Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



NEXT in order after the object of mystical contemplation we have to consider the mode in which that contemplation takes place. We have seen that the presence of God may be made known to the mystical consciousness in three ways -- by formal union, by an intellectual impression, or species, with or without an imaginative representation or figure, and thirdly, by means of a representation of a sensible kind. The object of contemplation is unquestionably supernatural; but of what sort is the process, whether intellectual or physiological, by which the object is perceived? Is it also supernatural -- i.e., do the faculties of mind or body act in any other way or by any other principle than that in which or by which they are accustomed to act?

The subject is necessarily a somewhat obscure one, comparatively little being certainly known as to the nature of the mind's action, and of its relation to that of the senses. But some quite overwhelming evidence, such as does not seem to be either forthcoming or even conceivable, would be necessary to prove that either the mind or the body or both together can, under any circumstances in this world, act otherwise than according to the accustomed methods and principles, which in their general plan at least are well enough ascertained. We have already seen strong reason for considering the supernatural element of mysticism to consist mainly in its object; that element in the perceiving subject being no more than the illumination and assistance of the natural faculties by divine grace, and not their supersession by any new power or faculty, or by the addition of any otherwise unknown function to those already possessed by them. As in the ordinary operation of divine grace so in its exceptional operation, the natural faculties are indeed assisted and guided; but they continue to act according to the laws which they follow in the absence of any supernatural aid. The actions, both physical and intellectual, of a person under the influence of grace do not differ in kind from those of one who is outside that influence, and are open to precisely the same kind of investigation. Faith, for example, is not a sixth sense, or an extra intellectual faculty ; it is merely the action of the intellect and will directed towards a particular subject, and dealing with a particular set of evidences, and is in itself no more mysterious than other modes of voluntary and intellectual activity. On Christian principles, indeed, faith is held to be due to supernatural assistance by means of a divinely infused virtue; but the modus operandi is obviously by no means changed by that infusion; the force of motiva credibilitatis and the weight of divine authority are estimated by faith in the same way as similar evidence is estimated in purely secular matters.

The supernatural character of mysticism is, therefore, at least no bar to the investigation in a purely natural sense of the mental processes it may involve. Such enquiries as that of M. Delacroix, or of Professor W. James, whatever may be thought of their conclusions, are in no way excluded or discountenanced by acceptance of the supernatural explanation.

Dionysius, and later mystical writers, have not troubled themselves with any psychological theory in explanation of their experiences; they were, indeed, hardly in a position to do so. All that they were concerned with was to relate facts; though, naturally, they tended to relate them with so much attention to sequence and classification as to produce what is in effect a kind of theory, or système psychologique privilegié. But their accounts, though in some cases (of which St Teresa and St John of the Cross are the chief examples) they are perfectly systematic so far as they go,{1} do not address themselves to any consideration of the mode, whether partially natural or wholly supernatural, in which the supernatural effects are produced. So far as they are concerned, the divine modus operandi may be considered an open question.

Three different views have been held on this point.

1. It has been supposed that man is endowed with some kind of special faculty by which he is enabled both to know God as existing, and in the higher stages of spirituality to enter into direct personal relation with Him. This faculty has often been supposed to be a distinct element in human nature. The nous or spiritual part, which is designed exclusively for intercourse with the divine, is distinct from the psuche or intellect, which is concerned with created things -- both being distinct again from the animal nature in mankind.{2} This view, sometimes called trichotomy, has been condemned by the Church as put forward by the Apollinarian heretics, and again in recent times as held by Gunther; it was held in a professedly modified form by Occam, without explicit and authoritative condemnation, though with much opposition. Again, the supposed faculty is held to be an endowment or power of the one soul, co-ordinate with but distinguishable from its faculties of reason and will.

In both forms, however, this theory seems to be gratuitous; since on the one hand no powers are attributed to the supposed special faculty which are not in one way or another exercised by the intellect under ordinary circumstances; and on the other hand, there can be no reason for supposing that God is unable, if He so desires, to communicate directly with man through his natural intellect, without having to create a special faculty for the reception of divine communications.

2. Directly opposed to this view is another, which holds the supposed mystical communications to have no external source, but to be wholly subjective experiences, due to the automatic working of the subconscious or "subliminal" self.{3} Much apparently uncontrovertible evidence has been adduced to show that the field of psychical experience extends far beyond that of actual consciousness; and that from time to time an automatic transference takes place from one to the other. Ideas appear to arise in the conscious intelligence without giving any indication of their origin, in sense or reason; they are evidently not consciously made by the intelligence, nor are they attributable to any external source which can be recognised by means of sense-perception. Thus they have all the appearance of purely spiritual communications proceeding from an external and transcendental region. The theory we are now considering holds that, on the principle that entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, we are not justified in investing these experiences with any transcendental character, if, as is thought to be the case, they can be sufficiently accounted for by other means.

The question is, therefore, whether the theory of automatism does really provide a sufficient explanation of the facts.

It seems hardly possible to deny that most of the characteristic features of the states recorded by Catholic mystical writers as experienced by themselves, have been at various times produced in the experience of others who are neither Catholics nor mystics. The essential features of passivity, of incommunicableness, and of manifest reality are evident in many of the cases cited by James, some of which are the result of alcoholic stimulation, others of the influence of anaesthetics, and others again of pathological states; while some are apparently spontaneous.{4} Moreover, numbers of heretical and even immoral systems of religion or theosophy have depended for their authority on experiences which seem to exhibit characteristically mystical qualities, but which cannot, from the point of view of Catholic orthodoxy, be held to be genuine, and either must be considered purely natural, or else must be attributed to diabolical influence. This latter was the opinion of Görres, who made out a complete system of diabolical mysticism parallel in some sort with the divine.

But in the case of Catholic mystics -- and it may probably be admitted, in other cases exhibiting nearly similar features -- there is no question of any such stimulus as that given by alcohol or drugs. Nor can their state be properly called pathological, unless in the very wide and somewhat fanciful sense in which the so-called inspirations of genius have been supposed to be so. Abnormal it certainly is; and there is no direct evidence to show that this abnormal state is not, as in some of the cases quoted by James, the spontaneous result of some obscure and possibly congenital abnormality of nervous constitution.{5} At the same time it must be noted that, as has already been pointed out, the great mystics show no signs of such abnormality, but are, on the contrary, rather remarkable for their mental and physical sanity in the ordinary affairs of life. Such mystics as St Bernard, St Catherine of Siena, St Teresa and St John of the Cross seem to be distinguished from the ordinary run of people in business matters, only by their superior acumen. If indeed it is to be assumed that no personal God exists; or that God cannot communicate directly with the soul; or that man has no soul which can receive such communications -- then, no doubt, the hypothesis, at present certainly unverifiable, of automatism may fairly be held to be the most probable explanation of the problem. But if no such presupposition is entertained; and still more if it is held, on independent grounds, that a God exists who is able, if He so chooses, to influence the soul of man directly and immediately, there seems to be no reason to deny that those cases of transcendental illumination, for which no physical cause can be assigned, may, with a degree of probability which approaches certainty, be attributed to divine agency. For here the question ceases to be a matter merely of psychological investigation: the moral probability of deception has also to be considered -- that is to say, the probability that God would permit those who must be considered most deserving of His consideration to be the victims of a delusion as humiliating as the reality simulated by it would be ennobling.

If we start with the Christian presupposition of the nature of God it is impossible to believe the conviction universally entertained by the mystics of their immediate intercourse with God to be ill-founded: at the same time the theory of automatism seems to furnish at least a highly probable explanation of many quasi-mystical states to which this moral argument does not appear to be applicable. Those, on the other hand, who start with a contrary presupposition, or with none, are obviously free to apply the theory impartially to all cases alike.

3. The third view is a conciliation of the subjective and objective theories, first put forward definitely by Maine de Biran,{6} and adopted in a general way by Görres. In this view the experience of the mystic is real, and consists, as he rightly believes, in immediate intuition of and communication with the divine being. But the manner in which the soul becomes conscious of the supernatural experience is natural, and from a certain point is the same as that in which it becomes conscious of the impressions automatically derived from the "transmarginal" sphere. That is to say, the soul undergoes a certain unconscious modification{7} (in the one case by means of a sense-impression, in the other by means of a purely spiritual communication), of which it subsequently becomes conscious by the very obscure process to which the title of automatism has been given in order to express its essentially non-volitional character. The way, whatever it may be, in which we become conscious of ideas derived from unnoticed sense-impressions may be identical with that in which the mystic becomes conscious of the immediate divine presence. He can give no account of the coming of this presence; suddenly he knows that it is there and he can say no more. In the same way the mind becomes suddenly conscious of the solution of a difficult problem, of an artistic effect and the manner of its production, or of an overmastering moral impulse, without being able to explain or account for its origin. There is certainly a strong apparent similarity between the flashes of inspiration which are held to constitute or indicate genius and the mystical intuition of an objective divine presence and of communications proceeding from a divine person; and the view which regards the rise of the ideas into consciousness as identical in method in every case seems to have much in its favour. The absence of any genuine (as distinct from imaginary) sensible impressions in the one case as compared with the fundamental importance of sense-impressions in the other need present no difficulty, so long as we admit the substantial reality of the soul, and refrain from identifying physiological with psychological conditions. It is not more difficult -- and it may even appear less so -- to conceive of a psychical state produced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by direct spiritual agency, than to conceive of a psychical state resulting from a sense-impression. In the view now before us, the only difference between the two classes of experience is that a true mystical state is originated in the psychical sphere; pseudo-mystical or merely natural states have their origin in sense-impression, like all merely natural psychical states; but the psychical machinery by which a conscious state is produced we may consider to be the same in both cases.

It may be added that this distinction coincides practically with that which has been constantly made by ecclesiastical authority in dealing with the various types of apparently abnormal spiritual experience on which it has had to pronounce an opinion from time to time.{8} The possibility, or rather the strong probability, of deception of one kind or another has always been kept prominently in view; and it is only after much hesitation that any such case has been pronounced genuine. Each has been, as a rule, the subject of prolonged investigation and consideration; cases eventually found to be spurious have had their orthodox defenders, and genuine ones their equally orthodox antagonists. St Catherine of Siena, St John of the Cross, St Teresa, B. Margaret Mary Alacoque, and a host of others have had to undergo a more or less prolonged period of doubt, suspicion and even reprobation, before their experiences were accepted as genuine; and on the other hand, neither Molinos nor Madame Guyon lacked patronage in high places. It is enough, however, for practical purposes (and no other purpose can here be entertained) to distinguish genuine experiences from delusions. It is of little importance to know the nature of the delusion, which it is admitted might be either natural or directly diabolical in origin. Psychological considerations need not enter into the investigation; until very recently, indeed, it was scarcely possible that they should; but the fact of self-deception has always been familiar enough, however little may have been known about its nature.

Abnormal experiences may, therefore, be either genuine or cases of delusion, whether natural or supernatural, and the theory last mentioned supplies a rational basis for this classification to which it seems difficult to take exception. At the same time, it must be remembered that the criterion which has mainly been made use of by Ecclesiastical authority is, and probably will always be, the external or "pragmatic" one of orthodoxy and morality. But mysticism which is orthodox and moral need not necessarily be genuine, though that which is heretical and immoral must necessarily be spurious; and in the large number of cases of the former kind no authoritative pronouncement has been made or appears to be possible. But in such cases there is little practical need for authority; a doubtfully genuine mystic may be accepted or rejected by individual opinion, and so long as his faith and morals are beyond question, neither acceptance nor rejection can do any harm. It may also be suggested that the difficulty of a decision may be considerably Increased by the occurrence of abnormal states of different kinds in the experience of the same individual. The passage from real mystical experiences to spurious ones seems to be far from an improbable occurrence -- and the converse process, though doubtless less probable, can hardly be considered impossible, though nothing could well be more difficult than to trace such a transition. But the opinion expressed of the Methodists by William Law is applicable to a large class of mystical pretensions -- "I think that they have the Spirit of God, but they have greatly mingled their own spirit with it."{9}

{1} Mr Inge remarks the general tendency among mystical writers of the supernatural kind to schematism. It may perhaps be explained as a natural attempt to minimise the insuperable difficulty of describing such experiences as theirs.

{2} The Pauline division into body, soul and spirit (1 Thess. v.) must he understood to refer to the twofold function of the rational soul, not to two distinct substances.

{3} W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience; Delacroix, Mysticisme. Cf. Vaughan, Hours with the Mystics, i. 158.

{4} James, op. cit., Lectures XVI. and XVII.

{5} See Benedict XIV., Heroic Sanctity, and see ch. 1. pp. 35, 36.

{6} Vie de l'Esprit: sub fin. Cf. Delacroix, p. 406. "Comme il est difficile de méconnaitre l'identité psychologique des phénomènes de subconscience, qu'ils se présentent dans le christianisme ou dans d'autres religions; ou bien sans d'autres formes que la forme religieuse, beaucoup d'esprits désireux de concilier le fait et la doctrine tendent à faire droit aux exigences de la psychologie, en expliquant psychologiquement la passivité religieuse, et à celles de la théologie, en maintenant que ce jeu de lois psychologiques représente le plan d'action divine sur les ames; de sorte que le subconscient serait le véhicule de la grace divine."

{7} Cf Maher, Psychology, p. 357.

{8} See Benedict XIV., De Canon. passim.

{9} The probable function of the "subliminal" consciousness and the nature of the union involved in the lumen gloriae are well though briefly described by Dr Chandler (Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein); though it is, of course, incorrect to speak, as he does, of the "spark of the divine nature which is present in us from the beginning, and which makes us spiritual creatures with an organ of spiritual intuition" -- Ara Coeli pp. 115-119.

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