Christian Mysticism
by William Ralph Inge
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The question was naturally raised, "If man by putting on Christ's life can get nothing more than he has already, what good will it do him?" The answer in the Theologia Germanica is as follows: "This life is not chosen in order to serve any end, or to get anything by it, but for love of its nobleness, and because God loveth and esteemeth it so greatly." It is plain that any view which regards man as essentially Divine has to face great difficulties when it comes to deal with theodicy.

The other view of deification, that of a substitution of the Divine Will, or Life, or Spirit, for the human, cannot in history be sharply distinguished from the theories which have just been mentioned. But the idea of substitution is naturally most congenial to those who feel strongly "the corruption of man's heart," and the need of deliverance, not only from our ghostly enemies, but from the tyranny of self. Such men feel that there must be a real change, affecting the very depths of our personality. Righteousness must be imparted, not merely imputed. And there is a death to be died as well as a life to be lived. The old man must die before the new man, which is "not I but Christ," can be born in us. The "birth of God (or Christ) in the soul" is a favourite doctrine of the later German mystics. Passages from the fourteenth century writers have been quoted in my fourth and fifth Lectures. The following from Giseler may be added: "God will be born, not in the Reason, not in the Will, but in the most inward part of the essence, and all the faculties of the soul become aware thereof. Thereby the soul passes into mere passivity, and lets God work." They all insist on an immediate, substantial, personal indwelling, which is beyond what Aquinas and the Schoolmen taught. The Lutheran Church condemns those who teach that only the gifts of God, and not God Himself, dwell in the believer; and the English Platonists, as we have seen, insist that "an infant Christ" is really born in the soul. The German mystics are equally emphatic about the annihilation of the old man, which is the condition of this indwelling Divine life. In quietistic (Nominalist) Mysticism the usual phrase was that the will (or, better, "self-will") must be utterly destroyed, so that the Divine Will may take its place. But Crashaw's "leave nothing of myself in me," represents the aspiration of the later Catholic Mysticism generally. St. Juan of the Cross says, "The soul must lose entirely its human knowledge and human feelings, in order to receive Divine knowledge and Divine feelings"; it will then live "as it were outside itself," in a state "more proper to the future than to the present life." It is easy to see how dangerous such teaching may be to weak heads. A typical example, at a much earlier date, is that of Mechthild of Hackeborn (about 1240). It was she who said, "My soul swims in the Godhead like a fish in water!" and who believed that, in answer to her prayers, God had so united Himself with her that she saw with His eyes, and heard with His ears, and spoke with His mouth. Many similar examples might be found among the mediaeval mystics.

Between the two ideas of essentialisation and of substitution comes that of gradual transformation, which, again, cannot in history be separated from the other two. It has the obvious advantage of not regarding deification as an opus operatum, but as a process, as a hope rather than a fact. A favourite maxim with mystics who thought thus, was that "love changes the lover into the beloved." Louis of Granada often recurs to this thought.

The best mystics rightly see in the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ the best safeguard against the extravagances to which the notion of deification easily leads. Particularly instructive here are the warnings which are repeated again and again in the Theologia Germanica. "The false light dreameth itself to be God, and taketh to itself what belongeth to God as God is in eternity without the creature. Now, God in eternity is without contradiction, suffering, and grief, and nothing can hurt or vex Him. But with God when He is made man it is otherwise." "Therefore the false light thinketh and declareth itself to be above all works, words, customs, laws, and order, and above that life which Christ led in the body which He possessed in His holy human nature. So likewise it professeth to remain unmoved by any of the creature's works; whether they be good or evil, against God or not, is all alike to it; and it keepeth itself apart from all things, like God in eternity; and all that belongeth to God and to no creature it taketh to itself, and vainly dreameth that this belongeth to it." "It doth not set up to be Christ, but the eternal God. And this is because Christ's life is distasteful and burdensome to nature, therefore it will have nothing to do with it; but to be God in eternity and not man, or to be Christ as He was after His resurrection, is all easy and pleasant and comfortable to nature, and so it holdeth it to be best."

These three views of the manner in which we may hope to become "partakers of the Divine nature," are all aspects of the truth. If we believe that we were made in the image of God, then in becoming like Him we are realising our true idea, and entering upon the heritage which is ours already by the will of God. On the other hand, if we believe that we have fallen very far from original righteousness, and have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, then we must believe in a deliverance from outside, an acquisition of a righteousness not our own, which is either imparted or imputed to us. And, thirdly, if we are to hope for a real change in our relations to God, there must be a real change in our personality,—a progressive transmutation, which without breach of continuity will bring us to be something different from what we were. The three views are not mutually exclusive. As Vatke says, "The influence of Divine grace does not differ from the immanent development of the deepest Divine germ of life in man, only that it here stands over-against man regarded as a finite and separate being—as something external to himself. If the Divine image is the true nature of man, and if it only possesses reality in virtue of its identity with its type or with the Logos, then there can be no true self-determination in man which is not at the same time a self-determination of the type in its image." We cannot draw a sharp line between the operations of our own personality and those of God in us. Personality escapes from all attempts to limit and define it. It is a concept which stretches into the infinite, and therefore can only be represented to thought symbolically. The personality must not be identified with the "spark," the "Active Reason," or whatever we like to call the highest part of our nature. Nor must we identify it with the changing Moi (as Fenelon calls it). The personality, as I have said in Lecture I. (p. 33), is both the end—the ideal self, and the changing Moi, and yet neither. If either thesis is held divorced from its antithesis, the thought ceases to be mystical. The two ideals of self-assertion and self-sacrifice are both true and right, and both, separately, unattainable. They are opposites which are really necessary to each other. I have quoted from Vatke's attempt to reconcile grace and free-will: another extract from a writer of the same school may perhaps be helpful. "In the growth of our experience," says Green, "an animal organism, which has its history in time, gradually becomes the vehicle of an eternally complete consciousness. What we call our mental history is not a history of this consciousness, which in itself can have no history, but a history of the process by which the animal organism becomes its vehicle. 'Our consciousness' may mean either of two things: either a function of the animal organism, which is being made, gradually and with interruptions, a vehicle of the eternal consciousness; or that eternal consciousness itself, as making the animal organism its vehicle and subject to certain limitations in so doing, but retaining its essential characteristic as independent of time, as the determinant of becoming, which has not and does not itself become. The consciousness which varies from moment to moment ... is consciousness in the former sense. It consists in what may properly be called phenomena.... The latter consciousness ... constitutes our knowledge" (Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 72, 73). Analogous is our moral history. But no Christian can believe that our life, mental or moral, is or ever can be necessary to God in the same sense in which He is necessary to our existence. For practical religion, the symbol which we shall find most helpful is that of a progressive transformation of our nature after the pattern of God revealed in Christ; a process which has as its end a real union with God, though this end is, from the nature of things, unrealisable in time. It is, as I have said in the body of the Lectures, a progessus ad infinitum, the consummation of which we are nevertheless entitled to claim as already ours in a transcendental sense, in virtue of the eternal purpose of God made known to us in Christ.


The Mystical Interpretation Of The Song Of Solomon

The headings to the chapters in the Authorised Version give a sort of authority to the "mystical" interpretation of Solomon's Song, a poem which was no doubt intended by its author to be simply a romance of true love. According to our translators, the Lover of the story is meant for Christ, and the Maiden for the Church. But the tendency of Catholic Mysticism has been to make the individual soul the bride of Christ, and to treat the Song of Solomon as symbolic of "spiritual nuptials" between Him and the individual "contemplative." It is this latter notion, the growth of which I wish to trace.

Erotic Mysticism is no part of Platonism. That "sensuous love of the unseen" (as Pater calls it), which the Platonist often seems to aim at, has more of admiration and less of tenderness than the emotion which we have now to consider. The notion of a spiritual marriage between God and the soul seems to have come from the Greek Mysteries, through the Alexandrian Jews and Gnostics. Representations of "marriages of gods" were common at the Mysteries, especially at those of the least reputable kind (cf. Lucian, Alexander, 38). In other instances the ceremony of initiation was made to resemble a marriage, and the [Greek: mystes] was greeted with the words [Greek: chaire, nymphie]. And among the Jews of the first century there existed a system of Mysteries, probably copied from Eleusis. They had their greater and their lesser Mysteries, and we hear that among their secret doctrines was "marriage with God." In Philo we find strange and fantastic speculations on this subject. For instance, he argues that as the Bible does not mention Abraham, Jacob, and Moses as [Greek: gnorizontas tas gynaikas], we are meant to believe that their children were not born naturally. But he allegorises the women of the Pentateuch in such a way ([Greek: logo men eisi gynaikes, ergo de aretai]) that it is difficult to say what he wishes us to believe in a literal sense. The Valentinian Gnostics seem to have talked much of "spiritual marriage," and it was from them that Origen got the idea of elaborating the conception. But, curiously enough, it is Tertullian who first argues that the body as well as the soul is the bride of Christ. "If the soul is the bride," he says, "the flesh is the dowry" (de Resurr. 63). Origen, however, really began the mischief in his homilies and commentary on the Song of Solomon. The prologue of the commentary in Rufinus commences as follows: "Epithalamium libellus hic, id est nuptiale carmen, dramatis in modum mihi videtur a Salomone conscriptus, quem cecinit instar nubentis sponsae, et erga sponsum suum qui est sermo Dei caelesti amore flagrantis. Adamavit enim eum sive anima, quae ad imaginem eius facta est, sive ecclesia." Harnack says that Gregory of Nyssa exhibits the conception in its purest and most attractive form in the East, and adds, "We can point to very few Greek Fathers in whom the figure does not occur." (There is a learned note on the subject by Louis de Leon, which corroborates this statement of Harnack. He refers to Chrysostom, Theodoret, Irenaeus, Hilary, Cyprian, Augustine, Tertullian, Ignatius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril, Leo, Photius, and Theophylact as calling Christ the bridegroom of souls.) In the West, we find it in Ambrose, less prominently in Augustine and Jerome. Dionysius seizes on the phrase of Ignatius, "My love has been crucified," to justify erotic imagery in devotional writing.

Bernard's homilies on the Song of Solomon gave a great impetus to this mode of symbolism; but even he says that the Church and not the individual is the bride of Christ. There is no doubt that the enforced celibacy and virginity of the monks and nuns led them, consciously or unconsciously, to transfer to the human person of Christ (and to a much slighter extent, to the Virgin Mary) a measure of those feelings which could find no vent in their external lives. We can trace this, in a wholesome and innocuous form, in the visions of Juliana of Norwich. Quotations from Ruysbroek's Spiritual Nuptials, and from Suso, bearing on the same point, are given in the body of the Lectures. Good specimens of devotional poetry of this type might be selected from Crashaw and Quarles. (A few specimens are included in Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Sacred Song.) Fenelon's language on the subject is not quite so pleasing; it breathes more of sentimentality than of reverence. The contemplative, he says, desires "une simple presence de Dieu purement amoureuse," and speaks to Christ always "comme l'epouse a l'epoux."

The Sufis or Mohammedan mystics use erotic language very freely, and appear, like true Asiatics, to have attempted to give a sacramental or symbolic character to the indulgence of their passions. From this degradation the mystics of the cloister were happily free; but a morbid element is painfully prominent in the records of many mediaeval saints, whose experiences are classified by Ribet. He enumerates—(1) "Divine touches," which Scaramelli defines as "real but purely spiritual sensations, by which the soul feels the intimate presence of God, and tastes Him with great delight"; (2) "The wound of love," of which one of his authorities says, "haec poena tam suavis est quod nulla sit in hac vita delectatio quae magis satisfaciat." It is to this experience that Cant. ii. 5 refers: "Fulcite me floribus, stipate me malis, quia amore langueo." Sometimes the wound is not purely spiritual: St. Teresa, as was shown by a post-mortem examination, had undergone a miraculous "transverberation of the heart": "et pourtant elle survecut pres de vingt ans a cette blessure mortelle"! (3) Catherine of Siena was betrothed to Christ with a ring, which remained always on her fingers, though visible to herself alone. Lastly, in the revelations of St. Gertrude we read: "Feria tertia Paschae dum communicatura desideraret a Domino ut per idem sacramentum vivificum renovare dignaretur in anima eius matrimonium spirituale quod ipsi in spiritu erat desponsata per fidem et religionem, necnon per virginalis pudicitiae integritatem, Dominus blanda serenitate respondit: hoc, inquiens, indubitanter faciam. Sic inclinatus ad eam blandissimo affectu eam ad se stringens osculum praedulce animae eius infixit," etc.

The employment of erotic imagery to express the individual relation between Christ and the soul is always dangerous; but this objection does not apply to the statement that "the Church is the bride of Christ." Even in the Old Testament we find the chosen people so spoken of (cf. Isa. liv. 5; Jer. iii. 14). Professor Cheyne thinks that the Canticles were interpreted in this sense, and that this is why the book gained admission into the Canon. In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the symbol of marriage in Rom. vii. 1-4; 1 Cor. xi. 3; Eph. v. 23-33. On the last passage Canon Gore says: "The love of Christ—the removal of obstacles to His love by atoning sacrifice—the act of spiritual purification—the gradual sanctification—the consummated union in glory; these are the moments of the Divine process of redemption, viewed from the side of Christ, which St. Paul specifies." This use of the "sacrament" of marriage (as a symbol of the mystical union between Christ and the Church), which alone has the sanction of the New Testament, is one which, we hope, the Church will always treasure. The more personal relation also exists, and the fervent devotion which it elicits must not be condemned; though we are forced to remember that in our mysteriously constituted minds the highest and lowest emotions lie very near together, and that those who have chosen a life of detachment from earthly ties must be especially on their guard against the "occasional revenges" which the lower nature, when thwarted, is always plotting against the higher.


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