Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



THE characteristic by which mystical states or experiences of every kind are distinguished from other states and experiences which have points of resemblance to them is that they are directly and immediately supernatural. Mystical contemplation is the highest and closest of those human relations with God of which the opposite exreme is represented by the condition of simple dependence, necessarily involved in mere created existence. Immediately above this comes the recognition by self-conscious beings of this dependence; and after that, as a necessary consequence, the rational deduction of the personal, infinite and simple nature of God. Above this again comes the sense of indirect personal relatioins with God, through the medium of our created environment, and most completely and perfectly through the operation of grace. With this consciousness comes also inevitably the desire to cultivate these relations and maintain them at their highest point of efficacy; and thus both reason and free-will are drawn into the universal accord in which each element, from the lowest to the highest, fills its alloted place and discharges its most congenial function. Rational beings who, by failing to recognise these relations, choose to hold the position of the irrational and inanimate part of creation are, as rational beings, out of accord with the general scheme: yet the loss is theirs only; the scheme is not affected by their failure to occupy the place which they might hold. They cannot but suffer individually from the consequences of their choice -- which is to assimilate the rational to the irrational, the spiritual to the material; but the scheme holds good for them as for the irrational beings whose place they have elected to share.

But the crown and summit of the whole system is that direct intercoiurse of the soul with God, which, ordinarily at least, presupposes the sacramental life of grace, but is itself something more than that.

It is a state in which the natural and ordinary action of he sould is modified, and in which even the organic functions of the body are to a certain extent in abeyance.

We may therefore distinuish the three conditions thus. First, the mere subjection, unconscious or involuntary, to the divine will, which no created being can escape. Next, the conscious realisation of this general dependence, which includes all that is meant by natural religion, and is enriched and amplified by the knowledge which revelation imparts, and the elevation of the natural faculties which is the effect of divine grace. To this state belongs the kind of contemplation known as natural or acquired (in the sense that it is obtained by the exercise of the natural powers). This state is sometimes called mystical. But it is not truly so; for it implies the exercise of natural powers on natural objects, though under supernatural guidance, but not the suppression of their natural objects by special and supernatural influence. The mind in this state, illuminated by faith, but by the exercise of its own reasoning power, conceives an idea -- say of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Sacramental presence of Christ, or the wonders of divine providence -- and contemplates it with satisfaction, and even with delight and enthusiasm. The practice of ordinary meditation will lead, if not uniformly, at least occasionally to contemplation of this kind. Its object is not immediately supernatural, though the action of the mind takes place with supernatural assistance; and it does not differ in kind, or indeed always in degree, from such pleasurable contemplation as is induced by mastering a scientific problem, following out a logical argument, or even reading a poem or a novel. In all these instances alike there are the same elements -- intellectual study, the development of a concept or idea, and the "affective" contemplation of it.{1} Such meditation and contemplation, when their object is divine truth, are indeed the highest exercise of the natural powers. And the special supernatural impulse and support under which it takes place must be clearly distinguished from the mere divine concursus, which is common to all human acts.

But the object of this contemplation is not in itself directly supernatural; it is produced according to the general laws which can be observed in all human thought and feeling. That is, such contemplation is not in the true sense mystical.

The essentially supernatural character of the truly mystical state is perhaps best illustrated by the passivity which all writers on the subject hold to be its most charactertistic feature. God is not discovered by the mystic; indeed this special manifestation of Him may not, strictly speaking, be even sought. He makes himself known "experimentally"; and the person so favoured contributes nothing, at least directly, to this result.{2} In all natural cognition -- i.e., in the acquisition of anything that may rightly be called knowledge, however complex, recondite or elementary -- there must always be a preponderating element of mental activity. There must be not merely sensation and intellgent consciousness, but "apperception" -- the active direction of the mind to the object before it, together with the complex process of analysis, abstraction, distinction and comparison which underlies the simplest act of cognition. Such activity is involved in the perception of a tree, a house or a flower, in the reproduction by the help of imagination or memory of an idea; or in the recognition of an acquaintance. But in all mystical states this process is absent. God takes possession of the mental powers and focusses them upon Himself, and those which from their nature cannot be so focussed are left idle. Memory, imagination, or will may or may not be in use, according to the nature of the experience, but the discursive reason is necessarily in abeyance. In point of fact, mystical cognition is to the soul precisely what sensation is to the body.

WE do not reason in order to ascertain whether we feel heat or cold, pain or pleasure; we are simply aware of the fact. Sensation cannot be defined, or even described, otherwise than in terms of other sensations; and its occurrence is not susceptible of proof, otherwise than by very inconclusive circumstantial evidence. One cannot prove directly that one has a toothache, or that the subject in a hypnotic trance has no sensation of the pins thrust into his flesh by the operator; we have only his word for it. In the same way, mystical experience is a matter of direct contact between God and the soul; its conditions may possibly be ascertainable up to a certain point, as those of sensation are, but it cannot be precisely either defined, explained or proved.{3} It follows that the mystical experience is not to be obtained by any means within the power of the person who desires it. It is, obviously, no more possible to ensure experience of this kind by any deliberate course of actioin than it is to obtain a particular kind of weather by the exercise of one's own powers. Here lies, in fact, the great practical difference between mystical states and those which belong to the ordinary economy of divine grace, a difference which hardly eems to have been always clearly present to the minds of some writers on the subject.

By the fulfilment of certain conditions the devout Christian can attain with certainty to the enjoyment of an abundant measure of grace, sufficient or more than sufficient for all his needs. The effects of prayer and of the sacraments are certain, and are within the reach of all who choose to make use of these means of spiritual advancement. Moreover, the rational appreciation of the mysteries of the Christian faith is open to all, independently of natural ability or acquired skill; they offer an abundantly sufficient field to the reason and imagination of all men, whether lettered or unlettered, whether intellectually acute or dull; they adapt themselves, like the objects of universal desire in the life of the senses, to the capacity and character of each separate individual. The joys and conflicts and anxiety of the life of grace are equally real to the refined and learned and to the rude and ignorant, and, fundamentally, they are the same for all; but there can be no doubt that they are apprehended under somewhat different forms by persons of different character and education -- as the satisfaction of the desire for food conveys an identical pleasure to the epicure and the ploughman alike, but the kind of food preferred (as distinct from its chemical qualities) is different in each case.

But there are no conditions by the fulfilment of which mystical experience may bre ensured; and its character, unlike that of ordinary religious experience, in no way depends on either the efforts or the natural endowments of the person who undergoes it. The mystic is the mere recipient of the favours bestowed on him; he can do nothing towards either procuring them or determining their special character. Mysticism is therefore to be conceived as the raptus or ecstasis of St Paul and St Thomas:{4} it is outside the natural sphere of human life and in respect of all natural experience it has consequently no place or function; for it all natural objects of perception are involved in "darkness" and "ignorance," and the ordinary functions of sense and intellect are for the time being directed by the "new supernatural aptitude" of which St. John of the Cross speaks. "Our Lord," says St Teresa, "does not require the faculties or senses to open the door of the heart to Him; they are all asleep." "We can do nothing," she adds, "on our part."

"Simple unity with God," says Ruysbroeck, "can be felt and possessed by none, save by those who stnd before the immense brightness, without reason and without restraint."{5} Thus the consciousness of free rational beings returns to that simplicity of divine relations which, at the other end of the scale of creation, appears as the perfect mechanical fulfilment by inanimate and irrational creatures of their divinely appointed destiny. The human intellect has, in some sense, arrived at the goal of its desires when it can say "ut jumentum factus sum apud Te."

Another obviously necessary consequence of the passive condition of the soul which marks all truly mystical states is the certainty as to the real character of those states which accompanies them. Here, again, there is an exact parallel in sense-experience. Sensation is, as we have remarked, incapable of being defined or proved; the one thing that we know about it is that it occurs. Whatever the conditions may be, and whether there is an adqueate cause present or not, the one indubitable fact in sensation is the certainty of the experienced. A person may feel cold in circumstances which cause others to feel hot; or he may not feel anything under conditions which cause most people to feel a great deal -- or again in some peculiar affections of the nerves he may beel intense pain without any apparent cause. Yet his sensations are in every case undeniably facts. This is precisely the case of the mystic: he is certain of the divine communicatioin, though he cannot prove it; and his conviction that it is divine is unshakeable.{6}

It must, however, be clearly understood that this subjective certitude is not to be taken for a proof that the experience so certified is a genuinely mystical one. Benedict XIV., in his treatise De Canonisatione, gives a long list of natural conditions which may give rise to apparently mystical experiences -- such as nervous excitement, hysteria, memory association and disease.{7} Professor James gives a nearly identical list of such causes. Certainty is a conditio sine qua non -- without it, no mystical experience can be considered genuine,{8} but it is not therefore inconsistent with deception. Precisely the same thing, of course, may be said about sensation. A sensation is a fact of experience, and differs altogether from the most vivid imaginary presentment of that same fact; we can never mistake one for the other. But we may be widely mistaken as to the cause of our sensations; and we may, on the other hand, be deluded by memory or imagination as to the actual occurrence of sensations in the past. We may so vividly imagine certain sensatioins as to think that we must have actually experienced them at some time; as some people are said to have told a fictitious story so often that they have come to believe it. But in such cases the clear realisation of a definite and particular sensation is certainly absent. In the same way delusions as to past supposed mystical experiences are by no means unknown. But in such cases there is a complete absence of the circumstantiality which is characteristic of all accounts of genuine experiences; and on the other hand, there is generally a definiteness and descriptive plausibility in accounts of the menory-created experiences themselves which is invariably absent from the genuine ones. The reason of this is to be found in another ffeature of genuine mysticism, namely, the impossibility of describing the experiences of mystical states in anything like detail. In the case of visions it is true that certain salient features of the appearances are distinctly remembered and described; and in "locutions" the phrases heard or understood can be repeated from memory. But these, as will be more fully explained later, are the "accidents" of mysticism.{9} Its essence is direct contact with a transcendental reality; and this, from its nature, is incapable of being described in the terms of ordinary sense-experience to which human language is necessarily limited.{10} Mysticism can make no use of the terms of sense-experience to describe what is supersensible; and its opportunities are far too limited to enable it to construct a descriptive terminology of its own. The conscioiusness of the actual divine presence admits of no description; only the bare fact can be stated, apart from its effect on the person who experiences it.

But though the mystical vision of God is a thing which cannot be obtained by natural means, being God's free gift, and altogether beyond the sphere of nature, it is nevertheless not only possible but, ordinarily speaking, necessary to prepare for it -- to make the soul fit, so far as that is possible, for the guest whom it hopes to receive.{11} Though no amount of preparation can ensure His coming, it is nevertheless not to be hoped for unless the soul has been made ready for Him. This preparation is merely negative in regard to the supernatural state to which it is preliminary, consisting as it does in the purification of the soul from actual sin, from worldly desires and negligent habits. But in itself it is, of course, positive enough, and its benefits are definite and substantial. It is, indeed, nothing less than the fullest Christian life, the fulfilment of all the conditions of salvation, and even of eminent sanctity. Mystical states, as we may see more clearly later on, are not by any means necessary to holiness, and it is at least ideally possible to attain the highest sanctity without any mystical experience whatever, in the true or Dionysian sense.{12} The first four of St Teresa's "mansions" are mainly occupied by this preparation for the favours to be received in the last three. The "Fourth Mansion" consists of a blending of the natural and supernatural in the "prayer of recollection" and the "prayer of quiet"; the subsequent "prayer of union" and "spiritual marriage" are wholly supernatural.

The precise nature of mystical contemplation as distinguished from other spiritual or intellectual functions more or less connected with and resembling it is defined in practically the same way, though with a varying amount of detail, by all mystical writers. It is perhaps most clearly and briefly expressed by Gerson, who follows substantially Hugo of St Victor, and the more elaborately subdivided but essentially identical method of Richard, his successor. The powers of the soul, Gerson says, are divisible into cognitive and affective; mystical theology is the object of the latter, as speculative theology is of the former. The cognitive powers are those of intelligence, reason and sense-perception; the affective appetite, will and synderesis, or the natural perception and consequent desire of good. St Thomas considered this last to be not a power, but a natural intellectual habit; and though Gerson, like other mystical writers, speaks of it as a potentia animae, he expressly guards himself against the supposition that he is constructing a system of real psychological distinctions. The powers are distinct, he says, not in reality but in name; for his immediate purpose, however, he finds it convenient to treat them as if they were really distinct in nature.{13}

The two sets of faculties work together. Their first or last function is mere cogitation -- the discursive consideration of the objects of sense: then comes meditation, or the concentrated application of the reason to these objects, and the production by it of abstract ideas; these, again, can be contemplated by the simple intelligence apart from sense-perception. So far all is natural; the cognitive and affective faculties act mutually on one another, and on the objects presented to them. But above all natural objects in the divine presence, which is known -- by special divine favour -- not as an abstract idea resulting from meditation,{14} but as the immediate object of love, in the rapture or exaltation of the soul above itself which is the effect of love whether natural or supernatural. Thus "he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit."

It is plain that according to this analysis the experimental knowledge, vision, or contemplation of God takes place through the agency of the natural powers of the soul; the supernatural factor is the gratuitous divine communication which the soul receives. Some obscurity, however, has been caused by the language of some of the more speculative mystics on this point. Eckhart, and after him Tauler, speak of the "ground" of the soul -- its core or essence, to which the corresponding "ground" or nature of the Godhead communicates itself in virtue of a certain natural affinity which exists between the two. This "ground" of the soul is also called the "spark" (scintilla, fünkelein) or "apex" -- as the purest or highest part and the fittest therefore to be the medium of the divine self-communication. Eckhart's pantheistic tendencies seem to have led him to assimilate the "spark" to the divine nature, as homogeneous if not in some sense identical with it. Tauler keeps clear of this mistake; and with Gerson the scintilla or apex mentis is merely a name for the intellect, which is the contemplative faculty.{15} With Ruysbroeck the "ground" is the mirror in which the Divine Being is reflected; St John of the Cross calls it the "substance of the soul" or agin the "eye of the soul, which is the understanding," and the recipient of the divine illumination. But the light may be so excessive as to cause darkness; nd so we come back to the Dionysian phraseology, in which darkness and ignorance are the means of seeing and knowing. But all this is evidently the language of practical devotion, and not (except perhaps in the case of Eckhart) of speculative theology, still less of analytical psychology. What it amounts to is no more than the doctrine that the soul has a faculty by means of which it can, when God so pleases, contemplate Him directly and even become united to Him. We shall consider in the next chapter what the nature of the process on its human side may be supposed to be.

It is somewhat strange that such writers as Hugo and Richard of St Victor, St Bonaventure and Gerson should be spoken of as having attempted to "reconcile" mysticism with scholasticism. They were never at variance, and no reconciliation was either necessary or possible, unless in the sense in which all theory may be considered as attempting to reconcile fact with itself. Scholasticism set itself to give a reaqsoned account of man's nature and total environment; mysticism was one of the great facts which it was bound to take into consideration; and the Platonic elements in the earlier mysticism came into it in now other way than this. But mysticism is not itself either Platonic or Aristotelian; on its natural side it is simply human, and falls into its inevitable place in the order of things which all systems of philosophy seek to analyse and explain.{16} Mysticism is always recognisably the same ting, whether we meet it in a Platonic or a scholastic dress.

What, then, may be called the normal course of mysticism proceeds first by way of devout preparation in the discharge of ordinary Christian duties and the use of ordinary means of grace; next, it leads the soul into the immediate presence of God, as an experienced reality, and not merely as a concept or imagination; and the third stage, described in varioius terms by varioius writers, consists of a progressive union with God -- a union which is not merely a matter of conviction, the mere union of will which is the privilege of all devout persons, but a fact of experience consciously realised. "In it," says St. John of the Cross, "the soul seems to be God rather than itself, and indeed is God by participation, though in reality preserving its own natural substance as distinct from God as it did before, although transformed in Him."

St Teresa's well-known subdivision of this last or supernatural stage is threefold -- the prayer of quiet or recollection in its higher form, in which the sense of the divine presence is communicated to the soul and contemplated passively by it; the prayer of union, which is "a foretaste of heaven," and in which the soul "seems to have left its mortal covering (though this is not really the case) to abide more entirely in God"; and lastly, the "spiritual marriage," in which the soul is no longer absorbed or lost in God, but recovers the exercise of its powers, though in an exalted and supernatural way, and "sees and understands somewhat of the grace received in a strange and wonderful manner by means of intellectual vision." Thus "the three persons of the most Blessed Trinity reveal themselves; the doctrine which we hold by faith, the soul now, so to speak, understands by sight." It is remarkable that St Teresa, like all other mystics, in spite of the minuteness and particularity of her classification, is able to tell us little or nothing of the actual content of these blissful experiences. She exhausts herself in passionate insistence on the delight they impart to the soul; but as to the precise cause and nature of it she has nothing to say; and as little can she convey what is to be understood by the "intellectual vision," which is neither of the bodily nor of the spiritual eyes. The reason is, as we have already seen, that these things are indescribable, for want of existing words in which to describe them or of natural experience with which to compare them. Each fragment of mystical knowledge is like a hapax legomenon in the language of human understanding.

Visions and locutions, or voices, may or may not occur in the states o funion; they do not occur in any other. Visions are imaginary -- i.e., quasi-sensible fiures pictured to the imagination without causing actual sensation -- or spiritual; the latter are of two kinds, one of corporeal substances perceived, according to St John of the Cross, "in a certain light emanating from God," in which the distant things of heaven and earth may be seen; and the other kind consists of incorporeal existences, perceived after the same supernatural manner.

Locutions in like manner may be either mentally formed phrases representing thoughts or impressions produced by divine grace in the soul while in a state of recollection, or they may be formed in the mind by direct supernatural agency.

But visions and locutions are, it must be repeated, not necessarily a part of mystical experience; and all mystical writers agree in asserting that they are, in any case, the least important part. In practice all authorities teach that they are to be entirely disregarded. It is true that the experience of such mystics as B. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Blessed Julian of Norwich or Anne Catherine Emmerich appears to consist entirely of visions and voices. But in these three cases, and in countless others, it will be found that the mode in which thoughts were conveyed to, and emotions excited in the person is of quite secondary importance. In these cases, the communications come through visions of our Lord seen under various aspects, and declaring His will and desires in formally understood words. But it was not the mere vision or quasi-vocal communication in itself that gave value to the experience, or constituted its title to acceptance as genuine, either in the mind of the actual recipient or in the opinion of those who afterwards had to pronounce judgment on the nature of the case. It was always the manifestation of the love and patience of the divine humanity that was both the source of consolaton and the guarantee of reality.

The possibility of self-delusion in such a matter (without considering the possibility of diabolical deception) is, of course, almost inexhaustible, and no mystical writer fails to warn his readers against this danger; which, it may be well to remark, in the processes of beatification and canonisation is kept constantly in view, and, as has been already noticed, is strongly insisted on by Benedict XIV, in his treatise on the subject.

{1} St. Teresa, Castle, 4. 1. 4. "Sweetness in devotion . . . is natural, although ultimately it comes from the grace of God. We shall find that many temporal matters give us the same pleasure, such as unexpectedly coming into a large fortune, meeting with a friend, or succeeding in any imporant affair."

{2} Such criticism as that of Mr. Inge ("Christian Mysticism," pp. 111, 112) would be perfectly just if mystical contemplation were held to be a merely natural process. All the human mind can do towards attaining it is merely negative, and in the natural order the result of such mere negation or abstraction is zero. But it is just because of this that true mysticism is perceived to be supernatural. The blank can really be filled only by divine agency, not by human "hypostatisation."

{3} "Une âme recueillie sous le regard de Dieu peut, à l'aide de l'imagination, se representer Dieu présent en elle. . . . Mais cette image de Dieu, dont nous sommes les auteurs, ne resemble en rien à la réalité que la contemplation mystique nous fait sentir. C'est Dieu lui-même, et non plus son image que nous aperçevons." -- Lejeune, Vie Mystique, p. 10.

{4} 2 Cor. vii. ; Summa, 2. 2. 175 1. c. and cf. St Bernard (De Inter. Domo). "Necesse est ad cor altum ascendere et mentis excessu per divinam revelationam addiscere, quid sit illud at quod adspirare vel studere oporteat, et ad qualem sublimitatis habitum animum suum componere et assuescere debeat."

{5} Ruysbroeck, De Calculo.

{6} James, Varieties, loc. cit.

{7} Heroic Virtue (Oratorian translation), vol. iii, ch. x.

{8} St Teresa, Castle, 5. 1. 9: "A soul which does not feel this assurance has not been united to God entirely."

{9} "These (corporeal) visions, inasmuch as they are visions of created things, between which and god there is no congruity or proportion, cannot subserve the understanding as proximate means of divine union." -- Asc. of Carmel, ii. xxiv. "These supernatural visitations are nothing else but the motes of the Spirit." -- Ib. ii. xix.

St Teresa only knows such visions from hearsay. "Of bodily apparitions I can say nothing; for the person I mentioned (herself) never experienced anything of this kind herself, and therefore could not speak about it with certainty." -- Castle, 6. 9. 3.

{10} Cf. Bossuet's Instr. sur les États d'Oraison. "Elevés à une oraison dont ils ne pouvaient expliquer les sublimités par le langage commun, ils ont été obligés e'enfler leur style pour nous donner quelque idée de leurs transports." And St Teresa (Castle, 7. 1. 9): "By some mysterioius manifestation of the truth, the three Persons of the most Blessed Trinity reveal themselves, etc. Thus that which we hold as a doctrine of faith the soul now, so to speak, understands by sight, although it beholds the Blessed Trinity by neither bodily nor spiritual eyes." And again (Castle, 6. 5. 9): "These visions, and many other things impossible to describe, are revealed by some wonderful intuition that I cannot explain." "On returning to itself, the mind can recall what has been seen, but is unable to describe it." B. Angela of Foligno: "Divine operations went on in my soul which were so ineffable that neither angel nor saint could relate or explain them."

St John of the Cross (Asc. ii. 28): "Moses was unable to describe what he learned of God in that particular knowledge and so gave utterance to ordinary words. Though, at times, when thisknowledge is vouchsafed to the soul, words are uttered, yet the soul knows full well that it has in no wise expresed what it felt because it is conscious that there are no words of adequate signification."

{11} Gerson, Myst Theol., Cons. xxx. "Mystica theologia acquiritur per scholam affectus et per exercitium vehemens moralium virtutum, disponentium animam ad purgationem."

{12} See Poulain, Des Graces d'Oraison, and Asc. ii. v. 8.

{13} Myst. Theol., Cons. ix. ; cf. Summa Theol., I. 79. 12

{14} Myst. Theol., Cons. xliii. "In anima contemplativa amor, et mystica theologia et oratio perfecta aut idem sunt, aut se invicem praesupponunt. Nam, ut patet ex praedictis, mystica theologia est cognitio experimentalis habita de Deo per conjunctionem affectus spiritualis cum eodem -- quae nimirum adhaesio fit per extaticum amorem, teste beato Dionysio."

{15} See Inge, "Christian Mysticism," Appendix C.

{16} Eckhart is said to have drawn his philosophy mainly from St Thomas. Of Dionysius, who is too often treated as a mere Platonist, Corderius says: "Observatu dignissimum, quomodo S. Dionysius primus Scholasticae Theologiae jecerit fundamenta, quibus ceteri deinceps theologi eam quae de Deo rebusque divina in Scholis traditur doctrinam omnem inaedificarunt." -- Observationes Generales in Dion., 12.

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