[Footnote 283: That is, "necessary" or "profitable."]
"O heart, the equal poise of Love's both parts, Big alike with wounds and darts, Live in these conquering leaves, live still the same, And walk through all tongues one triumphant flame! Live here, great heart, and love and die and kill, And bleed, and wound, and yield, and conquer still. Let this immortal life, where'er it comes, Walk in a crowd of loves and martyrdoms. Let mystic deaths wait on it, and wise souls be The love-slain witnesses of this life of thee. O sweet incendiary! show here thy art Upon this carcase of a hard, cold heart; Let all thy scattered shafts of light, that play Among the leaves of thy large books of day, Combined against this breast at once break in, And take away from me myself and sin; This glorious robbery shall thy bounty be, And my best fortunes such fair spoils of me. O thou undaunted daughter of desires! By all thy dower of lights and fires, By all the eagle in thee, all the dove, By all thy lives and deaths of love, By thy large draughts of intellectual day, And by thy thirsts of love more large than they; By all thy brim-fill'd bowls of fierce desire, By thy last morning's draught of liquid fire, By the full kingdom of that final kiss That seized thy parting soul and seal'd thee His; By all the heavens thou hast in Him, Fair sister of the seraphim! By all of Him we have in Thee, Leave nothing of myself in me: Let me so read thy life, that I Unto all life of mine may die."
CRASHAW, On St. Teresa.
"In a dark night, Burning with ecstasies wherein I fell, Oh happy plight, Unheard I left the house wherein I dwell, The inmates sleeping peacefully and well.
"Secure from sight; By unknown ways, in unknown robes concealed, Oh happy plight; And to no eye revealed, My home in sleep as in the tomb was sealed.
"Sweet night, in whose blessed fold No human eye beheld me, and mine eye None could behold. Only for Guide had I His Face whom I desired so ardently."
ST. JUAN OF THE CROSS (translated by Hutchings).
PRACTICAL AND DEVOTIONAL MYSTICISM—continued
"Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever."—Ps. lxxiii. 25, 26.
We have seen that the leaders of the Reformation in Germany thrust aside speculative Mysticism with impatience. Nor did Christian Platonism fare much better in the Latin countries. There were students of Plotinus in Italy in the sixteenth century, who fancied that a revival of humane letters, and a better acquaintance with philosophy, were the best means of combating the barbaric enthusiasms of the North. But these Italian Neoplatonists had, for the most part, no deep religious feelings, and they did not exhibit in their lives that severity which the Alexandrian philosophers had practised. And so, when Rome had need of a Catholic mystical revival to stem the tide of Protestantism, she could not find what she required among the scholars and philosophers of the Papal court. The Mysticism of the counter-Reformation had its centre in Spain.
It has been said that "Mysticism is the philosophy of Spain." This does not mean that idealistic philosophy flourished in the Peninsula, for the Spanish race has never shown any taste for metaphysics. The Mysticism of Spain is psychological; its point of departure is not the notion of Being or of Unity, but the human soul seeking reconcilation with God. We need not be on our guard against pantheism in reading the Spanish mystics; they show no tendency to obliterate the dividing lines of personality, or to deify sinful humanity. The cause of this peculiarity is to be sought partly in the strong individualism of the Spanish character, and partly in external circumstances. Free thought in Spain was so sternly repressed, that those tendencies of mystical religion which are antagonistic to Catholic discipline were never allowed to display themselves. The Spanish mystics remained orthodox Romanists, subservient to their "directors" and "superiors," and indefatigable in making recruits for the cloister. Even so, they did not escape the attention of the Inquisition; and though two among them, St. Teresa and St. Juan of the Cross, were awarded the badge of sanctity, the fate of Molinos showed how Rome had come to dread even the most submissive mystics.
The early part of the sixteenth century was a period of high culture in Spain. The universities of Salamanca and Alcala were famous throughout Europe; the former is said (doubtless with great exaggeration) to have contained at one time fourteen thousand students. But the Inquisition, which had been founded to suppress Jews and Mahometans, was roused to a more baneful activity by the appearance of Protestantism in Spain. Before the end of the sixteenth century, the Spanish people, who up to that time had been second to none in love of liberty and many-sided energy, had been changed into sombre fanatics, sunk in ignorance and superstition, and retaining hardly a trace of their former buoyancy and healthy independence. The first Index Expurgatorius was published in 1546; the burning of Protestants began in 1559. Till then, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, and Ruysbroek had circulated freely in Spain. But the Inquisition condemned them all, except Ruysbroek. The same rigour was extended to the Arabian philosophers, and so their speculations influenced Spanish theology much less than might have been expected from the long sojourn of the Moors in the Peninsula. Averroism was known in Spain chiefly through the medium of the Fons Vitae of Ibn Gebirol (Avicebron). Dionysius and the scholastic mystics of the Middle Ages were, of course, allowed to be read. But besides these, the works of Plato and Plotinus were accessible in Latin translations, and were highly valued by some of the Spanish mystics. This statement may surprise those who have identified Spanish Mysticism with Teresa and Juan of the Cross, and who know how little Platonism is to be found in their theology. But these two militant champions of the counter-Reformation numbered among their contemporaries mystics of a different type, whose writings, little known in this country, entitle them to an honourable place in the roll of Christian Platonists.
We find in them most of the characteristic doctrines of Christian Neoplatonism: the radiation of all things from God and their return to God; the immanence of God in all things; the notion of man as a microcosm, vitally connected with all the different orders of creation; the Augustinian doctrine of Christ and His members as "one Christ"; insistence upon disinterested love; and admonitions to close the eye of sense. This last precept, which, as I have maintained, is neither true Platonism nor true Mysticism, must be set against others in which the universe is said to be a copy of the Divine Ideas, "of which Plotinus has spoken divinely," the creation of Love, which has given form to chaos, and stamped it with the image of the Divine beauty; and in which we are exhorted to rise through the contemplation of nature to God. Juan de Angelis, in his treatise on the spiritual nuptials, quotes freely, not only from Plato, Plotinus, and Virgil, but from Lucretius, Ovid, Tibullus, and Martial.
But this kind of humanism was frowned upon by the Church, in Spain as elsewhere. These were not the weapons with which Lutheranism could be fought successfully. Juan d'Avila was accused before the Inquisition in 1534, and one of his books was placed on the Index of 1559; Louis de Granada had to take refuge in Portugal; Louis de Leon, who had the courage to say that the Song of Solomon is only a pastoral idyll, was sent to a dungeon for five years. Even St. Teresa narrowly escaped imprisonment at Seville; and St. Juan of the Cross passed nine months in a black hole at Toledo.
Persecution, when applied with sufficient ruthlessness, seldom fails of its immediate object. It took only about twelve years to destroy Protestantism in Spain; and the Holy Office was equally successful in binding Mysticism hand and foot. And so we must not expect to find in St. Teresa or St. Juan any of the characteristic independence of Mysticism. The inner light which they sought was not an illumination of the intellect in its search for truth, but a consuming fire to burn up all earthly passions and desires. Faith presented them with no problems; all such questions had been settled once for all by Holy Church. They were ascetics first and Church Reformers next; neither of them was a typical mystic.
The life of St. Teresa is more interesting than her teaching. She had all the best qualities of her noble Castilian ancestors— simplicity, straightforwardness, and dauntless courage; and the record of her self-denying life is enlivened by numerous flashes of humour, which make her character more lovable. She is best known as a visionary, and it is mainly through her visions that she is often regarded as one of the most representative mystics. But these visions do not occupy a very large space in the story of her life. They were frequent during the first two or three years of her convent life, and again between the ages of forty and fifty: there was a long gap between the two periods, and during the last twenty years of her life, when she was actively engaged in founding and visiting religious houses, she saw them no more. This experience was that of many other saints of the cloister. Spiritual consolations seem to be frequently granted to encourage young beginners; then they are withdrawn, and only recovered after a long period of dryness and darkness; but in later life, when the character is fixed, and the imagination less active, the vision fades into the light of common day. In considering St. Teresa's visions, we must remember that she was transparently honest and sincere; that her superiors strongly disliked and suspected, and her enemies ridiculed, her spiritual privileges; that at the same time they brought her great fame and influence; that she was at times haunted by doubts whether she ever really saw them; and, lastly, that her biographers have given them a more grotesque and materialistic character than is justified by her own descriptions.
She tells us herself that her reading of St. Augustine's Confessions, at the age of forty-one, was a turning-point in her life. "When I came to his conversion," she says, "and read how he heard the voice in the garden, it was just as if the Lord called me." It was after this that she began again to see visions—or rather to have a sudden sense of the presence of God, with a suspension of all the faculties. In these trances she generally heard Divine "locutions." She says that "the words were very clearly formed, and unmistakable, though not heard by the bodily ear. They are quite unlike the words framed by the imagination, which are muffled" (cosa sorda). She describes her visions of Christ very carefully. First He stood beside her while she was in prayer, and she heard and saw Him, "though not with the eyes of the body, nor of the soul." Then by degrees "His sacred humanity was completely manifested to me, as it is painted after the Resurrection." (This last sentence suggests that sacred pictures, lovingly gazed at, may have been the source of some of her visions.) Her superiors tried to persuade her that they were delusions; but she replied, "If they who said this told me that a person who had just finished speaking to me, whom I knew well, was not that person, but they knew that I fancied it, doubtless I should believe them, rather than what I had seen; but if this person left behind him some jewels as pledges of his great love, and I found myself rich having been poor, I could not believe it if I wished. And these jewels I could show them. For all who knew me saw clearly that my soul was changed; the difference was great and palpable." The answer shows that for Teresa the question was not whether the manifestations were "subjective" or "objective," but whether they were sent by God or Satan.
One of the best chapters in her autobiography, and perhaps the most interesting from our present point of view, is the allegory under which she describes the different kinds of prayer. The simile is not original—it appears in St. Augustine and others; but it is more fully worked out by St. Teresa, who tells us "it has always been a great delight to me to think of my soul as a garden, and of the Lord as walking in it." So here she says, "Our soul is like a garden, rough and unfruitful, out of which God plucks the weeds, and plants flowers, which we have to water by prayer. There are four ways of doing this—First, by drawing the water from a well; this is the earliest and most laborious process. Secondly, by a water-wheel which has its rim hung round with little buckets. Third, by causing a stream to flow through it. Fourth, by rain from heaven. The first is ordinary prayer, which is often attended by great sweetness and comfort. But sometimes the well is dry. What then? The love of God does not consist in being able to weep, nor yet in delights and tenderness, but in serving with justice, courage, and humility. The other seems to me rather to receive than to give. The second is the prayer of quiet, when the soul understands that God is so near to her that she need not talk aloud to Him." In this stage the Will is absorbed, but the Understanding and Memory are still active. (Teresa, following the scholastic mystics, makes these the three faculties of the soul.) In the third stage God becomes, as it were, the Gardener. "It is a sleep of the faculties, which are not entirely suspended, nor yet do they understand how they work." In the fourth stage, the soul labours not at all; all the faculties are quiescent. As she pondered how she might describe this state, "the Lord said these words to me: She (the soul) unmakes herself, my daughter, to bring herself closer to Me. It is no more she that lives, but I. As she cannot comprehend what she sees, understanding she ceases to understand." Years after she had attained this fourth stage, Teresa experienced what the mystics call "the great dereliction," a sense of ineffable loneliness and desolation, which nevertheless is the path to incomparable happiness. It was accompanied by a kind of catalepsy, with muscular rigidity and cessation of the pulses.
These intense joys and sorrows of the spirit are the chief events of Teresa's life for eight or ten years. They are followed by a period of extreme practical activity, when she devoted herself to organising communities of bare-footed Carmelites, whose austerity and devotion were to revive the glories of primitive Christianity. In this work she showed not only energy, but worldly wisdom and tact in no common degree. Her visions had certainly not impaired her powers as an organiser and ruler of men and women. Her labours continued without intermission till, at the age of sixty-seven, she was struck down by her last illness. "This saint will be no longer wanted," she said, with a sparkle of her old vivacity, when she knew that she was to die.
It is not worth while to give a detailed account of St. Teresa's mystical theology. Its cardinal points are that the religious life consists in complete conformity to the will of God, so that at last the human will becomes purely "passive" and "at rest"; and the belief in Christ as the sole ground of salvation, on which subject she uses language which is curiously like that of the Lutheran Reformers. Her teaching about passivity and the "prayer of quiet" is identical with that which the Pope afterwards condemned in Molinos; but it is only fair to remember that Teresa was not canonised for her theology, but for her life, and that the Roman Church is not committed to every doctrine which can be found in the writings of her saints. The real character of St. Teresa's piety may be seen best in some of her prayers, such as this which follows:—
"O Lord, how utterly different are Thy thoughts from our thoughts! From a soul which is firmly resolved to love Thee alone, and which has surrendered her whole will into Thy hands, Thou demandest only that she should hearken, strive earnestly to serve Thee, and desire only to promote Thine honour. She need seek and choose no path, for Thou doest that for her, and her will follows Thine; while Thou, O Lord, takest care to bring her to fuller perfection."
In theory, it may not be easy to reconcile "earnest striving" with complete surrender and abrogation of the will, but the logic of the heart does not find them incompatible. Perhaps no one has spoken better on this matter than the Rabbi Gamaliel, of whom it is reported that he prayed, "O Lord, grant that I may do Thy will as if it were my will, that Thou mayest do my will as if it were Thy will." But quietistic Mysticism often puts the matter on a wrong basis. Self-will is to be annihilated, not (as St. Teresa sometimes implies) because our thoughts are so utterly different from God's thoughts that they cannot exist in the same mind, but because self-interest sets up an unnatural antagonism between them. The will, like the other faculties, only realises itself in its fulness when God worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
St. Juan of the Cross, the fellow-workman of St. Teresa in the reform of monasteries, is a still more perfect example of the Spanish type of Mysticism. His fame has never been so great as hers; for while Teresa's character remained human and lovable in the midst of all her austerities, Juan carried self-abnegation to a fanatical extreme, and presents the life of holiness in a grim and repellent aspect. In his disdain of all compromise between the claims of God and the world, he welcomes every kind of suffering, and bids us choose always that which is most painful, difficult, and humiliating. His own life was divided between terrible mortifications and strenuous labour in the foundation of monasteries. Though his books show a tendency to Quietism, his character was one of fiery energy and unresting industry. Houses of "discalced" Carmelites sprang up all over Spain as the result of his labours. These monks and nuns slept upon bare boards, fasted eight months in the year, never ate meat, and wore the same serge dress in winter and summer. In some of these new foundations the Brethren even vied with each other in adding voluntary austerities to this severe rule. It was all part of the campaign against Protestantism. The worldliness and luxury of the Renaissance period were to be atoned for by a return to the purity and devotion of earlier centuries. The older Catholic ideal—the mediaeval type of Christianity—was to be restored in all its completeness in the seventeenth century. This essentially militant character of the movement among the Carmelites must not be lost sight of: the two great Spanish mystics were before all things champions of the counter-Reformation.
The two chief works of St. Juan are The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and The Obscure Night of the Soul. Both are treatises on quietistic Mysticism of a peculiar type. At the beginning of La Subida de Monte Carmelo he says, "The journey of the soul to the Divine union is called night for three reasons: the point of departure is privation of all desire, and complete detachment from the world; the road is by faith, which is like night to the intellect; the goal, which is God, is incomprehensible while we are in this life."
The soul in its ascent passes from one realm of darkness to another. First there is the "night of sense," in which the things of earth become dark to her. This must needs be traversed, for "the creatures are only the crumbs that fall from God's table, and none but dogs will turn to pick them up." "One desire only doth God allow—that of obeying Him, and carrying the Cross." All other desires weaken, torment, blind, and pollute the soul. Until we are completely detached from all such, we cannot love God. "When thou dwellest upon anything, thou hast ceased to cast thyself upon the All." "If thou wilt keep anything with the All, thou hast not thy treasure simply in God." "Empty thy spirit of all created things, and thou wilt walk in the Divine light, for God resembles no created thing." Such is the method of traversing the "night of sense." Even at this early stage the forms and symbols of eternity, which others have found in the visible works of God, are discarded as useless. "God has no resemblance to any creature." The dualism or acosmism of mediaeval thought has seldom found a harsher expression.
In the night of sense, the understanding and reason are not blind; but in the second night, the night of faith, "all is darkness." "Faith is midnight"; it is the deepest darkness that we have to pass; for in the "third night, the night of memory and will," the dawn is at hand. "Faith" he defines as "the assent of the soul to what we have heard"—as a blind man would receive a statement about the colour of an object. We must be totally blind, "for a partially blind man will not commit himself wholly to his guide." Thus for St. Juan the whole content of revelation is removed from the scope of the reason, and is treated as something communicated from outside. We have, indeed, travelled far from St. Clement's happy confidence in the guidance of reason, and Eckhart's independence of tradition. The soul has three faculties—intellect, memory, and will. The imagination (fantasia) is a link between the sensitive and reasoning powers, and comes between the intellect and memory. Of these faculties, "faith (he says) blinds the intellect, hope the memory, and love the will." He adds, "to all that is not God"; but "God in this life is like night." He blames those who think it enough to deny themselves "without annihilating themselves," and those who "seek for satisfaction in God." This last is "spiritual gluttony." "We ought to seek for bitterness rather than sweetness in God," and "to choose what is most disagreeable, whether proceeding from God or the world." "The way of God consisteth not in ways of devotion or sweetness, though these may be necessary to beginners, but in giving ourselves up to suffer." And so we must fly from all "mystical phenomena" (supernatural manifestations to the sight, hearing, and the other senses) "without examining whether they be good or evil." "For bodily sensations bear no proportion to spiritual things"; since the distance "between God and the creature is infinite," "there is no essential likeness or communion between them." Visions are at best "childish toys"; "the fly that touches honey cannot fly," he says; and the probability is that they come from the devil. For "neither the creatures, nor intellectual perceptions, natural or supernatural, can bring us to God, there being no proportion between them. Created things cannot serve as a ladder; they are only a hindrance and a snare."
There is something heroic in this sombre interpretation of the maxim of our Lord, "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple." All that he hath—"yea, and his own life also"—intellect, reason, and memory—all that is most Divine in our nature—are cast down in absolute surrender at the feet of Him who "made darkness His secret place, His pavilion round about Him with dark water, and thick clouds to cover Him."
In the "third night"—that of memory and will—the soul sinks into a holy inertia and oblivion (santa ociosidad y olvido), in which the flight of time is unfelt, and the mind is unconscious of all particular thoughts. St. Juan seems here to have brought us to something like the torpor of the Indian Yogi or of the hesychasts of Mount Athos. But he does not intend us to regard this state of trance as permanent or final. It is the last watch of the night before the dawn of the supernatural state, in which the human faculties are turned into Divine attributes, and by a complete transformation the soul, which was "at the opposite extreme" to God, "becomes, by participation, God." In this beatific state "one might say, in a sense, that the soul gives God to God, for she gives to God all that she receives of God; and He gives Himself to her. This is the mystical love-gift, wherewith the soul repayeth all her debt." This is the infinite reward of the soul who has refused to be content with anything short of infinity (no se llenan menos que con lo Infinito). With what yearning this blessed hope inspired St. Juan, is shown in the following beautiful prayer, which is a good example of the eloquence, born of intense emotion, which we find here and there in his pages: "O sweetest love of God, too little known; he who has found Thee is at rest; let everything be changed, O God, that we may rest in Thee. Everywhere with Thee, O my God, everywhere all things with Thee; as I wish, O my Love, all for Thee, nothing for me—nothing for me, everything for Thee. All sweetness and delight for Thee, none for me—all bitterness and trouble for me, none for Thee. O my God, how sweet to me Thy presence, who art the supreme Good! I will draw near to Thee in silence, and will uncover Thy feet, that it may please Thee to unite me to Thyself, making my soul Thy bride; I will rejoice in nothing till I am in Thine arms. O Lord, I beseech Thee, leave me not for a moment, because I know not the value of mine own soul."
Such faith, hope, and love were suffered to cast gleams of light upon the saint's gloomy and thorn-strewn path. But nevertheless the text of which we are most often reminded in reading his pages is the verse of Amos: "Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?" It is a terrible view of life and duty—that we are to denude ourselves of everything that makes us citizens of the world—that nothing which is natural is capable of entering into relations with God—that all which is human must die, and have its place taken by supernatural infusion. St. Juan follows to the end the "negative road" of Dionysius, without troubling himself at all with the transcendental metaphysics of Neoplatonism. His nihilism or acosmism is not the result of abstracting from the notion of Being or of unity; its basis is psychological. It is "subjective" religion carried almost to its logical conclusion. The Neoplatonists were led on by the hope of finding a reconciliation between philosophy and positive religion; but no such problems ever presented themselves to the Spaniards. We hear nothing of the relation of the creation to God, or why the contemplation of it should only hinder instead of helping us to know its Maker. The world simply does not exist for St. Juan; nothing exists save God and human souls. The great human society has no interest for him; he would have us cut ourselves completely adrift from the aims and aspirations of civilised humanity, and, "since nothing but the Infinite can satisfy us," to accept nothing until our nothingness is filled with the Infinite. He does not escape from the quietistic attitude of passive expectancy which belongs to this view of life; and it is only by a glaring inconsistency that he attaches any value to the ecclesiastical symbolism, which rests on a very different basis from that of his teaching. But St. Juan's Mysticism brought him no intellectual emancipation, either for good or evil. Faith with him was the antithesis, not to sight, as in the Bible, but to reason. The sacrifice of reason was part of the crucifixion of the old man. And so he remained in an attitude of complete subservience to Church tradition and authority, and even to his "director," an intermediary who is constantly mentioned by these post-Reformation mystics. Even this unqualified submissiveness did not preserve him from persecution during his lifetime, and suspicion afterwards. His books were only authorised twenty-seven years after his death, which occurred in 1591; and his beatification was delayed till 1674. His orthodoxy was defended largely by references to St. Teresa, who had already been canonised. But it could not be denied that the quietists of the next century might find much support for their controverted doctrines in both writers.
St. Juan's ideal of saintliness was as much of an anachronism as his scheme of Church reform. But no one ever climbed the rugged peaks of Mount Carmel with more heroic courage and patience. His life shows what tremendous moral force is generated by complete self-surrender to God. And happily neither his failure to read the signs of the times, nor his one-sided and defective grasp of Christian truth, could deprive him of the reward of his life of sacrifice—the reward, I mean, of feeling his fellowship with Christ in suffering. He sold "all that he had" to gain the pearl of great price, and the surrender was not made in vain.
The later Roman Catholic mystics, though they include some beautiful and lovable characters, do not develop any further the type which we have found in St. Teresa and St. Juan. St. Francis de Sales has been a favourite devotional writer with thousands in this country. He presents the Spanish Mysticism softened and polished into a graceful and winning pietism, such as might refine and elevate the lives of the "honourable women" who consulted him. The errors of the quietists certainly receive some countenance from parts of his writings, but they are neutralised by maxims of a different tendency, borrowed eclectically from other sources.
A more consistent and less fortunate follower of St. Teresa was Miguel de Molinos, a Spanish priest, who came to Rome about 1670. His piety and learning won him the favour of Pope Innocent XI., who, according to Bishop Burnet, "lodged him in an apartment of the palace, and put many singular marks of his esteem upon him." In 1675 he published in Italian his Spiritual Guide, a mystical treatise of great interest.
Molinos begins by saying that there are two ways to the knowledge of God—meditation or discursive thought, and "pure faith" or contemplation. Contemplation has two stages, active and passive, the latter being the higher. Meditation he also calls the "exterior road"; it is good for beginners, he says, but can never lead to perfection. The "interior road," the goal of which is union with God, consists in complete resignation to the will of God, annihilation of all self-will, and an unruffled tranquillity or passivity of soul, until the mystical grace is supernaturally "infused." Then "we shall sink and lose ourselves in the immeasurable sea of God's infinite goodness, and rest there steadfast and immovable." He gives a list of tokens by which we may know that we are called from meditation to contemplation; and enumerates four means, which lead to perfection and inward peace—prayer, obedience, frequent communions, and inner mortification. The best kind of prayer is the prayer of silence; and there are three silences, that of words, that of desires, and that of thought. In the last and highest the mind is a blank, and God alone speaks to the soul. With the curious passion for subdivision which we find in nearly all Romish mystics, he distinguishes three kinds of "infusa contemplazione"—(1) satiety, when the soul is filled with God and conceives a hatred for all worldly things; (2) "un mentale eccesso" or elevation of the soul, born of Divine love and its satiety; (3) "security." In this state the soul would willingly even go to hell, if it were God's will. "Happy is the state of that soul which has slain and annihilated itself." It lives no longer in itself, for God lives in it. "With all truth we may say that it is deified."
Molinos follows St. Juan of the Cross in disparaging visions, which he says are often snares of the devil. And, like him, he says much of the "horrible temptations and torments, worse than any which the martyrs of the early Church underwent," which form part of "purgative contemplation." He resembles the Spanish mystics also in his insistence on outward observances, especially "daily communion, when possible," but thinks frequent confession unnecessary, except for beginners.
"The book was no sooner printed," says Bishop Burnet, "than it was much read and highly esteemed, both in Italy and Spain. The acquaintance of the author came to be much desired. Those who seemed in the greatest credit at Rome seemed to value themselves upon his friendship. Letters were writ to him from all places, so that a correspondence was settled between him and those who approved of his method, in many different places of Europe." "It grew so much to be the vogue in Rome, that all the nuns, except those who had Jesuits to their confessors, began to lay aside their rosaries and other devotions, and to give themselves much to the practice of mental prayer."
Molinos had written with the object of "breaking the fetters" which hindered souls in their upward course. Unfortunately for himself, he also loosened some of the fetters in which the Roman priesthood desires to keep the laity. And so, instead of the honours which had been grudgingly and suspiciously bestowed on his predecessors, Molinos ended his days in a dungeon. His condemnation was followed by a sharp persecution of his followers in Italy, who had become very numerous; and, in France, Bossuet procured the condemnation and imprisonment of Madame Guyon, a lady of high character and abilities, who was the centre of a group of quietists. Madame de Guyon need not detain us here. Her Mysticism is identical with that of Saint Teresa, except that she was no visionary, and that her character was softer and less masculine. Her attractive personality, and the cruel and unjust treatment which she experienced during the greater part of her life, arouse the sympathy of all who read her story; but since my present object is not to exhibit a portrait gallery of eminent mystics, but to investigate the chief types of mystical thought, it will not be necessary for me to describe her life or make extracts from her writings. The character of her quietism may be illustrated by one example—the hymn on "The Acquiescence of Pure Love," translated by Cowper:—
"Love! if Thy destined sacrifice am I, Come, slay thy victim, and prepare Thy fires; Plunged in Thy depths of mercy, let me die The death which every soul that loves desires!
"I watch my hours, and see them fleet away; The time is long that I have languished here; Yet all my thoughts Thy purposes obey, With no reluctance, cheerful and sincere.
"To me 'tis equal, whether Love ordain My life or death, appoint me pain or ease My soul perceives no real ill in pain; In ease or health no real good she sees.
"One Good she covets, and that Good alone; To choose Thy will, from selfish bias free And to prefer a cottage to a throne, And grief to comfort, if it pleases Thee.
"That we should bear the cross is Thy command Die to the world, and live to self no more; Suffer unmoved beneath the rudest hand, As pleased when shipwrecked as when safe on shore."
Fenelon was also a victim of the campaign against the quietists, though he was no follower of Molinos. He was drawn into the controversy against his will by Bossuet, who requested him to endorse an unscrupulous attack upon Madame Guyon. This made it necessary for Fenelon to define his position, which he did in his famous Maxims of the Saints. The treatise is important for our purposes, since it is an elaborate attempt to determine the limits of true and false Mysticism concerning two great doctrines—"disinterested love" and "passive contemplation."
On the former, Fenelon's teaching may be summarised as follows: Self-interest must be excluded from our love of God, for self-love is the root of all evil. This predominant desire for God's glory need not be always explicit—it need only become so on extraordinary occasions; but it must always be implicit. There are five kinds of love for God: (i.) purely servile—the love of God's gifts apart from Himself; (ii.) the love of mere covetousness, which regards the love of God only as the condition of happiness; (iii.) that of hope, in which the desire for our own welfare is still predominant; (iv.) interested love, which is still mixed with self-regarding motives; (v.) disinterested love. He mentions here the "three lives" of the mystics, and says that in the purgative life love is mixed with the fear of hell; in the illuminative, with the hope of heaven; while in the highest stage "we are united to God in the peaceable exercise of pure love." "If God were to will to send the souls of the just to hell—so Chrysostom and Clement suggest—souls in the third state would not love Him less." "Mixed love," however, is not a sin: "the greater part of holy souls never reach perfect disinterestedness in this life." We ought to wish for our salvation, because it is God's will that we should do so. Interested love coincides with resignation, disinterested with holy indifference. "St. Francis de Sales says that the disinterested heart is like wax in the hands of its God."
We must continue to co-operate with God's grace, even in the highest stage, and not cease to resist our impulses, as if all came from God. "To speak otherwise is to speak the language of the tempter." (This is, of course, directed against the immoral apathy attributed to Molinos.) The only difference between the vigilance of pure and that of interested love, is that the former is simple and peaceable, while the latter has not yet cast out fear. It is false teaching to say that we should hate ourselves; we should be in charity with ourselves as with others.
Spontaneous, unreflecting good acts proceed from what the mystics call the apex of the soul. "In such acts St. Antony places the most perfect prayer—unconscious prayer."
Of prayer he says, "We pray as much as we desire, and we desire as much as we love." Vocal prayer cannot be (as the extreme quietists pretend) useless to contemplative souls; "for Christ has taught us a vocal prayer."
He then proceeds to deal with "passive contemplation," and refers again to the "unconscious prayer" of St. Antony. But "pure contemplation is never unintermittent in this life." "Bernard, Teresa, and John say that their periods of pure contemplation lasted not more than half an hour." "Pure contemplation," he proceeds, "is negative, being occupied with no sensible image, no distinct and nameable idea; it stops only at the purely intellectual and abstract idea of being." Yet this idea includes, "as distinct objects," all the attributes of God—"as the Trinity, the humanity of Christ, and all His mysteries." "To deny this is to annihilate Christianity under pretence of purifying it, and to confound God with neant. It is to form a kind of deism which at once falls into atheism, wherein all real idea of God as distinguished from His creatures is rejected." Lastly, it is to advance two impieties—(i.) To suppose that there is or may be on the earth a contemplative who is no longer a traveller, and who no longer needs the way, since he has reached his destination. (ii.) To ignore that Jesus Christ is the way as well as the truth and the life, the finisher as well as the author of our faith.
This criticism of the formless vision is excellent, but there is a palpable inconsistency between the definition of "negative contemplation" and the inclusion in it of "all the attributes of God as distinct objects." Contradictions of this sort abound in Fenelon, and destroy the value of his writings as contributions to religious philosophy, though in his case, as in many others, we may speak of "noble inconsistencies" which do more credit to his heart than discredit to his intellect. We may perhaps see here the dying spasm of the "negative method," which has crossed our path so often in this survey.
The image of Jesus Christ, Fenelon continues, is not clearly seen by contemplatives at first, and may be withdrawn while the soul passes through the last furnace of trial; but we can never cease to need Him, "though it is true that the most eminent saints are accustomed to regard Him less as an exterior object than as the interior principle of their lives." They are in error who speak of possessing God in His supreme simplicity, and of no more knowing Christ after the flesh. Contemplation is called passive because it excludes the interested activity of the soul, not because it excludes real action. (Here again Fenelon is rather explaining away than explaining his authorities.) The culmination of the "passive state" is "transformation," in which love is the life of the soul, as it is its being and substance. "Catherine of Genoa said, I find no more me; there is no longer any other I but God." "But it is false to say that transformation is a deification of the real and natural soul, or a hypostatic union, or an unalterable conformity with God." In the passive state we are still liable to mortal sin. (It is characteristic of Fenelon that he contradicts, without rejecting, the substitution-doctrine plainly stated in the sentence from Catherine of Genoa.)
In his letter to the Pope, which accompanies the "Explanation of the Maxims," Fenelon thus sums up his distinctions between true and false Mysticism:—
1. The "permanent act" (i.e. an indefectible state of union with God) is to be condemned as "a poisoned source of idleness and internal lethargy."
2. There is an indispensable necessity of the distinct exercise of each virtue.
3. "Perpetual contemplation," making venial sins impossible, and abolishing the distinction of virtues, is impossible.
4. "Passive prayer," if it excludes the co-operation of free-will, is impossible.
5. There can be no "quietude" except the peace of the Holy Ghost, which acts in a manner so uniform that these acts seem, to unscientific persons, not distinct acts, but a single and permanent unity with God.
6. That the doctrine of pure love may not serve as an asylum for the errors of the Quietists, we assert that hope must always abide, as saith St. Paul.
7. The state of pure love is very rare, and it is intermittent.
In reply to this manifesto, the "Three Prelates" rejoin that Fenelon keeps the name of hope but takes away the thing; that he really preaches indifference to salvation; that he is in danger of regarding contemplation of Christ as a descent from the heights of pure contemplation; that he unaccountably says nothing of the "love of gratitude" to God and our Redeemer; that he "erects the rare and transient experiences of a few saints into a rule of faith."
In this controversy about disinterested love, our sympathies are chiefly, but not entirely, with Fenelon. The standpoint of Bossuet is not religious at all. "Pure love," he says almost coarsely, "is opposed to the essence of love, which always desires the enjoyment of its object, as well as to the nature of man, who necessarily desires happiness." Most of us will rather agree with St. Bernard, that love, as such, desires nothing but reciprocation—"verus amor se ipso contentus est: habet praemium, sed id quod amatur." If the question had been simply whether religion is or is not in its nature mercenary, we should have felt no doubt on which side the truth lay. Self-regarding hopes and schemes may be schoolmasters to bring us to Christ; it seems, indeed, to be part of our education to form them, and then see them shattered one after another, that better and deeper hopes may be constructed out of the fragments; but a selfish Christianity is a contradiction in terms. But Fenelon, in his teaching about disinterested love, goes further than this. "A man's self," he says, "is his own greatest cross." "We must therefore become strangers to this self, this moi." Resignation is not a remedy; for "resignation suffers in suffering; one is as two persons in resignation; it is only pure love that loves to suffer." This is the thought with which many of us are familiar in James Hinton's Mystery of Pain. It is at bottom Stoical or Buddhistic, in spite of the emotional turn given to it by Fenelon. Logically, it should lead to the destruction of love; for love requires two living factors, and the person who has attained a "holy indifference," who has passed wholly out of self, is as incapable of love as of any other emotion. The attempt "to wind ourselves too high for mortal man" has resulted, as usual, in two opposite errors. We find, on the one hand, some who try to escape the daily sacrifices which life demands, by declaring themselves bankrupt to start with. And, on the other hand, we find men like Fenelon, who are too good Christians to wish to shift their crosses in this way; but who allow their doctrines of "holy indifference" and "pure love" to impart an excessive sternness to their teaching, and demand from us an impossible degree of detachment and renunciation.
The importance attached to the "prayer of quiet" can only be understood when we remember how much mechanical recitation of forms of prayer was enjoined by Romish "directors." It is, of course, possible for the soul to commune with God without words, perhaps even without thoughts; but the recorded prayers of our Blessed Lord will not allow us to regard these ecstatic states as better than vocal prayer, when the latter is offered "with the spirit, and with the understanding also."
The quietistic controversy in France was carried on in an atmosphere of political intrigues and private jealousies, which in no way concern us. But the great fact which stands out above the turmoil of calumny and misrepresentation is that the Roman Church, which in sore straits had called in the help of quietistic Mysticism to stem the flood of Protestantism, at length found the alliance too dangerous, and disbanded her irregular troops in spite of their promises to submit to discipline. In Fenelon, Mysticism had a champion eloquent and learned, and not too logical to repudiate with honest conviction consequences which some of his authorities had found it necessary to accept. He remained a loyal and submissive son of the Church, as did Molinos; and was, in fact, more guarded in his statements than Bossuet, who in his ignorance of mystical theology often blundered into dangerous admissions. But the Jesuits saw with their usual acumen that Mysticism, even in the most submissive guise, is an independent and turbulent spirit; and by condemning Fenelon as well as Molinos, they crushed it out as a religious movement in the Latin countries.
To us it seems that the Mysticism of the counter-Reformation was bound to fail, because it was the revival of a perverted, or at best a one-sided type. The most consistent quietists were perhaps those who brought the doctrine of quietism into most discredit, such as the hesychasts of Mount Athos. For at bottom it rests upon that dualistic or rather acosmistic view of life which prevailed from the decay of the Roman Empire till the Renaissance and Reformation. Its cosmology is one which leaves this world out of account except as a training ground for souls; its theory of knowledge draws a hard and fast line between natural and supernatural truths, and then tries to bring them together by intercalating "supernatural phenomena" in the order of nature; and in ethics it paralyses morality by teaching with St. Thomas Aquinas that "to love God secundum se is more meritorious than to love our neighbour." All this is not of the essence of Mysticism, but belongs to mediaeval Catholicism. It was probably a necessary stage through which Christianity, and Mysticism with it, had to pass. The vain quest of an abstract spirituality at any rate liberated the religious life from many base associations; the "negative road" is after all the holy path of self-sacrifice; and the maltreatment of the body, which began among the hermits of the Thebaid, was largely based on an instinctive recoil against the poison of sensuality, which had helped to destroy the old civilisation. But the resuscitation of mediaeval Mysticism after the Renaissance was an anachronism; and except in the fighting days of the sixteenth century, it was not likely to appeal to the manliest or most intelligent spirits. The world-ruling papal polity, with its incomparable army of officials, bound to poverty and celibacy, and therefore invulnerable, was a reductio ad absurdum of its world-renouncing doctrines, which Europe was not likely to forget. Introspective Mysticism had done its work—a work of great service to the human race. It had explored all the recesses of the lonely heart, and had wrestled with the angel of God through the terrors of the spiritual night even till the morning. "Tell me now Thy name" ... "I will not let Thee go until Thou bless me." These had been the two demands of the contemplative mystic—the only rewards which his soul craved in return for the sacrifice of every earthly delight. The reward was worth the sacrifice; but "God reveals Himself in many ways," and the spiritual Christianity of the modern epoch is called rather to the consecration of art, science, and social life than to lonely contemplation. In my last two Lectures I hope to show how an important school of mystics, chiefly between the Renaissance and our own day, have turned to the religious study of nature, and have found there the same illumination which the mediaeval ascetics drew from the deep wells of their inner consciousness.
[Footnote 284: Rousselot, Les Mystiques Espagnols, p. 3.]
[Footnote 285: Among the latter must be mentioned the growth of Scotist Nominalism, on which see a note on p. 187. Ritschl was the first to point out how strongly Nominalism influenced the later Mysticism, by giving it its quietistic character. See Harnack, History of Dogma (Eng. tr.), vol. vi. p. 107.]
[Footnote 286: Cf. the beginning of the Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, corregida y emendada por Juan de Luna (Paris, 1620). "The ignorance of the Spaniards is excusable. The Inquisitors are the cause. They are dreaded, not only by the people, but by the great lords, to such an extent that the mere mention of the Inquisition makes every head tremble like a leaf in the wind."]
[Footnote 287: Pedro Malon de Chaide: "Las cosas en Dios son mismo Dios."]
[Footnote 288: Alejo Venegas in Rousselot, p. 78: Louis de Leon, who is indebted to the Fons Vitae.]
[Footnote 289: Louis de Leon: "The members and the head are one Christ."]
[Footnote 290: Diego de Stella affirms the mystic paradox, that it is better to be in hell with Christ than in glory without Him (Medit. iii.).]
[Footnote 291: Juan d'Avila: "Let us put a veil between ourselves and all created things."]
[Footnote 292: This side of Platonism appears in Pedro Malon, and especially in Louis de Granada. Compare also the beautiful ode of Louis de Leon, entitled "Noche Serena," where the eternal peace of the starry heavens is contrasted with the turmoil of the world—
"Quien es el que esto mira, Y precia la bajeza de la tierra, Y no gime y suspira Y rompe lo que encierra El alma, y destos bienes la destierra? Aqui vive al contento, Aqui reina la paz, aqui asentado En rico y alto asiento Esta el amor sagrado De glorias y deleites rodeado." ]
[Footnote 293: After his release he was suffered to resume his lectures. A crowd of sympathisers assembled to hear his first utterance; but he began quietly with his usual formula, "Deciamos ahora," "We were saying just now."]
[Footnote 294: The heresy of the "Alombrados" (Illuminati), which appeared in the sixteenth century, and was ruthlessly crushed by the Inquisition, belonged to the familiar type of degenerate Mysticism. Its adherents taught that the prayers of the Church were worthless, the only true prayer being a kind of ecstasy, without words or mental images. The "illuminated" need no sacraments, and can commit no sins. The mystical union once achieved is an abiding possession. There was another outbreak of the same errors in 1623, and a corresponding sect of Illumines in Southern France.]
[Footnote 295: The real founder of Spanish quietistic Mysticism was Pedro of Alcantara (d. 1562). He was confessor to Teresa. Teresa is also indebted to Francisco de Osuna, in whose writings the principles of quietism are clearly taught. Cf. Heppe, Geschichte der quietistichen Mystik, p. 9.]
[Footnote 296: The fullest and best account of St. Teresa is in Mrs. Cunninghame Graham's Life and Times of Santa Teresa (2 vols.).]
[Footnote 297: "Hae imaginariae visiones regulariter eveniunt vel incipientibus vel proficientibus nondum bene purgatis, ut communiter tenent mystae" (Lucern. Myst. Tract, v. 3).]
[Footnote 298: So in Plotinus [Greek: phantasia] comes between [Greek: physis] (the lower soul) and the perfect apprehension of [Greek: nous].]
[Footnote 299: St. Juan follows the mediaeval mystics in distinguishing between "meditation" and "contemplation." "Meditation," from which external images are not excluded, is for him an early and imperfect stage; he who is destined to higher things will soon discover signs which indicate that it is time to abandon it.]
[Footnote 300: The reference is to Ruth iii. 7.]
[Footnote 301: The somewhat feminine temper of Francis leads him to attach more value to fanciful symbolism than would have been approved by St. Juan, or even by St. Teresa. And we miss in him that steady devotion to the Person of Christ, and to Him alone, which gives the Spaniards, in spite of themselves, a sort of kinship with evangelical Christianity. St. Juan could never have written, "Honorez, reverez, et respectez d'un amour special la sacree et glorieuse Vierge Marie. Elle est mere de nostre souverain pere et par consequent nostre grand'mere" (!).]
[Footnote 302: The three parts into which the book is divided deal respectively with the "darkness and dryness" by which God purifies the heart; the second stage, in which he insists, complete obedience to a spiritual director is essential; and the stage of higher illumination.]
[Footnote 303: "Cola c' ingolfiano e ci perdiamo nel mare immenso dell' infinita sua bonta in cui restiamo stabili ed immobili."]
[Footnote 304: It is interesting to find the "prayer of quiet" even in Plotinus. Cf. Enn. v. 1. 6: "Let us call upon God Himself before we thus answer—not with uttered words, but reaching forth our souls in prayer to Him; for thus alone can we pray, alone to Him who is alone."]
[Footnote 305: He speaks, too, of "inner recollection" (il raccoglimento interiore), "mirandolo dentro te medesima nel piu intimo del' anima tua, senza forma, specie, modo o figura, in vista e generate notitia di fede amorosa ed oscura, senza veruna distinzione di perfezione o attributo."]
[Footnote 306: Cf. Bp. Burnet: "In short, everybody that was thought either sincerely devout, or that at least affected the reputation of it, came to be reckoned among the Quietists; and if these persons were observed to become more strict in their lives, more retired and serious in their mental devotions, yet there appeared less zeal in their whole deportment as to the exterior parts of the religion of that Church. They were not so assiduous at Mass, nor so earnest to procure Masses to be said for their friends; nor were they so frequently either at confession or in processions, so that the trade of those that live by these things was terribly sunk."]
[Footnote 307: The Spiritual Guide was well received at first in high quarters; but in 1681 a Jesuit preacher published a book on "the prayer of quiet," which raised a storm. The first commission of inquiry exonerated Molinos; but in 1685 the Jesuits and Louis XIV. brought strong pressure to bear on the Pope, and Molinos was accused of heresy. Sixty-eight false propositions were extracted from his writings, and formally condemned. They include a justification of disgraceful vices, which Molinos, who was a man of saintly character, could never have taught. But though the whole process against the author of the Spiritual Guide was shamefully unfair, the book contains some highly dangerous teaching, which might easily be pressed into the service of immorality. Molinos saved his life by recanting all his errors, but was imprisoned till his death, about 1696. In 1687 the Inquisition arrested 200 persons for "quietist" opinions.]
[Footnote 308: This "mystic paradox" has been mentioned already. It is developed at length in the Meditations of Diego de Stella. Fenelon says that it is found in Cassian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Anselm, "and a great number of saints." It is an unfortunate attempt to improve upon Job's fine saying, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," or the line in Homer which has been often quoted—[Greek: en de phaei kai olesson, epei ny toi euaden outos.] But unless we form a very unworthy idea of heaven and hell, the proposition is not so much extravagant as self-contradictory.]
[Footnote 309: The doctrine here condemned is Manichean, says Fenelon rightly.]
[Footnote 310: St. Bernard (De diligendo Deo, x. 28) gives a careful statement of the deification-doctrine as he understands it: "Quomodo omnia in omnibus erit Deus, si in homine de homine quicquam supererit? Manebit substantia sed in alia forma." See Appendix C.]
[Footnote 311: The Archbishop of Paris, the Bishop of Meaux (Bossuet), and the Bishop of Chartres.]
[Footnote 312: If two beings are separate, they cannot influence each other inwardly. If they are not distinct, there can be no relations between them. Man is at once organ and organism, and this is why love between man and God is possible. The importance of maintaining that action between man and God must be reciprocal, is well shown by Lilienfeld, Gedanken ueber die Socialwissenschaft der Zukunft, vol. v. p. 472 sq.]
[Footnote 313: "Thought was not," says Wordsworth of one in a state of rapture; and again, "All his thoughts were steeped in feeling."]
[Footnote 314: E.g., he writes to Madame Guyon, "Je n'ai jamais hesite un seul moment sur les etats de Sainte Therese, parceque je n'y ai rien trouve, que je ne trouvasse aussi dans l'ecriture." It is doubtful whether Bossuet had really read much of St. Teresa. Fenelon says much more cautiously, "Quelque respect et quelque admiration que j'aie pour Sainte Therese, je n'aurais jamais voulu donner au public tout ce qu'elle a ecrit."]
[Footnote 315: Of course there is a sense in which this is true; but I am speaking of the way in which it was understood by mediaeval Catholicism.]
[Greek: En pasi tois physikois enesti ti thaumaston; kathaper Herakleitos legetai eipein; einai kai entautha theous.]
ARISTOTLE, de Partibus Animalium, i. 5.
"What if earth Be but the shadow of heaven, and things therein Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?"
"God is not dumb, that He should speak no more. If thou hast wanderings in the wilderness, And find'st not Sinai, 'tis thy soul is poor; There towers the mountain of the voice no less, Which whoso seeks shall find; but he who bends, Intent on manna still and mortal ends, Sees it not, neither hears its thundered lore."
"Of the Absolute in the theoretical sense I do not venture to speak; but this I maintain, that if a man recognises it in its manifestations, and always keeps his eye fixed upon it, he will reap a very great reward."
NATURE-MYSTICISM AND SYMBOLISM
"The creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God."—ROM. viii. 21.
It would be possible to maintain that all our happiness consists in finding sympathies and affinities underlying apparent antagonisms, in bringing harmony out of discord, and order out of chaos. Even the lowest pleasures owe their attractiveness to a certain temporary correspondence between our desires and the nature of things. Selfishness itself, the prime source of sin, misery, and ignorance, cannot sever the ties which bind us to each other and to nature; or if it succeeds in doing so, it passes into madness, of which an experienced alienist has said, that its essence is "concentrated egoism." Incidentally I may say that the peculiar happiness which accompanies every glimpse of insight into truth and reality, whether in the scientific, aesthetic, or emotional sphere, seems to me to have a greater apologetic value than has been generally recognised. It is the clearest possible indication that the true is for us the good, and forms the ground of a reasonable faith that all things, if we could see them as they are, would be found to work together for good to those who love God.
"The true Mysticism," it has been lately said with much truth, "is the belief that everything, in being what it is, is symbolic of something more." All Nature (and there are few more pernicious errors than that which separates man from Nature) is the language in which God expresses His thoughts; but the thoughts are far more than the language. Thus it is that the invisible things of God from the creation of the world may be clearly seen and understood from the things that are made; while at the same time it is equally true that here we see through a glass darkly, and know only in part. Nature half conceals and half reveals the Deity; and it is in this sense that it may be called a symbol of Him.
The word "symbol," like several other words which the student of Mysticism has to use, has an ill-defined connotation, which produces confusion and contradictory statements. For instance, a French writer gives as his definition of Mysticism "the tendency to approach the Absolute, morally, by means of symbols." On the other hand, an English essayist denies that Mysticism is symbolic. Mysticism, he says, differs from symbolism in that, while symbolism treats the connexion between symbol and substance as something accidental or subjective, Mysticism is based on a positive belief in the existence of life within life, of deep correspondences and affinities, not less real than those to which the common superficial consciousness of mankind bears witness. I agree with this statement about the basis of Mysticism, but I prefer to use the word symbol of that which has a real, and not merely a conventional affinity to the thing symbolised. The line is by no means easy to draw. An aureole is not, properly speaking, a symbol of saintliness, nor a crown of royal authority, because in these instances the connexion of sign with significance is conventional. A circle is perhaps not a symbol of eternity, because the comparison appeals only to the intellect. But falling leaves are a symbol of human mortality, a flowing river of the "stream" of life, and a vine and its branches of the unity of Christ and the Church, because they are examples of the same law which operates through all that God has made. And when the Anglian noble, in a well-known passage of Bede, compares the life of man to the flight of a bird which darts quickly through a lighted hall out of darkness, and into darkness again, he has found a symbol which is none the less valid, because light and darkness are themselves only symbolically connected with life and death. The writer who denies that Mysticism is symbolic, means that the discovery of arbitrary and fanciful resemblances or types is no part of healthy Mysticism. In this he is quite right; and the importance of the distinction which he wishes to emphasise will, I hope, become clear as we proceed. It is not possible always to say dogmatically, "This is genuine Symbolism, and that is morbid or fantastic"; but we do assert that there is a true and a false Symbolism, of which the true is not merely a legitimate, but a necessary mode of intuition; while the latter is at best a frivolous amusement, and at worst a degrading superstition.
But we shall handle our subject very inadequately if we consider only the symbolical value which may be attached to external objects. Our thoughts and beliefs about the spiritual world, so far as they are conceived under forms, or expressed in language, which belong properly only to things of time and space, are of the nature of symbols. In this sense it has been said that the greater part of dogmatic theology is the dialectical development of mystical symbols. For instance, the paternal relation of the First Person of the Trinity to the Second is a symbol; and the representation of eternity as an endless period of time stretching into futurity, is a symbol. We believe that the forms under which it is natural and necessary for us to conceive of transcendental truths have a real and vital relation to the ideas which they attempt to express; but their inadequacy is manifest if we treat them as facts of the same order as natural phenomena, and try to intercalate them, as is too often done, among the materials with which an abstract science has to deal.
The two great sacraments are typical symbols, if we use the word in the sense which I give to it, as something which, in being what it is, is a sign and vehicle of something higher and better. This is what the early Church meant when it called the sacraments symbols. A "symbol" at that period implied a mystery, and a "mystery" implied a revelation. The need of sacraments is one of the deepest convictions of the religious consciousness. It rests ultimately on the instinctive reluctance to allow any spiritual fact to remain without an external expression. It is obvious that all morality depends on the application of this principle to conduct. All voluntary external acts are symbolic of (that is, vitally connected with) internal states, and cannot be divested of this their essential character. It may be impossible to show how an act of the material body can purify or defile the immaterial spirit; but the correspondence between the outward and inward life cannot be denied without divesting morality of all meaning. The maxim of Plotinus, that "the mind can do no wrong," when transferred from his transcendental philosophy to matters of conduct, is a sophism no more respectable than that which Euripides puts into the mouth of one of his characters: "The tongue hath sworn; the heart remains unsworn." Every act of the will is the expression of a state of the soul; and every state of the soul must seek to find expression in an act of the will. Love, as we should all admit, is not love, so long as it is content to be only in thought, or "in word and in tongue"; it is only when it is love "in deed" that it is love "in truth." And it is the same with all other virtues, which are in this sense symbolic, as implying something beyond the external act. Nearly all the states or motions of the soul can find their appropriate expression in action. Charity in its manifold forms need not seek long for an object; and thankfulness and penitence, though they drive us first to silent prayer, are not satisfied till they have borne fruit in some act of gratitude or humility. But that deepest sense of communion with God, which is the very heart of religion, is in danger of being shut up in thought and word, which are inadequate expressions of any spiritual state. No doubt this highest state of the soul may find indirect expression in good works; but these fail to express the immediacy of the communion which the soul has felt. The want of symbols to express these highest states of the soul is supplied by sacraments. A sacrament is a symbolic act, not arbitrarily chosen, but resting, to the mind of the recipient, on Divine authority, which has no ulterior object except to give expression to, and in so doing to effectuate, a relation which is too purely spiritual to find utterance in the customary activities of life. There are three requisites (on the human side) for the validity of a sacramental act. The symbol must be appropriate; the thing symbolised must be a spiritual truth; and there must be the intention to perform the act as a sacrament.
The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper fulfil these conditions. Both are symbols of the mystical union between the Christian and his ascended Lord. Baptism symbolises that union in its inception, the Eucharist in its organic life. Baptism is received but once, because the death unto sin and the new birth unto righteousness is a definite entrance into the spiritual life, rather than a gradual process. The fact that in Christian countries Baptism in most cases precedes conversion does not alter the character of the sacrament; indeed, infant Baptism is by far the most appropriate symbol of our adoption into the Divine Sonship, to which we only consent after the event. It is only because we are already sons that we can say, "I will arise, and go unto my Father." The Holy Communion is the symbol of the maintenance of the mystical union, and of the "strengthening and refreshing of our souls," which we derive from the indwelling presence of our Lord. The Church claims an absolute prerogative for its duly ordained ministers in the case of this sacrament, because the common meal is the symbol of the organic unity of Christ and the Church as "unus Christus," a doctrine which the schismatic, as such, denies. The communicant who believes only in an individual relation between Christ and separate persons, or in an "invisible Church," does not understand the meaning of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and can hardly be said to participate in it.
There are two views of this sacrament which the "plain man" has always found much easier to understand than the symbolic view which is that of our Church. One is that it is a miracle or magical performance, the other is that it is a mere commemoration. Both are absolutely destructive of the idea of a sacrament. The latter view, that of some Protestant sects, was quite foreign to the early Church, so far as our evidence goes; the former, it is only just to say, is found in many of the Fathers, not in the grossly materialistic form which it afterwards assumed, but in such phrases as "the medicine of immortality" applied to the consecrated elements, where we are meant to understand that the elements have a mysterious power of preserving the receiver from the natural consequences of death. But when we find that the same writers who use compromising phrases about the change that comes over the elements, also use the language of symbolism, and remember, too, that a "miracle" was a very different thing to those who knew of no inflexible laws in the natural world from what it is to us, we shall not be ready to agree with those who have accused the third and fourth century Fathers of degrading the Lord's Supper into a magical ceremony.
Most of the errors which have so grievously obscured the true nature of this sacrament have proceeded from attempts to answer the question, "How does the reception of the consecrated elements affect the inner state of the receiver?" To those who hold the symbolic view, as I understand it, it seems clear that the question of cause and effect must be resolutely cast aside. The reciprocal action of spirit and matter is the one great mystery which, to all appearance, must remain impenetrable to the finite intelligence. We do not ask whether the soul is the cause of the body, or the body of the soul; we only know that the two are found, in experience, always united. In the same way we should abstain, I think, from speculating on the effect of the sacraments, and train ourselves instead to consider them as divinely-ordered symbols, by which the Church, as an organic whole, and we as members of it, realise the highest and deepest of our spiritual privileges.
There are other religious forms for which no Divine institution is claimed, but which have a quasi-sacramental value. And those who, "whether they eat, or drink, or whatever they do," do all to the glory of God, may be said to turn the commonest acts into sacraments. To the true mystic, life itself is a sacrament. It is natural, but unfortunate, that some of those who have felt this most strongly have shown a tendency to disparage observances which are simply acts of devotion, "mere forms," as they call them. The attempt to distinguish between conventional ceremonies, which have no essential connexion with the truth symbolised, and actions which are in themselves moral or immoral, is no doubt justifiable, but it should be remembered that this is the way in which antinomianism takes its rise. Many have begun by saying, "The heart, the motive, is all, the external act nothing; the spirit is all, the letter nothing. What can it matter whether I say my prayers in church or at home, on my knees or in bed, in words or in thought only? What can it matter whether the Eucharistic bread and wine are consecrated or not? whether I actually eat and drink or not?" And so on. The descent to Avernus is easy by this road. Perhaps no sect that has professed contempt for all ceremonial forms has escaped at least the imputation of scandalous licentiousness, with the honourable exception of the Quakers. The truth is that the need of symbols to express or represent our highest emotions is inwoven with human nature, and indifference to them is not, as many have supposed, a sign of enlightenment or of spirituality. It is, in fact, an unhealthy symptom. We do not credit a man with a warm heart who does not care to show his love in word and act; nor should we commend the common sense of a soldier who saw in his regimental colours only a rag at the end of a pole. It is one of the points in which we must be content to be children, and should be thankful that we may remain children with a clear conscience.
I do not shrink from expressing my conviction that the true meaning of our sacramental system, which in its external forms is so strangely anticipated by the Greek mysteries, and in its inward significance strikes down to the fundamental principles of mystical Christianity, can only be understood by those who are in some sympathy with Mysticism. But it has not been possible to say much about the sacraments sooner than this late stage of our inquiry. We have hitherto been dealing with the subjective or introspective type of Mysticism, and it is plain that this form, when carried to its logical conclusion, is inconsistent with sacramental religion. Those who seek to ascend to God by the way of abstraction, the negative road, must regard all symbols as veils between our eyes and reality, and must wish to get rid of them as soon as possible. From this point of view, sacraments, like other ceremonial forms, can only be useful at a very early stage in the upward path, which leads us ultimately into a Divine darkness, where no forms can be distinguished. It is true that some devout mystics of this type have both observed and exacted a punctilious strictness in using all the appointed means of grace; but this inconsistency is easily accounted for. The pressure of authority, loyalty to the established order, and human nature, which is stronger than either, has prevented them from casting away the time-honoured symbols and vehicles of Divine love. But a true appreciation of sacraments belongs only to those who can sympathise with the other branch of Mysticism—that which rests on belief in symbolism. To this branch of my subject I now invite your attention. If we expect to find ourselves at once in a larger air when we have taken leave of the monkish mystics, we shall be disappointed. The objective or symbolical type of Mysticism is liable to quite as many perversions as the subjective. If in the latter we found a tendency to revert to the apathy of the Indian Yogi, we shall observe in the former too many survivals of still more barbarous creeds. Indeed, I feel that it is almost necessary, as an introduction to this part of my subject, to consider very briefly the stages through which the religious consciousness of mankind has passed in its attempts to realise Divine immanence in Nature, for this is, of course, the foundation of all religious symbolism.
The earliest belief seems to be that which has been called Animism, the belief that all natural forces are conscious living beings like ourselves. This is the primitive form of natural religion; and though it leads to some deplorable customs, it is not a morbid type, but a very early effort on the lines of true development.
The perverted form of primitive Animism is called Fetishism, which is the belief that supernatural powers reside in some visible object, which is the home or most treasured possession of a god or demon. The object may be a building, a tree, an animal, a particular kind of food, or indeed anything. Unfortunately this belief is not peculiar to savages. A degraded form of it is exhibited by the so-called neo-mystical school of modern France, and in the baser types of Roman Catholicism everywhere.
Primitive Animism believes in no natural laws. The next stage is to believe in laws which are frequently suspended by the intervention of an independent and superior power. Mediaeval dualism regarded every breach of natural law as a vindication of the power of spirit over matter—not always, however, of Divine power, for evil spirits could produce very similar disturbances of the physical order. Thus arose that persistent tendency to "seek after a sign," in which the religion of the vulgar, even in our own day, is deeply involved. Miracle, in some form or other, is regarded as the real basis of belief in God. At this stage people never ask themselves whether any spiritual truth, or indeed anything worth knowing, could possibly be communicated or authenticated by thaumaturgic exhibitions. What attracts them at first is the evidence which these beliefs furnish, that the world in which they live is not entirely under the dominion of an unconscious or inflexible power, but that behind the iron mechanism of cause and effect is a will more like their own in its irregularity and arbitrariness. Afterwards, as the majesty of law dawns upon them, miracles are no longer regarded as capricious exercises of power, but as the operation of higher physical laws, which are only active on rare occasions. A truer view sees in them a materialisation of mystical symbols, the proper function of which is to act as interpreters between the real and the apparent, between the spiritual and material worlds. When they crystallise as portents, they lose all their usefulness. Moreover, the belief in celestial visitations has its dark counterpart in superstitious dread of the powers of evil, which is capable of turning life into a long nightmare, and has led to dreadful cruelties. The error has still enough vitality to create a prejudice against natural science, which appears in the light of an invading enemy wresting province after province from the empire of the supernatural.
But we are concerned with thaumaturgy only so far as it has affected Mysticism. At first sight the connexion may seem very slight; and slight indeed it is. But just as Mysticism of the subjective type is often entangled in theories which sublimate matter till only a vain shadow remains, so objective Mysticism has been often pervaded by another kind of false spiritualism—that which finds edification in palpable supernatural manifestations. These so-called "mystical phenomena" are so much identified with "Mysticism" in the Roman Catholic Church of to-day, that the standard treatises on the subject, now studied in continental universities, largely consist of grotesque legends of "levitation," "bilocation," "incandescence," "radiation," and other miraculous tokens of Divine favour. The great work of Goerres, in five volumes, is divided into Divine, Natural, and Diabolical Mysticism. The first contains stories of the miraculous enhancement of sight, hearing, smell, and so forth, which results from extreme holiness; and tells us how one saint had the power of becoming invisible, another of walking through closed doors, and a third of flying through the air. "Natural Mysticism" deals with divination, lycanthropy, vampires, second sight, and other barbarous superstitions. "Diabolical Mysticism" includes witchcraft, diabolical possession, and the hideous stories of incubi and succubae. It is not my intention to say any more about these savage survivals, as I do not wish to bring my subject into undeserved contempt. "These terrors, and this darkness of the mind," as Lucretius says, "must be dispelled, not by the bright shafts of the sun's light, but by the study of Nature's laws."
Some of these fables are quite obviously due to a materialisation of conventional symbols. These symbols are the picture language into which the imagination translates what the soul has felt. A typical case is that of the miniature image of Christ, which is said to have been found embedded in the heart of a deceased saint. The supposed miracle was, of course, the work of imagination; but this does not mean that those who reported it were deliberate liars. We know now that we must distinguish between observation and imagination, between the language of science and that of poetical metaphor; but in an age which abhorred rationalism this was not so clear. Rationalism has its function in proving that such mystical symbols are not physical facts. But when it goes on to say that they are related to physical facts as morbid hallucinations to realities, it has stepped outside its province.
Proceeding a little further as we trace the development of natural or objective religion, we come to the belief in magic, which in primitive peoples is closely associated with their first attempts at experimental science. What gives magic its peculiar character is that it is based on fanciful, and not on real correspondences. The uneducated mind cannot distinguish between associations of ideas which are purely arbitrary and subjective, and those which have a more universal validity. Not, of course, that all the affinities seized upon by primitive man proved illusory; but those which were not so ceased to be magical, and became scientific. The savage draws no distinction between the process by which he makes fire and that by which his priest calls down rain, except that the latter is a professional secret; drugs and spells are used indifferently to cure the sick; astronomy and astrology are parts of the same science. There is, however, a difference between the magic which is purely naturalistic and that which makes mystical claims. The magician sometimes claims that the spirits are subject to him, not because he has learned how to wield the forces which they must obey, but because he has so purged his higher faculties that the occult sympathies of nature have become apparent to him. His theosophy claims to be a spiritual illumination, not a scientific discovery. The error here is the application of spiritual clairvoyance to physical relations. The insight into reality, which is unquestionably the reward of the pure heart and the single eye, does not reveal to us in detail how nature should be subdued to our needs. No spirits from the vasty deep will obey our call, to show us where lies the road to fortune or to ruin. Physical science is an abstract inquiry, which, while it keeps to its proper subject—the investigation of the relations which prevail in the phenomenal world—is self-sufficient, and can receive nothing on external authority. Still less can the adept usurp Divine powers, and bend the eternal laws of the universe to his puny will.
The turbid streams of theurgy and magic flowed into the broad river of Christian thought by two channels—the later Neoplatonism, and Jewish Cabbalism. Of the former something has been said already. The root-idea of the system was that all life may be arranged in a descending scale of potencies, forming a kind of chain from heaven to earth. Man, as a microcosm, is in contact with every link in the chain, and can establish relations with all spiritual powers, from the superessential One to the lower spirits or "daemons." The philosopher-saint, who had explored the highest regions of the intelligence, might hope to dominate the spirits of the air, and compel them to do his bidding. Thus the door was thrown wide open for every kind of superstition. The Cabbalists followed much the same path. The word Cabbala means "oral tradition," and is defined by Reuchlin as "the symbolic reception of a Divine revelation handed down for the saving contemplation of God and separate forms." In another place he says, "The Cabbala is nothing else than symbolic theology, in which not only are letters and words symbols of things, but things are symbols of other things." This method of symbolic interpretation was held to have been originally communicated by revelation, in order that persons of holy life might by it attain to a mystical communion with God, or deification. The Cabbalists thus held much the same relation to the Talmudists as the mystics to the scholastics in the twelfth century. But, as Jews, they remained faithful to the two doctrines of an inspired tradition and an inspired book, which distinguish them from Platonic mystics.
Pico de Mirandola (born 1463) was the first to bring the Cabbala into Christian philosophy, and to unite it with his Neoplatonism. Very characteristic of his age is the declaration that "there is no natural science which makes us so certain of the Divinity of Christ as Magic and the Cabbala." For there was at that period a curious alliance of Mysticism and natural science against scholasticism, which had kept both in galling chains; and both mystics and physicists invoked the aid of Jewish theosophy. Just as Pythagoras, Plato, and Proclus were set up against Aristotle, so the occult philosophy of the Jews, which on its speculative side was mere Neoplatonism, was set up against the divinity of the Schoolmen. In Germany, Reuchlin (1455-1522) wrote a treatise, On the Cabbalistic Art, in which a theological scheme resembling those of the Neoplatonists and speculative mystics was based on occult revelation. The book captivated Pope Leo X. and the early Reformers alike.
The influence of Cabbalism at this period was felt not only in the growth of magic, but in the revival of the science of allegorism, which resembles magic in its doctrine of occult sympathies, though without the theurgic element. According to this view of nature, everything in the visible world has an emblematic meaning. Everything that a man saw, heard, or did—colours, numbers, birds, beasts, and flowers, the various actions of life—was to remind him of something else. The world was supposed to be full of sacred cryptograms, and every part of the natural order testified in hieroglyphics to the truths of Christianity. Thus the shamrock bears witness to the Trinity, the spider is an emblem of the devil, and so forth. This kind of symbolism was and is extensively used merely as a picture-language, in which there is no pretence that the signs are other than artificial or conventional. The language of signs may be used either to instruct those who cannot understand words, or to baffle those who can. Thus, a crucifix may be as good as a sermon to an illiterate peasant; while the sign of a fish was used by the early Christians because it was unintelligible to their enemies. This is not symbolism in the sense which I have given to the word in this Lecture. But it is otherwise when the type is used as a proof of the antitype. This latter method had long been in use in biblical exegesis. Pious persons found a curious satisfaction in turning the most matter of fact statements into enigmatic prophecies. Every verse must have its "mystical" as well as its natural meaning, and the search for "types" was a recognised branch of apologetics. Allegorism became authoritative and dogmatic, which it has no right to be. It would be rash to say that this pseudo-science, which has proved so attractive to many minds, is entirely valueless. The very absurdity of the arguments used by its votaries should make us suspect that there is a dumb logic of a more respectable sort behind them. There is, underlying this love of types and emblems, a strong conviction that if "one eternal purpose runs" through the ages, it must be discernible in small things as well as in great. Everything in the world, if we could see things as they are, must be symbolic of the Divine Power which made it and maintains it in being. We cannot believe that anything in life is meaningless, or has no significance beyond the fleeting moment. Whatever method helps us to realise this is useful, and in a sense true. So far as this we may go with the allegorists, while at the same time we may be thankful that the cobwebs which they spun over the sacred texts have now been cleared away, so that we can at last read our Bible as its authors intended it to be read.
Theosophical and magical Mysticism culminated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just as the idealism of Plotinus lost itself in the theurgic system of Iamblichus, so the doctrine of Divine immanence preached by Eckhart and his school was followed by the Nature-Mysticism of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. The "negative road" had been discredited by Luther's invective, and Mysticism, instead of shutting her eyes to the world of phenomena, stretched forth her hands to conquer and annex it. The old theory of a World-Spirit, the pulsations of whose heart are felt in all the life of the universe, came once more into favour. Through all phenomena, it was believed, runs an intricate network of sympathies and antipathies, the threads of which, could they be disentangled, would furnish us with a clue through all the labyrinths of natural and supernatural science. The age was impatient to enter on the inheritance from which humanity had long been debarred; the methods of experimental science seemed tame and slow; and so we find, especially in Germany, an extraordinary outburst of Nature-Mysticism— astrology, white magic, alchemy, necromancy, and what not—such as Christianity had not witnessed before. These pseudo-sciences (with which was mingled much real progress in medicine, natural history, and kindred sciences) were divided under three provinces or "vincula"—those of the Spiritual World, which were mainly magical invocations, diagrams, and signs; those of the Celestial World, which were taught by astrology; and those of the Elemental World, which consisted in the sympathetic influence of material objects upon each other. These secrets (it was held) are all discoverable by man; for man is a microcosm, or epitome of the universe, and there is nothing in it with which he cannot claim an affinity. In knowing himself, he knows both God and all the other works that God has made.
The subject of Nature-Mysticism is a fascinating one; but I must here confine myself to its religious aspects. An attempt was soon made, by Valentine Weigel (1533-1588), Lutheran pastor at Tschopau, to bring together the new objective Mysticism—freed from its superstitious elements—and the traditional subjective Mysticism which the Middle Ages had handed down from Dionysius and the Neoplatonists. Weigel's cosmology is based on that of Paracelsus; and his psychology also reminds us of him. Man is a microcosm, and his nature has three parts—the outward material body, the astral spirit, and the immortal soul, which bears the image of God. The three faculties of the soul correspond to these three parts; they are sense, reason (Vernunft), and understanding (Verstand). These are the "three eyes" by which we get knowledge. The sense perceives material things; the reason, natural science and art; the understanding, which he also calls the spark, sees the invisible and Divine. He follows the scholastic mystics in distinguishing between natural and supernatural knowledge, but his method of distinguishing them is, I think, original. Natural knowledge, he says, is not conveyed by the object; it is the percipient subject which creates knowledge out of itself. The object merely provokes the consciousness into activity. In natural knowledge the subject is "active, not passive"; all that appears to come from without is really evolved from within. In supernatural knowledge the opposite is the case. The eye of the "understanding," which sees the Divine, is the spark in the centre of the soul where lies the Divine image. In this kind of cognition the subject must be absolutely passive; its thoughts must be as still as if it were dead. Just as in natural knowledge the object does not co-operate, so in supernatural knowledge the subject does not co-operate. Yet this supernatural knowledge does not come from without. The Spirit and Word of God are within us. God is Himself the eye and the light in the soul, as well as the object which the eye sees by this light. Supernatural knowledge flows from within outwards, and in this way resembles natural knowledge. But since God is both the eye that sees and the object which it sees, it is not we who know God, so much as God who knows Himself in us. Our inner man is a mere instrument of God.
Thus Weigel, who begins with Paracelsus, leaves off somewhere near Eckhart—and Eckhart in his boldest mood. But his chief concern is to attack the Bibliolaters (Buchstabentheologen) in the Lutheran Church, and to protest against the unethical dogma of imputed righteousness. We need not follow him into either of these controversies, which give a kind of accidental colouring to his theology. Speculative Mysticism, which is always the foe of formalism and dryness in religion, attacks them in whatever forms it finds them; and so, when we try to penetrate the essence of Mysticism by investigating its historical manifestations, we must always consider what was the system which in each case it was trying to purify and spiritualise. Weigel's Mysticism moves in the atmosphere of Lutheran dogmatics. But it also marks a stage in the general development of Christian Mysticism, by giving a positive value to scientific and natural knowledge as part of the self-evolution of the human soul. "Study nature," he says, "physics, alchemy, magic, etc.; for it is all in you, and you become what you have learnt." It is true that his religious attitude is rigidly quietistic; but this position is so inconsistent with the activity which he enjoins on the "reason," that he may claim the credit of having exhibited the contradiction between the positive and negative methods in a clear light; and to prove a contradiction is always the first step towards solving it.
A more notable effort in the same direction was that of Jacob Boehme, who, though he had studied Weigel, brought to his task a philosophical genius which was all his own.
Boehme was born in 1575 near Goerlitz, where he afterwards settled as a shoemaker and glover. He began to write in 1612, and in spite of clerical opposition, which silenced him for five years, he produced a number of treatises between that date and his death in 1624.
Boehme professed to write only what he had "seen" by Divine illumination. His visions are not (with insignificant exceptions) authenticated by any marvellous signs; he simply asserts that he has been allowed to see into the heart of things, and that the very Being of God has been laid open to his spiritual sight. His was that type of mind to which every thought becomes an image, and a logical process is like an animated photograph. "I am myself my own book," he says; and in writing, he tries to transcribe on paper the images which float before his mind's eye. If he fails, it is because he cannot find words to describe what he is seeing. Boehme was an unlearned man; but when he is content to describe his visions in homely German, he is lucid enough. Unfortunately, the scholars who soon gathered round him supplied him with philosophical terms, which he forthwith either personified—for instance the word "Idea" called forth the image of a beautiful maiden—or used in a sense of his own. The study of Paracelsus obscured his style still more, filling his treatises with a bewildering mixture of theosophy and chemistry. The result is certainly that much of his work is almost unreadable; the nuggets of gold have to be dug out from a bed of rugged stone; and we cannot be surprised that the unmystical eighteenth century declared that "Behmen's works would disgrace Bedlam at full moon." But German philosophers have spoken with reverence of "the father of Protestant Mysticism," who "perhaps only wanted learning and the gift of clear expression to become a German Plato"; and Sir Isaac Newton shut himself up for three months to study Boehme, whose teaching on attraction and the laws of motion seemed to him to have great value.