Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
Here, then, stands the newly awakened self: aware, for the first time, of reality, responding to that reality by deep movements of love and of awe. She sees herself, however, not merely to be thrust into a new world, but set at the beginning of a new road. Activity is now to be her watchword, pilgrimage the business of her life. “That a quest there is, and an end, is the single secret spoken.” Under one symbol or another, the need of that long slow process of transcendence, of character building, whereby she is to attain freedom, become capable of living upon high levels of reality, is present in her consciousness. Those in whom this growth is not set going are no mystics, in the exact sense in which that word is here used; however great their temporary illumination may have been.
What must be the first step of the self upon this road to perfect union with the Absolute? Clearly, a getting rid of all those elements of normal experience which are not in harmony with reality: of illusion, evil, imperfection of every kind. By false desires and false thoughts man has built up for himself a false universe: as a mollusk by the deliberate and persistent absorption of lime and rejection of all else, can build up for itself a hard shell which shuts it from the external world, and only represents in p. 199 a distorted and unrecognisable form the ocean from which it was obtained. This hard and wholly unnutritious shell, this one-sided secretion of the surface-consciousness, makes as it were a little cave of illusion for each separate soul. A literal and deliberate getting out of the cave must be for every mystic, as it was for Plato’s prisoners, the first step in the individual hunt for reality.
In the plain language of old-fashioned theology “man’s sin is stamped upon man’s universe.” We see a sham world because we live a sham life. We do not know ourselves; hence do not know the true character of our senses and instincts; hence attribute wrong values to their suggestions and declarations concerning our relation to the external world. That world, which we have distorted by identifying it with our own self-regarding arrangements of its elements, has got to reassume for us the character of Reality, of God. In the purified sight of the great mystics it did reassume this character: their shells were opened wide, they knew the tides of the Eternal Sea. This lucid apprehension of the True is what we mean when we speak of the Illumination which results from a faithful acceptance of the trials of the Purgative Way.
That which we call the “natural” self as it exists in the “natural” world—the “old Adam” of St. Paul—is wholly incapable of supersensual adventure. All its activities are grouped about a centre of consciousness whose correspondences are with the material world. In the moment of its awakening, it is abruptly made aware of this disability. It knows itself finite. It now aspires to the infinite. It is encased in the hard crust of individuality: it aspires to union with a larger self. It is fettered: it longs for freedom. Its every sense is attuned to illusion: it craves for harmony with the Absolute Truth. “God is the only Reality,” says Patmore, “and we are real only as far as we are in His order and He is in us.” 392 Whatever form, then, the mystical adventure may take it, must begin with a change in the attitude of the subject; a change which will introduce it into the order of Reality, and enable it to set up permanent relations with an Object which is not normally part of its universe. Therefore, though the end of mysticism is not adequately defined as goodness, it entails the acquirement of goodness. The virtues are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage” because that marriage is union with the Good no less than with the Beautiful and the True.
Primarily, then, the self must be purged of all that stands between it and goodness: putting on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or “sin.” It longs ardently to do this from the first moment in which it sees itself in the all-revealing radiance of the Uncreated Light. “When love p. 200 openeth the inner eyes of the soul for to see this truth,” says Hilton, “with other circumstances that come withal then beginneth the soul for sooth to be vastly meek. For then by the sight of God it feeleth and seeth itself as it is, and then doth the soul forsake the beholding and leaning to itself.” 393
So, with Dante, the first terrace of the Mount of Purgatory is devoted to the cleansing of pride and the production of humility: the inevitable—one might almost say mechanical—result of a vision, however fleeting, of Reality, and an undistorted sight of the earthbound self. All its life that self has been measuring its candlelight by other candles. Now for the first time it is out in the open air and sees the sun. “This is the way,” said the voice of God to St. Catherine of Siena in ecstasy. “If thou wilt arrive at a perfect knowledge and enjoyment of Me, the Eternal Truth, thou shouldst never go outside the knowledge of thyself; and by humbling thyself in the valley of humility thou wilt know Me and thyself, from which knowledge thou wilt draw all that is necessary. . . . In self knowledge, then, thou wilt humble thyself; seeing that, in thyself, thou dost not even exist.” 394
The first thing that the self observes, when it turns back upon itself in that awful moment of lucidity—enters, as St. Catherine says, into “the cell of self-knowledge,”—is the horrible contrast between its clouded contours and the pure sharp radiance of the Real; between its muddled faulty life, its perverse self-centred drifting, and the clear onward sweep of that Becoming in which it is immersed. It is then that the outlook of rapture and awe receives the countersign of repentance. The harbinger of that new self which must be born appears under the aspect of a desire: a passionate longing to escape from the suddenly perceived hatefulness of selfhood, and to conform to Reality, the Perfect which it has seen under its aspect of Goodness, of Beauty, or of Love—to be worthy of it, in fact to be real. “This showing,” says Gerlac Petersen of that experience, “is so vehement and so strong that the whole of the interior man, not only of his heart but of his body, is marvellously moved and shaken, and faints within itself, unable to endure it. And by this means, his interior aspect is made clear without any cloud, and conformable in its own measure to Him whom he seeks.” 395
The lives of the mystics abound in instances of the “vehemence of this showing”: of the deep-seated sense of necessity which urges the newly awakened self to a life of discomfort and conflict, often to intense poverty and pain, as the only way of replacing false experience by true. Here the transcendental consciousness, exalted p. 201 by a clear intuition of its goal, and not merely “counting” but perceiving the world to be obviously well lost for such a prize, takes the reins. It forces on the unwilling surface mind a sharp vision of its own disabilities, its ugly and imperfect life; and the thirst for Perfection which is closely bound up with the mystic temperament makes instant response. “No more sins!” was the first cry of St. Catherine of Genoa in that crucial hour in which she saw by the light of love her own self-centred and distorted past. She entered forthwith upon the Purgative Way, in which for four years she suffered under a profound sense of imperfection, endured fasting, solitude and mortification; and imposed upon herself the most repulsive duties in her efforts towards that self-conquest which should make her “conformable in her own measure” to the dictates of that Pure Love which was the aspect of reality that she had seen. It is the inner conviction that this conformity—this transcendence of the unreal—is possible and indeed normal which upholds the mystic during the terrible years of Purgation: so that “not only without heaviness, but with a joy unmeasured he casts back all thing that may him let.” 396
To the true lover of the Absolute, Purgation no less than Illumination is a privilege, a dreadful joy. It is an earnest of increasing life. “Let me suffer or die!” said St. Teresa: a strange alternative in the ears of common sense, but a forced option in the spiritual sphere. However harsh its form, however painful the activities to which it spurs him, the mystic recognizes in this breakup of his old universe an essential part of the Great Work: and the act in which he turns to it is an act of loving desire, no less than an act of will. “Burning of love into a soul truly taken all vices purgeth: . . . for whilst the true lover with strong and fervent desire into God is borne, all things him displease that from the sight of God withdrawn.” 397 His eyes once opened, he is eager for that costly ordering of his disordered loves which alone can establish his correspondences with Transcendental Life. “Teach me, my only joy,” cries Suso, “the way in which I may bear upon my body the marks of Thy Love.” “Come, my soul, depart from outward things and gather thyself together into a true interior silence, that thou mayst set out with all thy courage and bury and lose thyself in the desert of a deep contrition.” 398
It is in this torment of contrition, this acute consciousness of unworthiness, that we have the first swing back of the oscillating self from the initial state of mystic pleasure to the complementary state of pain. It is, so to speak, on its transcendental side, the reflex p. 202 action which follows the first touch of God. Thus, we read that Rulman Merswin, “swept away by the transports of Divine Love,” did not surrender himself to the passive enjoyment of this first taste of Absolute Being, but was impelled by it to diligent and instant self-criticism. He was “seized with a hatred of his body, and inflicted on himself such hard mortifications that he fell ill.” 399 It is useless for lovers of healthy-mindedness to resent this and similar examples of self-examination and penance: to label them morbid or mediaeval. The fact remains that only such bitter knowledge of wrongness of relation, seen by the light of ardent love, can spur the will of man to the hard task of readjustment.
“I saw full surely,” says Julian of Norwich, “that it behoveth needs to be that we should be in longing and in penance, until the time that we be led so deep into God that we verily and truly know our own soul.” 400
Dante’s whole journey up the Mount of Purgation is the dramatic presentation of this one truth. So, too, the celebrated description of Purgatory attributed to St. Catherine of Genoa 401 is obviously founded upon its author’s inward experience of this Purgative Way. In it, she applies to the souls of the dead her personal consciousness of the necessity of purification; its place in the organic process of spiritual growth. It is, as she acknowledges at the beginning, the projection of her own psychological adventures upon the background of the spiritual world: its substance being simply the repetition after death of that eager and heroic acceptance of suffering, those drastic acts of purification, which she has herself been compelled to undertake under the whip of the same psychic necessity—that of removing the rust of illusion, cleansing the mirror in order that it may receive the divine light. “It is,” she says, “as with a covered object, the object cannot respond to the rays of the sun, not because the sun ceases to shine—for it shines without intermission—but because the covering intervenes. Let the covering be destroyed, and again the object will be exposed to the sun, and will answer to the rays which beat against it in proportion as the work of destruction advances. Thus the souls are covered by a rust—that is, by sin—which is gradually consumed away by the fire of purgatory. The more it is consumed, the more they respond to God their true Sun. Their happiness increases as the rust falls off and lays them open to the divine ray . . . the instinctive tendency to seek happiness in p. 203 God develops itself, and goes on increasing through the fire of love which draws it to its end with such impetuosity and vehemence that any obstacle seems intolerable; and the more clear its vision, the more extreme its pain.” 402
“Mostratene la via di gire al monte!” cry the souls of the newly-dead in Dante’s vision, 403 pushed by that “instinctive tendency” towards the purifying flames. Such a tendency, such a passionate desire, the aspiring self must have. No cool, well-balanced knowledge of the need of new adjustments will avail to set it on the Purgative Way. This is a heroic act, and demands heroic passions in the soul.
“In order to overcome our desires,” says St. John of the Cross, who is the classic authority upon this portion of the mystic quest, “and to renounce all those things, our love and inclination for which are wont so to inflame the will that it delights therein, we require a more ardent fire and a nobler love—that of the Bridegroom. Finding her delight and strength in Him, the soul gains the vigour and confidence which enable her easily to abandon all other affections. It was necessary, in her struggle with the attractive force of her sensual desires, not only to have this love for the Bridegroom, but also to be filled with a burning fervour, full of anguish . . . if our spiritual nature were not on fire with other and nobler passions we should never cast off the yoke of the senses, nor be able to enter on their night, neither should we have the courage to remain in the darkness of all things, and in denial of every desire.” 404
“We must be filled with a burning fervour full of anguish.” Only this deep and ardent passion for a perceived Object of Love can persuade the mystic to those unnatural acts of abnegation by which he kills his lesser love of the world of sense, frees himself from the “remora of desire,” unifies all his energies about the new and higher centre of his life. His business, I have said, is transcendence: a mounting up, an attainment of a higher order of reality. Once his eyes have been opened on Eternity, his instinct for the Absolute roused from its sleep, he sees union with that Reality as his duty no less than his joy: sees too, that this union can only be consummated on a plane where illusion and selfhood have no place.
The inward voice says to him perpetually, at the least seasonable moments, “Dimitte omnia transitoria, quaere aeterna.” 405 Hence the purgation of the senses, and of the character which they have helped to build is always placed first in order in the Mystic Way; though sporadic flashes of illumination and ecstasy may, and often p. 204 do, precede and accompany it. Since spiritual no less than physical existence, as we know it, is an endless Becoming, it too has no end. In a sense the whole of the mystical experience in this life consists in a series of purifications, whereby the Finite slowly approaches the nature of its Infinite Source: climbing up the cleansing mountain pool by pool, like the industrious fish in Rulman Merswin’s vision, until it reaches its Origin. The greatest of the contemplative saints, far from leaving purgation behind them in their progress, were increasingly aware of their own inadequateness, the nearer they approached to the unitive state: for the true lover of the Absolute, like every other lover, is alternately abased and exalted by his unworthiness and his good fortune. There are moments of high rapture when he knows only that the banner over him is Love: but there are others in which he remains bitterly conscious that in spite of his uttermost surrender there is within him an ineradicable residuum of selfhood, which “stains the white radiance of eternity.”
In this sense, then, purification is a perpetual process. That which mystical writers mean, however, when they speak of the Way of Purgation, is rather the slow and painful completion of Conversion. It is the drastic turning of the self from the unreal to the real life: a setting of her house in order, an orientation of the mind to Truth. Its business is the getting rid, first of self-love; and secondly of all those foolish interests in which the surface-consciousness is steeped.
“The essence of purgation,” says Richard of St. Victor, “is self-simplification.” Nothing can happen until this has proceeded a certain distance: till the involved interests and tangled motives of the self are simplified, and the false complications of temporal life are recognized and cast away.
“No one,” says another authority in this matter, “can be enlightened unless he be first cleansed or purified and stripped.” 406 Purgation, which is the remaking of character in conformity with perceived reality, consists in these two essential acts: the cleansing of that which is to remain, the stripping of that which is to be done away. It may best be studied, therefore, in two parts: and I think that it will be in the reader’s interest if we reverse the order which the “Theologia Germanica” adopts, and first consider Negative Purification, or self-stripping, and next Positive Purification, or character-adjustment. These, then, are the branches into which this subject will here be split. (1) The Negative aspect, the stripping or purging away of those superfluous, unreal, and harmful things which dissipate the precious energies of the self. This is the business of Poverty, or Detachment . (2) The Positive aspect: p. 205 a raising to their highest term, their purest state, of all that remains—the permanent elements of character. This is brought about by Mortification, the gymnastic of the soul: a deliberate recourse to painful experiences and difficult tasks.
Apart from the plain necessity of casting out imperfection and sin, what is the type of “good character” which will best serve the self in its journey towards union with the Absolute?
The mystics of all ages and all faiths agree in their answer. Those three virtues which the instinct of the Catholic Church fixed upon as the necessities of the cloistered life—the great Evangelical counsel of voluntary Poverty with its departments, Chastity, the poverty of the senses, and Obedience, the poverty of the will—are also, when raised to their highest term and transmuted by the Fire of Love, the essential virtues of the mystical quest.
By Poverty the mystic means an utter self-stripping, the casting off of immaterial as well as material wealth, a complete detachment from all finite things. By Chastity he means an extreme and limpid purity of soul, cleansed from personal desire and virgin to all but God: by Obedience, that abnegation of selfhood, that mortification of the will, which results in a complete self-abandonment, a “holy indifference” to the accidents of life. These three aspects of perfection are really one: linked together as irrevocably as the three aspects of the self. Their common characteristic is this: they tend to make the subject regard itself, not as an isolated and interesting individual, possessing desires and rights, but as a scrap of the Cosmos, an ordinary bit of the Universal Life, only important as a part of the All, an expression of the Will Divine. Detachment and purity go hand in hand, for purity is but detachment of the heart; and where these are present they bring with them that humble spirit of obedience which expresses detachment of will. We may therefore treat them as three manifestations of one thing: which thing is Inward Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is the motto of all pilgrims on this road.
“God is pure Good in Himself,” says Eckhart, “therefore will He dwell nowhere but in a pure soul. There He can pour Himself out: into that He can wholly flow. What is Purity? It is that a man should have turned himself away from all creatures and have set his heart so entirely on the Pure Good that no creature is to him a comfort, that he has no desire for aught creaturely, save so far as he may apprehend therein the Pure Good, which is God. And as little as the bright eye can endure aught foreign in it, so p. 206 little can the pure soul bear anything in it, any stain on it, that comes between it and God. To it all creatures are pure to enjoy; for it enjoyeth all creatures in God, and God in all creatures.” 407
“To it all creatures are pure to enjoy!” This is hardly the popular concept of the mystic; which credits him, in the teeth of such examples as St. Francis, St. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Rolle, Suso, and countless others, with a hearty dread of natural things. Too many examples of an exaggerated asceticism—such as the unfortunate story told of the holy Curé d’Ars, who refused to smell a rose for fear of sin—have supported in this respect the vulgar belief; for it is generally forgotten that though most mystics have practised asceticism as a means to an end, all ascetics are not mystics. Whatever may be the case with other deniers of the senses, it is true that the soul of the great mystic, dwelling on high levels of reality, his eyes set on the Transcendental World, is capable of combining with the perfection of detachment that intense and innocent joy in natural things, as veils and vessels of the divine, which results from seeing “all creatures in God and God in all creatures.” “Whoso knows and loves the nobleness of My Freedom,” said the voice of God to Mechthild of Magdeburg, “cannot bear to love Me alone, he must love also Me in the creatures.” 408 That all-embracing love is characteristic of the illumination which results from a faithful endurance of the Purgative Way; for the corollary of “blessed are the pure in heart” is not merely a poetic statement. The annals of mysticism prove it to be a psychological law.
How then is this contradiction to be resolved: that the mystic who has declared the fundamental necessity of “leaving all creatures” yet finds them pure to enjoy? The answer to the riddle lies in the ancient paradox of Poverty: that we only enjoy true liberty in respect of such things as we neither possess nor desire. “That thou mayest have pleasure in everything, seek pleasure in nothing. That thou mayest know everything, seek to know nothing. That thou mayest possess all things, seek to possess nothing. . . . In detachment the spirit finds quiet and repose, for coveting nothing, nothing wearies it by elation, and nothing oppresses it by dejection, because it stands in the centre of its own humility. For as soon as it covets anything, it is immediately fatigued thereby.” 409
It is not love but lust—the possessive case, the very food of selfhood—which poisons the relation between the self and the external world and “immediately fatigues” the soul. Divide the world into “mine” and “not mine,” and unreal standards are p. 207 set up, claims and cravings begin to fret the mind. We are the slaves of our own property. We drag with us not a treasure, but a chain. “Behold,” says the “Theologia Germanica,” “on this sort must we cast all things from us and strip ourselves of them: we must refrain from claiming anything for our own. When we do this, we shall have the best, fullest, clearest, and noblest knowledge that a man can have, and also the noblest and purest love and desire.” 410 “Some there are,” says Plotinus, “that for all their effort have not attained the Vision. . . . They have received the authentic Light, all their soul has gleamed as they have drawn near, but they come with a load on their shoulders which holds them back from the place of Vision. They have not ascended in the pure integrity of their being, but are burdened with that which keeps them apart. They are not yet made one within.” 411 Accept Poverty, however, demolish ownership, the verb “to have” in every mood and tense, and this downward drag is at an end. At once the Cosmos belongs to you, and you to it. You escape the heresy of separateness, are “made one,” and merged in “the greater life of the All.” Then, a free spirit in a free world, the self moves upon its true orbit; undistracted by the largely self-imposed needs and demands of ordinary earthly existence.
This was the truth which St. Francis of Assisi grasped, and applied with the energy of a reformer and the delicate originality of a poet to every circumstance of the inner and the outer life. This noble liberty it is which is extolled by his spiritual descendant, Jacopone da Todi, in one of his most magnificent odes:—
“Povertá, alto sapere,
a nulla cosa sojacere,
en desprezo possedere
tutte le cose create. . . .
Dio non alberga en core stretto,
tant’é grande quant’ hai affetto,
povertate ha si gran petto
che ci alberga deitate. . . .
Povertate è nulla avere
e nulla cosa poi volere;
ad omne cosa possedere
en spirito de libertate.” 412
p. 208 “My little sisters the birds,” said St. Francis, greatest adept of that high wisdom, “Brother Sun, Sister Water, Mother Earth.” 413 Not my servants, but my kindred and fellow-citizens; who may safely be loved so long as they are not desired. So, in almost identical terms, the dying Hindu ascetic:—
“Oh Mother Earth, Father Sky,
Brother Wind, Friend Light, Sweetheart Water,
Here take my last salutation with folded hands!
For to-day I am melting away into the Supreme
Because my heart became pure,
And all delusion vanished,
Through the power of your good company.”
It is the business of Lady Poverty to confer on her lovers this freedom of the Universe, to eradicate delusion, cut out the spreading growth of claimfulness, purify the heart, and initiate them into the “great life of the All.” Well might St. Francis desire marriage with that enchantress, who gives back ten-fold all that she takes away. “Holy poverty,” he said, “is a treasure so high excelling and so divine that we be not worthy to lay it up in our vile vessels; since this is that celestial virtue whereby all earthly things and fleeting are trodden underfoot, and whereby all hindrances are lifted from the soul, so that freely she may join herself to God Eternal.” 414
Poverty, then, prepares man’s spirit for that union with God to which it aspires. She strips off the clothing which he so often mistakes for himself, transvaluates all his values, and shows him things as they are. “There are,” says Eckhart, “four ascending degrees of such spiritual poverty. 1. The soul’s contempt of all things that are not God. 2. Contempt of herself and her own works. 3. Utter self-abandonment. 4. Self-loss in the incomprehensible Being of God.” 415 So, in the “Sacrum Commercium,” when the friars, climbing “the steeps of the hill,” found Lady Poverty at the summit “enthroned only in her nakedness,” she “preventing them with the blessings of sweetness,” said, “Why hasten ye so from the vale of tears to the mount of light? If, peradventure, it is me that ye seek, lo, I am but as you behold, a little poor one, stricken with storms and far from any consolation.” Whereto the brothers answer, “ Only admit us to thy peace; and we shall be saved .” 416
The same truth: the saving peace of utter detachment from everything but Divine Reality—a detachment which makes those p. 209 who have it the citizens of the world, and enabled the friars to say to Lady Poverty as they showed her from the hill of Assisi the whole countryside at her feet, “Hoc est claustrum nostrum, Domina,” 417 —is taught by Meister Eckhart in a more homely parable.
“There was a learned man who, eight years long, desired that God would show him a man who would teach him the truth. And once when he felt a very great longing, a voice from God came to him and said, ‘Go to the church, and there shalt thou find a man who shalt show thee the way to blessedness.’ And he went thence and found a poor man whose feet were torn and covered with dust and dirt: and all his clothes were hardly worth three farthings. And he greeted him, saying:—
“‘God give you good day!’
“He answered: ‘I have never had a bad day.’
“‘God give you good luck.’
“‘I have never had ill luck.’
“‘May you be happy! but why do you answer me thus?’
“‘I have never been unhappy.’
“‘Pray explain this to me, for I cannot understand it.’
“The poor man answered, ‘Willingly. You wished me good day. I never had a bad day; for if I am hungry I praise God; if it freezes, hails, snows, rains, if the weather is fair or foul, still I praise God; am I wretched and despised, I praise God, and so I have never had an evil day. You wished that God would send me luck. But I never had ill luck, for I know how to live with God, and I know that what He does is best; and what God gives me or ordains for me, be it good or ill, I take it cheerfully from God as the best that can be, and so I have never had ill luck. You wished that God would make me happy. I was never unhappy; for my only desire is to live in God’s will, and I have so entirely yielded my will to God’s, that what God wills, I will.’
“‘But if God should will to cast you into hell,’ said the learned man, ‘what would you do then?’
“‘Cast me into hell? His goodness forbids! But if He did cast me into hell, I should have two arms to embrace Him. One arm is true humility, that I should lay beneath Him, and be thereby united to His holy humanity. And with the right arm of love, which is united with His holy divinity, I should so embrace Him that He would have to go to hell with me. And I would rather be in hell and have God, then in heaven and not have God.’
“Then the Master understood that true abandonment with utter humility is the nearest way to God.
“The Master asked further: ‘Whence are you come?’ p. 210
“‘Where did you find God?’
“‘When I forsook all creatures.’
“‘Where have you left God?’
“‘In pure hearts, and in men of good will.’
“The Master asked: ‘What sort of man are you?’
“‘I am a king.’
“‘Where is your kingdom?’
“‘My soul is my kingdom, for I can so rule my senses inward and outward, that all the desires and power of my soul are in subjection, and this kingdom is greater than a kingdom on earth.’ 418
“‘What brought you to this perfection?’
“‘My silence, my high thoughts, and my union with God. For I could not rest in anything that was less than God. Now I have found God; and in God have eternal rest and peace.’” 419
Poverty, then, consists in a breaking down of man’s inveterate habit of trying to rest in, or take seriously, things which are “less than God”: i.e. , which do not possess the character of reality. Such a habit is the most fertile of all causes of “world-weariness,” disillusion and unrest: faults, or rather spiritual diseases, which the mystics never exhibit, but which few who are without all mystic feeling can hope to escape. Hence the sharpened perceptions of the contemplatives have always seen poverty as a counsel of prudence, a higher form of common sense. It was not with St. Francis, or any other great mystic, a first principle, an end in itself. It was rather a logical deduction from the first principle of their science—the paramount importance to the soul of an undistracted vision of reality.
Here East and West are in agreement: “Their science,” says Al Ghazzali of the Sufis, who practised, like the early Franciscans, a complete renunciation of worldly goods, “has for its object the uprooting from the soul of all violent passions, the extirpation from it of vicious desires and evil qualities; so that the heart may become detached from all that is not God, and give itself for its only occupation meditation upon the Divine Being.” 420
All those who have felt themselves urged towards the attainment of this transcendental vision, have found that possessions interrupt the view; that claims, desires, attachments become centres of conflicting interest in the mind. They assume a false air of importance, force themselves upon the attention, and complicate p. 211 life. Hence, in the interest of self-simplification, they must be cleared away: a removal which involves for the real enthusiast little more sacrifice than the weekly visit of the dustman. “Having entirely surrendered my own free-will,” says Al Ghazzali of his personal experience,” my heart no longer felt any distress in renouncing fame, wealth, or the society of my children.” 421
Others have reconciled self-surrender with a more moderate abandonment of outward things; for possessions take different rank for almost every human soul. The true rule of poverty consists in giving up those things which enchain the spirit, divide its interests, and deflect it on its road to God—whether these things be riches, habits, religious observances, friends, interests, distastes, or desires—not in mere outward destitution for its own sake. It is attitude, not act, that matters; self-denudation would be unnecessary were it not for our inveterate tendency to attribute false value to things the moment they become our own. “What is poverty of spirit but meekness of mind, by which a man knows his own infirmity?” says Rolle, “seeing that to perfect stableness he may not come but by the grace of God, all thing that him might let from that grace he forsakes, and only in joy of his Maker he sets his desire. And as of one root spring many branches, so of wilful poverty on this wise taken proceed virtues and marvels untrowed. Not as some, that change their clothes and not their souls; riches soothly it seems these forsake, and vices innumerable they cease not to gather. . . . If thou truly all thing for God forsake, see more what thou despised than what thou forsaketh. ” 422
The Poverty of the mystics, then, is a mental rather than a material state. Detachment of the will from all desire of possessions is the inner reality, of which Franciscan poverty is a sacrament to the world. It is the poor in spirit, not the poor in substance, who are to be spiritually blessed. “Let all things be forsaken of me,” says Gerlac Petersen, “so that being poor I may be able in great inward spaciousness, and without any hurt, to suffer want of all those things which the mind of man can desire; out of or excepting God Himself.” 423
“The soul,” says St. John of the Cross, “is not empty, so long as the desire for sensible things remains. But the absence of this desire for things produces emptiness and liberty of soul; even when there is an abundance of possessions.” 424
Every person in whom the mystical instinct awakes soon discovers in himself certain tastes or qualities which interrupt the p. 212 development of that instinct. Often these tastes and qualities are legitimate enough upon their own plane; but they are a drain upon the energy of the self, preventing her from attaining that intenser life for which she was made and which demands her undivided zest. They distract her attention, fill the field of perception, stimulate her instinctive life: making of the surface-consciousness so active a thing that it can hardly be put to sleep. “Where can he have that pure and naked vision of unchangeable Truth whereby he see into all things,” says Petersen again, “who is so busied in other things, not perhaps evil, which operate . . . upon his thoughts and imagination and confuse and enchain his mind . . . that his sight of that unique One in Whom all things are is overclouded?” 425
The nature of these distracting factors which “confuse and enchain the mind” will vary with almost every individual. It is impossible to predict what those things will be which a self must give up, in order that the transcendental consciousness may grow. “It makes little difference whether a bird be held by a slender thread or by a rope; the bird is bound, and cannot fly until the cord that holds it is broken. It is true that a slender thread is more easily broken; still notwithstanding, if it is not broken the bird cannot fly. This is the state of a soul with particular attachments: it never can attain to the liberty of the divine union, whatever virtues it may possess. Desires and attachments affect the soul as the remora is said to affect a ship; that is but a little fish, yet when it clings to the vessel it effectually hinders its progress.” 426
Thus each adventurer must discover and extirpate all those interests which nourish selfhood, however innocent or even useful these interests may seem in the eyes of the world. The only rule is the ruthless abandonment of everything which is in the way. “When any man God perfectly desires to love, all things as well inward as outward that to God’s love are contrary and from His love do let, he studies to do away.” 427 This may mean the prompt and utter self-stripping of St. Francis of Assisi, who cast off his actual clothing in his relentless determination to have nothing of his own: 428 the reluctant bit-by-bit renunciations which at last set his follower Angela of Foligno free, or the drastic proceedings of Antoinette Bourignan, who found that a penny was enough to keep her from God.
“Being one night in a most profound Penitence,” says the biographer of this extraordinary woman, “she said from the bottom p. 213 of her Heart, ‘O my Lord! what must I do to please Thee? For I have nobody to teach me. Speak to my soul and it will hear Thee.’” At that instant she heard, as if another had spoken within her “Forsake all earthly things. Separate thyself from the love of the creatures. Deny thyself.” From this time, the more she entered into herself the more she was inclined to abandon all. But she had not the courage necessary for the complete renunciation towards which her transcendental consciousness was pressing her. She struggled to adjust herself to the inner and the outer life, but without success. For such a character as hers, compromise was impossible. “She asked always earnestly, When shall I be perfectly thine, O my God? and she thought He still answered her, When thou shalt no longer possess anything, and shalt die to thyself. And where shall I do that, Lord? He answered, In the Desert.” At last the discord between her deeper and her superficial self became intolerable. Reinforced by the miseries of an unsympathetic home, still more by a threat of approaching marriage, the impulse to renunciation got its way. She disguised herself in a hermit’s dress—she was only eighteen, and had no one to help or advise her—and “went out of her chamber about Four in the Morning, taking nothing but one Penny to buy Bread for that Day and it being said to her in the going out, Where is thy Faith? In a Penny? she threw it away. . . . Thus she went away wholly delivered from the heavy burthen of the Cares and Good Things of this World.” 429
An admirable example of the mystic’s attitude towards the soul-destroying division of interests, the natural but hopeless human struggle to make the best of both worlds, which sucks at its transcendental vitality, occurs in St. Teresa’s purgative period. In her case this war between the real and the superficial self extended over many years; running side by side with the state of Illumination, and a fully developed contemplative life. At last it was brought to an end by a “Second Conversion” which unified her scattered interests and set her firmly and for ever on the Unitive Way. The virile strength of Teresa’s character, which afterwards contributed to the greatness of her achievement, opposed the invading transcendental consciousness; disputed every inch of territory; resisted every demand made upon it by the growing spiritual self. Bit by bit it was conquered, the sphere of her deeper life enlarged; until the moment came in which she surrendered, once for all, to her true destiny. 430 p. 214
During the years of inward stress, of penance and growing knowledge of the Infinite, which she spent in the Convent of the Incarnation, and which accompanied this slow remaking of character, Teresa’s only self-indulgence—as it seems, a sufficiently innocent one—was talking to the friends who came down from Avila to the convent-parlour, and spoke to her through the grille. Her confessors, unaccustomed to the education of mystical genius, saw nothing incompatible between this practice and the pursuit of a high contemplative life. But as her transcendental consciousness, her states of orison grew stronger, Teresa felt more and more the distracting influence of these glimpses of the outer world. They were a drain upon the energy which ought to be wholly given to that new, deep, more real life which she felt stirring within her, and which could only hope to achieve its mighty destiny by complete concentration upon the business in hand. No genius can afford to dissipate his energies: the mystic genius least of all. Teresa knew that so long as she retained these personal satisfactions, her life had more than one focus; she was not whole-hearted in her surrender to the Absolute. But though her inward voices, her deepest instincts, urged her to give them up, for years she felt herself incapable of such a sacrifice. It was round the question of their retention or surrender that the decisive battle of her life was fought.
“The devil,” says her great Augustinian eulogist, Fray Luis de Leon, in his vivid account of these long interior struggles, “put before her those persons most sympathetic by nature; and God came, and in the midst of the conversation discovered Himself aggrieved and sorrowful. The devil delighted in the conversation and pastime, but when she turned her back on them and betook herself to prayer, God redoubled the delight and favours, as if to show her how false was the lure which charmed her at the grating, and that His sweetness was the veritable sweetness. . . . So that these two inclinations warred with each other in the breast of this blessed woman, and the authors who inspired them each did his utmost to inflame her most, and the oratory blotted out what the grating wrote, and at times the grating vanquished and diminished the good fruit produced by prayer, causing agony and grief which disquieted and perplexed her soul: for though she was resolved to belong entirely to God, she knew not how to shake herself free from the world: and at times she persuaded herself that she could enjoy both, which ended mostly, as she says, in complete enjoyment of neither. For the amusements of the locutorio were embittered and turned into wormwood by the memory of the secret and sweet intimacy with God; and in the same way when she retired to be with God, and commenced to speak with Him, p. 215 the affections and thoughts which she carried with her from the grating took possession of her.” 431
Compare with these violent oscillations between the superficial and mystical consciousness—characteristic of Teresa’s strong volitional nature, which only came to rest after psychic convulsions which left no corner of its being unexplored—the symbolic act of renunciation under which Antoinette Bourignan’s “interior self” vanquished the surface intelligence and asserted its supremacy. Teresa must give up her passionate delight in human friendship. Antoinette, never much tempted in that direction, must give up her last penny. What society was to Teresa’s generous, energetic nature, prudence was to the temperamentally shrewd and narrow Antoinette: a distraction, a check on the development of the all-demanding transcendental genius, an unconquered relic of the “lower life.”
Many a mystic, however, has found the perfection of detachment to be consistent with a far less drastic renunciation of external things than that which these women felt to be essential to their peace. The test, as we have seen, does not lie in the nature of the things which are retained, but in the reaction which they stimulate in the self. “Absolute poverty is thine,” says Tauler, “when thou canst not remember whether anybody has ever owed thee or been indebted to thee for anything; just as all things will be forgotten by thee in the last journey of death.” 432 Poverty, in this sense, may be consistent with the habitual and automatic use of luxuries which the abstracted self never even perceives. Thus we are told that St. Bernard was reproached by his enemies with the inconsistency of preaching evangelical poverty whilst making his journeys from place to place on a magnificently caparisoned mule, which had been lent to him by the Cluniac monks. He expressed great contrition: but said that he had never noticed what it was that he rode upon. 433
Sometimes, the very activity which one self has rejected as an impediment becomes for another the channel of spiritual perception. I have mentioned the Curé d’Ars, who, among other inhibitions, refused to allow himself to smell a rose. Yet St. Francis preached to the flowers, 434 and ordered a plot to be set aside for their cultivation when the convent garden was made, “in order that all who saw them might remember the Eternal Sweetness.” 435 p. 216 So, too, we are told of his spiritual daughter, St. Douceline, that “out of doors one day with her sisters, she heard a bird’s note. ‘What a lovely song!’ she said: and the song drew her straight way to God. Did they bring her a flower, its beauty had a like effect .” 436 “To look on trees, water, and flowers,” says St. Teresa of her own beginnings of contemplation, “helped her to recollect the Presence of God.” 437 Here we are reminded of Plato. “The true order of going is to use the beauties of Earth as steps along which one mounts upwards for the sake of that other Beauty.” This, too, is the true order of Holy Poverty: the selfless use, not the selfish abuse of lovely and natural things.
To say that some have fallen short of this difficult ideal and taken refuge in mere abnegation is but to say that asceticism is a human, not a superhuman art, and is subject to “the frailty of the creature.” But on the whole, these excesses are mainly found amongst saintly types who have not exhibited true mystic intuition. This intuition, entailing as it does communion with intensest Life, gives to its possessors a sweet sanity, a delicate balance, which guards them, as a rule, from such conceptions of chastity as that of the youthful saint who shut himself in a cupboard for fear he should see his mother pass by: from the obedience which identifies the voice of the director with the voice of God; from detachment such as that exhibited by the Blessed Angela of Foligno, who, though a true mystic, viewed with almost murderous satisfaction the deaths of relatives who were “impediments.” 438 The detachment of the mystic is just a restoration to the liberty in which the soul was made: it is a state of joyous humility in which he cries, “Nought I am, nought I have, nought I lack.” To have arrived at this is to have escaped from the tyranny of selfhood: to be initiated into the purer air of that universe which knows but one rule of action—that which was laid down once for all by St. Augustine when he said, in the most memorable and misquoted of epigrams: “Love, and do what you like.”
By mortification, I have said, is to be understood the positive aspect of purification: the remaking in relation to reality of the permanent elements of character. These elements, so far, have p. 217 subserved the interests of the old self, worked for it in the world of sense. Now they must be adjusted to the needs of the new self and to the transcendent world in which it moves. Their focal point is the old self; the “natural man” and his self-regarding instincts and desires. The object of mortification is to kill that old self, break up his egoistic attachments and cravings, in order that the higher centre, the “new man,” may live and breathe. As St. Teresa discovered when she tried to reconcile the claims of worldly friendships and contemplation, one or other must go: a house divided against itself cannot stand. “Who hinders thee more,” says Thomas a Kempis, “than the unmortified affections of thy own heart? . . . if we were perfectly dead unto ourselves, and not entangled within our own breasts, then should we be able to taste Divine things, and to have some experience of heavenly contemplation.” 439
In psychological language, the process of mortification is the process of setting up “new paths of neural discharge.” That is to say, the mystic life has got to express itself in action: and for this new paths must be cut and new habits formed—all, in spite of the new self’s enthusiasm, “against the grain”—resulting in a complete sublimation of personality. The energy which wells up incessantly in every living being must abandon the old road of least resistance and discharge itself in a new and more difficult way. In the terms of the hormic psychology, the conative drive of the psyche must be concentrated on new objectives; and the old paths, left to themselves, must fade and die. When they are dead, and the new life has triumphed, Mortification is at an end. The mystics always know when this moment comes. Often an inner voice then warns them to lay their active penances aside.
Since the greater and stronger the mystic, the stronger and more stubborn his character tends to be, this change of life and turning of energy from the old and easy channels to the new is often a stormy matter. It is a period of actual battle between the inharmonious elements of the self, its lower and higher springs of action: of toil, fatigue, bitter suffering, and many disappointments. Nevertheless, in spite of its etymological associations, the object of mortification is not death but life: the production of health and strength, the health and strength of the human consciousness viewed sub specie aeternitatis . “In the truest death of all created things, the sweetest and most natural life is hidden.” 440
“This dying,” says Tauler again, “has many degrees, and so has this life. A man might die a thousand deaths in one day and find at once a joyful life corresponding to each of them. This is as p. 218 it must be: God cannot deny or refuse this to death. The stronger the death the more powerful and thorough is the corresponding life; the more intimate the death, the more inward is the life. Each life brings strength, and strengthens to a harder death. When a man dies to a scornful word, bearing it in God’s name, or to some inclination inward or outward, acting or not acting against his own will, be it in love or grief, in word or act, in going or staying; or if he denies his desires of taste or sight, or makes no excuses when wrongfully accused; or anything else, whatever it may be, to which he has not yet died, it is harder at first to one who is unaccustomed to it and unmortified than to him who is mortified. . . . A great life makes reply to him who dies in earnest even in the least things, a life which strengthens him immediately to die a greater death; a death so long and strong, that it seems to him hereafter more joyful, good and pleasant to die than to live, for he finds life in death and light shining in darkness.” 441
No more than detachment, then, is mortification an end in itself. It is a process, an education directed towards the production of a definite kind of efficiency, the adjustment of human nature to the demands of its new life. Severe, and to the outsider apparently unmeaning—like their physical parallels the exercises of the gymnasium—its disciplines, faithfully accepted, do release the self from the pull of the lower nature, establish it on new levels of freedom and power. “Mortification,” says the Benedictine contemplative Augustine Baker, “tends to subject the body to the spirit and the spirit to God. And this it does by crossing the inclinations of sense, which are quite contrary to those of the Divine Spirit . . . by such crossing and afflicting of the body, self-love and self-will (the poison of our spirits) are abated, and in time in a sort destroyed; and instead of them there enter into the soul the Divine love and Divine will, and take possession thereof.” 442 This transformation accomplished, mortification may end, and often does, with startling abruptness. After a martyrdom which lasted sixteen years, says Suso—speaking as usual in the third person—of his own experience, “On a certain Whitsun Day a heavenly messenger appeared to him, and ordered him in God’s name to continue it no more. He at once ceased, and threw all the instruments of his sufferings [irons, nails, hair-shirt, etc.] into a river.” 443 From this time onward, austerities of this sort had no part in Suso’s life.
The Franco-Flemish mystic who wrote, and the English contemplative p. 219 who translated, “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” have between them described and explained in bold and accurate language the conditions under which the soul is enabled to abandon that “hard service of the virtues” which has absorbed it during the Purgative Way. The statement of the “French Book” is direct and uncompromising: well calculated to startle timid piety. “Virtues, I take leave of you for evermore!” exclaims the Soul. “Now shall mine heart be more free and more in peace than it hath been before. I wot well your service is too travaillous. . . . Some time I laid mine heart in you without any dissevering: ye wot well this: I was in all things to you obedient. O I was then your servant, but now I am delivered out of your thraldom.”
To this astounding utterance the English translator has added a singularly illuminating gloss. “I am stirred here,” he says, “to say more to the matter, as thus: First: when a soul giveth her to perfection, she laboureth busily day and night to get virtues, by counsel of reason, and striveth with vices at every thought, at every word and deed that she perceiveth cometh of them, and busily searcheth vices, them to destroy. Thus the virtues be mistresses, and every virtue maketh her to war with its contrary, the which be vices. Many sharp pains and bitterness of conscience feeleth the soul in this war. . . . But so long one may bite on the bitter bark of the nut, that at last he shall come to the sweet kernel. Right so, ghostly to understand, it fareth by these souls that be come to peace. They have so long striven with vices and wrought by virtues, that they be come to the nut kernel, that is, to the love of God, which is sweetness. And when the soul hath deeply tasted this love, so that this love of God worketh and hath his usages in her soul, then the soul is wondrous light and gladsome. . . . Then is she mistress and lady over the virtues, for she hath them all within herself. . . . And then this soul taketh leave of virtues, as of the thraldom and painful travail of them that she had before, and now she is lady and sovereign, and they be subjects.” 444
Jacopone da Todi speaks to the same effect:—
“La guerra è terminata
de le virtu battaglia,
de la mente travaglia
cosa nulla contende”. 445
Thus, St. Catherine of Genoa, after a penitential period of four years, during which she was haunted by a constant sense of sin, and occupied by incessant mortifications, found that “all thought p. 220 of such mortifications was in an instant taken from her mind: in such a manner that, had she even wished to continue such mortifications, she would have been unable to do so . . . the sight of her sins was now taken from her mind, so that henceforth she did not catch a glimpse of them: it was as though they had all been cast into the depths of the sea.” 446 In other words, the new and higher centre of consciousness, finally established, asserted itself and annihilated the old. “La guerra e teminata,”all the energy of a strong nature flows freely in the new channels; and mortification ceases, mechanically, to be possible to the now unified, sublimated, or “regenerated” self.
Mortification takes its name from the reiterated statement of all ascetic writers that the senses, or “body of desire,” with the cravings which are excited by different aspects of the phenomenal world, must be mortified or killed; which is, of course, a description of psychological necessities from their special point of view. All those self-regarding instincts—so ingrained that they have become automatic—which impel the self to choose the more comfortable part, are seen by the awakened intuition of the embryo mystic as gross infringements of the law of love. “This is the travail that a man behoveth, to draw out his heart and his mind from the fleshly love and the liking of all earthly creatures, from vain thoughts and from fleshly imaginations, and out from the love and the vicious feeling of himself, that his soul should find no rest in no fleshly thought, nor earthly affection.” 447 The rule of Poverty must be applied to the temper of normal consciousness as well as to the tastes and possessions of the self. Under this tonic influence, real life will thrive, unreal life will wither and die.
This mortifying process is necessary, not because the legitimate exercise of the senses is opposed to Divine Reality, but because those senses have usurped a place beyond their station; become the focus of energy, steadily drained the vitality of the self. “The dogs have taken the children’s meat.” The senses have grown stronger than their masters, monopolized the field of perception, dominated an organism which was made for greater activities, and built up those barriers of individuality which must be done away if true personality is to be achieved, and with it some share in the boundless life of the One. It is thanks to this wrong distribution of energy, this sedulous feeding of the cuckoo in the nest, that “in order to approach the Absolute, mystics must withdraw from everything, even themselves.” 448 “The soul is plunged in utter p. 221 ignorance, when she supposes that she can attain to the high estate of union with God before she casts away the desire of all things, natural and supernatural, which she may possess,” says St. John of the Cross, “because the distance between them and that which takes place in the state of pure transformation in God is infinite.” 449 Again, “until the desires be lulled to sleep by the mortification of sensuality, and sensuality itself be mortified in them, so that it shall war against the spirit no more, the soul cannot go forth in perfect liberty to union with the Beloved.” 450
The death of selfhood in its narrow individualistic sense is, then, the primary object of mortification. All the twisted elements of character which foster the existence of this unreal yet complex creature are to be pruned away. Then, as with the trees of the forest, so with the spirit of man, strong new branches will spring into being, grow towards air and light. “I live, yet not I” is to be the declaration of the mystic who has endured this “bodily death.” The self-that-is-to-be will live upon a plane where her own prejudices and preferences are so uninteresting as to be imperceptible. She must be weaned from these nursery toys: and weaning is a disagreeable process. The mystic, however, undertakes it as a rule without reluctance: pushed by his vivid consciousness of imperfection, his intuition of a more perfect state, necessary to the fulfilment of his love. Often his entrance upon the torments of the Purgative Way, his taking up of the spiritual or material instruments of mortification, resembles in ardour and abruptness that “heroic plunge into Purgatory” of the newly dead when it perceives itself in the light of Love Divine, which is described in the “Treatise” of St. Catherine of Genoa as its nearest equivalent. “As she, plunged in the divine furnace of purifying love, was united to the Object of her love, and satisfied with all he wrought in her, so she understood it to be with the souls in Purgatory.” 451
This “divine furnace of purifying love” demands from the ardent soul a complete self-surrender, and voluntary turning from all impurity, a humility of the most far-reaching kind: and this means the deliberate embrace of active suffering, a self-discipline in dreadful tasks. As gold in the refiner’s fire, so “burning of love into a soul truly taken all vices purgeth.” Detachment may be a counsel of prudence, a practical result of seeing the true values of things; but the pain of mortification is seized as a splendid opportunity, a love token, timidly offered by the awakened spirit to that all-demanding Lover from Whom St. Catherine of Siena heard the terrible words “I, Fire, the Acceptor of sacrifices, ravishing p. 222 away from them their darkness, give the light.” 452 “Suffering is the ancient law of love,” says the Eternal Wisdom to Suso, “there is no quest without pain, there is no lover who is not also a martyr. Hence it is inevitable that he who would love so high a thing as Wisdom should sometimes suffer hindrances and griefs.” 453
The mystics have a profound conviction that Creation, Becoming, Transcendence, is a painful process at the best. Those who are Christians point to the Passion of Christ as a proof that the cosmic journey to perfection, the path of the Eternal Wisdom, follows of necessity the Way of the Cross. That law of the inner life, which sounds so fantastic and yet is so bitterly true—“No progress without pain”—asserts itself. It declares that birth pangs must be endured in the spiritual as well as in the material world: that adequate training must always hurt the athlete. Hence the mystics’ quest of the Absolute drives them to an eager and heroic union with the reality of suffering, as well as with the reality of joy. 454
This divine necessity of pain, this necessary sharing in the travail of a World of Becoming, is beautifully described by Tauler in one of those “internal conversations” between the contemplative soul and its God, which abound in the works of the mystics and are familiar to all readers of “The Imitation of Christ.” “A man once thought,” says Tauler, “that God drew some men even by pleasant paths, while other were drawn by the path of pain. Our Lord answered him thus, ‘What think ye can be pleasanter or nobler than to be made most like unto Me? that is by suffering. Mark, to whom was ever offered such a troubled life as to Me? And in whom can I better work in accordance with My true nobility than in those who are most like Me? They are the men who suffer. . . . Learn that My divine nature never worked so nobly in human nature as by suffering; and because suffering is so efficacious, it is sent out of great love. I understand the weakness of human nature at all times, and out of love and righteousness I lay no heavier load on man than he can bear. The crown must be firmly p. 223 pressed down that is to bud and blossom in the Eternal Presence of of My Heavenly Father. He who desires to be wholly immersed in the fathomless sea of My Godhead must also be deeply immersed in the deep sea of bitter sorrow. I am exalted far above all things, and work supernatural and wonderful works in Myself: the deeper and more supernaturally a man crushes himself beneath all things the more supernaturally will he be drawn far above all things.’” 455
Pain, therefore, the mystics always welcome and often court: sometimes in the crudely physical form which Suso describes so vividly and horribly in the sixteenth chapter of his Life, more frequently in those refinements of torture which a sensitive spirit can extract from loneliness, injustice, misunderstanding—above all, from deliberate contact with the repulsive accidents of life. It would seem from a collation of the evidence that the typical mystical temperament is by nature highly fastidious. Its passionate apprehension of spiritual beauty, its intuitive perception of divine harmony, is counterbalanced by an instinctive loathing of ugliness, a shrinking from the disharmonies of squalor and disease. Often its ideal of refinement is far beyond the contemporary standards of decency: a circumstance which is alone enough to provide ample opportunity of wretchedness. This extreme sensitiveness, which forms part of the normal psychophysical make-up of the mystic, as it often does of the equally highly-strung artistic type, is one of the first things to be seized upon by the awakened self as a disciplinary instrument. Then humility’s axiom, “Naught is too low for love” is forced to bear the less lovely gloss, “Naught must be too disgusting.”
Two reasons at once appear for this. One is the contempt for phenomena, nasty as well as nice—the longing to be free from all the fetters of sense—which often goes with the passion for invisible things. Those mystics to whom the attractions of earth are only illusion, are inconsistent if they attribute a greater reality to the revolting and squalid incidents of life. St. Francis did but carry his own principles to their logical conclusion, when he insisted that the vermin were as much his brothers as the birds. Real detachment means the death of preferences of all kinds: even of those which seem to other men the very proofs of virtue and fine taste.
The second reason is nobler. It is bound up with that principle of self-surrender which is the mainspring of the mystic life. To the contemplative mind, which is keenly conscious of unity in multiplicity—of Gods in the world—all disinterested service is service of the Absolute which he loves: and the harder it is, the more opposed to his self-regarding and aesthetic instincts, the p. 224 more nearly it approaches his ideal. The point to which he aspires—though he does not always know it—is that in which all disharmony, all appearance of vileness, is resolved in the concrete reality which he calls the Love of God. Then, he feels dimly, everything will be seen under the aspect of a cosmic and charitable beauty; exhibiting through the woof of corruption the web of eternal life.
It is told of St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the love of lovely things was always paramount, how he forced himself to visit the lepers whose sight and smell disgusted him: how he served them and even kissed them. 456 “Then as he departed, in very truth that which had aforetime been bitter unto him, to wit, the sight and touch of lepers, now changed into sweetness. For, as he confessed, the sight of lepers had been so grievous unto him that he had been minded to avoid not only seeing them, but even going nigh their dwelling. And if at any time he chanced to pass their abodes, or to see them, albeit he were moved by compassion to do them an alms through another person, yet alway would he turn aside his face, stopping his nostrils with his hand. But through the grace of God he became so intimate a friend of the lepers that, even as he recorded in his will, he did sojourn with them and did humbly serve them.”
Also, after his great renunciation of all property, he, once a prosperous young man who had been “dainty in his father’s home,” accustomed himself to take a bowl and beg scraps of food from door to door: and here too, as in the case of the lepers, that which at first seemed revolting became to him sweet. “And when he would have eaten that medley of various meats,” says the legend, “at first he shrank back, for that he had never been used willingly even to see, much less to eat, such scraps. At length, conquering himself, he began to eat; and it seemed to him that in eating no rich syrup had he ever tasted aught so delightsome.” 457
The object, then, of this self-discipline is, like the object of all purgation, freedom: freedom from the fetters of the senses, the “remora of desire,” from the results of environment and worldly education, from pride and prejudice, preferences and distaste: from selfhood in every form. Its effect is a sharp reaction to the joy of self-conquest. The very act that had once caused in the enchained self a movement of loathing becomes not merely indifferent, but an occasion of happiness. So Margery Kempe “had great mourning and sorrowing if she might not kiss a leper when she met them in the way for the love of our Lord, which was all p. 225 contrary to her disposition in the years of her youth and prosperity, for then she abhorred them most.” 458
I spare the sensitive reader a detailed account of the loathsome ordeals by which St. Catherine of Genoa and Madame Guyon strove to cure themselves of squeamishness and acquire this liberty of spirit. 459 They, like St. Francis, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and countless other seekers for the Real, sought out and served with humility and love the sick and the unclean; deliberately associated themselves with life in its meanest forms; compelled themselves to contact with the most revolting substances; and mortified the senses by the traditional ascetic expedient of deliberately opposing all—even their most natural and harmless—inclinations. “In the first four years after she received the sweet wound from her Lord,” says the Life of St. Catherine of Genoa, she “made great penances: so that all her senses were mortified. And first, so soon as she perceived that her nature desired anything at once she deprived it thereof, and did so that it should receive all those things that it abhorred. She wore harsh hair, ate no meat nor any other thing that she liked; ate no fruit, neither fresh nor dried . . . and she lived greatly submitted to all persons, and always sought to do all those things which were contrary to her own will; in such a way that she was always inclined to do more promptly the will of others than her own.” . . . “And while she worked such and so many mortifications of all her senses it was several times asked of her ‘Why do you do this?’ And she answered ‘I do not know, but I feel myself drawn inwardly to do this . . . and I think it is God’s will.’” 460
St. Ignatius Loyola, in the world a highly bred Spanish gentleman of refined personal habits, found in those habits an excellent opportunity of mortification. “As he was somewhat nice about the arrangement of his hair, as was the fashion of those days and became him not ill, he allowed it to grow naturally, and neither combed it nor trimmed it nor wore any head covering by day or night. For the same reason he did not pare his finger or toe nails; for on these points he had been fastidious to an extreme.” 461
Madame Guyon, a delicate girl of the leisured class, accustomed to the ordinary comforts of her station, characteristically chose the most crude and immoderate forms of mortification in her efforts towards the acquirement of “indifference.” But the peculiar psychic constitution which afterwards showed itself in the forms p. 226 of automatism and clairvoyance, seems to have produced a partial anesthesia. “Although I had a very delicate body, the instruments of penitence tore my flesh without, as it seemed to me, causing pain. I wore girdles of hair and of sharp iron, I often held wormwood in my mouth.” “If I walked, I put stones in my shoes. These things, my God, Thou didst first inspire me to do, in order that I might be deprived even of the most innocent satisfactions.” 462
In the earlier stages of their education, a constant agere contra, even in apparently indifferent things, seems essential to the mystics; till the point is reached at which the changes and chances of mortal life are accepted with a true indifference and do not trouble the life of the soul. This established ascendancy of the “interior man,” the transcendental consciousness, over “sensitive nature”—the self in its reactions to the ups and downs and manifold illusions of daily life—is the very object of Purgation. It is, then, almost impossible that any mystic, whatever his religion, character or race, should escape its battles: for none at the beginning of their growth are in a position to dispense with its good offices. Neoplatonists and Mahommedans, no less than the Christian ascetics, are acquainted with the Purgative Way. All realize the first law of Spiritual Alchemy, that you must tame the Green Lion before you give him wings. Thus in ‘Attar’s allegory of the Valleys, the valley of self-stripping and renunciation comes first. 463 So too Al Ghazzali, the Persian contemplative, says of the period immediately following his acceptance of the principles of Sufi ism and consequent renunciation of property, “I went to Syria, where I remained more than two years; without any other object than that of living in seclusion and solitude, conquering my desires, struggling with my passions, striving to purify my soul, to perfect my character, and to prepare my heart to meditate upon God.” At the end of this period of pure purgation circumstances forced him to return to the world; much to his regret, since he “had not yet attained to the perfect ecstatic state, unless it were in one or two isolated moments.” 464
Such gleams of ecstatic vision, distributed through the later stages of purification, seem to be normal features of mystical development. Increasing control of the lower centres, of the surface intelligence and its scattered desires, permits the emergence of the transcendental perceptions. We have seen that Fox in his early stages displayed just such an alternation between the light and shade of the mystic way. 465 So too did that least ascetic of visionaries, Jacob Boehme. “Finding within myself a p. 227 powerful contrarium, namely the desires that belong to the flesh and blood,” he says, “I began to fight a hard battle against my corrupted nature, and with the aid of God I made up my mind to overcome the inherited evil will, to break it, and to enter wholly into the Love of God. . . . This, however, was not possible for me to accomplish, but I stood firmly by my earnest resolution, and fought a hard battle with myself. Now while I was wrestling and battling, being aided by God, a wonderful light arose within my soul. It was a light entirely foreign to my unruly nature, but in it I recognized the true nature of God and man, and the relation existing between them, a thing which heretofore I had never understood, and for which I would never have sought.” 466
In these words Boehme bridges the gap between Purgation and Illumination: showing these two states or ways as coexisting and complementary one to another, the light and dark sides of a developing mystic consciousness. As a fact, they do often exist side by side in the individual experience: 467 and any treatment which exhibits them as sharply and completely separated may be convenient for purposes of study, but becomes at best diagrammatic if considered as a representation of the mystic life. The mystical consciousness, as we have seen, belongs—from the psychological point of view—to that mobile or “unstable” type in which the artistic temperament also finds a place. It sways easily between the extremes of pleasure and pain in its gropings after transcendental reality. It often attains for a moment to heights in which it is not able to rest: is often flung from some rapturous vision of the Perfect to the deeps of contrition and despair.
The mystics have a vivid metaphor by which to describe that alternation between the onset and the absence of the joyous transcendental consciousness which forms as it were the characteristic intermediate stage between the bitter struggles of pure Purgation, and the peace and radiance of the Illuminative Life. They call it Ludus Amoris , the “Game of Love” which God plays with the desirous soul. It is the “game of chess,” says St. Teresa, “in which game Humility is the Queen without whom none can checkmate the Divine King.” 468 “Here,” says Martensen, “God plays a blest game with the soul.” 469 The “Game of Love” is a reflection in consciousness of that state of struggle, oscillation and unrest which precedes the first unification of the self. It ceases when this has taken place and the new level of reality has been p. 228 attained. Thus St. Catherine of Siena, that inspired psychologist, was told in ecstasy, “With the souls who have arrived at perfection, I play no more the Game of Love, which consists in leaving and returning again to the soul; though thou must understand that it is not, properly speaking, I, the immovable GOD, Who thus elude them, but rather the sentiment that My charity gives them of Me.” 470 In other terms, it is the imperfectly developed spiritual perception which becomes tired and fails, throwing the self back into the darkness and aridity whence it has emerged. So we are told of Rulman Merswin 471 that after the period of harsh physical mortification which succeeded his conversion came a year of “delirious joy alternating with the most bitter physical and moral sufferings.” It is, he says, “the Game of Love which the Lord plays with His poor sinful creature.” Memories of all his old sins still drove him to exaggerated penances: morbid temptations “made me so ill that I feared I should lose my reason.” These psychic storms reacted upon the physical organism. He had a paralytic seizure, lost the use of his lower limbs, and believed himself to be at the point of death. When he was at his worst, however, and all hope seemed at an end, an inward voice told him to rise from his bed. He obeyed, and found himself cured. Ecstasies were frequent during the whole of this period. In these moments of exaltation he felt his mind to be irradiated by a new light, so that he knew, intuitively, the direction which his life was bound to take, and recognized the inevitable and salutary nature of his trials. “God showed Himself by turns harsh and gentle: to each access of misery succeeded the rapture of supernatural grace.” In this intermittent style, torn by these constant fluctuations between depression and delight, did Merswin, in whom the psychic instability of the artistic and mystic types is present in excess, pass through the purgative and illuminated states. 472 They appear to have coexisted in his consciousness, first one and then the other emerging and taking control. Hence he did not attain the peaceful condition which is characteristic of full illumination, and normally closes the “First Mystic Life”; but passed direct from these violent alternations of mystical pleasure and mystical pain to the state which he calls “the school of suffering love.” This, as we shall see when we come to its consideration, is strictly analogous to that p. 229 which other mystics have called the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and opens the “Second Mystic Life” or Unitive Way.
Such prolonged coexistence of alternating pain and pleasure states in the developing soul, such delay in the attainment of equilibrium, is not infrequent, and must be taken into account in all analyses of the mystic type. Though it is convenient for purposes of study to practise a certain dissection, and treat as separate states which are, in the living subject, closely intertwined, we should constantly remind ourselves that such a proceeding is artificial. The struggle of the self to disentangle itself from illusion and attain the Absolute is a life-struggle. Hence, it will and must exhibit the freedom and originality of life: will, as a process, obey artistic rather than scientific laws. It will sway now to the light and now to the shade of experience: its oscillations will sometimes be great, sometimes small. Mood and environment, inspiration and information, will all play their part.
There are in this struggle three factors.
(1) The unchanging light of Eternal Reality: that Pure Being “which ever shines and nought shall ever dim.”
(2) The web of illusion, here thick, there thin; which hems in, confuses, and allures the sentient self.
(3) That self, always changing, moving, struggling—always, in fact, becoming— alive in every fibre, related at once to the unreal and to the real; and, with its growth in true being, ever more conscious of the contrast between them.
In the ever-shifting relations between these three factors, the consequent energy engendered, the work done, we may find a cause of the innumerable forms of stress and travail which are called in their objective form the Purgative Way. One only of the three is constant: the Absolute to which the soul aspires. Though all else may fluctuate, that goal is changeless. That Beauty so old and so new, “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning,” which is the One of Plotinus, the All of Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, the Eternal Wisdom of Suso, the Unplumbed Abyss of Ruysbroeck, the Pure Love of St. Catherine of Genoa, awaits yesterday, to-day, and for ever the opening of Its creature’s eyes.
In the moment of conversion those eyes were opened for an instant: obtained, as it were, a dazzling and unforgettable glimpse of the Uncreated Light. They must learn to stay open: to look steadfastly into the eyes of Love: so that, in the beautiful imagery of the mystics, the “faithful servant” may become the “secret friend.” 473 Then it is, says Boehme, that “the divine glimpse and p. 230 beam of joy ariseth in the soul, being a new eye, in which the dark, fiery soul conceiveth the Ens and Essence of the divine light.” 474 So hard an art is not at once acquired in its perfection. It is in accordance with all that we know of the conditions of development that a partial achievement should come first; bewildering moments of lucidity, splendid glimpses, whose brevity is due to the weakness of the newly opened and unpractised “eye which looks upon Eternity,” the yet undisciplined strength of the “eye which looks upon Time.” Such is that play of light and dark, of exaltation and contrition, which often bridges the gap between the Purgative and the Illuminative states. Each by turn takes the field and ousts the other; for “these two eyes of the soul of man cannot both perform their work at once.” 475
To use another and more domestic metaphor, that Divine Child which was, in the hour of the mystic conversion, born in the spark of the soul, must learn like other children to walk. Though it is true that the spiritual self must never lose its sense of utter dependence on the Invisible; yet within that supporting atmosphere, and fed by its gifts, it must “find its feet.” Each effort to stand brings first a glorious sense of growth, and then a fall: each fall means another struggle to obtain the difficult balance which comes when infancy is past. There are many eager trials, many hopes, many disappointments. At last, as it seems suddenly, the moment comes: tottering is over, the muscles have learnt their lesson, they adjust themselves automatically, and the new self suddenly finds itself—it knows not how—standing upright and secure. That is the moment which marks the boundary between the purgative and the illuminative states.
The process of this passage of the “new” or spiritual man from his awakening to the illuminated life, has been set out by Jacob Boehme in language which is at once poetic and precise. “When Christ the Corner-Stone [ i.e. , the divine principle latent in man] stirreth himself in the extinguished Image of Man in his hearty Conversion and Repentance,” he says, “then Virgin Sophia appeareth in the stirring of the Spirit of Christ in the extinguished Image, in her Virgin’s attire before the Soul; at which the Soul is so amazed and astonished in its Uncleanness that all its Sins immediately awake in it, and it trembleth before her; for then the judgment passeth upon the Sins of the Soul, so that it even goeth back in its unworthiness, being ashamed in the Presence of its fair Love, and entereth into itself, feeling and acknowledging itself utterly unworthy to receive such a Jewel. This is understood by those who are of our tribe and have tasted of this heavenly p. 231 Gift, and by none else. But the noble Sophia draweth near in the Essence of the Soul, and kisseth it in friendly Manner, and tinctureth its dark Fire with her Rays of Love, and shineth through it with her bright and powerful Influence. Penetrated with the strong Sense and Feeling of which, the Soul skippeth in its Body for great Joy, and in the strength of this Virgin Love exulteth, and praiseth the great God for his blest Gift of Grace. I will set down here a short description how it is when the Bride thus embraceth the Bridegroom, for the consideration of the Reader, who perhaps hath not yet been in this wedding chamber. It may be he will be desirous to follow us, and to enter into the Inner Choir, where the Soul joineth hands and danceth with Sophia, or the Divine Wisdom.” 476
“The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Magna Moralia,” xxii.
“The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxxvii.
Dialogo, cap. iv.
“Ignitum cum Deo Soliloquium.” cap. xi.
Richard Rolle, “The Mending of Life,” cap. i.
Ibid ., “The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap, xxiii.
“Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” cap. v.
Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 19.
Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lvi.
I offer no opinion upon the question of authorship. Those interested may consult Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i., Appendix. Whoever may be responsible for its present form, the Treatise is clearly founded upon first-hand mystic experience: which is all that our present purpose requires.
“Trattato di Purgatorio,” caps. ii. and iii.
Purg. ii., 60.
“Subida del Monte Carmelo I. i. cap. xiv.
“De Imitatione Christi,” I. iii. cap. i.
“Theologia Germanica,” cap. xiv.
Meister Eckhart, quoted by Wackernagel, “Altdeutsches Lesebuch,” p. 891.
“Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit.” pt. vi., cap. 4.
St. John of the Cross, “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” bk. i. cap. xiii.
“Theologia Germanica,” cap. v.
Ennead vi. 9.
“Oh Poverty, high wisdom! to be subject to nothing, and by despising all to possess all created things. . . .
God will not lodge in a narrow heart; and it is as great as thy love. Poverty has so ample a bosom that Deity Itself may lodge therein. . . .
Poverty is naught to have, and nothing to desire: but all things to possess in the spirit of liberty.”— Jacopone da Todi. Lauda lix.
“Fioretti,” cap. xvi., and “Speculum,” cap. cxx.
Ibid ., cap. xiii. (Arnold’s translation).
Pfeiffer, Tractato x. (Eng. translation., p, 348).
“Sacrum Commercium Beati Francisci cum Domina Paupertate,” caps. iv. and v. (Rawnsley’s translation).
Op. cit ., cap. xxii.
So Ruysbroeck, “Freewill is the king of the soul . . . he should dwell in the chief city of that kingdom: that is to say, the desirous power of the soul” (“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. i. cap. xxiv.).
Meister Eckhart. Quoted in Martensen’s monograph, p. 107.
Schmölders, “Essai sur les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 54.
Schmölders, “Essai sur les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” op. cit., p. 58.
Richard Rolle, “The Mending of Life,” cap. iii.
“Ignitum cum Deo Soliloquium,” cap. i.
“Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. i. cap. iii.
Gerlac Petersen, op. cit., cap. xi.
St. John of the Cross, op. cit ., cap. xi.
Richard Rolle, “The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. xix.
Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. vi.
“An Apology for Mrs. Antoinette Bourignan,” pp. 269-70.
St. Teresa’s mystic states are particularly difficult to classify. From one point of view these struggles might be regarded as the preliminaries of conversion. She was, however, proficient in contemplation when they occurred, and I therefore think that my arrangement is the right one.
Quoted by G. Cunninghame Graham, “Santa Teresa,” vol. i. p. 139. For St. Teresa’s own account, see Vida, caps. vii-ix.
Sermon on St. Paul (“The Inner Way,” p. 113).
Cotter Morison, “Life and Times of St. Bernard,” p. 68.
Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. xxix.
Ibid ., Legenda Secunda, cap. cxxiv.
Anne Macdonell, “St. Douceline,” p. 30.
Vida, cap. ix., p. 6.
“In that time and by God’s will there died my mother, who was a great hindrance unto me in following the way of God: soon after my husband died likewise, and also all my children. And because I had commenced to follow the Aforesaid Way, and had prayed God that He would rid me of them, I had great consolation of their deaths. (Ste Angèle de Foligno: “Le Livre de l’Expérience des Vrais Fidèles.” Ed. M. J. Ferry p. 10.)
“De Imitatione Christi,” I. i. caps. iii. and ix.
Tauler, Sermon on St. Paul (“The Inner Way,” p. 114).
Tauler, Second Sermon for Easter Day. (This is not included in either of the English collections.)
Augustine Baker, “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise ii. Sect. i., cap. 3.
Suso, Leben. cap. xvii.
“The Mirror of Simple Souls,” edited by Clare Kirchberger, p. 12.
“The war is at an end: in the battle of virtues, in travail of mind, there is no more striving” (Lauda xci.).
“Vita e Dottrina,” cap. v.
Walter Hilton “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. i. cap. 8, xlii.
Récéjac, “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 78. This, however, is to be understood of the initial training of the mystic; not of his final state.
“Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. i. cap. v.
Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xv.
S. Caterina di Genova, “Trattato di Purgatorio,” cap. i.
Dialogo, cap. lxxxv.
Leben, cap. iv.
“This truth, of which she was the living example,” says Huysmans of St. Lydwine, “has been and will be true for every period. Since the death of Lydwine, there is not a saint who has not confirmed it. Hear them formulate their desires. Always to suffer, and to die! cries St. Teresa; always to suffer, yet not to die, corrects St. Magdalena dei Pazzi; yet more, oh Lord, yet more! exclaims St. Francis Xavier, dying in anguish on the coast of China; I wish to be broken with suffering in order that I may prove my love to God, declares a seventeenth century Carmelite, the Ven. Mary of the Trinity. The desire for suffering is itself an agony, adds a great servant of God of our own day, Mother Mary Du Bourg; and she confided to her daughters in religion that ‘if they sold pain in the market she would hurry to buy it there.’” (J. K. Huysmans, “Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam,” 3rd edition, p. 225).Examples can be multiplied indefinitely from the lives and works of the mystics of all periods.
Tauler, Sermon on St. Paul (“The Inner Way,” p. 114).
Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. vii.; 3 Soc. cap. iv.
3 Soc. cap. vii.
“A Short Treatise of Contemplation taken out of the boke of Margery Kempe ancresse of Lynne.” London, 1521. Reprinted and ed. by F. Gardner in “The Cell of Self-Knowledge,” 1910, p. 49.
The curious are referred to the original authorities. For St. Catherine chapter viii. of the “Vita e Dottrina”: for Madame Guyon, Vie, pt. i. ch. x.
“Vita e Dottrina,” cap. v.
Testament, cap. ii. (Rix’s translation).
Vie, pt. i. cap. x.
Supra , p. 131.
Schmölders, “Essay sur les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 59.
Supra , p. 177.
Hartmann, “Life and Doctrines of Jacob Boehme,” p. 50.
Compare the case of St. Teresa already cited, supra , p. 213.
“Camino de Perfeccion,” cap. xvii.
Martensen, “Meister Eckhart,” p. 75.
Dialogo, cap. lxxviii.
Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” pp. 10 and 20.
We recognize here the chief symptoms of the “cyclic type” of mentality, with its well-marked alternations of depression and exaltation. This psychological type is found frequently, but not invariably, among the mystics: and its peculiarities must be taken into account when studying their experiences. For a technical description, see W. McDougall: “An Introduction to Abnormal Psychology,” caps. xxii and xxviii.
See Ruysbroeck, “De Calculo,” cap. vii. The metaphor is an ancient one and occurs in many patristic and mediaeval writers.
“The Epistles of Jacob Boehme,” p. 19.
“Theologia Germanica,” cap. vii.
Jacob Boehme, “The Way to Christ,” pt. i. p. 23 (vol. iv. of the complete English translation of Boehme’s works).