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revelation. The need of sacraments is one of the deepest convictions
of the religious consciousness. It rests ultimately on the instinctive
reluctance to allow any spiritual fact to remain without an external
expression. It is obvious that all morality depends on the application
of this principle to conduct. All voluntary external acts are symbolic
of (that is, vitally connected with) internal states, and cannot be
divested of this their essential character. It may be impossible to
show how an act of the material body can purify or defile the
immaterial spirit; but the correspondence between the outward and
inward life cannot be denied without divesting morality of all
meaning. The maxim of Plotinus, that "the mind can do no wrong," when
transferred from his transcendental philosophy to matters of conduct,
is a sophism no more respectable than that which Euripides puts into
the mouth of one of his characters: "The tongue hath sworn; the heart
remains unsworn." Every act of the will is the expression of a state
of the soul; and every state of the soul must seek to find expression
in an act of the will. Love, as we should all admit, is not love, so
long as it is content to be only in thought, or "in word and in
tongue"; it is only when it is love "in deed" that it is love "in
truth.[325]" And it is the same with all other virtues, which are in
this sense symbolic, as implying something beyond the external act.
Nearly all the states or motions of the soul can find their
appropriate expression in action. Charity in its manifold forms need
not seek long for an object; and thankfulness and penitence, though
they drive us first to silent prayer, are not satisfied till they have
borne fruit in some act of gratitude or humility. But that deepest
sense of communion with God, which is the very heart of religion, is
in danger of being shut up in thought and word, which are inadequate
expressions of any spiritual state. No doubt this highest state of the
soul may find indirect expression in good works; but these fail to
express the _immediacy_ of the communion which the soul has felt. The
want of symbols to express these highest states of the soul is
supplied by sacraments. A sacrament is a symbolic act, not arbitrarily
chosen, but resting, to the mind of the recipient, on Divine
authority, which has no ulterior object except to give expression to,
and in so doing to effectuate,[326] a relation which is too purely
spiritual to find utterance in the customary activities of life. There
are three requisites (on the human side) for the validity of a
sacramental act. The symbol must be appropriate; the thing symbolised
must be a spiritual truth; and there must be the intention to perform
the act _as_ a sacrament.

The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper fulfil these
conditions. Both are symbols of the mystical union between the
Christian and his ascended Lord. Baptism symbolises that union in its
inception, the Eucharist in its organic life. Baptism is received but
once, because the death unto sin and the new birth unto righteousness
is a definite entrance into the spiritual life, rather than a gradual
process. The fact that in Christian countries Baptism in most cases
precedes conversion does not alter the character of the sacrament;
indeed, infant Baptism is by far the most appropriate symbol of our
adoption into the Divine Sonship, to which we only consent after the
event. It is only because we are already sons that we can say, "I will
arise, and go unto my Father." The Holy Communion is the symbol of the
maintenance of the mystical union, and of the "strengthening and
refreshing of our souls," which we derive from the indwelling presence
of our Lord. The Church claims an absolute prerogative for its duly
ordained ministers in the case of this sacrament, because the common
meal is the symbol of the organic unity of Christ and the Church as
"unus Christus," a doctrine which the schismatic, as such,
denies.[327] The communicant who believes only in an individual
relation between Christ and separate persons, or in an "invisible
Church," does not understand the meaning of the sacrament of the
Lord's Supper, and can hardly be said to participate in it.

There are two views of this sacrament which the "plain man" has always
found much easier to understand than the symbolic view which is that
of our Church. One is that it is a miracle or magical performance, the
other is that it is a mere commemoration. Both are absolutely
destructive of the idea of a sacrament. The latter view, that of some
Protestant sects, was quite foreign to the early Church, so far as our
evidence goes; the former, it is only just to say, is found in many of
the Fathers, not in the grossly materialistic form which it afterwards
assumed, but in such phrases as "the medicine of immortality" applied
to the consecrated elements, where we are meant to understand that the
elements have a mysterious power of preserving the receiver from the
natural consequences of death.[328] But when we find that the same
writers who use compromising phrases about the change that comes over
the elements,[329] also use the language of symbolism, and remember,
too, that a "miracle" was a very different thing to those who knew of
no inflexible laws in the natural world from what it is to us, we
shall not be ready to agree with those who have accused the third and
fourth century Fathers of degrading the Lord's Supper into a magical

Most of the errors which have so grievously obscured the true nature
of this sacrament have proceeded from attempts to answer the question,
"How does the reception of the consecrated elements affect the inner
state of the receiver?" To those who hold the symbolic view, as I
understand it, it seems clear that the question of cause and effect
must be resolutely cast aside. The reciprocal action of spirit and
matter is the one great mystery which, to all appearance, must remain
impenetrable to the finite intelligence. We do not ask whether the
soul is the cause of the body, or the body of the soul; we only know
that the two are found, in experience, always united. In the same way
we should abstain, I think, from speculating on the effect of the
sacraments, and train ourselves instead to consider them as
divinely-ordered symbols, by which the Church, as an organic whole,
and we as members of it, realise the highest and deepest of our
spiritual privileges.

There are other religious forms for which no Divine institution is
claimed, but which have a quasi-sacramental value. And those who,
"whether they eat, or drink, or whatever they do," do all to the glory
of God, may be said to turn the commonest acts into sacraments. To the
true mystic, life itself is a sacrament. It is natural, but
unfortunate, that some of those who have felt this most strongly have
shown a tendency to disparage observances which are simply acts of
devotion, "mere forms," as they call them. The attempt to distinguish
between conventional ceremonies, which have no essential connexion
with the truth symbolised, and actions which are in themselves moral
or immoral, is no doubt justifiable, but it should be remembered that
this is the way in which antinomianism takes its rise. Many have begun
by saying, "The heart, the motive, is all, the external act nothing;
the spirit is all, the letter nothing. What can it matter whether I
say my prayers in church or at home, on my knees or in bed, in words
or in thought only? What can it matter whether the Eucharistic bread
and wine are consecrated or not? whether I actually eat and drink or
not?" And so on. The descent to Avernus is easy by this road. Perhaps
no sect that has professed contempt for all ceremonial forms has
escaped at least the imputation of scandalous licentiousness, with the
honourable exception of the Quakers. The truth is that the need of
symbols to express or represent our highest emotions is inwoven with
human nature, and indifference to them is not, as many have supposed,
a sign of enlightenment or of spirituality. It is, in fact, an
unhealthy symptom. We do not credit a man with a warm heart who does
not care to show his love in word and act; nor should we commend the
common sense of a soldier who saw in his regimental colours only a rag
at the end of a pole. It is one of the points in which we must be
content to be children, and should be thankful that we may remain
children with a clear conscience.

I do not shrink from expressing my conviction that the true meaning
of our sacramental system, which in its external forms is so strangely
anticipated by the Greek mysteries, and in its inward significance
strikes down to the fundamental principles of mystical Christianity,
can only be understood by those who are in some sympathy with
Mysticism. But it has not been possible to say much about the
sacraments sooner than this late stage of our inquiry. We have
hitherto been dealing with the subjective or introspective type of
Mysticism, and it is plain that this form, when carried to its logical
conclusion, is inconsistent with sacramental religion. Those who seek
to ascend to God by the way of abstraction, the negative road, must
regard all symbols as veils between our eyes and reality, and must
wish to get rid of them as soon as possible. From this point of view,
sacraments, like other ceremonial forms, can only be useful at a very
early stage in the upward path, which leads us ultimately into a
Divine darkness, where no forms can be distinguished. It is true that
some devout mystics of this type have both observed and exacted a
punctilious strictness in using all the appointed means of grace; but
this inconsistency is easily accounted for.[330] The pressure of
authority, loyalty to the established order, and human nature, which
is stronger than either, has prevented them from casting away the
time-honoured symbols and vehicles of Divine love. But a true
appreciation of sacraments belongs only to those who can sympathise
with the other branch of Mysticism - that which rests on belief in
symbolism. To this branch of my subject I now invite your attention.
If we expect to find ourselves at once in a larger air when we have
taken leave of the monkish mystics, we shall be disappointed. The
objective or symbolical type of Mysticism is liable to quite as many
perversions as the subjective. If in the latter we found a tendency to
revert to the apathy of the Indian Yogi, we shall observe in the
former too many survivals of still more barbarous creeds. Indeed, I
feel that it is almost necessary, as an introduction to this part of
my subject, to consider very briefly the stages through which the
religious consciousness of mankind has passed in its attempts to
realise Divine immanence in Nature, for this is, of course, the
foundation of all religious symbolism.

The earliest belief seems to be that which has been called _Animism_,
the belief that all natural forces are conscious living beings like
ourselves. This is the primitive form of natural religion; and though
it leads to some deplorable customs, it is not a morbid type, but a
very early effort on the lines of true development[331].

The perverted form of primitive Animism is called _Fetishism_, which
is the belief that supernatural powers reside in some visible object,
which is the home or most treasured possession of a god or demon. The
object may be a building, a tree, an animal, a particular kind of
food, or indeed anything. Unfortunately this belief is not peculiar to
savages. A degraded form of it is exhibited by the so-called
neo-mystical school of modern France, and in the baser types of Roman
Catholicism everywhere[332].

Primitive Animism believes in no natural laws. The next stage is to
believe in laws which are frequently suspended by the intervention of
an independent and superior power. Mediæval dualism regarded every
breach of natural law as a vindication of the power of spirit over
matter - not always, however, of Divine power, for evil spirits could
produce very similar disturbances of the physical order. Thus arose
that persistent tendency to "seek after a sign," in which the religion
of the vulgar, even in our own day, is deeply involved. Miracle, in
some form or other, is regarded as the real basis of belief in God. At
this stage people never ask themselves whether any spiritual truth, or
indeed anything worth knowing, could possibly be communicated or
authenticated by thaumaturgic exhibitions. What attracts them at first
is the evidence which these beliefs furnish, that the world in which
they live is not entirely under the dominion of an unconscious or
inflexible power, but that behind the iron mechanism of cause and
effect is a will more like their own in its irregularity and
arbitrariness. Afterwards, as the majesty of law dawns upon them,
miracles are no longer regarded as capricious exercises of power, but
as the operation of higher physical laws, which are only active on
rare occasions. A truer view sees in them a materialisation of
mystical symbols, the proper function of which is to act as
interpreters between the real and the apparent, between the spiritual
and material worlds. When they crystallise as portents, they lose all
their usefulness. Moreover, the belief in celestial visitations has
its dark counterpart in superstitious dread of the powers of evil,
which is capable of turning life into a long nightmare, and has led to
dreadful cruelties[333]. The error has still enough vitality to
create a prejudice against natural science, which appears in the light
of an invading enemy wresting province after province from the empire
of the supernatural.

But we are concerned with thaumaturgy only so far as it has affected
Mysticism. At first sight the connexion may seem very slight; and
slight indeed it is. But just as Mysticism of the subjective type is
often entangled in theories which sublimate matter till only a vain
shadow remains, so objective Mysticism has been often pervaded by
another kind of false spiritualism - that which finds edification in
palpable supernatural manifestations. These so-called "mystical
phenomena" are so much identified with "Mysticism" in the Roman
Catholic Church of to-day, that the standard treatises on the subject,
now studied in continental universities, largely consist of grotesque
legends of "levitation," "bilocation," "incandescence," "radiation,"
and other miraculous tokens of Divine favour[334]. The great work of
Görres, in five volumes, is divided into Divine, Natural, and
Diabolical Mysticism. The first contains stories of the miraculous
enhancement of sight, hearing, smell, and so forth, which results from
extreme holiness; and tells us how one saint had the power of becoming
invisible, another of walking through closed doors, and a third of
flying through the air. "Natural Mysticism" deals with divination,
lycanthropy, vampires, second sight, and other barbarous
superstitions. "Diabolical Mysticism" includes witchcraft, diabolical
possession, and the hideous stories of incubi and succubæ. It is not
my intention to say any more about these savage survivals, as I do not
wish to bring my subject into undeserved contempt[335]. "These
terrors, and this darkness of the mind," as Lucretius says, "must be
dispelled, not by the bright shafts of the sun's light, but by the
study of Nature's laws[336]."

Some of these fables are quite obviously due to a materialisation of
conventional symbols. These symbols are the picture language into
which the imagination translates what the soul has felt. A typical
case is that of the miniature image of Christ, which is said to have
been found embedded in the heart of a deceased saint. The supposed
miracle was, of course, the work of imagination; but this does not
mean that those who reported it were deliberate liars. We know now
that we must distinguish between observation and imagination, between
the language of science and that of poetical metaphor; but in an age
which abhorred rationalism this was not so clear[337]. Rationalism has
its function in proving that such mystical symbols are not physical
facts. But when it goes on to say that they are related to physical
facts as morbid hallucinations to realities, it has stepped outside
its province.

Proceeding a little further as we trace the development of natural or
objective religion, we come to the belief in _magic_, which in
primitive peoples is closely associated with their first attempts at
experimental science. What gives magic its peculiar character is that
it is based on fanciful, and not on real correspondences. The
uneducated mind cannot distinguish between associations of ideas which
are purely arbitrary and subjective, and those which have a more
universal validity. Not, of course, that all the affinities seized
upon by primitive man proved illusory; but those which were not so
ceased to be magical, and became scientific. The savage draws no
distinction between the process by which he makes fire and that by
which his priest calls down rain, except that the latter is a
professional secret; drugs and spells are used indifferently to cure
the sick; astronomy and astrology are parts of the same science. There
is, however, a difference between the magic which is purely
naturalistic and that which makes mystical claims. The magician
sometimes claims that the spirits are subject to him, not because he
has learned how to wield the forces which they must obey, but because
he has so purged his higher faculties that the occult sympathies of
nature have become apparent to him. His theosophy claims to be a
spiritual illumination, not a scientific discovery. The error here is
the application of spiritual clairvoyance to physical relations. The
insight into reality, which is unquestionably the reward of the pure
heart and the single eye, does not reveal to us in detail how nature
should be subdued to our needs. No spirits from the vasty deep will
obey our call, to show us where lies the road to fortune or to ruin.
Physical science is an abstract inquiry, which, while it keeps to its
proper subject - the investigation of the relations which prevail in
the phenomenal world - is self-sufficient, and can receive nothing on
external authority. Still less can the adept usurp Divine powers, and
bend the eternal laws of the universe to his puny will.

The turbid streams of theurgy and magic flowed into the broad river
of Christian thought by two channels - the later Neoplatonism, and
Jewish Cabbalism. Of the former something has been said already. The
root-idea of the system was that all life may be arranged in a
descending scale of potencies, forming a kind of chain from heaven to
earth. Man, as a microcosm, is in contact with every link in the
chain, and can establish relations with all spiritual powers, from the
superessential One to the lower spirits or "dæmons." The
philosopher-saint, who had explored the highest regions of the
intelligence, might hope to dominate the spirits of the air, and
compel them to do his bidding. Thus the door was thrown wide open for
every kind of superstition. The Cabbalists followed much the same
path. The word Cabbala means "oral tradition," and is defined by
Reuchlin as "the symbolic reception of a Divine revelation handed down
for the saving contemplation of God and separate forms.[338]" In
another place he says, "The Cabbala is nothing else than symbolic
theology, in which not only are letters and words symbols of things,
but things are symbols of other things." This method of symbolic
interpretation was held to have been originally communicated by
revelation,[339] in order that persons of holy life might by it
attain to a mystical communion with God, or deification. The
Cabbalists thus held much the same relation to the Talmudists as the
mystics to the scholastics in the twelfth century. But, as Jews, they
remained faithful to the two doctrines of an inspired tradition and an
inspired book, which distinguish them from Platonic mystics.[340]

Pico de Mirandola (born 1463) was the first to bring the Cabbala into
Christian philosophy, and to unite it with his Neoplatonism. Very
characteristic of his age is the declaration that "there is no natural
science which makes us so certain of the Divinity of Christ as Magic
and the Cabbala.[341]" For there was at that period a curious
alliance of Mysticism and natural science against scholasticism, which
had kept both in galling chains; and both mystics and physicists
invoked the aid of Jewish theosophy. Just as Pythagoras, Plato, and
Proclus were set up against Aristotle, so the occult philosophy of the
Jews, which on its speculative side was mere Neoplatonism, was set up
against the divinity of the Schoolmen. In Germany, Reuchlin
(1455-1522) wrote a treatise, _On the Cabbalistic Art_, in which a
theological scheme resembling those of the Neoplatonists and
speculative mystics was based on occult revelation. The book
captivated Pope Leo X. and the early Reformers alike.

The influence of Cabbalism at this period was felt not only in the
growth of magic, but in the revival of the science of _allegorism_,
which resembles magic in its doctrine of occult sympathies, though
without the theurgic element. According to this view of nature,
everything in the visible world has an emblematic meaning. Everything
that a man saw, heard, or did - colours, numbers, birds, beasts, and
flowers, the various actions of life - was to remind him of something
else.[342] The world was supposed to be full of sacred cryptograms,
and every part of the natural order testified in hieroglyphics[343] to
the truths of Christianity. Thus the shamrock bears witness to the
Trinity, the spider is an emblem of the devil, and so forth. This
kind of symbolism was and is extensively used merely as a
picture-language, in which there is no pretence that the signs are
other than artificial or conventional. The language of signs may be
used either to instruct those who cannot understand words, or to
baffle those who can. Thus, a crucifix may be as good as a sermon to
an illiterate peasant; while the sign of a fish was used by the early
Christians because it was unintelligible to their enemies. This is not
symbolism in the sense which I have given to the word in this
Lecture.[344] But it is otherwise when the type is used as a _proof_
of the antitype. This latter method had long been in use in biblical
exegesis. Pious persons found a curious satisfaction in turning the
most matter of fact statements into enigmatic prophecies. Every verse
must have its "mystical" as well as its natural meaning, and the
search for "types" was a recognised branch of apologetics. Allegorism
became authoritative and dogmatic, which it has no right to be. It
would be rash to say that this pseudo-science, which has proved so
attractive to many minds, is entirely valueless. The very absurdity of
the arguments used by its votaries should make us suspect that there
is a dumb logic of a more respectable sort behind them. There is,
underlying this love of types and emblems, a strong conviction that
if "one eternal purpose runs" through the ages, it must be discernible
in small things as well as in great. Everything in the world, if we
could see things as they are, must be symbolic of the Divine Power
which made it and maintains it in being. We cannot believe that
anything in life is meaningless, or has no significance beyond the
fleeting moment. Whatever method helps us to realise this is useful,
and in a sense true. So far as this we may go with the allegorists,
while at the same time we may be thankful that the cobwebs which they
spun over the sacred texts have now been cleared away, so that we can
at last read our Bible as its authors intended it to be read.[345]

Theosophical and magical Mysticism culminated in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. Just as the idealism of Plotinus lost itself in
the theurgic system of Iamblichus, so the doctrine of Divine immanence
preached by Eckhart and his school was followed by the Nature-Mysticism
of Cornelius Agrippa[346] and Paracelsus.[347] The "negative road" had
been discredited by Luther's invective, and Mysticism, instead of
shutting her eyes to the world of phenomena, stretched forth her hands
to conquer and annex it. The old theory of a World-Spirit, the
pulsations of whose heart are felt in all the life of the universe, came
once more into favour. Through all phenomena, it was believed, runs an
intricate network of sympathies and antipathies, the threads of which,
could they be disentangled, would furnish us with a clue through all the

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Online LibraryWilliam Ralph IngeChristian Mysticism → online text (page 19 of 28)