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of God can ever be attained, pure and without alloy, while we are in
this life.[12] The controversy between Fénelon and Bossuet on this
subject is well known, and few will deny that Fénelon was mainly in
the right. Certainly he had an easy task in justifying his statements
from the writings of the saints. But we need not trouble ourselves
with the "mystic paradox," that it would be better to be with Christ
in hell than without Him in heaven - a statement which Thomas à Kempis
once wrote and then erased in his manuscript. For wherever Christ is,
there is heaven: nor should we regard eternal happiness as anything
distinct from "a true conjunction of the mind with God.[13]" "God is
not without or above law: He _could_ not make men either sinful or
miserable.[14]" To believe otherwise is to suppose an irrational
universe, the one thing which a rational man cannot believe in.

The mystic, as we have seen, makes it his life's aim to be transformed
into the likeness of Him in whose image he was created.[15] He loves
to figure his path as a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, which
must be climbed step by step. This _scala perfectionis_ is generally
divided into three stages. The first is called the purgative life,
the second the illuminative, while the third, which is really the goal
rather than a part of the journey, is called the unitive life, or
state of perfect contemplation.[16] We find, as we should expect, some
differences in the classification, but this tripartite scheme is
generally accepted.

The steps of the upward path constitute the ethical system, the rule
of life, of the mystics. The first stage, the purgative life, we read
in the _Theologia Germanica_, is brought about by contrition, by
confession, by hearty amendment; and this is the usual language in
treatises intended for monks. But it is really intended to include the
civic and social virtues in this stage.[17] They occupy the lowest
place, it is true; but this only means that they must be acquired by
all, though all are not called to the higher flights of contemplation.
Their chief value, according to Plotinus, is to teach us the meaning
of _order_ and _limitation_ ([Greek: taxis] and [Greek: peras]), which
are qualities belonging to the Divine nature. This is a very valuable
thought, for it contradicts that aberration of Mysticism which calls
God the Infinite, and thinks of Him as the Indefinite, dissolving all
distinctions in the abyss of bare indetermination. When Ewald says,
"the true mystic never withdraws himself wilfully from the business
of life, no, not even from the smallest business," he is, at any rate,
saying nothing which conflicts with the principles of Mysticism.[18]

The purgative life necessarily includes self-discipline: does it
necessarily include what is commonly known as asceticism? It would be
easy to answer that asceticism means nothing but _training_, as men
train for a race, or more broadly still, that it means simply "the
acquisition of some greater power by practice.[19]" But when people
speak of "asceticism," they have in their minds such severe
"buffeting" of the body as was practised by many ancient hermits and
mediæval monks. Is this an integral part of the mystic's "upward
path"? We shall find reason to conclude that, while a certain degree
of austere simplicity characterises the outward life of nearly all the
mystics, and while an almost morbid desire to suffer is found in many
of them, there is nothing in the system itself to encourage men to
maltreat their bodies. Mysticism enjoins a dying life, not a living
death. Moreover, asceticism, when regarded as a virtue or duty in
itself, tends to isolate us, and concentrates our attention on our
separate individuality. This is contrary to the spirit of Mysticism,
which aims at realising unity and solidarity everywhere. Monkish
asceticism (so far as it goes beyond the struggle to live unstained
under unnatural conditions) rests on a dualistic view of the world
which does not belong to the essence of Mysticism. It infected all the
religious life of the Middle Ages, not Mysticism only.[20]

The second stage, the illuminative life, is the concentration of all
the faculties, will, intellect, and feeling, upon God. It differs from
the purgative life, not in having discarded good works, but in having
come to perform them, as Fénelon says, "no longer as virtues," that is
to say, willingly and almost spontaneously. The struggle is now
transferred to the inner life.

The last stage of the journey, in which the soul presses towards the
mark, and gains the prize of its high calling, is the unitive or
contemplative life, in which man beholds God face to face, and is
joined to Him. Complete union with God is the ideal limit of religion,
the attainment of which would be at once its consummation and
annihilation. It is in the continual but unending approximation to it
that the life of religion subsists.[21] We must therefore beware of
regarding the union as anything more than an infinite process, though,
as its end is part of the eternal counsel of God, there is a sense in
which it is already a fact, and not merely a thing desired. But the
word deification holds a very large place in the writings of the
Fathers, and not only among those who have been called mystics. We
find it in Irenæus as well as in Clement, in Athanasius as well as in
Gregory of Nyssa. St. Augustine is no more afraid of "deificari" in
Latin than Origen of [Greek: theopoieisthai] in Greek. The subject is
one of primary importance to anyone who wishes to understand mystical
theology; but it is difficult for us to enter into the minds of the
ancients who used these expressions, both because [Greek: theos] was a
very fluid concept in the early centuries, and because our notions of
_personality_ are very different from those which were prevalent in
antiquity. On this latter point I shall have more to say presently;
but the evidence for the belief in "deification," and its continuance
through the Middle Ages, is too voluminous to be given in the body of
these Lectures.[22] Let it suffice to say here that though such bold
phrases as "God became man, that we might become God," were
commonplaces of doctrinal theology at least till after Augustine, even
Clement and Origen protest strongly against the "very impious" heresy
that man is "a part of God," or "consubstantial with God.[23]" The
attribute of Divinity which was chiefly in the minds of the Greek
Fathers when they made these statements, was that of _imperishableness_.

As to the means by which this union is manifested to the
consciousness, there is no doubt that very many mystics believed in,
and looked for, ecstatic revelations, trances, or visions. This,
again, is one of the crucial questions of Mysticism.

Ecstasy or vision begins when thought ceases, _to our consciousness_,
to proceed from ourselves. It differs from dreaming, because the
subject is awake. It differs from hallucination, because there is no
organic disturbance: it is, or claims to be, a temporary enhancement,
not a partial disintegration, of the mental faculties. Lastly, it
differs from poetical inspiration, because the imagination is passive.

That perfectly sane people often experience such visions there is no
manner of doubt. St. Paul fell into a trance at his conversion, and
again at a later period, when he seemed to be caught up into the third
heaven. The most sober and practical of the mediæval mystics speak of
them as common phenomena. And in modern times two of the sanest of our
poets have recorded their experiences in words which may be worth

Wordsworth, in his well-known "Lines composed above Tintern Abbey,"
speaks of -

"That serene and blessed mood,
In which ... the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood,
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things."

And Tennyson says,[24] "A kind of waking trance I have often had,
quite from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally
come upon me through repeating my own name two or three times to
myself silently, till all at once, out of the intensity of the
consciousness of individuality, the individual itself seemed to
dissolve and fade away into boundless being: and this not a confused
state, but the clearest of the clearest, and the surest of the surest,
the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an
almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it
were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life."

Admitting, then, that these psychical phenomena actually occur, we
have to consider whether ecstasy and kindred states are an integral
part of Mysticism. In attempting to answer this question, we shall
find it convenient to distinguish between the Neoplatonic vision of
the super-essential One, the Absolute, which Plotinus enjoyed several
times, and Porphyry only once, and the visions and "locutions" which
are reported in all times and places, especially where people have not
been trained in scientific habits of thought and observation. The
former was held to be an exceedingly rare privilege, the culminating
point of the contemplative life. I shall speak of it in my third
Lecture; and shall there show that it belongs, not to the essence of
Mysticism, and still less to Christianity, but to the Asiatic leaven
which was mixed with Alexandrian thought, and thence passed into
Catholicism. As regards visions in general, they were no invention of
the mystics. They played a much more important part in the life of the
early Church than many ecclesiastical historians are willing to admit.
Tertullian, for instance, says calmly, "The majority, almost, of men
learn God from visions.[25]" Such implicit reliance was placed on the
Divine authority of visions, that on one occasion an ignorant peasant
and a married man was made Patriarch of Alexandria against his will,
because his dying predecessor had a vision that the man who should
bring him a present of grapes on the next day should be his successor!
In course of time visions became rarer among the laity, but continued
frequent among the monks and clergy. And so the class which furnished
most of the shining lights of Mysticism was that in which these
experiences were most common.

But we do not find that the masters of the spiritual life attached
very much importance to them, or often appealed to them as aids to
faith.[26] As a rule, visions were regarded as special rewards
bestowed by the goodness of God on the struggling saint, and
especially on the beginner, to refresh him and strengthen him in the
hour of need. Very earnest cautions were issued that no efforts must
be made to induce them artificially, and aspirants were exhorted
neither to desire them, nor to feel pride in having seen them. The
spiritual guides of the Middle Ages were well aware that such
experiences often come of disordered nerves and weakened digestion;
they believed also that they are sometimes delusions of Satan. Richard
of St. Victor says, "As Christ attested His transfiguration by the
presence of Moses and Elias, so visions should not be believed unless
they have the authority of Scripture." Albertus Magnus tries to
classify them, and says that those which contain a sensuous element
are always dangerous. Eckhart is still more cautious, and Tauler
attaches little value to them. Avila, the Spanish mystic, says that
only those visions which minister to our spiritual necessities, and
make us _more humble_, are genuine. Self-induced visions inflate us
with pride, and do irreparable injury to health of mind and body.[27]

It hardly falls within my task to attempt to determine what these
visions really are. The subject is one upon which psychological and
medical science may some day throw more light. But this much I must
say, to make my own position clear: I regard these experiences as
neither more nor less "supernatural" than other mental phenomena. Many
of them are certainly pathological;[28] about others we may feel
doubts; but some have every right to be considered as real
irradiations of the soul from the light that "for ever shines," real
notes of the harmony that "is in immortal souls." In illustration of
this, we may appeal to three places in the Bible where revelations of
the profoundest truths concerning the nature and counsels of God are
recorded to have been made during ecstatic visions. Moses at Mount
Horeb heard, during the vision of the burning bush, a proclamation of
God as the "I am" - the Eternal who is exalted above time. Isaiah, in
the words "Holy, Holy, Holy," perceived dimly the mystery of the
Trinity. And St. Peter, in the vision of the sheet, learned that God
is no respecter of persons or of nationalities. In such cases the
highest intuitions or revelations, which the soul can in its best
moments just receive, but cannot yet grasp or account for, make a
language for themselves, as it were, and claim the sanction of
external authority, until the mind is elevated so far as to feel the
authority not less Divine, but no longer external. We may find fairly
close analogies in other forms of that "Divine madness," which Plato
says is "the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men" - such as
the rapture of the poet, or (as Plato adds) of the lover.[29] And
even the philosopher or man of science may be surprised into some such
state by a sudden realisation of the sublimity of his subject. So at
least Lacordaire believed when he wrote, "All at once, as if by
chance, the hair stands up, the breath is caught, the skin contracts,
and a cold sword pierces to the very soul. It is the sublime which has
manifested itself![30]" Even in cases where there is evident
hallucination, e.g. when the visionary sees an angel or devil sitting
on his book, or feels an arrow thrust into his heart, there need be no
insanity. In periods when it is commonly believed that such things may
and do happen, the imagination, instead of being corrected by
experience, is misled by it. Those who honestly expect to see miracles
will generally see them, without detriment either to their
truthfulness or sanity in other matters.

The mystic, then, is not, as such, a visionary; nor has he any interest
in appealing to a faculty "above reason," if reason is used in its
proper sense, as the logic of the whole personality. The desire to find
for our highest intuitions an authority wholly external to reason and
independent of it, - a "purely supernatural" revelation, - has, as
Récéjac says, "been the cause of the longest and the most dangerous of
the aberrations from which Mysticism has suffered." This kind of
supernaturalism is destructive of _unity_ in our ideas of God, the
world, and ourselves; and it casts a slur on the faculties which are the
appointed organs of communication between God and man. A revelation
absolutely transcending reason is an absurdity: no such revelation could
ever be made. In the striking phrase of Macarius, "the human mind is the
throne of the Godhead." The supremacy of the reason is the favourite
theme of the Cambridge Platonists, two of whom, Whichcote and Culverwel,
are never tired of quoting the text, "The spirit of man is the candle of
the Lord." "Sir, I oppose not rational to spiritual," writes Whichcote
to Tuckney, "for spiritual is most rational." And again, "Reason is the
Divine governor of man's life: it is the very voice of God.[31]" What we
can and must transcend, if we would make any progress in Divine
knowledge, is not reason, but that shallow rationalism which regards the
data on which we can reason as a fixed quantity, known to all, and which
bases itself on a formal logic, utterly unsuited to a spiritual view of
things. Language can only furnish us with poor, misleading, and wholly
inadequate images of spiritual facts; it supplies us with abstractions
and metaphors, which do not really represent what we know or believe
about God and human personality. St. Paul calls attention to this
inadequacy by a series of formal contradictions: "I live, yet not I";
"dying, and behold we live"; "when I am weak, then I am strong," and so
forth; and we find exactly the same expedient in Plotinus, who is very
fond of thus showing his contempt for the logic of identity. When,
therefore, Harnack says that "Mysticism is nothing else than rationalism
applied to a sphere above reason," he would have done better to say that
it is "reason applied to a sphere above rationalism.[32]"

For Reason is still "king.[33]" Religion must not be a matter of
_feeling_ only. St. John's command to "try every spirit" condemns all
attempts to make emotion or inspiration independent of reason. Those
who thus blindly follow the inner light find it no "candle of the
Lord," but an _ignis fatuus_; and the great mystics are well aware of
this. The fact is that the tendency to separate and half personify the
different faculties - intellect, will, feeling - is a mischievous one.
Our object should be so to _unify_ our personality, that our eye may
be single, and our whole body full of light.

We have considered briefly the three stages of the mystic's upward
path. The scheme of life therein set forth was no doubt determined
empirically, and there is nothing to prevent the simplest and most
unlettered saint from framing his conduct on these principles. Many of
the mediæval mystics had no taste for speculation or philosophy;[34]
they accepted on authority the entire body of Church dogma, and
devoted their whole attention to the perfecting of the spiritual life
in the knowledge and love of God. But this cannot be said of the
leaders. Christian Mysticism appears in history largely as an
intellectual movement, the foster-child of Platonic idealism; and if
ever, for a time, it forgot its early history, men were soon found to
bring it back to "its old loving nurse the Platonic philosophy." It
will be my task, in the third and fourth Lectures of this course, to
show how speculative Christian Mysticism grew out of Neoplatonism; but
we shall not be allowed to forget the Platonists even in the later
Lectures. "The fire still burns on the altars of Plotinus," as
Eunapius said.

Mysticism is not itself a philosophy, any more than it is itself a
religion. On its intellectual side it has been called "formless
speculation.[35]" But until speculations or intuitions have entered
into the forms of our thought, they are not current coin even for the
thinker. The part played by Mysticism in philosophy is parallel to the
part played by it in religion. As in religion it appears in revolt
against dry formalism and cold rationalism, so in philosophy it takes
the field against materialism and scepticism.[36] It is thus possible
to speak of speculative Mysticism, and even to indicate certain
idealistic lines of thought, which may without entire falsity be
called the philosophy of Mysticism. In this introductory Lecture I
can, of course, only hint at these in the barest and most summary
manner. And it must be remembered that I have undertaken to-day to
delineate the general characteristics of Mysticism, not of Christian
Mysticism. I am trying, moreover, in this Lecture to confine myself to
those developments which I consider normal and genuine, excluding the
numerous aberrant types which we shall encounter in the course of our

The real world, according to thinkers of this school, is created by
the thought and will of God, and exists in His mind. It is therefore
spiritual, and above space and time, which are only the forms under
which reality is set out as a process.

When we try to represent to our minds the highest reality, the
spiritual world, as distinguished from the world of appearance, we are
obliged to form images; and we can hardly avoid choosing one of the
following three images. We may regard the spiritual world as endless
duration opposed to transitoriness, as infinite extension opposed to
limitation in space, or as substance opposed to shadow. All these are,
strictly speaking, symbols or metaphors,[37] for we cannot regard any
of them as literally true statements about the nature of reality; but
they are as near the truth as we can get in words. But when we think
of time as a piece cut off from the beginning of eternity, so that
eternity is only in the future and not in the present; when we think
of heaven as a place somewhere else, and therefore not here; when we
think of an upper ideal world which has sucked all the life out of
this, so that we now walk in a vain shadow, - then we are paying the
penalty for our symbolical representative methods of thought, and must
go to philosophy to help us out of the doubts and difficulties in
which our error has involved us. One test is infallible. Whatever view
of reality deepens our sense of the tremendous issues of life in the
world wherein we move, is _for us_ nearer the truth than any view
which diminishes that sense. The truth is revealed to us that we may
have _life_, and have it more abundantly.

The world as it is, is the world as God sees it, not as we see it. Our
vision is distorted, not so much by the limitations of finitude, as by
sin and ignorance. The more we can raise ourselves in the scale of
being, the more will our ideas about God and the world correspond to
the reality. "Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem
to them to be," says John Smith, the English Platonist. Origen, too,
says that those whom Judas led to seize Jesus did not know who He was,
for the darkness of their own souls was projected on His features.[38]
And Dante, in a very beautiful passage, says that he felt that he was
rising into a higher circle, because he saw Beatrice's face becoming
more beautiful.[39]

This view of reality, as a vista which is opened gradually to the
eyes of the climber up the holy mount, is very near to the heart of
Mysticism. It rests on the faith that the ideal not only ought to be,
but _is_ the real. It has been applied by some, notably by that
earnest but fantastic thinker, James Hinton, as offering a solution of
the problem of evil. We shall encounter attempts to deal with this
great difficulty in several of the Christian mystics. The problem
among the speculative writers was how to reconcile the Absolute of
philosophy, who is above all distinctions,[40] with the God of
religion, who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. They could not
allow that evil has a substantial existence apart from God, for fear
of being entangled in an insoluble Dualism. But if evil is derived
from God, how can God be good? We shall find that the prevailing view
was that "Evil has no substance." "There is nothing," says Gregory of
Nyssa, "which falls outside of the Divine nature, except moral evil
alone. And this, we may say paradoxically, has its being in not-being.
For the genesis of moral evil is simply the privation of being.[41]
That which, properly speaking, exists, is the nature of the good." The
Divine nature, in other words, is that which excludes nothing, and
contradicts nothing, except those attributes which are contrary to the
nature of reality; it is that which harmonises everything except
discord, which loves everything except hatred, verifies everything
except falsehood, and beautifies everything except ugliness. Thus that
which falls outside the notion of God, proves on examination to be
not merely unreal, but unreality as such. But the relation of evil to
the Absolute is not a religious problem. To our experience, evil
exists as a positive force not subject to the law of God, though
constantly overruled and made an instrument of good. On this subject
we must say more later. Here I need only add that a sunny confidence
in the ultimate triumph of good shines from the writings of most of
the mystics, especially, I think, in our own countrymen. The Cambridge
Platonists are all optimistic; and in the beautiful but little known
_Revelations_ of Juliana of Norwich, we find in page after page the
refrain of "All shall be well." "Sin is behovable,[42] but all shall
be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Since the universe is the thought and will of God expressed under the
forms of time and space, everything in it reflects the nature of its
Creator, though in different degrees. Erigena says finely, "Every
visible and invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God."
The purest mirror in the world is the highest of created things - the
human soul unclouded by sin. And this brings us to a point at which

Online LibraryWilliam Ralph IngeChristian Mysticism → online text (page 2 of 28)