Sacred-Texts Christianity Angelus Silesius
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To many of those acquainted with the literature of mysticism the name of Angelus Silesius has a familiar sound and yet recalls no familiar image. It appears and re-appears in footnotes or attached to a wandering verse. It is a name without a local habitation. It appears to have been first introduced to the notice of English readers by R. A. Vaughan in his lively, informative, but somewhat exasperating mid-Victorian dialogue, Hours with the Mystics. Vaughan, however, was in doubt as to the identity of its owner and repeated the error of the German critic Schrader in denying that it was the pseudonym of the Silesian convert to Roman Catholicism, Johannes Scheffler. His estimation, moreover, of the work which has made the name of Angelus Silesius memorable was tinged with contempt, for while acknowledging the pithiness of the epigrams and rhyming sentences of the Cherubinic Wanderer, he qualified his appreciation by the stricture that many of them were "as destitute of sense as all are of poetry."
The obscurity which once involved the figure of the seventeenth-century poet and mystic has been completely dispelled by a long line of German investigaton, and his personality now stands revealed in its essential features, although the data are lacking which permit the outline to be filled up in precise detail.
In these circumstances it has seemed opportune to offer to the English-speaking reader a fuller relation of the known facts concerning the author of the p. 10 Cherubinic Wanderer, together with a larger selection of translations therefrom, than has hitherto been presented. My undertaking is less the result of a deliberate intention than the outgrowth of an increasing interest and appreciation. In revolving the German verses in my mind I found them gradually shaping themselves into English rhymes. The present collection, comprising nearly a quarter of the original work, may be claimed to be representative of the whole, although it is possible that I have allowed the mystical to preponderate over the purely devotional and didactic elements.
For the fact that so many of the alexandrine couplets of the German poet appear in the following pages in the guise of quatrains of varying patterns, I have no other excuse to offer than that of my inability to preserve the original form without doing violence to the sense. If I have unhappily deviated from the sense as well as from the form, I can at any rate plead that I have made the best amends within my power by facilitating reference to the original text. The orthography has been modernized in accordance with the texts set forth in the editions of Georg Ellinger and H. L. Held. The headings, which not infrequently serve to explicate the meaning of the verses, are of course those supplied by Angelus Silesius himself. I have taken the liberty of rearranging the original sequence of the verses, which appears to be mainly chronological, and grouping them into sections of more or less homogeneous content. Possibly some of the couplets may gain an additional illumination by their new juxtaposition.
To comment upon the residue of truth or wisdom enshrined in the utterances of Angelus Silesius does not lie within my scope. For mystics the heart is always the supreme court of appeal and within their community, though so widely extended in space and time, there has always been a remarkable unanimity in its findings. Needless to say, there are rival jurisdictions in which its Judgements are invariably reversed. The judge, it is to be feared, is not incorruptible, and the case for mysticism has commonly been supported by alluring bribes. The evidence submitted, nevertheless, lies open to inspection, and there is much in it which few who examine their inner experience with candour will fail to corroborate.
The sense of a radical duality of self, or even or a plurality of selves, appears to be given in introspection. These diverse selves may be represented diagrammatically as concentric. Each one tends to ascribe finality to its own circumference. Each assigns value only to that which lies within its own boundary and finds in everything beyond an enemy to its peace. The problem is where to draw the line dividing self from not-self. If we determine it by the short radius measured by the primary needs and desires of our animal organism, we shall live within the most restricted circle of all. If we take as the measuring rod our more generous interests and idealisms, our circumference describes a wider sweep and we have a larger self to live in. But even against the limits of the widest periphery presses an inchoate mass of indefinite extent, unknown but vaguely suspected as hostile, or at best as icily indifferent, p. 12 the vast world of the not-self, which our love has not yet embraced; and its pressure is felt as restrictive and painful. The mystics are those who have widened the circle of self to its utmost limits until all the not-self is drawn within it. They are free and at peace because there remains nothing outside of them to confine their freedom or trouble their serenity. They have abolished the frontier-line between internal and external, between I and Thou. They are to be defined by the definition which they themselves have given to the divine Essence—their centre is everywhere and their circumference is nowhere. They are those who can say with Angelus Silesius
|Turn whereso'er I will, I find no evidence|
Of End, Beginning, Centre or Circumference.
There are perhaps few to-day who will find the language of Angelus Silesius adequate in every respect to the expression of their deepest intuitions. He spoke in the dialect of a venerable creed, but the experience of which he spoke is immemorial. And it appears to be unchanging. Those who are in possession of the code will readily decipher the message. Cor ad cor loquitur.