Monday, March 24, 2014

Did Julian of Norwich Teach Universalism and Deny the Doctrine of an Eternal Hell?

By Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong

In working on my book, Quotable Mystics and Contemplatives, I included Julian of Norwich [female] (c. 1342-c. 1416) and her book, Revelations of Divine Love

Later on Facebook, someone brought up the fact that it is claimed that she was a universalist (the belief that God saves everyone and/or that there is either no hell at all or that it is emptied at some point). I responded:
I didn't see any universalism when I went through her main book. People see a lot of things if they don't read in context.

The Bible and Christianity overwhelmingly (minus a few groups like Seventh-day Adventists) teach that hell is eternal and that unrepentant sinners will be tormented there forever. 

A quick search of Google reveals many sites making the false claim about Julian. But a search of her actual book shows otherwise. I did just that: doing a manual word search of her book, Revelations of Divine Love, in its plain text format (all of it on one web page). Here is what I found:
. . . I knew well that It was strength enough for me, yea, and for all creatures living, against all the fiends of hell and ghostly temptation. (ch. 4)

A universalist would not acknowledge a continuing hell, as she does here. Most would not mention hell at all. 

The dearworthy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ as verily as it is most precious, so verily it is most plenteous. Behold and see! The precious plenty of His dearworthy blood descended down into Hell and burst her bands and delivered all that were there which belonged to the Court of Heaven. (ch. 12)

I believe this is actually a reference to Hades, or Sheol, not hell. Unfortunately, KJV and some Catholic texts (e.g., "descended to hell") continue to use "hell" for this intermediate state that is neither heaven nor hell, but rather, what is called the netherworld or sometimes, the "limbo of the fathers." Jesus went there and took the saved to heaven. That's what she means here: God took all who belonged to heaven; not all to heaven. Big difference! But for those unfamiliar with this "hell" / "Hades" confusion, of course it could read as universalism.

For more on this aspect., see the Protestant apologetic paper, Did Jesus descend into Hell or Hades after he died on the cross? and the Catholic article, Did Jesus Really Go to Hell? by Stephen Beale (Catholic Exchange, 29 March 2013). Also, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.480 Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into "Abraham's bosom":481 "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell."482 Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.483

Footnotes480 Cf. Phil 2:10; Acts 2:24; Rev 1:18; Eph 4:9; Pss 6:6; 88:11-13.
481 Cf. Ps 89:49; 1 Sam 28:19; Ezek 32:17-32; Lk 16:22-26.
482 Roman Catechism I, 6, 3.
483 Cf. Council of Rome (745): DS 587; Benedict XII, Cum dudum (1341): DS 1011; Clement VI, Super quibusdam (1351): DS 1077; Council of Toledo IV (625): DS 485; Mt 27:52-53.

In chapter 27 is a statement that many have wrongly interpreted as indicating universalism: 

And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth [95] that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well. These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved.

"all that shall be saved" nor "any that shall be saved" implies, let alone requires, that all persons are saved. If, e.g., I'm a coin collector and refer to "all the coins that shall be saved," I'm not saying that I save all coins. And "any that shall be saved" is an even clearer indication of limitation, not universality.

In any event, Julian of Norwich makes a very clear statement of eternal condemnation in hell five chapters later:  

And in this sight I marvelled greatly and beheld our Faith, marvelling thus: Our Faith is grounded in God's word, and it belongeth to our Faith that we believe that God's word shall be saved in all things; and one point of our Faith is that many creatures shall be condemned: as angels that fell out of Heaven for pride, which be now fiends; and man in earth that dieth out of the Faith of Holy Church: that is to say, they that be heathen men; and also man that hath received christendom and liveth unchristian life and so dieth out of charity: all these shall be condemned to hell without end, as Holy Church teacheth me to believe. And all this [so] standing, methought it was impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord shewed in the same time. (ch. 32; my bolding)

She accepts Church teaching (ch. 33):

And yet in this I desired, as [far] as I durst, that I might have full sight of Hell and Purgatory. But it was not my meaning to make proof of anything that belongeth to the Faith: for I believed soothfastly that Hell and Purgatory is for the same end that Holy Church teacheth, . . . 

Other more-or-less passing references indicate that she casually accepted the existence of hell:
For if afore us were laid [together] all the pains in Hell and in Purgatory and in Earth—death and other—, and [by itself] sin, we should rather choose all that pain than sin. (ch. 40)

For I thought in sooth were I safe from sin, I were full safe from all the fiends of hell and enemies of my soul. (ch. 49)

. . . all the pain that is in hell. (ch. 76)

Don't be fooled by those with an agenda: to bolster up heresies by recourse to quotes out of context and wholesale distortion of a person's beliefs. The universalists (like radical homosexual activists and feminists) are notorious for distorting biblical passages as well as the teaching of historic Christians. Now, with Google Books and Internet Archive and other online sources for books available, it's very easy to do a search just as I did, for key words, and to read in context as well. More than ever, we can learn on our own, and free ourselves from the distortions of mere controversialists and propagandists.

Elsewhere, she makes it very clear that she accepts all Church teaching:
But in all things I believe as Holy Church believeth, preacheth, and teacheth. For the Faith of Holy Church, the which I had aforehand understood and, as I hope, by the grace of God earnestly kept in use and custom, stood continually in my sight: [I] willing and meaning never to receive anything that might be contrary thereunto. (Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 9)

God shewed full great pleasance that He hath in all men and women that mightily and meekly and with all their will take the preaching and teaching of Holy Church. For it is His Holy Church: He is the Ground, He is the Substance, He is the Teaching, He is the Teacher, He is the End, . . . (Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 34)

Therefore, in summary:

1) She says she accepts "all" Church teachings.

2) She says she would never hold anything "contrary thereunto."

3) She states that the Church teaches about a hell and condemnation of men to same.

4) She makes several plain statements about hell and her belief in it.

5) The two supposed "proofs" of universalism in her writing are based on a misunderstanding of the hell / Hades distinction, and her words taken out of context and made to mean what they don't appear to mean in context (reading into them what ain't there).

6) Ergo, she believes in hell herself and disbelieves in universalism.

How anyone could conclude otherwise, given the data here, is beyond me. 

* * * * *

Monday, March 10, 2014

Quotable Mystics and Contemplatives (Book by Dave Armstrong): Brief Biographical Portraits

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

[link to the book info-page]

[from public domain Internet writings: Wikipedia, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), and descriptions from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website: source of most of the books used in this collection]

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) / On Loving God: Cistercian and Doctor of the Church

Bernard of Clairvaux, O.Cist was a French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian order. He had a great taste for literature and devoted himself for some time to poetry. He wanted to excel in literature in order to take up the study of the Bible. 
Bernard would expand upon St. Anselm of Canterbury's role in transmuting the sacramentally ritual Christianity of the Early Middle Ages into a new, more personally held faith, with the life of Christ as a model and a new emphasis on the Virgin Mary. Rather than the more rational approach to divine understanding that the scholastics adopted, Bernard would preach an immediate faith.

St. Bernard was named a Doctor of the Church in 1830. At the 800th anniversary of his death, Ven. Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on Bernard, Doctor Mellifluus, in which he labeled him “The Last of the Fathers.” Bernard did not reject human philosophy which is genuine and leads to God; he differentiates between different kinds of knowledge, the highest being theological.

He was instrumental in re-emphasizing the importance of Lectio Divina and contemplation on Scripture within the Cistercian order. Bernard had observed that when Lectio Divina was neglected monasticism suffered, and considered Lectio Divina and contemplation guided by the Holy Spirit the keys to nourishing Christian spirituality. 
His mystical treatise, De diligendo Dei (On Loving God), possibly written around 1128, outlines seven stages of ascent leading to union with God, and urges the reader to love God without measure. He surveys the four types of love that Christians experience as they grow in their relationship with God: loving one's self, selfish love, loving God as God, and loving one's self in God. He reminds us that not only did God give us life, but He gave us Himself, and that we are indebted to God for his love and His sacrifice. 

Not only should we love God because it is what He deserves, but also because loving God does not go without reward. Loving God is to our advantage. The Lord rewards those who love Him with the blessed state of heaven, where sorrow and sadness cannot enter. St. Bernard's medieval prose is poetic and full of clever imagery. His work is as beautiful as it is knowledgeable.

St. Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274) / The Mind's Road to God: Franciscan and Doctor of the Church

Bonaventure, O.F.M.; born Giovanni di Fidanza, was an Italian medieval scholastic theologian and philosopher. The seventh Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, he was also a Cardinal Bishop of Albano. He was canonised on 14 April 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV and declared a Doctor of the Church in the year 1588 by Pope Sixtus V. He is known as the “Seraphic Doctor” (Latin: Doctor Seraphicus), and was ranked along with Thomas Aquinas as the greatest of the Doctors of the Church by another Franciscan, Pope Sixtus V, in 1587. Bonaventure was regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages. 

He steered the Franciscans on a moderate and intellectual course that made them the most prominent order in the Catholic Church until the coming of the Jesuits. His theology was marked by an attempt completely to integrate faith and reason. He thought of Christ as the “one true master” who offers humans knowledge that begins in faith, is developed through rational understanding, and is perfected by mystical union with God. 

A master of the memorable phrase, Bonaventure held that philosophy opens the mind to at least three different routes humans can take on their journey to God. Non-intellectual material creatures he conceived as shadows and vestiges (literally, footprints) of God, understood as the ultimate cause of a world philosophical reason can prove was created at a first moment in time. 
Intellectual creatures he conceived of as images and likenesses of God, the workings of the human mind and will leading us to God understood as illuminator of knowledge and donor of grace and virtue. The final route to God is the route of being, in which Bonaventure brought Anselm's argument together with Aristotelian and Neoplatonic metaphysics to view God as the absolutely perfect being. 
Many historians, theologians, and philosophers consider Bonaventure’s essay, The Mind's Road to God a masterpiece among the shorter works of medieval philosophy. It contains Bonaventure’s interpretation of a vision St. Francis of Assisi had. In the vision, St. Francis receives the wounds of Christ from a six-winged seraph. The six wings symbolized six steps along the road to perfection and the divine. The steps or stages he details integrates the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being with Christian doctrine concerning God’s relationship with his creation.

Blessed John of Ruysbroeck (c. 1293-1381): priest

John of Ruysbroeck (Dutch: Jan van Ruusbroec, Jan or Johannes van Ruysbroeck), was one of the Flemish mystics. From 1318 until 1343 he served as a parish priest at St Gudula. He led a life of extreme austerity and retirement. After John’s death in 1381, his relics were carefully preserved and his memory honoured as that of a saint. After his death, stories called him the Ecstatic Doctor or Divine Doctor. He was beatified on 1 December 1908, by Pope St. Pius X.

Literally, Ruysbroeck wrote as the spirit moved him. He loved to wander and meditate in the solitude of the forest adjoining the cloister; he was accustomed to carry a tablet with him, and on this to jot down his thoughts as he felt inspired so to do. Late in life he was able to declare that he had never committed aught to writing save by the motion of the Holy Ghost. 
In his dogmatic writings he explains, illustrates, and enforces traditional teachings with remarkable force and lucidity. In his ascetic works, his favourite virtues are detachment, humility and charity; he loves to dwell on such themes as flight from the world, meditation upon the Life, especially the Passion of Christ, abandonment to the Divine Will, and an intense personal love of God. In common with most of the German mystics Ruysbroeck starts from God and comes down to man, and thence rises again to God, showing how the two are so closely united as to become one. 
Ruysbroeck insisted that the soul finds God in its own depths, and noted three stages of progress in what he called the spiritual ladder of Christian attainment: (1) the active life, (2) the inward life, (3) the contemplative life. He did not teach the fusion of the self in God, but held that at the summit of the ascent the soul still preserves its identity. 
In relation to the contemplative life, he held that three attributes should be acquired: The first is spiritual freedom from worldly desires (“as empty of every outward work as if he did not work at all”), the second is a mind unencumbered with images (“inward silence”), and the third is a feeling of inward union with God (“even as a burning and glowing fire which can never more be quenched”). 
Blessed John Ruysbroeck's writings are considered classics of spirituality, anticipating the writings of St. John of the Cross in their clarity and doctrine. He strongly opposed the quietist tendencies of many of his contemporaries, and his books are lucid commentaries on the Augustinian doctrine of the life of grace. 
Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage is a study of the Bible's metaphor of Christ as the Bridegroom and the church as the Bride, a “marriage” that produces perfect union. Union with God is also the theme of The Sparkling Stone and The Book of Supreme Truth, which describe several mystical levels of union with God in which the human body and mind are forgotten. 
Blessed John Ruysbroeck is known for having an extraordinary propensity for theology and philosophy, and his works exhibit his great mind. These classic pieces of spiritual literature are rife with imagistic language and readers will be in awe of this spiritual giant's mind.

Blessed Henry Suso (1295-1366): Dominican

Henry Suso, O.P. (also called Amandus, a name adopted in his writings, and Heinrich Seuse in German), was a German Dominican friar, who was a noted spiritual writer and mystic. He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI. Suso was widely read in the later Middle Ages.

In the prologue to his Life, Suso recounts how, after about five years in the monastery (in other words, when about 18 years old), he had experienced a conversion to a deeper form of religious life through the intervention of Divine Wisdom. He made himself “the Servant of the Eternal Wisdom”, which he identified with the divine essence and, in a concrete form, with the personal Eternal Wisdom made human. Henceforth a burning love for the Eternal Wisdom dominated his thoughts and controlled his actions. 

Suso often subjected himself to extreme forms of mortifications, which he prudently moderated in maturer years, and bore with rare patience corporal afflictions, bitter persecutions, and grievous calumnies. 

The mutual love of God and man which is his principal theme gives warmth and colour to his style. His intellectual equipment was characteristic of the Scholastic theologians of his age. In his doctrine there was never the least trace of an unorthodox tendency. Suso is the poet of the early mystic movement. His faith is purely medieval in tone, inspired by the romanticism of the age of chivalry. 

C. H. McKenna, in his introduction to A Little Book of Eternal Wisdom stated: “It would be difficult to speak too highly of this little book or of its author. In soundness of teaching, sublimity of thought, clearness of expression, and beauty of illustration, we do not know of a spiritual writer that surpasses Henry Suso.” 

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361): Dominican

Johannes Tauler, O.P., was a German mystic, preacher and theologian: one of the greatest of the Middle Ages. He belonged to the Dominican order, and was known as one of the most important Rhineland Mystics. He promoted a certain neo-platonist dimension in spirituality.

In Basel, around 1339-1343, he became acquainted with the circles of devout clergy and laity known as the Friends of God (Gottesfreunde). Tauler mentions the Friends of God often in his sermons. Influenced by this group, he taught that the state of the soul was affected more by a personal relationship with God than by external practices. 

Tauler left no formal treatises, either in Latin or the vernacular. Rather, we have around eighty of his sermons, which began to be collected during his lifetime. They were considered among the noblest in the German language: intensely practical, and touching on all sides the deeper problems of the moral and spiritual life. They are full of fervour and of profound spiritual feeling. The language is quiet and measured, yet warm, animated, and full of imagery. His sermons warmed and inflamed the hearts of his hearers by the quiet flame of the pure love that burned in his own breast. 

The centre of Tauler's mysticism is the doctrine of the visio essentioe Dei, the blessed contemplation or knowledge of the Divine nature. He takes this doctrine from Thomas Aquinas, but goes further than the latter in believing that the Divine knowledge is attainable in this world also by a perfect man, and should be sought by every means. God dwells within each human being. In order, however, that the transcendent God may appear in man as a second subject, the human, sinful activities must cease. Aid is given in this effort by the light of grace which raises nature far above itself. The way to God is through love; God replies to its highest development by His presence. Tauler gives advice of the most varied character for attaining that height of religion in which the Divine enters into the human subject.

Tauler was entirely medieval (i.e., Catholic) in spirit and never thought of withdrawing his allegiance to the Catholic Church. He expresses his opinion very plainly in his sermon on St. Matthew.

Walter Hilton (c. 1340/45 -1396): Augustinian

WalterHilton was an English Augustinian mystic, probably educated at Cambridge.

The first book of his most influential work: The Scale [or, Ladder] of Perfection, is addressed to a woman recently enclosed as an anchoress, providing her with appropriate spiritual exercises; the bulk of its ninety-three chapters deal with the extirpation of the “foul image of sin” in the soul – the perversion of the image of the Trinity in the three spiritual powers of Mind, Reason and Will (reflecting the Father, Son and Holy Spirit respectively, according to a tradition drawn from St Augustine) – through a series of meditations on the seven deadly sins. 

The second book seems from its style and content rather to be addressed to a larger, perhaps more sophisticated audience; its major themes are the reformation of the soul in faith and in both faith and feeling. This latter is described in an extended metaphor as a spiritual journey to Jerusalem, or “peace” in meditation, a gift which is also its own giver, Christ. 

Hilton's spiritual writings were influential during the fifteenth century in England. The Scale of Perfection survives in some sixty-two manuscripts, and was first work originally written in English to circulate on the European continent (in Latin translation). 

Anyone who desires to strike a balance between worldly and spiritual life will find Hilton's direct and instructive prose a useful resource.

Julian[a] of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416): anchoress; probably Benedictine.

Julian (or, Juliana) of Norwich was an English anchoress who is regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics. Very little is known about Julian's life. Her personal name is unknown and the name “Julian” simply derives from the fact that her anchoress's cell was built onto the wall of the church of St Julian in Norwich. 

She is venerated by Anglicans and Lutherans, but has never been canonized, or officially beatified, by the Catholic Church, probably because so little is known of her life aside from her writings; although she is unofficially venerated in the Catholic Church, much as St. Hildegard of Bingen was before her canonization in 2012. 
Her fame rests on her book The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, which she wrote in 1393. She claimed to have received fifteen revelations on one day in 1373 and another on the following day. In prolonged states of ecstasy she saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity, in particular, the vast love of God and the existence of evil. 
She meditated on these visions for twenty years, concentrating on the love of God, which supplies the answer to all life's problems and especially to the evil in the world. she also emphasizes the need to follow God in order to receive the beautiful vision of God in the afterlife. For her deep and penetrating descriptions of God and love, countless readers have found this work uplifting, encouraging, and challenging. Revelations of Divine Love astounds readers, engulfing them in a powerful revelation of God's love. Her book contains both the original visions and her meditations on them. Revelations is a celebrated work in Catholicism and Anglicanism because of the clarity and depth of Julian's visions of God. Julian of Norwich is now recognized as one of England's most important mystics. The book is also believed to be the earliest surviving volume written in the English language by a woman. It represents the most perfect fruit of later medieval mysticism in England.

Like St. Catherine, Juliana has little of the dualism of body and soul that is frequent in the mystics. God is in our “sensuality” as well as in our “substance”, and the body and the soul render mutual aid. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are inseparable: we may never come to the knowing of one without the knowing of the other. She lays special stress upon the “homeliness” and “courtesy” of God's dealings with us. In the Blessed Virgin the Lord would have all mankind see how they are loved. Throughout her revelation Juliana submits herself to the authority of the Church: “I yield me to our mother Holy Church, as a simple child oweth.” 
Scholars hold that Julian of Norwich was influenced by a famous book on mystical experience, The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as by Neoplatonic philosophy.

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) / The Dialogue: Dominican and Doctor of the Church

St. Catherine of Siena, T.O.S.D. (Italian) was a tertiary of the Dominican Order, and a Scholastic philosopher and theologian. She was canonized in 1461, and on 3 October 1970 she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Ven. Pope Paul VI.

Catherine is said by her confessor and biographer Raymond of Capua’s Life to have had her first vision of Christ when she was age five or six: experiencing a vision of Him seated in glory with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and John. At age seven, Catherine vowed to give her whole life to God. 
Her major treatise is The Dialogue of Divine Providence (1377-1378), written in the beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. Her contemporaries are united in asserting that much of the book was dictated while Catherine was in ecstasy, though it also seems possible that Catherine herself may then have re-edited many passages in the book. 
It is a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God and God himself. It treats of the whole spiritual life of man in the form of a series of colloquies between the Eternal Father and the human soul (represented by St. Catherine herself), and is the mystical counterpart in prose of Dante's Divine Comedy
The Eternal Father describes, through many different analogies, allegories, and metaphors, the spiritual life of humankind. In his description, the Eternal Father emphasizes the importance of cultivating virtue, continually praying, and the need for obedience. Any reader will be inspired by the sound advice throughout this dialogue. 
St. Catherine ranks high among the mystics and spiritual writers of the Church. She remains a greatly respected figure for her spiritual writings, and political boldness to “speak truth to power”: it being exceptional for a woman, in her time period, to have had such influence in politics and on world history. 
The keynote to St. Catherine's teaching is that man, whether in the cloister or in the world, must ever abide in the cell of self-knowledge, which is the stable in which the traveler through time to eternity must be born again.

The Cloud of Unknowing: late 14th century anonymous work

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century: probably around 1375. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer. The underlying message is that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, the seeker begins to glimpse the true nature of God.

It draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism, which focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form.

The English Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton has at times been suggested as the author, but this generally doubted. It is possible that the writer he was a Carthusian priest, though this is not certain. 
The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and the intellect, but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a “cloud of forgetting”, and thereby piercing God's cloud of unknowing with a “dart of longing love” and spiritual union with God from the heart. 

The work was not all that popular in late medieval England, perhaps because the Cloud is addressed to solitaries and concentrates on the advanced levels of the mystical path. It is found in only 17 manuscripts. But it became increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, with nine English translations or modernizations produced during this period. In particular, the Cloud has influenced recent contemplative prayer practices. 
The book documents techniques used by the medieval monastic community to build and maintain that contemplative knowledge of God. Written as a primer for the young monastic, the work is instructional, but does not have an austere didactic tone. Rather, the work embraces the reader with a maternal call to grow closer to God through meditation and prayer.

Theologia Germanica: late 14th century work by an anonymous priest (member of the Teutonic Order)

Theologia Germanica, also known as Theologia Deutsch or as Der Franckforter, is a mystical treatise believed to have been written in the later 14th century by an anonymous author. According to the introduction of the Theologia the author was a priest and a member of the Teutonic Order living in Frankfurt, Germany. 
The author is usually associated with the Friends of God: a lay mystical group within the Catholic Church and a center of German mysticism: influenced by Suso and Tauler. It was founded between 1339 and 1343 in Basel, Switzerland, and was also fairly important in Strasbourg and Cologne. 
Martin Luther gave the treatise its modern name and produced an edition of it in 1518. It has not been widely known before that time (only eight manuscripts from the fifteenth century are known). He wrote about it: “Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book has ever come into my hands from which I have learned more of God and Christ, and man and all things that are.”

Theologia Germanica proposes that God and man can be wholly united by following a path of perfection, as exemplified by the life of Christ, renouncing sin and selfishness, ultimately allowing God’s will to replace human will. It had a large following in later Lutheran and pietist traditions. John Calvin didn't like it much, and wrote that it was “conceived by Satan's cunning” and “contains a hidden poison.”

The Lutheran mystic Johann Arndt reedited an earlier printing based on Luther in 1597; this version was endorsed by Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705: the “father” of Lutheran pietism), and went through more than sixty printings. Some hundred editions were published up to our time.

It was listed in the Index of Prohibited Books by the Catholic Church from 1612 to the late twentieth century, and, therefore, should be approached with considerable caution by Catholics.

Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471) / The Imitation of Christ: Augustinian

Thomas à Kempis, C.R.S.A. was a German canon regular and author of The Imitation of Christ, which is one of the best-known Christian books on devotion. He was associated with the Brethren of the Common Life: a pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, formerly a successful educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. 

Thomas's life was a quiet one, his time being spent between devotional exercises, composition, and copying. He copied the Bible no fewer than four times, one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt, Germany. In its teachings he was widely read and his works abound in biblical quotations, especially from the New Testament.

Thomas was kind and affable towards all, especially the sorrowful and the afflicted; constantly engaged in his favorite occupations of reading, writing, or prayer; in time of recreation for the most part silent and recollected, finding it difficult even to express an opinion on matters of mundane interest, but pouring out a ready torrent of eloquence when the conversation turned on God or the concerns of the soul.

Thomas à Kempis reflected the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed in God. The Imitation of Christ is a charming instruction on how to love God. This small book, free from intellectual pretensions, has had great appeal to anyone interested in probing beneath the surface of life. It has come to be, after the Bible, the most widely translated book in Christian literature. 

For almost six hundred years, this gentle book, filled with the spirit of the love of God, has brought understanding and comfort to millions of readers in over fifty languages, and provided them with a source of heartfelt personal prayer.

St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510): layperson

St. Catherine of Genoa was an Italian mystic, admired for her work among the sick and the poor and remembered because of various writings describing both these actions and her mystical experiences. She and her teaching were the subject of Baron Friedrich von Hügel's classic work The Mystical Element of Religion (1908). She was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, and canonized in 1737 by Pope Clement XII. Her writings also became sources of inspiration for other saints such as Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales. 
She wished to enter a convent at age 13 or so, but the nuns refused her on account of her youth, after which she appears to have put the idea aside without any further attempt. She was married: very unhappily until her husband's religious conversion around 1477, and was widowed at age 50. 

St. Catherine had a mystical experience in 1473: an overpowering sense of God's love for her: one of the most extraordinary operations of God in the human soul of which we have record, the result being a marvelous inward condition that lasted till her death. In this state, she received wonderful revelations, of which she spoke at times to those around her, but which are mainly embodied in her two celebrated works: the Dialogues of the Soul and Body (or, Spiritual Dialogue), and the Treatise on Purgatory
This marked the beginning of her life of close union with God in prayer, without using forms of prayer such as the rosary. She began to receive Holy Communion almost daily, a practice extremely rare for laypeople in the Middle Ages.

From the moment of that sudden vision of herself and God, the saint's interior state seems never to have changed, save by varying in intensity and being accompanied by more or less severe penance, according to what she saw required of her by the Holy Spirit Who guided her incessantly.
St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582): Carmelite and Doctor of the Church

St. Teresa of Ávila, also called St. Teresa of Jesus, was a prominent Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, an author of the Catholic Reformation and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. She was a reformer of the Carmelite order and is considered to be a founder of the Discalced Carmelites along with St. John of the Cross. 
In 1622, she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV and on 27 September 1970, was named a Doctor of the Church by Ven. Pope Paul VI. St. Teresa is revered as the Doctor of Prayer. The mysticism in her works exerted a formative influence upon many theologians of the following centuries. 

In 1559, Teresa became firmly convinced that Jesus Christ presented himself to her in bodily form, though invisible. These visions lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual-bodily pain. The memory of this episode served as an inspiration throughout the rest of her life, and motivated her lifelong imitation of the life and suffering of Jesus, epitomized in the motto usually associated with her: Lord, either let me suffer or let me die

The kernel of Teresa's mystical thought throughout all her writings is the ascent of the soul in four stages. The first, or “mental prayer”, is that of devout contemplation or concentration, the withdrawal of the soul from without and especially the devout observance of the passion of Christ and penitence. The second is the “prayer of quiet”, in which at least the human will is lost in that of God by virtue of a charismatic, supernatural state given by God, while the other faculties, such as memory, reason, and imagination, are not yet secure from worldly distraction. The third stage the “devotion of union” is not only a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state. Here there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble. This state is characterized by a blissful peace, a sweet slumber of at least the higher soul faculties, or a conscious rapture in the love of God.

The fourth is the “devotion of ecstasy or rapture,” a passive state, in which the feeling of being in the body disappears. Sense activity ceases; memory and imagination are also absorbed in God or intoxicated. Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow. Later it is followed by a reactionary relaxation in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. The subject awakens from this in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, producing a trance.

Her book, The Way of Perfection, remains accessible to modern readers. In it, she sets out to lead others along the way to union with God through prayer, silence, and meditation. She suggests ways for readers to seek self-perfection, and her words are practical, heartfelt, and drawn from personal experience. It's also less formal and less poetically obscure than others of her books.

The Interior Castle was inspired by a vision she received from God. In it, there was a crystal globe with seven mansions, with God in the innermost mansion. St. Teresa interpreted this vision as an allegory for the soul's relationship with God; each mansion represents one place on a path towards the “spiritual marriage”-- i.e. union with God in the seventh mansion. One begins on this path through prayer and meditation. She also describes the resistance that the Devil places in various rooms, to keep believers from union with God. Throughout, she provides encouragements and advice for spiritual development. It also has much literary merit as a piece of Spanish Renaissance literature. 

In her Autobiography, St. Teresa expresses in beautiful language her deep relationship with God, and her wisdom and hopeful outlook have inspired Christians everywhere for centuries. She begins her story with tales of her childhood in the early 1500s, the death of her mother, how she became a nun, and the hardships of her life including illness and a period of “lukewarmness” during which she ceased to pray. She also relates the visions and instructions she received from God later in her life. 

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591): Carmelite and Doctor of the Church

St. John of the Cross, O.C.D. (Spanish) was a major figure of the Catholic Reformation, a mystic, a Carmelite friar and a priest. He was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and is considered, along with St. Teresa of Ávila, as a founder of the Discalced Carmelites. He is also known for his writings. Both his poetry and his studies on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and one of the peaks of all Spanish literature. He was canonized as a saint in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.

The Spiritual Canticle (a poem of forty stanzas) tells the story of the soul’s search for Christ. is describes a bride (representing the soul) searching for her bridegroom (representing Jesus Christ), anxious at having lost him; both are filled with joy upon reuniting. It can be seen as a free-form Spanish version of the Song of Solomon and serves as an allegorical reading thereof in light of the gospel. 

Dark Night of the Soul narrates the journey of the soul from her bodily home to her union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties she meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps during this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. 

A poet at heart, St. John describes the journey and the union with beautifully rich and deeply symbolic language. He also offers encouragement and comfort directly to readers as they, too, struggle with the excruciating dark night. Offering hope to the downtrodden and discouraged, Dark Night is one of the most difficult books a person can read, but its difficulty is surpassed by its reward. It's one of the most profound works of Christian mysticism. 

Ascent of Mount Carmel is a more systematic study of the ascetical endeavour of a soul looking for perfect union with God and the mystical events happening along the way. St. John depicts the soul's ascent to Mount Carmel (allegorically, the place of God) and the “dark night” that the soul must endure to reach it. St. John describes the different mystic experiences the soul encounters on its way to union with God through the dark night. It's a hauntingly beautiful and profound account of Christian spirituality.

St. John of the Cross was clearly influenced by the Bible. Scriptural images are common in both his poems and prose. In total, there are 1,583 explicit and 115 implicit quotations from the Bible in his works. Many other influences of earlier mystical writers have been proposed, but most theories cannot be definitively proven. It is most certain that the pseudo-Dionysian tradition was a key influence on his thought.

* * * * *

Quotable Mystics and Contemplatives (Book by Dave Armstrong): Introduction (Evelyn Underhill)

[link to the main book page]

[edited, shortened version of Part One, Section IV: “The Characteristics of Mysticism”: from Mysticism
(New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 3rd revised edition, 1911), by the Anglo-Catholic, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)]

No deeply religious man is without a touch of mysticism; and no mystic can be other than religious, in the psychological if not in the theological sense of the word. In mysticism the will is united with the emotions in an impassioned desire to transcend the sense-world, in order that the self may be joined by love to the one eternal and ultimate Object of love; whose existence is intuitively perceived by that which we used to call the soul, but now find it easier to refer to as the “cosmic” or “transcendental” sense. This is the poetic and religious temperament acting upon the plane of reality.

Mysticism is non-individualistic. It implies, indeed, the abolition of individuality; of that hard separateness, that “I, Me, Mine” which makes of man a finite isolated thing. It is essentially a movement of the heart, seeking to transcend the limitations of the individual standpoint and to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; for no personal gain, to satisfy no transcendental curiosity, to obtain no other-worldly joys, but purely from an instinct of love.

By the word heart, of course we here mean not merely “the seat of the affections,” “the organ of tender emotion,” and the like: but rather the inmost sanctuary of personal being, the deep root of its love and will, the very source of its energy and life. The mystic is “in love with the Absolute” not in any idle or sentimental manner, but in that vital sense which presses at all costs and through all dangers towards union with the object beloved. Hence, whilst the practice of magic—like the practice of science—does not necessarily entail passionate emotion, though of course it does and must entail interest of some kind, mysticism, like art, cannot exist without it. We must feel, and feel acutely, before we want to act on this hard and heroic scale.

What then do we really mean by mysticism? A word which is impartially applied to the performances of mediums and the ecstasies of the saints, to “menticulture” and sorcery, dreamy poetry and mediaeval art, to prayer and palmistry, the doctrinal excesses of Gnosticism, and the tepid speculations of the Cambridge Platonists soon ceases to have any useful meaning. Its employment merely confuses the inexperienced student, who ends with a vague idea that every kind of supersensual theory and practice is somehow “mystical.”

Hence the need of fixing, if possible, its true characteristics: and restating the fact that Mysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and that the mystic is the person who attains to this union, not the person who talks about it. Not to know about but to Be, is the mark of the real initiate.
The difficulty lies in determining the point at which supersensual experience ceases to be merely a practical and interesting extension of sensual experience—an enlarging, so to speak, of the boundaries of existence—and passes over into that boundless life where Subject and Object, desirous and desired, are one. No sharp line, but rather an infinite series of gradations separate the two states. Hence we must look carefully at all the pilgrims on the road; discover, if we can, the motive of their travels, the maps which they use, the luggage which they take, the end which they attain.

Now we have said that the end which the mystic sets before him is conscious union with a living Absolute. That Divine Dark, that Abyss of the Godhead, of which he sometimes speaks as the goal of his quest, is just this Absolute, the Uncreated Light in which the Universe is bathed, and which—transcending, as it does, all human powers of expression—he can only describe to us as dark. But there is—must be—contact “in an intelligible where” between every individual self and this Supreme Self, this Ultimate.

In the mystic this union is conscious, personal, and complete. “He enjoys,” says St. John of the Cross, “a certain contact of the soul with the Divinity; and it is God Himself who is then felt and tasted.” More or less according to his measure, he has touched—or better, been touched by—the substantial Being of Deity, not merely its manifestation in life. This it is which distinguishes him from the best and most brilliant of other men, and makes his science, in Patmore’s words, “the science of self-evident Reality.” Gazing with him into that unsearchable ground whence the World of Becoming comes forth “eternally generated in an eternal Now,” we may see only the icy darkness of perpetual negations: but he, beyond the coincidence of opposites, looks upon the face of Perfect Love.

As genius in any of the arts is—humanly speaking—the final term of a power of which each individual possesses the rudiments, so mysticism may be looked upon as the final term, the active expression, of a power latent in the whole race: the power, that is to say, of so perceiving transcendent reality. Few people pass through life without knowing what it is to be at least touched by this mystical feeling. He who falls in love with a woman and perceives—as the lover really does perceive—that the categorical term “girl” veils a wondrous and unspeakable reality: he who, falling in love with nature, sees the landscape “touched with light divine,”—a charming phrase to those who have not seen it, but a scientific statement to the rest—he who falls in love with the Holy, or as we say “undergoes conversion”: all these have truly known for an instant something of the secret of the world.
Here, in this spark or “part of the soul” where the spirit, as religion says, “rests in God who made it,” is the fountain alike of the creative imagination and the mystic life. Now and again something stings it into consciousness, and man is caught up to the spiritual level, catches a glimpse of the “secret plan.” Then hints of a marvelous truth, a unity whose note is ineffable peace, shine in created things; awakening in the self a sentiment of love, adoration, and awe. Its life is enhanced, the barrier of personality is broken, man escapes the sense-world, ascends to the apex of his spirit, and enters for a brief period into the more extended life of the All.

This intuition of the Real lying at the root of the visible world and sustaining its life, is present in a modified form in the arts: perhaps it were better to say, must be present if these arts are so justify themselves as heightened forms of experience. It is this which gives to them that peculiar vitality, that strange power of communicating a poignant emotion, half torment and half joy, which baffle their more rational interpreters. We know that the picture which is “like a photograph,” the building which is at once handsome and commodious, the novel which is a perfect transcript of life, fail to satisfy us. It is difficult to say why this should be so, unless it were because these things have neglected their true business; which was not to reproduce the illusions of ordinary men but to catch and translate for us something of that “secret plan,” that reality which the artistic consciousness is able, in a measure, to perceive. “Painting as well as music and poetry exists and exults in immortal thoughts,” says Blake. That “life-enhancing power” which has been recognized as the supreme quality of good painting, has its origin in this contact of the artistic mind with the archetypal—or, if you like, the transcendental—world: the underlying verity of things.

The mystic may say—is indeed bound to say—with St. Bernard, “My secret to myself.” Try how he will, his stammering and awestruck reports can hardly be understood but by those who are already in the way. But the artist cannot act thus. On him has been laid the duty of expressing something of that which he perceives. He is bound to tell his love. In his worship of Perfect Beauty faith must be balanced by works. By means of veils and symbols he must interpret his free vision, his glimpse of the burning bush, to other men. He is the mediator between his brethren and the divine, for art is the link between appearance and reality.

But we do not call every one who has these partial and artistic intuitions of reality a mystic, any more than we call every one a musician who has learnt to play the piano. The true mystic is the person in whom such powers transcend the merely artistic and visionary stage, and are exalted to the point of genius: in whom the transcendental consciousness can dominate the normal consciousness, and who has definitely surrendered himself to the embrace of Reality. As artists stand in a peculiar relation to the phenomenal world, receiving rhythms and discovering truths and beauties which are hidden from other men, so this true mystic stands in a peculiar relation to the transcendental world, there experiencing actual, but to us unimaginable tension and delight. His consciousness is transfigured in a particular way, he lives at different levels of experience from other people: and this of course means that he sees a different world, since the world as we know it is the product of certain scraps or aspects of reality acting upon a normal and untransfigured consciousness.

Hence his mysticism is no isolated vision, no fugitive glimpse of reality, but a complete system of life carrying its own guarantees and obligations. As other men are immersed in and react to natural or intellectual life, so the mystic is immersed in and reacts to spiritual life. He moves towards that utter identification with its interests which he calls “Union with God.” He has been called a lonely soul. He might more properly be described as a lonely body: for his soul, peculiarly responsive, sends out and receives communications upon every side.

Were he a musician, it is probable that the mystic could give his message to other musicians in the terms of that art, far more accurately than language will allow him to do: for we must remember that there is no excuse but that of convenience for the pre-eminence amongst modes of expression which we accord to words. These correspond so well to the physical plane and its adventures, that we forget that they have but the faintest of relations with transcendental things. Even the artist, before he can make use of them, is bound to re-arrange them in accordance with the laws of rhythm: obeying unconsciously the rule by which all arts “tend to approach the condition of music.”

So too the mystic. Mysticism, the most romantic of adventures, from one point of view the art of arts, their source and also their end, finds naturally enough its closest correspondences in the most purely artistic and most deeply significant of all forms of expression. The mystery of music is seldom realized by those who so easily accept its gifts. Yet of all the arts music alone shares with great mystical literature the power of waking in us a response to the life-movement of the universe: brings us—we know not how—news of its exultant passions and its incomparable peace. Beethoven heard the very voice of Reality, and little of it escaped when he translated it for our ears.

The mediaeval mind, more naturally mystical than ours, and therefore more sharply aware of the part which rhythmic harmony plays in the worlds of nature and of grace, gave to music a cosmic importance, discerning its operation in many phenomena which we now attribute to that dismal figment, Law. The life of the visible and invisible universe consists in a supernal fugue.

The mind must employ some device of the kind if its transcendental perceptions—wholly unrelated as they are to the phenomena with which intellect is able to deal—are ever to be grasped by the surface consciousness. Sometimes the symbol and the perception which it represents become fused in that consciousness; and the mystic’s experience then presents itself to him as “visions” or “voices” which we must look upon as the garment he has himself provided to veil that Reality upon which no man may look and live. The nature of this garment will be largely conditioned by his temperament—as in St. Catherine of Genoa’s leaning towards the abstract conceptions of fire and light—and also by his theological education and environment. Cases in point are the highly dogmatic visions and auditions of Suso, St. Catherine of Siena; above all of St. Teresa, whose marvelous self-analyses provide the classic account of these attempts of the mind to translate transcendental intuitions into concepts with which it can deal.

The greatest mystics, however—Ruysbroeck, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa herself in her later stages—distinguish clearly between the ineffable Reality which they perceive and the image under which they describe it. Again and again they tell us with Dionysius, that the Object of their contemplation “hath no image”: or with St. John of the Cross that “the soul can never attain to the height of the divine union, so far as it is possible in this life, through the medium of any forms or figures.” Therefore the attempt which has sometimes been made to identify mysticism with such forms and figures—with visions, voices, “supernatural favours” and other abnormal phenomena—is clearly wrong.

“The highest and most divine things which it is given us to see and to know,” says Dionysius the Areopagite plainly, “are but the symbolic language of things subordinate to Him who Himself transcendeth them all: through which things His incomprehensible Presence is shown, walking on those heights of His Holy Places which are perceived by the mind.

The mystic, as a rule, cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some side-long way, some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader, and convey, as all poetic language does, something beyond its surface sense. Hence the large part which is played in all mystical writings by symbolism and imagery; and also by that rhythmic and exalted language which induces in sensitive persons something of the languid ecstasy of dream. The close connection between rhythm and heightened states of consciousness is as yet little understood. Its further investigation will probably throw much light on ontological as well as psychological problems. 

Mystical, no less than musical and poetic perception, tends naturally—we know not why—to present itself in rhythmical periods: a feature which is also strongly marked in writings obtained in the automatic state. So constant is this law in some subjects that Baron von Hügel adopted the presence or absence of rhythm as a test whereby to distinguish the genuine utterances of St. Catherine of Genoa from those wrongly attributed to her by successive editors of her legend.

All kinds of symbolic language come naturally to the articulate mystic, who is often a literary artist as well: so naturally, that he sometimes forgets to explain that his utterance is but symbolic—a desperate attempt to translate the truth of that world into the beauty of this. It is here that mysticism joins hands with music and poetry: had this fact always been recognized by its critics, they would have been saved from many regrettable and some ludicrous misconceptions. Symbol—the clothing which the spiritual borrows from the material plane—is a form of artistic expression. That is to say, it is not literal but suggestive: though the artist who uses it may sometimes lose sight of this distinction. Hence the persons who imagine that the “Spiritual Marriage” of St. Catherine or St. Teresa veils a perverted sexuality, that the vision of the Sacred Heart involved an incredible anatomical experience, do but advertise their ignorance of the mechanism of the arts: like the lady who thought that Blake must be mad because he said that he had touched the sky with his finger.

Further, the study of the mystics, the keeping company however humbly with their minds, brings with it as music or poetry does—but in a far greater degree—a strange exhilaration, as if we were brought near to some mighty source of Being, were at last on the verge of the secret which all seek. The symbols displayed, the actual words employed, when we analyse them, are not enough to account for such effect. It is rather that these messages from the waking transcendental self of another, stir our own deeper selves in their sleep. It were hardly an extravagance to say, that those writings which are the outcome of true and first-hand mystical experience may be known by this power of imparting to the reader the sense of exalted and extended life.

Now, returning to our original undertaking, that of defining if we can the characteristics of true mysticism, I propose to set out, illustrate and, I hope, justify four rules or notes which may be applied as tests to any given case which claims to take rank amongst the mystics.

1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.

2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. The mystic brushes aside that universe, even in its supernormal manifestations. Though he does not, as his enemies declare, neglect his duty to the many, his heart is always set upon the changeless One.

3. This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of Love; never an object of exploration. It draws his whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart.

4. Living union with this One—which is the term of his adventure—is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realization of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. Though these must be present they are not enough. It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process—the so-called Mystic Way—entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called “ecstasy,” but is better named the Unitive State.

Mysticism, then, is not an opinion: it is not a philosophy. It has nothing in common with the pursuit of occult knowledge. On the one hand it is not merely the power of contemplating Eternity: on the other, it is not to be identified with any kind of religious queerness. It is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better—for this means exactly the same thing—it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute. 

The movement of the mystic consciousness towards this consummation, is not merely the sudden admission to an overwhelming vision of Truth: though such dazzling glimpses may from time to time be vouchsafed to the soul. It is rather an ordered movement towards ever higher levels of reality, ever closer identification with the Infinite.

Now, how do these statements square with the practice of the great mystics; and with the various forms of activity which have been classified at one time or another as mystical?

(1) Mysticism is practical, not theoretical.

This statement, taken alone, is not, of course, enough to identify mysticism; since it is equally true of magic, which also proposes to itself something to be done rather than something to be believed. It at once comes into collision, however, with the opinions of those who believe mysticism to be “the reaction of the born Platonist upon religion.”

The difference between such devout philosophers and the true mystic, is the difference which George Tyrrell held to distinguish revelation from theology. Mysticism, like revelation, is final and personal. It is not merely a beautiful and suggestive diagram but experience in its most intense form. That experience, in the words of Plotinus, is the soul’s solitary adventure: “the flight of the Alone to the Alone.” It provides the material, the substance, upon which mystical philosophy cogitates; as theologians cogitate upon the revelation which forms the basis of faith. Hence those whom we are to accept as mystics must have received, and acted upon, intuitions of a Truth which is for them absolute. If we are to acknowledge that they “knew the doctrine” they must have “lived the life”; submitted to the interior travail of the Mystic Way, not merely have reasoned about the mystical experiences of others.

We could not well dispense with our Christian Platonists and mystical philosophers. They are our stepping-stones to higher things; interpret to our dull minds, entangled in the sense-world, the ardent vision of those who speak to us from the dimension of Reality. But they are no more mystics than the milestones on the Dover Road are travelers to Calais. Sometimes their words—the wistful words of those who know but cannot be—produce mystics; as the sudden sight of a signpost pointing to the sea will rouse the spirit of adventure in a boy.

Over and over again the great mystics tell us, not how they speculated, but how they acted. To them, the transition from the life of sense to the life of spirit is a formidable undertaking, which demands effort and constancy. The paradoxical “quiet” of the contemplative is but the outward stillness essential to inward work. Their favourite symbols are those of action: battle, search, and pilgrimage.

“Let no one suppose,” says the “Theologia Germanica,” “that we may attain to this true light and perfect knowledge . . . by hearsay, or by reading and study, nor yet by high skill and great learning.”

Those who suppose mystical experience to be merely a pleasing consciousness of the Divine in the world, a sense of the “otherness” of things, a basking in the beams of the Uncreated Light, are only playing with Reality. True mystical achievement is the most complete and most difficult expression of life which is as yet possible to man. It is at once an act of love, an act of surrender, and an act of supreme perception; a trinity of experiences which meets and satisfies the three activities of the self. Religion might give us the first and metaphysics the third of these processes. Only Mysticism can offer the middle term of the series; the essential link which binds the three in one. “Secrets,” says St. Catherine of Siena, “are revealed to a friend who has become one thing with his friend and not to a servant.”

(2) Mysticism is an entirely Spiritual Activity.

This rule provides us with a further limitation, which of course excludes all the practisers of magic and of magical religion: even in their most exalted and least materialistic forms. As we shall see when we come to consider these persons, their object—not necessarily an illegitimate one—is to improve and elucidate the visible by help of the invisible: to use the supernormal powers of the self for the increase of power, virtue, happiness or knowledge. The mystic never turns back on himself in this way, or tries to combine the advantages of two worlds. At the term of his development he knows God by communion, and this direct intuition of the Absolute kills all lesser cravings.

He possesses God, and needs nothing more. Though he will spend himself unceasingly for other men, become “an agent of the Eternal Goodness,” he is destitute of supersensual ambitions and craves no occult knowledge or power. Having his eyes set on eternity, his consciousness steeped in it, he can well afford to tolerate the entanglements of time. “His spirit,” says Tauler, “is as it were sunk and lost in the Abyss of the Deity, and loses the consciousness of all creature-distinctions. All things are gathered together in one with the divine sweetness, and the man’s being is so penetrated with the divine substance that he loses himself therein, as a drop of water is lost in a cask of strong wine. And thus the man’s spirit is so sunk in God in divine union, that he loses all sense of distinction . . . and there remains a secret, still union, without cloud or colour.” “I wish not,” said St. Catherine of Genoa, “for anything that comes forth from Thee, but only for Thee, oh sweetest Love!”

(3) The business and method of Mysticism is Love.

Here is one of the distinctive notes of true mysticism; marking it off from every other kind of transcendental theory and practice and providing the answer to the question with which our last chapter closed. It is the eager, outgoing activity whose driving power is generous love, not the absorbent, indrawing activity which strives only for new knowledge, that is fruitful in the spiritual as well as in the physical world.

Volumes of extracts might be compiled from the works of the mystics illustrative of this rule, which is indeed their central principle. Love to the mystic, is (a) the active, conative, expression of his will and desire for the Absolute; (b) his innate tendency to that Absolute, his spiritual weight. He is only thoroughly natural, thoroughly alive, when he is obeying its voice. For him it is the source of joy, the secret of the universe, the vivifying principle of things. Hence in St. Catherine of Siena’s exquisite allegory it is the feet of the soul’s affection which brings it first to the Bridge, “for the feet carry the body as affection carries the soul.”

“How great a thing is Love, great above all other goods: for alone it makes all that is heavy light, and bears evenly all that is uneven. . . .

“Love would be aloft, nor will it be kept back by any lower thing. Love would be free, and estranged from all worldly affection, that its inward sight be not hindered: that it may not be entangled by any temporal comfort, nor succumb to any tribulation.

“Nought is sweeter than love, nought stronger, nought higher, nought wider: there is no more joyous, fuller, better thing in heaven or earth. For love is born of God, and cannot rest save in God, above all created things. 

“The lover flies, runs, and, rejoices: he is free, and cannot be restrained. He gives all for all, and has all in all; for he rests in One Supreme above all, from whom all good flows and proceeds.
“He looks not at the gift, but above all goods turns himself to the giver.

“. . . He who loves knows the cry of this voice. For this burning affection of the soul is a loud cry in the ears of God when it saith ‘My God, My Love, Thou art all mine, and I am all Thine.’” [The Imitation of Christ]

Well might Hilton say that “Perfect love maketh God and the soul to be as if they both together were but one thing,” and Tauler that “the well of life is love, and he who dwelleth not in love is dead.”
These, nevertheless, are objective and didactic utterances; though their substance may be—probably is—personal, their form is not. But if we want to see what it really means to be “in love with the Absolute,”—how intensely actual to the mystic is the Object of his passion, how far removed from the spheres of pious duty or philosophic speculation, how concrete, positive and dominant such a passion may be—we must study the literature of autobiography, not that of poetry or exhortation.
Attraction, desire, and union as the fulfilment of desire; this is the way Life works, in the highest as in the lowest things. The mystic’s outlook, indeed, is the lover’s outlook. It has the same element of wildness, the same quality of selfless and quixotic devotion, the same combination of rapture and humility. This parallel is more than a pretty fancy: for mystic and lover, upon different planes, are alike responding to the call of the Spirit of Life. The language of human passion is tepid and insignificant beside the language in which the mystics try to tell the splendours of their love. They force upon the unprejudiced reader the conviction that they are dealing with an ardour far more burning for an Object far more real.

“This monk can give lessons to lovers!” exclaimed Arthur Symons in astonishment of St. John of the Cross. It would be strange if he could not; since their finite passions are but the feeble images of his infinite one, their beloved the imperfect symbol of his First and only Fair. “I saw Him and sought Him: I had Him and I wanted Him,” says Julian of Norwich, in a phrase which seems to sum up all the ecstasy and longing of man’s soul. Only this mystic passion can lead us from our prison. Its brother, the desire of knowledge, may enlarge and improve the premises to an extent as yet undreamed of: but it can never unlock the doors.

(4) Mysticism entails a definite Psychological Experience.  

That is to say, it shows itself not merely as an attitude of mind and heart, but as a form of organic life. It is not only a theory of the intellect or a hunger, however passionate, of the heart. It involves the organizing of the whole self, conscious and unconscious, under the spur of such a hunger: a remaking of the whole character on high levels in the interests of the transcendental life. The mystics are emphatic in their statement that spiritual desires are useless unless they initiate this costly movement of the whole self towards the Real.

We have said that the full mystic consciousness is extended in two distinct directions. So too there are two distinct sides to the full mystical experience. (A) The vision or consciousness of Absolute Perfection. (B) The inward transmutation to which that Vision compels the mystic, in order that he may be to some extent worthy of that which he has beheld: may take his place within the order of Reality. He has seen the Perfect; he wants to be perfect too. The moral virtues are for him, then, the obligatory “ornaments of the Spiritual Marriage” as Ruysbroeck called them: though far more than their presence is needed to bring that marriage about. Unless this impulse for moral perfection be born in him, this travail of the inner life begun, he is no mystic: though he may well be a visionary, a prophet, a “mystical” poet.

Moreover, this process of transmutation, this rebuilding of the self on higher levels, will involve the establishment within the field of consciousness, the making “central for life,” of those subconscious spiritual perceptions which are the primary material of mystical experience. The end and object of this “inward alchemy” will be the raising of the whole self to the condition in which conscious and permanent union with the Absolute takes place and man, ascending to the summit of his manhood, enters into that greater life for which he was made. In its journey towards this union, the subject commonly passes through certain well-marked phases, which constitute what is known as the “Mystic Way.” This statement rules out from the true mystic kingdom all merely sentimental and affective piety and visionary poetry, no less than mystical philosophy. It brings us back to our first proposition—the concrete and practical nature of the mystical act.

More than the apprehension of God, then, more than the passion for the Absolute, is needed to make a mystic. These must be combined with an appropriate psychological make-up, with a nature capable of extraordinary concentration, an exalted moral emotion, a nervous organization of the artistic type. All these are necessary to the successful development of the mystic life process. In the experience of those mystics who have left us the records of their own lives, the successive stages of this life process are always traceable.

Suso, St. Teresa, and many others have left us valuable self-analyses for comparison: and from them we see how arduous, how definite, and how far removed from mere emotional or intellectual activity, is that educational discipline by which “the eye which looks upon Eternity” is able to come to its own. Though we may be amazed and delighted by his adventures and discoveries on the way, to him the voyage and the end are all. “The road on which we enter is a royal road which leads to heaven,” says St. Teresa. “Is it strange that the conquest of such a treasure should cost us rather dear?”

It is one of the many indirect testimonies to the objective reality of mysticism that the stages of this road, the psychology of the spiritual ascent, as described to us by different schools of contemplatives, always present practically the same sequence of states. The “school for saints” has never found it necessary to bring its curriculum up to date. Though each wayfarer may choose different landmarks, it is clear from their comparison that the road is one.

(5) As a corollary to these four rules, it is perhaps well to reiterate the statement already made, that True Mysticism is never self-seeking. It is not, as many think, the pursuit of supernatural joys; the satisfaction of a high ambition. The mystic does not enter on his quest because he desires the happiness of the Beatific Vision, the ecstasy of union with the Absolute, or any other personal reward. That noblest of all passions, the passion for perfection for Love’s sake, far outweighs the desire for transcendental satisfaction. “O Love,” said St. Catherine of Genoa, “I do not wish to follow thee for sake of these delights, but solely from the motive of true love.” Those who do otherwise are only, in the plain words of St. John of the Cross, “spiritual gluttons”: or, in the milder metaphor here adopted, magicians of the more high-minded sort. The true mystic claims no promises and makes no demands. He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life. He never rests in that search for God which he holds to be the fulfilment of his highest duty; yet he seeks without any certainty of success. He holds with St. Bernard that “He alone is God who can never be sought in vain: not even when He cannot be found.”

“Whether we live or whether we die,” said St. Paul, “we are the Lord’s.” The mystic is a realist, to whom these words convey not a dogma but an invitation: an invitation to the soul to attain that fullness of life for which she was made, to “lose herself in That which can be neither seen nor touched; giving herself entirely to this sovereign Object without belonging either to herself or to others; united to the Unknown by the most noble part of herself and because of her renouncement of knowledge; finally drawing from this absolute ignorance a knowledge which the understanding knows not how to attain. Mysticism, then, is seen as the “one way out” for the awakened spirit of man; healing that human incompleteness which is the origin of our divine unrest. The mystics have never turned away: to do so would have seemed to them a self-destructive act. Here, in this world of illusion, they say, we have no continuing city. This statement, to you a proposition, is to us the central fact of life.

To sum up. Mysticism is seen to be a highly specialized form of that search for reality, for heightened and completed life, which we have found to be a constant characteristic of human consciousness. It is largely prosecuted by that “spiritual spark,” that transcendental faculty which, though the life of our life, remains below the threshold in ordinary men. Emerging from its hiddenness in the mystic, it gradually becomes the dominant factor in his life; subduing to its service, and enhancing by its saving contact with reality, those vital powers of love and will which we attribute to the heart, rather than those of mere reason and perception, which we attribute to the head. Under the spur of this love and will, the whole personality rises in the acts of contemplation and ecstasy to a level of consciousness at which it becomes aware of a new field of perception. By this awareness, by this “loving sight,” it is stimulated to a new life in accordance with the Reality which it has beheld. So strange and exalted is this life, that it never fails to provoke either the anger or the admiration of other men.

A discussion of mysticism, regarded as a form of human life, will therefore include two branches. First the life process of the mystic: the remaking of his personality; the method by which his peculiar consciousness of the Absolute is attained, and faculties which have been evolved to meet the requirements of the phenomenal, are enabled to do work on the transcendental, plane. This is the “Mystic Way” in which the self passes through the states or stages of development which were codified by the Neoplatonists, and after them by the mediaeval mystics, as Purgation, Illumination, and Ecstasy.

Secondly, the content of the mystical field of perception; the revelation under which the contemplative becomes aware of the Absolute; the so called doctrines of mysticism: the attempts of the articulate mystic to sketch for us the world into which he has looked, in language which is only adequate to the world in which the rest of us dwell. Here the difficult question of symbolism, and of symbolic theology, comes in: a point upon which many promising expositions of the mystics have been wrecked: the apparent contradictions of objective and subjective revelations, of the ways of negation and affirmation, emanation and immanence, surrender and deification, the Divine Dark and the Inward Light; . . . [but ultimately] the essential unity of that experience in which the human soul enters consciously into the Presence of God.