Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



THE question, often felt to be a very distressing one, of the cause and inner nature of evil and of its place in the universal scheme of things, has a special affinity with the principle of mysticism. It would seem only natural to suppose that those who are admitted to the special divine intimacy which is the privilege of mystics should have something to say about the way in which the unsatisfactory condition of this world is to be reconciled with the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent Creator, of whose nature they have a deeper knowledge than others, and of whose relation to a suffering creation they may therefore be expected to have a fuller comprehension than the rest of mankind.

This expectation is one that is often considered to be unfulfilled; though mystical writers do as a rule deal more or less fully with the subject, their account is often thought to be inadequate, and even unmeaning. They are agreed that evil -- whether considered as sin or as the suffering consequent upon it -- has no substantive existence; it is the negation of good and no more. There can be no Summum Malum, St Thomas declares, for this reason. As to how evil comes into being, and what is its place and meaning in a universe that must be considered wholly good, they are by no means explicit. They know -- but they cannot explain how they know -- that evil has no permanence and no substantial reality: that it neither mars the perfect goodness and omnipotence of God, nor troubles the peace of those who are united with Him -- that in the end all will somehow be perfectly well.{1} This no doubt is quite satisfactory to the mystic who receives the supernatural assurance; but it is hardly applicable by way of argument or explanation to the perplexities of others in this matter.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible to construct a theodicy, or vindication of the divine justice, upon the basis of the principle which lies at the root of supernatural mysticism. Indeed it is scarcely possible to do so in any other way. That principle, as we have seen, is the absoluteness, or the infinite perfection and independence, of the divine nature. All depends on God, but He Himself on nothing but Himself. Consequently, His motive in creating is in Himself -- His own "glory" or "pleasure"; and this is the only absolutely good motive which can be conceived for any action on the part of either the Creator or the creature. But if God is "glorified" by the creation of this world; if His power and justice are manifested in the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked; then certainly the act of creation is good, its motive is fulfilled. Evil is the work of the creature, not of the Creator, whose justice and mercy alike it is the means of exhibiting. Further, the goodness of the act of creation is not vitiated by the fact that it involves the self-caused misery, temporal or eternal, of the human race. At first sight this does appear to be a grave difficulty, in the way of reconciling omnipotence with perfect goodness; for, it is asked, if God could create a world in which no evil could exist, or could even abstain from creating this one, why did He not do so? Or if He could not do either, how can He be omnipotent? But evil is the work of created free-will, not of God: if, therefore, God had abstained from the creation of this world (or what is the same thing, had made it different) because of man's actions foreseen either as possible or as certain, then God would not have acted as God, but in contravention of His very nature. There would have been a corner of the possible universe from which He would have been excluded, a good act which He might not do: He would have been limited by and dependent on the free actions of His possible creatures. But such an idea is absolutely inconceivable: God cannot at the same time be perfect and limited, or dependent and independent, or supreme and subject to the will of His creatures; and if He could act in subordination to anything external to Himself, He would no longer exist -- He would have destroyed Himself. To remove the centre of a circle is to destroy both centre and circle, and if God were not the centre of the circle of the universe, neither He nor it could exist. Thus the difficulty of reconciling the existence of evil with the omnipotence and goodness of a divine creator disappears as soon as the essential nature of God is realised in respect of its independence and supremacy. Hence also appears the negative character of evil, which is recognised by all systems of thought that admit a supreme being -- by the Stoic Cleanthes and the Neoplatonist Plotinus no less than by St Augustine and St Thomas. Evil is the absence of certain possible or ideal elements in certain parts of creation, not the existence in them of something hostile or extraneous. Sin is the perversion of the free-will, not its inhibition; pain is the disorder of the organism or the faculties, not a fresh element in their constitution; suffering, whether mental or bodily, is a mode of natural self-consciousness, not consciousness of a different kind from that which experiences pleasure. Moreover, if evil in the ordinary (not the "metaphysical") sense is held to be identical with sin and its consequences -- as it must be on Christian principles -- then sin and suffering are two mutually counterbalancing factors in the harmonious interaction of all the elements of the universe; evil is an accident of that which is specifically good; it is provided for in the universal scheme of things, as the expansion and contraction of the main-spring is provided for in the mechanism of a watch -- it is an irregularity of detail which subserves the regularity of the whole.

The only alternatives to this view are either an impossible Manichean dualism, or some form of philosophical pessimism, such as the original underlying principle of Buddhism, or those which are adopted respectively by Schopenhauer and Hartmann, or such as is really latent, though not acknowledged, in the "substance" of Spinozism or the idealistic absolute of Bradley. The subordinate dualism of Christianity relieves the Creator of what may be called responsibility for evil, while its fundamental monism provides a place for evil in the scheme of things no less secure than that which it finds in the supposed universal substance or the absolute. As a philosophical statement of the Christian view of evil this can hardly be unacceptable to any one. But it must be admitted that it fails to go to the root of the matter, even when combined, as it should be, with the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement as constituting a manifestation of divine mercy superimposed upon that of the divine justice which appears in the natural universe. No merely speculative account of evil can be entirely satisfactory, even apart from the necessary incompleteness of any speculation on so purely transcendental a subject, so long as evil is not merely known, but felt. What gives this problem its peculiar poignancy is the fact that evil is primarily a matter of experience; it is but cold comfort for those who suffer to know that their pains do not disturb the harmony of the universe or disprove the goodness of its Creator. "There never yet was a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently," and it seems improbable that any rational explanation of the origin and nature of evil, however unexceptionable on philosophical or theological grounds, will ever subdue the human instinct of rebellion against the prevailing law of suffering.

But mysticism stands on a different plane from that of philosophy or speculative theology; it is an experience as direct and as real as even the most entirely corporal forms of suffering, and it is consequently able to provide a real counterpoise to all pains of mind or body far different from the somewhat empty consolations of philosophy, or even from those of the deepest human sympathy; with which latter it has nevertheless something in common. It is probably, indeed, in genuine human sympathy that the only real consolation -- inadequate enough -- for unavoidable suffering is to be found by natural means; it does not indeed diminish or shorten the pain, but a kind of set-off is provided by the regard and affection which the sympathy implies. There is no consolation, but rather the reverse, in an enemy's sympathy; but the joy of friendship manifested in sympathy is felt to be a distinct gain due to the suffering which has given it occasion. In somewhat the same way, though in an infinitely higher degree, the joy of union with God is a consolation which mystics consider to be cheaply bought at the price of any pain. Argument and explanation become, as compared with such delights as the mystic knows, of very minor importance; the "familiar friendship" of God is a practical argument, more persuasive than any other could possibly be, for His absolute goodness and infinite power, no matter what difficulties may be found in the way of reconciling them with earthly appearances within the narrow range of human thought and knowledge.

This eminently practical solution of the problem of evil is implicitly contained in what has been called the "mystical paradox." Mystics constantly assert that it would be better to be united to God in hell, than to be separated from Him in heaven.{2} Either is, of course, actually simply inconceivable; the paradox is merely a strong assertion of the absolute dependence of the creature upon the will of the Creator, and the entire contentment which a soul that has once realised that dependence must feel in occupying its divinely ordained place in the universe, whatever it may be.

The point of view is shifted: the universe is envisaged from its true centre, which is God, not from the: false and imaginary centre of self. A faint likeness to this conception may be perceived in the "contemplation of the kernel of things" extolled by Schopenhauer; in Hartmann's doctrine that the "ends of the unconscious" should be made our own, and in the notion advocated by Comte and by the "ethical religions" of the present day, that life is to be viewed and transacted from the standpoint of humanity, or of posterity. The idea, thus stripped of its personal aspect, becomes utterly unreal and ineffective; but in the mystical consciousness it furnishes the only antidote ever yet discovered (and that, it would seem, a complete one) to the bitter sense of wrong and injustice which the evils of life are apt to engender. To regard the world and oneself from the point of view of the whole human race, so as to act altruistically for the benefit of others, or to expend devotion on the idea of duty is one thing; to be so united with God that the thought of self is lost and forgotten is quite another. One is an artificial pose in regard to bloodless abstractions which have no vitality; the other is the actual grasp of the very root and vital principle of things.

Thus the mystic translates into real and living experience the theoretical principle adduced by Christian philosophy as the explanation of the existence and nature of evil, and furnishes what for practical purposes may fairly be called an experimental test of its validity. On the other hand, the mystical attitude towards evil is strongly corroborated by its exact and obviously unpremeditated agreement with the only metaphysical theory which provides anything like an adequate account of the origin and nature of evil.

It may be noted finally, that the consolations of mysticism in this matter are by no means to be confined strictly to mystics. In the first place, the blind trust in the divine goodness, which is probably for many the only practical resource in the pains and anxieties of life, loses altogether its prima facie appearance of unreasonableness when it is founded on real, even though vicarious experience. The logical position of the Christian who believes in the goodness and omnipotence of God, in spite of appearances to the contrary, merely because he would otherwise be unable to believe in God at all, certainly leaves much to be desired. But if it is reinforced by the consideration that those who know Him best have found, by direct experience which cannot be gainsaid, that He is both omnipotent and good, the position is really no less reasonable than that of those who are convinced of the insularity of Great Britain without having personally circumnavigated it.

Secondly, the mystical attitude towards the problem is quite consistent with the absence in any particular individual of mystical experience properly so called. There are doubtless innumerable Christians whose conviction of the power and goodness of God is not less in degree than that of the mystic, though their conviction is founded on theoretical rather than directly experimental grounds. The certainty of faith, supported as it nearly always is by a strong sense of the care and protection of divine Providence, and by the experience of favours granted in answer to prayer, is in no way less strong -- in some respects it is even stronger, than that which is based directly on mystical knowledge.

But even in this case the mystical experience of others, whether recorded in Holy Scripture or in the lives of the Saints, or by living contemporaries, provides an aid to faith, or "motive of credibility" which cannot rightly be overlooked.

{1} Cf. Blessed Angela of Foligno. "I felt myself in such fulness of charity, and I understood with such joy in that power and will and justice of God, that I understood not only those things about which I had asked, but I was satisfied as to the salvation offered to every creature, and about the devil and the damned and all things. But all this I cannot explain in words." (In Catholic Mysticism, by A. Thorold.)

Cf. also Julian of Norwich, ch. xxxii. "One point of our Faith is, that many creatures shall be damned as the angels which be now fiends, and many in earth that died out of the faith of Holy Church, and also many that hath received Christendom, and liveth unchristian lives, and so die out of charity. All these shall be damned to Hell without end, as Holy Church teacheth me to believe; and standing all this, methought it was impossible that all manner of thing should be well, as our Lord shewed in this time. And as to this, I had no other answer but this: 'That, that is impossible to thee, is not impossible to me; I shall save my word in all things and I shall make all things well -- for this is the great deed that our Lord God shall do; in which deed He shall save His word in all things, and He shall make well all that is not well. But what the deed shall be and how it shall be done, there is no creature beneath Christ that knoweth it, nor shall know it till it be done.'"

{2} E.g., St Teresa: "A soul is suffering sorrow and disquiet, the mind is darkened and dry, but is set at peace, freed from all trouble and filled with light, merely by hearing the words, 'Be not troubled.' These deliver it from all pain, although before, if the whole world and all its learned men had united to persuade it there was no cause for grief, it could not, in spite of their efforts, have got rid of its sadness." (Castle, vi. 3.) "Souls that have reached the state I speak of . . . care nothing for their own pain or glory; if they are anxious not to stay long in purgatory, it is more on account of its keeping them from the presence of God than because of its torments." (Ib. vi. 7.)

B. Angela of Foligno (loc. cit.): "If I knew for certain that I was damned, I could not possibly grieve nor labour less, nor be less zealous in prayer for the honour of God, so perfectly did I understand His justice."

Ruysbroeck: "Lord, I am Thine, I should be Thine as gladly in Hell as in Heaven, if in that way I could advance Thy glory." -- Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage.

B. Margaret Mary Alacoque: "Je ne sais si je me trompe, mais il me semble que je voudrais aimer mon amour crucifié d'un amour aussi ardent que celui des Séraphins, mais je ne serais pas fâchée que ce fût dans l'enfer que je l'aimasse de la sorte." -- Vie par ses Contemporaines.

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