Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



MYSTICAL contemplation is the sight of God. It cannot be called anything else, though obviously sight or vision is not quite an appropriate word to describe a process essentially different from any of those to which the term is commonly applied. We speak of "seeing" indeed, not only when we mean the exercise of a bodily organ of sense, but also, by a metaphor, when we mean the intellectual perception of an idea, or a truth presented to us from without. But mystical sight is neither of these. It is not bodily sight, because God is invisible; and it is not intellectual perception, because in mystical contemplation it is not an idea that is seen, but a living reality. In meditation the thoughts or ideas abstracted from the subject under consideration are contemplated; but in mystical or supernatural contemplation it is God Himself that is the object perceived, not any idea of Him or any thoughts about Him. It is a unique mode of perception, corresponding to the unicity of that which is perceived. Nevertheless, it has this point of similarity to bodily sight, that the object is directly and immediately perceived; it is analogously to the soul what sight is to the body. All language in which such vision may be described suffers from the difficulty and liability to misapprehension which besets it whenever it deals with transcendental realities. Thus the persons of the Blessed Trinity can only be spoken of in metaphorical or analogous terms; paternity, filiation, procession, have in this connection meanings very different from those which belong to the words in their ordinary use. The mystical sight of God, then, is not sight of the bodily kind, nor is it in any way like ordinary intellectual perception: it is something entirely separate and different from all normal experiences of body and soul. The soul, indeed, still exercises its natural powers, or some of them; but it exercises them under entirely abnormal conditions, created by the character of the object with which it has to deal.

This object is God: but we naturally ask how the soul can see God -- how we can suppose God so to present Himself to the soul as to be directly perceived by it. For the proper function of the soul is to think, understand and will: and those functions presuppose abstract ideas, singly or combined, as their objects. But ex hypothesi it is not an abstract idea that the mystic contemplates: God does not present Himself in the shape of a concept or a proposition, for if He did so, He would not be directly present; the object of contemplation would not be God, but only the contemplative's idea or thought about Him. But then what else but an idea or proposition can it conceivably be that the soul perceives in the "intellectual vision"? It appears to be the difficulty of determining this point that has led many to suppose that the immediate and external character of mystical vision is a delusion; that it is really no more than the contemplation of an idea or an image drawn from the recesses of past experience and thought, by some unconscious or subconscious process. Certainly there would be much to be said for this view if we were really unable to detect any possible affinity between the soul and the mystical object of its intellectual perception; though, even so, the persistent testimony of generations of mystics to the fact might well cause one to hesitate before accepting an explanation which explains it away.

The difficulty, it should be noticed in the first place, is not confined to mystical theology. It is just as urgent if we ask how any rational creature can see God at any time and under any conditions. How can the blessed see Him eternally in Heaven? They are still rational beings; they undergo, intellectually at least, no radical change when they pass from time to eternity; and yet the whole of their beatitude consists in the vision of God, not by any means in merely thinking about Him. If then we are to reject the mystics' account of their contemplative vision on this ground, we must equally reject the doctrine of the Church and the statements of Scripture as to the beatific vision hereafter -- which practically amounts to rejection of Christianity altogether.{1}

But it need hardly be said that there is no such obvious lacuna in the account which Christianity gives of itself as would entitle any one to reject it as inadequate. The modus of the beatific vision can be explained quite sufficiently to show its entire consistency with what we know of the necessary relations between the human intelligence and its natural object; and the same explanation removes the difficulty -- which at first sight seems insurmountable -- of attributing to the object of mystical knowledge any higher degree of external reality than belongs to the ordinary "Universal."

This difficulty, we have seen, consists in the disparity between the human intellect and the divine personality. What we want to understand is the principle on which it may be supposed that the intellect becomes directly conscious of the divine presence without reasoning or abstraction, when its natural function is simply to reason or abstract, and not to perceive by immediate intuition.

St Thomas Aquinas considers the question at great length, and his conclusion is substantially this. The vision of God by the blessed in Heaven is not mere vision, but union; they see God as He is in Himself, not from a distance as sensible objects are seen, nor by a discursive intellectual process as intelligible ideas are perceived, but, so to speak, from within. They are not, it is needless to say, pantheistically merged in God, but united to Him by His supernatural action, so that the consciousness in the soul of the divine presence is akin to, and in some sense bound up with, its consciousness of itself. Therefore as our self-consciousness is intellectual and yet immediate, so also the beatific vision of God is both immediate and intellectual.

In scholastic language, the species intelligibilis or abstract idea on which the mind works is practically the "form" of the mind, the mind itself (considered apart from its action, as in potentia), standing in the place of "matter"; this is the normal method of the intellect's operation. But for those who see God, He becomes Himself the "form" to the soul's "matter," so that He is known directly, as the soul knows its own natural ideas.{2} Even so, however, though the action of the intellect is normal in kind, it is in degree far above the ordinary and natural sphere of the intellect. It therefore requires a special divine assistance to enable it to work in this lofty atmosphere; and this assistance (which St Thomas calls the lumen gloriae and considers a created "quality," of the nature of grace) is imparted by the fact of the mystical union.

The difference between the visio beatificans of heaven, and the mystical vision of persons still living on earth, is merely that the one is habitual and permanent, and the other transient and exceptional; and whereas the union of the blessed extends to the risen body by a kind of reaction, so that the body takes part in the vision with the soul with which it is substantially united, the divine vision for the "viator" is restricted to the soul, and involves as a pre-requisite the temporary abstraction of the soul from the processes of the body.

Thus St Paul "knew not" whether his mystical vision was "in the body or out of the body " -- i.e., the body had no part in the union, though it could not but be affected by the psychical state (probably in the direction of quiescence rather than of any special activity). The Apostle was not conscious for the time of anything that took place in the body. It was a transient visitation of the lumen gloriae.

There is no need, for our present purpose, to take this explanation (which perhaps will scarcely be intelligible to any one who is unacquainted with the terminology of scholasticism) as a true account. The reader may, if he will, consider it as a mere hypothesis. What it does, whether true or not, is to show that an analysis of intellectual processes can be constructed which is perfectly consistent with the admission of direct and objective intellectual intuition of a transcendental reality; and this is all that is required to remove the apparent disparity between the intellect and its mystical object.

It is worth while, however, to notice how entirely St Thomas's theoretical account corresponds with the descriptions given by mystics of their actual experiences.

First, the state of actual vision is always transient. St Teresa says it lasts not more than half an hour at most: St John of the Cross that the "actual" union of the faculties of the soul with God must in this life be transient of necessity; though there is an "habitual" vision, which is also supernatural, but permanent, and may be considered as the consequence of the actual union, and of the nature of an exalted faith in the permanent (or "immanent") divine presence in the soul.{3} This element of permanence we shall consider later.

Next, it is a state of union, or "spiritual marriage" -- at least in its complete or most fully conscious form; and it is evident that the union of quasi-matter and quasi-form described by St Thomas (compared by him, after Albertus, to the union between soul and body) is happily expressed by this figure, so constantly made use of by mystics. St Teresa could not distinguish between herself and God while in the state of rapture; and St John of the Cross says that "the soul seems to be God rather than itself, and indeed is God by participation."{4}

It is only in regard to this highest mystical state of intellectual vision that the difficulty we have been considering arises. Intellectual impressions or states of consciousness, and images or figures of any kind are not strictly manifestations of the divine essence; they are indeed supernatural manifestations of the presence of God, and as such differ in kind from the impressions or ideas produced, subjectively by natural means,{5} but they are not the "face to face" visions. We shall consider in the next chapter the psychological problem involved in supernatural manifestations of this kind; at present we are only concerned with the actual content of the objects of mystical perception.

Thirdly, the "lumen gloriae" has a very distinct place in the experience of mystics. St Augustine speaks of the "changeless light" seen only by the eye of the soul, and different in kind, not merely in degree, from that which all men see.{6} According to St John of the Cross, it is (like natural light) not itself the object of vision, but the means through which divine things are seen, and is the supernatural consequence of the "darkness" of faith in regard to all merely natural objects. St Teresa says that it "hardly shines at all in the first mansions"; but in the later ones it is a light "so unearthly that if during his whole lifetime any one had been trying to picture this and the wonders seen, he could not have succeeded"; and in the "spiritual marriage" the revelation of the Blessed Trinity is "preceded by an illumination which shines on the spirit like a most dazzling cloud of light." Ruysbroeck says "this light is not God, but is a mediator between the seeing thought and God. It is a light-ray from God -- in it God shows Himself immediately, not according to the mode of His persons, but in the simplicity of His nature and essence." (The contrast between the unity of a common principle and the variety of individual experience is here remarkably significant.) Julian of Norwich speaks of the "gracious light of Himself," by which God wills that we should have understanding.

St Augustine{7} distinguishes three kinds of vision -- corporal, "spiritual," which is here the same as "imaginary," and intellectual. Of the first kind was the vision of Balthasar in the Book of Daniel; the second is exemplified in the vision of St Peter at Joppa; the third kind was experienced by St Paul in his vision of the "third heaven." But Balthasar was certainly not a mystic, and the revelation to St Peter, though of a higher kind, was of the nature of a grace gratis data -- it was not for St Peter's benefit, but for those to whom he was to be sent. Such visions therefore are not essentially mystical, though certainly supernatural, and though manifestations of both kinds (especially the second) frequently accompany mystical experiences. Julian of Norwich says that her visions were of all three kinds: of the purely intellectual she can say only "the number of the words passed my understanding, and all my might; for they were in the highest, as to my sight. For therein is comprehended I cannot tell what, but the joy that I saw passeth all that heart can think, or soul desire."

This threefold classification is the generally accepted one among mystical writers. It represents clearly enough the whole range of the objects of mystical vision. These are, first, as we have seen, the actual consciousness of God in virtue of a formal union of the intellect with Him, which is the highest and perfect form of contemplation; secondly, the stimulation of the intellect in a supernatural manner, in such a way as to produce the direct consciousness of the divine presence -- whether by means of an imaginary figure or sound of some sort, or by the production of a direct intellectual impression without any medium whatever, either in the senses or in the imagination;{8} and thirdly, by the supernatural but real manifestation of a sensible image of some kind -- such as was seen not only by Balthasar but by Abraham when in the theophany in which he "saw three and adored one," the Blessed Trinity was mystically exhibited to him under sensible quasi-human forms. It is obvious, as St John of the Cross points out at great length, that certainty as to the divine character of these experiences varies inversely with the degree of sensibility or quasi-sensibility which belongs to them. Sensible and imaginary impressions can arise from several kinds of natural causes; and it is consequently seldom, if ever, safe to say that they are certainly supernatural or divine in origin. The direct impression of the divine presence conveys, St Teresa says, as its chief characteristic an irrefragable feeling of certitude; and the highest state of union is no more to be misunderstood or evaded than the self-consciousness which is the underlying condition and guarantee of all human experience, natural as well as supernatural.

Lastly, it must be noticed that however closely what may be called the lower kind of mystical experience may approach the ordinary experience of the senses in character, it must always be considered as entirely distinct from naturally caused sensations or ideas. The "knowledge of invisible things" from visible and created things is true knowledge, legitimately obtained; but it is not mystical. Nor is the moral union of the heart with God, or "union of conformity" of which spiritual writers speak, at all the same thing as the mystical union. The former must certainly exist before the latter can take place, but the two are not identical in any way. Knowledge obtained through philosophy, natural science, historical research or social or practical experience may and should deepen and strengthen, and may even be the means of creating an apprehension of God's reality and presence in the world and beyond it; and in proportion as men conform their actions and affections to the divine model and law, their devotion to the service of God and their happiness in it doubtless increase. But such knowledge and devotion and affection are natural in themselves, though brought about by the supernatural influence of grace: they are not of the same kind (however high they may be in degree) as the supernatural knowledge and consequent affection which are properly called mystical. No service can be done to either by confusing them together.

{1} Corderius points out that since the soul is capable of exercising certain functions without the direct co-operation of the senses, and is able to exist in a disembodied state, a purely spiritual vision is not contrary to its nature. He adds that the mystical vision is not so precisely "quidditative" as the beatific -- i.e., the divine essence (which no creature can fully comprehend) is much less clearly known in the one than in the other. ("Quaestio Mystica," in Dion. Myst. Theo., c. v.)

{2} Cf. Blosius, Spiritual Mirror, xi. 1. "This mystical denuded union takes place when a soul is carried above itself by the grace of God, and through the brilliancy of the divine light shining on the mind is united to God without any medium, and is transformed and changed into Him."

{3} Dopo questa visione sente sempre l'anima Iddio nel suo interno, mai non si separa da quella divina compagnia, nè mai più perda una certa unione abituale con essolei -- questo però non si intende, che sia in quel modo, che accade la prima volta e altre volte che Iddio le vuole rinovare il predetto favore; perchè se fosse cosi, non sarebbe possibile trattare con gli uomini, anzi ne pure vivere. Ma sebene non vide sempre Iddio con tanta luce e tanto gaudio, lo spirito però si trova sempre in sua compagnia." (Scaramelli. Dottrina di S. G. della Croce. Tratt. iii. Art. 2) and cf. St Paul's reference to habitual union, Cor. vi. 10; Gal. ii. 20.

{4} Cf. St Augustine, Conf. vii. x. "Tu assumpsisti me, ut viderer esse quod viderem, et nondum me esse qui viderem."

{5} Cf. St John of the Cross, Asc. ii. 5. "The fitting disposition for that union is, not that the soul should understand, taste, feel or imagine anything on the subject of the nature of God, or any other thing whatever, but only that pureness and love which is perfect resignation, and complete detachment from all things for God alone."

{6} Non hanc vulgarem et conspicuam omni carni, nec quasi eodem genere grandior erat, etc." (1. c.)

{7} De Gen ad litt., xii. vii. seq. {8} Cf. Poulain, Des Grâces d'Oraison. "Dieu a deux façons possibles de se faire connaître, l'une a la manière des créatures, par une espèce créée, l'autre sans espe&cgrave;e; il peut en jouer le rôle. Or, disent les théologiens, ce dernier mode constitue la vision intuitive, celle du ciel; l'autre est le propre de la contemplation mystique." (It must be understood that this "species," or impression, need not be anything visual, auditory, or otherwise sensible; it cannot be anything merely natural.)

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