Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



IF Plotinus furnishes a solitary, or almost solitary instance of a system which, starting from false or inadequate principles, arrives at a method of mystical contemplation scarcely to be distinguished from genuine mysticism, the historical cases of an apparently converse process are too numerous to count. The names of those who, beginning as more or less orthodox Christians, have ended as extravagant visionaries, or as maintainers of principles opposed, not merely to Catholic orthodoxy, but even to all sane, human convictions, are freely scattered over the pages of history. True mysticism has undoubtedly been gravely prejudiced by the existence, frequently side by side with it, of extravagances which claimed an equal and apparently identical authority with that of true mysticism. There are, nevertheless, very real and clearly marked distinctions between the two, and there is really no reason whatever for the common condemnation in which sometimes both are hastily included.

The external or "pragmatic" test is easy of application to all such cases in two ways. First, it is obvious that, from the Catholic point of view at least, tenets which directly contradict the rule of faith cannot have a divine origin, or be in any sense true. Secondly, as has been already remarked, it is incredible that a fresh revelation should be given with the divine purpose of superseding that which was once for all delivered to the saints; or, even if it could be granted that such a fresh revelation were conceivable, that it should be given in a less public and tangible fashion, and be of less universal application, than that which it endeavours to supplant. Theosophy is not theology, either mystical or speculative, but the degenerate offspring of a false theory of mysticism; and its method is nothing but a corrupting influence, both in theology and in philosophy. Its philosophical tendency is apparent in the transcendentalism alike of Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, and of Schopenhauer and Hartmann,{1} who practically agree in taking crude emotional data as the basis of a rational explanation of things. The "categorical imperative," the "Indifferenzpunkt," "self-objectivisation" -- no less than the Will and the Unconscious, are instances of the a priori idealism from which such Neoplatonists as Plotinus and Proclus were entirely free. In theology there is scarcely any aberration of human credulity, or extravagance of human fantasy, that is not directly attributable to the same source. Montanus, Priscillian and the Fraticelli, Luther, Calvin and George Fox, Boehme, Swedenborg and Irving, unlike as they are to one another in many respects, agree in founding themselves on unreasoned, and generally irrational intuitions. Mysticism, in the Catholic view, cannot but be discredited whenever it enters into competition with the magisterium of the Church -- whenever it leaves its true sphere of the personal and experimental, and becomes dogmatic and didactic.

But one naturally looks further for some intrinsic distinction which may differentiate spurious from true mysticism; one wishes to judge of its character, not merely by the practical test of its fruits, but by the nature of its principles, considered in themselves and apart from all consequences or relations with particular philosophical or theological doctrines. Such a distinction is readily to be found in the essential features of true mysticism, which we have seen to be of such a nature as to be incapable of presentation in the form of abstract doctrine. The essence of mysticism is, as we have seen, the actual experimental vision or knowledge of God, and in itself is necessarily ineffable and indescribable; it may be either real, or imaginary and delusive, but it cannot be either true or false, in the sense in which a doctrine must be one or the other. It is, of course, quite conceivable that a doctrine or a matter of fact may be revealed in mystical vision; but the doctrine or fact is not, and cannot be, mystical, simply because it belongs not to the mystical or supernatural sphere, but to that of the sensible and intelligible world. A false doctrine or statement for which mystical authority is claimed may be either a real divine communication, misunderstood and misreported, or a deduction from a true mystical experience, or a mere delusion of the senses or the imagination. Any doctrine so put forward is open to criticism like any other statement, and cannot be accepted merely on the authority attributed to it by an individual who may possibly be the victim of his own imagination or misunderstanding. But it is evident that where the doctrine constitutes the whole of the experience, there is really no question at all of mysticism. The intelligence of the person to whom the doctrine is supposed to be made known may have led him to discover a truth, or the reverse; he may or may not have been under the guidance of divine grace in conceiving it; but there is no ground whatever for supposing such a person to have received a genuine mystical communication. Since, in such a case, the doctrine purports to be the bare description of the supposed mystical vision, it is by that very fact convicted of error; true mystical experience cannot be described or translated into terms of the non-mystical. Dionysius's paradoxical canon is here precisely in point -- "If any one, seeing God, knows what he sees, it is by no means God that he sees, but something created and knowable."

A deduction, on the other hand, from a mystical experience, or series of experiences, may quite conceivably be a mistaken one, even though the experiences themselves may be real. There can be no reason for supposing that the favour of mystical vision implies any subsequent immunity from intellectual error -- or, for that matter, from moral lapse. Neither Moses nor St Paul was, or supposed himself to be, so safeguarded by the mystical favours bestowed on him. St John of the Cross insists at great length on the possibility of misunderstanding divine communications, as well as on the danger of mistaking for them those which come from another source, and concludes, as do all mystical writers, that much importance should not be attached to such experiences.{2}

Doctrines, then, which claim mystical authority, must be judged to be true or false according to the support they receive from the conclusions of reason or the truths of revelation; their claim to be in themselves mystical experiences is refuted by the fact that they are doctrines, or theories about God, whereas mysticism is concerned not with doctrines or theories -- which belong to the domain, not of mystical, but of speculative theology -- but solely with God Himself. The experience, of whatever kind, upon which such doctrines are founded, may or may not be genuinely mystical, and must be judged of apart from the doctrine for which its authority is claimed, according to its alleged character, and the condition of the person by whom it is undergone. Thus visions experienced by persons in a state of alcoholism, nervous or brain disease, or artificially produced anaesthesia, are manifestly to be attributed to those agencies; visions or imaginations of the state of mankind or of particular individuals, or of the material universe, however vast, picturesque or symbolical they may be, are certainly not mystical, but are generally due to natural emotion, mental excitement, automatic suggestion, or some similar cause. Those only are to be considered even possibly mystical which include a direct consciousness of the divine presence, which are preceded by no emotion or excitement, which can be probably traced to no physical or mental cause, and which are not capable of being fully described in words.

We may illustrate the principles thus obtained by one or two of the best-known instances of spurious mysticism. We may take first the sect variously known as Christian Brethren, Beghards or Fraticelli, who flourished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and were condemned as heretics at the Council of Vienne. They were said to be constantly subject to visions and ecstasies, and were accused (no doubt with some exaggeration, but probably not without grave cause) of immoral practices of the grossest kind. They were influenced, more or less directly, by the speculative pantheism of Amalric of Bena, and professed to regard matter as a secondary and comparatively unimportant aspect of spirit; so that when the spiritual aspect of the universe was truly apprehended, material things and conduct in regard to them became altogether indifferent. Such spiritual apprehension was held to be a natural process, and open to all human beings at will. One of the charges brought against this sect by Pope Clement V. at Vienne was that they held the Beatific vision to be attainable by the natural powers of mankind, without any need for the intervention of the lumen gloriae. They thus denied what we have seen to be a fundamental postulate of true mysticism; they were not really mystics, but imaginative or "temperamental" theosophists. Their so-called mysticism was akin, on the one hand, to what some modern writers have called symbolism or "nature-mysticism," and on the other, to the humanism of the Renaissance, their practical view of life being pretty nearly identical with that of Lorenzo Valla's treatise on Pleasure. Visions and ecstasies allied with doctrines of this kind must obviously be taken as the consequence of such doctrines rather than as their cause, and can be considered only as a neuropathic form of sensuality, as far removed from true mysticism as anything could possibly be.

Of a very different character were the strange transcendental imaginations of the pious shoemaker, Jacob Boehme. His mind appears to have been constantly fixed on the idea of God; and by a purely natural process there arose in it, together with many sane and devout reflections, a kind of philosophical statement of the problems of existence, transferred in strange and bizarre phraseology to the divine nature. These ideas Boehme declared to be "opened" to him; they came, he could not say how, into his mind, and had upon him the effect of a communication from an external source. But there is no need, indeed there is no possibility of accepting his explanation of their origin. A meditative and abstractive mind, without authoritative guidance or restraint, will naturally and almost inevitably find in the abstract idea of the divine nature a repetition of the influences it sees at work in the surrounding world. Thus the Abyss, the Potential Trinity, the relation of Being to Not-being, the Will, the Imagination, the Maiden Idea and the moving Fire, and the like, are undoubtedly no more than the pseudo-philosophical forms under which Boehme conceived and contemplated the universe, and which rose by some process of auto-suggestion into his consciousness as he contemplated the idea of God, and thus appeared to him in some sense identical with it. Boehme has affinities -- as probably all naturally contemplative minds must have -- with Gnosticism and Neoplatonism on the one hand, and on the other, with modern idealism -- with Jacobi, Schelling and Hegel, and with Schopenhauer and Hartmann. But with true mysticism he has none whatever; he may be thought to claim a revelation as the authority for his system, but to mystical theology -- the experimental, ineffable knowledge of God -- he makes no pretension.

The theosophy of Swedenborg may be classed with Boehme's, inasmuch as both pretend to direct knowledge of transcendental realities. But whereas Boehme, with all his strange terminology, is philosophical and intellectual, Swedenborg does no more than embody, in crude, allegorical form, certain phases of Protestant theology. His visions do, indeed, profess to be statements of fact, and not allegorical or imaginary -- to be, in fact, a revelation. But even if this claim were admitted, if one could seriously accept, for example, the story of the angels' protracted attempts to convert Luther from his doctrine of justification, and their daily fluctuations of ill-success, we should still have nothing like a true mystical experience. The spiritual, ineffable divine presence has no place in Swedenborg's gallery, and indeed would be sadly incongruous there. Swedenborg's symbolical interpretation of Scripture, elaborate and dogmatic in tone as it is, has really nothing to do with mystical theology properly so called.

Quietism has appeared to many writers to be a genuine example of mysticism: the doctrines of Molinos and Madame Guyon have been identified with those of St Teresa, and the condemnation of the former has been attributed to the recalcitrance of their authors against ecclesiastical authority, as contrasted with the docility of St Teresa and St John of the Cross. But the doctrine of "disinterested love," as interpreted by the Quietists, is quite a different thing from the mystical passivity of St Teresa, to which it has been likened. With her, as with other mystics, passivity consists in a concentration of the faculties upon God, not, indeed, always in successive "acts," but at least in one continuous act; whereas the Quietist would have the soul renounce its very personality and conscious existence, and that not merely during the condition of ecstatic contemplation, but as a permanent state. Madame Guyon is never tired of declaring that her soul "has no inclination or tendency for anything whatsoever"; she is "in such an abandonment" that she is obliged to reflect in order to know "if she has a being and subsistence." "I have to make an effort to think if I am and what I am; if there are in God creatures and anything subsisting."

Whatever may be thought of the opinions or conduct of the opponents of Quietism, of Segneri, D'Estrées, Bossuet, La Chaise and De la Combe, it cannot be doubted that its distinctive doctrine, no less than the condemned propositions extracted from the Guida Spirituale, is contradictory, not only of divine revelation, but of the elementary facts of human nature. But it is in no sense mystical: it is a theory founded professedly on mystical experience, but it is not and cannot be the experience itself. Madame Guyon herself says of a mystical state which she declares herself to have experienced that it was "too simple, pure and naked for me to be able to speak of it. The most elevated dispositions are those of which one can say nothing." One is tempted to exclaim, O si sic omnia! But the difference between mystical contemplation, and theories more or less directly founded upon it, could scarcely be better illustrated than by Madame Guyon's account of herself.

The question remains, are these professedly mystical experiences genuinely supernatural or not? On the whole, one is inclined to think that they may be. They seem to have had no emotional state immediately preceding them; they are apparently indescribable and unsought; they produce subjective conviction of a direct divine influence; and they do not appear to have any real tendency to suggest the false or questionable doctrines founded on them. We may therefore perhaps safely admit that Quietistic mystical experiences may well have been genuine and supernatural ones; and in that case, that the doctrines founded upon them were due to mistaken inferences from them. There is, at any rate, no reason for regarding the Quietist doctrine as necessarily connected with mysticism, or as necessarily discrediting the mystical experiences -- if such they were -- which gave rise to them.

A precisely similar distinction must of course be made between the approved teaching of orthodox mystics, and the incommunicable experiences on which it was founded. The reforming zeal of St Teresa and St John of the Cross had to win its way on its own merits against powerful opposition; it was very far from being considered as guaranteed by the spiritual and personal favours which gave birth to it. The frequent and extraordinary visions of Margaret Mary Alacoque, again, and the widespread popular devotion resulting from them, gained acceptance only by degrees, and after much opposition. The essentially mystical side of her life, which has been somewhat obscured in general estimation by the prominence very naturally given to her visions and revelations, is easily distinguishable amid the more striking but less evidently supernatural occurrences in which it abounds, and follows the lines uniformly characteristic of genuine mysticism.{3}

Thus the alleged difficulty of distinguishing false from true mysticism is reduced to that of discerning whether any alleged mystical state or experience is truly reported by its subject or not; and this difficulty is again greatly reduced by observing the regularity with which certain features appear in all mystical experience that may be considered genuine. The element of uncertainty still remaining arises from our frequently inadequate knowledge of the circumstances of any alleged experience -- such as that of Madame Guyon above mentioned -- together with the a priori discredit necessarily thrown by heretical or immoral inferences upon the source to which they are ascribed. Where the alleged mystical state fulfils the conditions which admit of its being attributed to a supernatural cause, and the inferences based on it are in accord with the principles of religion and morality, there is practically no room for doubt.

{1} Cf. Hartmann, "Philosophy of the Unconscious" (The Unc. in the Human Mind, ch. ix.).

{2} Ascent, II. xviii. and xix.

{3} "Tous les matins, lorsque je m'éveille, il me semble trouver mon Dieu présent, auquel mon coeur s'unit comme à son principe et à sa seule plénitude; ce qui me donne une soif si ardente d'aller à l'oraison, que les moments que je mets à m'habiller me durent des heures. J'y vais le plus souvent sans autre préparation que celle que mon Dieu fait en moi. . . . Il me semble quelquefois que mon esprit s'éloigne de moi, pour s'aller unir et perdre dans l'immense grandeur de son Dieu. . . . Mon entendement demeure dans un aveuglement si grand, qu'il n'a aucune lumière ni connaissance que celle que le divin Soleil de justice lui communique de temps en temps. C'est en ce temps que j'emploie toutes mes forces pour l'embrasser, non pas des bras du corps, mais des intérieurs, qui sont les puissances de mon âme. . . . J'éprouve encore des attraits si puissants, qu'il me semble que ma poitrine est toute traversée de rasoirs, ce qui m'ôte souvent le pouvoir de soupirer, n'ayant de mouvement que pour respirer avec bien de la peine. La partie inférieure ne voit ni ne connait ce qui se passe en la partie supérieure de mon âme, qui s'oublie elle-même et n'a d'autre désir que de s'unir et se perdre dans son Dieu. . . . Voilà les plus ordinaires occupations de mon oraison, non pas que je fais, mais que mon Dieu fait en moi, sa chétive créature." -- Vie par Ses Contemporaines -- Vie el OEuvres, t. i.

<< ======= >>