seems like a blank field, save for the “one point” in its centre, the subject of the meditation. Towards this focus the introversive self seems to press inwards from every side; still faintly conscious of the buzz of the external world outside its ramparts, but refusing to respond to its appeals. Presently the subject of meditation begins to take on a new significance; to glow with life and light. The contemplative suddenly feels that he knows it; in the complete, vital, but indescribable way in which one knows a friend. More, through it hints are coming to him of mightier, nameless things. It ceases to be a picture, and becomes a window through which the mystic peers out into the spiritual universe, and apprehends to some extent—though how, he knows not—the veritable presence of God.
In these meditative and recollective states, the self still feels very clearly the edge of its own personality: its separateness from the Somewhat Other, the divine reality set over against the soul. It is aware of that reality: the subject of its meditation becomes a symbol through which it receives a distinct message from the transcendental world. But it is still operating in a natural way—as mystical writers would say, “by means of the faculties.” There is yet no conscious fusion with a greater Life; no resting in the divine atmosphere, as in the “Quiet”; no involuntary and ecstatic lifting up of the soul to direct apprehension of truth, as in contemplation. Recollection is a definite psychic condition, which has logical psychic results. Originally induced by meditation, or absorbed brooding upon certain aspects of the Real, it develops in the Self, by way of the strenuous control exercised by the will over the understanding, a power of cutting its connection with the external world, and retreating to the inner world of the spirit.
“True recollection,” says St. Teresa, “has characteristics by which it can be easily recognized. It produces a certain effect which I do not know how to explain, but which is well understood by those who have experienced it. . . . It is true that recollection has several degrees, and that in the beginning these great effects p. 316 are not felt, because it is not yet profound enough. But support the pain which you first feel in recollecting yourself, despise the rebellion of nature, overcome the resistance of the body, which loves a liberty which is its ruin, learn self-conquest, persevere thus for a time, and you will perceive very clearly the advantages which you gain from it. As soon as you apply yourself to orison, you will at once feel your senses gather themselves together: they seem like bees which return to the hive and there shut themselves up to work at the making of honey: and this will take place without effort or care on your part. God thus rewards the violence which your soul has been doing to itself; and gives to it such a domination over the senses that a sign is enough when it desires to recollect itself, for them to obey and so gather themselves together. At the first call of the will, they come back more and more quickly. At last, after countless exercises of this kind, God disposes them to a state of utter rest and of perfect contemplation.” 662
This description makes it clear that “recollection” is a form of spiritual gymnastics; less valuable for itself than for the training which it gives, the powers which it develops. In it, says St. Teresa again, the soul enters with its God into that Paradise which is within itself, and shuts the door behind it upon all the things of the world. “You should know, my daughters,” she continues, “that this is no supernatural act, but depends upon our will, and that therefore we can do it with that ordinary assistance of God which we need for all our acts and even for our good thoughts. For here we are not concerned with the silence of the faculties, but with a simple retreat of these powers into the ground of the soul. There are various ways of arriving at it, and these ways are described in different books. There it is said that we must abstract the mind from exterior things, in order that we may inwardly approach God: that even in our work we ought to retire within ourselves, though it be only for a moment: that this remembrance of a God who companions us within, is a great help to us; finally, that we ought little by little to habituate ourselves to gentle and silent converse with Him, so that He may make us feel His presence in the soul.” 663
More important for us, because more characteristically mystical, is the next great stage of orison: that curious and extremely definite mental state which mystics call the Prayer of Quiet or Simplicity, or sometimes the Interior Silence. This represents p. 317 the result for consciousness of a further degree of that inward retreat which Recollection began.
Out of the deep, slow brooding and pondering on some mystery, some incomprehensible link between himself and the Real, or the deliberate practice of loving attention to God, the contemplative—perhaps by way of a series of moods and acts which his analytic powers may cause him “nicely to distinguish”—glides, almost insensibly, on to a plane of perception for which human speech has few equivalents. It is a plane which is apparently characterized by an immense increase in the receptivity of the self and by an almost complete suspension of the reflective powers. The strange silence which is the outstanding quality of this state—almost the only note in regard to it which the surface-intelligence can secure—is not describable. Here, as Samuel Rutherford said of another of life’s secrets, “Come and see willtell you much: come nearer will say more.” Here the self passes beyond the stage at which its perceptions are capable of being dealt with by thought. It can no longer “take notes”: can only surrender itself to the stream of an inflowing life, and to the direction of a larger will. Discursive thought would only interfere with this process: as it interferes with the vital processes of the body if it once gets them under its control. That thought, then, already disciplined by Recollection, gathered up, and forced to work in the interests of the transcendental mind, is now to be entirely inhibited.
As Recollection becomes deeper, the self slides into a certain dim yet vivid consciousness of the Infinite. The door tight shut on the sensual world, it becomes aware that it is immersed in a more real world which it cannot define. It rests quietly in this awareness: quite silent, utterly at peace. In the place of the struggles for complete concentration which mark the beginning of Recollection, there is now “a living, somehow self-acting recollection—with God, His peace, power, and presence, right in the midst of this rose of spiritual fragrance.” 664 With this surrender to something bigger, as with the surrender of conversion, comes an immense relief of strain. This is “Quiet” in its most perfect form: this sinking, as it were, of the little child of the Infinite into its Father’s arms. The giving up of I-hood, the process of self-stripping, which we have seen to be the essence of the purification of the self, finds its parallel in this phase of the contemplative experience. Here, in this complete cessation of man’s proud effort to do somewhat of himself, Humility, who rules the Fourth Degree of Love, begins to be known in her paradoxical beauty and power. Consciousness loses to find, and dies that it may live. No longer, in Rolle’s pungent phrase, is it a “Raunsaker of the myghte p. 318 of Godd and of His Majeste.” 665 Thus the act by which it passes into the Quiet is a sacrament of the whole mystic quest: of the turning from doing to being, the abolition of separateness in the interests of the Absolute Life.
The state of “Quiet,” we have said, entails suspension of the surface-consciousness: yet consciousness of the subject’s personality remains. It follows, generally, on a period of deliberate and loving recollection, of a slow and steady withdrawal of the attention from the channels of sense. To one who is entering this state, the external world seems to get further and further away: till at last nothing but the paramount fact of his own existence remains. So startling, very often, is the deprivation of all his accustomed mental furniture, of the noise and flashing of the transmitting instruments of sense, that the negative aspect of his condition dominates consciousness; and he can but describe it as a nothingness, a pure passivity, an emptiness, a “naked” orison. He is there, as it were poised, resting, waiting, he does not know for what: only he is conscious that all, even in this utter emptiness, is well. Presently, however, he becomes aware that Something fills this emptiness; something omnipresent, intangible, like sunny air. Ceasing to attend to the messages from without, he begins to notice That which has always been within. His whole being is thrown open to its influence: it permeates his consciousness.
There are, then, two aspects of the Orison of Quiet: the aspect of deprivation, of emptiness which begins it, and the aspect of acquisition, of something found, in which it is complete. In its description, all mystics will be found to lean to one side or the other, to the affirmative or negative element which it contains. The austere mysticism of Eckhart and his followers, their temperamental sympathy with the Neoplatonic language of Dionysius the Areopagite, caused them to describe it and also very often the higher state of contemplation to which it leads—as above all things an emptiness, a divine dark, an ecstatic deprivation. They will not profane its deep satisfactions by the inadequate terms proper to earthly peace and joy: and, true to their school, fall back on the paradoxically suggestive powers of negation. To St. Teresa, and mystics of her type, on the other hand, even a little and inadequate image of its joy seems better than none. To them it is a sweet calm, a gentle silence, in which the lover apprehends the presence of the Beloved: a God-given state over which the self has little control.
In Eckhart’s writings enthusiastic descriptions of the Quiet, of inward silence and passivity as the fruit of a deliberate recollection, abound. In his view, the psychical state of Quiet is preeminently p. 319 that in which the soul of man begins to be united with its “ground,” Pure Being. It marks the transition from “natural” to “supernatural” prayer. The emptying of the field of consciousness, its cleansing of all images—even of those symbols of Reality which are the objects of meditation—is the necessary condition under which alone this encounter can take place.
“The soul,” he says, “with all its powers, has divided and scattered itself in outward things, each according to its functions: the power of sight in the eye, the power of hearing in the ear, the power of taste in the tongue, and thus they are the less able to work inwardly, for every power which is divided is imperfect. So the soul, if she would work inwardly, must call home all her powers and collect them from all divided things to one inward work. . . . If a man will work an inward work, he must pour all his powers into himself as into a corner of the soul, and must hide himself from all images and forms, and then he can work. Then he must come into a forgetting and a not-knowing. He must be in a stillness and silence, where the Word may be heard. One cannot draw near to this Word better than by stillness and silence: then it is heard and understood in utter ignorance. When one knows nothing, it is opened and revealed. Then we shall become aware of the Divine Ignorance, and our ignorance will be ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowledge. And when we simply keep ourselves receptive, we are more perfect than when at work.” 666
The psychic state of Quiet has a further value for the mystic, as being the intellectual complement and expression of the moral state of humility and receptivity: the very condition, says Eckhart, of the New Birth. “It may be asked whether this Birth is best accomplished in Man when he does the work and forms and thinks himself into God, or when he keeps himself in Silence, stillness and peace, so that God may speak and work in him; . . . the best and noblest way in which thou mayst come into this work and life is by keeping silence, and letting God work and speak. When all the powers are withdrawn from their work and images, there is this word spoken.” 667
Eckhart’s view of the primary importance of “Quiet” as essentially the introverted state is shared by all those mediaeval mystics who lay stress on the psychological rather than the objective aspect of the spiritual life. They regard it as the necessary preliminary of all contemplation; and describe it as a normal phase of the inner experience, possible of attainment by all those who have sufficiently disciplined themselves in patience, recollection, and humility.
In an old English mystical tract by the author of “The Cloud p. 320 of Unknowing” there is a curious and detailed instruction on the disposition of mind proper to this orison of silence. It clearly owes much to the teaching of the Areopagite, and something surely—if we may judge by its vivid and exact instructions—to personal experience. “When thou comest by thyself,” says the master to the disciple for whom this “pystle” was composed, “think not before what thou shalt do after: but forsake as well good thoughts as evil thoughts, and pray not with thy mouth, but lift thee right well. . . . And look that nothing live in thy working mind but a naked intent stretching unto God, not clothed in any special thought of God in thyself, how He is in Himself or in any of His works, but only that He is as He is. Let Him be so, I pray thee, and make Him on none otherwise speech, nor search in Him by subtilty of wit: but believe by thy ground. This naked intent freely fastened and grounded by very belief, shall be nought else to thy thought and thy feeling but a naked thought and a blind feeling of thine own being. . . . That darkness be thy mirror and thy mind whole. Think no further of thyself than I bid thee do of thy God, so that thou be oned with Him in spirit as in thought, without departing and scattering, for He is thy being and in Him thou art that thou art: not only by cause and by being, but also He is in thee both thy cause and thy being. And therefore think on God as in this work as thou dost on thyself, and on thyself as thou dost on God, that He is as He is, and thou art as thou art, and that thy thought be not scattered nor departed but privied in Him that is All.” 668
“Let Him be so, I pray thee!” It is an admonition against spiritual worry, an entreaty to the individual, already at work twisting experience to meet his own conceptions, to let things be as they are, to receive and be content. Leave off doing, that you may be. Leave off analysis, that you may know. “That meek darkness be thy mirror”—humble receptivity is the watchword of this state. “In this,” says Eckhart finely, “the soul is of equal capacity with God. As God is boundless in giving, so the soul is boundless in receiving. And as God is almighty in His work, se the soul is an abyss of receptivity: and so she is formed anew with God and in God. . . . The disciples of St. Dionysius asked him why Timotheus surpassed them all in perfection. Then said Dionysius, ‘Timotheus is receptive of God.’ And thus thine ignorance is not a defect but thy highest perfection, and thine inactivity thy highest work. And so in this work thou must bring all thy works to nought and all thy powers into silence, if thou wilt in truth experience this birth within thyself.” 669 p. 321
It is interesting to contrast these descriptions of the Quiet with St. Teresa’s subjective account of the same psychological state. Where the English mystic’s teaching is full of an implied appeal to the will, the Spanish saint is all for the involuntary, or, as she would call it, the “supernatural” actions of the soul. “This true orison of quiet,” she says, “has in it an element of the supernatural. We cannot, in spite of all our efforts, procure it for ourselves. It is a sort of peace in which the soul establishes herself, or rather in which God establishes the soul, as He did the righteous Simeon. All her powers are at rest. She understands, but otherwise than by the senses, that she is already near her God, and that if she draws a little nearer, she will become by union one with Him. She does not see this with the eyes of the body, nor with the eyes of the soul. . . . It is like the repose of a traveller who, within sight of the goal stops to take breath, and then continues with new strength upon his way. One feels a great bodily comfort, a great satisfaction of soul: such is the happiness of the soul in seeing herself close to the spring, that even without drinking of the waters she finds herself refreshed. It seems to her that she wants nothing more: the faculties which are at rest would like always to remain still, for the least of their movements is able to trouble or prevent her love. Those who are in this orison wish their bodies to remain motionless, for it seems to them that at the least movement they will lose this sweet peace . . . they are in the palace close to their King, and they see that He begins to give them His kingdom. It seems to them that they are no longer in the world, and they wish neither to hear nor to see it, but only God. . . . There is this difference between the orison of quiet and that in which the whole soul is united to God; that in this last the soul has not to absorb the Divine Food. God deposits it with her, she knows not how. The orison of quiet, on the other hand, demands, it seems to me, a slight effort; but it is accompanied by so much sweetness that one hardly feels it.” 670
“A slight effort,” says St. Teresa. “A naked intent stretching,” says the “Pystle of Private Counsel.” These words mark the frontier between the true and healthy mystic state of “Quiet” and its morbid perversion in “Quietism”: the difference between the tense stillness of the athlete and the limp passivity of the sluggard, who is really lazy, though he looks resigned. True “Quiet” is a means, not an end: is actively embraced, not passively endured. It is a phase in the self’s growth in contemplation; a bridge which leads from its old and uncoordinated life of activity to its new unified life of deep action—the real “mystic life” of man. This p. 322 state is desired by the mystic, not in order that consciousness may remain a blank, but in order that the “Word which is Alive” may be written thereon. Too often, however, this fact has been ignored; and the Interior Silence has been put by wayward transcendentalists to other and less admirable use.
“Quiet” is the danger-zone of introversion. Of all forms of mystical activity, perhaps this has been the most abused, the least understood. Its theory, seized upon, divorced from its context, and developed to excess, produced the foolish and dangerous exaggerations of Quietism: and these, in their turn, caused a wholesale condemnation of the principle of passivity, and made many superficial persons regard “naked orison” as an essentially heretical act. 671 The accusation of Quietism has been hurled at mystics whose only fault was a looseness of language which laid them open to misapprehension. Others, however, have certainly contrived, by a perversion and isolation of the teachings of great contemplatives on this point, to justify the deliberate production of a half-hypnotic state of passivity. With this meaningless state of “absorption in nothing at all” they were content; claiming that in it they were in touch with the divine life, and therefore exempt from the usual duties and limitations of human existence. “Quietism,” usually, and rather unfairly, regarded as the special folly of Madame Guyon and her disciples, already existed in a far more dangerous form in the Middle Ages: and was described and denounced by Ruysbroeck, one of the greatest masters of true introversion whom the Christian world has known.
“Such quietude,” he says, “is nought else but idleness, into which a man has fallen, and in which he forgets himself and God and all things in all that has to do with activity. This repose is wholly contrary to the supernatural repose one possesses in God; for that is a loving self-mergence and simple gazing at the Incomprehensible Brightness; actively sought with inward desire, and found in fruitive inclination. . . . When a man possesses this rest in false idleness, and all loving adherence seems a hindrance to him, he clings to himself in his quietude and lives contrary to the first way in which man is united with God; and this is the beginning of all ghostly error.” 672
There can be no doubt that for selves of a certain psychical constitution, such a “false idleness” is only too easy of attainment. They can by wilful self-suggestion deliberately produce this emptiness, this inward silence, and luxuriate in its peaceful effects. To do this from self-regarding motives, or to do it to excess—to let p. 323 “peaceful enjoyment” swamp “active love”—is a mystical vice: and this perversion of the spiritual faculties, like perversion of the natural faculties, brings degeneration in its train. It leads to the absurdities of “holy indifference,” and ends in the complete stultification of the mental and moral life. The true mystic never tries deliberately to enter the orison of quiet: with St. Teresa, he regards it as a supernatural gift, beyond his control, though fed by his will and love. That is to say, where it exists in a healthy form, it appears spontaneously, as a phase in normal development; not as a self-induced condition, a psychic trick.
The balance to be struck in this stage of introversion can only be expressed, it seems, in paradox. The true condition of quiet according to the great mystics, is at once active and passive: it is pure surrender, but a surrender which is not limp self-abandonment, but rather the free and constantly renewed self-giving and self-emptying of a burning love. The departmental intellect is silenced, but the totality of character is flung open to the influence of the Real. Personality is not lost: only its hard edge is gone. A “rest most busy,” says Hilton. Like the soaring of an eagle, says Augustine Baker, when “the flight is continued for a good space with a great swiftness, but withal with great stillness, quietness and ease, without any waving of the wings at all, or the least force used in any member, being in as much ease and stillness as if she were reposing in her nest.” 673
“According to the unanimous teaching of the most experienced and explicit of the specifically Theistic and Christian mystics,” says Von Hügel, “the appearance, the soul’s own impression, of a cessation of life and energy of the soul in periods of special union with God, or of great advance in spirituality, is an appearance only. Indeed this, at such times strong, impression of rest springs most certainly from an unusually large amount of actualized energy, an energy which is now penetrating, and finding expression by ever pore and fibre of the soul. The whole moral and spiritual creature expands and rests, yes; but this very rest is produced by Action, ‘unperceived because so fleet, so near, so all-fulfilling.’” 674
The great teachers of Quietism, having arrived at and experienced the psychological state of “quiet”: having known the ineffable peace and certainty, the bliss which follows on its act of complete surrender, its utter and speechless resting in the Absolute Life, believed themselves to have discovered in this halfway house the goal of the mystic quest. Therefore, whilst much of their teaching remains true, as a real description of a real and valid state experienced by almost all contemplatives in the course p. 324 of their development, the inference which they drew from it, that in this mere blank abiding in the deeps the soul had reached the end of her course, was untrue and bad for life.
Thus Molinos gives in the “Spiritual Guide” many unexceptional maxims upon Interior Silence: “By not speaking nor desiring, and not thinking,” he says justly enough of the contemplative spirit, “she arrives at the true and perfect mystical silence wherein God speaks with the soul, communicates Himself to it, and in the abyss of its own depth teaches it the most perfect and exalted wisdom. He calls and guides it to this inward solitude and mystical silence, when He says that He will speak to it alone in the most secret and hidden part of the heart.” Here Molinos speaks the language of all mystics, yet the total result of his teaching was to suggest to the ordinary mind that there was a peculiar virtue in doing nothing at all, and that all deliberate spiritual activities were bad. 675
Much of the teaching of modern “mystical” cults is thus crudely quietistic. It insists on the necessity of “going into the silence,” and even, with a strange temerity, gives preparatory lessons in subconscious meditation: a proceeding which might well provoke the laughter of the saints. The faithful, being gathered together, are taught by simple exercises in recollection the way to attain the “Quiet.” By this mental trick the modern transcendentalist naturally attains to a state of vacant placidity, in which he rests: and “remaining in a distracted idleness and misspending the time in expectation of extraordinary visits,” believes—with a faith which many of the orthodox might envy—that he is here “united with his Principle.” But, though the psychological state which contemplatives call the prayer of quiet is a common condition of mystical attainment, it is not by itself mystical at all. It is a state of preparation: a way of opening the door. That which comes in when the door is opened will be that which we truly and passionately desire. The will makes plain the way: the heart—the whole man—conditions the guest. The true contemplative, coming to this plane of utter stillness, does not desire “extraordinary favours and visitations,” but the privilege of breathing for a little while the atmosphere of Love. He is about that which St. Bernard called “the business of all businesses”: goes, in perfect simplicity, to the encounter of Perfection, not to the development of himself.
So, even at this apparently “passive” stage of his progress, the mystic’s operations are found on analysis to have a dynamic and purposive character: his very repose is the result of stress. He is a pilgrim that still seeks his country. Urged by his innate tendency to transcendence, he is on his way to higher levels, more p. 325 sublime fulfilments, greater self-giving acts. Though he may have forsaken all superficial activity, deep, urgent action still remains. “The possession of God,” says Ruysbroeck, “demands and supposes active love. He who thinks or feels otherwise is deceived. All our life as it is in God is immersed in blessedness: all our life as it is in ourselves is immersed in active love. And though we live wholly in ourselves and wholly in God, it is but one life, but it is twofold and opposite according to our feeling—rich and poor hungry and fulfilled, active and quiet.” 676 The essential difference between this true “active” Quiet and Quietism of all kinds has been admirably expressed by Baron von Hügel. “Quietism, the doctrine of the One Act; passivity in a literal sense, as the absence or imperfection of the power or use of initiative on the soul’s part, in any and every state; these doctrines were finally condemned, and most rightly and necessarily condemned, the Prayer of Quiet and the various states and degrees of an ever-increasing predominance of Action over Activity—an action which is all the more the soul’s very own, because the more occasioned, directed and informed by God’s action and stimulation—these and the other chief lines of the ancient experience and practice remain as true, correct, and necessary as ever.” 677
The “ever-increasing predominance of Action over Activity”—the deep and vital movement of the whole self, too utterly absorbed for self-consciousness, set over against its fussy surface-energies—here is the true ideal of orison. This must inform all the soul’s aspiration towards union with the absolute Life and Love which waits at the door. It is an ideal which includes Quiet, as surely as it excludes Quietism.
As for that doctrine of the One Act here mentioned, which was preached by the more extreme quietists; it, like all else in this movement, was the perversion of a great mystical truth. It taught that the turning of the soul towards Reality, the merging of the will in God, which is the very heart of the mystic life, was One Act, never to be repeated. This done, the self had nothing more to do but to rest in the Divine Life, be its unresisting instrument. Pure passivity and indifference were its ideal. All activity was forbidden it, all choice was a negation of its surrender, all striving was unnecessary and wrong. It needed only to rest for evermore and “let God work and speak in the silence.” This doctrine is so utterly at variance with all that we know of the laws of life and growth, that it hardly seems to stand in need of condemnation. Such a state of indifference—which the quietists strove in vain to identify with that state of Pure Love which “seeketh not its own” p. 326 in spiritual things—cannot coexist with any of those “degrees of ardent charity” through which man’s spirit must pass on its journey to the One: and this alone is enough to prove its non-mystical character.
It is only fair to Madame Guyon to say that she cannot justly be charged with preaching this exaggeration of passivity, though a loose and fluid style has allowed many unfortunate inferences to be drawn from her works. “Some persons,” she says, “when they hear of the prayer of quiet, falsely imagine that the soul remains stupid, dead, and inactive. But unquestionably it acteth therein, more nobly and more extensively than it had ever done before, for God Himself is the Mover and the soul now acteth by the agency of His Spirit. . . . Instead, then, of promoting idleness we promote the highest activity, by inculcating a total dependence on the Spirit of God as our moving principle, for in Him we live and move and have our being. . . . Our activity should therefore consist in endeavouring to acquire and maintain such a state as may be most susceptible of divine impressions, most flexile to all the operations of the Eternal Word. Whilst a tablet is unsteady, the painter is unable to delineate a true copy: so every act of our own selfish and proper spirit is productive of false and erroneous lineaments, it interrupts the work and defeats the design of this Adorable Artist.” 678
The true mystics, in whom the Orison of Quiet develops to this state of receptivity, seldom use in describing it the language of “holy indifference.” Their love and enthusiasm will not let them do that. It is true, of course, that they are indifferent to all else save the supreme claims of love: but then, it is of love that they speak. Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat . “This,” says St. Teresa, “is a sleep of the powers of the soul, which are not wholly lost, nor yet understanding how they are at work. . . . To me it seems to be nothing else than a death, as it were, to all the things of this world, and a fruition of God. I know of no other words whereby to describe it or explain it; neither does the soul then know what to do—for it knows not whether to speak or be silent, whether it should laugh or weep. It is a glorious folly, a heavenly madness wherein true wisdom is acquired; and to the soul a kind of fruition most full of delight. . . . The faculties of the soul now retain only the power of occupying themselves wholly with God; not one of them ventures to stir, neither can we move one of them without making great efforts to distract ourselves—and, indeed, I do not think we can do it at all at this time.” 679 p. 327
Here, then, we see the Orison of Silence melting into true contemplation: its stillness is ruffled by its joy. The Quiet reveals itself as an essentially transitional state, introducing the self into a new sphere of activity.
The second degree of ardent love, says Richard of St. Victor, binds , sothat the soul which is possessed by it is unable to think of anything else: it is not only “insuperable,” but also “inseparable.” 680 He compares it to the soul’s bridal; the irrevocable act, by which permanent union is initiated. The feeling-state which is the equivalent of the Quiet is just such a passive and joyous yielding-up of the virgin soul to its Bridegroom; a silent marriage-vow. It is ready for all that may happen to it, all that may be asked of it—to give itself and lose itself, to wait upon the pleasure of its Love. From this inward surrender the self emerges to the new life, the new knowledge which is mediated to it under the innumerable forms of Contemplation.
“The contemplative and the artist,” says Maritain, “are in a position to sympathize. . . . The contemplative, having for object the causa altissima from which all else depends, knows the place and value of art, and understands the artist. The artist as such, cannot judge the contemplative, but he can divine his greatness. If he indeed loves Beauty, and if some moral vice does not chain his heart to dulness, going over to the side of the contemplative he will recognize Love and Beauty” (J. Maritain, “Art et Scholastique,” p. 139).
“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. v.
St. Bernard, “De Consideratione,” bk. v. cap. iii.
“De Imitatione Christi,” I. iii. cap. xxxi.
St. Bernard, op. cit ., bk. v. cap. v. So Lady Julian, “We are all in Him enclosed and He is enclosed in us” (“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lvii.).
Op. cit ., cap. vii.
Third Instruction (“The Inner Way,” p. 323).
Eckhart, Pred. lxix.
“Holy Wisdom.” Treatise iii. § iv.cap. i.
J. N. Grou, “L’Ecole de Jésus,” vol. ii., p. 8.
“I discover all truths in the interior of my soul,” says Antoinette Bourignan, “especially when I am recollected in my solitude in a forgetfulness of all Things. Then my spirit communicates with Another Spirit, and they entertain one another as two friends who converse about serious matters. And this conversation is so sweet that I have sometimes passed a whole day and a night in it without interruption or standing in need of meat or drink” (MacEwen, “Antoinette Bourignan, Quietist,” p. 109).
Par. xxii. 64.
“Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” p. 66.
Hilton, “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii., cap. xi.
“Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 18.
Vida, cap. xiv.; “Camino do Perfeccion,” cap. xxxi.; “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Cuartas, cap. ii.
“Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § ii. cap. vii.
Meditation, Quiet, a nameless “intermediate” degree, and the Orison of Union (Vida, cap. xi.).
Meditation, Soliloquy, Consideration, Rapture (Hugh of St. Victor, “De Contemplatione”).
“De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis.” Vide supra, p. 139.
“The Scale of Perfection,” bk. I. caps. iv. to viii.
“Holy Wisdom,” loc. cit ., § ii. cap. i.
Coventry Patmore, ‘The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Aurea Dicta,” xiii.
Vida, cap. xi. §§ 10 and 11.
The detailed analysis of these four degrees fills caps. xii.–xviii. of the Vida .
Pred. i. This doctrine of man’s latent absoluteness, expressed under a multitude of different symbols, is the central dogma of mysticism, and the guarantee of the validity of the contemplative process. In its extreme form, it can hardly be defended from the charge of pantheism; but the Christian mystics are usually careful to steer clear of this danger.
Ruysbroeck, “De Calculo” (condensed).
Vida, cap. xi. § 17.
“Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” p. 56.
St. Teresa, “Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xxx.
“Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xxx.
Op. cit ., cap. xxxi.
F. von Hügel. “Letters to a Niece,” p. 140.
Prose Treatises of Richard Rolle (E.E.T.S. 20), p. 42.
Meister Eckhart, Pred. ii.
Ibid. , Pred. i.
“An Epistle of Private Counsel” (B.M. Harl. 674). Printed, with slight textual variations, in “The Cloud of Unknowing, and other Treatises,” edited by Dom Justin McCann.
Eckhart, Pred. ii.
“Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xxxiii. The whole chapter, which is a marvel of subtle analysis, should be read in this connection.
Note, for instance, the cautious language of “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § III. cap. vii.
Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. caps. lxvi. (condensed).
“Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § iii. cap. vii.
Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii. p. 132.
He goes so far as to say in one of his “condemned” propositions , “Oportet hominem suas potentias anshilare,” and “velle operari active est Deum offendere.”
“De Calculo,” cap. ix.
“The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii. p. 143.
“Moyen Court,” cap. xxi. Madame Guyon’s vague and shifting language, however, sometimes lays her open to other and more strictly “quietistic” interpretations.
Vida, cap. xvi. §§ 1 and 4.
“De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. cxcvi. col. 1215 b).