Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
In the last chapter we tried to establish a distinction between the mystic who tastes supreme experience and the mystical philosopher who cogitates upon the data so obtained. We have now, however, to take account of the fact that often the true mystic is also a mystical philosopher; though there are plenty of mystical philosophers who are not and could never be mystics.
Because it is characteristic of the human self to reflect upon its experience, to use its percepts as material for the construction of a concept, most mystics have made or accepted a theory of their own adventures. Thus we have a mystical philosophy or theology—the comment of the intellect on the proceedings of spiritual intuition—running side by side with true or empirical mysticism: classifying its data, criticizing it, explaining it, and translating its vision of the supersensible into symbols which are amenable to dialectic.
Such a philosophy is most usually founded upon the formal creed which the individual mystic accepts. It is characteristic of him that in so far as his transcendental activities are healthy he is generally an acceptor and not a rejector of such creeds. The view which regards the mystic as a spiritual anarchist receives little support from history; which shows us, again and again, p. 96 the great mystics as faithful sons of the great religions. Almost any religious system which fosters unearthly love is potentially a nursery for mystics: and Christianity, Islam, Brahmanism, and Buddhism each receives its most sublime interpretation at their hands. Thus St. Teresa interprets her ecstatic apprehension of the Godhead in strictly Catholic terms, and St. John of the Cross contrives to harmonize his intense transcendentalism with incarnational and sacramental Christianity. Thus Boehme believed to the last that his explorations of eternity were consistent with the teaching of the Lutheran Church. The Sufis were good Mohammedans, Philo and the Kabalists were orthodox Jews. Plotinus even adapted—though with what difficulty—the relics of paganism to his doctrine of the Real.
Attempts, however, to limit mystical truth—the direct apprehension of the Divine Substance—by the formula of any one religion, are as futile as the attempt to identify a precious metal with the die which converts it into current coin. The dies which the mystics have used are many. Their peculiarities and excrescences are always interesting and sometimes highly significant. Some give a far sharper, more coherent, impression than others. But the gold from which this diverse coinage is struck is always the same precious metal: always the same Beatific Vision of a Goodness, Truth, and Beauty which is one. Hence its substance must always be distinguished from the accidents under which we perceive it: for this substance has an absolute, and not a denominational, importance.
Nevertheless, if we are to understand the language of the mystics, it is evident that we must know a little of accident as well as of substance: that is to say, of the principal philosophies or religions which they have used in describing their adventures to the world. This being so, before we venture to apply ourselves to the exploration of theology proper, it will be well to consider the two extreme forms under which both mystics and theologians have been accustomed to conceive Divine Reality: that is to say, the so-called “emanation-theory” and “immanence-theory” of the transcendental world.
Emanation and Immanence are formidable words; which though perpetually tossed to and fro by amateurs of religious philosophy, have probably, as they stand, little actuality for practical modern men. They are, however, root-ideas for the maker of mystical diagrams: and his best systems are but attempts towards their reconciliation. Since the aim of every mystic is union with God, it is obvious that the vital question in his philosophy must be the place which this God, the Absolute of his quest, occupies in the scheme. Briefly, He has been conceived—or, it were better to say, p. 97 presented—by the great mystics under two apparently contradictory modes.
(1) The opinion which is represented in its most extreme form by the theory of Emanations, declares His utter transcendence. This view appears early in the history of Greek philosophy. It is developed by Dionysius, by the Kabalists, by Dante: and is implied in the language of Rulman Merswin, St. John of the Cross and many other Christian ecstatics.
The solar system is an almost perfect symbol of this concept of Reality; which finds at once its most rigid and most beautiful expression in Dante’s “Paradiso.” 182 The Absolute Godhead is conceived as removed by a vast distance from the material world of sense; the last or lowest of that system of dependent worlds or states which, generated by or emanating from the Unity or Central Sun, become less in spirituality and splendour, greater in multiplicity, the further they recede from their source. That Source—the Great Countenance of the Godhead—can never, say the Kabalists, be discerned by man. It is the Absolute of the Neoplatonists, the Unplumbed Abyss of later mysticism: the Cloud of Unknowing wraps it from our sight. Only by its “emanations” or manifested attributes can we attain knowledge of it. By the outflow of these same manifested attributes and powers the created universe exists, depending in the last resort on the latens Deitas: Who is therefore conceived as external to the world which He illuminates and vivifies.
St. Thomas Aquinas virtually accepts the doctrine of Emanations when he writes: 183 “As all the perfections of Creatures descend in order from God, who is the height of perfection, man should begin from the lower creatures and ascend by degrees, and so advance to the knowledge of God. . . . And because in that roof and crown of all things, God, we find the most perfect unity, and everything is stronger and more excellent the more thoroughly it is one; it follows that diversity and variety increase in things, the further they are removed from Him who is the first principle of all.” Suso, whose mystical system, like that of most Dominicans, is entirely consistent with Thomist philosophy, is really glossing Aquinas when he writes: “The supreme and superessential Spirit has ennobled man by illuminating him with a ray from the Eternal Godhead. . . . Hence from out the great ring which represents the p. 98 Eternal Godhead there flow forth . . . little rings, which may be taken to signify the high nobility of natural creatures.” 184
Obviously, if this theory of the Absolute be accepted the path of the soul’s ascent to union with the divine must be literally a transcendence: a journey “upward and outward,” through a long series of intermediate states or worlds till, having traversed the “Thirty-two paths of the Tree of Life,” she at last arrives, in Kabalistic language, at the Crown: fruitive knowledge of God, the Abyss or Divine Dark of the Dionysian school, the Neoplatonic One. Such a series of worlds is symbolized by the Ten Heavens of Dante, the hierarchies of Dionysius, the Tree of Life or Sephiroth of the Kabalah: and receives its countersign in the inward experience, in the long journey of the self through Purgation and Illumination to Union. “We ascend,” says St. Augustine, “thy ways that be in our heart, and sing a song of degrees; we glow inwardly with thy fire, with thy good fire, and we go, because we go upwards to the peace of Jerusalem.” 185
This theory postulates, under normal and non-mystical conditions, the complete separation of the human and the divine; the temporal and the eternal worlds. “Never forget,” says St. John of the Cross, “that God is inaccessible. Ask not therefore how far your powers may comprehend Him, your feeling penetrate Him. Fear thus to content yourself with too little, and deprive your soul of the agility which it needs in order to mount up to Him.” 186 The language of pilgrimage, of exile, comes naturally to the mystic who apprehends reality under these terms. To him the mystical adventure is essentially a “going forth” from his normal self and from his normal universe. Like the Psalmist “in his heart he hath disposed to ascend by steps in this vale of tears” from the less to the more divine. He, and with him the Cosmos—for to mystical philosophy the soul of the individual subject is the microcosm of the soul of the world—has got to retrace the long road to the Perfection from which it originally came forth; as the fish in Rulman Merswin’s Vision of Nine Rocks must struggle upwards from pool to pool until they reach their Origin.
Such a way of conceiving Reality accords with the type of mind which William James called the “sick soul.” 187 It is the mood of the penitent; of the utter humility which, appalled by the sharp contrast between itself and the Perfect which it contemplates, can only cry “out of the depths.” It comes naturally to the temperament which leans to pessimism, which sees a “great gulf fixed” between itself and its desire, and is above all things sensitive p. 99 to the elements of evil and imperfection in its own character and in the normal experience of man. Permitting these elements to dominate its field of consciousness, wholly ignoring the divine aspect of the World of Becoming, such a temperament constructs from its perceptions and prejudices the concept of a material world and a normal self which are very far from God.
(2) Immanence. At the opposite pole from this way of sketching Reality is the extreme theory of Immanence, which plays so large a part in modern theology. To the holders of this theory, who commonly belong to James’s “healthy minded” or optimistic class, the quest of the Absolute is no long journey, but a realization of something which is implicit in the self and in the universe: an opening of the eyes of the soul upon the Reality in which it is bathed. For them earth is literally “crammed with heaven.” “Thou wert I, but dark was my heart, I knew not the secret transcendent,” says Téwekkul Bég, a Moslem mystic of the seventeenth century. 188 This is always the cry of the temperament which leans to a theology of immanence, once its eyes are opened on the light. “God,” says Plotinus, “is not external to anyone, but is present with all things, though they are ignorant that He is so.” 189 In other and older words, “The Spirit of God is within you.” The Absolute Whom all seek does not hold Himself aloof from an imperfect material universe, but dwells within the flux of things: stands as it were at the very threshold of consciousness and knocks awaiting the self’s slow discovery of her treasures. “He is not far from any one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being,” is the pure doctrine of Immanence: a doctrine whose teachers are drawn from amongst the souls which react more easily to the touch of the Divine than to the sense of alienation and of sin, and are naturally inclined to love rather than to awe.
Unless safeguarded by limiting dogmas, the theory of Immanence, taken alone, is notoriously apt to degenerate into pantheism; and into those extravagant perversions of the doctrine of “deification” in which the mystic holds his transfigured self to be identical with the Indwelling God. It is the philosophical basis of that practice of introversion, the turning inward of the soul’s faculties in contemplation, which has been the “method” of the great practical mystics of all creeds. That God, since He is in all—in a sense, is all—may most easily be found within ourselves, is the doctrine of these adventurers; 190 who, denying or ignoring the existence of those intervening “worlds” or “planes” between the material p. 100 world and the Absolute, which are postulated by the theory of Emanations, claim with Ruysbroeck that “by a simple introspection in fruitive love” they “meet God without intermediary.” 191 They hear the Father of Lights “saying eternally, without intermediary or interruption, in the most secret part of the spirit, the one, unique, and abysmal Word.” 192
This discovery of a “divine” essence or substance, dwelling, as Ruysbroeck says, at the apex of man’s soul is that fundamental experience—found in some form or degree in all genuine mystical religion—which provides the basis of the New Testament doctrine of the indwelling spirit. It is, variously interpreted, the “spark of the soul” of Eckhart, the “ground” of Tauler, the Inward Light of the Quakers, the “Divine Principle” of some modern transcendentalists; the fount and source of all true life. At this point logical exposition fails mystic and theologian alike. A tangle of metaphors takes its place. We are face to face with the “wonder of wonders”—that most real, yet most mysterious, of all the experiences of religion, the union of human and divine, in a nameless something which is “great enough to be God, small enough to be me.” In the struggle to describe this experience, the “spark of the soul,” the point of juncture, is at one moment presented to us as the divine to which the self attains: at another, as that transcendental aspect of the self which is in contact with God. On either hypothesis, it is here that the mystic encounters Absolute Being. Here is his guarantee of God’s immediate presence in the human heart; and, if in the human heart, then in that universe of which man’s soul resumes in miniature the essential characteristics.
According to the doctrine of Immanence, creation, the universe, could we see it as it is, would be perceived as the self-development, the self-revelation of this indwelling Deity. The world is not projected from the Absolute, but immersed in God. “I understood,” says St. Teresa, “how our Lord was in all things, and how He was in the soul: and the illustration of a sponge filled with water was suggested to me.” 193 The world-process, then, is the slow coming to fruition of that Divine Spark which is latent alike in the Cosmos and in man. “If,” says Boehme, “thou conceivest a small minute circle, as small as a grain of mustard seed, yet the Heart of God is wholly and perfectly therein: and if thou art born in God, then there is in thyself (in the circle of thy life) the whole p. 101 Heart of God undivided.” 194 The idea of Immanence has seldom been more beautifully expressed.
It is worth noticing that both the theological doctrines of reality which have been acceptable to the mystics implicitly declare, as science does, that the universe is not static but dynamic; a World of Becoming. According to the doctrine of Immanence this universe is free, self-creative. The divine action floods it: no part is more removed from the Godhead than any other part. “God,” says Eckhart, “is nearer to me than I am to myself; He is just as near to wood and stone, but they do not know it.” 195
These two apparently contradictory explanations of the Invisible have both been held, and that in their extreme form, by the mystics: who have found in both adequate, and indeed necessary, diagrams by which to suggest something of their rich experience of Reality. 196 Some of the least lettered and most inspired amongst them—for instance, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich—and some of the most learned, as Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart, have actually used in their rhapsodies language appropriate to both the theories of Emanation and of Immanence. It would seem, then, that both these theories convey a certain truth; and that it is the business of a sound mystical philosophy to reconcile them. It is too often forgotten by quarrelsome partisans of a concrete turn of mind that at best all these transcendental theories are only symbols, methods, diagrams; feebly attempting the representation of an experience which in its fullness is always the same, and of which the dominant characteristic is ineffability. Hence they insist with tiresome monotony that Dionysius must be wrong if Tauler be right: that it is absurd to call yourself the Friend of God if unknowableness be that God’s first attribute: that Plato’s Perfect Beauty and St. Catherine of Siena’s Accepter of Sacrifices cannot be the same: that the “courteous and dear-worthy Lord” who said to Lady Julian, “My darling, I am glad that thou art come to Me, in all thy woe I have ever been with thee,” 197 rules out the formless and impersonal One of Plotinus, the “triple circle” of Suso and Dante. Finally, that if God be truly immanent in the material world it is either sin or folly to refuse that world in order that we may find Him; and if introversion be right, a plan of the universe which postulates intervening planes between Absolute Being and the phenomenal world must be wrong.
Now as regards the mystics, of whom we hold both these p. 102 doctrines, these ways of seeing truth—for what else is a doctrine but that?—it is well to remind ourselves that their teaching about the relation of the Absolute to the finite, of God to the phenomenal world, must be founded in the first instance on what they know by experience of the relation between that Absolute and the individual self. This experience is the valid part of mysticism, the thing which gives to it its unique importance amongst systems of thought, the only source of its knowledge. Everything else is really guessing aided by analogy. When therefore the mystic, applying to the universe what he knows to be true in respect of his own soul, describes Divine Perfection as very far removed from the material world, yet linked with it by a graduated series of “emanations”—states or qualities which have each of them something of the godlike, though they be not God—he is trying to describe the necessary life-process which he has himself passed through in the course of his purgation and spiritual ascent from the state of the “natural man” to that other state of harmony with the spiritual universe, sometimes called “deification,” in which he is able to contemplate, and unite with, the divine. We have in the “Divina Commedia” a classic example of such a twofold vision of the inner and the outer worlds: for Dante’s journey up and out to the Empyrean Heaven is really an inward alchemy, an ordering and transmuting of his nature, a purging of his spiritual sight till—transcending all derived beatitude—it can look for an instant on the Being of God.
The mystic assumes—because he tends to assume an orderly basis for things—that there is a relation, an analogy, between this microcosm of man’s self and the macrocosm of the world-self. Hence his experience, the geography of the individual quest, appears to him good evidence of the geography of the Invisible. Since he must transcend his natural life in order to attain consciousness of God, he conceives of God as essentially transcendent to the natural world. His description of that geography, however—of his path in a land where there is no time and space, no inner and no outer, up or down—will be conditioned by his temperament, by his powers of observation, by the metaphor which comes most readily to his hand, above all by his theological education. The so-called journey itself is a psychological and spiritual experience: the purging and preparation of the self, its movement to higher levels of consciousness, its unification with that more spiritual but normally unconscious self which is in touch with the transcendental order, and its gradual or abrupt entrance into union with the Real. Sometimes it seems to the self that this performance is a retreat inwards to that “ground of the soul” where, as St. Teresa says, “His Majesty awaits us”: sometimes p. 103 a going forth from the Conditioned to the Unconditioned, the “supernatural flight” of Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite. Both are but images under which the self conceives the process of attaining conscious union with that God who is “at once immanent and transcendent in relation to the Soul which shares His life.” 198
He has got to find God. Sometimes his temperament causes him to lay most stress on the length of the search; sometimes the abrupt rapture which brings it to a close makes him forget that preliminary pilgrimage in which the soul is “not outward bound but rather on a journey to its centre.” The habitations of the Interior Castle through which St. Teresa leads us to that hidden chamber which is the sanctuary of the indwelling God: the hierarchies of Dionysius, ascending from the selfless service of the angels, past the seraphs’ burning love, to the God enthroned above time and space: the mystical paths of the Kabalistic Tree of Life which lead from the material world of Malkuth through the universes of action and thought, by Mercy, Justice and Beauty, to the Supernal Crown; 199 all these are different ways of describing this same pilgrimage.
As every one is born a disciple of either Plato or Aristotle, so every human soul leans to one of these two ways of apprehending reality. The artist, the poet, every one who looks with awe and rapture on created things, acknowledges in this act the Immanent God. The ascetic, and that intellectual ascetic the metaphysician, turning from the created, denying the senses in order to find afar off the uncreated, unconditioned Source, is really—though often he knows it not—obeying that psychological law which produced the doctrine of Emanations.
A good map then, a good mystical philosophy, will leave room for both these ways of interpreting our experience. It will mark the routes by which many different temperaments claim to have found their way to the same end. It will acknowledge both the aspects under which the patria splendida Truth has appeared to its lovers: the aspects which have called forth the theories of emanation and immanence and are enshrined in the Greek and Latin names of God. Deus, whose root means day, shining, the Transcendent Light; and Theos, whose true meaning is supreme desire or prayer—the Inward Love—do not contradict, but complete each other. They form, when taken together, an almost perfect definition of that Godhead which is the object of the mystic’s desire: the Divine Love which, immanent in the soul spurs on that soul to union with the transcendent and Absolute p. 104 Light—at once the source, the goal, the life of created things.
The true mystic—the person with a genius for God—hardly needs a map himself. He steers a compass course across the “vast and stormy sea of the divine.” It is characteristic of his intellectual humility, however, that he is commonly willing to use the map of the community in which he finds himself, when it comes to showing other people the route which he has pursued. Sometimes these maps have been adequate. More, they have elucidated the obscure wanderings of the explorer; helped him; given him landmarks; worked out right. Time after time he puts his finger on some spot—some great hill of vision, some city of the soul—and says with conviction, “Here have I been.” At other times the maps have embarrassed him, have refused to fit in with his description. Then he has tried, as Boehme did and after him Blake, to make new ones. Such maps are often wild in drawing, because good draughtsmanship does not necessarily go with a talent for exploration. Departing from the usual convention, they are hard—sometimes impossible—to understand. As a result, the orthodox have been forced to regard their makers as madmen or heretics: when they were really only practical men struggling to disclose great matters by imperfect means.
Without prejudice to individual beliefs, and without offering an opinion as to the exclusive truth of any one religious system or revelation—for here we are concerned neither with controversy nor with apologetics—we are bound to allow as a historical fact that mysticism, so far, has found its best map in Christianity. Christian philosophy, especially that Neoplatonic theology which, taking up and harmonizing all that was best in the spiritual intuitions of Greece, India, and Egypt, was developed by the great doctors of the early and mediaeval Church, supports and elucidates the revelations of the individual mystic as no other system of thought has been able to do.
We owe to the great fathers of the first five centuries—to Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine; above all to Dionysius the Areopagite, the great Christian contemporary of Proclus—the preservation of that mighty system of scaffolding which enabled the Catholic mystics to build up the towers and bulwarks of the City of God. The peculiar virtue of this Christian philosophy, that which marks its superiority to the more coldly self-consistent systems of Greece, is the fact that it re-states the truths of metaphysics in terms of personality: thus offering a third term, a “living mediator” between the Unknowable God, the unconditioned Absolute, and the conditioned self. This was the priceless gift which the Wise Men p. 105 received in return for their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This solves the puzzle which all explorers of the supersensible have sooner or later to face: come si convenne l’imago al cerchio, 200 the reconciliation of Infinite and intimate, both known and felt, but neither understood. Such a third term, such a stepping-stone, was essential if mysticism were ever to attain that active union that fullness of life which is its object, and develop from a blind and egoistic rapture into fruitful and self-forgetting love.
Where non-Christian mystics, as a rule, have made a forced choice between the two great dogmatic expressions of their experience, ( a ) the long pilgrimage towards a transcendent and unconditioned Absolute, ( b ) the discovery of that Absolute in the “ground” or spiritual principle of the self; it has been possible to Christianity, by means of her central doctrine of the Trinity, to find room for both of them and to exhibit them as that which they are in fact—the complementary parts of a whole. Even Dionysius, the godfather of the emanation doctrine, combines with his scheme of descending hierarchies the dogma of an indwelling God: and no writer is more constantly quoted by Meister Eckhart, who is generally considered to have preached immanence in its most extreme and pantheistic form.
Further, the Christian atmosphere is the one in which the individual mystic has most often been able to develop his genius in a sane and fruitful way; and an overwhelming majority of the great European contemplatives have been Christians of a strong impassioned and personal type. This alone would justify us in regarding it as embodying, at any rate in the West, the substance of the true tradition: providing the “path of least resistance” through which that tradition flows. The very heretics of Christianity have often owed their attraction almost wholly to the mystical element in their teachings. The Gnostics, the Fraticelli, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Quietists, the Quakers, are instances of this. In others, it was to an excessive reliance on reason when dealing with the suprarational, and a corresponding absence of trust in mystical intuition that heresy was due. Arius and Pelagius are heretics of this type.
The greatest mystics, however, have not been heretics but Catholic saints. In Christianity the “natural mysticism” which like “natural religion,” is latent in humanity, and at a certain point of development breaks out in every race, came to itself; and attributing for the first time true and distinct personality to its Object, brought into focus the confused and unconditioned God which Neoplatonism had constructed from the abstract concepts of philosophy blended with the intuitions of Indian ecstatics, and p. 106 made the basis of its meditations on the Real. It is a truism that the chief claim of Christian philosophy on our respect does not lie in its exclusiveness but in its Catholicity: in the fact that it finds truth in a hundred different systems, accepts and elucidates Greek, Jewish, and Indian thought, fuses them in a coherent theology, and says to speculative thinkers of every time and place, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.”
The voice of that Truth which spoke once for all on Calvary, and there declared the ground plan of the universe, was heard more or less perfectly by all the great seers, the intuitive leaders of men, the possessors of genius for the Real. There are few of the Christian names of God which were not known to the teachers of antiquity. To the Egyptians He was the Saviour, to the Platonists the Good, Beautiful and True, to the Stoics the Father and Companion. The very words of the Fourth Gospel are anticipated by Cleanthes. Heracleitus knew the Energizing Fire of which St. Bonaventura and Mechthild of Magdeburg speak. Countless mystics, from St. Augustine to St. John of the Cross, echo again and again the language of Plotinus. It is true that the differentia which mark off Christianity from all other religions are strange and poignant: but these very differentia make of it the most perfect of settings for the mystic life. Its note of close intimacy, of direct and personal contact with a spiritual reality given here and now—its astonishing combination of splendour and simplicity, of the sacramental and transcendent—all these things minister to the needs of the mystical type.
Hence the Christian system, or some colourable imitation of it, has been found essential by almost all the great mystics of the West. They adopt its nomenclature, explain their adventures by the help of its creed, identify their Absolute with the Christian God. Amongst European mystics the most usually quoted exception to this rule is Blake; yet it is curious to notice that the more inspired his utterance, the more passionately and dogmatically Christian even this hater of the Churches becomes:—
Where Death eternal is put off eternally. O Lamb
Assume the dark satanic body in the Virgin’s womb!
O Lamb divine ! it cannot thee annoy! O pitying One
Thy pity is from the foundation of the world, and thy Redemption
Begins already in Eternity.” 201
This is the doctrine of the Incarnation in a nutshell: here St. Thomas himself would find little to correct. Of the two following extracts from “Jerusalem,” the first is but a poet’s gloss on p. 107 the Catholic’s cry, “O felix culpa!” the second is an almost perfect epitome of Christian theology and ethics:—
“If I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the forgiveness of sins. If I were holy I never could behold the tears
Of Love . . . O Mercy! O divine Humanity!
O Forgiveness, O Pity and Compassion! If I were pure I should never
Have known Thee.”
“Wouldst thou love one who never died
For thee, or ever die for one who had not died for thee?
And if God dieth not for man, and giveth not Himself
Eternally for Man, Man could not exist, for Man is Love
As God is Love. Every kindness to another is a little death
In the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by brotherhood.” 202
Whether the dogmas of Christianity be or be not accepted on the scientific and historical plane, then, those dogmas are necessary to an adequate description of mystical experience—at least, of the fully developed dynamic mysticism of the West. We must therefore be prepared in reading the works of the contemplatives for much strictly denominational language; and shall be wise if we preface the encounter by some consideration of this language, and of its real meaning for those who use and believe it.
No one needs, I suppose, to be told that the two chief features of Christian schematic theology are the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation. They correlate and explain each other: forming together, for the Christian, the “final key” to the riddle of the world. The history of practical and institutional Christianity is the history of the attempt to exhibit their meaning in space and time. The history of mystical philosophy is the history—still incomplete—of the demonstration of their meaning in eternity.
Some form of Trinitarian dogma is found to be essential, as a method of describing observed facts, the moment that mysticism begins either ( a ) to analyse its own psychological conditions, or ( b ) to philosophize upon its intuitive experience of God. It must, that is to say, divide the aspects under which it knows the Godhead, if it is to deal with them in a fruitful or comprehensible way. The Unconditioned One, which is, for Neoplatonic and Catholic mystic alike, the final object of their quest, cannot of itself satisfy the deepest instincts of humanity: for man is aware that diversity in unity is a necessary condition if perfection of character is to be expressed. Though the idea of unity alone may serve to define the End—and though the mystics return to it again and again as a relief from that “heresy of multiplicity” by which they are oppressed—it cannot by itself be adequate to the description of the All. p. 108
The first question, then, must be—How many of such aspects are necessary to a satisfactory presentment of the mystic’s position? How many faces of Reality does he see? We observe that his experience involves at least a twofold apprehension. ( a ) That Holy Spirit within, that Divine Life by which his own life is transfused and upheld, and of which he becomes increasingly conscious as his education proceeds. ( b ) That Transcendent Spirit without, the “Absolute,” towards union with which the indwelling and increasingly dominant spirit of love presses the developing soul. In his ecstasy, it seems to the mystic that these two experiences of God become one. But in the attempt to philosophize on his experiences he is bound to separate them. Over and over again the mystics and their critics acknowledge, explicitly or implicitly, the necessity of this discrimination for human thought.
Thus even the rigid monotheism of Israel and Islam cannot, in the hands of the Kabalists and the Sufis, get away from an essential dualism in the mystical experience. According to the Zohar “God is considered as immanent in all that has been created or emanated, and yet is transcendent to all.” 203 So too the Sufis. God, they say, is to be contemplated (a) outwardly in the imperfect beauties of the earth; (b) inwardly, by meditation. Further, since He is One, and in all things, “to conceive one’s self as separate from God is an error: yet only when one sees oneself as separate from God, can one reach out to God. ” 204
Thus Delacroix, speaking purely as a psychologist, and denying to the mystical revelation—which he attributes exclusively to the normal content of the subliminal mind—any transcendental value, writes with entire approval of St. Teresa, that she “set up externally to herself the definite God of the Bible, at the same time as she set up within her soul the confused God of the Pseudo-Areopagite: the One of Neoplatonism. The first is her guarantee of the orthodoxy of the second, and prevents her from losing herself in an indistinction which is non-Christian. The confused God within is highly dangerous. . . . St. Teresa knew how to avoid this peril, and, served by her rich subconscious life, by the exaltation of her mental images, by her faculty of self-division on the one hand, on the other by her rare powers of unification, she realized simultaneously a double state in which the two Gods [ i.e. , the two ways of apprehending God, transcendence and immanence] were guarantees of each other, mutually consolidating and enriching one another: such is the intellectual vision of the Trinity in the Seventh Habitation.” 205 p. 109
It is probable that St. Teresa, confronted by this astonishing analysis, would have objected that her Trinity, unlike that of her eulogist, consisted of three and not two Persons. His language concerning confused interior and orthodox exterior Gods would certainly have appeared to her delicate and honest mind both clumsy and untrue: nor could she have allowed that the Unconditioned One of the Neoplatonists was an adequate description of the strictly personal Divine Majesty, Whom she found enthroned in the inmost sanctuary of the Castle of the Soul. What St. Teresa really did was to actualize in her own experience, apprehend in the “ground of her soul” by means of her extraordinarily developed transcendental perceptions, the three distinct and personal Aspects of the Godhead which are acknowledged by the Christian religion.
First, the Father, pure transcendent Being, creative Source and Origin of all that Is: the Unconditioned and Unknowable One of the Neoplatonists: Who is “neither This nor That” and must be conceived, pace M. Delacroix, as utterly transcendent to the subject rather than “set up within the soul.”
Secondly, in the Person of Christ, St. Teresa isolated and distinguished the Logos or Creative Word; the expression, or outbirth, of the Father’s thought. Here is the point at which the Divine Substance first becomes apprehensible by the spirit of man; that mediating principle “raised up between heaven and earth” which is at once the Mirror of Pure Being and the Light of a finite world. The Second Person of the Christian Trinity is for the believer not only the brightness or express image of Deity, but also the personal, inexhaustible, and responsive Fount of all life and Object of all love: Who, because of His taking up (in the Incarnation) of humanity into the Godhead, has become the Bridge between finite and infinite, between the individual and the Absolute Life, and hence in mystic language the “true Bridegroom” of every human soul.
Thirdly, she recognized within herself the germ of that Absolute Life, the indwelling Spirit which is the source of man’s transcendental consciousness and his link with the Being of God. That is to say, the Holy Spirit of Divine Love, the Real Desirous seeking for the Real Desired, without Whose presence any knowledge of or communion with God on man’s part would be inconceivable.
In the supreme Vision of the Trinity which was vouchsafed to St. Teresa in the Seventh Habitation of the soul, these three aspects became fused in One. In the deepest recesses of her spirit, in that abyss where selfhood ceases to have meaning, and the individual soul touches the life of the All, distinction vanished and she “saw God in a point.” Such an experience, such an intuition of simple and undifferentiated Godhead—the Unity—beyond p. 110 those three centres of Divine Consciousness which we call the Trinity of Persons, is highly characteristic of mysticism. The German mystics—temperamentally miles asunder from St. Teresa—described it as the attainment of the “still wilderness” or “lonely desert of Deity”: the limitless Divine Abyss, impersonal, indescribable, for ever hid in the Cloud of Unknowing, and yet the true Country of the Soul. 206
These statements, which appear when thus laid down to be hopelessly academic, violently divorced from life, were not for St. Teresa or any other Christian mystic abstract propositions; but attempts towards the description of first-hand experience.
“By some mysterious manifestation of the truth,” she says, “the three Persons of the most Blessed Trinity reveal themselves, preceded by an illumination which shines on the spirit like a most dazzling cloud of light. The three Persons are distinct from one another; a sublime knowledge is infused into the soul, imbuing it with a certainty of the truth that the Three are of one substance, power, and knowledge, and are one God. Thus that which we hold as a doctrine of faith, the soul now, so to speak, understands by sight, though it beholds the Blessed Trinity neither by the eyes of the body nor of the soul, this being no imaginary vision. All the Three Persons here communicate Themselves to the soul, speak to it, and make it understand the words of our Lord in the Gospel, that He and the Father and the Holy Ghost will come and make their abode with the soul which loves Him and keeps His commandments.
O my God, how different from merely hearing and believing these words is it to realize their truth in this way! Day by day a growing astonishment takes possession of this soul, for the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity seem never to depart; that They dwell far within its own centre and depths; though for want of learning it cannot describe how, it is conscious of the indwelling of these divine Companions.” 207
Mystical writers constantly remind us that life as perceived by the human minds shows an inveterate tendency to arrange itself in triads: that if they proclaim the number Three in the heavens, they can also point to it as dominating everywhere upon the earth. Here Christianity did but give form to a deep instinct of the human mind: an instinct which made Pythagoras call Three the number of God, because beginning, middle, and end were contained therein. Thus to Hindu thought the Absolute Godhead was unknowable, but He disclosed three faces to man—Brahma the p. 111 Creator, Shiva the Destroyer, Krishna the Repairer—and these three were One. So too the Neoplatonists distinguished three worlds; the Sensible or Phenomenal, the Rational or Intellectual, the Intelligible or Spiritual; and three aspects of God—the Unconditioned Absolute, the Logos or Artificer, and the divine Essence or Soul of the World which is both absolute and created. Perhaps we have in such triads a first sketch of the Christian Trinity; though falling far short of the requirements of man’s spiritual experience. The dry bones await the breath of more abundant life. Corresponding with this diagram of God’s nature the Platonists see also three grades of beauty; the Corporeal, the Spiritual, and the Divine.
Man, that “thing of threes,” of body, soul and spirit, of understanding, memory and will, follows in his path towards unity the Threefold Way: for “our soul,” says Lady Julian, “is made-trinity like to the unmade blissful Trinity, known and loved from without beginning, and in the making oned to the Maker.” 208 We still tend to analyse our psychic life into emotional, volitional, and intellectual elements. Even the Subject and Object implied in every experience required a third term, the relation between them, without which no thought can be complete. Thus the very principle of analogy imposes upon man a Trinitarian definition of Reality as the one with which his mind is best able to cope. 209 It is easy for the hurried rationalist to demonstrate the absurdity of this fact but he will find it a very different matter when it comes to disproving it.
“I could wish,” says St. Augustine, “that men would consider these three things that are in themselves . . . To Be, to Know, and to Will. For I am, and I know, and I will, I am knowing and willing, and I know myself to be and to will; and I will to be and to know. In these three therefore let him who can, see how inseparable a life there is—even one life, one mind, one essence: finally how inseparable is the distinction, and yet a distinction. Surely a man hath it before him: let him look into himself and see and tell me. But when he discovers and can see anything of these, let him not think that he has discovered that which is above these Unchangeable: which Is unchangeably and Knows unchangeably and Wills unchangeably.” 210
In a well-known passage, Julian of Norwich tells us how she p. 112 saw the Trinity of the Divine Nature shining in the phenomenal as well as in the spiritual world. “He showed me,” she says, “a little thing, the quantity of an hazel nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and thought, What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. . . . In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third is that God keepeth it. But what is to me verily the Maker, the Keeper, and the Lover, I cannot tell.” 211
Julian, a simple and deeply human Englishwoman of middle age dwelling alone in her churchyard cell, might well be called the poet of the Trinity. She treats this austere and subtle dogma—of which the mediaeval mystics write with a passion little understood by those who look upon it as “orthodoxy reduced to mathematics”—with an intimacy and vigour which carry with them a conviction of her own direct and personal apprehension of the theological truth she struggles to describe. “I beheld,” she says of a vision which is close to that of St. Teresa in the “Seventh Habitation of the Soul,” and more lucidly if less splendidly expressed, “the working of all the blessed Trinity: in which beholding, I saw and understood these three properties: the property of the Fatherhood, the property of the Motherhood, and the property of the Lordhood, in one God. In our Father Almighty we have our keeping and our bliss as anent our natural Substance, 212 which is to us by our making, without beginning. And in the Second Person in wit and wisdom we have our keeping as anent our Sense-soul: our restoring and our saving; for He is our Mother, Brother, and Saviour. And in our good Lord, the Holy Ghost, we have our rewarding and our meed-giving for our living and our travail, and endless overpassing of all that we desire, in His marvellous courtesy of His high plenteous grace. For all our life is in three: in the first we have our Being, in the second we have our Increasing, and in the third we have our Fulfilling; the first is Nature, the second is Mercy, and the third is Grace. 213 . . . The high Might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great Love of the Trinity is our Lord: and all this we have in Nature and in our Substantial Making.” 214
Again, in a passage of exquisite tenderness, “As verily as God p. 113 is our Father, so verily God is our Mother; and that shewed He in all [her revelations] and especially in these sweet words where He saith: I it am. That is to say, I it am, the Might and the Goodness of the Fatherhood; I it am, the Wisdom of the Motherhood, I it am the Light and the Grace that is all blessed Love. I it am, the Trinity, I it am, the Unity: I am the sovereign Goodness of all manner of things. I am that maketh thee to love. I am that maketh thee to long: I it am, the endless fulfilling of all true desires. ” 215
So Christopher Hervey—
“The whole world round is not enough to fill
The heart’s three corners, but it craveth still.
Only the Trinity that made it can
Suffice the vast triangled heart of Man.” 216
Any attempt towards a definition of God which does not account for and acknowledge these three aspects is found in experience to be incomplete. They provide objectives for the heart, the intellect, and the will: for they offer to the Self material for its highest love, its deepest thought, its act of supreme volition. Under the familiar Platonic terms of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, they represent the divine source and end of Ethics, Science, and Art, the three supreme activities of man. Thus the ideals of artist, student, and philanthropist, who all seek under different modes the same reality, are gathered up in the mystic’s One; as the pilgrimage of the three kings ended in the finding of one Star
“What is God?” says St. Bernard. “Length, breadth, height, and depth. ‘What,’ you say, ‘you do after all profess to believe in the fourfold Godhead which was an abomination to you?’ Not in the least. . . . God is designated One to suit our comprehension, not to describe his character. His character is capable of division, He Himself is not. The words are different, the paths are many, but one thing is signified; the paths lead to one Person.” 217
All possible ways of conceiving this One Person in His living richness are found in the end to range themselves under three heads. He is “above all and through all and in you all,” 218 said St. Paul, anticipating the Councils in a flash of mystic intuition and giving to the infant Church the shortest and most perfect definition of its Triune God. Being, which is above all, manifests itself as Becoming; as the dynamic omnipresent Word of Life. The Divine Love immanent in the heart and in the world comes forth from, and returns to, the Absolute One. “Thou, my God, who art p. 114 Love,” says Nicolas of Cusa, “art Love that loveth, and Love that is loveable, and Love that is the bond between these twain.” 219 Thus is completed “the Eternal Circle from Goodness, through Goodness, to Goodness.” It is true that to these fundamental respects of the perceived Godhead—that Being, Becoming, and Desire whereto the worlds keep time—the mystics have given many and various names; for they have something of the freedom of true intimates in treating of the Reality which they love. In particular, those symbols of the Absolute which are drawn from the great and formless forces of the universe, rather than from the orthodox but necessarily anthropomorphic imagery of human relationship, have always appealed to them. Their intense apprehension of Spirit seems to find freer and more adequate expression in such terms, than in those in which the notion of space is involved, or which suggest a concrete picture to the mind. Though they know as well as the philosophers that “there must always he something symbolic in our way of expressing the spiritual life,” since “that unfathomable infinite whose spiritual character is first recognized in our human experience, can never reveal itself fully and freely under the limitations of our earthly existence”; 220 yet they ever seek, like the artists they are, some new and vital image which is not yet part of the debased currency of formal religion, and conserves its original power of stinging the imagination to more vivid life.
Thus “the Kingdom of Heaven,” says Law, “stands in this threefold life, where three are one, because it is a manifestation of the Deity, which is Three and One; the Father has His distinct manifestation in the Fire, which is always generating the Light; the Son has His distinct manifestation in the Light, which is always generated from the Fire; the Holy Ghost has His manifestation in the Spirit, that always proceeds from both, and is always united with them. It is this eternal unbeginning Trinity in Unity of Fire, Light, and Spirit, that constitutes Eternal Nature, the Kingdom of Heaven, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Divine Life, the Beatific Visibility, the majestic Glory and Presence of God. Through this Kingdom of Heaven, or Eternal Nature, is the invisible God, the incomprehensible Trinity, eternally breaking forth and manifesting itself in a boundless height and depth of blissful wonders, opening and displaying itself to all its creatures as in an infinite variation and endless multiplicity of its powers, beauties, joys, and glories.” 221 p. 115
Perhaps an easier, better, more beautiful example of these abstract symbols of the Trinity than Law’s Fire, Light, and Spirit is that of Light, Life, and Love: a threefold picture of the Real which is constantly dwelt upon and elaborated by the Christian mystics. Transcendent Light, intangible but unescapable, ever emanating Its splendour through the Universe: indwelling, unresting, and energizing Life: desirous and directive Love—these are cardinal aspects of Reality to which they return again and again in their efforts to find words which will express something of the inexpressible truth.
( a ) LIGHT, ineffable and uncreated, the perfect symbol of pure undifferentiated Being: above the intellect, as St. Augustine reminds us, but known to him who loves. 222 This Uncreated Light is the “deep yet dazzling darkness” of the Dionysian school, “dark from its surpassing brightness . . . as the shining of the sun on his course is as darkness to weak eyes.” 223 It is St. Hildegarde’s lux vivens, Dante’s somma luce, wherein he saw multiplicity in unity, the ingathered leaves of all the universe 224 : the Eternal Father, or Fount of Things. “For well we know,” says Ruysbroeck “that the bosom of the Father is our ground and origin, wherein our life and being is begun.” 225
( b ) LIFE, the Son, hidden Steersman of the Universe, the Logos, Fire, or cosmic Soul of Things. This out-birth or Concept of the Father’s Mind, which He possesses within Himself, as Battista Vernazza was told in her ecstasy, 226 is that Word of Creation which since It is alive and infinite, no formula can contain. the Word eternally “spoken” or generated by the Transcendent Light. “This is why,” says Ruysbroeck again, “all that lives in the Father unmanifested in the Unity, is also in the Son actively poured forth in manifestation.” 227 This life, then, is the flawless expression or character of the Father, Sapientia Patris. It is at once the personal and adorable comrade of the mystic’s adventure and the inmost principle, the sustaining power, of a dynamic universe; for that which intellect defines as the Logos or Creative Spirit, contemplative love knows as Wonderful, Counsellor, and Prince of Peace.
Since Christ, for the Christian philosopher, is Divine Life Itself—the drama of Christianity expressing this fact and its implications “in a point”—it follows that His active spirit is to be discerned, not symbolically, but in the most veritable sense, in the ecstatic and abounding life of the world. In the rapturous vitality p. 116 of the birds, in their splendid glancing flight: in the swelling of buds and the sacrificial beauty of the flowers: in the great and solemn rhythms of the sea—there is somewhat of Bethlehem in all these things, somewhat too of Calvary in their self-giving pains. It was this re-discovery of Nature’s Christliness which Blake desired so passionately when he sang—
“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”
Here then it is, on this pinnacle of faith, at the utmost boundaries of human speech, that mystical theology suddenly shows herself—not as the puzzle-headed constructor of impossible creeds, but as accepting and transmuting to a more radiant life those two profound but apparently contradictory metaphysical definitions of Reality which we have already discussed. 228 Eternal Becoming, God immanent and dynamic, striving with and in His world: the unresting “flux of things” of Heracleitus, the crying aloud of that Word “which is through all things everlastingly”—the evolutionary world-process beloved of modern philosophers—is here placed once for all in true relation with pure transcendent and unmoved Being; the Absolute One of Xenophanes and the Platonists. This Absolute is discerned by mystic intuition as the “End of Unity” in whom all diversities must cease; 229 the Ocean to which that ceaseless and painful Becoming, that unresting river of life, in which we are immersed, tends to return: the Son going to the Father.
( c ) LOVE, the principle of attraction, which seems to partake at once of the transcendental and the created worlds. If we consider the Father as Supreme Subject—“origin,” as Aquinas says, “of the entire procession of Deity” 230 —and the Son or generated Logos as the Object of His thought, in whom, says Ruysbroeck, “He contemplates Himself and all things in an eternal Now”; 231 then this personal Spirit of Love, il desiro e il velle, represents the relation between the two, and constitutes the very character of God. “The heavenly Father,” says Ruysbroeck, “as a living Ground, with all that lives in Him, is actively turned towards His Son as to His own Eternal Wisdom. And that same Wisdom, with all that lives in it, is actively turned back towards the Father, that is towards that very ground from which it comes forth. And of this meeting is born the third Person, between the Father and the p. 117 Son, that is the Holy Spirit, their mutual Love.” 232 Proceeding, according to Christian doctrine, from Light and Life, the Father and Son—implicit, that is, in both the Absolute Source and dynamic flux of things—this divine spirit of desire is found enshrined in our very selfhood; and is the agent by which that selfhood is merged in the Absolute Self. “My love is my weight,” said St. Augustine. 233 It is the spiritual equivalent of that gravitation which draws all things to their place. Thus Bernard Holland says in his Introduction to Boehme’s “Dialogues,” “In a deep sense, the desire of the Spark of Life in the Soul to return to its Original Source is part of the longing desire of the universal Life for its own heart or centre. Of this longing, the universal attraction striving against resistance, towards a universal centre, proved to govern the phenomenal or physical world, is but the outer sheath and visible working.” Again, “Desire is everything in Nature; does everything. Heaven is Nature filled with divine Life attracted by Desire.” 234
“The best masters say,” says Eckhart, “that the love wherewith we love is the Holy Spirit. 235 Some deny it. But this is always true: all those motives by which we are moved to love, in these is nothing else than the Holy Spirit.” 236
“God wills,” says Ruysbroeck, gathering these scattered symbols to unity again, “that we should come forth from ourselves in this Eternal Light; that we should reunite ourselves in a supernatural manner with that image which is our true Life, and that we should possess it with Him actively and fruitively in eternal blessedness . . . this going forth of the contemplative is also in Love: for by fruitive love he overpasses his created being and finds and tastes the riches and delights which are God Himself, and which He causes to pour forth without ceasing in the most secret chamber of the soul, at that place where it is most like unto the nobility of God.” 237
Here only, in the innermost sanctuary of being, the soul’s “last habitation,” as St. Teresa said, is the truth which these symbols express truly known: for “as to how the Trinity is one and the Trinity in the Unity of the nature is one, whilst nevertheless the Trinity comes forth from the Unity, this cannot be expressed in p. 118 words,” says Suso, “owing to the simplicity of that deep abyss. Hither it is, into this intelligible where that the spirit, spiritualizing itself, soars up; now flying in the measureless heights, now swimming in the soundless deeps, of the sublime marvels of the Godhead!” 238
Mystical philosophy, then, has availed itself gladly of the doctrine of the Trinity in expressing its vision of the nature of that Absolute which is found, by those who attain the deep Abyss of the Godhead, to be essentially One. But it is by the complementary Christian dogma of the Incarnation that it has best been able to describe and explain the nature of the inward and personal mystic experience. The Incarnation, which is for traditional Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and earthly life of Christ, is for mystics of a certain type, not only this but also a perpetual Cosmic and personal process. It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, the pure character of God, of which the one historical life dramatized the essential constituents. Hence the soul, like the physical embryo, resumes in its upward progress the spiritual life-history of the race. “The one secret, the greatest of all,” says Patmore, is “the doctrine of the Incarnation, regarded not as an historical event which occurred two thousand years ago, but as an event which is renewed in the body of every one who is in the way to the fulfilment of his original destiny.” 239
We have seen that for mystical theology the Second Person of the Trinity is the Wisdom of the Father, the Word of Life. The fullness of this Word could therefore only be communicated to the human consciousness by a Life. In the Incarnation this Logos, this divine character of Reality, penetrated the illusions of the sensual world—in other words, the illusions of all the selves whose ideas compose that world—and “saved” it by this infusion of truth. A divine, suffering, self-sacrificing Personality was then shown as the sacred heart of a living, striving universe: and for once the Absolute was exhibited in the terms of finite human existence. Some such event as this breaking through of the divine and archetypal life into the temporal world is perceived by the mystical philosopher to be a necessity, if man was ever to see in terms of life that greatness of life to which he belongs: learn to transcend the world of sense, and rebuild his life upon the levels of reality. “For Thou art,” says Nicolas of Cusa, “the Word of God humanified, and Thou art man deified.” 240 Thus it is that the p. 119 Catholic priest in the Christmas Mass gives thanks, not for the setting in hand of any commercial process of redemption, but for a revelation of reality, “Quia per incarnati Verbi mysterium nova mentis nostrae oculis lux tuae claritatis infulsit: ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur.” The essence of mystical Christianity seems to be summed up in these lovely words. 241
“The Son of God, the Eternal Word in the Father, who is the glance, or brightness, and the power of the light eternity” says Boehme, “must become man and be born in you, if you will know God: otherwise you are in the dark stable and go about groping.” 242 “The Word,” says Ruysbroeck finely, “is no other than See. And this is the coming forth and the birth of the Son of the Eternal Light, in Whom all blessedness is seen and known.” 243 Once at any rate, they say in effect, the measure of that which it was possible for the Spirit of Life to do and for living creatures to be, was filled to the brim. By this event, all were assured that the ladder of Creation was made whole; in this hypostatic union, the breach between appearance and reality, between God and man, was healed. The Bridge so made—to use St. Catherine of Siena’s allegory again—is eternal, since it was “laid before the foundation of the world” in the “Eternal Now.” Thus the voice of the Father says to her in that vision, “I also wish thee to look at the Bridge of My only-begotten Son, and see the greatness thereof, for it reaches from Heaven to earth; that is, that the earth of your humanity is joined to the greatness of the Deity thereby. I say, then, that this Bridge reaches from Heaven to earth, and constitutes the union which I have made with man. . . . So the height of the Divinity, humbled to the earth, and joined with your humanity made the Bridge and reformed the road. Why was this done? In order that man might come to his true happiness with the angels. And observe that it is not enough, in order that you should have life, that My son should have made you this Bridge, unless you walk thereon.” 244 “Our high Father God Almighty, which is Being,” says Lady Julian, “He knew and loved us from afore any time. Of which knowing, in His marvellous deep charity, and the foreseeing counsel of all the blessed Trinity, He willed that the Second Person should become our Mother.” 245
It is of course this assertion of the quickening communication p. 120 of grace to nature, of God to man—an influx of ultimate reality, possible of assimilation by all—which constitutes the strength of the Christian religion. Instead of the stony diet of the philosophers, it offers to the self hungry for the Absolute that Panis Angelorum, the vivifying principle of the world. That is to say, it gives concrete and experimental knowledge of a supreme Personality—absorption into His mystical body—instead of the artificial conviction produced by concentration on an idea. It knits up the universe; shows the phenomenal pierced in all directions by the real, the natural as the vehicle of the supernatural. It provides a solid basis for mysticism, a basis which is at once metaphysical and psychological: and shows that state towards which the world’s deepest minds have always instinctively aspired, as a part of the cosmic return through Christ to God.
“Quivi è la sapienza e la possanza
ch’ aprì le strade intra il cielo e la terra
onde fu già sì lunga disianza.” 246
This is what the Christian mystics mean to express when they declare over and over again that the return to the Divine Substance, the Absolute, which is the end of the soul’s ascent, can only be made through the humanity of Christ. The Son, the Word, is the character of the Father: that in which the Ineffable Godhead knows Himself, as we only know ourselves in our own characters. He is thus a double link: the means of God’s self-consciousness, the means of man’s consciousness of God. How then, asks mystic theology, could such a link complete its attachments without some such process as that which the Incarnation dramatized in time and space? The Principle of Life is also the Principle of Restitution; by which the imperfect and broken life of sense is mended and transformed into the perfect life of spirit. Hence the title of Repairer applied by Boehme to the Second Person of the Trinity.
In the last resort, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the only safeguard of the mystics against the pantheism to which they always tend. The Unconditioned Absolute, so soon as it alone becomes the object of their contemplation, is apt to be conceived merely as Divine Essence; the idea of Personality evaporates. The union of the soul with God is then thought of in terms of absorption. The distinction between Creator and creature is obliterated and loving communion is at an end. This is probably the reason why many of the greatest contemplatives—Suso and St. Teresa are cases in point—have found that deliberate meditation upon the humanity of Christ, difficult and uncongenial as p. 121 this concrete devotion sometimes is to the mystical temperament, was a necessity if they were to retain a healthy and well-balanced inner life.
Further, these mystics see in the historic life of Christ an epitome—or if you will, an exhibition—of the essentials of all spiritual life. There they see dramatized not only the cosmic process of the Divine Wisdom, but also the inward experience of every soul on her way to union with that Absolute “to which the whole Creation moves.” This is why the expressions which they use to describe the evolution of the mystical consciousness from the birth of the divine in the spark of the soul to its final unification with the Absolute Life are so constantly chosen from the Drama of Faith. In this drama they see described under veils the necessary adventures of the spirit. Its obscure and humble birth, its education in poverty, its temptation, mortification and solitude, its “illuminated life” of service and contemplation, the desolation of that “dark night of the soul” in which it seems abandoned by the Divine: the painful death of the self, its resurrection to the glorified existence of the Unitive Way, its final reabsorption in its Source—all these, they say, were lived once in a supreme degree in the flesh. Moreover, the degree of closeness with which the individual experience adheres to this Pattern is always taken by them as a standard of the healthiness, ardour, and success of its transcendental activities.
“Apparve in questa forma
Per dare a noi la norma.”
sang Jacopone da Todi. “And he who vainly thinketh otherwise,” says the “Theologia Germanica” with uncompromising vigour, “is deceived. And he who saith otherwise, lieth.” 247
Those to whom such a parallel seems artificial should remember that according to the doctrine of mysticism that drama of the self-limitation and self-sacrifice of the Absolute Life, which was once played out in the phenomenal world—forced, as it were, upon the consciousness of dim-eyed men—is eternally going forward upon the plane of reality. To them the Cross of Calvary is implicit in the Rose of the World. The law of this Infinite Life which was in the Incarnation expressing Its own nature in human terms, must then also be the law of the finite life; in so far as that life aspires to transcend individual limitations, rise to freedom, and attain union with Infinity. It is this governing idea which justifies the apparently fanciful allegorizations of Christian history which swarm in the works of the mystics.
To exhibit these allegorizations in detail would be tedious. All p. 122 that is necessary is that the principle underlying them should be understood. I give, then, but one example: that which is referred by mystical writers to the Nativity, and concerns the eternal Birth or Generation of the Son or Divine Word.
This Birth is in its first, or cosmic sense, the welling forth of the Spirit of Life from the Divine Abyss of the unconditioned Godhead. “From our proper Ground, that is to say from the Father and all that which lives in Him, there shines,” says Ruysbroeck, “an eternal Ray, the which is the Birth of the Son.” 248 It is of this perpetual generation of the Word that Meister Eckhart speaks, when he says in his Christmas sermon, “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all Eternity: whilst this birth also comes to pass in Time and in human nature. Saint Augustine says this Birth is ever taking place.” At this point, with that strong practical instinct which is characteristic of the mystics, Eckhart turns abruptly from speculation to immediate experience, and continues “But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.” 249 Here in a few words the two-fold character of this Mystic Birth is exhibited. The interest is suddenly deflected from its cosmic to its personal aspect; and the individual is reminded that in him, no less than in the Archetypal Universe, real life must be born if real life is to be lived. “When the soul brings forth the Son,” says Eckhart in another place, “it is happier than Mary.” 250
Since the soul, according to mystic principles, can only perceive Reality in proportion as she is real, know God by becoming Godlike, it is clear that this birth is the initial necessity. The true and definitely directed mystical life does and must open with that most actual, though indescribable phenomenon, the coming forth into consciousness of man’s deeper, spiritual self, which ascetical and mystical writers of all ages have agreed to call Regeneration or Re-birth. Nothing that is within him is able of its own power to achieve this. It must be evoked by an energy, a quickening Spirit, which comes from beyond the soul, and “secretly initiates what He openly crowns.” 251 p. 123
We nave already considered 252 the New Birth in its purely psychological aspect, as the emergence of the transcendental sense. Here its more profound and mystical side is exhibited. By a process which may indifferently be described as the birth of something new or the coming forth of something which has slept—since both these phrases are but metaphors for another and more secret operation—the eye is opened on Eternity, the self, abruptly made aware of Reality, comes forth from the cave of illusion like a child from the womb and begins to live upon the supersensual plane. Then she feels in her inmost part a new presence, a new consciousness—it were hardly an exaggeration to say a new Person—weak, demanding nurture, clearly destined to pass through many phases of development before its maturity is reached; yet of so strange a nature, that in comparison with its environment she may well regard it as Divine.
“This change, this upsetting, is called re-birth. To be born simply means to enter into a world in which the senses dominate, in which wisdom and love languish in the bonds of individuality. To be re-born means to return to a world where the spirit of wisdom and love governs and animal-man obeys.” 253 So Eckartshausen. It means, says Jane Lead, “the bringing forth of a new-created Godlike similitude in the soul.” 254 He is brought forth, says Eckartshausen again, in the stable previously inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice. 255 His mother, says Boehme, is the Virgin Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, or Mirror of the Being of God. With the emergence of this new factor into the conscious field—this spiritual birth—the mystic life begins: as the Christian epoch began with the emergence of Divine Spirit in the flesh. Paradise, says Boehme, is still in the world, but man is not in Paradise unless he be born again. In that case, he stands therein in the New Birth, 256 and tastes here and now that Eternal Life for which he has been made.
Here then are some characteristics of the map which the Christian mystics are most inclined to use. There are, of course, other great landmarks upon it: and these we shall meet as we follow in detail the voyages of the questing soul. One warning, however, must be given to amateur geographers before we go on. Like all other maps, this one at its best can but represent by harsh outline and conventional colour the living earth which those travellers trod and the mysterious seas on which they sailed. It is a deliberately schematic representation of Reality, a flat and sometimes arid symbol of great landscapes, rushing rivers, awful peaks: p. 124 dangerous unless these its limitations be always kept in mind. The boy who defined Canada as “very pink” was not much further off the track than those who would limit the Adorable Trinity to the definitions of the “Athanasian” Creed; however useful that chart may be, and is, within the boundaries imposed by its form.
Further, all such maps, and we who treat of them, can but set down in cold blood and with a dreadful pretence of precision, matters which the true explorers of Eternity were only able to apprehend in the ardours of such a passion, in the transports of such a union as we, poor finite slaves of our frittered emotions, could hardly look upon and live. “If you would truly know how these things come to pass,” says St. Bonaventura, in a passage which all students of theology should ever keep in mind, “ask it of grace, not of doctrine; of desire, not of intellect; of the ardours of prayer, not of the teachings of the schools; of the Bridegroom, not of the Master; of God, not of man; of the darkness, not of the day; not of illumination, but of that Fire which enflames all and wraps us in God with great sweetness and most ardent love. The which Fire most truly is God, and the hearth thereof is in Jerusalem.” 257
“La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l’universo penetra, e resplende
in una parte più e meno altrove” (Par. i. 1-3).
The theological ground-plan of the Cantica is epitomized in this introductory verse.
“Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iv. cap. 1. (Rickaby’s translation).
Leben, cap. lvi.
Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. xi.
Avisos y Sentencias Espirituales, N. 51.
“Varieties of Religious Experience,” Lecture vi.
Quoted by W. L. Lilly, “Many Mansions,” p. 140.
Ennead vi. 9.
Thus Aquinas says, “Since God is the universal cause of all Being, in whatever region Being can be found, there must be the Divine Presence” (“Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iii. cap. lxviii.). And we have seen that the whole claim of the mystics ultimately depends on man’s possession of pure being in “the spark of the soul.”
“De Ornatu Spiritualium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. lxvii.
Op. cit., I. iii. cap. i.
Relaccion ix. 10. But this image of a sponge, which also suggested itelf to St. Augustine, proved an occasion of stumbling to his more metaphysical mind: tending to confuse his idea of the nature of God with the category of space. Vide Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. v.
“The Threefold Life of Man,” cap. vi. § 71.
Eckhart, Pred, lxix. So too we read in the Oxyrhyncus Papyri, “Raise the stone and there thou shalt find Me. Cleave the wood and there am I.”
Compare above, cap. ii.
“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. xl.
Boyce Gibson, “God with Us,” p. 24.
See A. E. Waite, “ TheDoctrine and Literature of the Kabalah,” pp. 36-53.
Par. xxxiii. 137.
“Vala,” viii. 237.
“Jerusalem,” lxi. 44 and xcv. 23.
A. E. Waite, “The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah,” p. 35.
Palmer. “Oriental Mysticism,” pt. i. cap. i
Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 75. The reference in the last sentence is to St. Teresa’s “Castillo Interior.”
See Tauler, Sermon on St. John Baptist, and Third Instruction (“ The Inner Way,” pp. 97 and 321); Suso, “Buchlein von der Warheit,” cap. v.; Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” 1. iii. caps, ii. and vi.
St. Teresa, “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas; Sétimas, cap. i.
Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love.” cap. lv. Julian here repeats a familiar Patristic doctrine. So St. Thomas says (“Summa Contra Gentiles,” 1. iv. cap. xxvi), “A likeness of the Divine Trinity is observable in the human mind.”
“The three Persons of the Trinity,” said John Scotus Erigena, “are less modes of the Divine Substance than modes under which our mind conceives the Divine Substance”—a stimulating statement of dubious orthodoxy.
Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. xi.
Op. cit., cap. v.
Substance is here, of course, to be understood in the scholastic sense, as the reality which underlies merely phenomenal existence.
I.e. , the Second Person of the Christian Trinity is the redemptive, “fount of mercy,” the medium by which Grace, the free gift of transcendental life, reaches and vivifies human nature: “permeates it,” in Eucken’s words, “with the Infinite and Eternal” (“Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 181).
“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lviii.
Op. cit. , cap. lix.
“The School of the Heart,” Epigram x. This book, which is a free translation of the “Scola Cordis” of Benedict Haeften (1635), is often, but wrongly attributed to Francis Quarles.
“De Consideratione,” bk. v. cap. viii.
Ephesians iv. 6.
“De Visione Dei,” cap. xvii.
Eucken, “Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 131.
“An Appeal to All who Doubt” (“Liberal and Mystical Writings of William Law” p. 54). Law’s symbols are here borrowed from the system of his master, Jacob Boehme. (See the “De Signatura Rerum” of Boehme, cap. xiv.)
Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. x.
Tauler, 3rd Instruction (“The Inner Way,” p. 324).
Par. xxxiii 67, 85.
“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. iii. cap. iii.
Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 357.
Ruysbroeck, op. cit. ., loc. cit.
Supra, Cap. II.
Tauler, op. cit., loc. cit.
“Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. iv. cap. xxvi.
“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. iv.
Op. cit., I. ii. cap. xxxvii.
Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. ix.
Introduction to “Three Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” p. xxx.
The doctrine is found in St. Augustine, and is frequently reproduced by the mediaeval mystics. Eckhart is perhaps here quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, a usual source of his more orthodox utterances. Compare “Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. iv. cap. xxiii: “Since the Holy Ghost proceeds as the love wherewith God loves Himself, and since God loves with the same love Himself and other beings for the sake of His own goodness, it is clear that the love wherewith God loves us belongs to the Holy Ghost. In like manner also the love wherewith we love God.”
“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum “ I. iii. cap. iii.
Suso, Leben, cap. lvi.
“The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Homo,” xix.
“De Visione Dei,” cap. xxiii.
“Because by the mystery of the Incarnate Word the new light of Thy brightness hath shone upon the eyes of our mind: that we, knowing God seen of the eyes, by Him may be snatched up into the love of that which eye hath not seen” (Missale Romanum. Praefatio Solemnis de Nativitate).
“The Threefold Life of Man, cap. iii. § 31.
Ruysbroeck, op. cit ., 1. iii. cap. i.
Dialogo, cap. xxii.
“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lix.
Par. xxiii. 37. “Here is the Wisdom and the Power which opened the ways betwixt heaven and earth, for which there erst had been so long a yearning.”
“Theologia Germanica,” cap. xviii.
“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” 1. iii. cap. v. The extreme antiquity of this idea is illustrated by the Catholic practice, dating from Patristic times, of celebrating three Masses on Christmas Day. Of these the first, at midnight, commemorates the Eternal Generation of the Son; the second, at dawn, His incarnation upon earth; the third His birth in the heart of man. Compare the Roman Missal: also Kellner, “Heortology” (English translation, London, 1908), p. 156.
Eckhart, Pred. i., “Mystische Schriften,” p. 13. Compare Tauler, Sermon on the Nativity of Our Lady (“The Inner Way,” p. 167).
This idea of re-birth is probably of Oriental origin. It can be traced back to Egypt, being found in the Hermetic writings of the third century, B.C. See Petrie, “Personal Religion in Egypt before Christianity,” p. 167.
F. von Hügel, “The Life of Prayer,” p. 24.
Supra , p. 53.
“The Cloud upon the Sanctuary,” p. 77.
The Enochian Walks with God,” p. 3.
Op. cit ., p. 81.
“De Signatura Rerum,” viii. 47.
“De Itinerado Mentis in Deo,” cap. vii.