Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



MYSTICISM has often been described, but seldom defined; and the definitions have not always been satisfactory. Yet in order to have any clear understanding of what is meant by a word used in so many different senses, it is very necessary to begin with a definitioin of the precise idea which it originally connoted, and which underlies and forms the connecting link among its various applications. Etymologically, mystics are those who have been initiated into the mysteries or esoteric rites of Greek religion; the mustai, memuêmenoi, or fully instructed persons who were privileged to take part in the ceremonies periodically performed in honour of a god, from participation in which the general public was excluded. Any one or anything belonging to the celebration of these sacred rites was "Mystic" -- even to the "Mystica vannus Iacchi" of Virgil; and the two prominent ideas connected with the word were consequently -- first, special knowledge obtained by instruction (muê), and secondly, an obligation or other necessity of secrecy in regard to it (muô).{1} The mystics are, in fact, the inner circle of the devotees of any cult; they are possessed of knowledge which partakes of the nature of revelation rather than of acquired science, and which is imparted in consideration of some special aptitude, natural or acquired, such as is not found in the general run of mankind. It is further implied that the knowledge is of a transcendental kind, such as may be supposed to be necessary for the devout worship of a divine being; this, however, though obviously part of the original meaning of the term, is not always signified in its later uses. But the one idea common to all uses is that of a special knowledge confined to a corps d'élite of persons with a peculiar aptitude for its acquisition. Thus the early Christian Church conceived itself to hold the position of a body of mystics with regard to mankind in general: its members were the depositaries of a revelation (Arcanum) not, at least in all points, accessible to the outside world; they were initiated by the "illuminating" rite of baptism, and thereby admitted to participation in the other sacraments, or mysteries, of the Christian religion. Thus St. Paul (Phil. iv. 12) speaks of himself as mustikos -- in silence. Hence, in later times, any art or handicraft which made use of traditional methods came to be known as a "Mystery." Its secrets were imparted to the novice at or after his initiation into the guild or company by which it was carried on, and under which he had served an apprenticeship: such "arts and mysteries" are still professed, though not always practised, by the guilds which have survived to the present day.

But in the Church there has always been a circle within a circle; within the body of the initiated a body of those who have undergone a further initiation; among the instructed some favoured ones who have received fuller instruction.{2} And whereas initiation into the Christian community has been entrusted by divine authority to the Church itself, the further illumination of the selected is received directly from God. Hence has arisen by a natural transference the popular application of the term to any view or conception of the transcendental or the unseen, to anything "vague, vast and sentimental"; and hence again the note of condemnation or contempt which was attached in England to the idea of mysticism, as it was to its distant relation "enthusiasm," during the century ended some fifty years ago -- a "mystic" during that period being considered much the same thing as a visionary or a sentimentalist. The word has since then recovered from its temporary degradation; and though it is still used somewhat loosely, it no longer carries any burden of offensiveness. The laxity of use from which it still suffers consists in the emphasising of one part of its full connotation to the practical exclusion of the other: any knowledge or experience, real or imaginary, which is beyond the scope of ordinary sense-experience, is apt to be called mystical. But such knowledge is not mystical in the proper or strict sense, unless it is held also to be imparted, and not acquired by the independent exercise of the natural powers. It would, of course, be absurd to contend that the convdentional meaning of a word, in many cases an enrichment rather than a perversion, has not at least as good a claim to acceptance as its etymological one. But where, as in this case, the conventional uses of the word have obscured the nature of the thing for which it originally stood, it is necessary to determine the sense in which the word is to be used in the discussion of the thing.

The name was first applied in the sense in which we have now defined it by Dionysius -- whoever the author known under that name may have been. The thing, however, was undoubtedly known and recognized in the Church from the beginning. The apostles were certainly mystics in the fullest sense; and the mystical tendencies of sub-apostolic times are evidenced and fairly represented by the "Shepherd" of Hermas, and the writings and authentic acts of many of the early martyrs. The self-chosen title of St. Ignatius, Theophoros, the God-bearer, implies a claim to the possession of mystical experience of the most far-reaching kind. But mysticism -- or at least the temperament which seeks knowledge by means of illumination rather than discursive reasoning -- belongs essentially to human nature, and appears, under one form or another, wherever thought is free.

Thus, to leave the Eastern theosophy out of account, a mystical element appears, in greater or less degree, in all Greek philosophy, if the mere negations of Pyrrhonism may be excepted. Before Socrates, Greek philosophers were seers rather than reasoners: the apophthegmatic character of their utterances affects to be the result rather of intuition than of reasoning: and the dialectic of Plato, and even the logical precision of Aristotle, led in the end, theoretically at least, to that pure contemplation in which alone Aristotle conceived that beatitude consists. In the later Platonic schools mysticism tended more and more to replace discursive reasoning; contemplation rather than reasoned knowledge became more and more definitely the object of philosophy, and ascetic self-discipline appeared in a surer way than argument to attain this end. Plotinus (whom M. Maeterlinck calls "the one analytical mystic"), and Proclus after him, present the doctrines of later Neoplatonism in a systematic form, and are free from the magical and theurgic extravagances into which it degenerated in other hands.

The two streams of Christian and Platonic mysticism flowed together at Alexandria, where Philo had already grafted the flower of Neoplatonic mysticism upon the stock of Judaic theism. together they produced a school of religious philosophy in which Christian faith sought with more or less success, to ally itself with the dialectic of Platonism, on the one hand, and on the other with the quest for direct illumination that characterised the later development of the Platonic schools. The mystical theology of Dionysius represents, on the whole, the permanent results of this combination. In this treatise we have a kind of grammar of mhysticism in which principles alone are formulated, disengaged alike from the experience and argumentation through which they had been evolved, and awaiting the fuller clothing of concrete personal experience subsequently imparted to them by later mystical writers. Though received at first with suspicion, the writings of Dionysius soon attained a position of authority not less commanding in its day than that of St. Thomas in later times. We could scarcely have had either the Sentences or the Summa without them; and their echoes may be heard, even when, as is not often the case, their direct influence may not be detected, in every mystical writer since the time of their appearance.

It is probably a mistake to look for any direct filiation, or continuity of historical succession, among the mystical writers of successive ages and periods. Here, as elsewhere, it can scarcely be doubted that the most important part of history is that which has never been written. Mystical teachers and writers were forced into prominence by circumstances; but it is more than probable that circumstances had no influence on the general craving for knowledge of the unseen and abiding reality which underlies the endless vicissitudes of human life, as they could have none upon the sources from which that need is supplied. Such circumstances were the ceaseless wars which "made Europe one vast camp" in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the intellectual and moral upheavals of the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation; and in our own day the breaking up of old traditions and institutioins, and the birth of new principles, ideas and customs -- the forerunners, as it would seem, of a new order of things the character of which no man can yet forecast. In such times, when the instability of human things, or the feebleness of human reason, is forced with special insistence upon men's notice, the teaching of themystic has an attractive force which in quieter periods it seems to lack; and it is at such times that a Gerson, a Tauler, a Ruysbroeck or a Teresa is moved to tell of the "inner way" in which true peace of mind may be found amind the illusion, instability and restlessness of outward life. But it can hardly be doubted that in all times alike there are countless elect souls to whom mystical knowledge is as the air they breathe, but who are more than content to be "mute and inglorious" to the end of their days.

It would have been strange if such an abiding demand of humanity in general had never been met with a conterfeit supply. Parallel with the current of true mysticism there has been a nearly continuous succession of the spurious kind in which, though conscious imposture is perhaps hardly to be found or suspected, a greater or less degree of illusion is easily discernible. It would indeed scarcely be possible to say how far the Pythagorean contemplatives or teh Neoplatonist ecstatics come under this head;{3} the latter, at least, have nothing in common with the theosophic extravagances of Gnostics, Montanists and later sects, whose militant propagandism seems strangely at variance with their professed principles. The initial inconsistency of the supposition that the depositum of revelation needs to be superseded, amplified or modified by mystical communications imparted to a single irresponsible person -- a Priscilla, a Mohammed, a Joachim, a Boehme or an Irving -- of itself goes far to discredit the doctrines professedly so received. We shall consider later the criteria by which the true is to be distinguished from the false or doubtful mysticism; it is enough for the present to remark that mysticism forms no exception to the rule, that the value of precious things is attested by the abundance of their imitators.

{1} "Mysticum interperatur absconditum," Gerson, Myst. Theol., I.

{2} Cf. Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity, vol. I, p. 237. Christianity gained speciel weight from the fact that, in the first place, it had mysterious secrets of its own, which it sought to fathom only to adore them once again in silence; and secondly, that it preached to the perfect in another and deeper sense than it did to simple folk.

{3} Tauler credits "Proclus and Plato" with a true mystical knowledge of God (Sermon on St John Baptist).

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