Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



THE supernatural character of mysticism depends upon the double aspect in which God's presence in creation may be considered. In one point of view God is everywhere present in creation, and thus may be approached by all men, even while they are confined physically to the material sphere of the senses. There is between God and His creatures no local interval, and no intelligible intermediation such as the Gnostics conceived to exist. The world is not revolving apart from God, forgotten and neglected; nor is it brought into relation with Him only through a hierarchy or chain of subordinate spiritual existences or emanations. God is rightly, in this sense, said to be "immanent" in the world as the constant efficient cause from which everything in every moment of existence derives its being; as the supreme ruler of all that is; and as the intelligent designer of all forms of being, together with all their permutations and combinations. He is everywhere per essentiam presentiam et potentiam.{1} On the other hand, God is by nature absolutely distinct and separate from all created existence, not merely in the way in which one created being may differ in kind from another, but by the unique nature of His being, which is absolute and self-dependent, and thus altogether incommensurable with created things, which are necessarily dependent and derived. Though all creatures are in the similitude of God by virtue of the being which is communicated to them by Him, they are all absolutely unlike Him in His independence; no imaginable greatness or perfection in any creature can give it any sort of resemblance to this essential and fundamental attribute of the divine nature. Therefore God can only be known by intellectual separation from all creatures: He cannot be expressed in terms of anything but Himself, or brought under any category which has any other content -- there is no "formula" for God, no class to which He may be said to belong.

If God is considered as intelligent, wise, beautiful or powerful, He is still none of those things in the same sense in which they can be predicated of creatures, who can only be intelligent, wise or beautiful by participation, as their very existence is only participation in the being of God. The speculative knowledge that God exists is the recognition, theoretically, of a unique kind of being; but the experimental knowledge, which is mysticism, is immediate experience or apprehension of that which is essentially different from all else, and must therefore be apprehended or experienced after a wholly different manner from that in which we experience created existence. That is to say that God is transcendent; and it is only in a sense consistent with His transcendence that He can truly be said to be immanent in creation.

There are two other senses in which God has been held to be immanent: one of them the conception of Spinoza, the other of Eckhart and Hegel. The former holds that God and nature, or spirit and matter, are identical -- the same thing, namely "substance," in two different aspects. This notion is immanence in its strictly etymological sense; God is in nature and remains in it; He cannot be outside it, for there is no outside; and He cannot be distinct from it, for He is constituted by the sum total of its parts and their relations, of which He is in fact the underlying unity and reality. Much the same relation to the world of phenomena is attributed by Bradley to the absolute.

The other view regards nature as a mode of God's being, a necessary phase or moment in His self-realisation. Nature is identical with God, but God is more than nature (not quantitatively but intensively), inasmuch He is both prior and posterior to nature, in the order of thought, though not necessarily in the order of time. This, however, is not really transcendence; for God in this view is ontologically one with nature, so far as it goes; creation is a necessary part of God, and He transcends nature only in the sense of being more than, not different from nature.

Under either of these two conceptions God is "given" in nature, and experience of nature is experience of God. There is no place therefore for vision, "rapture" or "ecstasy," the object of which would be merely the non-existent. All the mystic could do would be to reflect upon his sensible experience, and compound a syncretised Deity of the "threads and patches" of individual sensation, thought and feeling.

It is a very different process that the supernatural mystic expounds, so far as the limitations of human language will allow him. God is substantially or essentially present in the soul, as He is in all created things; but the mystic does far more than merely reflect on this truth. What he seeks is the supernatural union of likeness, begotten by love, which is the union of the human will with the divine. He seeks to realise the unfelt natural presence of God in creation, not by resting in any aspect of nature, even its most abstract one, as mere being, but by entering into a personal relationship with the concealed presence which is the source of being. Whereas Spinoza saw natura naturans in natura naturata, and Hegel pure being evolving itself through the maze of the becoming, the supernatural mystic cuts himself loose at one blow from all phenomenal entanglements, and "passes free and untrammelled by all that is seen and all that sees" into the "intangible and invisible" presence of Him who is "beyond all things."{2} This appears to be the true interpretation of the doctrine of the "ground" (Grund) of the soul, which is prominent in the German mysticism of the fourteenth century, and to which reference has already been made. This doctrine, as it appears in Eckhart, Tauler and Ruysbroeck, and the German Theology, is somewhat confused, and has led to some apparent misunderstanding.{3} There are two grounds," spoken of respectively as "created" and "uncreated," and the two seem to be treated as almost interchangeable -- whence these writers seem occasionally to speak of the essence or substance of the soul as if it were uncreated, and a part of the divine essence. But the general principles of at least Tauler and Ruysbroeck certainly require us to understand the created ground to be the substance of the human soul, as distinguished from its faculties -- the principle in virtue of which it not merely acts, but is; and the uncreated ground is then to be understood as that substantial or "immanent" presence of God which is to be found in all created things alike, as the background and support without which they could have no existence at all. The close contact (as for want of a better word it must be called) between the two is obvious. The created ground is the essence of the soul, a thing which cannot be directly known, but only inferred from its operations, a purely spiritual and intelligible entity, removed from all direct experience; and the uncreated ground is another purely spiritual entity, also incapable of being naturally experienced, which is the basis of the created ground's existence -- the ground of the ground, in fact. But when the mystical union of the soul with God takes place, the two grounds become in a certain sense one. God is realised as the foundation of the soul's being, and the soul's perception of its own essence is, in fact, the perception of its unity with the essential divine nature. Eckhart seems, at times, to have identified the two grounds in an ontological and not merely mystical unity; and the others, in the fervour of devotional experience, as was perhaps natural, have not always kept the distinction perfectly clear. But their view is, on the whole, intelligible enough, and far removed from any affinity with pantheism. But the struggle with the sense-implications of language perpetually besets mystical writers, and never ceases to involve their meaning in obscurity. The ordinary processes of the mind can be expressed in words only by way of metaphor, and the meaning of the language of psychology is not always to be easily apprehended. Much more must the application of language to that which is beyond thought, and in some sense its negation, be difficult and liable to misunderstanding.

It will be clear enough, however, from what has been said that the terms "immanent" and "transcendent," as applied to the divine nature, are not mutually exclusive, but indicate merely two aspects of the same thing. The transcendence of God is immanent, and His immanence is transcendent. By immanence is to be understood the divine accessibility to the human soul, and by transcendence the essential independence of the divine nature of all created things and persons. The words, if used rightly, must be used in the Kantian or subjective sense of two ways in which God may be apprehended by us, not as indicating two modes of His existence. God may be known to exist, and His nature partially understood, by the Baconian "interrogation" of His handiwork; thus our knowledge of God through nature is an immanent knowledge. But the conception of God so arrived at is of a being who wholly transcends nature, and whose essential distinctness from all that is not eternally Himself is a fundamental attribute of His being. Thus our knowledge of God is transcendent as well as immanent, Since while we conceive Him as manifested by nature, we conceive Him also, and in the same act, as essentially distinct and separate from nature. This, however, is not the same thing as saying that God is in nature and also beyond it, but the exact contrary; God has neither two modes of being nor two modes of action; He is totum inter omnia, et totum extra -- His action, like His existence, is either wholly immanent or wholly transcendent, according to the point of view adopted. To contrast the two, in an ontological sense, is really to make a cross-division -- as if we were to contrast His omnipotence with His power to create a universe. It is not to be wondered at that a fancied distinction between God's immanental and transcendental actions should have led to strange results.

{1} Summa, I. viii. 3, and cf. St John of the Cross, Ascent, ii. 5, and Spiritual Canticle, xi. 2.

{2} See Dion., Myst. Theol., c. 1.

{3} E.g., Tauler (Sermon of St John Baptist): "There is no past or present here; and no created light can reach or shine into this divine ground; for here only is the dwelling-place of God and His sanctuary. This divine abyss can be fathomed by no creatures; it can be filled by none and it satisfies none; God only can fill it in His infinity. For this abyss belongs only to the divine abyss, of which it is written 'Abyssus abyssum invocat.'" And compare the German Theology, ch. 1.: "He is the substance of all things."

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