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Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911], at

VII. Introversion. Part II: Contemplation

We must now consider under the general name of Contemplation those developed states of introversion in which the mystic attains somewhat: the results and rewards of the discipline of Recollection and Quiet. If this course of spiritual athletics has done its work, he has now brought to the surface, trained and made efficient for life, a form of consciousness—a medium of communication with reality—which remains undeveloped in ordinary men. Thanks to this faculty, he is now capable of the characteristic mystic experience: temporary union with “that spiritual fount closed to all reactions from the world of sense, where, without witnesses of any kind, God and our Freedom meet.”  681

The degrees of Recollection trained the self in spiritual attention: and at the same time lifted it to a new level of perception where, by means of the symbol which formed the gathering-point of its powers, it received a new inflow of life. In the degrees of Quiet it passed on to a state characterized by a tense stillness, in which it rested in that Reality at which, as yet, it dared not look. Now, in Contemplation, it is to transcend alike the stages of symbol and of silence; and “energize enthusiastically” on those high levels which are dark to the intellect but radiant p. 329 to the heart. We must expect this contemplative activity to show itself in many different ways and take many different names since its character will be largely governed by individual temperament. It appears under the forms which ascetic writers call “ordinary” and “extraordinary,” “infused” or “passive” Contemplation; and as that “orison of union” which we have already discussed.  682 Sometimes, too, it shows itself under those abnormal psycho-physical conditions in which the intense concentration of the self upon its transcendental perceptions results in the narrowing of the field of consciousness to a point at which all knowledge of the external world is lost, all the messages of the senses are utterly ignored. The subject then appears to be in a state of trance, characterized by physical rigidity and more or less complete anaesthesia. These are the conditions of Rapture or Ecstasy: conditions of which the physical resemblances to certain symptoms of hysteria have so greatly reassured the enemies of mysticism.

Rapture and Ecstasy differ from Contemplation proper in being wholly involuntary states. Rapture, says St. Teresa who frequently experienced it, is absolutely irresistible; we cannot hinder it. Whereas the orison of union, which is one of the forms in which pure Contemplation appears at its highest point of development, is still controlled to a large extent by the will of the subject, and “may be hindered, although that resistance be painful and violent.”  683 There is thus a sharp distinction—a distinction both physical and psychical—between the contemplative and the ecstatic states: and we shall do well to avail ourselves of it in examining their character.

First, then, as to Contemplation proper: what is it? It is a supreme manifestation of that indivisible “power of knowing” which lies at the root of all our artistic and spiritual satisfactions. In it, man’s “made Trinity” of thought, love, and will, becomes a Unity: and feeling and perception are fused, as they are in all our apprehensions of beauty, our best contacts with life. It is an act, not of the Reason, but of the whole personality working under the stimulus of mystic love. Hence, its results feed every aspect of that personality: minister to its instinct for the Good the Beautiful, and the True. Psychologically it is an induced state, in which the field of consciousness is greatly contracted: the whole of the self, its conative powers, being sharply focussed, concentrated upon one thing. We pour ourselves out or, as it sometimes seems to us, in towards this over-powering interest: seem to ourselves to reach it and be merged with it. Whatever p. 330 the thing may be, in this act it is given to us and we know it, as we cannot know it by the ordinary devices of thought.

The turning of our attention from that crisp and definite world of multiplicity, that cinematograph-show, with which intelligence is accustomed and able to deal, has loosed new powers of perception which we never knew that we possessed. Instead of sharply perceiving the fragment, we apprehend, yet how we know not, the solemn presence of the whole. Deeper levels of personality are opened up, and go gladly to the encounter of the universe. That universe, or some Reality hid between it and ourselves, responds to “the true lovely will of our heart.” Our ingoing concentration is balanced by a great outgoing sense of expansion, of new worlds made ours, as we receive the inflow of its life. So complete is the self’s absorption that it is for the time unconscious of any acts of mind or will; in technical language, its “faculties are suspended.” This is the “ligature” frequently mentioned by teachers of contemplative prayer, and often regarded as an essential character of mystical states.

Delacroix has described with great subtlety the psychological character of pure contemplation.

“When contemplation appears,” he says: “( a ) It produces a general condition of indifference, liberty, and peace, an elevation above the world, a sense of beatitude. The Subject ceases to perceive himself in the multiplicity and division of his general consciousness. He is raised above himself. A deeper and a purer soul substitutes itself for the normal self. ( b ) In this state, in which consciousness of I-hood and consciousness of the world disappear, the mystic is conscious of being in immediate relation with God Himself; of participating in Divinity. Contemplation installs a method of being and of knowing. Moreover, these two things tend at bottom to become one. The mystic has more and more the impression of being that which he knows, and of knowing that which he is.”  684 Temporally rising, in fact, to levels of freedom, he knows himself real, and therefore knows Reality.

Now, the object of the mystic’s contemplation is always some aspect of the Infinite Life: of “God, the one Reality.” Hence, that enhancement of vitality which artists or other unselfconscious observers may receive from their communion with scattered manifestations of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, is in him infinitely increased. His uniformly rapturous language is alone enough to prove this. In the contemplative act, his whole personality, directed by love and will, transcends the sense-world, casts off its fetters, and rises to freedom: becoming operative on those high levels where, says Tauler, “reason cannot p. 331 come.” There it apprehends the supra-sensible by immediate contact, and knows itself to be in the presence of the “Supplier of true Life.” Such Contemplation—such positive attainment of the Absolute—is the whole act of which the visions of poets, the intuition of philosophers, give us hints.

It is a brief act. The greatest of the contemplatives have been unable to sustain the brilliance of this awful vision for more than a little while. “A flash,” “an instant,” “the space of an Ave Maria,” they say. “My mind,” says St. Augustine, in his account of his first purely contemplative glimpse of the One Reality, “withdrew its thoughts from experience, extracting itself from the contradictory throng of sensuous images, that it might find out what that light was wherein it was bathed. . . . And thus with the flash of one hurried glance, it attained to the vision of That Which Is. And then at last I saw Thy invisible things understood by means of the things that are made, but I could not sustain my gaze: my weakness was dashed back, and I was relegated to my ordinary experience, bearing with me only a loving memory, and as it were the fragrance of those desirable meats on the which as yet I was not able to feed.”  685

This fragrance, as St. Augustine calls it, remains for ever with those who have thus been initiated, if only for a moment, into the atmosphere of the Real: and this—the immortal and indescribable memory of their communion with That Which Is—gives to their work the perfume of the “Inviolate Rose,” and is the secret of its magic power. But they can never tell us in exact and human language what it was that they attained in their ecstatic flights towards the thought of God: their momentary mergence in the Absolute Life.

“That Which Is,” says St. Augustine; “The One,” “the Supplier of true Life,” says Plotinus; “the energetic Word,” says St. Bernard; “Eternal Light,” says Dante; “the Abyss,” says Ruysbroeck; “Pure Love,” says St. Catherine of Genoa—Poor symbols of Perfection at the best. But, through and by these oblique utterances, they give us the assurance that the Object of their discovery is one with the object of our quest.

William James considered “ineffability” and “noetic quality” to be the constant characteristics of the contemplative experience.  686 Those who have seen are quite convinced: those who have not seen, can never be told. There is no certitude to equal the mystic’s certitude: no impotence more complete than that which falls on those who try to communicate it. “Of these most excellent and divine workings in the soul, when God doth manifest Himself,” p. 332 says Angela of Foligno, “we can in no wise speak, or even stammer.”  687 Nevertheless, the greater part of mystical literature is concerned with the attempts of the mystics to share their discoveries. Under a variety of images, by a deliberate exploitation of the musical and suggestive qualities of words—often, too, by the help of desperate paradoxes, those unfailing stimulants of man’s intuitive power—they try to tell others somewhat of that veritable country which “eye hath not seen.” Their success—partial though it be—can only be accounted for upon the supposition that somewhere within us lurks a faculty, a spark, a “fine point of spirit” which has known this country from its birth; which dwells in it, partakes of Pure Being, and can under certain conditions be stung to consciousness. Then “transcendental feeling,” waking from its sleep, acknowledges that these explorers of the Infinite have really gazed upon the secret plan.

Contemplation is not, like meditation, one simple state, governed by one set of psychic conditions. It is a general name for a large group of states, partly governed—like all other forms of mystical activity—by the temperament of the subject, and accompanied by feeling-states which vary from the extreme of quietude or “peace in life naughted” to the rapturous and active love in which “thought into song is turned.” Some kinds of Contemplation are inextricably entwined with the phenomena of “intellectual vision” and “inward voices.” In others we find what seems to be a development of the “Quiet”: a state which the subject describes as a blank absorption, a darkness, or “contemplation in caligine.” 688 Sometimes the contemplative tells us that he passes through this darkness to the light:  689 sometimes it seems to him that he stays for ever in the “beneficent dark.”  690 In some cases the soul says that even in the depths of her absorption, she “knows her own bliss”: in others she only becomes aware of it when contemplation is over and the surface-intelligence reassumes the reins.

In this welter of personal experiences, it becomes necessary to adopt some basis of classification, some rule by which to distinguish true Contemplation from other introversive states. Such a basis is not easy to find. I think, however, that there are two marks of the real condition: (A) The Totality and Givenness of the Object. (B) Self-Mergence of the subject. These we may safely use in our attempt to determine its character. p. 333

(A) Whatever terms he may employ to describe it, and however faint or confused his perceptions may be, the mystic’s experience in Contemplation is the experience of the All, and this experience seems to him to be given rather than attained. It is indeed the Absolute which is revealed to him: not, as in meditation or vision, some partial symbol or aspect thereof.

(B) This revealed Reality is apprehended by way of participation, not by way of observation. The passive receptivity of the Quiet is here developed into an active, outgoing self-donation, which is the self’s response to the Divine initiative. By a free act, independent of man’s effort, God is self-disclosed to the soul; and that soul rushes out willingly to lose itself in Him. Thus a “give and take”—a divine osmosis—is set up between the finite and the Infinite life. That dreadful consciousness of a narrow and limiting I-hood which dogs our search for freedom and full life, is done away. For a moment, at least, the independent spiritual life is achieved. The contemplative is merged in it “like a bird in the air, like a fish in the sea”: loses to find and dies to live.

“We must,” says Dionysius the Areopagite, “be transported wholly out of ourselves and given unto God.”  691 This is the “passive union” of Contemplation: a temporary condition in which the subject receives a double conviction of ineffable happiness and ultimate reality. He may try to translate this conviction into “something said” or “something seen”: but in the end he will be found to confess that he can tell nothing, save by implication. The essential fact is that he was there: as the essential fact for the returning exile is neither landscape nor language, but the homely spirit of place.

“To see and to have seen that Vision,” says Plotinus in one of his finest passages, “is reason no longer. It is more than reason, before reason, and after reason, as also is the vision which is seen. . . . And perhaps we should not here speak of sight: for that which is seen is not discerned by the seer—if indeed it is possible here to distinguish seer and seen as separate things. . . .Therefore this vision is hard to tell of: for how can a man describe as other than himself that which, when he discerned it, seemed not other, but one with himself indeed?”  692

Ruysbroeck, who continued in the mediaeval world the best traditions of Neoplatonic mysticism, also describes a condition of supreme insight, a vision of Truth, which is closely related to the Plotinian ecstasy. “Contemplation,” he says, “places us in a purity and a radiance which is far above our understanding . . . and none can attain to it by knowledge, by subtlety, or by any exercise whatsoever: but he whom God chooses to unite to p. 334 Himself, and to illuminate by Himself, he and no other can contemplate God. . . . But few men attain to this divine contemplation, because of our incapacity and of the hiddenness of that light in which one sees. And this is why none by his own knowledge, or by subtle consideration, will ever really understand these things. For all words and all that one can learn or understand in a creaturely way, are foreign to the truth that I mean and far below it. But he who is united to God, and illumined by this truth—he can understand Truth by Truth.  693

This final, satisfying knowledge of reality—this understanding of Truth by Truth—is, at bottom, that which all men desire. The saint’s thirst for God, the philosopher’s passion for the Absolute; these are nothing else than the crying need of the spirit, variously expressed by the intellect and by the heart. The guesses of science, the diagrams of metaphysics, the intuitions of artists; all are pressing towards this. “Adam sinned when he fell from Contemplation. Since then, there has been division in man.”  694

Man’s soul, says Hilton, “Feeleth well that there is somewhat above itself that it knoweth not nor hath not yet, but it would have it, and burningly yearneth for it. And that is nought else but the sight of Jerusalem without-forth, the which is like to a city that the prophet Ezechiel saw in his visions.

“He saith that he saw a city set upon an hill sloping to the south, that to his sight when it was measured was no more of length and of breadth than a rood, that was six cubits and a palm of length; but as soon as he was brought into the city and looked about him, then thought him that it was wonder mickle, for he saw many halls and chambers both open and privy, he saw gates and porches, outward and inward, and mickle more building than I say now, on length and on breadth many hundred cubits. Then was this wonder to him, how this city within was so long and so large, that was so little to his sight when he was without. This city betokeneth the perfect love of God, set in the hill of contemplation; the which unto the sight of a soul that is without the feeling of it and travaileth in desire toward, seemeth somewhat, but it seemeth but a little thing, no more than a rood, that is six cubits and a palm in length. By six cubits is understood the perfection of man’s work, by the palm a little touching of contemplation. He seeth well that there is such a thing, that passeth the desert of all working of man a little, as the palm passeth over the six cubits, but he seeth not within what that is. Nevertheless, p. 335 if he may come within the city of contemplation, then seeth he mickle more than he saw first.”  695

As in the case of vision, so here, all that we who “without the feeling travail in desire” can really know concerning Contemplation—its value for life, the knowledge it confers—must come from those who have “come within the city”: have, in the metaphor of Plotinus, “taken flight towards the Thought of God.” What, in effect, can they tell us about the knowledge of reality which they attained in that brief communion with the Absolute?

They tell us chiefly, when we come to collate their evidence, two apparently contradictory things. They speak, almost in the Same breath, of an exceeding joy, a Beatific Vision, an intense communion, and a “loving sight”: and of an exceeding emptiness, a barren desert, an unfathomable Abyss, a nescience, a Divine Dark. Again and again these pairs of opposites occur in all first-hand descriptions of pure contemplation: Remoteness and Intimacy, Darkness and Light. Bearing in mind that these four metaphors all describe the same process seen “through a temperament,” and represent the reaction of that temperament upon Absolute Reality, we may perhaps by their comparison obtain some faint idea of the totality of that indescribable experience at which they hint.

Note first that the emotional accompaniments of his perceptions will always and necessarily be the stuff from which the mystic draws suggestive language, by which to hint at his experience of supernal things. His descriptions will always lean to the impressionistic rather than to the scientific side. The “deep yet dazzling darkness,” the “unfathomable abyss,” the Cloud of Unknowing, the “embrace of the Beloved,” all represent, not the Transcendent but his relation with the Transcendent; not an object observed, but an overwhelming impression felt, by the totality of his being during his communion with a Reality which is One.

It is not fair, however, to regard Contemplation on this account as pre-eminently a “feeling state”; and hence attribute to it, as many modern writers do, a merely subjective validity. It is of course accompanied, as all humanity’s supreme and vital acts are accompanied, by feeling of an exalted kind: and since such emotions are the least abnormal part of it, they are the part which the subject finds easiest to describe. These elusive combinations of Fear, Amazement, Desire, and Joy are more or less familiar to him. The accidents of sensual life have developed them. His language contains words which are capable of p. 336 suggesting them to other men. But his total experience transcends mere feeling, just as it transcends mere intellect. It is a complete act of perception, inexpressible by these departmental words: and its agent is the whole man, the indivisible personality whose powers and nature are only partially hinted at in such words as Love, Thought, or Will.

The plane of consciousness, however—the objective somewhat—of which this personality becomes aware in contemplation, is not familiar to it; neither is it related to its systems of thought. Man, accustomed to dwell amongst spatial images adapted to the needs of daily life, has no language that will fit it. So, a person hearing for the first time some masterpiece of classical music, would have no language in which to describe it objectively; but could only tell us how it made him feel. This is one reason why feeling-states seem to preponderate in all descriptions of the mystic act. Earthly emotions provide a parallel which enables the subject to tell us by implication something of that which he felt: but he cannot describe to us—for want of standards of comparison—that Wholly Other which induced him thus to feel. His best efforts to fit words to this elusive but objective experience generally result in the evaporation alike of its fragrance and of its truth. As St. Augustine said of Time, he knows what it is until he is asked to define it.

How symbolic and temperamental is all verbal description of mystical activity, may be seen by the aspect which contemplation took in the music-loving soul of Richard Rolle; who always found his closest parallels with Reality, not in the concepts of intimate union, or of self-loss in the Divine Abyss, but in the idea of the soul’s participation in a supernal harmony—that sweet minstrelsy of God in which “thought into song is turned.” “To me,” he says, “it seems that contemplation is joyful song of God’s love taken in mind, with sweetness of angels’ praise. This is jubilation, that is the end of perfect prayer and high devotion in this life. This is that mirth in mind, had ghostily by the lover everlastingly, with great voice outbreaking. . . . Contemplative sweetness not without full great labour is gotten, and with joy untold it is possessed. Forsooth, it is not man’s merit but God’s gift; and yet from the beginning to this day never might man be ravished in contemplation of Love Everlasting, but if he before parfitely all the world’s vanity had forsaken.”  696

We must, then, be prepared to accept, sift, and use many different descriptions of evoked emotion in the course of our inquiry into the nature of the contemplative’s perceptions of the p. 337 Absolute. We find on analysis that these evoked emotions separate themselves easily into two groups. Further, these two groups answer to the two directions in which the mystic consciousness of Reality is extended, and to the pairs of descriptions of the Godhead which we have found to be characteristic of mystical literature: i.e. , the personal and spatial, immanental and transcendental, indwelling Life and Unconditioned Source; ( a ) the strange, dark, unfathomable Abyss of Pure Being always dwelt upon by mystics of the metaphysical type, and ( b ) the divine and loved Companion of the soul, whose presence is so sharply felt by those selves which lean to the concept of Divine Personality.

A. The Contemplation of Transcendence.— The first group of feeling-states, allied to those which emphasize the theological idea of Divine Transcendence, is born of the mystic’s sense of his own littleness, unworthiness, and incurable ignorance in comparison with the ineffable greatness of the Absolute Godhead which he has perceived, and in which he desires to lose himself; of the total and incommunicable difference in kind between the Divine and everything else. Awe and self-abasement, and the paradoxical passion for self-loss in the All, here govern his emotional state. All affirmative statements seem to him blasphemous, so far are they from an ineffable truth which is “more than reason, before reason, and after reason.” To this group of feelings, which usually go with an instinctive taste for Neoplatonism, an iconoclastic distrust of personal imagery, we owe all negative descriptions of supreme Reality. For this type of self, God is the Unconditioned, the Wholly Other for whom we have no words, and whom all our poor symbols insult. To see Him is to enter the Darkness, the “Cloud of Unknowing,” and “know only that we know nought.” Nothing else can satisfy this extreme spiritual humility; which easily degenerates into that subtle form of pride which refuses to acquiesce in the limitations of its own creaturely state.

“There is none other God but He that none may know, which may not be known,” says this contemplative soul. “No, soothly no! Without fail, No, says she. He only is my God that none can one word of say, nor all they of Paradise one only point attain nor understand, for all the knowing that they have of Him.”  697

When they try to be geographically exact, to define and describe their apprehension of, and contact with, the Unconditioned One who is the only Country of the Soul, contemplatives of this type become, like their great master the Areopagite, p. 338 impersonal and remote. They seem to have been caught up to some measureless height, where the air is too rarefied for the lungs of common men. When we ask them the nature of the life on these summits, they are compelled as a rule to adopt the Dionysian concept of Divine Darkness, or the parallel idea of the fathomless Abyss, the Desert of the Godhead, the Eckhartian “still wilderness where no one is at home.”

Oddly enough, it is in their language concerning this place or plane of reality, in which union with the Super-essential Godhead takes place—this “lightsome darkness and rich nought”—that they come nearer to distinct affirmation, and consequently offer more surprises to sentimental and anthropomorphic piety, than in any other department of their work. Unquestionably this language, with its constant reference to a “still desert,” a “vast sea,” an “unplumbed abyss” in which the “emptiness,” the “nothing,” the “Dark” on which the self entered in the Orison of Quiet is infinitely increased, yet positive satisfaction is at last attained, does correspond with a definite psychological experience. It is not merely the convention of a school. These descriptions, incoherent as they are, have a strange note of certainty, a stranger note of passion, an odd realism of their own: which mean, wherever we meet them, that experience not tradition is their source. Driven of necessity to a negation of all that their surface-minds have ever known—with language, strained to the uttermost, failing them at every turn—these contemplatives are still able to communicate to us a definite somewhat; news as to a given and actual Reality, an unchanging Absolute, and a beatific union with it, most veritably attained. They agree in their accounts of it, in a way which makes it obvious that all these reporters have sojourned in the same land, and experienced the same spiritual state. Moreover, our inmost minds bear witness for them. We meet them half-way. We know instinctively and irrefutably that they tell true; and they rouse in us a passionate nostalgia, a bitter sense of exile and of loss.

One and all, these explorers of the Infinite fly to language expressive of great and boundless spaces. In their withdrawal from the busy, fretful sense-world they have sunk down to the “ground” of the soul and of the apparent universe: Being, the Substance of all that Is. Multiplicity is resolved into Unity: a unity with which the perceiving self is merged. Thus the mystic, for the time of this “union with the Divine,” does find himself, in Tauler’s words, to be “simply in God.”

“The great wastes to be found in this divine ground,” says that great master, “have neither image nor form nor condition, for they are neither here nor there. They are like unto a fathomless p. 339 Abyss, bottomless and floating in itself. Even as water ebbs and flows, up and down; now sinking into a hollow, so that it looks as if there were no water there, and then again in a little while rushing forth as if it would engulf everything, so does it come to pass in this Abyss. This, truly, is much more God’s Dwelling-place than heaven or man. A man who verily desires to enter will surely find God here, and himself simply in God; for God never separates Himself from this ground. God will be present with him, and he will find and enjoy Eternity here. There is no past nor present here, and no created light can reach unto or shine into this divine Ground; for here only is the dwelling-place of God and His sanctuary.

“Now this Divine Abyss can be fathomed by no creatures; it can be filled by none, and it satisfies none, God only can fill it in His Infinity. For this abyss belongs only to the Divine Abyss of which it is written: Abysses abyssum invocal . He who is truly conscious of this ground, which shone into the powers of his soul, and lighted and inclined its lowest and highest powers to turn to their pure Source and true Origin, must diligently examine himself, and remain alone, listening to the voice which cries in the wilderness of this ground. This ground is so desert and bare that no thought has ever entered there. None of all the thoughts of man which, with the help of reason, have been devoted to meditation on the Holy Trinity (and some men have occupied themselves much with these thoughts) have ever entered this ground. For it is so close and yet so far off, and so far beyond all things, that it has neither time nor place. It is a simple and unchanging condition. A man who really and truly enters, feels as though he had been here throughout eternity, and as though he were one therewith.”  698

Many other mystics have written to the same effect: have described with splendour the ineffable joys and terrors of the Abyss of Being “where man existed in God from all Eternity,” the soul’s adventures when, “stripped of its very life,” it “sails the wild billows of the sea divine.” But their words merely amaze the outsider and give him little information. The contemplative self who has attained this strange country can only tell an astonished and incredulous world that here his greatest deprivation is also his greatest joy; that here the extremes of possession and surrender are the same, that ignorance and knowledge, light and dark, are One. Love has led him into that timeless, spaceless world of Being which is the peaceful ground, not only of the individual striving spirit, but also of the striving universe; and he can but cry with Philip, “ It is enough.” p. 340

“Here,” says Maeterlinck, “we stand suddenly at the confines of human thought, and far beyond the Polar circle of the mind. It is intensely cold here; it is intensely dark, and yet you will find nothing but flames and light. But to those who come without having trained their souls to these new perceptions, this light and these flames are as dark and as cold as if they were painted. Here we are concerned with the most exact of sciences: with the exploration of the harshest and most uninhabitable headlands of the divine ‘Know thyself’: and the midnight sun reigns over that rolling sea where the psychology of man mingles with the psychology of God.”  699

On one hand “flames and light”—the flame of living and creative love which fills the universe—on the other the “quiet desert of Godhead,” transcending all succession and dark to the single sight of earth-born men. Under these two metaphors, one affirmative, one negative, resumed in his most daring paradox nearly the whole of man’s contemplative experience of the Absolute can be and is expressed. We have considered his negative description of Utmost Transcendence: that confession of “divine ignorance” which is a higher form of knowledge. But this is balanced, in a few elect spirits, by a positive contemplation of truth; an ecstatic apprehension of the “secret plan.”

Certain rare mystics seem able to describe to us a Beatific Vision experienced here and now: a knowledge by contact of the flaming heart of Reality, which includes in one great whole the planes of Being and Becoming, the Simultaneous and the Successive, the Eternal Father, and His manifestation in the “energetic Word.” We saw something of this power, which is characteristic of mystical genius of a high order, in studying the characteristics of Illumination. Its finest literary expression is found in that passage of the “Paradiso” where Dante tells us how he pierced, for an instant, the secret of the Empyrean. Already he had enjoyed a symbolic vision of two-fold Reality as the moving River of Light and the still white Rose.  700 Now these two aspects vanished, and he saw the One.

“. . . la mia vista, venendo sincera
e più e più entrava per lo raggio
dell’ alta luce, che da sè è vera.
Da quinci innanzi il mio veder fu maggio
che il parlar nostro ch’ a tal vista cede,
e cede la memoria a tanto oltraggio. p. 341
Qual è colui che somniando vede,
chè dopo il sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l’ altro alla mente non riede;
cotal son io, che quasi tutta cessa
mia visione, ed ancor mi distilla
nel cor lo dolce che nacque da essa.
. . . .
Io credo, per l’ acume ch’ io soffersi
del vivo raggio, ch’ io sarei smarrito,
se gli occhi miei da lui fossero aversi.
E mi ricorda ch’ io fui più ardito
per questo a sostener tanto ch’ io giunsi
l’ aspetto mio col valor infinito.
Così la mente mia, tutta sospesa,
mirava fissa, immobile ed attenta,
e sempre del mirar faceasi accesa.
A quella luce cotal si diventa,
che volgersi da lei per altro aspetto
è impossibil che mai si consenta.
Però che il Ben, ch’ è del volere obbietto,
tutto s’accoglie in lei, e fuor di quella
è difettivo cio che lì è perfetto.” 701

Intermediate between the Dantesque apprehension of Eternal Reality and the contemplative communion with Divine Personality, is the type of mystic whose perceptions of the suprasensible are neither wholly personal nor wholly cosmic and transcendental in type. To him, God is pre-eminently the Perfect—Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, Light, Life, and Love—discovered in a moment of lucidity at the very door of the seeking self. Here the symbols under which He is perceived are still the abstractions of philosophy; but in the hands of the mystic these terms cease to be abstract, are stung to life. Such contemplatives preserve the imageless and ineffable character of the Absolute, but are moved by its contemplation to a joyous and personal love.

Thus, in a striking passage of her revelations, Angela of Foligno p. 342 suddenly exclaims, “I saw God!” “And I, the writing brother,” says her secretary, “asked her what she saw, how she saw, and if she saw any bodily thing. She replied thus: ‘I beheld a fullness and a clearness, and felt them within me so abundantly that I cannot describe it, or give any likeness thereof. I cannot say I saw anything corporeal. It was as though it were in heaven: a beauty so great that I can say nought concerning it, save that it was supreme Beauty and sovereign Good.’” Again, “I beheld the ineffable fullness of God: but I can relate nothing of it, save that I have seen in it the Sovereign Good.”  702

B. The Contemplation of Immanence.— The second group of contemplatives is governed by that “Love which casteth out fear”: by a predominating sense of the nearness, intimacy, and sweetness, rather than the strangeness and unattainable transcendence, of that same Infinite Life at whose being the first group could only hint by amazing images which seem to be borrowed from the poetry of metaphysics. These are, says Hilton, in a lovely image, “Feelingly fed with the savour of His invisible blessed Face.”  703 All the feelings which flow from joy, confidence, and affection, rather than those which are grouped about rapture and awe—though awe is always present in some measure, as it is always present in all perfect love—here contribute towards a description of the Truth.

These contemplatives tell us of their attainment of That which Is, as the closest and most joyous of all communions; a coming of the Bridegroom; a rapturous immersion in the Uncreated Light. “Nothing more profitable, nothing merrier than grace of contemplation!” cries Rolle, “that lifts us from this low and offers to God. What is grace of contemplation but beginning of joy? what is parfiteness of joy but grace confirmed?  704 In such “bright contemplation” as this, says “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” “the soul is full gladsome and jolly.” Utter peace and wild delight, every pleasure-state known to man’s normal consciousness, are inadequate to the description of her joy. She has participated for an instant in the Divine Life; knows all, and knows nought. She has learnt the world’s secret, not by knowing, but by being: the only way of really knowing anything.

Where the dominant emotion is that of intimate affection, and where the training or disposition of the mystic inclines him to emphasize the personal and Incarnational rather than the abstract and Trinitarian side of Christianity, the contemplative of this type will always tend to describe his secret to us as above p. 343 all things an experience of adorable Friendship. Reality is for him a Person, not a State. In the “orison of union” it seems to him that an actual communion, a merging of his self with this other and strictly personal Self takes place. “God,” he says, then “meets the soul in her Ground”: i.e. , in that secret depth of personality where she participates in the Absolute Life. Clearly, the “degree of contemplation,” the psychological state, is here the same as that in which the mystic of the impersonal type attained the “Abyss.” But from the point of view of the subject, this joyful and personal encounter of Lover and Beloved will be a very different experience from the soul’s immersion in that “desert of Deity,” as described by Eckhart and his school. “In this oning,” says Hilton, “is the marriage made betwixt God and the soul, that shall never be broken.”  705

St. Teresa is the classic example of this intimate and affective type of contemplation: but St. Gertrude, Suso, Julian, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and countless others, provide instances of its operation. We owe to it all the most beautiful and touching expressions of mystic love. Julian’s “I saw Him and sought Him: and I had Him, I wanted Him” expresses in epigram its combination of rapturous attainment and insatiable desire: its apprehension of a Presence at once friendly and divine. So too does her description of the Tenth Revelation of Love, when “with this sweet enjoying He showed unto mine understanding in part the blessed Godhead, stirring then the poor soul to understand, as it may be said; that is, to think on the endless Love that was without beginning, and is, and shall be ever. And with this our good Lord said full blissfully, Lo, how that I loved thee, as if He had said, My darling, behold and see thy Lord, thy God that is thy Matter, and thine endless joy.”  706

“The eyes of her soul were opened,” says the scribe to whom Angela of Foligno dictated her revelations. “And she saw Love advancing gently towards her; and she saw the beginning, but not the end, for it was continuous. And there was no colour to which she could compare this Love; but directly it reached her she beheld it with the eyes of the soul, more clearly than she might do with the eyes of the body, take as towards her the semblance of a sickle. Not that there was any actual and measurable likeness, but this love took on the semblance of a sickle, because it first withdrew itself, not giving itself so fully as it had allowed itself to be understood and she had understood it; the which caused her to yearn for it the more.”  707 p. 344

It is to Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose contemplation was emphatically of the intimate type, that we owe the most perfect definition of this communion of the mystic with his Friend. “Orison,” she says, “draws the great God down into the small heart: it drives the hungry soul out to the full God. It brings together the two lovers, God and the soul, into a joyful room where they speak much of love.”  708

We have already seen that the doctrine of the Trinity makes it possible for Christian mystics, and, still more, for Christian mysticism as a whole, to reconcile this way of apprehending Reality with the “negative” and impersonal perception of the ineffable One; the Absolute which “hath no image.” Though they seem in their extreme forms to be so sharply opposed as to justify Eckhart’s celebrated distinction between the unknowable totality of the Godhead and the knowable personality of God, the “image” and the “circle” yet represent diverse apprehensions of one whole. All the mystics feel—and the German school in particular have expressed—Dante’s conviction that these two aspects of reality, these two planes of being, however widely they seem to differ, are One .  709 Both are ways of describing man’s partial contacts with that Absolute Truth, “present yet absent, near, yet far,” that Triune Fact, di tre colori e d’ una continenza , which is God. Both are necessary if we are to form any idea of that complete Reality, imperfect as any such idea must be: as, when two men go together to some undiscovered country, one will bring home news of its great spaces, its beauty of landscape, another of its geological formation, or the flora and fauna that express its life, and both must be taken into account before any just estimate of the real country can be made.

Since it is of the essence of the Christian religion to combine personal and metaphysical truth, a transcendent and an incarnate God,  710 it is not surprising that we should find in Christianity a philosophic and theological basis for this paradox of the contemplative experience. Most often, though not always, the Christian mystic identifies the personal and intimate Lover of the soul, of whose elusive presence he is so sharply aware, with the person of Christ; the unknowable and transcendent Godhead with that eterna luce, the Undifferentiated One in Whom the Trinity of Persons is resumed. Temperamentally, most practical contemplatives lean to either one or other of these apprehensions of Reality: to a personal and immanental meeting in the “ground of the soul,” or to the austere joys of the “naughted soul” abased before an impersonal Transcendence which no language but p. 345 that of negation can define. In some, however, both types of perception seem to exist together: and they speak alternately of light and darkness, of the rapturous encounter with Love and of supreme self-loss in the naked Abyss, the desert of the Essence of God. Ruysbroeck is the perfect example of this type of contemplative; and his works contain numerous and valuable passages descriptive of that synthetic experience which resumes the personal and transcendental aspects of the mystic fact.

“When we have become seeing,” he says—that is to say, when we have attained to spiritual lucidity—“we are able to contemplate in joy the eternal coming of the Bridegroom; and this is the second point on which I would speak. What, then, is this eternal coming of our Bridegroom? It is a perpetual new birth and a perpetual new illumination: for the ground whence the Light shines and which is Itself the Light, is life-giving and fruitful: and hence the manifestation of the Eternal Light is renewed without interruption in the hiddenness of the spirit. Behold! here all human works and active virtues must cease; for here God works alone at the apex of the soul. Here there is nought else but an eternal seeing and staring at that Light, by the Light and in the Light. And the coming of the Bridegroom is so swift, that He comes perpetually, and He dwells within us with His abysmal riches, and He returns to us anew in His Person without interruption; with such new radiance, that He seems never to have come to us before. For His coming consists, outside all Time, in an Eternal Now, always welcomed with new longing and new joy. Behold! the delights and the joys which this Bridegroom brings in His coming are fathomless and limitless, for they are Himself: and this is why the eyes by which the spirit contemplates the Bridegroom, are opened so widely that they can never close again. . . . Now this active meeting, and this loving embrace, are in their essence fruitive and unconditioned; for the infinite Undifferentiation of the Godhead is so dark and so naked of all image, that it conceals within itself all the divine qualities and works, all the attributes of the Persons, in the all-enfolding richness of the Essential Unity, and brings about a divine fruition in the Abyss of the Ineffable. And here there is a death in fruition, and a melting and dying into the nudity of Pure Being; where all the Names of God, and all conditions, and all the living images which are reflected in the mirror of divine truth, are absorbed into the Ineffable Simplicity, the Absence of image and of knowledge. For in this limitless Abyss of Simplicity, all things are embraced in the bliss of fruition; but the Abyss itself remains uncomprehended, except by the Essential Unity. The Persons and all that which lives p. 346 in God, must give place to this. For there is nought else here but an eternal rest in the fruitive embrace of an outpouring love: and this is the wayless Being that all interior souls have chosen above all other things. This is the dim silence where all lovers lose themselves.”  711

Here Ruysbroeck, beginning with a symbol of the Divine Personality as Bridegroom of the Soul, which would have been congenial to the mind of St. Catherine of Siena, ends upon the summits of Christian metaphysics; with a description of the loving immersion of the self in that Unconditioned One who transcends the Persons of theology and beggars human speech. We seem to see him desperately clutching at words and similes which may, he hopes, give some hint of the soul’s fruition of Reality: its immeasurable difference in kind from the dreams and diagrams of anthropomorphic religion. His strange statements in respect of this Divine Abyss are on a par with those which I have already quoted from the works of other contemplatives, who, refusing to be led away by the emotional aspect of their experience, have striven to tell us—as they thought—not merely what they felt but what they beheld. Ruysbroeck’s mystical genius, however, the depth and wholeness of his intuition of Reality, does not allow him to be satisfied with a merely spatial or metaphysical description of the Godhead. The “active meeting” and the “loving embrace” are, he sees, an integral part of the true contemplative act. In “the dim silence where lovers lose themselves,” a Person meets a person: and this it is, not the philosophic Absolute, which “all interior souls have chosen above all other thing.”

We must now look more closely at the method by which the contemplative attains to his unique communion with the Absolute Life: the kind of activity which seems to him to characterize his mergence with Reality. As we might expect, that activity, like its result, is of two kinds; personal and affirmative, impersonal and negative. It is obvious that where Divine Perfection is conceived as the soul’s companion, the Bridegroom, the Beloved, the method of approach will be very different from that which ends in the self’s immersion in the paradoxical splendour of the Abyss, the “still wilderness where no one is at home.” It is all the difference between the preparations for a wedding and for an expedition to the Arctic Seas. Hence we find, at one end of the scale, that extreme form of personal and intimate communion—the going forth of lover to beloved—which the mystics call “the orison of union”: and at the other end, the “dark contemplation,” by which alone selves of the transcendent and p. 347 impersonal type claim that they draw near to the Unconditioned One.

Of the dim and ineffable contemplation of Unnameable Transcendence, the imageless absorption in the Absolute, Dionysius the Areopagite of course provides the classic example. It was he who gave to it the name of Divine Darkness: and all later mystics of this type borrow their language from him. His directions upon the subject are singularly explicit: his descriptions, like those of St. Augustine, glow with an exultant sense of a Reality attained, and which others may attain if they will but follow where he leads.

“As for thee, dear Timothy,” he says, “I counsel that in the earnest exercise of mystical contemplation thou leave the senses and the operations of the intellect and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive, and all things in this world of nothingness or that world of being; and that, thine understanding being laid to rest, thou ascend (so far as thou mayest) towards union with Him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of thyself and all things, thou shalt in pureness cast all things aside, and be released from all, and so shalt be led upwards to the Ray of that Divine Darkness which exceetedth all existence.”  712 Again, “The Divine Dark is nought else but that inaccessible light wherein the Lord is said to dwell. Although it is invisible because of its dazzling splendours and unsearchable because of the abundance of its supernatural brightness, nevertheless, whosoever deserves to see and know God rests therein; and, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows, is truly in that which surpasses all truth and all knowledge.”  713

It has become a commonplace with writers on mysticism to say, that all subsequent contemplatives took from Dionysius this idea of “Divine Darkness,” and entrance therein as the soul’s highest privilege: took it, so to speak, ready-made and on faith, and incorporated it in their tradition. To argue thus is to forget that mystics are above all things practical people. They do not write for the purpose of handing on a philosophical scheme, but in order to describe something which they have themselves p. 348 experienced; something which they feel to be of transcendent importance for humanity. If, therefore, they persist—and they do persist—in using this simile of “darkness” to describe their experience in contemplation, it can only be because it fits the facts. No Hegelian needs to be told that we shall need the addition of its opposite before we can hope to approach the truth: and it is exactly the opposite of this “dim ignorance” which is offered us by mystics of the “joyous” or “intimate” type, who find their supreme satisfaction in the positive experience of “union,” the “mystical marriage of the soul.”

What, then, do those who use this image of the “dark” really mean by it? They mean this: that God in His absolute Reality is unknowable—is dark—to man’s intellect: which is, as Bergson has reminded us, adapted to other purposes than those of divine intuition. When, under the spur of mystic love, the whole personality of man comes into contact with that Reality, it enters a plane of experience to which none of the categories of the intellect apply. Reason finds itself, in a most actual sense, “in the dark”—immersed in the Cloud of Unknowing. This dimness and lostness of the mind, then, is a necessary part of the mystic’s ascent to the Absolute. That Absolute—the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans  714 —willnot be “known of the heart” until we acknowledge that It is “unknown of the intellect”; and obey the Dionysian injunction to leave “the operations of the understanding” on one side. The movement of the contemplative must be a movement of the whole man: he is to “precipitate himself, free and unfettered,” into the bosom of Reality. Only when he has thus transcended sight and knowledge, can he be sure that he has also transcended the world with which these faculties are competent to deal; and is in that Wholly Other which surpasses all image and all idea.

“This is Love: to fly heavenward,
To rend, every instant, a hundred veils,
The first moment, to renounce life;
The last step, to fare without feet.
To regard this world as invisible,
Not to see what appears to oneself.”  715

This acknowledgment of our intellectual ignorance, this humble surrender, is the entrance into the “Cloud of Unknowing”: the first step towards mystical knowledge of the Absolute. “For Truth and Humility are full true sisters,” says Hilton, p. 349 “fastened together in love and charity, and there is no distance of counsel betwixt them two.”  716

“Thou askest me and sayest,” says the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” “How shall I think on Himself and what is He? and to this I cannot answer thee but thus: I wot not.

“For thou hast brought me with thy question, into that same darkness and into that same cloud of unknowing that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea and of the works of God’s self may a man through grace have fulhead of knowledge, and well he can think of them; but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I will leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden, but by thought never. . . . Smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence for thing that befalleth.”  717

So long, therefore, as the object of the mystic’s contemplation is amenable to thought, is something which he can “know,” he may be quite sure that it is not the Absolute; but only a partial image or symbol of the Absolute. To find that final Reality, he must enter into the “cloud of unknowing”—must pass beyond the plane on which the intellect can work.

“When I say darkness,” says the same great mystic, “I mean thereby a lack of knowing. . . . And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is between thee and thy God.”  718

The business of the contemplative, then, is to enter this cloud: the “good dark,” as Hilton calls it. The deliberate inhibition of discursive thought and rejection of images, which takes place in the “orison of quiet,” is one of the ways in which this entrance is effected: personal surrender, or “self-naughting,” is another. He who, by dint of detachment and introversion, enters the “nothingness” or “ground of the soul,” enters also into the “Dark”: a statement which seems simple enough until we try to realize what it means.

“O where,” says the bewildered disciple in one of Boehme’s dialogues, “is this naked Ground of the Soul void of all Self? And how shall I come at the hidden centre, where God dwelleth and not man? Tell me plainly, loving Sir, where it is, and how it is to be found of me, and entered into?

“Master. There where the soul hath slain its own Will and willeth no more any Thing as from itself. . . . p. 350

“Disciple. But how shall I comprehend it?

“Master. If thou goest about to comprehend it, then it will fly away from thee, but if thou dost surrender thyself wholly up to it, then it will abide with thee, and become the Life of thy Life, and be natural to thee.”  719

The author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” is particularly explicit as to the sense of dimness and confusion which overwhelms the self when it first enters this Dark; a proceeding which is analogous to that annihilation of thought in the interests of passive receptivity which we have studied in the “Quiet.”

“At the first time when thou dost it,” he says of the neophyte’s first vague steps in contemplation, “thou findest but a darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee, that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud and this darkness.”  720

From the same century, but from a very different country and temperament, comes another testimony as to the supreme value of this dark contemplation of the Divine: this absorption, beyond the span of thought or emotion, in the “substance of all that Is.” It is one of the most vivid and detailed accounts of this strange form of consciousness which we possess; and deserves to be compared carefully with the statements of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and of St. John of the Cross. We owe it to that remarkable personality, the Blessed Angela of Foligno, who was converted from a life of worldliness to become not only a Franciscan, but also a Platonic mystic. In it we seem to hear the voice of Plotinus speaking from the Vale of Spoleto.

“Whilst I was questioning her,” says her secretary, “Christ’s faithful one was suddenly rapt in spirit and seemed not to understand my words. And then was given her a wondrous grace. After a short time . . . she began to tell me what follows. ‘My soul has just been rapt to a state in which I tasted unspeakable joy. I knew all I longed to know, possessed all I longed to possess. I saw all Good.’ She said further: ‘In this state the soul cannot believe that this Good will ever depart from her, or that she will depart from it, or that she will again be separated from it. But p. 351 she delights herself in that Sovereign Good. My soul sees nothing whatever that can be told of the lips or the heart, she sees nothing, and she sees All . . . No good that can be described or conceived is now the object of my hope; for I have put all my hope in a secret Good, most hid and secret, which I apprehend in great darkness.’ And as I, the brother, could not receive or understand this dark, Christ’s faithful one wishing to explain said: ‘If I see it in the dark, it is because it surpasses all good. All, all the rest is but darkness. All which the soul or heart can reach is inferior to this Good. That which I have told hitherto, namely, all the soul grasps when she sees all creatures filled with God, when she sees the divine power, and when she sees the divine will, is inferior to this most secret Good; because this Good which I see in the darkness is the All, and all other things are but parts.’ And she added, ‘Though inexpressible, these other things bring delight; but this vision of God in darkness brings no smile to the lips, no devotion or fervour of love to the soul. . . . All the countless and unspeakable favours God has done to me, all the words He has said to me, all you have written are, I know, so far below the Good I see in that great darkness that I do not put in them my hope’ . . . Christ’s faithful one told me that her mind had been uplifted but three times to this most high and ineffable mode of beholding God in great darkness, and in a vision so marvellous and complete. Certainly she had seen the Sovereign Good countless times and always darkly; yet never in such a high manner and through such great dark.”  721

These words, and indeed the whole idea which lies at the bottom of “dark contemplation,” will perhaps be better understood in the light of Baron von Hügel’s deeply significant saying “Souls loving God in His Infinite Individuality will necessarily love Him beyond their intellectual comprehension of Him; the element of devoted trust, of free self-donation to One fully known only through and in such an act, will thus remain to man for ever.”  722 Hence, the contemplative act, which is an act of loving and self-forgetting concentration upon the Divine—the outpouring of man’s little and finite personality towards the Absolute Personality of God—will, in so far as it transcends thought, mean darkness for the intellect; but it may mean radiance for the heart. Psychologically, it will mean the necessary depletion of the surface-consciousness, the stilling of the mechanism of thought, in the interests of another centre of consciousness. Since this new centre makes enormous demands on the self’s stock of vitality its establishment must involve, for the time that it is active, the withdrawal p. 352 of energy from other centres. Thus the “night of thought” becomes the strictly logical corollary of the “light of perception.”

No one has expressed this double character of the Divine Dark—its “nothingness” for the dissecting knife of reason, its supreme fruitfulness for expansive, active love—with so delicate an insight as St. John of the Cross. In his work the Christian touch of personal rapture vivifies the exact and sometimes arid descriptions of the Neoplatonic mystics. A great poet as well as a great mystic, in his poem on the “Obscure Night,” he brings to bear on the actual and ineffable experience of the introverted soul all the highest powers of artistic expression, all the resources of musical rhythm, the suggestive qualities of metaphor.

“Upon an obscure night
Fevered with Love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me,
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be.
By night, secure from sight
And by a secret stair, disguisedly,
(O hapless, happy plight!)
By night, and privily
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be.
Blest night of wandering
In secret, when by none might I be spied,
Nor I see anything:
Without a light to guide
Save that which in my heart burnt in my side.
That light did lead me on,
More surely than the shining of noontide
Where well I knew that One
Did for my coming bide;
Where He abode might none but He abide.
O night that didst lead thus
O night more lovely than the dawn of light;
O night that broughtest us,
Lover to lover’s sight,
Lover to loved, in marriage of delight!
Upon my flowery breast
Wholly for Him and save Himself for none,
There did I give sweet rest
To my beloved one:
The fanning of the cedars breathed thereon.”  723 p. 353

Observe in these verses the perfect fusion of personal and metaphysical imagery; each contributing by its suggestive qualities to a total effect which conveys to us, we hardly know how, the obscure yet flaming rapture of the mystic, the affirmation of his burning love and the accompanying negation of his mental darkness and quiet—that “hapless, happy plight.” All is here: the secrecy of the contemplative’s true life, unseen of other men his deliberate and active abandonment of the comfortable house of the senses, the dim, unknown plane of being into which his ardent spirit must plunge—a “night more lovely than the dawn of light”—the Inward Light, the fire of mystic love, which guides his footsteps “more surely than the shining of noon-tide”: the self-giving ecstasy of the consummation “wholly for Him, and save Himself for none,” in which lover attains communion with Beloved “in marriage of delight.”

In his book, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” St. John has commented upon the opening lines of this poem; and the passages in which he does this are amongst the finest and most subtle descriptions of the psychology of contemplation which we possess.

“The soul,” he says, “calls the dim contemplation, by which it ascends to the union of love, a secret stair; and that because of two properties of this contemplation which I shall explain separately. First, this dark contemplation is called secret, because it is, as I have said before, the mystical theology which theologians call secret wisdom, and which according to St. Thomas is infused into the soul more especially by love. This happens in a secret hidden way, in which the natural operations of the understanding and the other powers have no share. . . . The soul can neither discern nor give it a name, neither desires so to do; and besides, it can discover no way nor apt comparison by which to make known a knowledge so high, a spiritual impression so delicate and infused. Sothat even if the soul felt the most lively desire to explain itself, and heaped up explanations, the secret would remain a secret still. Because this interior wisdom is so simply, general, and spiritual, that it enters not into the understanding under the guise of any form or image perceptible to sense. Therefore the senses and the imagination—which have not served as intermediaries, and have perceived no sensible form or colour—cannot account for it, nor form any conception of it, so as to speak about it; though the soul be distinctly aware that it feels and tastes this strange wisdom. The soul is like a man who sees an object for the first time, the like of which he has never seen before; he perceives it and likes it, yet he cannot say what it is, nor give it a name, do what he will, though it be even an object cognisable by the senses. How much less, then can that p. 354 be described which does not enter in by the senses. . . . Inexpressible in its natures as we have said, it is rightly called secret. And for yet another reason it is so called; for this mystical wisdom has the property of hiding the soul within itself. For beside its ordinary operation, it sometimes happens that this wisdom absorbs the soul and plunges it in a secret abyss wherein it sees itself distinctly as far away, and separated from, all created things; it looks upon itself as one that is placed in a profound and vast solitude whither no creature can come, and which seems an immense Wilderness without limits. And this solitude is the more delicious, sweet, and lovely, the more it is deep, vast, and empty. There the soul is the more hidden, the more it is raised up above all created things.

“This abyss of wisdom now lifts up and enlarges the soul, giving it to drink at the very sources of the science of love. Thereby it perceives how lowly is the condition of all creatures in respect to the supreme knowledge and sense of the Divine. It also understands how low, defective, and, in a certain sense, improper, are all the words and phrases by which in this life we discuss divine things; that they escape the best efforts of human art and science, and that only the mystical theology can know and taste what these things are in their reality.”  724

In this important passage we have a reconciliation of the four chief images under which contemplation has been described: the darkness and the light, the wilderness and the union of love. That is to say, the self’s paradoxical sense of an ignorance which is supreme knowledge, and of a solitude which is intimate companionship. On the last of these antitheses, the “wilderness that is more delicious, sweet, and lovely, the more it is wide, vast, and empty,” I cannot resist quoting, as a gloss upon the dignified language of the Spanish mystic, the quaint and simple words of Richard Rolle.

“In the wilderness . . . speaks the loved to the heart of the lover, as it were a bashful lover, that his sweetheart before men entreats not, nor friendly-wise but commonly and as a stranger he kisses. A devout soul safely from worldly business in mind and body departed . . . anon comes heavenly joy, and it marvellously making merry melody, to her springs; whose token she takes, that now forward worldly sound gladly she suffers not. p. 355 This is ghostly music, that is unknown to all that with worldly business lawful or unlawful are occupied. No man there is that this has known, but he that has studied to God only to take heed.”  725

Doubtless the “dark transcendence” reported and dwelt upon by all mystics of the Dionysian type, is nearest the truth of all our apprehensions of God:  726 though it can be true only in the paradoxical sense that it uses the suggestive qualities of negation—the Dark whose very existence involves that of Light—to hint at the infinite Affirmation of All that Is. But the nearer this language is to the Absolute, the further it is from ourselves. Unless care be taken in the use of it, the elimination of falsehood may easily involve for us the elimination of everything else. Man is not yet pure spirit, has not attained the Eternal. He is in via and will never arrive if impatient amateurs of Reality insist on cutting the ground from under his feet. Like Dante, he needs a ladder to the stars, a ladder which goes the whole way from the human to the divine. Therefore the philosophic exactitude of these descriptions of the dark must be balanced, as they are in St. John of the Cross, by the personal, human, and symbolic affirmations of Love, if we would avoid a distorted notion of the Reality which the contemplative attains in his supreme “flights towards God.” Consciousness has got to be helped across the gap which separates it from its Home.

The “wilderness,” the dread Abyss, must be made homely by the voice of “the lover that His sweetheart before men entreats not.” Approximate as we know such an image of our communion with the Absolute to be, it represents a real aspect of the contemplative experience which eludes the rule and compass of metaphysical thought. Blake, with true mystic insight, summed up the situation as between the two extreme forms of contemplation when he wrote:—  727

“God appears, and God is Light
To those poor souls who dwell in night:
But doth a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.”

In the “orison of union” and the “Spiritual Marriage,” those contemplatives whose temperament inclines them to “dwell in realms of day” receive just such a revelation of the “human form”—a revelation which the Christian dogma of the Incarnation brings to a point. They apprehend the personal and passionate aspect of the Infinite Life; and the love, at once intimate and expansive, all-demanding and all-renouncing, which plays like p. 356 lightning between it and the desirous soul. “Thou saidst to me, my only Love, that Thou didst will to make me Thyself; and that Thou wast all mine, with all that Thou hadst and with all Paradise, and that I was all Thine. That I should leave all, or rather the nothing; and that (then) thou wouldst give me the all. And that Thou hadst given me this name—at which words I heard within me ‘dedi te in lucem gentium’—not without good reason. And it seemed then, as though I had an inclination for nothing except the purest Union, without any means, in accordance with that detailed sight which Thou hadst given me. So then I said to Thee: These other things, give them to whom Thou wilt; give me but this most pure Union with Thee, free from every means.”  728

“Our work is the love of God,” cries Ruysbroeck. “Our satisfaction lies in submission to the Divine Embrace.” This utter and abrupt submission to the Divine Embrace is the essence of that form of contemplation which is called the Orison of Union. “Surrender” is its secret: a personal surrender, not only of finite to Infinite, but of bride to Bridegroom, heart to Heart. This surrender, in contemplatives of an appropriate temperament, is of so complete and ecstatic a type that it involves a more or less complete suspension of normal consciousness, an entrancement; and often crosses the boundary which separates contemplation from true ecstasy, producing in its subject physical as well as psychical effects. In this state, says St. Teresa, “There is no sense of anything: only fruition, without understanding what that may be the fruition of which is granted. It is understood that the fruition is of a certain good, containing in itself all good together at once; but this good is not comprehended. The senses are all occupied in this fruition in such a way, that not one of them is at liberty so as to be able to attend to anything else, whether outward or inward. . . . But this state of complete absorption, together with the utter rest of the imagination—for I believe that the imagination is then wholly at rest—lasts only for a short time; though the faculties do not so completely recover themselves as not to be for some hours afterwards as if in disorder. . . . He who has had experience of this will understand it in some measure, for it cannot be more clearly described, because what then takes place is so obscure. All I am able to say is, that the soul is represented as being close to God; and that there abides a conviction thereof so certain and strong that it cannot possibly help believing so. All the faculties fail now, and are suspended in such a way that, as I said before, their operations cannot be p. 357 traced. . . . The will must be fully occupied in loving, but it understands not how it loves; the understanding, if it understands, does not understand how it understands. It does not understand, as it seems to me, because, as I said just now, this is a matter which cannot be understood.”  729 Clearly, the psychological situation here is the same as that in which mystics of the impersonal type feel themselves to be involved in the Cloud of Unknowing, or Divine Dark.

“Do not imagine,” says St. Teresa in another place, “that this orison, like that which went before [ i.e. , the quiet] is a sort of drowsiness: (I call it drowsiness, because the soul seems to slumber being neither thoroughly asleep, nor thoroughly awake). In the prayer of union the soul is asleep; fast asleep as regards herself and earthly things. In fact, during the short time that this state lasts she is deprived of all feeling, and though she wishes it, she can think of nothing. Thus she needs no effort in order to suspend her thoughts; if the soul can love—she knows not how or when she loves, nor what she desires . . . she is, as it were, entirely dead to the world, the better to live in God.”  730

It may be asked, in what way does such contemplation as this differ from unconsciousness. The difference, according to St. Teresa, consists in the definite somewhat which takes place during this inhibition of the surface-consciousness: a “somewhat” of which that surface-consciousness becomes aware when it awakes. True contemplation, as the mystics are constantly assuring us, must always be judged by its fruits. If it be genuine, work has been done during the period of apparent passivity. The deeper self has escaped, has risen to freedom, and returns other than it was before. We must remember that Teresa is speaking from experience, and that her temperamental peculiarities will modify the form which this experience takes. “The soul,” she says, “neither sees, hears, nor understands anything while this state lasts; but this is usually a very short time, and seems to the soul even shorter than it really is. God visits the soul in a way that prevents it doubting when it comes to itself that is has been in God and God in it; and so firmly is it convinced of this truth that, though years may pass before this state recurs, the soul can never forget it nor doubt its reality. . . . But you will say, how can the soul see and comprehend that she is in God and God in her, if during this union she is not able either to see or understand? I reply, that she does not see it at the time, but that afterwards she perceives it clearly: not by a vision, but by a certitude which remains in the heart which God alone can give.”  731

p. 358



Récéjac, “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 176.


Supra , p. 245.


St. Teresa, Vida, cap. xx. § 1 and 3.


“Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 370.


Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. xvii.


“Varieties of Religious Experience,” p. 380.


St. Angèle de Foligno, “Le Livre de l’Expérience des Vrais Fidèles,” p. 238 (English translation, p. 189).


Compare Baker, “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § iv. cap. iv.


See Hilton, “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxv.


Vide infra , p. 347.


“De Divinis Nominibus,” vii. 1.


Ennead vi. 9, 10.


Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. iii. cap. i.


J. Maritain, “Art et Scholastique,” p. 141.


“The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxv.


Richard Rolle, “The Mending of Life,” cap. xii.


“The Mirror of Simple Souls,” Div. iii. cap. xiii.


Tauler, Sermon on St. John the Baptist (“The Inner Way,” pp. 97-99).


Maeterlinck, Introduction to Ruysbroeck’s “L’Ornement des Noces Spirituelles,” p. v. Theologians will recognize here a poetic account of the soul’s contact with that aspect of Divine Reality emphasized in the work of Rudolf Otto and of Karl Barth.


Par. xxx. 61-128. Compare p. 286.


Par. xxxiii. 52-63, 76-81, 97-105. “My vision, becoming purified, entered deeper and deeper into the ray of that Supernal Light which in itself is true. Thenceforth my vision was greater than our language, which fails such a sight; and memory too fails before such excess. As he who sees in a dream, and after the dream is gone the impression or emotion remains, but the rest returns not to the mind, such am I for nearly the whole of my vision fades, and yet there still wells within my heart the sweetness born therefrom. . . . I think that by the keenness of the living ray which I endured I had been lost, had I once turned my eyes aside. And I remember that for this I was the bolder so long to sustain my gaze, as to unite it with the Power Infinite. . . . Thus did my mind, wholly in suspense, gaze fixedly, immovable and intent, ever enkindled by its gazing. In the presence of that Light one becomes such, that never could one consent to turn from it to any other sight. Because the Good, which is the object of the will, is therein wholly gathered; and outside of this, that is defective which therein is perfect.”


St. Angèle de Foligno, “Le Livre de l’Expérience des Vrais Fidèles,” pp. 78 and 116 (English translation, here very imperfect, pp. 169, 174).


“The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xli.


“The Mending of Life,” cap. xii.


Scale of Perfection,” bk. i. cap. viii.


“Fevelations of Divine Love,” cap. xxiv.


St. Angèle, op. cit ., p. 156 (English translations p. 178).


“Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. v. cap. 13.


Par. xxxiii. 137.


Compare supra , Pt. I. Cap. V.


Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” bk. iii. caps. ii. and iv.


Dionysius the Areopagite, “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 1.


Ibid., Letter to Dorothy the Deacon. This passage seems to be the source of Vaughan’s celebrated verse in “The Night”—

“There is in God, some say

A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here

Say it is late and dusky because they

See not all clear.

O for that Night! where I in Him

Might live invisible and dim.”


R. Otto, “The Idea of the Holy,” caps. iii. and iv. The whole of this work should be studied in its bearing on the contemplation of supra-rational Reality.


Jalalu ‘d Din, “Selected Poems from the Divan,” p. 137.


“The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xiii.


“The Cloud of Unknowing,” cap. vi.


Ibid ., cap. iv.


Boehme, “Three Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” p. 71.


“The Cloud of Unknowing,” cap. iii.


St. Angèle, loc. cit ., pp. 210-12 (English translation, p. 181).


“The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii. p. 257.


“En una Noche Escura.” This translation, by Mr. Arthur Symons, will be found in vol. ii. of his Collected Poems.


St. John of the Cross, “Noche Escura del Alma,” I. ii. cap. xvii. It is perhaps advisable to warn the reader that in this work St. John applies the image of “darkness” to three absolutely different things: i.e ., to a purgation of mind which he calls the “night of sense”, to dim contemplation, or the Dionysian “Divine Dark”, and to the true “dark night of the soul,” which he calls the “night of the spirit.” The result has been a good deal of confusion, in modern writers on mysticism upon the subject of the “Dark Night.”


“The Fire of Love,” bk. ii. cap. vii.


Compare Baker, “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § iv. cap iv.


“Auguries of Innocence.”


Colloquies of Battista Vernazza: quoted by Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 350.


Vida, cap. xviii. §§ 2, 17, 19.


“El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Quintas, cap. i.


Op. cit., loc. cit.

Next: VIII. Ecstasy and Rapture