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PSYCHOLOGY AND THE LIFE OF THE SPIRIT
(II) CONTEMPLATION AND SUGGESTION
In the last chapter we considered what the modern analysis of mind had to tell us about the nature of the spiritual life, the meaning of sin and of salvation. We now go on to another aspect of this subject: namely, the current conception of the unconscious mind as a dominant factor of our psychic life, and of the extent and the conditions in which its resources can be tapped, and its powers made amenable to the direction of the conscious mind. Two principal points must here be studied. The first is the mechanism of that which is called autistic thinking and its relation to religious experience: the second, the laws of suggestion and their bearing upon the spiritual life. Especially must we consider from this point of view the problems which are resumed under the headings of prayer, contemplation, and grace. We shall find ourselves compelled to examine the nature of meditation and recollection, as spiritual persons have always practised them; and, to give, if we can, a psychological account of many of their classic conceptions and activities. We shall therefore be much concerned with those experiences which are often called mystical, but which I prefer to call in general contemplative and intuitive; because they extend, as we shall find, without a break from the simplest type of mental prayer, the most general apprehensions of the Spirit, to the most fully developed examples of religious mono-ideism. To place all those intuitions and perceptions of which God or His Kingdom are the objects in a class apart from all other intuitions and perceptions, and call them "mystical," is really to beg the question from the start. The psychic mechanisms involved in them are seen in action in many other types of mental activity; and will not, in my opinion, be understood until they are removed from the category of the supernatural, and studied as the movements of the one spirit of life—here directed towards a transcendent objective. And further we must ever keep in mind, since we are now dealing with specific spiritual experiences, deeply exploring the contemplative soul, that though psychology can criticize these experiences, and help us to separate the wheat from the chaff—can tell us, too, a good deal about the machinery by which we lay hold of them, and the best way to use it—it cannot explain the experiences, pronounce upon their Object, or reduce that Object to its own terms.
We may some day have a valid psychology of religion, though we are far from it yet: but when we do, it will only be true within its own system of reference. It will deal with the fact of the spiritual life from one side only. And as a discussion of the senses and their experience explains nothing about the universe by which these senses are impressed, so all discussion of spiritual faculty and experience remains within the human radius and neither invalidates nor accounts for the spiritual world. When the psychologist has finished telling us all that he knows about the rules which govern our mental life, and how to run it best, he is still left face to face with the mystery of that life, and of that human power of surrender to Spiritual Reality which is the very essence of religion. Humility remains, therefore, not only the most becoming but also the most scientific attitude for investigators in this field. We must, then, remember the inevitably symbolic nature of the language which we are compelled to use in our attempt to describe these experiences; and resist all temptation to confuse the handy series of labels with which psychology has furnished us, with the psychic unity to which they will be attached.
Perhaps the most fruitful of all our recent discoveries in the mental region will turn out to be that which is gradually revealing to us the extent and character of the unconscious mind; and the possibility of tapping its resources, bending its plastic shape to our own mould. It seems as though the laws of its being are at last beginning to be understood; giving a new content to the ancient command "Know thyself." We are learning that psycho-therapy, which made such immense strides during the war, is merely one of the directions in which this knowledge may be used, and this control exercised by us. That regnancy of spirit over matter towards which all idealists must look, is by way of coming at least to a partial fulfilment in this control of the conscious over the unconscious, and thus over the bodily life. Such control is indeed an aspect of our human freedom, of the creative power which has been put into our hands. In all this religion must be interested: because, once more, it is the business of religion to regenerate the whole man and win him for Reality.
If we could get rid of the idea that the unconscious is a separate, and in some sort hostile or animal entity set over against the conscious mind; and realize that it is, simply, our whole personality, with the exception of the scrap that happens at any moment to be in consciousness—then, perhaps, we should more easily grasp the importance of exploring and mobilizing its powers. As it is, most of us behave like the owners of a well-furnished room, who ignore every aspect of it except the window looking out upon the street. This we keep polished, and drape with the best curtains that we can afford. But the room upon which we sedulously turn our backs contains all that we have inherited, all that we have accumulated, many tools which are rusting for want of use; machinery too which, left to itself, may function satisfactorily, or may get out of order and work to results that we neither desire nor dream. The room is twilit. Only by the window is a little patch of light. Beyond this there is a fringe of vague, fluctuating, sometimes prismatic radiance: an intermediate region, where the images and things which most interest us have their place, just within range, or the fringe of the field of consciousness. In the darkest corners the machinery that we do not understand, those possessions of which we are least proud, and those pictures we hate to look at, are hidden away.
This little parable represents, more or less, that which psychology means by the conscious, foreconscious, and unconscious regions of the psyche. It must not be pressed, or too literally interpreted; but it helps us to remember the graded character of our consciousness, its fluctuating level, and the fact that, as well as the outward-looking mind which alone we usually recognize, there is also the psychic matrix from which it has been developed, the inward-looking mind, caring for a variety of interests of which we hardly, as we say, think at all. We know as yet little about this mysterious psychic whole: the inner nature of which is only very incompletely given to us in the fluctuating experiences of consciousness. But we do know that it, too, receives at least a measure of the light and the messages coming in by the window of our wits: that it is the home of memory instinct and habit, the source of conduct, and that its control and modification form the major part of the training of character. Further, it is sensitive, plastic, accessible to impressions, and unforgetting.
Consider now that half-lit region which is called the foreconscious mind; for this is of special interest to the spiritual life. It is, in psychological language, the region of autistic as contrasted with realistic thought.8585 On all this, cf. J. Varendonck, "The Psychology of Day-dreams." That is to say, it is the agent of reverie and meditation; it is at work in all our brooding states, from day-dream to artistic creation. Such autistic thought is dominated not by logic or will, but by feeling. It achieves its results by intuition, and has its reasons which the surface mind knows not of. Here, in this fringe-region—which alone seems fully able to experience adoration and wonder, or apprehend the values we call holiness, beauty or love—is the source of that intuition of the heart to which the mystic owes the love which is knowledge, and the knowledge which is love. Here is the true home of inspiration and invention. Here, by a process which is seldom fully conscious save in its final stages, the poet's creations are prepared, and thence presented in the form of inspiration to the reason; which—if he be a great artist—criticizes them, before they are given as poems to the world. Indeed, in all man's apprehensions of the transcendental these two states of the psyche must co-operate if he is to realize his full powers: and it is significant that to this foreconscious region religion, in its own special language, has always invited him to retreat, if he would know his own soul and thus commune with his God. Over and over again it assures him under various metaphors, that he must turn within, withdraw from the window, meet the inner guest; and such a withdrawal is the condition of all contemplation.
Consider the opening of Jacob Boehme's great dialogue on the Supersensual Life.
"The Scholar said to his Master: How may I come to the supersensual life, that I may see God and hear Him speak?
"His Master said: When thou canst throw thyself for a moment into that where no creature dwelleth, then thou hearest what God speaketh.
"The Scholar said: Is that near at hand or far off?
"The Master said: It is in thee, if thou canst for a while cease from all thinking and willing, thou shalt hear the unspeakable words of God.
"The Scholar said: How can I hear when I stand still from thinking and willing?
"The Master said: When thou standest still from the thinking and willing of self, then the eternal hearing, seeing and speaking will be revealed in thee."8686 Jacob Boehme: "The Way to Christ," Pt. IV.
In this passage we have a definite invitation to retreat from volitional to affective thought: from the window to the quiet place where "no creature dwelleth," and in Patmore's phrase "the night of thought becomes the light of perception."8787 Patmore: "The Rod, the Root and the Flower: Aurea Dicta," 13. This fringe-region or foreconscious is in fact the organ of contemplation, as the realistic outward looking mind is the organ of action. Most men go through life without conceiving, far less employing, the rich possibilities which are implicit in it. Yet here, among the many untapped resources of the self, lie our powers of response to our spiritual environment: powers which are kept by the tyrannical interests of everyday life below the threshold of full consciousness, and never given a chance to emerge. Here take place those searching experiences of the "inner life" which seem moonshine or morbidity to those who have not known them.
The many people who complain that they have no such personal religious experience, that the spiritual world is shut to them, are usually found to have expected this experience to be given to them without any deliberate and sustained effort on their own part. They have lived from childhood to maturity at the little window of consciousness and have never given themselves the opportunity of setting up correspondences with any other world than that of sense. Yet all normal men and women possess, at least in a rudimentary form, some intuition of the transcendental; shown in their power of experiencing beauty or love. In some it is dominant, emerging easily and without help; in others it is latent and must be developed in the right way. In others again it may exist in virtual conflict with a strongly realistic outlook; gathering way until it claims its rights at last in a psychic storm. Its emergence, however achieved, is a part—and for our true life, by far the most important part—of that outcropping and overflowing into consciousness of the marginal faculties which is now being recognized as essential to all artistic and creative activities; and as playing, too, a large part in the regulation of mental and bodily health.
All the great religions have implicitly understood—though without analysis—the vast importance of these spiritual intuitions and faculties lying below the surface of the everyday mind; and have perfected machinery tending to secure their release and their training. This is of two kinds: first, religious ceremonial, addressing itself to corporate feeling; next the discipline of meditation and prayer, which educates the individual to the same ends, gradually developing the powers of the foreconscious region, steadying them, and bringing them under the control of the purified will. Without some such education, widely as its details may vary, there can be no real living of the spiritual life.
Psychologists sometimes divide men into the two extreme classes of extroverts and introverts. The extrovert is the typical active; always leaning out of the window and setting up contacts with the outside world. His thinking is mainly realistic. That is to say, it deals with the data of sense. The introvert is the typical contemplative, predominantly interested in the inner world. His thinking is mainly autistic, dealing with the results of intuition and feeling, working these up into new structures and extorting from them new experiences. He is at home in the foreconscious, has its peculiar powers under control; and instinctively obedient to the mystic command to sink into the ground of the soul, he leans towards those deep wells of his own being which plunge into the unconscious foundations of life. By this avoidance of total concentration on the sense world—though material obtained from it must as a matter of fact enter into all, even his most "spiritual" creations—he seems able to attend to the messages which intuition picks up from other levels of being. It is significant that nearly all spiritual writers use this very term of introversion, which psychology has now adopted as the most accurate that it can find, in a favourable, indeed laudatory, sense. By it they intend to describe the healthy expansion of the inner life, the development of the soul's power of attention to the spiritual, which is characteristic of those real men and women of prayer whom Ruysbroeck describes as:—
It is certain that no one who wholly lacks this power of retreat from the surface, and has failed thus to mobilize his foreconscious energies, can live a spiritual life. This is why silence and meditation play so large a part in all sane religious discipline. But the ideal state, a state answering to that rhythm of work and prayer which should be the norm of a mature spirituality, is one in which we have achieved that mental flexibility and control which puts us in full possession of our autistic and our realistic powers; balancing and unifying the inner and the outer world.
This being so, it is worth while to consider in more detail the character of foreconscious thought.
Foreconscious thinking, as it commonly occurs in us, with its unchecked illogical stream of images and ideas, moving towards no assigned end, combined in no ordered chain, is merely what we usually call day-dream. But where a definite wish or purpose, an end, dominates this reverie and links up its images and ideas into a cycle, we get in combination all the valuable properties both of affective and of directed thinking; although the reverie or contemplation place in the fringe-region of our mental life, and in apparent freedom from the control of the conscious reason. The object of recollection and meditation, which are the first stages of mental prayer, is to set going such a series and to direct it towards an assigned end: and this first inward-turning act and self-orientation are voluntary, though the activities which they set up are not. "You must know, my daughters," says St. Teresa, "that this is no supernatural act but depends on our will; and that therefore we can do it, with that ordinary assistance of God which we need for all our acts and even for our good thoughts."9090 "The Way of Perfection," Cap. 29.
Consider for a moment what happens in prayer. I pass over the simple recitation of verbal prayers, which will better be dealt with when we come to consider the institutional framework of the spiritual life. We are now concerned with mental prayer or orison; the simplest of those degrees of contemplation which may pass gradually into mystical experience, and are at least in some form a necessity of any real and actualized spiritual life. Such prayer is well defined by the mystics, as "a devout intent directed to God."9191 "The Cloud of Unknowing," Cap. 39. What happens in it? All writers on the science of prayer observe, that the first necessity is Recollection; which, in a rough and ready way, we may render as concentration, or perhaps in the special language of psychology as "contention." The mind is called in from external interests and distractions, one by one the avenues of sense are closed, till the hunt of the world is hardly perceived by it. I need not labour this description, for it is a state of which we must all have experience: but those who wish to see it described with the precision of genius, need only turn to St. Teresa's "Way of Perfection." Having achieved this, we pass gradually into the condition of deep withdrawal variously called Simplicity or Quiet; a state in which the attention is quietly and without effort directed to God, and the whole self as it were held in His presence. This presence is given, dimly or clearly, in intuition. The actual prayer used will probably consist—again to use technical language—of "affective acts and aspirations"; short phrases repeated and held, perhaps expressing penitence, humility, adoration or love, and for the praying self charged with profound significance.
"If we would intentively pray for getting of good," says "The Cloud of Unknowing," "let us cry either with word or with thought or with desire, nought else nor on more words but this word God.... Study thou not for no words, for so shouldst thou never come to thy purpose nor to this work, for it is never got by study, but all only by grace."9292 Ibid.
Now the question naturally arises, how does this recollected state, this alogical brooding on a spiritual theme, exceed in religions value the orderly saying of one's prayers? And the answer psychology suggests is, that more of us, not less, is engaged in such a spiritual act: that not only the conscious attention, but the foreconscious region too is then thrown open to the highest sources of life. We are at last learning to recognize the existence of delicate mental processes which entirely escape the crude methods of speech. Reverie as a genuine thought process is beginning to be studied with the attention it deserves, and new understanding of prayer must result. By its means powers of perception and response ordinarily latent are roused to action; and thus the whole life is enriched. That faculty in us which corresponds, not with the busy life of succession but with the eternal sources of power, gets its chance. "Though the soul," says Von Hügel, "cannot abidingly abstract itself from its fellows, it can and ought frequently to recollect itself in a simple sense of God's presence. Such moments of direct preoccupation with God alone bring a deep refreshment and simplification to the soul."9393 "Eternal Life," p. 396.
True silence, says William Penn, of this quiet surrender to reality, "is rest to the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body; nourishment and refreshment."9494 Penn: "No Cross, No Crown." Psychology endorses the constant statements of all religions of the Spirit, that no one need hope to live a spiritual life who cannot find a little time each day for this retreat from the window, this quiet and loving waiting upon the unseen "with the forces of the soul," as Ruysbroeck puts it, "gathered into unity of the Spirit."9595 "The Book of the XII Béguines," Cap, 7. Under these conditions, and these only, the intuitive, creative, artistic powers are captured and dedicated to the highest ends: and in these powers rather than the rational our best chance of apprehending eternal values abides, "Taste and see that the Lord is sweet." "Be still! be still! and know that I am God!"
Since, then, the foreconscious mind and its activities are of such paramount interest to the spiritual life, we may before we go on glance at one or two of its characteristics. And first we notice that the fact that the foreconscious is, so to speak, in charge in the mental and contemplative type of prayer explains why it is that even the most devout persons are so constantly tormented by distractions whilst engaged in it. Very often, they are utterly unable to keep their attention fixed; and the reason of this is, that conscious attention and thought are not the faculties primarily involved. What is involved, is reverie coloured by feeling; and this tends to depart from its assigned end and drift into mere day-dream, if the emotional tension slackens or some intruding image starts a new train of associations. The religious mind is distressed by this constant failure to look steadily at that which alone it wants to see; but the failure abides in the fact that the machinery used is affective, and obedient to the rise and fall of feeling rather than the control of the will. "By love shall He be gotten and holden, by thought never."
Next, consider for a moment the way in which the foreconscious does and must present its apprehensions to consciousness. Its cognitions of the spiritual are in the nature of pure immediacy, of uncriticized contacts: and the best and greatest of them seem to elude altogether that machinery of speech and image which has been developed through the life of sense. The well-known language of spiritual writers about the divine darkness or ignorance is an acknowledgment of this. God is "known darkly." Our experience of Eternity is "that of which nothing can be said." It is "beyond feeling" and "beyond knowledge," a certitude known in the ground of the soul, and so forth. It is indeed true that the spiritual world is for the human mind a transcendent world, does differ utterly in kind from the best that the world of succession is able to give us; as we know once for all when we establish a contact with it, however fleeting. But constantly the foreconscious—which, as we shall do well to remember, is the artistic region of the mind, the home of the poem, and the creative phantasy—works up its transcendent intuitions in symbolic form. For this purpose it sometimes uses the machinery of speech, sometimes that of image. As our ordinary reveries constantly proceed by way of an interior conversation or narrative, so the content of spiritual contemplation is often expressed in dialogue, in which memory and belief are fused with the fruit of perception. The "Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena," the "Life of Suso," and the "Imitation of Christ," all provide beautiful examples of this; but indeed illustrations of it might be found in every school and period of religious literature.
Such inward dialogue, one of the commonest spontaneous forms of autistic thought, is perpetually resorted to by devout minds to actualize their consciousness of direct communion with God. I need not point out how easily and naturally it expresses for them that sense of a Friend and Companion, an indwelling power and support, which is perhaps their characteristic experience. "Blessed is that soul," says à Kempis, "that heareth the Lord speaking in him and taketh from His mouth the word of consolation. Blessed be those ears that receive of God's whisper and take no heed of the whisper of this world."9696 De Imit. Christi, Bk. III, Cap. I Though St. John of the Cross has reminded us with blunt candour that such persons are for the most part only talking to themselves, we need not deny the value of such a talking as a means of expressing the deeply known and intimate presence of Spirit. Moreover, the thoughts and words in which the contemplative expresses his sense of love and dedication reverberate as it were in the depths of the instinctive mind, now in this quietude thrown open to these influences: and the instinctive mind, as we have already seen, is the home of character and of habit formation.
Where there is a tendency to think in images rather than in words, the experiences of the Spirit may be actualized in the form of vision rather than of dialogue: and here again, memory and feeling will provide the material. Here we stand at the sources of religious art: which, when it is genuine, is a symbolic picture of the experiences of faith, and in those minds attuned to it may evoke again the memory or very presence of those experiences. But many minds are, as it were, their own religious artists; and build up for themselves psychic structures answering to their intuitive apprehensions. So vivid may these structures sometimes be for them that—to revert again to our original simile—the self turns from the window and the realistic world without, and becomes for the time wholly concentrated on the symbolic drama or picture within the room; which abolishes all awareness of the everyday world. When this happens in a small way, we have what might be called a religious day-dream of more or less beauty and intensity; such as most devout people who tend to visualization have probably known. When the break with the external world is complete, we get those ecstatic visions in which mystics of a certain type actualize their spiritual intuitions. The Bible is full of examples of this. Good historic instances are the visions of Mechthild of Magdeburg or Angela of Foligno. The first contain all the elements of drama, the last cover a wide symbolic and emotional field. Those who have read Canon Streeter's account of the visions of the Sadhu Sundar Singh will recognize them as being of this type.9797 Streeter and Appasamy: "The Sadhu, a Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion," Pt. V.
I do not wish to go further than this into the abnormal and extreme types of religious autism; trance, ecstasy and so forth. Our concern is with the norm of the spiritual life, as it exists to-day and as all may live it. But it is necessary to realize that image and vision do within limits represent a perfectly genuine way of doing things, which is inevitable for deeply spiritual selves of a certain type; and that it is neither good psychology nor good Christianity, lightly to dismiss as superstition or hysteria the pictured world of symbol in which our neighbour may live and save his soul. The symbolic world of traditional piety, with its angels and demons, its friendly saints, its spatial heaven, may conserve and communicate spiritual values far better than the more sophisticated universe of religious philosophy. We may be sure that both are more characteristic of the image-making and structure-building tendencies of the mind, than they are of the ultimate and for us unknowable reality of things. Their value—or the value of any work of art which the foreconscious has contrived—abides wholly in the content: the quality of the material thus worked up. The rich nature, the purified love, capable of the highest correspondences, will express even in the most primitive duologue or vision the results of a veritable touching and tasting of Eternal Life. Its psychic structures—however logic may seek to discredit them—will convey spiritual fact, have the quality which the mystics mean when they speak of illumination. The emotional pietist will merely ramble among the religious symbols and phrases with which the devout memory is stored. It is true that the voice or the picture, surging up as it does into the field of consciousness, seems to both classes to have the character of a revelation. The pictures unroll themselves automatically and with amazing authority and clearness, the conversation is with Another than ourselves; or in more generalized experiences, such as the sense of the Divine Presence, the contact is with another order of life. But the crucial question which religion asks must be, does fresh life flow in from those visions and contacts, that intercourse? Is transcendental feeling involved in them? "What fruits dost thou bring back from this thy vision?" says Jacopone da Todi;9898 Que frutti reducene de esta tua visione? Vita ordinata en onne nazione. —Jacopone da Todi: Lauda 79. and this remains the only real test by which to separate day-dreams from the vitalizing act of contemplation. In the first we are abandoned to a delightful, and perhaps as it seems holy or edifying vagrancy of thought. In the second, by a deliberate choice and act of will, foreconscious thinking is set going and directed towards an assigned end: the apprehending and actualizing of our deepest intuition of God. In it, a great region of the mind usually ignored by us and left to chance, yet source of many choices and deeds, and capable of much purifying pain, is put to its true work: and it is work which must be humbly, regularly and faithfully performed. It is to this region that poetry, art and music—and even, if I dare say so, philosophy—make their fundamental appeal. No life is whole and harmonized in which it has not taken its right place.
We must now go on—and indeed, any psychological study of prayerful experience must lead us on—to the subject of suggestion, and its relation to the inner life. By suggestion of course is here meant, in conformity with current psychological doctrine, the process by which an idea enters the deeper and unconscious psychic levels and there becomes fruitful. Its real nature, and in consequence something of its far-reaching importance, is now beginning to be understood by us: a fact of great moment for both the study and the practice of the spiritual life. Since the transforming work of the Spirit must be done through man's ordinary psychic machinery and in conformity with the laws which govern it, every such increase in our knowledge of that machinery must serve the interests of religion, and show its teachers the way to success. Suggestion is usually said to be of two kinds. The first is hetero-suggestion, in which the self-realizing idea is received either wittingly or unwittingly from the outer world. During the whole of our conscious lives for good or evil we are at the mercy of such hetero-suggestions, which are being made to us at every moment by our environment; and they form, as we shall afterwards see, a dominant factor in corporate religious exercises. The second type is auto-suggestion. In this, by means of the conscious mind, an idea is implanted in the unconscious and there left to mature. Thus do willingly accepted beliefs, religious, social, or scientific, gradually and silently permeate the whole being and show their results in character.
A little reflection shows, however, that these two forms of suggestion shade into one another; and that no hetero-suggestion, however impressively given, becomes active in us until we have in some sort accepted it and transformed it into an auto-suggestion. Theology expresses this fact in its own special language, when it says that the will must co-operate with grace if it is to be efficacious. Thus the primacy of the will is safe-guarded. It stands, or should stand, at the door; selecting from among the countless dynamic suggestions, good and bad, which life pours in on us, those which serve the best interests of the self.
As a rule, men take little trouble to sort out the incoming suggestions. They allow uncriticized beliefs and prejudices, the ideas of hatred, anxiety or ill-health, free entrance. They fail to seize and affirm the ideas of power, renovation, joy. They would be more careful, did they grasp more fully the immense and often enduring effect of these accepted suggestions; the extent in which the fundamental, unreasoning psychic deeps are plastic to ideas. Yet this plasticity is exhibited in daily life first under the emotional form of sympathy, response to the suggestion of other peoples' feeling-states; and next under the conative form of imitation, active acceptance of the suggestion made by their appearance, habits, deeds. All political creeds, panics, fashion and good form witness to the overwhelming power of suggestion. We are so accustomed to this psychic contagion that we fail to realize the strangeness of the process: but it is now known to reach a degree previously unsuspected, and of which we have not yet found the limits.
In the religious sphere, the more sensational demonstrations of this psychic suggestibility have long been notorious. Obvious instances are those ecstatics—some of them true saints, some only religious invalids—whose continuous and ardent meditation on the Cross produced in them the actual bodily marks of the Passion of Christ. In less extreme types, perpetual dwelling on this subject, together with that eager emotional desire to be united with the sufferings of the Redeemer which mediæval religion encouraged, frequently modified the whole life of the contemplative; shaping the plastic mind, and often the body too, to its own mould. A good historic example of this law of religious suggestibility is the case of Julian of Norwich. As a young girl, Julian prayed that she might have an illness at thirty years of age, and also a closer knowledge of Christ's pains. She forgot the prayer: but it worked below the threshold as forgotten suggestions often do, and when she was thirty the illness came. Its psychic origin can still be recognized in her own candid account of it; and with the illness the other half of that dynamic prayer received fulfilment, in those well-known visions of the Passion to which we owe the "Revelations of Divine Love."9999 Julian of Norwich: "Revelations of Divine Love," Caps. 2, 3, 4.
This is simply a striking instance of a process which is always taking place in every one of us, for good or evil. The deeper mind opens to all who knock; provided only that the new-comers be not the enemies of some stronger habit or impression already within. To suggestions which coincide with the self's desires or established beliefs it gives an easy welcome; and these, once within, always tend to self-realization. Thus the French Carmelite Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus, once convinced that she was destined to be a "victim of love," began that career of suffering which ended in her death at the age of twenty-four.100100 "Soeur Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus," Cap. 8. The lives of the Saints are full of incidents explicable on the same lines: exhibiting again and again the dramatic realization of traditional ideas or passionate desires. We see therefore that St. Paul's admonition "Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things be of good report, think on these things" is a piece of practical advice of which the importance can hardly be exaggerated; for it deals with the conditions under which man makes his own mentality.
Suggestion, in fact, is one of the most powerful agents either of self-destruction or of self-advancement which are within our grasp: and those who speak of the results of psycho-therapy, or the certitudes of religious experience, as "mere suggestion" are unfortunate in their choice of an adjective. If then we wish to explore all those mental resources which can be turned to the purposes of the spiritual life, this is one which we must not neglect. The religious idea, rightly received into the mind and reinforced by the suggestion of regular devotional exercises, always tends to realize itself. "Receive His leaven," says William Penn, "and it will change thee, His medicine and it will cure thee. He is as infallible as free; without money and with certainty. Yield up the body, soul and spirit to Him that maketh all things new: new heaven and new earth, new love, new joy, new peace, new works, a new life and conversation."101101 William Penn: "No Cross, No Crown." This is fine literature, but it is more important to us to realize that it is also good psychology: and that here we are given the key to those amazing regenerations of character which are the romance and glory of the religious life. Pascal's too celebrated saying, that if you will take holy water regularly you will presently believe, witnesses on another level to the same truth.
Fears have been expressed that, by such an application of the laws of suggestion to religious experience, we shall reduce religion itself to a mere favourable subjectivism, and identify faith with suggestibility. But here the bearing of this series of facts on bodily health provides us with a useful analogy. Bodily health is no illusion. It does not consist in merely thinking that we are well, but is a real condition of well-being and of power; depending on the state of our tissues and correct balance and working of our physical and psychical life. And this correct and wholesome working will be furthered and steadied—or if broken may often be restored—by good suggestions; it may be disturbed by bad suggestions; because the controlling factor of life is mind, not chemistry, and mind is plastic to ideas. So too the life of the Spirit is a concrete fact; a real response to a real universe. But this concrete life of faith, with its growth and its experiences, its richly various working of one principle in every aspect of existence, its correspondences with the Eternal World, its definitely ontological references, is lived here and now; in and through the self's psychic life, and indeed his bodily life too—a truth which is embodied in sacramentalism. Therefore, sharing as it does life's plastic character, it too is amenable to suggestion and can be helped or hindered by it. It is indeed characteristic of those in whom this life is dominant, that they are capable of receiving and responding to the highest and most vivifying suggestions which the universe in its totality pours in on us. This movement of response, often quietly overlooked, is that which makes them not spiritual hedonists but men and women of prayer. Grace—to give these suggestions of Spirit their conventional name—is perpetually beating in on us. But if it is to be inwardly realized, the Divine suggestion must be transformed by man's will and love into an auto-suggestion; and this is what seems to happen in meditation and prayer.
Everything indeed points to a very close connection between what might be called the mechanism of prayer and of suggestion. To say this, is in no way to minimize the transcendental character of prayer. In both states there is a spontaneous or deliberate throwing open of the deeper mind to influences which, fully accepted, tend to realize themselves. Look at the directions given by all great teachers of prayer and contemplation; and these two acts, rightly performed, fuse one with the other, they are two aspects of the single act of communion with God. Look at their insistence on a stilling and recollecting of the mind, on surrender, a held passivity not merely limp but purposeful: on the need of meek yielding to a greater inflowing power, and its regenerating suggestions. Then compare this with the method by which health-giving suggestions are made to the bodily life. "In the deeps of the soul His word is spoken." Is not this an exact description of the inward work of the self-realizing idea of holiness, received in the prayer of quiet into the unconscious mind, and there experienced as a transforming power? I think that we may go even further than this, and say that grace, is, in effect, the direct suggestion of the spiritual affecting our soul's life. As we are commonly docile to the countless hetero-suggestions, some of them helpful, some weakening, some actually perverting, which our environment is always making to us; so we can and should be so spiritually suggestible that we can receive those given to us by all-penetrating Divine life. What is generally called sin, especially in the forms of self-sufficiency, lack of charity and the indulgence of the senses, renders us recalcitrant to these living suggestions of the Spirit. The opposing qualities, humility, love and purity, make us as we say accessible to grace.
"Son," says the inward voice to Thomas à Kempis, "My grace is precious, and suffereth not itself to be mingled with strange things nor earthly consolations. Wherefore it behoveth thee to cast away impediments to grace, if thou willest to receive the inpouring thereof. Ask for thyself a secret place, love to dwell alone with thyself, seek confabulation of none other ... put the readiness for God before all other things, for thou canst not both take heed to Me and delight in things transitory.... This grace is a light supernatural and a special gift of God, and a proper sign of the chosen children of God, and the earnest of everlasting health; for God lifteth up man from earthly things to love heavenly things, and of him that is fleshly maketh a spiritual man."102102 De Imit. Christi, Bk. III, Cap. 58. Could we have a more vivid picture than this of the conditions of withdrawal and attention under which the psyche is most amenable to suggestion, or of the inward transfiguration worked by a great self-realizing idea? Such transfiguration has literally on the physical plane caused the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak: and it seems to me that it is to be observed operating on highest levels in the work of salvation. When further à Kempis prays "Increase in me more grace, that I may fulfil Thy word and make perfect mine own health" is he not describing the right balance to be sought between our surrender to the vivifying suggestions of grace and our appropriation and manly use of them? This is no limp acquiescence and merely infantile dependence, but another aspect of the vital balance between the indrawing and outgiving of power; and one of the main functions of prayer is to promote in us that spiritually suggestible state in which, as Dionysius the Areopagite says, we are "receptive of God."
It is, then, worth our while from the point of view of the spiritual life to inquire into the conditions in which a suggestion is most likely to be received and realized by us. These conditions, as psychologists have so far defined them, can be resumed under the three heads of quiescence, attention and feeling: outstanding characteristics, as I need not point out, of the state of prayer, all of which can be illustrated from the teaching and experience of the mystics.
First, let us take Quiescence. In order fully to lay open the unconscious to the influence of suggested ideas, the surface mind must be called in from its responses to the outer world, or in religious language recollected, till the hum of that world is hardly perceived by it. The body must be relaxed, making no demands on the machinery controlling the motor system; and the conditions in general must be those of complete mental and bodily rest. Here is the psychological equivalent of that which spiritual writers call the Quiet: a state defined by one of them as "a rest most busy." "Those who are in this prayer," says St. Teresa, "wish their bodies to remain motionless, for it seems to them that at the least movement they will lose their sweet peace."103103 "Way of Perfection," Cap. 33. Others say that in this state we "stop the wheel of imagination," leave all that we can think, sink into our nothingness or our ground. In Ruysbroeck's phrase, we are "inwardly abiding in simplicity and stillness and utter peace";104104 "The Book of the XII Béguines," Cap. 7. and this is man's state of maximum receptivity. "The best and noblest way in which thou mayst come into this work and life," says Meister Eckhart, "is by keeping silence and letting God work and speak ... when we simply keep ourselves receptive we are more perfect than when at work."105105 Meister Eckhart, Pred. I.
But this preparatory state of surrendered quiet must at once be qualified by the second point: Attention. It is based upon the right use of the will, and is not a limp yielding to anything or nothing. It has an ordained deliberate aim, is a behaviour-cycle directed to an end; and this it is that marks out the real and fruitful quiet of the contemplative from the non-directed surrender of mere quietism. "Nothing," says St. Teresa, "is learnt without a little pains. For the love of God, sisters, account that care well employed that ye shall bestow on this thing."106106 "The Way of Perfection," Cap. 29.
The quieted mind must receive and hold, yet without discursive thought, the idea which it desires to realize; and this idea must interest and be real for it, so that attention is concentrated on it spontaneously. The more completely the idea absorbs us, the greater its transforming power: when interest wavers, the suggestion begins to lose ground. In spite of her subsequent relapse into quietism Madame Guyon accurately described true quiet when she said, "Our activity should consist in endeavouring to acquire and maintain such a state as may be most susceptible of divine impressions, most flexible to all the operations of the Eternal Word."107107 "A Short and Easy Method of Prayer," Cap. 21. Such concentration can be improved by practice; hence the value of regular meditation and contemplation to those who are in earnest about the spiritual life, the quiet and steady holding in the mind of the thought which it is desired to realize.
Psycho-therapists tell us that, having achieved quiescence, we should rapidly and rythmically, but with intention, repeat the suggestion that we wish to realize; and that the shorter, simpler and more general this verbal formula, the more effective it will be.108108 Baudouin: "Suggestion and Auto-Suggestion," Pt. II, Cap 6. The spiritual aspect of this law was well understood by the mediæval mystics. Thus the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" says to his disciple, "Fill thy spirit with ghostly meaning of this word Sin, and without any special beholding unto any kind of sin, whether it be venial or deadly. And cry thus ghostly ever upon one: Sin! Sin! Sin! out! out! out! This ghostly cry is better learned of God by the proof than of any man by word. For it is best when it is in pure spirit, without special thought or any pronouncing of word. On the same manner shalt thou do with this little word God: and mean God all, and all God, so that nought work in thy wit and in thy will but only God."109109 Op. cit. Cap. 40. Here the directions are exact, and such as any psychologist of the present day might give. So too, religious teachers informed by experience have always ascribed a special efficacy to "short acts" of prayer and aspiration: phrases repeated or held in the mind, which sum up and express the self's penitence, love, faith or adoration, and are really brief, articulate suggestions parallel in type to those which Baudouin recommends to us as conducive to bodily well-being.110110 Baudouin: "Suggestion and Auto-Suggestion," loc. cit. The repeated affirmation of Julian of Norwich "All shall be well! all shall be well! all shall be well!"111111 "Revelations of Divine Love," Cap. 27. fills all her revelations with its suggestion of joyous faith; and countless generations of Christians have thus applied to their soul's health those very methods by which we are now enthusiastically curing indigestion and cold in the head. The articulate repetition of such phrases increases their suggestive power; for the unconscious is most easily reached by way of the ear. This fact throws light on the immemorial insistence of all great religions on the peculiar value of vocal prayer, whether this be the mantra of the Hindu or the dikr of the Moslem; and explains the instinct which causes the Catholic Church to require from her priests the verbal repetition, not merely the silent reading of their daily office. Hence, too, there is real educative value, in such devotions as the rosary; and the Protestant Churches showed little psychological insight when they abandoned it. Such "vain" repetitions, however much the rational mind may dislike, discredit or denounce them, have power to penetrate and modify the deeper psychic levels; always provided that they conflict with no accepted belief, are weighted with meaning and desire, with the intent stretched towards God, and are not allowed to become merely mechanical—the standing danger alike of all verbal suggestion and all vocal prayer.
Here we touch the third character of effective suggestion: Feeling. When the idea is charged with emotion, it is far more likely to be realized. War neuroses have taught us the dreadful potency of the emotional stimulus of fear; but this power of feeling over the unconscious has its good side too. Here we find psychology justifying the often criticized emotional element of religion. Its function is to increase the energy of the idea. The cool, judicious type of belief will never possess the life-changing power of a more fervid, though perhaps less rational faith. Thus the state of corporate suggestibility generated in a revival and on which the success of that revival depends, is closely related to the emotional character of the appeal which is made. And, on higher levels, we see that the transfigured lives and heroic energies of the great figures of Christian history all represent the realization of an idea of which the heart was an impassioned love of God, subduing to its purposes all the impulses and powers of the inner man, "If you would truly know how these things come to pass," said St. Bonaventura, "ask it of desire not of intellect; of the ardours of prayer, not of the teaching of the schools."112112 "De Itinerario Mentis in Deo," Cap. 7. More and more psychology tends to endorse the truth of these words.
Quiescence, attention, and emotional interest are then the conditions of successful suggestion. We have further to notice two characteristics which have been described by the Nancy school of psychologists; and which are of some importance for those who wish to understand the mechanism of religious experience. These have been called the law of Unconscious Teleology, and the law of Reversed Effort.
The law of unconscious teleology means that when an end has been effectively suggested to it, the unconscious mind will always tend to work towards its realization. Thus in psycho-therapeutics it is found that a general suggestion of good health made to the sick person is often enough. The doctor may not himself know enough about the malady to suggest stage by stage the process of cure. But he suggests that cure; and the necessary changes and adjustments required for its realization are made unconsciously, under the influence of the dynamic idea. Here the direction of "The Cloud of Unknowing," "Look that nothing live in thy working mind but a naked intent directed to God"113113 Op. cit., Cap. 43.—suggesting as it does to the psyche the ontological Object of faith—strikingly anticipates the last conclusions of science. Further, a fervent belief in the end proposed, a conviction of success, is by no means essential. Far more important is a humble willingness to try the method, give it a chance. That which reason may not grasp, the deeper mind may seize upon and realize; always provided that the intellect does not set up resistances. This is found to be true in medical practice, and religious teachers have always declared it to be true in the spiritual sphere; holding obedience, humility, and a measure of resignation, not spiritual vision, to be the true requisites for the reception of grace, the healing and renovation of the soul. Thus acquiescence in belief, and loyal and steady co-operation in the corporate religious life are often seen to work for good in those who submit to them; though these may lack, as they frequently say, the "spiritual sense." And this happens, not by magic, but in conformity with psychological law.
This tendency of the unconscious self to realize without criticism a suggested end lays on religious teachers the obligation of forming a clear and vital conception of the spiritual ideals which they wish to suggest, whether to themselves in their meditations or to others by their teaching: to be sure that they are wholesome, and really tend to fullness of life. It should also compel each of us to scrutinize those religious thoughts and images which we receive and on which we allow our minds to dwell: excluding those that are merely sentimental, weak or otherwise unworthy, and holding fast the noblest and most beautiful that we can find. For these ideas, however generalized, will set up profound changes in the mind that receives them. Thus the wrong conception of self-immolation will be faithfully worked out by the unconscious—and has been too often in the past—in terms of misery, weakness, or disease. We remember how the idea of herself as a victim of love worked physical destruction in Thérèse de L'Enfant Jésus: and we shall never perhaps know all the havoc wrought by the once fashionable doctrines of predestination and of the total depravity of human nature. All this shows how necessary it is to put hopeful, manly, constructive conceptions before those whom we try to help or instruct; constantly suggesting to them not the weak and sinful things that they are, but the living and radiant things which they can become.
Further, this tendency of the received suggestion to work out its whole
content for good or evil within the unconscious mind, shows the
importance which we ought to attach to the tone of a religions service,
and how close too many of our popular hymns are to what one might call
psychological sin; stressing as they do a childish weakness love of
shelter and petting, a neurotic shrinking from full human life, a morbid
preoccupation with failure and guilt. Such hymns make devitalizing
suggestions, adverse to the health and energy of the spiritual life;
and are all the more powerful because they are sung collectively and in
rhythm, and are cast in an emotional mould.114114 Hymns of the Weary Willie type: e.g. "O Paradise, O Paradise Who does not sigh for rest "
should never be sung in congregations where the average age is less than sixty. Equally unsuited to general use are those expressing disillusionment, anxiety, or impotence. Any popular hymnal will provide an abundance of examples. There was some truth in the accusation of the Indian teacher Ramakrishna, that the books of the Christians insisted too exclusively on sin. He said, "He who repeats again and again 'I am bound! I am bound!' remains in bondage. He who repeats day and night 'I am a sinner! I am a sinner!' becomes a sinner indeed."115115 Quoted by Pratt: "The Religious Consciousness," Cap. 7.
I go on to the law of Reversed Effort; a psychological discovery which seems to be of extreme importance for the spiritual life. Briefly this means, that when any suggestion has entered the unconscious mind and there become active, all our conscious and anxious resistances to it are not merely useless but actually tend to intensify it. If it is to be dislodged, this will not be accomplished by mere struggle but by the persuasive power of another and superior auto-suggestion. Further, in respect of any habit that we seek to establish, the more desperate our struggle and sense of effort, the smaller will be our success. In small matters we have all experienced the working of this law: in frustrated struggles to attend to that which does not interest us, to check a tiresome cough, to keep our balance when learning to ride a bicycle. But it has also more important applications. Thus it indicates that a deliberate struggle to believe, to overcome some moral weakness, to keep attention fixed in prayer, will tend to frustration: for this anxious effort gives body to our imaginative difficulties and sense of helplessness, fixing attention on the conflict, not on the desired end. True, if this end is to be achieved the will must be directed to it, but only in the sense of giving steadfast direction to the desires and acts of the self, keeping attention orientated towards the goal. The pull of imaginative desire, not the push of desperate effort, serves us best. St. Teresa well appreciated this law and applied it to her doctrine of prayer. "If your thought," she says to her daughters, "runs after all the fooleries of the world, laugh at it and leave it for a fool and continue in your quiet ... if you seek by force of arms to bring it to you, you lose the strength which you have against it."116116 "The Way of Perfection," Cap. 31.
This same principle is implicitly recognized by those theologians who declare that man can "do nothing of himself," that mere voluntary struggle is useless, and regeneration comes by surrender to grace: by yielding, that is, to the inner urge, to those sources of power which flow in, but are not dragged in. Indications of its truth meet us everywhere in spiritual literature. Thus Jacob Boehme says, "Because thou strivest against that out of which thou art come, thou breakest thyself off with thy own willing from God's willing."117117 "The Way to Christ," Pt. IV. So too the constant invitations to let God work and speak, to surrender, are all invitations to cease anxious strife and effort and give the Divine suggestions their chance. The law of reversed effort, in fact, is valid on every level of life; and warns us against the error of making religion too grim and strenuous an affair. Certainly in all life of the Spirit the will is active, and must retain its conscious and steadfast orientation to God. Heroic activity and moral effort must form an integral part of full human experience. Yet it is clearly possible to make too much of the process of wrestling evil. An attention chiefly and anxiously concentrated on the struggle with sins and weaknesses, instead of on the eternal sources of happiness and power, will offer the unconscious harmful suggestions of impotence and hence tend to frustration. The early ascetics, who made elaborate preparations for dealing with temptations, got as an inevitable result plenty of temptations with which to deal. A sounder method is taught by the mystics. "When thoughts of sin press on thee," says "The Cloud of Unknowing," "look over their shoulders seeking another thing, the which thing is God."118118 Op. cit., Cap. 32.
These laws of suggestion, taken together, all seem to point, one way. They exhibit the human self as living, plastic, changeful; perpetually modified by the suggestions pouring in on it, the experiences and intuitions to which it reacts. Every thought, prayer, enthusiasm, fear, is of importance to it. Nothing leaves it as it was before. The soul, said Boehme, stands both in heaven and in hell. Keep it perpetually busy at the window of the senses, feed it with unlovely and materialistic ideas, and those ideas will realize themselves. Give the contemplative faculty its chance, let it breathe at least for a few moments of each day the spiritual atmosphere of faith, hope and love, and the spiritual life will at least in some measure be realized by it.
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