Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
First in the sequence of the mystic states, we must consider that decisive event, the awakening of the transcendental consciousness.
This awakening, from the psychological point of view, appears to be an intense form of the phenomenon of “conversion”; and closely akin to those deep and permanent conversions of the adult type which some religious psychologists call “sanctification.” 342 It is a disturbance of the equilibrium of the self, which results in the shifting of the field of consciousness from lower to higher levels, with a consequent removal of the centre of interest from the subject to an object now brought into view: the necessary beginning of any process of transcendence. It must not, however, be confused or identified with religious conversion as ordinarily understood: the sudden and emotional acceptance of theological beliefs which the self had previously either rejected or treated as conventions dwelling upon the margin of consciousness and having no meaning for her actual life. The mechanical process may be much the same; but the material involved, the results attained, belong to a higher order of reality.
“Conversion,” says Starbuck, in words which are really far more descriptive of mystical awakening than of the revivalistic phenomena encouraged by American Protestantism, “is primarily an unselfing. The first birth of the individual is into his own little world. He is controlled by the deep-seated instincts of self-preservation and self-enlargement—instincts which are, doubtless, a direct p. 177 inheritance from his brute ancestry. The universe is organized around his own personality as a centre.” Conversion, then, is “the larger world-consciousness now pressing in on the individual consciousness. Often it breaks in suddenly and becomes a great new revelation. This is the first aspect of conversion: the person emerges from a smaller limited world of existence into a larger world of being. His life becomes swallowed up in a larger whole.” 343
All conversion entails the abrupt or gradual emergence of intuitions from below the threshold, the consequent remaking of the field of consciousness, an alteration in the self’s attitude to the world. “It is,” says Pratt, “a change of taste—the most momentous one that ever occurs in human experience.” 344 But in the mystic this process is raised to the nth degree of intensity, for in him it means the first emergence of that passion for the Absolute which is to constitute his distinctive character: an emergence crucial in its effect on every department of his life. Those to whom it happens, often enough, are already “religious”: sometimes deeply and earnestly so. Rulman Merswin, St. Catherine of Genoa, George Fox, Lucie-Christine—all these had been bred up in piety, and accepted in its entirety the Christian tradition. They were none the less conscious of an utter change in their world when this opening of the soul’s eye took place.
Sometimes the emergence of the mystical consciousness is gradual, unmarked by any definite crisis. The self slides gently, almost imperceptibly, from the old universe to the new. The records of mysticism, however, suggest that this is exceptional: that travail is the normal accompaniment of birth. In another type, of which George Fox is a typical example, there is no conversion in the ordinary sense; but a gradual and increasing lucidity, of which the beginning has hardly been noticed by the self, intermittently accompanies the pain, misery of mind, and inward struggles characteristic of the entrance upon the Way of Purgation. Conversion and purification then go hand in hand, finally shading off into the serenity of the Illuminated State. Fox’s “Journal” for the year 1647 contains a vivid account of these “showings” or growing transcendental perceptions of a mind not yet at one with itself, and struggling towards clearness of sight. “Though my exercises and troubles,” he says, “were very great, yet were they not so continual but I had some intermissions, and was sometimes brought into such a heavenly joy that I thought I had been in Abraham’s bosom. . . . Thus in the deepest miseries, and in the greatest sorrows and temptations that many times p. 178 beset me, the Lord in His mercy did keep me. I found that there were two thirsts in me, the one after the creatures to get help and strength there; and the other after the Lord, the Creator. . . . It was so with me, that there seemed to be two pleadings in me. . . . One day when I had been walking solitarily abroad and was come home, I was wrapped up in the love of God, so that I could not but admire the greatness of his love. While I was in that condition it was opened unto me by the eternal Light and Power, and I saw clearly therein. . . . But O! then did I see my troubles, trials, and temptations more clearly than ever I had done.” 345
The great oscillations of the typical mystic between joy and pain are here replaced by a number of little ones. The “two thirsts” of the superficial and spiritual consciousness assert themselves by turns. Each step towards the vision of the Real brings with it a reaction. The nascent transcendental powers are easily fatigued, and the pendulum of self takes a shorter swing. “I was swept up to Thee by Thy Beauty, and torn away from Thee by my own weight,” says St. Augustine, crystallizing the secret of this experience in an unforgettable phrase. 346
Commonly, however, if we may judge from those first-hand accounts which we possess, mystic conversion is a single and abrupt experience, sharply marked off from the long, dim struggles which precede and succeed it. It usually involves a sudden and acute realization of a splendour and adorable reality in the world—or sometimes of its obverse, the divine sorrow at the heart of things—never before perceived. In so far as I am acquainted with the resources of language, there are no words in which this realization can be described. It is of so actual a nature that in comparison the normal world of past perception seems but twilit at the best. Consciousness has suddenly changed its rhythm and a new aspect of the universe rushes in. The teasing mists are swept away, and reveal, if only for an instant, the sharp outline of the Everlasting Hills. “He who knows this will know what I say, and will be convinced that the soul has then another life.” 347
In most cases, the onset of this new consciousness seems to the self so sudden, so clearly imposed from without rather than developed from within, as to have a supernatural character. The typical case is, of course, that of St. Paul: the sudden light, the voice, the ecstasy, the complete alteration of life. We shall see, however, when we come to study the evidence of those mystics who have left a detailed record of their preconverted state, that p. 179 the apparently abrupt conversion is really, as a rule, the sequel and the result of a long period of restlessness, uncertainty, and mental stress. The deeper mind stirs uneasily in its prison, and its emergence is but the last of many efforts to escape. The temperament of the subject, his surroundings, the vague but persistent apprehensions of a supersensual reality which he could not find yet could not forget; all these have prepared him for it. 348
When, however, the subconscious intuitions, long ago quickened, are at last brought to birth and the eyes are opened on new light—and it is significant that an actual sense of blinding radiance is a constant accompaniment of this state of consciousness—the storm and stress, the vague cravings and oscillations of the past life are forgotten. In this abrupt recognition of reality “all things are made new”: from this point the life of the mystic begins. Conversion of this sort has, says De Sanctis, three marked characteristics: a sense of liberation and victory: a conviction of the nearness of God: a sentiment of love towards God. 349 We might describe it as a sudden, intense, and joyous perception of God immanent in the universe; of the divine beauty and unutterable power and splendour of that larger life in which the individual is immersed, and of a new life to be lived by the self in correspondence with this now dominant fact of existence. “Suddenly,” says the French contemplative Lucie-Christine of the beginning of her mystical life, “I saw before my inward eyes these words— God only . . . they were at the same time a Light, an Attraction and a Power. A Light which showed me how I could belong completely to God alone in this world, and I saw that hitherto I had not well understood this; an Attraction by which my heart was subdued and delighted; a Power which inspired me with a generous resolution and somehow placed in my hands the means of carrying it out.” 350
I will here set down for comparison a few instances of such mystical conversion; quoting, where this is available, the actual description left by the subject of his own experience, or in default of it, the earliest authentic account. In these cases, when grouped together, we shall see certain constant characteristics, from which it may be possible to deduce the psychological law to which they owe their peculiar form. p. 180
First in point of time, and perhaps also in importance, amongst those I have chosen, is the case of that great poet and contemplative, that impassioned lover of the Absolute, St. Francis of Assisi. The fact that St. Francis wrote little and lived much, that his actions were of unequalled simplicity and directness, long blinded his admirers to the fact that he is a typical mystic: the only one, perhaps, who forced the most trivial and sordid circumstances of sensual life to become perfect expressions of Reality.
Now the opening of St. Francis’s eyes, which took place in A.D. 1206 when he was twenty-four years old, had been preceded by a long, hard struggle between the life of the world and the persistent call of the spirit. His mind, in modern language, had not unified itself. He was a high-spirited boy, full of vitality: a natural artist, with all the fastidiousness which the artistic temperament involves. War and pleasure both attracted him, and upon them, says his legend, he “miserably squandered and wasted his time.” 351 Nevertheless, he was vaguely dissatisfied. In the midst of festivities, he would have sudden fits of abstraction: abortive attempts of the growing transcendental consciousness, still imprisoned below the threshold but aware of and in touch with the Real, to force itself to the surface and seize the reins. “Even in ignorance,” says Thomas of Celano again, “he was being led to perfect knowledge.” He loved beauty, for he was by nature a poet and a musician, and shrank instinctively from contact with ugliness and disease. But something within ran counter to this temperamental bias, and sometimes conquered it. He would then associate with beggars, tend the leprous, perform impulsive acts of charity and self-humiliation. 352
When this divided state, described by the legend as “the attempt to flee God’s hand,” had lasted for some years, it happened one day that he was walking in the country outside the gates of Assisi, and passed the little church of S. Damiano, “the which” (I again quote from Thomas of Celano’s “Second Life”) “was almost ruinous and forsaken of all men. And, being led by the Spirit, he went in to pray; and he fell down before the Crucifix in devout supplication, and having been smitten by unwonted visitations, found himself another man than he who had gone in.”
Here, then, is the first stage of conversion. The struggle between two discrepant ideals of life has attained its term. A sudden and apparently “irrational” impulse to some decisive act reaches the surface-consciousness from the seething deeps. The impulse is followed; and the swift emergence of the transcendental sense p. 181 results. This “unwonted visitation” effects an abrupt and involuntary alteration in the subject’s consciousness: whereby he literally “finds himself another man.” He is as one who has slept and now awakes. The crystallization of this new, at first fluid apprehension of Reality in the form of vision and audition: the pointing of the moral, the direct application of truth to the awakened self, follow. “And whilst he was thus moved, straightway—a thing unheard of for long ages!—the painted image of Christ Crucified spoke to him from out its pictured lips. And, calling him by his name, “Francis,” it said, “go, repair My house, the which as thou seest is falling into decay.” And Francis trembled, being utterly amazed, and almost as it were carried away by these words. And he prepared to obey, for he was wholly set on the fulfilling of this commandment. But forasmuch as he felt that the change he had undergone was ineffable, it becomes us to be silent concerning it. . . .” From this time he “gave untiring toil to the repair of that Church. For though the words which were said to him concerned that divine Church which Christ bought with His own Blood, he would not hasten to such heights, but little by little from things of the flesh would pass to those of the Spirit.” 353
In a moment of time, Francis’s whole universe has suffered complete rearrangement. There are no hesitations, no uncertainties. The change, which he cannot describe, he knows to be central for life. Not for a moment does he think of disobeying the imperative voice which speaks to him from a higher plane of reality and demands the sacrifice of his career.
Compare now with the experience of St. Francis that of another great saint and mystic, who combined, as he did, the active with the contemplative life. Catherine of Genoa, who seems to have possessed from childhood a religious nature, was prepared for the remaking of her consciousness by years of loneliness and depression, the result of an unhappy marriage. She, like St. Francis—but in sorrow rather than in joy—had oscillated between the world, which did not soothe her, and religion, which helped her no more. At last, she had sunk into a state of dull wretchedness, a hatred alike of herself and of life.
Her emancipation was equally abrupt. In the year 1474, she being twenty-six years old, “The day after the feast of St. Benedict (at the instance of her sister that was a nun), Catherine went to make her confession to the confessor of that nunnery; but she was not disposed to do it. Then said her sister, ‘At least go and recommend yourself to him, because he is a most worthy religious’; and in fact he was a very holy man. And suddenly, as she knelt before him, she received in her heart the wound of the unmeasured Love p. 182 of God, with so clear a vision of her own misery and her faults, and of the goodness of God, that she almost fell upon the ground. And by these sensations of infinite love, and of the offenses that had been done against this most sweet God, she was so greatly drawn by purifying affection away from the poor things of this world that she was almost beside herself, and for this she cried inwardly with ardent love, ‘No more world! no more sin!’ And at this point if she had possessed a thousand worlds, she would have thrown all of them away. . . . And she returned home, kindled and deeply wounded with so great a love of God, the which had been shown her inwardly, with the sight of her own wretchedness, that she seemed beside herself. And she shut herself in a chamber, the most secluded she could find, with burning sighs. And in this moment she was inwardly taught the whole practice of orison: but her tongue could say naught but this—‘O Love, can it be that thou has called me with so great a love, and made me to know in one instant that which worlds cannot express?’” This intuition of the Absolute was followed by an interior vision of Christ bearing the Cross, which further increased her love and self-abasement. “And she cried again, ‘O Love, no more sins! no more sins!’ And her hatred of herself was more than she could endure.” 354
Of this experience Von Hügel says, “If the tests of reality in such things are their persistence and large and rich spiritual applicability and fruitfulness, then something profoundly real and important took place in the soul of that sad and weary woman of six-and-twenty, within that convent-chapel, at that Annunciation-tide.” 355 It is certain that for St. Catherine, as for St. Francis, an utterly new life did, literally, begin at this point. The centre of interest was shifted and the field of consciousness remade. She “knew in an instant that which words cannot express.” Some veil about her heart was torn away; so abruptly, that it left a wound behind. For the first time she saw and knew the Love in which life is bathed; and all the energy and passion of a strong nature responded to its call.
The conversion of Madame Guyon to the mystic life, as told by herself in the eighth chapter of Part I. of her Autobiography—“How a holy Religious caused her to find God within her heart, with Admirable Results,” is its characteristic title—is curiously like a dilute version of this experience of St. Catherine’s. It, too, followed upon a period of mental distress; also the result of an uncongenial marriage. But since Madame Guyon’s unbalanced, diffuse, and sentimental character entirely lacks the richness and dignity, the repressed ardours and exquisite delicacy of p. 183 St. Catherine’s mind, so, too, her account of her own interior processes is marred by a terrible and unctuous interest in the peculiar graces vouchsafed to her. 356
Madame Guyon’s value to the student of mysticism partly consists in this feeble quality of her surface-intelligence, which hence had little or no modifying or contributory effect upon her spiritual life and makes her an ideal “laboratory specimen” for the religious psychologist. True to her great principle of passivity or “quiet,” it lets the uncriticized interior impulses have their way; thus we are able to observe their workings uncomplicated by the presence of a vigorous intellect or a disciplined will. The wind that bloweth where it listeth whistles through her soul: and the response which she makes is that of a weathercock rather than a windmill. She moves to every current; she often mistakes a draught for the divine breath; she feels her gyrations to be of enormous importance. But in the description of her awakening to the deeper life, even her effusive style acquires a certain dignity. 357
Madame Guyon had from her childhood exhibited an almost tiresome taste for pious observances. At twelve years old she studied St. François de Sales and St. Jeanne Françoise de Chantal; begged her confessor to teach her the art of mental prayer; and when he omitted to do so, tried to teach herself, but without result. 358 She wished at this time to become a nun of the Visitation, as St. Catherine at the same age wanted to be an Augustinian canoness; but as the longings of little girls of twelve for the cloister are seldom taken seriously, we are not surprised to find the refusal of her parents’ consent chronicled in the chapter which is headed “ Diverses croix chez M. son père .” Growing up into an unusually beautiful young woman, she went into society, and for a short time enjoyed life in an almost worldly way. Her marriage with Jacques Guyon, however—a marriage of which she signed the articles without even being told the bridegroom’s name—put an end to her gaiety. “The whole town was pleased by this marriage; and in all this rejoicing only I was sad . . . hardly was I married, when the remembrance of my old desire to be a nun overcame me.” 359
Her early married life was excessively unhappy. She was soon p. 184 driven to look for comfort in the practices of religion. “Made to love much, and finding nothing to love around her, she gave her love to God,” says Guerrier tersely. 360 But she was not satisfied: like most of her fellow-contemplatives, she was already vaguely conscious of something that she missed, some vital power unused, and identified this something with the “orison of quiet,” the “practice of the presence of God” which mystically minded friends had described to her. She tried to attain to it deliberately, and naturally failed. “I could not give myself by multiplicity that which Thou Thyself givest, and which is only experienced in simplicity.” 361
When these interior struggles had lasted for nearly two years, and Madame Guyon was nineteen, the long desired, almost despaired of, apprehension came—as it did to St. Catherine—suddenly, magically almost; and under curiously parallel conditions. It was the result of a few words spoken by a Franciscan friar whom a “secret force” acting in her interest had brought into the neighbourhood, and whom she had been advised to consult. He was a recluse, who disliked hearing the confessions of women, and appears to have been far from pleased by her visit; an annoyance which he afterwards attributed to her fashionable appearance, “which filled him with apprehension.” “He hardly came forward, and was a long time without speaking to me. I, however, did not fail to speak to him and to tell him in a few words my difficulties on the subject of orison. He at once replied, ‘Madame, you are seeking without that which you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your own heart, and you will find him.’ Having said this, he left me. The next morning he was greatly astonished when I again visited him and told him the effect which these words had had upon my soul: for, indeed, they were as an arrow, which pierced my heart through and through. I felt in this moment a profound wound, which was full of delight and of love—a wound so sweet that I desired that it might never heal. These words had put into my heart that which I sought for so many years, or, rather, they caused me to find that which was there. O, my Lord, you were within my heart, and you asked of me only that I should return within, in order that I might feel your presence. O, Infinite Goodness, you were so near, and I running here and there to seek you, found you not!” She, too, like St. Catherine, learned in this instant the long-sought practice of orison, or contemplation. “From the moment of which I have spoken, my orison was emptied of all form, species, and images; nothing of my orison passed through the mind; but it was an orison of joyous possession in the Will, where the taste for God was so great, pure, p. 185 and simple that it attracted and absorbed the two other powers of the soul in a profound recollection without action or speech.” 362
Take now the case of a less eminent mystic, who has also left behind him a vivid personal description of his entrance upon the Mystic Way. Rulman Merswin was a wealthy, pious, and respected merchant of Strassburg. In the year 1347, when he was about thirty-six years old, he retired from business in order that he might wholly devote himself to religious matters. It was the time of that spiritual revival within the Catholic Church in Germany which, largely influenced by the great Rhenish mystics Suso and Tauler, is identified with the “Friends of God”; and Merswin himself was one of Tauler’s disciples. 363
One evening, in the autumn which followed his retirement, “about the time of Martinmas,” he was strolling in his garden alone. Meditating as he walked, a picture of the Crucifix suddenly presented itself to his mind. In such an imaginary vision as this there is nothing, of course, that we can call abnormal. The thoughts of a devout Catholic, influenced by Tauler and his school, must often have taken such a direction during his solitary strolls. This time, however, the mental image of the Cross seems to have released subconscious forces which had long been gathering way. Merswin was abruptly filled with a violent hatred of the world and of his own free-will. “Lifting his eyes to heaven he solemnly swore that he would utterly surrender his own will, person, and goods to the service of God.” 364
This act of complete surrender, releasing as it were the earthbound self, was at once followed by the onset of pure mystical perception. “The reply from on high came quickly. A brilliant light shone about him: he heard in his ears a divine voice of p. 186 adorable sweetness; he felt as if he were lifted from the ground and carried several times completely round his garden.” 365 Optical disturbance, auditions, and the sense of levitation, are of course frequent physical accompaniments of these shiftings of the level of consciousness. There are few cases in which one or other is not present; and in some we find all. Coming to himself after this experience, Merswin’s heart was filled by a new consciousness of the Divine; and by a transport of intense love towards God which made him undertake with great energy the acts of mortification which he believed necessary to the purification of his soul. From this time onwards, his mystical consciousness steadily developed. That it was a consciousness wholly different in kind from the sincere piety which had previously caused him to retire from business in order to devote himself to religious truth, is proved by the name of Conversion which he applies to the vision of the garden; and by the fact that he dates from this point the beginning of his real life.
The conversion of Merswin’s greater contemporary, Suso, seems to have been less abrupt. Of its first stage he speaks vaguely at the beginning of his autobiography, wherein he says that “he began to be converted when in the eighteenth year of his age.” 366 He was at this time, as St. Francis had been, restless, dissatisfied; vaguely conscious of something essential to his peace, as yet unfound. His temperament, at once deeply human and ardently spiritual, passionately appreciative of sensuous beauty yet unable to rest in it, had not “unified itself”: nor did it do so completely until after a period of purgation which is probably unequalled for its austerity in the history of the mysticism of the West. “He was kept of God in this, that when he turned to those things that most enticed him he found neither happiness nor peace therein. He was restless, and-it seemed to him that something which was as yet unknown could alone give peace to his heart. And he suffered greatly of this restlessness. . . . God at last delivered him by a complete conversion. His brothers in religion were astonished by so quick a change: for the event took them unawares. Some said of it one thing, and some another: but none could know the reason of his conversion. It was God Who, by a hidden light, had caused this return to Himself.” 367
This secret conversion was completed by a more violent uprush of the now awakened and active transcendental powers. Suso, whom one can imagine as a great and highly nervous artist if his p. 187 genius had not taken the channel of sanctity instead, was subject all his life to visions of peculiar richness and beauty. Often these visions seem to have floated up, as it were, from the subliminal region without disturbing the course of his conscious life; and to be little more than pictorial images of his ardour towards and intuition of, divine realities. The great ecstatic vision—or rather apprehension—with which the series opens, however, is of a very different kind; and represents the characteristic experience of Ecstasy in its fullest form. It is described with a detail and intensity which make it a particularly valuable document of the mystical life. It is doubtful whether Suso ever saw more than this: the course of his long education rather consisted in an adjustment of his nature to the Reality which he then perceived.
“In the first days of his conversion it happened upon the Feast of St. Agnes, when the Convent had breakfasted at midday, that the Servitor went into the choir. He was alone, and he placed himself in the last stall on the prior’s side. And he was in much suffering, for a heavy trouble weighed upon his heart. And being there alone, and devoid of all consolations—no one by his side, no one near him—of a sudden his soul was rapt in his body, or out of his body. Then did he see and hear that which no tongue can express.
“That which the Servitor saw had no form neither any manner of being; yet he had of it a joy such as he might have known in the seeing of the shapes and substances of all joyful things. His heart was hungry, yet satisfied, his soul was full of contentment and joy: his prayers and hopes were all fulfilled. And the Friar could do naught but contemplate this Shining Brightness, and he altogether forgot himself and all other things. Was it day or night? He knew not. It was, as it were, a manifestation of the sweetness of Eternal Life in the sensations of silence and of rest. Then he said, ‘If that which I see and feel be not the Kingdom of Heaven, I know not what it can be: for it is very sure that the endurance of all possible pains were but a poor price to pay for the eternal possession of so great a joy.’”
The physical accompaniments of ecstasy were also present. “This ecstasy lasted from half an hour to an hour, and whether his soul were in the body or out of the body he could not tell. But when he came to his senses it seemed to him that he returned from another world. And so greatly did his body suffer in this short rapture that it seemed to him that none, even in dying, could suffer so greatly in so short a time. The Servitor came to himself moaning, and he fell down upon the ground like a man who swoons. And he cried inwardly, heaving great sighs from the depth of his soul and saying, ‘Oh, my God, where was I and where p. 188 am I?’ And again, ‘Oh, my heart’s joy, never shall my soul forget this hour!’ He walked, but it was but his body that walked, as a machine might do. None knew from his demeanour that which was taking place within. But his soul and his spirit were full of marvels; heavenly lightnings passed and repassed in the deeps of his being, and it seemed to him that he walked on air. And all the powers of his soul were full of these heavenly delights. He was like a vase from which one has taken a precious ointment, but in which the perfume long remains.”
Finally, the last phrases of the chapter seem to suggest the true position of this exalted pleasure-state as a first link in the long chain of mystical development. “This foretaste of the happiness of heaven,” he says, “the which the Servitor enjoyed for many days, excited in him a most lively desire for God.” 368
Mystical activity, then, like all other activities of the self, opens with that sharp stimulation of the will, which can only be obtained through the emotional life.
Suso was a scholar, and an embryo ecclesiastic. During the period which elapsed between his conversion and his description of it, he was a disciple of Meister Eckhart, a student of Dionysius and St. Thomas Aquinas. His writings show familiarity with the categories of mystical theology; and naturally enough this circumstance, and also the fact that they were written for purposes of edification, may have dictated to some extent the language in which his conversion-ecstasy is described. As against this, I will give two first-hand descriptions of mystical conversion in which it is obvious that theological learning plays little or no part. Both written in France within a few years of one another, they represent the impact of Reality on two minds of very different calibre. One is the secret document in which a great genius set down, in words intended only for his own eyes, the record of a two hours’ ecstasy. The other is the plain, unvarnished statement of an uneducated man of the peasant class. The first is, of course, the celebrated Memorial, or Amulet, of Pascal; the second is the Relation of Brother Lawrence.
The Memorial of Pascal is a scrap of parchment on which, round a rough drawing of the Flaming Cross, there are written a few strange phrases, abrupt and broken words; all we know about one of the strangest ecstatic revelations chronicled in the history of the mystic type. After Pascal’s death a servant found a copy of this little document, now lost, sewn up in his doublet. He seems always to have worn it upon his person: a perpetual memorial of the supernal experience, the initiation into Reality, which it describes. Though Bremand has shown that the opening p. 189 of Pascal’s spiritual eyes had begun, on his own declaration, eleven months earlier, “d’une manière douce et obligeante,” 369 the conversion thus prepared was only made actual by this abrupt illumination; ending a long period of spiritual stress, in which indifference to his ordinary interests was counterbalanced by an utter inability to feel the attractive force of that Divine Reality which his great mind discerned as the only adequate object of desire.
The Memorial opens thus:—
“L’an de grace 1654
lundi, 23 novembre, jour de Saint Clément, pape
et martyr, et autres au martyrologe,
veille de Saint Chrysogone, martyr et autres
depuis environ dix heures et demie du soir jusques
environ minuit et demie,
“From half-past ten till half-past twelve, Fire!” That is all, so far as description is concerned; but enough, apparently, to remind the initiate of all that passed. The rest tells us only the passion of joy and conviction which this nameless revelation—this long, blazing vision of Reality—brought in its train. It is but a series of amazed exclamations, crude, breathless words, placed there helter-skelter, the artist in him utterly in abeyance; the names of the overpowering emotions which swept him, one after the other, as the Fire of Love disclosed its secrets, evoked an answering flame of humility and rapture in his soul.
“Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu de Jacob,
Non des philosophes et des savants.
Certitude. Certitude. Sentiment. Joie. Paix”.
“Not the God of philosophers and of scholars!” cries in amazement this great scholar and philosopher abruptly turned from knowledge to love.
“Oubli du monde et de tout hormis Dieu,” he says again, seeing his universe suddenly swept clean of all but this Transcendent Fact. Then, “Le monde ne t’a point connu, mais je t’ai connu. Joie! joie joie! pleurs de joie!” Compare with the classic style, the sharp and lucid definition of the “Pensées,” the irony and glitter of the “Provinciales,” these little broken phrases—this child-like stammering speech—in which a supreme master of language has tried to tell his wonder and his delight. I know few things in the history of mysticism at once more convincing, more poignant than this hidden talisman; upon which the brilliant p. 190 scholar and stylist, the merciless disputant, has jotted down in hard, crude words, which yet seem charged with passion—the inarticulate language of love—a memorial of the certitude, the peace, the joy, above all, the reiterated, all-surpassing joy, which accompanied his ecstatic apprehension of God.
“ Mon Dieu, me quitterez vous?” he says again; the fire apparently beginning to die down, the ecstasy drawing to an end. “ Que je n’en sois pas séparé éternellement!” “Are you going to leave me? Oh, let me not be separated from you for ever!—the one unendurable thought which would, said Aquinas, rob the Beatific Vision of its glory, were we not sure that it can never fade. 370 But the rhapsody is over, the vision of the Fire has gone; and the rest of the Memorial clearly contains Pascal’s meditations upon his experience, rather than a transcript of the experience itself. It ends with the watchword of all mysticism, Surrender—“ Renonciation, totale et douce” in Pascal’s words—the only way, he thinks, in which he can avoid continued separation from Reality. 371
Pascal’s vision of Light, Life, and Love was highly ecstatic; an indescribable, incommunicable experience, which can only be suggested by his broken words of certitude and joy. By his simple contemporary, Brother Lawrence, that Transcendent Reality Who “is not the God of philosophers and scholars,” was perceived in a moment of abrupt intuition, peculiarly direct, unecstatic and untheological in type, but absolutely enduring in its results. Lawrence was an uneducated young man of the peasant class; who first served as a soldier, and afterwards as a footman in a great French family, where he annoyed his masters by breaking everything. When he was between fifty and sixty years of age, he entered the Carmelite Order as a lay brother; and the letters, “spiritual maxims,” and conversations belonging to this period of his life were published after his death in 1691. “He told me,” says the anonymous reporter of the conversations, supposed to be M. Beaufort, who was about 1660 Grand Vicar to the Cardinal de Noailles, “that God had done him a singular favour in his conversion at the age of eighteen. That in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul. That this p. 191 view had set him perfectly loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased in above forty years that he had lived since.” 372
Such use of visible nature as the stuff of ontological perceptions, the medium whereby the self reaches out to the Absolute, is not rare in the history of mysticism. The mysterious vitality of trees, the silent magic of the forest, the strange and steady cycle of its life, possess in a peculiar degree this power of unleashing the human soul: are curiously friendly to its cravings, minister to its inarticulate needs. Unsullied by the corroding touch of consciousness, that life can make a contact with the “great life of the All”; and through its mighty rhythms man can receive a message concerning the true and timeless World of “all that is, and was, and evermore shall be.” Plant life of all kinds, indeed, from the “flower in the crannied wall” to the “Woods of Westermain” can easily become, for selves of a certain type, a “mode of the Infinite.” So obvious does this appear when we study the history of the mystics, that Steiner has drawn from it the hardly warrantable inference that “plants are just those natural phenomena whose qualities in the higher world are similar to their qualities in the physical world.” 373
Though the conclusion be not convincing, the fact remains. The flowery garment of the world is for some mystics a medium of ineffable perception, a source of exalted joy, the veritable clothing of God. I need hardly add that such a state of things has always been found incredible by common sense. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy,” says Blake, who possessed in an eminent degree this form of sacramental perception, “is in the Eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the Way.” 374
Such a perception of the Divine in Nature, of the true and holy meaning of that rich, unresting life in which we are immersed, is really a more usual feature of Illumination than of Conversion. All the most marked examples of it must be referred to that state; and will be discussed when we come to its consideration. Sometimes, however, as in the case of Brother Lawrence, the first awakening of the self to consciousness of Reality does take this form. The Uncreated Light manifests Itself in and through created things. This characteristically immanental discovery of the Absolute occurs chiefly in two classes: in unlettered men who have lived close to Nature, and to whom her symbols are more familiar than those of the Churches or the schools, and in temperaments of the mixed or mystical type, who are nearer to the poet than to the true contemplative, for whom as a rule the Absolute p. 192 “hath no image.” “It was like entering into another world, a new state of existence,” says a witness quoted by Starbuck, speaking of his own conversion. “Natural objects were glorified. My spiritual vision was so clarified that I saw beauty in every material object in the universe. The woods were vocal with heavenly music.” “Oh, how I was changed! Everything became new. My horses and hogs and everybody became changed!” exclaims with naive astonishment another in the same collection. 375 “When I went in the morning into the fields to work,” says a third, “the glory of God appeared in all His visible creation. I well remember we reaped oats, and how every straw and head of the oats seemed, as it were, arrayed in a kind of rainbow glory, or to glow, if I may so express it, in the glory of God.” 376
Amongst modern men, Walt Whitman possessed in a supreme degree the permanent sense of this glory, the “light rare, untellable, lighting the very light.” 377 But evidences of its existence, and the sporadic power of apprehending it, are scattered up and down the literature of the world. Its discovery constitutes the awakening of the mystical consciousness in respect of the World of Becoming: a sharp and sudden break with the old and obvious way of seeing things. The human cinematograph has somehow changed its rhythm, and begins to register new and more real aspects of the external world. With this, the self’s first escape from the limitations of its conventional universe, it receives an immense assurance of a great and veritable life surrounding, sustaining, explaining its own. Thus Richard Jefferies says, of the same age as that at which Suso and Brother Lawrence awoke to sudden consciousness of Reality, “I was not more than eighteen when an inner and esoteric meaning began to come to me from all the visible universe.” “I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe . . . and losing thus my separateness of being, came to seem like a part of the whole.” “I feel on the margin of a life unknown, very near, almost touching it—on the verge of powers which, if I could grasp, would give men an immense breadth of existence.” 378
What was this “life unknown” but the Life known to the great mystics, which Richard Jefferies apprehended in these moments of insight, yet somehow contrived to miss?
Such participation in the deep realities of the World of Becoming, the boundless existence of a divine whole—which a modern p. 193 psychologist has labelled and described as “Cosmic Consciousness” 379 —whilst it is not the final object of the mystic’s journey, is a constant feature of it. It may represent one-half of his characteristic consciousness: an entrance into communion with the second of the Triune Powers of God, the Word which “is through all things everlastingly.” Jefferies stood, as so many mystically minded men have done, upon the verge of such a transcendental life. The “heavenly door,” as Rolle calls it, was ajar but not pushed wide. He peeped through it to the greater world beyond; but, unable to escape from the bonds of his selfhood, he did not pass through to live upon the independent spiritual plane.
Rolle, Jefferies’s fellow countryman, and his predecessor by close upon six hundred years in the ecstatic love and understanding of natural things, shall be our last example of the mystical awakening. He, like his spiritual brother St. Francis, and other typical cases, had passed through a preliminary period of struggle and oscillation between worldly life and a vague but growing spirituality: between the superficial and the deeper self. “My youth was fond, my childhood vain, my young age unclean,” 380 but “when I should flourish unhappily, and youth of wakeful age was now come, the grace of my Maker was near, the which lust of temporal shape restrained, and unto ghostly supplications turned my desires, and the soul, from low things lifted, to heaven has borne.” 381
The real “life-changing,” however, was sharply and characteristically marked off from this preparatory state. Rolle associates it with the state which he calls “Heat”: the form in which his ardour of soul was translated to the surface consciousness. “Heat soothly I call when the mind truly is kindled in Love Everlasting, and the heart on the same manner to burn not hopingly but verily is felt. The heart truly turned into fire, gives feeling of burning love.” 382 This burning heat is not merely a mental experience. In it we seem to have an unusual but not unique form of psychophysical parallelism: a bodily expression of the psychic travail and distress accompanying the “New Birth.” 383 “More have I marvelled than I show, forsooth,” he says in his prologue, “when I first felt my heart wax warm, and truly, not imaginingly, but as it were with a sensible fire , burned. I was forsooth marvelled, as this burning burst up in my soul, and of an unwonted solace; for p. 194 in my ignorance of such healing abundance, oft have I groped my breast, seeing whether this burning were of any bodily cause outwardly. But when I knew that only it was kindled of ghostly cause inwardly, and this burning was naught of fleshly love or desire, in this I conceived it was the gift of my Maker.” 384 Further on, he gives another and more detailed account. “From the beginning, forsooth, of my life-changing and of my mind, to the opening of the heavenly door which Thy Face showed, that the heart might behold heavenly things and see by what way its Love it might seek and busily desire, three years are run except three months or four. The door, forsooth, biding open, a year near-by I passed unto the time in which the heat of Love Everlasting was verily felt in heart. I sat forsooth in a chapel and whilst with sweetness of prayer and meditation greatly I was delighted, suddenly in me I felt a merry heat and unknown. But at first I wondered, doubting of whom it should be; but a long time I am assured that not of the Creature but of my Maker it was, for more hot and gladder I found it.” 385
To this we must add a passage which I cannot but think one of the most beautiful expressions of spiritual joy to be found in mystical literature. Based though it certainly is upon a passage in St. Augustine—for the nightingale is not a Yorkshire bird—its sketch of the ideal mystic life, to the cultivation of which he then set himself, reveals in a few lines the most charming aspect of Rolle’s spirituality, its poetic fervour, its capacity for ardent love.
“In the beginning truly of my conversion and singular purpose, I though I would be like the little bird that for love of her lover longs, but in her longing she is gladdened when he comes that she loves. And joying she sings, and singing she longs, but in sweetness and heat. It is said the nightingale to song and melody all night is given, that she may please him to whom she is joined. How muckle more with greatest sweetness to Christ my Jesu should I sing, that is spouse of my soul by all this present life, that is night in regard of clearness to come.” 386
Glancing back at the few cases here brought together, we can see in them, I think, certain similarities and diversities which are often of great psychological interest and importance: and have their influence upon the subsequent development of the mystic life. We see in particular at this point—before purification, or the remaking of character, begins—the reaction of the natural self, its heart and its mind, upon that uprush of new truth which operates “mystical conversion.” This reaction is highly significant, p. 195 and gives us a clue not only to the future development of the mystic, but to the general nature of man’s spiritual consciousness.
We have said 387 that this consciousness in its full development seems to be extended not in one but in two directions. These directions, these two fundamental ways of apprehending Reality may be called the eternal and temporal, transcendent and immanent, absolute and dynamic aspects of Truth. They comprise the twofold knowledge of a God Who is both Being and Becoming near and far: pairs of opposites which the developed mystical experience will carry up into a higher synthesis. But the first awakening of the mystic sense, the first breaking in of the suprasensible upon the soul, commonly involves the emergence of one only of these complementary forms of perception. One side always wakes first: the incoming message always choosing the path of least resistance. Hence mystical conversion tends to belong to one of two distinctive types: tends also, as regards its expression, to follow that temperamental inclination to objectivize Reality as a Place, a Person, or a State which we found to govern the symbolic systems of the mystics. 388
There is first, then, the apprehension of a splendour without: an expansive, formless, ineffable vision, a snatching up of the self, as it were, from knowledge of this world to some vague yet veritable knowledge of the next. The veil parts, and the Godhead is perceived as transcendent to, yet immanent in, the created universe. Not the personal touch of love transfiguring the soul, but the impersonal glory of a transfigured world, is the dominant note of this experience: and the reaction of the self takes the form of awe and rapture rather than of intimate affection. Of such a kind was the conversion of Suso, and in a less degree of Brother Lawrence. Of this kind also were the Light which Rulman Merswin saw, and the mystical perception of the Being of the universe reported by Richard Jefferies and countless others.
This experience, if it is to be complete, if it is to involve the definite emergence of the self from “the prison of I-hood,” its setting out upon the Mystic Way, requires an act of concentration on the self’s part as the complement of its initial act of expansion. It must pass beyond the stage of metaphysical rapture or fluid splendour, and crystallize into a willed response to the Reality perceived; a definite and personal relation must be set up between the self and the Absolute Life. To be a spectator of Reality is not enough. The awakened subject is not merely to perceive transcendent life, but to participate therein; and for this, a drastic and costly life-changing is required. In Jefferies’s case this crystallization, this heroic effort towards participation did not take place, and p. 196 he never therefore laid hold of “the glory that has been revealed.” In Suso’s it did, “exciting in him a most lively desire for God.”
In most cases this crystallization, the personal and imperative concept which the mind constructs from the general and ineffable intuition of Reality, assumes a theological character. Often it presents itself to the consciousness in the form of visions or voices: objective, as the Crucifix which spoke to St. Francis, or mental, as the visions of the Cross experienced by Rulman Merswin and St. Catherine of Genoa. Nearly always, this concept, this intimate realization of the divine, has reference to the love and sorrow at the heart of things, the discord between Perfect Love and an imperfect world; whereas the complementary vision of Transcendence strikes a note of rapturous joy. “The beatings of the Heart of God sounded like so many invitations which thus spake: Come and do penance, come and be reconciled, come and be consoled, come and be blessed; come, My love, and receive all that the Beloved can give to His beloved. . . . Come, My bride, and enjoy My Godhead.” 389
It is to this personal touch, to the individual appeal of an immediate Presence, not to the great light and the Beatific Vision, that the awakened self makes its most ardent, most heroic response. Not because he was rapt from himself, but because the figure on the Cross called him by name, saying, “Repair My Church” did St. Francis, with that simplicity, that disregard of worldly values which constituted his strength, accept the message in a literal sense and set himself instantly to the work demanded; bringing stones, and, in defiance alike of comfort and convention, building up with his own hands the crumbling walls.
In many conversions to the mystic life, the revelation of an external splendour, the shining vision of the transcendent spiritual world, is wholly absent. The self awakes to that which is within, rather than to that which is without: to the immanent not the transcendent God, to the personal not the cosmic relation. Where those who look out receive the revelation of Divine Beauty, those who look in receive rather the wound of Divine Love: another aspect of the “triple star.” Emotional mystics such as Richard Rolle and Madame Guyon give us this experience in an extreme form. We find in St. Catherine of Genoa a nobler example of the same type of response. That inward revelation in its anguish and abruptness, its rending apart of the hard tissues of I-hood and vivid disclosures of the poverty of the finite self, seemed, says the legend of St. Catherine “the wound of Unmeasured Love,” an image in which we seem to hear the very accents of the saint. “A wound full of delight,” says the effusive Madame Guyon, “I wished that it p. 197 might never heal.” Rolle calls this piercing rapture a great heat: the heat which is to light the Fire of Love. “As it were if the finger were put in fire, it should be clad with feeling of burning so the soul with love (as aforesaid) set afire, truly feels most very heat.” 390
Love, passionate and all-dominant, here takes the place of that joyous awe which we noticed as the characteristic reaction upon reality in conversions of the Transcendent type. In the deep and strong temperaments of the great mystics this love passes quickly—sometimes instantly—from the emotional to the volitional stage. Their response to the voice of the Absolute is not merely an effusion of sentiment, but an act of will: an act often of so deep and comprehensive a kind as to involve the complete change of the outward no less than of the inward life. “Divine love,” says Dionysius “draws those whom it seizes beyond themselves: and this so greatly that they belong no longer to themselves but wholly to the Object loved.” 391
Merswin’s oath of self-surrender: St. Catherine of Genoa’s passionate and decisive “No more world! no more sins!”: St. Francis’s naive and instant devotion to church-restoration in its most literal sense: these things are earnests of the reality of the change. They represent—symbolize as well as they can upon the sensual plane—the spontaneous response of the living organism to a fresh external stimulus: its first effort of adjustment to the new conditions which that stimulus represents. They complete the process of conversion; which is not one-sided, not merely an infusion into the surface-consciousness of new truth, but rather the beginning of a life-process, a breaking down of the old and building up of the new. A never to be ended give-and-take is set up between the individual and the Absolute. The Spirit of Life has been born: and the first word it learns to say is Abba, Father. It aspires to its origin, to Life in its most intense manifestation: hence all its instincts urge it to that activity which it feels to be inseparable from life. It knows itself a member of that mighty family in which the stars are numbered: the family of the sons of God, who, free and creative, sharing the rapture of a living, striving Cosmos, “shout for joy.”
So, even in its very beginning, we see how active, how profoundly organic, how deeply and widely alive is the true contemplative life; how truly on the transcendent as on the phenomenal plane, the law of living things is action and reaction, force and energy. The awakening of the self is to a new and more active plane of being, new and more personal relations with Reality; hence to a new and more real work which it must do.
See Starbuck, “The Psychology of Religion,” cap. xxix.
Op. cit., cap. xii.
J. B. Pratt, “The Religious Consciousness,” cap. xiii. The whole chapter deserve careful study.
Journal of George Fox, cap. i.
Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. xvii. We can surely trace the influence of such an experience in St. Paul’s classic description of the “endopsychic conflict”: Rom. vii. 14-25.
Plotinus, Ennead vi. 9.
“It is certain,” says De Sanctis, “that when we attempt to probe deeper in our study of sudden converts, we discover that the coup de foudre , which in the main is observable in only a small minority of conversions, is in fact the least significant, though the most Esthetic, moment of the conversion.” (“Religious Conversion,” Eng. trans., p. 65. Compare St. Augustine’s Confessions, with their description of the years of uncertainty and struggle which prepared him for the sudden and final “Tolle, lege!” that initiated him into the long-sought life of Reality.)
Op. cit. , p. 171.
“Journal Spirituel de Lucie-Christine,” p. 11.
Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. 1.
Thomas of Celano, Legenda Secunda, cap. v. Compare P. Sabatier. “Vie de S. François d’Assise,” cap. ii., where the authorities are fully set out.
Thomas of Celano, Legenda Secunda, cap. vi.
“Vita e Dottrina di Santa Caterina da Genova,” cap ii.
Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii p. 29.
It is clear from the heading of cap. x. (pt. i.) of her Autobiography that Madame Guyon’s editors were conscious, if she was not, of some of the close coincidences between her experiences and those of St. Catherine of Genoa. The parallel between their early years is so exact and descends to such minute details that I am inclined to think that the knowledge of this resemblance, and the gratification with which she would naturally regard it, has governed or modified her memories of this past. Hence a curious and hitherto unnoticed case of “unconscious spiritual plagiarism.”
For a thoroughly hostile account see Leuba: ‘The Psychology of Religious Mysticism,” cap. iv.
Vie, pt. i. cap. iv.
Op. cit., pt. i. cap. vi.
“Madame Guyon,” p. 36.
Vie, pt. i. cap. viii.
Op. cit., loc. cit.
One of the best English accounts of this movement and the great personalities concerned in it is in Rufus Jones, “Studies in Mystical Religion,” cap. xiii.
A. Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 19. M. Jundt has condensed his account which I here translate, from Merswin’s autobiographical story of his conversion, published in Breiträge zu den theologischen Wissenschaften , v . (Jena, 1854). Our whole knowledge of Merswin’s existence depends on the group of documents which includes this confession, the “Book of Two Men,” the “Vision of Nine Rocks,” and his other reputed works. The authenticity of these documents has been much questioned, and they have doubtless suffered severely from the editorial energy of his followers. Some critics even regard them as pious fictions, useless as evidence of the incidents of Merswin’s life. With this view, upheld by Karl Reider (“Der Gottesfreund von Oberland,” 1905), I cannot agree. A possible solution of the many difficulties is that of M. Jundt, who believes that we have in Merswin and the mysterious “Friend of God of the Oberland,” who pervades his spiritual career, a remarkable case of dissociated personality. Merswin’s peculiar psychic make up, as described in his autobiography, supports this view: the adoption of which I shall assume in future references to his life. It is incredible that the vivid account of his conversion which I quote should be merely “tendency-literature,” without basis in fact. Compare Jundt’s monograph, and also Rufus Jones, op. cit. pp . 245-253, where the whole problem is discussed.
Jundt, op. cit., loc. cit.
“Leben und Schriften” (Diepenbrock), cap. i. Suso’s autobiography is written in the third person. He refers to himself throughout under the title of “Servitor of the Eternal Wisdom.”
Op. cit., loc. cit.
Leben, cap. iii.
Bremond, “Histoire Littérario du Sentiment Religieux en France.” vol. iv. pp. 359 seq.
“Summa contra Gentiles,” I. iii. cap. lxii.
The complete test of the Memorial isprinted, among other places, in Faugère’s edition of the “Pensées, Fragments et Lettres de Blaise Pascal,” 2nd ed., Paris, 1897. Tome i. p. 269; and is reproduced in facsimile by Bremond loc. cit. Bremond holds that the Memorial is the record of two distinct experiences: a “mystical experience in the proper meaning of the word,” and an “affective meditation arising from it.” This view does not seem incompatible with my original description, which I therefore retain. (Note to 12th ed.)
Brother Lawrence, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” p. 9.
“The Way of Initiation,” p. 134.
“Letters of William Blake,” p. 62.
“The Psychology of Religion,” p. 120.
James, “Varieties of Religion Experience,” p. 253. This phenomenon receives brilliant literary expression in John Masefield’s poem “The Everlasting Mercy” (1911).
Whitman, “The Prayer of Colombus.”
“The Story of My Heart,” pp. 8, 9, 45, 181.
Bucke, “Cosmic Consciousness, a Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.” Philadelphia. 1905.
“Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. xii.
Ibid. , bk. i. cap. xv.
Ibid., cap. xiv.
Hilton and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” both refer to “sensible heat” as a well-known but dubious concomitant of spiritual experience. Compare the confession of a modern convert, “I was siezed and possessed by an interior flame, for which nothing had prepared me; waves of fire succeeding one another for more than two hours.” (“Madeleine Sémer, Convertie et Mystique,” 1874-1921, p. 71.)
“Fire of Love,” bk. i. Prologue.
Ibid ., bk. i. cap. xv.
Ibid ., bk. ii. cap. xii.
Supra , p. 35.
Ibid ., p. 128.
St. Mechthild of Hackborn, “Liber Specialis Gratiae,” I. ii. cap. i
“The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. i.
Dionysius the Areopagite, “De Divinis Nominibus,” iv. 13.