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I n illumination we come to that state of consciousness which is popularly supposed to be peculiar to the mystic: a form of mental life, a kind of perception, radically different from that of “normal” men. His preceding adventures and experiences cannot be allowed this quality. His awakening to consciousness of the Absolute—though often marked by a splendour and intensity which seem to distinguish it from other psychic upheavals of that kind—does but reproduce upon higher levels those characteristic processes of conversion and falling in love which give depth and actuality to the religious and passional life. The purification to which he then sets himself—though this possesses as a rule certain features peculiar to mystical development—is again closely related to the disciplines and mortifications of ascetic, but not necessarily mystical, piety. It is the most exalted form with which we are acquainted of that catharsis— that pruning and training of the human plant—which is the essence of all education, and a necessary stage in every kind of transcendence. Here, the mystic does but adopt in a more drastic form the principles which all who would live with an intense life, all seekers after freedom, all true lovers must accept: though he may justly claim with Ophelia that these wear their rue with a difference. 477477 For the relation between catharsis and poetic and mystical knowledge, see Bremond, “Prière et Poesie,” caps xvi. and xvii. 233
But in the great swing back into sunshine which is the reward of that painful descent into the “cell of self-knowledge,” he parts company with these other pilgrims. Those who still go with him a little way—certain prophets, poets, artists, dreamers do so in virtue of that mystical genius, that instinct for transcendental reality, of which all seers and creators have some trace. The initiates of beauty or of wisdom, as the great mystic is the initiate of love, they share in some degree the experiences of the way of illumination. But the mystic has now a veritable foothold in that transcendental world into which they penetrate now and again: enjoys a certain fellowship—not yet union—with the “great life of the All,” and thence draws strength and peace. Really and actually, as one whose noviciate is finished, he has “entered the Inner Choir, where the Soul joineth hands and danceth with Sophia, the Divine Wisdom”: and, keeping time with the great rhythms of the spiritual universe, feels that he has found his place.
This change of consciousness, however abrupt and amazing it may seem to the self which experiences it, seems to the psychologist a normal phase in that organic process of development which was initiated by the awakening of the transcendental sense. Responding to the intimations received in that awakening, ordering itself in their interest, concentrating its scattered energies on this one thing, the self emerges from long and varied acts of purification to find that it is able to apprehend another order of reality. It has achieved consciousness of a world that was always there, and wherein its substantial being—that Ground which is of God—has always stood. Such a consciousness is “Transcendental Feeling” in excelsis : a deep, intuitional knowledge of the “secret plan.”
“We are like a choir who stand round the conductor,” says Plotinus, “but do not always sing in tune, because their attention is diverted by looking at external things. So we always move round the One—if we did not, we should dissolve and cease to exist—but we do not always look towards the One.” Hence, instead of that free and conscious co-operation in the great life of the All which alone can make personal life worth living, we move like slaves or marionettes, and, oblivious of the whole to which our little steps contribute, fail to observe the measure “whereto the worlds keep time.” Our minds being distracted from the Corypheus in the midst the “energetic Word” who sets the rhythm, we do not behold Him. We are absorbed in the illusions of sense; the “eye which looks on Eternity” is idle. “But when we do behold Him,” says Plotinus again, “we attain the end of our existence and our rest. Then we no longer sing out of tune, but form a truly divine chorus about Him; in the which chorus dance the soul beholds the Fountain of life 234 the Fountain of intellect, the Principle of Being, the cause of good the root of soul.” 478478 Plotinus, Ennead vi. 9. Compare with this image of the rhythmic dance of things about a divine Corypheus in the midst, those passages in the Apocryphal “Hymn of Jesus” where the Logos or Christ, standing within the circle of disciples, says, “I am the Word who did play and dance all things,” “Now answer to My dancing,” “Understand by dancing what I do.” Again, “Who danceth not knoweth not what is being done.” “I would pipe, dance ye all!” and presently the rubric declares, “All whose Nature is to dance, doth dance!” (See Dr. M. R. James, “Apocrypha Anecdota,” series 2; and G. R. S. Mead, “Echoes from the Gnosis: the Dance of Jesus.” Compare supra, p. 134.) Such a beholding, such a lifting of consciousness from a self-centred to a God-centred world, is of the essence of illumination.
It will be observed that in these passages the claim of the mystic is not yet to supreme communion; the “Spiritual Marriage” of the Christian mystic, or that “flight of the Alone to the Alone” which is the Plotinian image for the utmost bliss of the emancipated soul. He has now got through preliminaries; detached himself from his chief entanglements; re-orientated his instinctive life. The result is a new and solid certitude about God, and his own soul’s relation to God: an “enlightenment” in which he is adjusted to new standards of conduct and thought. In the traditional language of asceticism he is “proficient” but not yet perfect. He achieves a real vision and knowledge, a conscious harmony with the divine World of Becoming: not yet self-loss in the Principle of Life, but rather a willing and harmonious revolution about Him, that “in dancing he may know what is done.” This character distinguishes almost every first-hand description of illumination: and it is this which marks it off from mystic union in all its forms. All pleasurable and exalted states of mystic consciousness in which the sense of I-hood persists, in which there is a loving and joyous relation between the Absolute as object and the self as subject, fall under the head of Illumination: which is really an enormous development of the intuitional life at high levels. All veritable and first-hand apprehensions of the Divine obtained by the use of symbols, as in the religious life; all the degrees of prayer lying between meditation and the prayer of union; many phases of poetic inspiration and “glimpses of truth,” are activities of the illuminated mind.
To “see God in nature,” to attain a radiant consciousness of the “otherness” of natural things, is the simplest and commonest form of illumination. Most people, under the spell of emotion or of beauty, have known flashes of rudimentary vision of this kind. Where such a consciousness is recurrent, as it is in many poets, 479479 For instance, Keats Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Whitman. there results that partial yet often overpowering apprehension of the Infinite Life immanent in all living things, which some modern writers have dignified by the name of “nature-mysticism.” 235 Where it is raised to its highest denomination, till the veil is obliterated by the light behind, and “faith has vanished into sight,” as sometimes happened to Blake, we reach the point at which the mystic swallows up the poet.
“Dear Sir,” says that great genius in one of his most characteristic letters, written immediately after an onset of the illuminated vision which he had lost for many years, “excuse my enthusiasm, or rather madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand.” 480480 “Letters of William Blake,” p. 171. Many a great painter, philosopher, or poet, perhaps every inspired musician, has known this indescribable inebriation of Reality in those moments of transcendence in which his masterpieces were conceived. This is the “saving madness” of which Plato speaks in the “Phaedrus”; the ecstasy of the “God-intoxicated man,” the lover, the prophet, and the poet “drunk with life.” When the Christian mystic, eager for his birthright, says “Sanguis Christi, inebria me!” he is asking for just such a gift of supernal vitality, a draught of that Wine of Absolute Life which runs in the arteries of the world. Those to whom that cup is given attain to an intenser degree of vitality, hence to a more acute degree of perception, a more vivid consciousness, than that which is enjoyed by other men. For though, as Ruysbroeck warns us, this “is not God,” yet it is for many selves “the Light in which we see Him.” 481481 Ruysbroeck, “De vera Contemplatione,” cap. xi.
Blake conceived that it was his vocation to bring this mystical illumination, this heightened vision of reality, within the range of ordinary men: to “cleanse the doors of perception” of the race. They thought him a madman for his pains.
“. . . I rest not upon my great task
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
O Saviour, pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness and love,
The Mysteries of the antique world appear to have been attempts—often by way of a merely magical initiation—to “open the immortal eyes of man inwards”: exalt his powers of perception until they could receive the messages of a higher degree of reality. In spite of much eager theorizing, it is impossible to tell how far they succeeded in this task. To those who had a natural genius for the Infinite, symbols and rituals which were doubtless charged with ecstatic suggestions, and often dramatized the actual course of 236 the Mystic Way, may well have brought some enhancement of consciousness: 483483 Compare E. Rhode, “Psyche,” and J. E. Harrison, “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,” caps, ix., x., and xi.; a work which puts the most favourable construction possible on the meaning of Orphic initiation. though hardly that complete rearrangement of character which is an essential of the mystic’s entrance on the true Illuminated State. Hence Plato only claims that “he whose initiation is recent” can see Immortal Beauty under mortal veils.
“O blessèd he in all wise,
Who hath drunk the Living Fountain
Whose life no folly staineth
And whose soul is near to God:
Whose sins are lifted pall-wise
Thus sang the initiates of Dionysus; that mystery-cult in which the Greeks seem to have expressed all they knew of the possible movement of consciousness through rites of purification to the ecstasy of the Illuminated Life. The mere crude rapture of illumination has seldom been more vividly expressed. With its half-Oriental fervours, its self-regarding glory in personal purification achieved, and the spiritual superiority conferred by adeptship, may be compared the deeper and lovelier experience of the Catholic poet and saint, who represents the spirit of Western mysticism at its best. His sins, too, had been “lifted pall-wise” as a cloud melts in the sunshine of Divine Love: but here the centre of interest is not the little self which has been exalted, but the greater Self which deigns thus to exalt.
“O burn that burns to heal!
O more than pleasant wound!
And O soft hand, O touch most delicate
That dost new life reveal
That dost in grace abound
Here the joy is as passionate, the consciousness of an exalted life as intense: but it is dominated by the distinctive Christian concepts of humility, surrender, and intimate love.
We have seen that all real artists, as well as all pure mystics, are sharers to some degree in the Illuminated Life. They have drunk, with Blake, from that cup of intellectual vision which is the chalice of the Spirit of Life: know something of its divine inebriation whenever Beauty inspires them to create. Some have only sipped 237 it. Some, like John of Parma, have drunk deep, accepting in that act the mystic heritage with all its obligations. But to all who have seen Beauty face to face, the Grail has been administered; and through that sacramental communion they are made participants in the mystery of the world.
In one of the most beautiful passages of the “Fioretti” it is told how Brother Jacques of la Massa, “unto whom God opened the door of His secrets,” saw in a vision this Chalice of the Spirit of Life delivered by Christ into the hands of St. Francis, that he might give his brothers to drink thereof.
“Then came St. Francis to give the chalice of life to his brothers. And he gave it first to Brother John of Parma: who, taking it drank it all in haste, devoutly; and straightway he became all shining like the sun. And after him St. Francis gave it to all the other brothers in order: and there were but few among them that took it with due reverence and devotion and drank it all. Those that took it devoutly and drank it all, became straightway shining like the sun; but those that spilled it all and took it not devoutly, became black, and dark, and misshapen and horrible to see; but those that drank part and spilled part, became partly shining and partly dark, and more so or less according to the measure of their drinking or spilling thereof. But the aforesaid Brother John was resplendent above all the rest; the which had more completely drunk the chalice of life, whereby he had the more deeply gazed into the abyss of the infinite light divine .” 486486 “Fioretti,” cap. xlviii. (Arnold’s translation).
No image, perhaps, could suggest so accurately as this divine picture the conditions of perfect illumination: the drinking deeply, devoutly, and in haste—that is, without prudent and self-regarding hesitation—of the heavenly Wine of Life; that wine of which Rolle says that it “fulfils the soul with a great gladness through a sweet contemplation.” 487487 Horstman, “Richard Rolle of Hampole,” vol. ii. p. 79. John of Parma, the hero of those Spiritual Franciscans in whose interest this exquisite allegory was composed, stands for all the mystics, who, “having completely drunk,” have attained the power of gazing into the abyss of the infinite light divine. In those imperfect brothers who dared not drink the cup of sacrifice to the dregs, but took part and spilled part, so that they became partly shining and partly dark, “according to the measure of their drinking or spilling thereof,” we may see an image of the artist, musician, prophet, poet, dreamer, more or less illuminated according to the measure of courage and self-abandonment in which he has drunk the cup of ecstasy: but always in comparison with the radiance of the pure contemplative, “partly shining and partly dark.” “Hinder me not,” says the soul to the 238 senses in Mechthild of Magdeburg’s vision, “I would drink for a space of the unmingled wine.” 488488 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. i. cap. 43. In the artist, the senses have somewhat hindered the perfect inebriation of the soul.
We have seen that a vast tract of experience—all the experience which results from contact between a purged and heightened consciousness and the World of Becoming in which it is immersed; and much, too, of that which results from contact set up between such a consciousness and the Absolute Itself—is included in that stage of growth which the mystics call the Illuminative Way. This is the largest and most densely populated province of the mystic kingdom. Such different visionaries as Suso and Blake, Boehme and Angela of Foligno, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Fox, Rolle, St. Teresa, and countless others have left us the record of their sojourn therein. Amongst those who cannot be called pure mystics we can detect in the works of Plato and Heracleitus, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Walt Whitman indications that they too were acquainted, beyond most poets and seers, with the phenomena of the illuminated life. In studying it then, we shall be confronted by a mass of apparently irreconcilable material: the results of the relation set up between every degree of lucidity, every kind of character, and the suprasensible world.
To say that God is Infinite is to say that He may be apprehended and described in an infinity of ways. That Circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, may be approached from every angle with a certainty of being found. Mystical history, particularly that which deals with the Illuminative Way, is a demonstration of this fact. Here, in the establishment of the “first mystic life,” of conscious correspondence with Reality, the self which has oscillated between two forms of consciousness, has alternately opposed and embraced its growing intuitions of the Absolute, comes for a time to rest. To a large extent, the discordant elements of character have been purged away. Temporally at least the mind has “unified itself” upon high levels, and attained, as it believes, a genuine consciousness of the divine and veritable world. The depth and richness of its own nature will determine how intense that consciousness shall be.
Whatever its scope, however, this new apprehension of reality generally appears to the illuminated Self as final and complete. As the true lover is always convinced that he has found in his bride the one Rose of the World, so the mystic, in the first glow of his initiation, is sure that his quest is now fulfilled. Ignorant as yet of that consummation of love which overpasses the proceedings of the inward eye and ear, he exclaims with entire assurance “Beati oculi qui exterioribus clausi, interioribus autem sunt 239 intenti,” 489489 “De Imitatione Christi,” I. iii. cap. i. and, absorbed in this new blissful act of vision, forgets that it belongs to those who are still in via . He has yet to pass through that “night of the senses” in which he learns to distinguish the substance of Reality from the accidents under which it is perceived; to discover that the heavenly food here given cannot satisfy his “hunger for the Absolute.” 490490 For the decisive character of this “night of the senses,” see St. John of the Cross, “Noche escura del Alma,” I. i. His true goal lies far beyond this joyful basking in the sunbeams of the Uncreated Light. Only the greatest souls learn this lesson, and tread the whole of that “King’s Highway” which leads man back to his Source. “For the many that come to Bethlehem, there be few that will go on to Calvary.” The rest stay here, in this Earthly Paradise, these flowery fields; where the liberated self wanders at will, describing to us as well as it can now this corner, now that of the Country of the Soul.
It is in these descriptions of the joy of illumination—in the outpourings of love and rapture belonging to this state—that we find the most lyrical passages of mystical literature. Here poet, mystic, and musician are on common ground: for it is only by the oblique methods of the artist, by the use of aesthetic suggestion and musical rhythm, that the wonder of that vision can be expressed. When essential goodness, truth, and beauty—Light, Life, and Love—are apprehended by the heart, whether the heart be that of poet, painter, lover, or saint, that apprehension can only be communicated in a living, that is to say, an artistic form. The natural mind is conscious only of succession: the special differentia of the mystic is the power of apprehending simultaneity. In the peculiarities of the illuminated consciousness we recognize the effort of the mind to bridge the gap between Simultaneity and Succession: the characters of Creator and Creation. Here the successive is called upon to carry the values of the Eternal.
Here, then, genius and sanctity kiss one another; and each, in that sublime encounter, looks for an instant through the other’s eyes. Hence it is natural and inevitable that the mystic should here call into play all the resources of artistic expression: the lovely imagery of Julian and Mechthild of Magdeburg, Suso’s poetic visions, St. Augustine’s fire and light, the heavenly harmonies of St. Francis and Richard Rolle. Symbols, too, play a major part, not only in the description, but also in the machinery of illumination: the intuitions of many mystics presenting themselves directly to the surface-mind in a symbolic form. We must therefore be prepared for a great variety and fluidity of expression, a constant and not always conscious recourse to symbol and image, in those 240 who try to communicate the secret of this state of consciousness. We must examine, and even classify so far as possible, a wide variety of experience—some which is recognized by friends and foes alike as purely “mystical,” some in which the operation of poetic imagination is clearly discernible, some which involves “psychic phenomena” and other abnormal activities of the mind—refusing to be frightened away from investigation by the strange, and apparently irreconcilable character of our material.
There are three main types of experience which appear again and again in the history of mysticism; nearly always in connection with illumination, rather than any other phase of mystical development. I think that they may fairly be regarded as its main characteristics, though the discussion of them cannot cover all the ground. In few forms of spiritual life is the spontaneity of the individual so clearly seen as here: and in few is the ever-deadly process of classification attended with so many risks.
These three characteristics are:—
1. A joyous apprehension of the Absolute: that which many ascetic writers call “the practice of the Presence of God.” This, however, is not to be confused with that unique consciousness of union with the divine which is peculiar to a later stage of mystical development. The self, though purified, still realizes itself as a separate entity over against God. It is not immersed in its Origin, but contemplates it. This is the “betrothal” rather than the “marriage” of the soul.
2. This clarity of vision may also be enjoyed in regard to the phenomenal world. The actual physical perceptions seem to be strangely heightened, so that the self perceives an added significance and reality in all natural things: is often convinced that it knows at last “the secret of the world.” In Blake’s words “the doors of perception are cleansed” so that “everything appears to man as it is , infinite.” 491491 “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” xxii.
In these two forms of perception we see the growing consciousness of the mystic stretching in two directions, until it includes in its span both the World of Being and the World of Becoming; 492492 Vide supra, pp. 42-50 . that dual apprehension of reality as transcendent yet immanent which we found to be one of the distinguishing marks of the mystic type.
3. Along with this two-fold extension of consciousness, the energy of the intuitional or transcendental self may be enormously increased. The psychic upheavals of the Purgative Way have tended to make it central for life: to eliminate from the character all those elements which checked its activity. Now it seizes upon 241 the ordinary channels of expression; and may show itself in such forms as (a) auditions, (b) dialogues between the surface consciousness and another intelligence which purports to be divine, (c) visions, and sometimes (d) in automatic writings. In many selves this automatic activity of those growing but still largely subconscious powers which constitute the “New Man,” increases steadily during the whole of the mystic life.
Illumination, then, tends to appear mainly under one or all of these three forms. Often all are present; though, as a rule, one is dominant. The balance of characteristics will be conditioned in each case by the self’s psychic make-up; its temperamental leaning towards “pure contemplation,” “lucid vision,” or automatic expression; emanation or immanence, the metaphysical, artistic, or intimate aspects of truth. The possible combinations between these various factors are as innumerable as the possible creations of Life itself.
In the wonderful rhapsodies of St. Augustine, in St. Bernard’s converse with the Word, in Angela of Foligno’s apprehensions of Deity, in Richard Rolle’s “state of song,” when “sweetest heavenly melody he took, with him dwelling in mind,” or in Brother Lawrence’s “practice of the Presence of God,” we may see varied expressions of the first type of illuminated consciousness. Jacob Boehme is rightly looked upon as a classic example of the second; which is also found in one of its most attractive forms in St. Francis of Assisi. Suso and St. Teresa, perhaps, may stand for the third, since in them the visionary and auditory phenomena were peculiarly well marked. A further study of each characteristic in order, will help us to disentangle the many threads which go to the psychical make-up of these great and complex mystic types. The rest of this chapter will, then, be given to the analysis of the two chief forms of illuminated consciousness: the self’s perception of Reality in the eternal and temporal worlds. The important subject of voices and visions demands a division to itself.
I. The Consciousness of the Absolute, or “Sense of the Presence of God”
This consciousness, in its various forms and degrees, is perhaps the most constant characteristic of Illumination; and makes it, for the mystic soul, a pleasure-state of the intensest kind. I do not mean by this that the subject passes months or years in a continuous ecstasy of communion with the Divine. Intermittent periods of spiritual fatigue or “aridity”—renewals of the temperamental conflicts experienced in purgation—the oncoming gloom of the Dark Night—all these may be, and often are, experienced 242 at intervals during the Illuminated Life; as flashes of insight, indistinguishable from illumination, constantly break the monotony of the Purgative Way. But a deep certitude of the Personal Life omnipresent in the universe has been achieved; and this can never be forgotten, even though it be withdrawn. The “spirit stretching towards God” declares that it has touched Him; and its normal condition henceforth is joyous consciousness of His Presence with “many privy touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feeling, measured to us as our simpleness may bear it.” 493493 Julian of Norwich, “Revelations,” cap. xliii. Where he prefers less definite or more pantheistic language, the mystic’s perceptions may take the form of “harmony with the Infinite”—the same divine music transposed to a lower key.
This “sense of God” is not a metaphor. Innumerable declarations prove it to be a consciousness as sharp as that which other men have, or think they have, of colour, heat, or light. It is a well-known though usually transitory experience in the religious life: like the homing instinct of birds, a fact which can neither be denied nor explained. “How that presence is felt, it may better be known by experience than by any writing,” says Hilton, “for it is the life and the love, the might and the light, the joy and the rest of a chosen soul. And therefore he that hath soothfastly once felt it he may not forbear it without pain; he may not undesire it, it is so good in itself and so comfortable. . . . He cometh privily sometimes when thou art least aware of Him, but thou shalt well know Him or He go; for wonderfully He stirreth and mightily He turneth thy heart into beholding of His goodness, and doth thine heart melt delectably as wax against the fire into softness of His love.” 494494 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xli.
Modern psychologists have struggled hard to discredit this “sense of the presence”; sometimes attributing it to the psychic mechanism of projection, sometimes to “wish-fulfilments” of a more unpleasant origin. 495495 See Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” Appendix I. “Sentiment de Présence.” For a balanced view, Maréchal, “Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics,” p. 55. See also Poulain, “Les Grâces d’Oraison,” cap. v. The mystics, however, who discriminate so much more delicately than their critics between true and false transcendental experience, never feel any doubt about its validity. Even when their experience seems inconsistent with their theology, they refuse to be disturbed.
Thus St. Teresa writes of her own experience, with her usual simplicity and directness, “In the beginning it happened to me that I was ignorant of one thing—I did not know that God was in all things: and when He seemed to me to be so near, I thought it impossible. Not to believe that He was present was not in my 243 power; for it seemed to me, as it were, evident that I felt there His very presence. Some unlearned men used to say to me, that He was present only by His grace. I could not believe that, because, as I am saying, He seemed to me to be present Himself: so I was distressed. A most learned man, of the Order of the glorious Patriarch St. Dominic, delivered me from this doubt, for he told me that He was present, and how He communed with us: this was a great comfort to me.” 496496 Vida, cap. xviii. § 20.
Again, “An interior peace, and the little strength which either pleasures or displeasures have to remove this presence (during the time it lasts) of the Three Persons, and that without power to doubt of it, continue in such a manner that I clearly seem to experience what St. John says, That He will dwell in the soul, and this not only by grace, but that He will also make her perceive this presence.” 497497 “Letters of St. Teresa” (1581), Dalton’s translation, No. VII. St. Teresa’s strong “immanental” bent comes out well in this passage.
Such a sense of the divine presence may go side by side with the daily life and normal mental activities of its possessor; who is not necessarily an ecstatic or an abstracted visionary, remote from the work of the world. It is true that the transcendental consciousness has now become, once for all, his centre of interest, its perceptions and admonitions dominate and light up his daily life. The object of education, in the Platonic sense, has been achieved: his soul has “wheeled round from the perishing world” to “the contemplation of the real world and the brightest part thereof.” 498498 “Republic,” vii. 518. But where vocation and circumstances require it, the duties of a busy outward life continue to be fulfilled with steadiness and success: and this without detriment to the soul’s contemplation of the Real.
In many temperaments of the unstable or artistic type, however, this intuitional consciousness of the Absolute becomes ungovernable: it constantly breaks through, obtaining forcible possession of the mental field and expressing itself in the “psychic” phenomena of ecstasy and rapture. In others, less mobile, it wells up into an impassioned apprehension, a “flame of love” in which the self seems to “meet God in the ground of the soul.” This is “pure contemplation”: that state of deep orison in which the subject seems to be “seeing, feeling and thinking all at once.” By this spontaneous exercise of all his powers under the dominion of love, the mystic attains that “Vision of the Heart” which, “more interior, perhaps, than the visions of dream or ecstasy,” 499499 Récéjac, “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 151. stretches 244 to the full those very faculties which it seems to be holding in suspense; as a top “sleeps” when it is spinning fast. Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat . This act of contemplation, this glad surrender to an overwhelming consciousness of the Presence of God, leaves no sharp image on the mind: only a knowledge that we have been lifted up, to a veritable gazing upon That which eye hath not seen.
St. Bernard gives in one of his sermons a simple, ingenuous and obviously personal account of such “privy touchings,” such convincing but elusive contacts of the soul with the Absolute. “Now bear with my foolishness for a little,” he says, “for I wish to tell you, as I have promised, how such events have taken place in me. It is, indeed, a matter of no importance. But I put myself forward only that I may be of service to you; and if you derive any benefit I am consoled for my egotism. If not, I shall but have displayed my foolishness. I confess, then, though I say it in my foolishness, that the Word has visited me, and even very often. But, though He has frequently entered into my soul, I have never at any time been sensible of the precise moment of His coming. I have felt that He was present, I remember that He has been with me; I have sometimes been able even to have a presentiment that He would come: but never to feel His coming nor His departure. For whence He came to enter my soul, or whither He went on quitting it, by what means He has made entrance or departure, I confess that I know not even to this day; according to that which is said, Nescis unde veniat aut quo vadat . Nor is this strange, because it is to Him that the psalmist has said in another place, Vestigia tua non cognoscentur .
“It is not by the eyes that He enters, for He is without form or colour that they can discern; nor by the ears, for His coming is without sound; nor by the nostrils, for it is not with the air but with the mind that He is blended. . . . By what avenue then has He entered? Or perhaps the fact may be that He has not entered at all, nor indeed come at all from outside: for not one of these things belongs to outside. Yet it has not come from within me, for it is good, and I know that in me dwelleth no good thing. I have ascended higher than myself, and lo! I have found the Word above me still. My curiosity has led me to descend below myself also, and yet I have found Him still at a lower depth. If I have looked without myself, I have found that He is beyond that which is outside of me, and if within, He was at an inner depth still. And thus have I learned the truth of the words I have read, In ipso enim vivimus et movemur et sumus .” 500500 St. Bernard, “Cantica Canticorum,” Sermon lxxiv. 245
Such a lifting up, such a condition of consciousness as that which St. Bernard is here trying to describe, seems to snatch the spirit for a moment into a state which it is hard to distinguish from that of true “union.” This is what the contemplatives call passive or infused contemplation, or sometimes the “orison of union”: a brief foretaste of the Unitive State, often enjoyed for short periods in the Illuminative Way, which reinforces their conviction that they have now truly attained the Absolute. It is but a foretaste, however, of that attainment: the precocious effort of a soul still in that stage of “Enlightening” which the “Theologia Germanica” declares to be “belonging to such as are growing.” 501501 “Theologia Germanica,” cap. xiv.
This distinction between the temporary experience of union and the achievement of the Unitive Life is well brought out in a fragment of dialogue between Soul and Self in Hugh of St. Victor’s mystical tract, “De Arrha Animae.”
The Soul says, “Tell me, what can be this thing of delight that merely by its memory touches and moves me with such sweetness and violence that I am drawn out of myself and carried away, I know not how? I am suddenly renewed: I am changed: I am plunged into an ineffable peace. My mind is full of gladness, all my past wretchedness and pain is forgot. My soul exults: my intellect is illuminated: my heart is afire: my desires have become kindly and gentle: I know not where I am, because my Love has embraced me. Also, because my Love has embraced me I seem to have become possessed of something, and I know not what it is; but I try to keep it, that I may never lose it. My soul strives in gladness that she may not be separated from That which she desires to hold fast for ever: as if she had found in it the goal of all her desires. She exults in a sovereign and ineffable manner, seeking nought, desiring nought, but to rest in this. Is this, then, my Beloved? Tell me that I may know Him, and that if He come again I may entreat Him to leave me not, but to stay with me for ever.”
Man says, “It is indeed thy Beloved who visits thee; but He comes in an invisible shape, He comes disguised, He comes incomprehensibly. He comes to touch thee, not to be seen of thee: to arouse thee, not to be comprehended of thee. He comes not to give Himself wholly, but to be tasted by thee: not to fulfil thy desire, but to lead upwards thy affection. He gives a foretaste of His delights, brings not the plenitude of a perfect satisfaction: and the earnest of thy betrothal consists chiefly in this, that He who shall afterwards give Himself to be seen and possessed by thee perpetually, now permits Himself to be sometimes tasted, that thou mayest learn how sweet He is. This shall console thee 246 for His absence: and the savour of this gift shall keep thee from all despair.” 502502 Hugh of St. Victor, “De Arrha Animae” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. clxxvi.).
The real distinction between the Illuminative and the Unitive Life is that in Illumination the individuality of the subject—however profound his spiritual consciousness, however close his apparent communion with the Infinite—remains separate and intact. His heightened apprehension of reality lights up rather than obliterates the rest of his life: and may even increase his power of dealing adequately with the accidents of normal existence. Thus Brother Lawrence found that his acute sense of reality, his apprehension of the Presence of God, and the resulting detachment and consciousness of liberty in regard to mundane things, upheld and assisted him in the most unlikely tasks; as, for instance, when he was sent into Burgundy to buy wine for his convent, “which was a very unwelcome task to him, because he had no turn for business, and because he was lame, and could not go about the boat but by rolling himself over the casks. That, however, he gave himself no uneasiness about it, nor about the purchase of the wine. That he said to God, It was His business he was about: and that he afterwards found it very well performed. . . . So likewise in his business in the kitchen, to which he had naturally a great aversion.” 503503 “The Practice of the Presence of God,” Second Conversation.
The mind, concentrated upon a higher object of interest, is undistracted by its own anxieties, likes, or dislikes; and hence performs the more efficiently the work that is given it to do. Where it does not do so, then the normal make-up or imperfect discipline of the subject, rather than its mystical proclivities, must be blamed. St. Catherine of Genoa found in this divine companionship the power which made her hospital a success. St. Teresa was an administrator of genius and an admirable housewife, and declared that she found her God very easily amongst the pots and pans. 504504 St. Teresa, “Las Fundaciones,” cap, v. p. 8. Appearances notwithstanding, Mary would probably have been a better cook than Martha, had circumstances required of her this form of activity.
In persons of feeble or diffuse intelligence, however, and above all in victims of a self-regarding spirituality, this deep absorption in the sense of Divine Reality may easily degenerate into monoideism. Then the “shady side” of Illumination, a selfish preoccupation with transcendental joys, the “spiritual gluttony” condemned by St. John of the Cross, comes out. “I made many mistakes,” says Madame Guyon pathetically, “through allowing myself to 247 be too much taken up by my interior joys. . . . I used to sit in a corner and work, but I could hardly do anything, because the strength of this attraction made me let the work fall out of my hands. I spent hours in this way without being able to open my eyes or to know what was happening to me: so simply, so peacefully, so gently that sometimes I said to myself, ‘Can heaven itself be more peaceful than I?’” 505505 Vie, pt. i. cap. xvii.
Here we see Madame Guyon basking like a pious tabby cat in the beams of the Uncreated Light, and already leaning to the extravagances of Quietism, with its dangerous “double character of passivity and beatitude.” The heroic aspect of the mystic vocation is in abeyance. Those mystical impressions which her peculiar psychic make-up permitted her to receive, have been treated as a source of personal and placid satisfactions; not as a well-spring, whence new vitality might be drawn for great and self-giving activities.
It has been claimed by the early biographers of St. Catherine of Genoa, that she passed in the crisis of her conversion directly through the Purgative to the Unitive Life; and never exhibited the characteristics of the Illuminative Way. This has been effectually disproved by Baron von Hügel, 506506 “Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 105. though he too is inclined in her case to reject the usual sequence of the mystic states. Yet the description of Catherine’s condition after her four great penitential years were ended, as given in cap. vi. of the “Vita e Dottrina,” is an almost perfect picture of healthy illumination of the inward or “immanental” type; and makes an effective foil to the passage which I have quoted from Madame Guyon’s life.
No doubt there were hours in which St. Catherine’s experience, as it were, ran ahead; and she felt herself not merely lit up by the Indwelling Light, but temporally merged in it. These moments are responsible for such passages as the beautiful fragment in cap. v.; which does, when taken alone, seem to describe the true unitive state. “Sometimes,” she said, “I do not see or feel myself to have either soul, body, heart, will or taste, or any other thing except Pure Love.” 507507 “Vita e Dottrina” loc. cit. Her normal condition of consciousness, however, was clearly not yet that which Julian of Norwich calls being “oned with bliss”; but rather an intense and continuous communion with an objective Reality which was clearly realized as distinct from herself. “After the aforesaid four years,” says the next chapter of the “Vita,” “there was given unto her a purified mind, free, and filled with God: insomuch that no other thing 248 could enter into it. Thus, when she heard sermons or Mass, so much was she absorbed in her interior feelings, that she neither heard nor saw that which was said or done without. But within, in the sweet divine light, she saw and heard other things, being wholly absorbed by that interior light: and it was not in her power to act otherwise.” St. Catherine, then, is still a spectator of the Absolute, does not feel herself to be one with it. “And it is a marvellous thing that with so great an interior recollection, the Lord never permitted her to go beyond control. But when she was needed, she always came to herself: so that she was able to reply to that which was asked of her: and the Lord so guided her, that none could complain of her. And she had her mind so filled by Love Divine, that conversation became hard to her: and by this continuous taste and sense of God, several times she was so greatly transported, that she was forced to hide herself, that she might not be seen.” It is clear, however, that Catherine herself was aware of the transitory and imperfect nature of this intensely joyous state. Her growing transcendental self, unsatisfied with the sunshine of the Illuminative Way, the enjoyment of the riches of God, already aspired to union with the Divine. With her, as with all truly heroic souls, it was love for love, not love for joy. “She cried to God because He gave her so many consolations, ‘Non voglio quello che esce da te, ma sol voglio te, O dolce Amore !’” 508508 “I desire not that which comes forth from Thee; but only I desire Thee, O sweetest Love!” (“Vita e Dottrina,” cap. vi ).
“Non voglio quello che esce da te.” When the growing soul has reached this level of desire, the Illuminative Way is nearly at an end. It has seen the goal, “that Country which is no mere vision, but a home,” 509509 Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. xx. Compare St. Teresa: “Rapture is a great help to recognize our true home and to see that we are pilgrims here; it is a great thing to see what is going on there, and to know where we have to live, for if a person has to go and settle in another country, it is a great help to him in undergoing the fatigues of his journey that he has discovered it to be a country where he may live in the most perfect peace” (Vida, cap. xxxviii., § 8). and is set upon the forward march. So Rabia, the Moslem saint: “O my God, my concern and my desire in this world, is that I should remember thee above all the things of this world, and in the next that out of all who are in that world, I should meet with thee alone.” 510510 M. Smith, “Rabia the Mystic,” p. 30. So Gertrude More: “No knowledge which we can here have of thee can satisfy my soul seeking and longing without ceasing after thee. . . . Alas, my Lord God, what is all thou canst give to a loving soul which sigheth and panteth after thee alone, and esteemeth all things as dung that she may gain thee? What is all I say, whilst thou givest not thyself, who art that one thing which is only necessary and which alone can satisfy 249 our souls? Was it any comfort to St. Mary Magdalen, when she sought thee, to find two angels which presented themselves instead of thee? verily I cannot think it was any joy unto her. For that soul that hath set her whole love and desire on thee can never find any true satisfaction but only in thee.” 511511 “Spiritual Exercises,” pp. 26 and 174.
What is the nature of this mysterious mystic illumination? Apart from the certitude it imparts, what is the form which it most usually assumes in the consciousness of the self? The illuminatives seem to assure us that its apparently symbolic name is really descriptive; that they do experience a kind of radiance, a flooding of the personality with new light. A new sun rises above the horizon, and transfigures their twilit world. Over and over again they return to light-imagery in this connection. Frequently, as in their first conversion, they report an actual and overpowering consciousness of radiant light, ineffable in its splendour, as an accompaniment of their inward adjustment.
“Sopr’ onne lengua amore,
bontá senza figura,
lume fuor di mesura
sang Jacopone da Todi. “Light rare, untellable!” said Whitman. “The flowing light of the Godhead,” said Mechthild of Magdeburg, trying to describe what it was that made the difference between her universe and that of normal men. “Lux vixens dicit,” said St. Hildegarde of her revelations, which she described as appearing in a special light, more brilliant than the brightness round the sun. 513513 Pitra, “Analecta S. Hildegardis opera,” p. 332. It is an “infused brightness,” says St. Teresa, “a light which knows no night; but rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it.” 514514 St. Teresa, Vida, cap. xxviii. §§ 7, 8.
“De subito parve giorno a giorno
exclaims Dante, initiated into the atmosphere of heaven; “Lume è lassù”is his constant declaration:
“Cio ch’ io dico è un semplice lume,”
It really seems as though the mystics’ attainment of new levels of consciousness did bring with it the power of perceiving a splendour always there, but beyond the narrow range of our poor sight; to which it is only a “luminous darkness” at the best. 250 “In Eternal Nature, or the kingdom of Heaven,” said Law, “materiality stands in life and light.” 516516 “An Appeal to All who Doubt.” I give the whole passage below, p. 263. The cumulative testimony on this point is such as would be held to prove, in any other department of knowledge, that there is indeed an actual light, “lighting the very light” and awaiting the recognition of men. 517517 It is, of course, arguable that the whole of this light-imagery is ultimately derived from the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel: as the imagery of the Spiritual Marriage is supposed to be derived from the Song of Songs. Some hardy commentators have even found in it evidence of the descent of Christian Mysticism from sun-worship. (See H. F. Dunbar, “Symbolism in Mediaeval Thought”.) But it must be remembered that mystics are essentially realists, always seeking for language adequate to their vision of truth: hence their adoption of this imagery is most simply explained by the fact that it represent something which they know and are struggling to describe.
Consider the accent of realism with which St. Augustine speaks of his own experience of Platonic contemplation; a passage in which we seem to see a born psychologist desperately struggling by means of negations to describe an intensely positive state. “I entered into the secret closet of my soul, led by Thee; and this I could do because Thou wast my helper. I entered, and beheld with the mysterious eye of my soul the Light that never changes, above the eye of my soul, above my intelligence. It was not the common light which all flesh can see, nor was it greater yet of the same kind, as if the light of day were to grow brighter and brighter and flood all space. It was not like this, but different: altogether different from all such things. Nor was it above my intelligence in the same way as oil is above water, or heaven above earth; but it was higher because it made me, and I was lower because made by it. He who knoweth the truth knoweth that Light: and who knoweth it, knoweth eternity. Love knoweth it.” 518518 Aug. Conf., bk. vii. cap. x.
Here, as in the cases of St. Teresa, St. Catherine of Genoa, and Jacopone da Todi, we have a characteristically “immanental” description of the illuminated state. The self, by the process which mystics call “introversion,” the deliberate turning inwards of its attention, its conative powers, discerns Reality within the heart: “the rippling tide of love which flows secretly from God into the soul, and draws it mightily back into its source.” 519519 Mechthild of Magdeburg, op. cit ., pt. vii. 45. But the opposite or transcendental tendency is not less frequent. The cosmic vision of Infinity, exterior to the subject—the expansive, outgoing movement towards a Divine Light,
“Che visible face
lo Creatore a quella creatura,
251 wholly other than anything the earth-born creature can conceive—the strange, formless absorption in the Divine Dark to which the soul is destined to ascend—all these modes of perception are equally characteristic of the Illuminative Way. As in conversion, so here Reality may be apprehended in either transcendent or immanent, positive or negative terms. It is both near and far; “closer to us than our most inward part, and higher than our highest”; 521521 Aug. Conf., bk. iii. cap. 6. and for some selves that which is far is easiest to find. To a certain type of mind, the veritable practice of the Presence of God is not the intimate and adorable companionship of the personal Comrade or the Inward Light, but the awestruck contemplation of the Absolute, the “naked Godhead,” source and origin of all that Is. It is an ascent to the supernal plane of perception, where “the simple, absolute and unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth lie hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty.” 522522 Dionysius the Areopagite, “De Mystica Theologia,” i. 1. (Rolt’s translation.)
With such an experience of eternity, such a vision of the triune all-including Absolute which “binds the Universe with love,” Dante ends his “Divine Comedy”: and the mystic joy with which its memory fills him is his guarantee that he has really seen the Inviolate Rose, the flaming heart of things.
“O abbondante grazia, ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce eterna
tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’ interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna;
Sustanzia ed accidenti, e lor costume,
quasi conflati insieme per tal modo
che ciò ch’ io dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch’ io vidi, perchè più di largo,
dicendo questo, mi sento ch’ io godo.
. . . . .
O, quanto è corto il dire, e come fioco
al mio concetto! e questo, a quel ch’ io vidi,
è tanto che non basta a dicer poco.
O luce eterna, che sola in te sidi,
sola t’ intendi, e, da te intelletta
ed intendente te, ami ed
Par. xxxiii. 82, 121:—
252 In Dante, the transcendent and impersonal aspect of illumination is seen in its most exalted form. It seems at first sight almost impossible to find room within the same system for this expansive vision of the Undifferentiated Light and such intimate and personal apprehensions of Deity as Lady Julian’s conversations with her “courteous and dearworthy Lord,” or St. Catherine’s companionship with Love Divine. Yet all these are really reports of the same psychological state: describe the attainment by selves of different types, of the same stage in the soul’s progressive apprehension of reality.
In a wonderful passage, unique in the literature of mysticism, Angela of Foligno has reported the lucid vision in which she perceived this truth: the twofold revelation of an Absolute at once humble and omnipotent, personal and transcendent—the unimaginable synthesis of “unspeakable power” and “deep humility.”
“The eyes of my soul were opened, and I beheld the plenitude of God, wherein I did comprehend the whole world, both here and beyond the sea, and the abyss and ocean and all things. In all these things I beheld naught save the divine power, in a manner assuredly indescribable; so that through excess of marvelling the soul cried with a loud voice, saying ‘This whole world is full of God!’ 524524 The Latin is more vivid: “Est iste mundus pregnans de Deo.” Wherefore I now comprehended how small a thing is the whole world, that is to say both here and beyond the seas, the abyss, the ocean, and all things; and that the Power of God exceeds and fills all. Then He said unto me: ‘I have shown thee something of My Power,’ and I understood, that after this I should better understand the rest. He then said ‘Behold now My humility.’ Then was I given an insight into the deep humility of God towards man. And comprehending that unspeakable power and beholding that deep humility, my soul marvelled greatly, and did esteem itself to be nothing at all.” 525525 Ste. Angèle de Foligno, “Le Livre de l’Expérience des Vrais Fidèles,” p. 124 (English translation, p. 172).
It must never be forgotten that all apparently one-sided descriptions of illumination—more, all experiences of it—are governed by temperament. “That Light whose smile kindles the Universe” is ever the same; but the self through whom it passes, 253 and by whom we must receive its report, has already submitted to the moulding influences of environment and heredity, Church and State. The very language of which that self avails itself in its struggle for expression, links it with half a hundred philosophies and creeds. The response which it makes to Divine Love will be the same in type as the response which its nature would make to earthly love: but raised to the n th degree. We, receiving the revelation, receive with it all those elements which the subject has contributed in spite of itself. Hence the soul’s apprehension of Divine Reality may take almost any form, from the metaphysical ecstasies which we find in Dionysius, and to a less degree in St. Augustine, to the simple, almost “common-sense” statements of Brother Lawrence, the emotional ardours of St. Gertrude, or the lovely intimacies of Julian or Mechthild.
Sometimes—so rich and varied does the nature of the great mystic tend to be—the exalted and impersonal language of the Dionysian theology goes, with no sense of incongruity, side by side with homely parallels drawn from the most sweet and common incidents of daily life. Suso, in whom illumination and purgation existed side by side for sixteen years, alternately obtaining possession of the mental field, and whose oscillations between the harshest mortification and the most ecstatic pleasure-states were exceptionally violent and swift, is a characteristic instance of such an attitude of mind. His illumination was largely of the intimate and immanental type; but, as we might expect in a pupil of Eckhart, it was not without touches of mystical transcendence, which break out with sudden splendour side by side with those tender and charming passages in which the Servitor of the Eternal Wisdom tries to tell his love.
Thus, he describes in one of the earlier chapters of his life how “whilst he was thinking, according to his custom, of the most lovable Wisdom, he questioned himself, and interrogated his heart, which sought persistently for love, saying, ‘O my heart, whence comes this love and grace, whence comes this gentleness and beauty, this joy and sweetness of the heart? Does not all this flow forth from the Godhead, as from its origin? Come! let my heart, my senses and my soul immerse themselves in the deep Abyss whence come these adorable things. What shall keep me back? To-day I will embrace you, even as my burning heart desires to do.’ And at this moment there was within his heart as it were an emanation of all good, all that is beautiful, all that is lovable and desirable was there spiritually present, and this in a manner which cannot be expressed. Whence came the habit that every time he heard God’s praises sung or said, he recollected himself in the depths of his heart and soul, and thought on that Beloved Object, 254 whence comes all love. It is impossible to tell how often, with eyes filled with tears and open heart, he has embraced his sweet Friend, and pressed Him to a heart overflowing with love. He was like a baby which a mother holds upright on her knees, supporting it with her hands beneath its arms. The baby, by the movements of its little head, and all its little body, tries to get closer and closer to its dear mother, and shows by its little laughing gestures the gladness in its heart. Thus did the heart of the Servitor ever seek the sweet neighbourhood of the Divine Wisdom, and thus he was as it were altogether filled with delight.” 526526 Suso, Leben, cap. iv.
2. The Illuminated Vision of the World
Closely connected with the sense of the “Presence of God,” or power of perceiving the Absolute, is the complementary mark of the illuminated consciousness; the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” or an added significance and reality in the phenomenal world. Such words as those of Julian, “God is all thing that is good as to my sight, and the goodness that all thing hath, it is He,” 527527 “Revelations,” cap. viii. seem to supply the link between the two. Here again we must distinguish carefully between vaguely poetic language—“the light that never was,” “every common bush afire with God”—and descriptions which can be referred to a concrete and definite psychological experience. This experience, at its best, balances and completes the experience of the Presence of God at its best. That is to say, its “note” is sacramental, not ascetic. It entails the expansion rather than the concentration of consciousness; the discovery of the Perfect One self-revealed in the Many, not the forsaking of the Many in order to find the One. Its characteristic expression is—
“The World is charged with the grandeur of God;
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,”
not “turn thy thoughts into thy own soul, where He is hid.” It takes, as a rule, the form of an enhanced mental lucidity—an abnormal sharpening of the senses—whereby an ineffable radiance, a beauty and a reality never before suspected, are perceived by a sort of clairvoyance shining in the meanest things.
“From the moment in which the soul has received the impression of Deity in infused orison,” says Malaval, “she sees Him everywhere, by one of love’s secrets which is only known of those who have experienced it. The simple vision of pure love, which is 255 marvellously penetrating, does not stop at the outer husk of creation: it penetrates to the divinity which is hidden within.” 528528 Malaval, “De l’Oraison Ordinaire” (“La Pratique de la Vraye Theologie Mystique,” vol. i. p. 342).
Thus Browning makes David declare—
“I but open my eyes,—and perfection, no more and no less
In the kind I imagined full-fronts me, and God is seen God
Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand,” Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” Vaughan’s “Each bush and oak doth know I AM,” and the like, are exact though over-quoted reports of “things seen” in this state of consciousness, this “simple vision of pure love”: the value of which is summed up in Eckhart’s profound saying, “The meanest thing that one knows in God—for instance if one could understand a flower as it has its Being in God—this would be a higher thing than the whole world!” 530530 Meister Eckhart (“Mystische Schriften,” p. 137). Mystical poets of the type of Wordsworth and Walt Whitman seem to possess in a certain degree this form of illumination. It is this which Bucke, the American psychologist, analysed under the name of “Cosmic Consciousness.” 531531 Vide supra, pt. II. Cap. II., the cases of Richard Jefferies, Brother Lawrence, and others. It is seen at its full development in the mystical experiences of Boehme, Fox, and Blake.
We will take first the experience of Jacob Boehme, a mystic who owed little or nothing to the influence of tradition, and who furnishes one of the best recorded all-round examples of mystical illumination; exhibiting, along with an acute consciousness of divine companionship, all those phenomena of visual lucidity, automatism, and enhanced intellectual powers which properly belong to it, but are seldom developed simultaneously in the same individual.
In Boehme’s life, as described in the Introduction to the English translation of his collected works, 532532 The Works of Jacob Boehme, 4 vols., 1764, vol. i. pp. xii., etc. there were three distinct onsets of illumination; all of the pantheistic and external type. In the first, which seems to have happened whilst he was very young, we are told that “he was surrounded by a divine Light for seven days, and stood in the highest contemplation and Kingdom of Joy.” This we may perhaps identify with mystical awakening, of the kind experienced by Suso. About the year 1600 occurred the second illumination, initiated by a trance-like state of consciousness, the result of gazing at a polished disc. To this I have already referred. 533533 Supra , p. 58. This experience brought with it that peculiar and lucid 256 vision of the inner reality of the phenomenal world in which, as he says, “he looked into the deepest foundations of things.” “He believed that it was only a fancy, and in order to banish it from his mind he went out upon the green. But here he remarked that he gazed into the very heart of things, the very herbs and grass, and that actual Nature harmonized with what he had inwardly seen.” 534534 Martensen, “Jacob Boehme,” p. 7. Of this same experience and the clairvoyance which accompanied it, another biographer says, “Going abroad in the fields to a green before Neys Gate, at Görlitz, he there sat down, and, viewing the herbs and grass of the field in his inward light, he saw into their essences, use and properties, which were discovered to him by their lineaments, figures and signatures. . . . In the unfolding of these mysteries before his understanding, he had a great measure of joy, yet returned home and took care of his family and lived in great peace and silence, scarce intimating to any these wonderful things that had befallen him.” 535535 “Life of Jacob Boehme,” pp. xiii. and xiv. in vol. i. of his Collected Works, English translation.
So far as we can tell from his own scattered statements, from this time onwards Boehme must have enjoyed a frequent and growing consciousness of the transcendental world: though there is evidence that he, like all other mystics, knew seasons of darkness, “many a shrewd Repulse,” and times of struggle with that “powerful contrarium” the lower consciousness. In 1610—perhaps as the result of such intermittent struggles—the vivid illumination of ten years before was repeated in an enhanced form: and it was in consequence of this, and in order that there might be some record of the mysteries upon which he had gazed, that he wrote his first and most difficult book, the “Aurora,” or “Morning Redness.” The passage in which the “inspired shoemaker” has tried to tell us what his vision of Reality was like, to communicate something of the grave and enthusiastic travail of his being, the unspeakable knowledge of things which he attained, is one of those which arouse in all who have even the rudiments of mystical perception the sorrow and excitement of exiles who suddenly hear the accents of home. Like absolute music, it addresses itself to the whole being, not merely to the intellect. Those who will listen and be receptive will find themselves repaid by a strange sense of extended life, an exhilarating consciousness of truth. Here, if ever, is a man who is struggling to “speak as he saw”: and it is plain that he saw much—as much, perhaps, as Dante, though he lacked the poetic genius which was needed to give his vision an intelligible form. The very strangeness of the phrasing, the unexpected harmonies and dissonances which worry polite 257 and well-regulated minds, are earnests of the Spirit of Life crying out for expression from within. Boehme, like Blake, seems “drunk with intellectual vision”—“a God-intoxicated man.”
“In this my earnest and Christian Seeking and Desire,” he says, “(wherein I suffered many a shrewd Repulse, but at last resolved rather to put myself in Hazard, than give over and leave off) the Gate was opened to me, that in one Quarter of an Hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at an University, at which I exceedingly admired, and thereupon turned my Praise to God for it. For I saw and knew the Being of all Beings, the Byss and the Abyss, and the Eternal Generation of the Holy Trinity, the Descent and Original of the World, and of all creatures through the Divine Wisdom: knew and saw in myself all the three Worlds, namely, The Divine, angelical and paradisical; and the dark World, the Original of the Nature to the Fire; and then, thirdly, the external; and visible World, being a Procreation or external Birth from both the internal and spiritual Worlds. And I saw and knew the whole working Essence in the Evil and the Good, and the Original and Existence of each of them; and likewise how the fruitful bearing Womb of Eternity brought forth. . . . Yet however I must begin to labour in these great mysteries, as a Child that goes to School. I saw it as in a great Deep in the Internal. For I had a thorough view of the Universe, as in a Chaos, wherein all things are couched and wrapped up, but it was impossible for me to explain the same. Yet it opened itself to me, from Time to Time, as in a Young Plant; though the same was with me for the space of twelve years, and as it was as it were breeding, and I found a powerful Instigation within me, before I could bring it forth into external Form of Writing: and whatever I could apprehend with the external Principle of my mind, that I wrote down.” 536536 Op. cit ., p. xv.
Close to this lucid vision of the reality of things—this sudden glimpse of the phenomenal in the light of the intelligible world—is George Fox’s experience at the age of twenty-four, as recorded in his Journal. 537537 Vol. I. cap. ii. Here, as in Boehme’s case, it is clear that a previous and regrettable acquaintance with the “doctrine of signatures” has to some extent determined the language and symbols under which he describes his intuitive vision of actuality as it exists in the Divine Mind.
“Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the Paradise of God. All things were new: and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. . . . The creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them, according to their 258 nature and virtue. And I was at a stand in my mind whether I should practise physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtue of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord. . . . Great things did the Lord lead me unto, and wonderful depths were opened unto me beyond what can by words be declared; but as people come into subjection to the Spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the word of wisdom that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being.”
“To know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being”—know it with an invulnerable certainty, in the all-embracing act of consciousness with which we are aware of the personality of those we truly love—is to live at its fullest the Illuminated Life, enjoying “all creatures in God and God in all creatures.” Lucidity of this sort seemes to be an enormously enhanced form of the poetic consciousness of “otherness” in natural things—the sense of a unity in separateness, a mighty and actual Life beyond that which eye can see, a glorious reality shining through the phenomenal veil—frequent in those temperaments which are at one with life. The self then becomes conscious of the living reality of that World of Becoming, the vast arena of the Divine creativity, in which the little individual life is immersed. Alike in howling gale and singing cricket it hears the crying aloud of that “Word which is through all things everlastingly.” It participates, actively and open-eyed, in the mighty journey of the Son towards the Father’s heart: and seeing with purged sight all things and creatures as they are in that transcendent order, detects in them too that striving of Creation to return to its centre which is the secret of the Universe.
A harmony is thus set up between the mystic and Life in all its forms. Undistracted by appearance, he sees, feels, and knows it in one piercing act of loving comprehension. “And the bodily sight stinted,” says Julian, “but the spiritual sight dwelled in mine understanding, and I abode with reverent dread joying in that I saw.” 538538 “Revelations,” cap. viii. The heart outstrips the clumsy senses, and sees—perhaps for an instant, perhaps for long periods of bliss—an undistorted and more veritable world. All things are perceived in the light of charity, and hence under the aspect of beauty: for beauty is simply Reality seen with the eyes of love. As in the case of another and more beatific Vision, essere in caritate è qui necesse539539 Par. iii. 77. For such a reverent and joyous sight the meanest accidents of life are radiant. The London streets are paths of loveliness; the very omnibuses look like coloured archangels, their laps filled full of little trustful souls. 259
Often when we blame our artists for painting ugly things, they are but striving to show us a beauty to which we are blind. They have gone on ahead of us, and attained that state of “fourfold vision to which Blake laid claim; in which the visionary sees the whole visible universe transfigured, because he has “put off the rotten rags of sense and memory,” and “put on Imagination uncorrupt.” 540540 “Letters of William Blake,” p. 111. In this state of lucidity symbol and reality, Nature and Imagination, are seen to be One: and in it are produced all the more sublime works of art, since these owe their greatness to the impact of Reality upon the artistic mind. “I know,” says Blake again, “that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eye of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the sun and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.” 541541 Op. cit., p. 62.
If the Mystic Way be considered as an organic process of transcendence, this illuminated apprehension of things, this cleansing of the doors of perception, is surely what we might expect to occur as man moves towards higher centres of consciousness. It marks the self’s growth towards free and conscious participation in the Absolute Life; its progressive appropriation of that life by means of the contact which exists in the deeps of man’s being—the ground or spark of the soul—between the subject and the transcendental world. The surface intelligence, purified from the domination of the senses, is invaded more and more by the transcendent personality; the “New Man” who is by nature a denizen of the independent spiritual world, and whose destiny, in mystical language, is a “return to his Origin.” Hence an inflow of new vitality, a deeper and wider apprehension of the mysterious world in which man finds himself, an exaltation of his intuitive powers.
In such moments of clear sight and enhanced perception as that which Blake and Boehme describe, the mystic and the artist do really see sub specie aeternitatis the Four-fold River of Life—that World of Becoming in which, as Erigena says, “Every visible and invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God”— 260 as all perhaps might see it, if prejudice, selfhood, or other illusion did not distort our sight. From this loving vision there comes very often that beautiful sympathy with, that abnormal power over, all living natural things, which crops up again and again in the lives of the mystical saints; to amaze the sluggish minds of common men, barred by “the torrent of Use and Wont” 542542 Aug. Conf., bk. I. cap. xvi. from all free and deep communion alike with their natural and supernatural origin.
Yet it is surely not very amazing that St. Francis of Assisi, feeling and knowing—not merely “believing”—that every living creature was veritably and actually a “theophany or appearance of God,” should have been acutely conscious that he shared with these brothers and sisters of his the great and lovely life of the All. Nor, this being so, can we justly regard him as eccentric because he acted in accordance with his convictions, preached to his little sisters the birds, 543543 “Fioretti,” cap. xiv. availed himself of the kindly offices of the falcon, 544544 Ibid., “Delle Istimate,” 2, and Thomas of Celano, Vita Secunda, cap, xccvii. enjoyed the friendship of the pheasant, 545545 Thomas of Celano, op. cit., cap. cxxix. soothed the captured turtledoves, his “simple-minded sisters, innocent and chaste,” 546546 “Fioretti,” cap. xxii. or persuaded his Brother Wolf to a better life. 547547 Ibid., cap. xxi.
The true mystic, so often taunted with “a denial of the world,” does but deny the narrow and artificial world of self: and finds in exchange the secrets of that mighty universe which he shares with Nature and with God. Strange contacts, unknown to those who only lead the life of sense, are set up between his being and the being of all other things. In that remaking of his consciousness which follows upon the “mystical awakening,” the deep and primal life which he shares with all creation has been roused from its sleep. Hence the barrier between human and non-human life, which makes man a stranger on earth as well as in heaven, is done away. Life now whispers to his life: all things are his intimates, and respond to his fraternal sympathy.
Thus it seems quite a simple and natural thing to the Little Poor Man of Assisi, whose friend the pheasant preferred his cell to “the haunts more natural to its state,” that he should be ambassador from the terrified folk of Gubbio to his formidable brother the Wolf. The result of the interview, reduced to ordinary language, could be paralleled in the experience of many persons who have possessed this strange and incommunicable power over animal life.
“O wondrous thing! whereas St. Francis had made the sign of the Cross, right so the terrible wolf shut his jaws and stayed his running: and when he was bid, came gently as a lamb and laid 261 him down at the feet of St. Francis. . . . And St. Francis stretching forth his hand to take pledge of his troth, the wolf lifted up his right paw before him and laid it gently on the hand of St. Francis, giving thereby such sign of good faith as he was able. Then quoth St. Francis, ‘Brother Wolf, I bid thee in the name of Jesu Christ come now with me, nothing doubting, and let us go stablish this peace in God’s name.’ And the wolf obedient set forth with him, in fashion as a gentle lamb; whereat the townsfolk made mighty marvel, beholding. . . . And thereafter this same wolf lived two years in Agobio; and went like a tame beast in and out the houses from door to door, without doing hurt to any, or any doing hurt to him, and was courteously nourished by the people; and as he passed thus wise through the country and the houses, never did any dog bark behind him. At length after a two years space, brother wolf died of old age: whereat the townsfolk sorely grieved, sith marking him pass so gently through the city, they minded them the better of the virtue and the sanctity of St. Francis.” 548548 Fioretti,” cap. xxi (Arnold’s translation). Perhaps I may be allowed to remind the incredulous reader that the discovery of a large wolf’s scull in Gubbio close to the spot in which Brother Wolf is said to have lived in a cave for two years after his taming by the Saint, has done something to vindicate the truth of this beautiful story.
In another mystic, less familiar than St. Francis to English readers—Rose of Lima, the Peruvian saint—this deep sympathy with natural things assumed a particularly lovely form. To St. Rose the whole world was a holy fairyland, in which it seemed to her that every living thing turned its face towards Eternity and joined in her adoration of God. It is said in her biography that “when at sunrise, she passed through the garden to go to her retreat, she called upon nature to praise with her the Author of all things. Then the trees were seen to bow as she passed by, and clasp their leaves together, making a harmonious sound. The flowers swayed upon their stalks, and opened their blossoms that they might scent the air; thus according to their manner praising God. At the same time the birds began to sing, and came and perched upon the hands and shoulders of Rose. The insects greeted her with a joyous murmur, and all which had life and movement joined in the concert of praise she addressed to the Lord.” 549549 De Bussierre, “Le Pérou et Ste. Rose de Lime,” p. 256.
Again—and here we catch an echo of the pure Franciscan spirit, the gaiety of the Troubadours of God—during her last Lent, “each evening at sunset a little bird with an enchanting voice came and perched upon a tree beside her window, and waited till she gave the sign to him to sing. Rose, as soon as she saw her little feathered chorister, made herself ready to sing the praises of God, and challenged the bird to this musical duel in a song which she had 262 composed for this purpose. ‘Begin, dear little bird,’ she said, ‘begin thy lovely song! Let thy little throat, so full of sweet melodies, pour them forth: that together we may praise the Lord. Thou dost praise thy Creator, I my sweet Saviour: thus we together bless the Deity. Open thy little beak, begin and I will follow thee: and our voices shall blend in a song of holy joy.’
“At once the little bird began to sing, running through his scale to the highest note. Then he ceased, that the saint might sing in her turn . . . thus did they celebrate the greatness of God, turn by turn, for a whole hour: and with such perfect order, that when the bird sang Rose said nothing, and when she sang in her turn the bird was silent, and listened to her with a marvellous attention. At last, towards the sixth hour, the saint dismissed him, saying, ‘Go, my little chorister, go, fly far away. But blessed be my God who never leaves me!’’’ 550550 De Bussierre, “Le Pérou et Ste. Rose de Lime,” p. 415.
The mystic whose illumination takes such forms as these, who feels with this intensity and closeness the bond of love which “binds in one book the scattered leaves of all the universe,” dwells in a world unknown to other men. He pierces the veil of imperfection, and beholds Creation with the Creator’s eye. The “Pattern is shown him in the Mount.” “The whole consciousness,” says Récéjac, “is flooded with light to unknown depths, under the gaze of love, from which nothing escapes. In this stage, intensity of vision and sureness of judgment are equal: and the things which the seer brings back with him when he returns to common life are not merely partial impressions, or the separate knowledge of ‘science’ or ‘poetry.’ They are rather truths which embrace the world, life and conduct: in a word, the whole consciousness .” 551551 “Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique,” p. 113.
It is curious to note in those diagrams of experience which we have inherited from the more clear-sighted philosophers and seers, indications that they have enjoyed prolonged or transitory periods of this higher consciousness; described by Récéjac as the marriage of imaginative vision with moral transcendence. I think it at least a reasonable supposition that Plato’s doctrine of Ideas owed something to an intuition of this kind; for a philosophy, though it may claim to be the child of pure reason, is usually found to owe its distinctive character to the philosopher’s psychological experience. The Platonic statements as to the veritable existence of the Idea of a house, a table, or a bed, and other such concrete and practical applications of the doctrine of the ideal, which have annoyed many metaphysicians, become explicable on such a psychological basis. That illuminated vision in which “all things are made new” can afford to embrace the homeliest as well as the sublimest things; 263 and, as a matter of experience, it does do this, seeing all objects, as Monet saw the hayrick, as “modes of light.” Blake said that his cottage at Felpham was a shadow of the angels’ houses, 552552 Letters, p. 75. and I have already referred to the converted Methodist who saw his horses and hogs on the ideal plane. 553553 Vide supra, p. 192.
Again, when Plotinus, who is known to have experienced ecstatic states, speaks with the assurance of an explorer of an “intelligible world,” and asks us, “What other fire could be a better image of the fire which is there, than the fire which is here? Or what other earth than this, of the earth which is there?” 554554 Ennead ii. 9. 4. we seem to detect behind the language of Neoplatonic philosophy a hint of the same type of first-hand experience. The minds to whom we owe the Hebrew Kabalah found room for it too in their diagram of the soul’s ascent towards Reality. The first “Sephira” above Malkuth, the World of Matter, or lowest plane upon that Tree of Life which is formed by the ten emanations of the Godhead is, they say, “Yesod,” the “archetypal universe.” In this are contained the realities, patterns, or Ideas, whose shadows constitute the world of appearance in which we dwell. The path of the ascending soul upon the Tree of Life leads him first from Malkuth to Yesod: i.e. , human consciousness in the course of its transcendence passes from the normal illusions of men to a deeper perception of its environment—a perception which is symbolized by the “archetypal plane” or world of Platonic Ideas. “Everything in temporal nature,” says William Law, “is descended out of that which is eternal, and stands as a palpable visible outbirth of it, so when we know how to separate the grossness, death, and darkness of time from it, we find what it is in its eternal state. . . . In Eternal Nature, or the Kingdom of Heaven, materiality stands in life and light; it is the light’s glorious Body, or that garment wherewith light is clothed, and therefore has all the properties of light in it, and only differs from light as it is its brightness and beauty, as the holder and displayer of all its colours, powers, and virtues.” 555555 “An Appeal to All who Doubt” (Liberal and Mystical Writings of William Law, p. 52). When Law wrote this, he may have believed that he was interpreting to English readers the unique message of his master, Jacob Boehme. As a matter of fact he was reiterating truths which a long line of practical mystics had been crying for centuries into the deaf ears of mankind. He was saying in the eighteenth century what Gregory of Nyssa had said in the fourth and Erigena in the ninth; telling the secret of that “Inviolate Rose” which can never be profaned because it can only be seen with the eyes of love. 264
That serene and illuminated consciousness of the relation of things inward and outward—of the Hidden Treasure and its Casket, the energizing Absolute and its expression in Time and Space—which we have been studying in this chapter, is at its best a state of fine equilibrium; a sane adjustment of the inner and outer life. By that synthesis of love and will which is the secret of the heart, the mystic achieves a level of perception in which the whole world is seen and known in God, and God is seen and known in the whole world. It is a state of exalted emotion: being produced by love, of necessity it produces love in its turn. The sharp division between its inlooking and outlooking forms which I have adopted for convenience of description, is seldom present to the minds which achieve it. They, “cleansed, fed, and sanctified,” are initiated into a spiritual universe where such clumsy distinctions have little meaning. All is alike part of the “new life” of peaceful charity: and that progressive abolition of selfhood which is of the essence of mystical development, is alone enough to prevent them from drawing a line between the inward personal companionship and outward impersonal apprehension of the Real. True Illumination, like all real and vital experience, consists rather in the breathing of a certain atmosphere, the living at certain levels of consciousness, than in the acquirement of specific information. It is, as it were, a resting-place upon “the steep stairway of love”; where the self turns and sees all about it a transfigured universe, radiant with that same Light Divine which nests in its own heart and leads it on.
“When man’s desires are fixed immovably on his Maker as far as for deadliness and corruption of the flesh he is let,” says Rolle of the purified soul which has attained the illuminated state, “then it is no marvel that his strength manly using, first as it were heaven being opened, with his understanding he beholds high heavenly citizens; and afterwards sweetest heat, as it were burning fire, he feels. Then with marvellous sweetness he is taught, and so forth in songful noise he is joyed. This, therefore, is perfect charity, which no man knows but he that hath it took. And he that it has taken, it never leaves: sweetly he lives and sickerly he shall die.” 556556 Rolle, “The Fire of love,” bk. i. cap. xix.
Sweetly, it is true, the illuminated mystic may live; but not, as some think, placidly. Enlightenment is a symptom of growth: and growth is a living process, which knows no rest. The spirit, indeed, is invaded by a heavenly peace; but it is the peace, not of idleness, but of ordered activity. “A rest most busy,” in Hilton’s words: a progressive appropriation of the Divine. The urgent push of an indwelling spirit, aspiring to its home in the heart of Reality, is felt more and more, as the invasion of the normal consciousnesss 265 by the transcendental personality—the growth of the New Man—proceeds towards its term.
Therefore the great seekers for reality are not as a rule long delayed by the exalted joys of Illumination. Intensely aware now of the Absolute Whom they adore, they are aware too that though known He is unachieved. Even whilst they enjoy the rapture of the Divine Presence—of life in a divine, ideal world—something, they feel, makes default. Sol voglio Te, O dolce Amore. Hence for them that which they now enjoy, and which passes the understanding of other men, is not a static condition; often it coexists with that travail of the heart which Tauler has called “stormy love.” The greater the mystic, the sooner he realizes that the Heavenly Manna which has been administered to him is not yet That with which the angels are full fed. Nothing less will do: and for him the progress of illumination is a progressive consciousness that he is destined not for the sunny shores of the spiritual universe, but for “the vast and stormy sea of the divine.”
“Here,” says Ruysbroeck of the soul which has been lit by the Uncreated Light, “there begins an eternal hunger, which shall never more be satisfied. It is the inward craving and hankering of the affective power and created spirit after an Uncreated Good. And as the spirit longs for fruition, and is invited and urged thereto by God, she must always desire to attain it. Behold! here begin an eternal craving and continual yearning in eternal insatiableness! These men are poor indeed: for they are hungry and greedy, and their hunger is insatiable! Whatsoever they eat and drink they shall never be satisfied, for this hunger is eternal. . . . Here are great dishes of food and drink, of which none know but those who taste them; but full satisfaction in fruition is the one dish that lacks them, and this is why their hunger is ever renewed. Nevertheless in this contact rivers of honey full of all delight flow forth; for the spirit tastes these riches under every mode that it can conceive or apprehend. But all this is according to the manner of the creatures, and is below God: and hence there remains an eternal hunger and impatience. If God gave to such a man all the gifts which all the saints possess, and all that He is able to give, but without giving Himself, the craving desire of the spirit would remain hungry and unsatisfied.” 557557 “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap, liii.
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