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I n our study of theology we saw the Christian mystic adopting, as chart and pilot book of his voyages and adventures, the scheme of faith, and diagram of the spiritual world, which is accepted by ordinary Christian men. We saw that he found in it a depth and richness of content which the conventional believer in that theology, the “good churchman,” seldom suspects: and that which is true of the Christian mystic is also true in its measure and as regards their respective theologies, of the Pagan, the Mahommedan and the Buddhist.
But since the spiritual adventures of the mystic are not those of ordinary men, it will follow that this map, though always true for him, is not complete. He can press forward to countries which unmystical piety must mark as unexplored, Pushing out from harbour to “the vast and stormy sea of the divine,” he can take soundings, and mark dangers the existence of which such piety never needs to prove. Hence it is not strange that certain maps, artistic representations or symbolic schemes, should have come into being which describe or suggest the special experiences of the mystical consciousness, and the doctrines to which these experiences have given birth. Many of these maps have an uncouth, even an impious appearance in the eyes of those unacquainted with the facts which they attempt to translate: as the charts of the deep-sea sailor seem ugly and unintelligible things to those who have never been out of sight of land. Others—and these the most pleasing, most easily understood—have already been made familiar, perhaps tiresomely familiar, to us by the poets; who, intuitively recognizing their suggestive qualities, their links with 126 truth, have borrowed and adapted them to their own business of translating Reality into terms of rhythm and speech. Ultimately, however, they owe their origin to the mystics, or to that mystical sense which is innate in all true poets: and in the last resort it is the mystic’s kingdom, and the mystic’s experience, which they affect to describe.
These special mystical diagrams, these symbolic and artistic descriptions of man’s inward history—his secret adventures with God—are almost endless in their variety: since in each we have a picture of the country of the soul seen through a different temperament. To describe all would be to analyse the whole field of mystical literature, and indeed much other literature as well; to epitomize in fact all that has been dreamed and written concerning the so-called “inner life”—a dreary and a lengthy task. But the majority of them, I think, express a comparatively small number of essential doctrines or fundamental ways of seeing things; and as regards their imagery, they fall into three great classes, representative of the three principal ways in which man’s spiritual consciousness reacts to the touch of Reality, the three primary if paradoxical facts of which that consciousness must be aware. Hence a consideration of mystic symbols drawn from each of these groups may give us a key with which to unlock some at least of the verbal riddles of the individual adventurer.
Thanks to the spatial imagery inseparable from human thinking and human expression, no direct description of spiritual experience is or can be possible to man. It must always be symbolic, allusive, oblique: always suggest, but never tell, the truth: and in this respect there is not much to choose between the fluid and artistic language of vision and the arid technicalities of philosophy. In another respect, however, there is a great deal to choose between them: and here the visionary, not the philosopher, receives the palm. The greater the suggestive quality of the symbol used, the more answering emotion it evokes in those to whom it is addressed, the more truth it will convey. A good symbolism, therefore, will be more than mere diagram or mere allegory: it will use to the utmost the resources of beauty and of passion, will bring with it hints of mystery and wonder, bewitch with dreamy periods the mind to which it is addressed. Its appeal will not be to the clever brain, but to the desirous heart, the intuitive sense, of man.
The three great classes of symbols which I propose to consider, appeal to three deep cravings of the self, three great expressions of man’s restlessness, which only mystic truth can fully satisfy. The first is the craving which makes him a pilgrim and wanderer. It is the longing to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a “better country”; an Eldorado, a Sarras, a Heavenly 127 Syon. The next is that craving of heart for heart, of the soul for its perfect mate, which makes him a lover. The third is the craving for inward purity and perfection, which makes him an ascetic, and in the last resort a saint.
These three cravings, I think, answer to three ways in which mystics of different temperaments attack the problem of the Absolute: three different formulae under which their transcendence of the sense-world can be described. In describing this transcendence, and the special adventures involved in it, they are describing a change from the state of ordinary men, in touch with the sense-world, responding to its rhythms, to the state of spiritual consciousness in which, as they say, they are “in union” with Divine Reality, with God. Whatever be the theological creed of the mystic, he never varies in declaring this close, definite, and actual intimacy to be the end of his quest. “Mark me like the tulip with Thine own streaks,” says the Sufi. 258258 Jámi, “Joseph and Zulaikha. The Poet’s Prayer.” “I would fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man,” says the German contemplative. 259259 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. x. “My me isGod, nor do I know my self-hood save in Him,” says the Italian saint. 260260 St. Catherine of Genoa, “ Vita e Dottrina,” cap. xiv.
But, since this Absolute God is for him substance, ground or underlying Reality of all that is : present yet absent, near yet far: He is already as truly immanent in the human soul as in the Universe. The seeker for the Real may therefore objectify his quest in two apparently contradictory, yet really mutually explanatory ways. First he may see it as an outgoing journey from the world of illusion to the real or transcendental world: a leaving of the visible for the invisible. Secondly, it may appear to him as an inward alteration, remaking or regeneration, by which his personality or character is so changed as to be able to enter into communion with that Fontal Being which he loves and desires; is united with and dominated by the indwelling God who is the fount of his spiritual life. In the first case, the objective idea “God” is the pivot of his symbolism: the Blazing Star, or Magnet of the Universe which he has seen far off, and seeing, has worshipped and desired. In the second case, the emphasis falls on the subjective idea “Sanctity,” with its accompanying consciousness of a disharmony to be abolished. The Mystic Way will then be described, not as a journey, but as an alteration of personality, the transmuting of “earthly” into “heavenly” man. Plainly these two aspects are obverse and reverse of one whole. They represent that mighty pair of opposites, Infinite and Finite, God and Self, which it is the business of mysticism to carry up into a higher synthesis. 128 Whether the process be considered as outward search or inward change, its object and its end are the same. Man enters into that Order of Reality for which he was made, and which is indeed the inciting cause of his pilgrimage and his purification: for however great the demand on the soul’s own effort may be, the initiative always lies with the living Divine World itself. Man’s small desire is evoked, met, and fulfilled by the Divine Desire, his “separated will” or life becomes one with the great Life of the All.
From what has been said in the last chapter, it will be clear that the symbolism of outward search and of inward change will be adopted respectively by the two groups of selves whose experience of “union with the Divine” leans (1) to the Transcendent or external, (2) to the Immanent or internal way of apprehending Reality. A third or intermediate group of images will be necessary to express the experience of those to whom mystic feeling—the satisfaction of love—is the supreme factor in the mystic life. According, then, to whether man’s instinct prompts him to describe the Absolute Reality which he knows and craves for as a Place, a Person, or a State—all three of course but partial and inadequate translations of the one Indescribable Truth—so will he tend to adopt a symbolism of one or other of these three types.
A. Those who conceive the Perfect as a beatific vision exterior to them and very far off, who find in the doctrine of Emanations something which answers to their inward experience, will feel the process of their entrance into reality to be a quest, an arduous journey from the material to the spiritual world. They move away from, rather than transmute to another form, the life of sense. The ecstasies of such mystics will answer to the root-meaning of that much perverted word, as a “standing out” from themselves; a flight to happier countries far away. For them, the soul is outward bound towards its home.
B. Those for whom mysticism is above all things an intimate and personal relation, the satisfaction of a deep desire—who can say with Gertrude More, “never was there or can there be imagined such a love, as is between an humble soul and Thee”—will fall back upon imagery drawn largely from the language of earthly passion. Since the Christian religion insists upon the personal aspect of the Godhead, and provides in Christ an object of such intimacy, devotion and desire, an enormous number of Christian mystics inevitably describe their experiences under symbolism of this kind.
C. Those who are conscious rather of the Divine as a Transcendent Life immanent in the world and the self, and of a strange spiritual seed within them by whose development man, moving to higher levels of character and consciousness, attains his end, 129 will see the mystic life as involving inward change rather than outgoing search. Regeneration is their watchword, and they will choose symbols of growth or transmutation: saying with St. Catherine of Genoa, “my Being is God, not by simple participation, but by a true transformation of my Being.” 261261 “Vita e Dottrina,” p. 36.
These three groups of mystics, then, stand for three kinds of temperament; and we may fairly take as their characteristic forms of symbolic expression the Mystic Quest, the Marriage of the Soul, and the “Great Work” of the Spiritual Alchemists.
The pilgrimage idea, the outgoing quest, appears in mystical literature under two different aspects. One is the search for the “Hidden Treasure which desires to be found.” Such is the “quest of the Grail” when regarded in its mystic aspect as an allegory of the adventures of the soul. The other is the long, hard journey towards a known and definite goal or state. Such are Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; each in their manner faithful descriptions of the Mystic Way. The goal of the quest—the Empyrean of Dante, the Beatific Vision or fulfilment of love—is often called Jerusalem by the Christian mystics: naturally enough since that city was for the mediaeval mind the supreme end of pilgrimage. By Jerusalem they mean not only the celestial country Heaven, but also the spiritual life, which is “itself a heaven.” 262262 This image seems first to have been elaborated by St. Augustine, from whom it was borrowed by Hugh of St. Victor, and most of the mediaeval mystics. “Right as a true pilgrim going to Jerusalem,” says Hilton, “leaveth behind him house and land, wife and child, and maketh himself poor and bare from all that he hath, that he may go lightly without letting: right so, if thou wilt be a ghostly pilgrim, thou shalt make thyself naked from all that thou hast . . . then shalt thou set in thy heart wholly and fully that thou wouldst be at Jerusalem, and at none other place but there.” “Jerusalem,” he says in this same chapter, “is as much as to say a sight of peace; and betokeneth contemplation in perfect love of God.” 263263 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxi.
Under this image of a pilgrimage—an image as concrete and practical, as remote from the romantic and picturesque, for the mediaeval writers who used it, as a symbolism of hotel and railway train would be to us—the mystics contrived to summarize and suggest much of the life history of the ascending soul; the developing spiritual consciousness. The necessary freedom and detachment of the traveller, his departure from his normal life and interests, the difficulties, enemies, and hardships encountered on 130 the road—the length of the journey, the variety of the country, the dark night which overtakes him, the glimpses of destination far away—all these are seen more and more as we advance in knowledge to constitute a transparent allegory of the incidents of man’s progress from the unreal to the real. Bunyan was but the last of a long series of minds which grasped this fact.
The Traveller, says the Sufi ‘Aziz bin Mahommed Nafasi, in whose book, “The Remotest Aim,” the pilgrimage-symbolism is developed in great detail, is the Perceptive or Intuitive Sense of Man. The goal to which he journeys is Knowledge of God. This mysterious traveller towards the only country of the soul may be known of other men by his detachment, charity, humility, and patience. These primary virtues, however—belonging to ethical rather than to spiritual life—are not enough to bring his quest to a successful termination. They make him, say the Sufis, “perfect in knowledge of his goal but deficient in the power of reaching it.” Though he has fraternal love for his fellow-pilgrims, detachment from wayside allurements, untiring perseverance on the road, he is still encumbered and weakened by unnecessary luggage. The second stage of his journey, therefore, is initiated like that of Christian by a casting off of his burden: a total self-renouncement, the attainment of a Franciscan poverty of spirit whereby he becomes “Perfectly Free.”
Having got rid of all impediments to the spiritual quest, he must now acquire or develop in their stead the characteristic mystical qualities, or Three Aids of the Pilgrim; which are called in this system Attraction, Devotion, and Elevation. Attraction is consciousness of the mutual desire existing between man’s spirit and the Divine Spirit: of the link of love which knits up reality and draws all things to their home in God. This is the universal law on which all mysticism is based. It is St. Augustine’s “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts can find no rest except in Thee.” This “natural magnetism,” then, once he is aware of it, will draw the pilgrim irresistibly along the road from the Many to the One. His second aid, Devotion, says the “Remotest Aim” in a phrase of great depth and beauty, is “the prosecution of the journey to God and in God.” 264264 So too Ruysbroeck says that “the just man goes towards God by inward love in perpetual activity and in God in virtue of his fruitive affection in eternal rest” (“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum.” I. ii. cap. lxv). It embraces, in fact, the whole contemplative life. It is the next degree of spiritual consciousness after the blind yielding to the attraction of the Real, and the setting in order of man’s relation to his source.
The Traveller’s journey to God is complete when he attains 131 knowledge of Him—“Illumination,” in the language of European mystics. The point at which this is reached is called the Tavern or resting-place upon the road, where he is fed with the Divine Mysteries. There are also “Wine Shops” upon the way, where the weary pilgrim is cheered and refreshed by a draught of the wine of Divine Love. 265265 I need not remind the reader of the fact that this symbolism, perverted to the purposes of his skeptical philosophy, runs through the whole of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. Only when the journey to God is completed begins the “Journey in God”—that which the Christian mystics call the Unitive Way—and this, since it is the essence of Eternal Life, can have no end. Elevation, the pilgrim’s third aid, is the exalted or ecstatic form of consciousness peculiar to the contemplative, and which allows the traveller a glimpse of the spiritual city towards which he goes. 266266 See Palmer’s “Oriental Mysticism,” pt. I. caps. i., ii., iii., and v.
The Sufi poet ‘Attar, in his mystical poem, “The Colloquy of the Birds,” has described the stages of this same spiritual pilgrimage with greater psychological insight, as the journey through “Seven Valleys.” The lapwing, having been asked by other birds what is the length of the road which leads to the hidden Palace of the King, replies that there are Seven Valleys through which every traveller must pass: but since none who attain the End ever come back to describe their adventures, no one knows the length of the way.
(1) The first valley, says the lapwing, is the Valley of the Quest. It is long and toilsome: and there the traveller must strip himself of all earthly things, becoming poor, bare, and desolate: and so stay till the Supernal Light casts a ray on his desolation. It is in fact, Dante’s Purgatorio, the Christian Way of Purgation: the period of self-stripping and purification which no mystic system omits.
(2) When the ray of Supernal Light has touched the pilgrim he enters the limitless Valley of Love: begins, that is to say, the mystic life. It is Dante’s “Earthly Paradise,” or, in the traditional system of the mystics, the onset of Illumination.
(3) Hence he passes to the Valley of Knowledge or Enlightenment—the contemplative state—where each finds in communion with Truth the place that belongs to him. No Dante student will fail to see here a striking parallel with those planetary heavens where each soul partakes of the Divine, “not supremely in the absolute sense,” as St. Bonaventura has it, but “supremely in respect of himself.” The mystery of Being is now revealed to the traveller. He sees Nature’s secret, and God in all things. It is the height of illumination. 132
(4) The next stage is the Valley of Detachment, of utter absorption in Divine Love—the Stellar Heaven of the Saints—where Duty is seen to be all in all. This leads to—
(5) The Valley of the Unity, where the naked Godhead is the one object of contemplation. This is the stage of ecstasy, or the Beatific Vision: Dante’s condition in the last canto of the “Paradiso.” It is transient, however, and leads to—
(6) The Valley of Amazement; where the Vision, far transcending the pilgrim’s receptive power, appears to be taken from him and he is plunged in darkness and bewilderment. This is the state which Dionysius the Areopagite, and after him many mediaeval mystics, called the Divine Dark, and described as the truest and closest of all our apprehensions of the Godhead. It is the Cloud of Unknowing, “dark from excessive bright.” The final stage is—
(7) The Valley of Annihilation of Self: the supreme degree of union or theopathetic state, in which the self is utterly merged “like a fish in the sea” in the ocean of Divine Love. 267267 An abridged translation of ‘Attar’s allegory of the Valleys will be found in “The Conference of the Birds,” by R. P. Masani (1924). See also W. S. Lilly’s “Many Mansions,” p. 130.
Through all these metaphors of pilgrimage to a goal—of a road followed, distance overpassed, fatigue endured—there runs the definite idea that the travelling self in undertaking the journey is fulfilling a destiny, a law of the transcendental life; obeying an imperative need. The chosen Knights are destined or called to the quest of the Grail. “All men are called to their origin,” says Rulman Merswin, and the fishes which he sees in his Vision of Nine Rocks are impelled to struggle, as it were “against nature,” uphill from pool to pool towards their source. 268268 Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 27.
All mystical thinkers agree in declaring that there is a mutual attraction between the Spark of the Soul, the free divine germ in man, and the Fount from which it came forth. “We long for the Absolute,” says Royce, “only in so far as in us the Absolute also longs, and seeks, through our very temporal striving, the peace that is nowhere in Time, but only, and yet Absolutely, in Eternity.” 269269 Royce, “The World and the Individual,” vol. ii. p. 386. So, many centuries before the birth of American philosophy, Hilton put the same truth of experience in lovelier words. “He it is that desireth in thee, and He it is that is desired. He is all and He doth all if thou might see Him.” 270270 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxiv.
The homeward journey of man’s spirit, then, may be thought of as due to the push of a divine life within, answering to the pull of 133 a divine life without. 271271 Compare Récéjac (“Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 252). “According to mysticism, morality leads the soul to the frontiers of the Absolute and even gives it an impulsion to enter, but this is not enough. This movement of pure Freedom cannot succeed unless there is an equivalent movement within the Absolute itself.” It is only possible because there is already in that spirit a certain kinship with the Divine, a capacity for Eternal Life; and the mystics, in undertaking it, are humanity’s pioneers on the only road to rest. Hence that attraction which the Moslem mystic discerned as the traveller’s necessary aid, is a fundamental doctrine of all mysticism: and as a consequence, the symbolism of mutual desire is here inextricably mingled with that of pilgrimage. The spiritual pilgrim goes because he is called; because he wants to go, must go, if he is to find rest and peace. “God needs man,” says Eckhart. It is Love calling to love: and the journey, though in one sense a hard pilgrimage, up and out, by the terraced mount and the ten heavens to God, in another is the inevitable rush of the roving comet, caught at last, to the Central Sun. “My weight is my love,” said St. Augustine. 272272 Aug. Conf., bk. xiii. cap. 9. “All those who love,” says Ruysbroeck, “feel this attraction: more or less according to the degree of their love.” (“De Calculo sive de Perfectione filiorum Dei.”) Like gravitation, it inevitably compels, for good or evil, every spirit to its own place. According to another range of symbols, that love flings open a door, in order that the larger Life may rush in and it and the soul be “one thing.”
Here, then, we run through the whole gamut of symbolic expression; through Transcendence, Desire, and Immanence. All are seen to point to one consummation, diversely and always allusively expressed: the need of union between man’s separated spirit and the Real, his remaking in the interests of transcendent life, his establishment in that Kingdom which is both “near and far.”
“In the book of Hidden Things it is written,” says Eckhart, “‘I stand at the door and knock and wait’ . . . thou needst not seek Him here or there: He is no farther off than the door of the heart. There He stands and waits and waits until He finds thee ready to open and let Him in. Thou needst not call Him from a distance; to wait until thou openest is harder for Him than for thee. He needs thee a thousand times more than thou canst need Him. Thy opening and His entering are but one moment .” 273273 Meister Eckhart, Pred. iii. “God,” he says in another place, “can as little do without us, as we without Him.” 274274 Ibid ., Pred. xiii. Our attainment of the Absolute is not a one-sided ambition, but the fulfilment of a mutual desire. “For our natural Will,” says Lady Julian, “is to have God, and the Good will of 134 God is to have us; and we may never cease from longing till we have Him in fullness of joy.” 275275 “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. vi.
So, in the beautiful poem or ritual called the “Hymn of Jesus,” contained in the apocryphal “Acts of John” and dating from primitive Christian times, the Logos, or Eternal Christ, is thus represented as matching with His own transcendent, self-giving desire every need of the soul. 276276 The Greek and English text will be found in the “Apocrypha Anecdota” of Dr. M. R. James, series 2 (Cambridge, 1897), pp. 1-25. I follow his translation. It will be seen that I have adopted the hypotheses of Mr. G. R. S. Mead as to the dramatic nature of this poem. See his “Echoes from the Gnosis,” 1896.
The Soul says:—
“‘I would be saved.’”
“‘And I would save.’ Amen.”
The Dialogue continues:—
“‘I would be loosed.’
‘And I would loose.’ Amen.
‘I would be pierced.’
‘And I would pierce.’ Amen.
‘I would be born.’
‘And I would bear.’ Amen.
‘I would eat.’
‘And I would be eaten.’ Amen.
‘I would hear.’
‘And I would be heard.’ Amen.”
“‘I am a Lamp to thee who beholdest Me,
I am a Mirror to thee who perceivest Me,
I am a Door to thee, who knockest at Me,
I am a Way to thee a wayfarer.’”
The same fundamental idea of the mutual quest of the Soul and the Absolute is expressed in the terms of another symbolism by the great Mahommedan mystic:—
“No lover ever seeks union with his beloved,
But his beloved is also seeking union with him.
But the lover’s love makes his body lean
While the beloved’s love makes her fair and lusty.
When in this heart the lightning spark of love arises,
Be sure this love is reciprocated in that heart.
When the love of God arises in thy heart,
The mystic vision, then, is of a spiritual universe
held within 135 the bonds of love:
suo profondo vidi che s’interna
legato con amore in un volume
cio che per l’universo si squaderna.”
(Par. xxxiii. 85.) and of the free and restless human soul, having within it the spark of divine desire, the “tendency to the Absolute,” pnly finding satisfaction and true life when united with this Life of God. Then, in Patmore’s lovely image, “the babe is at its mother’s breast,” “the lover has returned to the beloved.” 279279 “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,” “Aurea Dicta,” ccxxviii.
Whatever their outward sense, all true mystic symbols express aspects of this “secret of the world,” this primal verity. But whereas such great visionary schemes as those of ‘Attar and of Dante show it in its cosmic form, in many symbolic descriptions—particularly those which we meet in the writings of the ecstatic saints—the personal subjective note, the consciousness of an individual relation between that one self and the Supernal Self, overpowers all general applications. Then philosophy and formal allegory must step aside: the sacramental language of exalted emotion, of profoundly felt experience, takes its place. The phases of mutual love, of wooing and combat, awe and delight—the fevers of desire, the ecstasy of surrender—are drawn upon and made to contribute something to the description of the great and secret drama of the soul.
To such symbolic transcripts of intimate experience belongs one amazing episode of the spiritual life-history which, because it has been given immortal expression by the greatest mystical poet of modern times, is familiar to thousands of readers who know little or nothing of the more normal adventures incidental to man’s attainment of the Absolute. In “The Hound of Heaven” Francis Thompson described with an almost terrible power, not the self’s quest of adored Reality, but Reality’s quest of the unwilling self. He shows to us the remorseless, untiring seeking and following of the soul by the Divine Life to which it will not surrender: the inexorable onward sweep of “this tremendous Lover,” hunting the separated spirit, “strange piteous futile thing” that flees Him “down the nights and down the days.” This idea of the love-chase, of the spirit rushing in terror from the overpowering presence of God, but followed, sought, conquered in the end, is common to all the mediaeval mystics: it is the obverse of their general doctrine of the necessary fusion of human and divine life, “escape from the flame of separation.”
“I chased thee, for in this was my pleasure,” says the voice of Love to Mechthild of Magdeburg; “I captured thee, for this was my desire; I bound thee, and I rejoice in thy bonds; I have 136 wounded thee, that thou mayst be united to me. If I gave thee blows, it was that I might be possessed of thee.” 280280 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. i. cap. iii.
So in the beautiful Middle English poem of “Quia amore langueo,”—
“I am true love that fals was nevere,
Mi sistyr, mannis soule, I loved hir thus;
Bicause we wolde in no wise discevere
I lefte my Kyngdom glorious.
I purveyde for hir a paleis precious;
She fleyth, I folowe, I sought hir so.
I suffride this peyne piteous
Meister Eckhart has the same idea of the inexorable Following Love, impossible to escape, expressed under less personal images. “Earth,” he says, “cannot escape the sky; let it flee up or down, the sky flows into it, and makes it fruitful whether it will or no. So God does to man. He who will escape Him only runs to His bosom; for all corners are open to Him.” 282282 Pred. lxxxviii.
We find in all the mystics this strong sense of a mysterious spiritual life—a Reality—over against man, seeking him and compelling him to Its will. It is not for him, they think, to say that he will or will not aspire to the transcendental world. 283283 So we are told of St. Francis of Assisi, that in his youth he “tried to flee God’s hand.” Thomas of Celano, Legenda Prima, cap. ii. Hence sometimes this inversion of man’s long quest of God. The self resists the pull of spiritual gravitation, flees from the touch of Eternity; and the Eternal seeks it, tracks it ruthlessly down. The Following Love, the mystics say, is a fact of experience, not a poetic idea. “Those strong feet that follow, follow after,” once set upon the chase, are bound to win. Man, once conscious of Reality, cannot evade it. For a time his separated spirit, his disordered loves, may wilfully frustrate the scheme of things: but he must be conquered in the end. Then the mystic process unfolds itself: Love triumphs: the “purpose of the worlds” fulfils itself in the individual life.
It was natural and inevitable that the imagery of human love and marriage should have seemed to the mystic the best of all images of his own “fulfilment of life”; his soul’s surrender, first to the call, finally to the embrace of Perfect Love. It lay ready to 137 his hand: it was understood of all men: and moreover, it certainly does offer, upon lower levels, a strangely exact parallel to the sequence of states in which man’s spiritual consciousness unfolds itself, and which form the consummation of the mystic life.
It has been said that the constant use of such imagery by Christian mystics of the mediaeval period is traceable to the popularity of the Song of Songs, regarded as an allegory of the spiritual life. I think that the truth lies rather in the opposite statement: namely, that the mystic loved the Song of Songs because he there saw reflected, as in a mirror, the most secret experiences of his soul. The sense of a desire that was insatiable, of a personal fellowship so real, inward, and intense that it could only be compared with the closest link of human love, of an intercourse that was no mere spiritual self-indulgence, but was rooted in the primal duties and necessities of life—more, those deepest, most intimate secrets of communion, those self-giving ecstasies which all mystics know, but of which we, who are not mystics, may not speak—all these he found symbolized and suggested, their unendurable glories veiled in a merciful mist, in the poetry which man has invented to honour that august passion in which the merely human draws nearest to the divine.
The great saints who adopted and elaborated this symbolism, applying it to their pure and ardent passion for the Absolute, were destitute of the prurient imagination which their modern commentators too often possess. They were essentially pure of heart; and when they “saw God” they were so far from confusing that unearthly vision with the products of morbid sexuality, that the dangerous nature of the imagery which they employed did not occur to them. They knew by experience the unique nature of spiritual love: and no one can know anything about it in any other way.
Thus for St. Bernard, throughout his deeply mystical sermons on the Song of Songs, the Divine Word is the Bridegroom, the human soul is the Bride: but how different is the effect produced by his use of these symbols from that with which he has been charged by hostile critics! In the place of that “sensuous imagery” which is so often and so earnestly deplored by those who have hardly a nodding acquaintance with the writings of the saints, we find images which indeed have once been sensuous; but which are here anointed and ordained to a holy office, carried up, transmuted, and endowed with a radiant purity, an intense and spiritual life.
“ ‘Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth.’ Who is it speaks these words? It is the Bride. Who is the Bride? It is the Soul thirsting for God. . . . She who asks this is held by the bond of love to him from whom she asks it. Of all the sentiments of nature, 138 this of love is the most excellent, especially when it is rendered back to Him who is the principle and fountain of it—that is, God. Nor are there found any expressions equally sweet to signify the mutual affection between the Word of God and the soul, as those of Bridegroom and of Bride; inasmuch as between individuals who stand in such relation to each other all things are in common, and they possess nothing separate or divided. They have one inheritance, one dwelling-place, one table, and they are in fact one flesh. If, then, mutual love is especially befitting to a bride and bridegroom, it is not unfitting that the name of Bride is given to a soul which loves.” 284284 Sr. Bernard, “Cantica Canticorum,” Sermon vii. For a further and excellent discussion of St. Bernard’s mystical language, see Dom Cuthbert Butler, “Western Mysticism,” 2nd ed., pp. 160 seq .
To women mystics of the Catholic Church, familiar with the antique and poetic metaphor which called every cloistered nun the Bride of Christ, that crisis in their spiritual history in which they definitely vowed themselves to the service of Transcendent Reality seemed, naturally enough, the veritable betrothal of the soul. Often, in a dynamic vision, they saw as in a picture the binding vows exchanged between their spirits and their God. 285285 Vide infra, Pt. II. cap. v. That further progress on the mystic way which brought with it a sharp and permanent consciousness of union with the Divine Will, the constant sustaining presence of a Divine Companion, became, by an extension of the original simile, Spiritual Marriage. The elements of duty, constancy, irrevocableness, and loving obedience involved in the mediaeval conception of the marriage tie, made it an apt image of a spiritual state in which humility, intimacy, and love were the dominant characteristics. There is really no need to seek a pathological explanation of these simple facts. 286286 Professor Pratt, by no means an enthusiastic witness, most justly observes “There are several excellent reasons why the mystics almost inevitably make use of the language of human love in describing the joy of the love of God. The first and simplest is this: that they have no other language to use . . . the mystic must make use of expressions drawn from earthly love to describe his experience, or give up the attempt of describing it at all. It is the only way he has of even suggesting to the non-mystical what he has felt” (“The Religious Consciousness,” p. 418). Moreover with few exceptions, the descriptions of spiritual marriage which the great mystics have left are singularly free from physical imagery. “So mysterious is the secret,” says St. Teresa, “and so sublime the favour that God thus bestows instantaneously on the soul, that it feels a supreme delight, only to be described by saying that our Lord vouchsafes for the moment to reveal to it His own heavenly glory in a far more subtle way than by any vision or spiritual delight. As far as can be understood, the soul, I mean the spirit of this soul, is made one with God, who is 139 Himself a spirit, and Who has been pleased to show certain persons how far His love for us extends in order that we may praise His greatness. He has thus deigned to unite Himself to His creature: He has bound Himself to her as firmly as two human beings are joined in wedlock and will never separate Himself from her.” 287287 “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sétimas, cap ii.
The great Richard of St. Victor, in one of his most splendid mystical treatises, 288288 “De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. cxcvi. col. 1207). has given us perhaps the most daring and detailed application of the symbolism of marriage to the adventures of the spirit of man. He divides the “steep stairway of love,” by which the contemplative ascends to union with the Absolute, into four stages. These he calls the betrothal, the marriage, the wedlock, and the fruitfulness of the soul. 289289 “In primo gradu fit desponsatio, in secundo nuptiae, in tertio copula, in quarto puerperium. . . . De quarto dicitur, Coucepimus, et quasi parturivimus et peperimus spiritum” (Isa. xviii . 26). ( Op. cit., 1216, D.) In the betrothal, he says, the soul “thirsts for the Beloved”; that is to say, it longs to experience the delights of Reality. “The Spirit comes to the Soul, and seems sweeter than honey.” It is conversion, the awakening to mystical truth; the kindling of the passion for the Absolute. “Then the Soul with pertinacity demands more”: and because of her burning desire she attains to pure contemplation, and so passes to the second degree of love. In this she is “led in bridal” by the Beloved. Ascending “above herself” in contemplation, she “sees the Sun of Righteousness.” She is now confirmed in the mystic life; the irrevocable marriage vows are made between her spirit and her God. At this point she can “see the Beloved,” but “cannot yet come in to Him,” says Richard. This degree, as we shall see later, answers more or less to that which other mystics call the Illuminative Way: but any attempt to press these poetic symbols into a cast-iron series, and establish exact parallels, is foredoomed to failure, and will merely succeed in robbing them of their fragrance and suggestive power. In Richard’s “third stage,” however, that of union, or wedlock, it is clear that the soul enters upon the “Unitive Way.” She has passed the stages of ecstatic and significant events, and is initiated into the Life. She is “deified,” “passes utterly into God, and is glorified in Him”: is transfigured, he says, by immediate contact with the Divine Substance, into an utterly different quality of being. “Thus,” says St. John of the Cross, “the soul, when it shall have driven away from itself all that is contrary to the divine will, becomes transformed in God by love. 290290 “Subida del Monte Carmelo,” lii. cap. v.
“The Soul,” says Richard again, “is utterly concentrated on the One.” She is “caught up to the divine light.” The expression of 140 the personal passion, the intimate relation, here rises to its height. But this is not enough. Where most mystical diagrams leave off, Richard of St. Victor’s “steep stairway of Love” goes on: with the result that this is almost the only symbolic system bequeathed to us by the great contemplatives in which all the implications contained in the idea of the spiritual marriage have been worked out to their term. He saw clearly that the union of the soul with its Source could not be a barren ecstasy. That was to mistake a means for an end; and to frustrate the whole intention of life, which is, on all levels, fruitful and creative. Therefore he says that in the fourth degree, the Bride who has been so greatly honoured, caught up to such unspeakable delight, sinks her own will and “is humiliated below herself.” She accepts the pains and duties in the place of the raptures of love; and becomes a source, a “parent” of fresh spiritual life. The Sponsa Dei develops into the Mater Divinae gratiae. That imperative need of life, to push on, to create, to spread, is here seen operating in the spiritual sphere. This forms that rare and final stage in the evolution of the great mystics, in which they return to the world which they forsook; and there live, as it were, as centres of transcendental energy, the creators of spiritual families, the partners and fellow-labourers with the Divine Life. 291291 Vide infra , pt. ii. caps. i. and x.
We come now to the symbols which have been adopted by those mystics in whom temperamental consciousness of their own imperfection, and of the unutterable perfection of the Absolute Life for which they longed, has overpowered all other aspects of man’s quest of reality. The “seek, and ye shall find” of the pilgrim, the “by Love shall He be gotten and holden” of the bride, can never seem an adequate description of experience to minds of this type. They are intent on the inexorable truth which must be accepted in some form by both these classes: the crucial fact that “we behold that which we are,” or, in other words, that “only the Real can know Reality.” Hence the state of the inward man, the “unrealness” of him when judged by any transcendental standard, is their centre of interest. His remaking or regeneration appears to them as the primal necessity, if he is ever to obtain rights of citizenship in the “country of the soul.”
We have seen that this idea of the New Birth, the remaking or transmutation of the self, clothed in many different symbols, runs through the whole of mysticism and much of theology. It is the mystic’s subjective reading of those necessary psychological 141 and moral changes which he observes within himself as his spiritual consciousness grows. His hard work of renunciation, of detachment from the things which that consciousness points out as illusory or impure, his purifications and trials, all form part of it. If that which is whole or perfect is to come, then that which is in part must be done away: “for in what measure we put off the creature, in the same measure are we able to put on the Creator: neither more nor less.” 292292 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. i.
Of all the symbolic systems in which this truth has been enshrined none is so complete, so picturesque, and now so little understood as that of the “Hermetic Philosophers” or Spiritual Alchemists. This fact would itself be sufficient to justify us in examining some of the chief features of their symbolism. There is a further excuse for this apparently eccentric proceeding, however, in the fact that the language of alchemy was largely—though not always accurately and consistently—used by the great mystic Jacob Boehme, and after him by his English disciple, William Law. Without, then, some knowledge of the terms which they employed, but seldom explained, the writings of this important school can hardly be understood.
The alchemic symbols, especially as applied to the mystic life, are full of an often deliberate obscurity; which makes their exact interpretation a controversial matter at the best. Moreover, the authors of the various Hermetic writings do not always use them in the same sense, and whilst many of these writings are undoubtedly mystical, others clearly deal with the physical quest of gold: nor have we any sure standard by which to divide class from class. The elements from which the spiritual alchemists built up their allegories of the mystic life are, however, easily grasped: and these elements, with the significance generally attributed to them, are as much as those who are not specialists can hope to unravel from this very tangled skein. First, there are the metals; of course the obvious materials of physical alchemy. These are usually called by the names of their presiding planets: thus in Hermetic language Luna means silver, Sol gold, etc. Then there is the Vessel, or Athanor, in which the transmutation of base metal to gold took place: an object whose exact nature is veiled in much mystery. The Fire, and various solvents and waters, peculiar to the different alchemistic recipes, complete the apparatus necessary to the “Great Work.”
The process of this work, sometimes described in chemical, and sometimes in astrological terms, is more often than not disguised in a strange heraldic and zoological symbolism dealing with Lions, Dragons, Eagles, Vultures, Ravens and Doves: which, 142 delightful in its picturesqueness, is unequalled in its power of confusing the anxious and unwary inquirer. It is also the subject of innumerable and deliberate allegories, which were supposed to convey its secrets to the elect, whilst most certainly concealing them from the crowd. Hence it is that the author of “A Short Enquiry concerning the Hermetic Art” speaks for all investigators of this subject when he describes the “Hermetic science” as a “great Labyrinth, in which are abundance of enquirers rambling to this day, many of them undiscerned by one another.” Like him, I too “have taken several Turns in it myself, wherein one shall meet with very few; for ‘tis so large, and almost every one taking a different Path, that they seldom meet. But finding it a very melancholy place, I resolved to get out of it, and rather content myself to walk in the little garden before the entrance, where many things, though not all, were orderly to be seen. Choosing rather to stay there, and contemplate on the Metaphor set up, than venture again into the wilderness.” 293293 “A Short Enquiry Concerning the Hermetic Art,” p. 29.
Coming, then, to the “contemplation of the Metaphor set up,”—by far the most judicious course for modern students of the Hermetic art—we observe first that the prime object of alchemy was held to be the production of the Philosopher’s Stone, that perfect and incorrupt substance or “noble Tincture,” never found upon our imperfect earth in its natural state, which could purge all baser metals of their dross, and turn them to pure gold. The quest of the Stone, in fact, was but one aspect of man’s everlasting quest of perfection, his hunger for the Absolute; and hence an appropriate symbol of the mystic life. But this quest was not conducted in some far off transcendental kingdom. It was prosecuted in the Here and Now within the physical world.
Gold, the Crowned King, or Sol, as it is called in the planetary symbolism of the alchemists, was their standard of perfection, the “Perfect Metal.” Towards it, as the Christian towards sanctity, their wills were set. It had for them a value not sordid but ideal. Nature, they thought, is always trying to make gold, this incorruptible and perfect thing; and the other metals are merely the results of the frustration of her original design. Nor is this aiming at perfection and achieving of imperfection limited to the physical world. Quod superius, sicut quod inferius. Upon the spiritual plane also they held that the Divine Idea is always aiming at “Spiritual Gold”—divine humanity, the New Man, citizen of the transcendental world—and “natural man” as we ordinarily know him is a lower metal, silver at best. He is a departure from the “plan,” who yet bears within himself, if we could find it, the spark or seed of absolute perfection: the “tincture” which makes gold. “The 143 smattering I have of the Philosopher’s Stone,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “(which is something more than the perfect exaltation of gold) hath taught me a great deal of divinity, and instructed my belief how that immortal spirit and incorruptible substance of my soul may lie obscure, and sleep awhile within this house of flesh.” 294294 “Religio Medici,” pt. i. This “incorruptible substance” is man’s goldness, his perfect principle: for “the highest mineral virtue resides in Man,” says Albertus Magnus, “and God may be found everywhere.” 295295 “A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery,” p. 143. This rare and curious study of spiritual alchemy was the anonymous work of the late Mrs. Atwood. She attempted to suppress it soon after publication under the impression—common amongst mystics of a certain type—that she had revealed matters which might not be spoken of; as Coventry Patmore for the same reason destroyed his masterpiece, “Sponsa Dei.” Hence the prosecution of a spiritual chemistry is a proper part of the true Hermetic science.
The art of the alchemist, whether spiritual or physical, consists in completing the work of perfection, bringing forth and making dominant, as it were, the “latent goldness” which “lies obscure” in metal or man. The ideal adept of alchemy was therefore an “auxiliary of the Eternal Goodness.” By his search for the “Noble Tincture” which should restore an imperfect world, he became a partner in the business of creation, assisting the Cosmic Plan. Thus the proper art of the Spiritual Alchemist, with whom alone we are here concerned, was the production of the spiritual and only valid tincture or Philosopher’s Stone; the mystic seed of transcendental life which should invade, tinge, and wholly transmute the imperfect self into spiritual gold. That this was no fancy of seventeenth-century allegorists, but an idea familiar to many of the oldest writers upon alchemy—whose quest was truly a spiritual search into the deepest secrets of the soul—is proved by the words which bring to an end the first part of the antique “Golden Treatise upon the Making of the Stone,” sometimes attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. “This, O Son,” says that remarkable tract, “is the Concealed Stone of Many Colours, which is born and brought forth in one colour; know this and conceal it . . . it leads from darkness into light, from this desert wilderness to a secure habitation, and from poverty and straits to a free and ample fortune.” 296296 Quoted in “A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery,” p. 107. The whole of the “Golden Treatise” will be found set out in this work.
Man, then, was for the alchemists “the true laboratory of the Hermetic art”; which concealed in an entanglement of vague and contradictory symbols the life-process of his ascension to that perfect state in which he was able to meet God. This state must not be confused with a merely moral purity, but is to be understood as involving utter transmutation into a “new form.” It 144 naturally followed from this that the indwelling Christ, the “Corner Stone,” the Sun of Righteousness, became, for many of the Christian alchemists, identified with the Lapis Philosophorum and with Sol: and was regarded both as the image and as the earnest of this “great work.” His spirit was the “noble tincture” which “can bring that which is lowest in the death to its highest ornament or glory;” 297297 Jacob Boehme, “The Threefold Life of Man,” cap. iv. § 23. transmuting the natural to the supernatural, operating the “New Birth.” “This,” says Boehme, “is the noble precious Stone (Lapis Philosophorum), the Philosopher’s Stone, which the Magi (or wise men) find which tinctureth nature, and generateth a new son in the old. He who findeth that, esteemeth more highly of it than of this (outward) world. For the Son is many thousand times greater than the Father.” Again, “If you take the spirit of the tincture, then indeed you go on a way in which many have found Sol; but they have followed on the way to the heart of Sol, where the spirit of the heavenly tincture hath laid hold on them, and brought them into the liberty, into the Majesty, where they have Known the Noble Stone, Lapis Philosophorum, the Philosopher’s Stone, and have stood amazed at man’s blindness, and seen his labouring in vain. Would you fain find the Noble Stone? Behold, we will show it you plain enough, if you be a Magus, and worthy, else you shall remain blind still: therefore fall to work thus: for it hath no more but three numbers. First tell from one till you come to the Cross, which is ten (X) . . . and there lieth the Stone without any great painstaking, for it is pure and not defiled with any earthly nature.”
“In this stone there lieth hidden, whatsoever God and the Eternity, also heaven, the stars and elements contain and are able to do. There never was from eternity anything better or more precious than this, and it is offered by God and bestowed upon man; every one may have it . . . it is in a simple form, and hath the power of the whole Deity in it.” 298298 Boehme, “The Threefold Life of Man,” cap. vi. § 98; cap. x. §§ 3, 4; and cap. xiii. § 1.
Boehme is here using alchemic symbols, according to his custom, in a loose and artistic manner; for the true Hermetic Philosopher’s Stone is not something which can be found but something which must be made. The alchemists, whether their search be for a physical or a spiritual “tincture,” say always that this tincture is the product of the furnace and Athanor: and further that it is composed of “three numbers” or elements, which they call Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury. These, when found, and forced into the proper combination, form the “Azoth” or “Philosopher’s Egg”—the stuff or First Matter of the Great Work. Sulphur, Salt, 145 and Mercury, however, must not be understood in too literal a sense. “You need not look for our metallic seed among the elements,” says Basil the Monk, “it need not be sought so far back. If you can only rectify the Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt (understand those of the sages) until the metallic spirit and body are inseparably joined together by means of the metallic soul, you thereby firmly rivet the chain of love and prepare the palace for the Coronation.” 299299 “The Golden Tripod of the Monk Basilius Valentinus” (“The Hermetic Museum, “ vol. i. p. 319).
Of these three ingredients, the important one is the spiritual principle, the unseizable Mercury; which is far from being the metal which we ordinarily know by that name. The Mercury which the alchemists sought—often in strange places—is a hidden and powerful substance. They call it “Mercury of the Wise”; and he who can discover it, they say, is on the way towards success. The reader in search of mystical wisdom already begins to be bewildered; but if he persevere in this labyrinth of symbolism, he presently discovers—as Basil the Monk indeed hints—that the Sulphur and the Salt, or “metallic soul and body” of the spiritual chemistry, represent something analogous to the body and mind of man—Sulphur his earthly nature, seasoned with intellectual Salt. The Mercury is Spirit in its most mystic sense, the Synteresis or holy Dweller in the Innermost, the immanent spark or Divine Principle of his life. Only the “wise,” the mystically awakened, can know this Mercury, the agent of man’s transmutation: and until it has been discovered, brought out of the hiddenness, nothing can be done. “This Mercury or Snowy Splendour, is a Celestial Body drawn from the beams of the Sun and the Moon. It is the only Agent in the world for this art.” 300300 “A Short Enquiry Concerning the Hermetic Art,” p. 17. It is the divine-human “spark of the soul,” the bridge between Gold and Silver, God and man.
The Three Principles being enclosed in the vessel, or Athanor, which is man himself, and subjected to a gentle fire—the Incendium Amoris —the process of the Great Work, the mystic transmutation of natural into spiritual man, can begin. This work, like the ingredients which compose it, has “three numbers”: and the first matter, in the course of its transmutation, assumes three successive colours: the Black, the White, and the Red. These three colours are clearly analogous to the three traditional stages of the Mystic Way: Purgation, Illumination, Union.
The alchemists call the first stage, or Blackness, Putrefaction. In it the three principles which compose the “whole man” of body, soul and spirit, are “sublimated” till they appear as a black powder full of corruption, and the imperfect body is “dissolved and purified by subtle Mercury”; as man is purified by the darkness, 146 misery, and despair which follows the emergence of his spiritual consciousness. As psychic uproar and disorder seems part of the process of mental growth, so “ Solve et coagula ”—break down that you may build up—is the watchword of the spiritual alchemist. The “black beast,” the passional element, of the lower nature must emerge and be dealt with before anything further can be done. “There is a black beast in our forest,” says the highly allegorical “Book of Lambspring,” “his name is Putrefaction, his blackness is called the Head of the Raven; when it is cut off, Whiteness appears.” 301301 “The Hermetic Museum,” vol. i. p. 272. This Whiteness, the state of Luna, or Silver, the “chaste and immaculate Queen,” is the equivalent of the Illuminative Way: the highest point which the mystic can attain short of union with the Absolute. This White Stone is pure, and precious; but in it the Great Work of man’s spiritual evolution has not yet reached its term. That term is the attainment of the Red, the colour of Perfection or alchemic gold; a process sometimes called the “Marriage of Luna and Sol”—the fusion of the human and divine spirit. Under this image is concealed the final secret of the mystic life: that ineffable union of finite and infinite—that loving reception of the inflowing vitality of God—from which comes forth the Magnum Opus: deified or spiritual man.
“This,” says the author of “A Suggestive Enquiry,” “is the union supersentient, the nuptials sublime, Mentis et Universi . . . . Lo! behold I will open to thee a mystery, cries the Adept, the bridegroom crowneth the bride of the north [ i.e. , she who comes out of the cold and darkness of the lower nature]. In the darkness of the north, out of the crucifixion of the cerebral life, when the sensual dominant is occultated in the Divine Fiat, and subdued, there arises a Light wonderfully about the summit, which wisely returned and multiplied according to the Divine Blessing, is made substantial in life.” 302302 “A Suggestive Enquiry,” p. 345.
I have said, that side by side with the metallic and planetary language of the alchemists, runs a strange heraldic symbolism in which they take refuge when they fear—generally without reason—that they are telling their secrets too plainly to an unregenerate world. Many of these heraldic emblems are used in an utterly irresponsible manner; and whilst doubtless conveying a meaning to the individual alchemist and the disciples for whom he wrote, are, and must ever be, unintelligible to other men. But others are of a more general application; and appear so frequently in seventeenth-century literature, whether mystical or non-mystical, that some discussion of them may well be of use.
Perhaps the quaintest and most celebrated of all these allegories 147 is that which describes the quest of the Philosopher’s Stone as “the hunting of the Green Lion.” 303303 See “A Short Enquiry,” p. 17, and “A Suggestive Enquiry,” pp. 297 et seq ., where the rhymed Alchemic tract called “Hunting the Greene Lyon” is printed in full. The Green Lion, though few would divine it, is the First Matter of the Great Work: hence, in spiritual alchemy, natural man in his wholeness—Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury in their crude state. He is called green because, seen from the transcendent standpoint, he is still unripe, his latent powers undeveloped; and a Lion, because of his strength, fierceness, and virility. Here the common opinion that a pious effeminacy, a diluted and amiable spirituality, is the proper raw material of the mystic life, is emphatically contradicted. It is not by the education of the lamb, but by the hunting and taming of the wild intractable lion, instinct with vitality, full of ardour and courage, exhibiting heroic qualities on the sensual plane, that the Great Work is achieved. The lives of the saints enforce the same law.
“Our lyon wanting maturitie
Is called greene for his unripeness trust me:
And yet full quickly he can run,
The Green Lion, then, in his strength and wholeness is the only creature potentially able to attain Perfection. It needs the adoption and purification of all the wealth and resources of man’s nature, not merely the encouragement of his transcendental tastes, if he is to “overtake the Sun” and achieve the Great Work. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence, not by amiable aspiration. “The Green Lion,” says one alchemist, “is the priest by whom Sol and Luna are wed.” In other words, the raw stuff of indomitable human nature is the means by which man is to attain union with the Absolute. The duty of the alchemist, the transmuting process, is therefore described as the hunting of the Green Lion through the forest of the sensual world. He, like the Hound of Heaven, is on a love chase down the nights and down the days.
When the lion is caught, when Destiny overtakes it, its head must be cut off as the preliminary to the necessary taming process. This is called by the alchemists “the head of the Raven,” the Crow, or the Vulture, “for its blackness.” It represents the fierce and corrupt life of the passions: and its removal is that “death of the lower nature” which is the object of all asceticism— i.e. , Purgation. The lion, the whole man, Humanity in its strength, is as it were “slain to the world,” and then resuscitated; but in a very different shape. By its passage through this mystic death or the “putrefaction 148 of the Three Principles” the “colour of unripeness” is taken away. Its taming completed, it receives wings, wherewith it may fly up to Sol, the Perfect or Divine; and is transmuted, say the alchemists, into the Red Dragon. This is to us a hopelessly grotesque image: but to the Hermetic philosophers, whose sense of wonder was uncorrupt, it was the deeply mystical emblem of a new, strange, and transcendental life, powerful alike in earth and in heaven. As the angel to the man, so was the dragon to the world of beasts: a creature of splendour and terror, a super-brute, veritably existent if seldom seen. We realize something of the significance of this symbol for the alchemic writers, if we remember how sacred a meaning it has for the Chinese: to whom the dragon is the traditional emblem of free spiritual life, as the tiger represents the life of the material plane in its intensest form. Since it is from China that alchemy is supposed to have reached the European world, it may yet be found that the Red Dragon is one of the most antique and significant symbols of the Hermetic Art.
For the Spiritual Chemistry, then, the Red Dragon represents Deified Man; whose emergence must always seem like the birth of some monstrous and amazing creature when seen from the standpoint of the merely natural world. With his coming forth, the business of the alchemist, in so far as he be a mystic, is done. Man has transcended his lower nature, has received wings wherewith to live on higher levels of reality. The Tincture, the latent goldness, has been found and made dominant, the Magnum Opus achieved. That the trite and inward business of that Work, when stripped of its many emblematic veils, was indeed the reordering of spiritual rather than material elements, is an opinion which rests on a more solid foundation than personal interpretations of old allegories and alchemic-tracts. The Norwich physician—himself deeply read in the Hermetic science—has declared to us his own certainty concerning it in few but lovely words. In them is contained the true mystery of man’s eternal and interior quest of the Stone: its reconciliation with that other, outgoing quest of “the Hidden Treasure that desires to be found.”
“Do but extract from the corpulency of bodies, or resolve things beyond their First Matter, and you discover the habitation of Angels: which, if I call it the ubiquitary and omnipresent Essence of God, I hope I shall not offend Divinity.” 305305 Sir Thomas Browne, “Religio Medici,” pt. i.
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