Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



PHILOSOPHY is the explanation of facts; and since mysticism is undoubtedly a fact, it necessarily has a certain relation to philosophy, and falls within its legitimate scope. But mysticism, unlike other facts of which philosophy has to take account, is not a normal function of the human faculties, and is not open to direct investigation. It can only be dealt with through the reports of mystical contemplatives, and no analysis of mystical states is attainable except such as is furnished by the mystics themselves, ill-equipped as they most frequently are for such a purpose. Mysticism is indeed the exact parallel of sensation, in its immediate and intuitive character. But whereas sensation is common to mankind, and the investigator is therefore able to consider it directly, as represented in his own consciousness, as well as indirectly, through the reports of other people, as to mysticism he is mostly restricted to the latter method, and to a number of examples which, as compared with examples of sensation, is exceedingly small. Thus though the nature of mystical experience seems naturally to be as legitimate a subject of enquiry as that of sensation, the limitations under which the enquiry has to be pursued are so great as practically to destroy the parallelism altogether. And seeing how little it has so far been possible to discover in regard to the nature and cause of sensation, in spite of the comparatively numerous existing facilities for the purpose, it is not surprising that philosophy should have little or nothing to say about mysticism, which offers so much narrower a field for investigation.

Those writers, therefore, who have considered mysticism of the true or supernatural kind from the point of view of philosophy, have probably acted wisely in declining to consider the transcendental aspects of the matter, and confining themselves to conjectural expositions of the psychological processes involved in mystical states. Mystical theology has, however, one point of contact with philosophy, in its bearing on natural theology, offering as it does an experimental verification of the rational proof of the existence of God, and of the "substantial" human soul. Such experimental evidence has been thought by some to be furnished by the doubtful phenomena of spiritualism; but it may fairly be contended that the very much less questionable evidence of mysticism is considerably more worthy of acceptance.

It must be added, however, that even if mysticism were more open to investigation than it is, it would still in its essence be beyond the purview of philosophy, as belonging exclusively to a region of which philosophy itself must stop short. The "science of causes" cannot deal inductively with the First Cause -- the causa causarum, but must be content in all cases with noting its effects; and in regard to that particular effect on the human soul which constitutes mysticism, philosophy can do little more than barely recognise its occurrence.{1} That species of philosophy which refuses to accept the existence of a transcendental First Cause cannot, as we have already seen, treat mysticism on its transcendental side as anything but a delusion -- relying, as it must, in the absence of direct evidence, merely on a negative presupposition.

With religion, however, mysticism stands on common ground, being itself a form of religious experience. Its object is indeed the object of all religion, properly so called, since it is nothing less than the actual vision of God, which is the final consummation of all that is sought by religious practices of any kind. But whereas mysticism attains in this world to some degree of immediate and experimental knowledge of God, religion in general remits this final reward to a future state of existence. Here God is known indirectly, or theoretically, through His works; His direct influence is perceived in the action of divine grace, and His supernatural presence is recognised by faith in the transubstantiated elements of the Eucharist. But the direct intuition of the divine being itself is not among the advantages guaranteed by the Church to its members. We have thus to consider the frequently propounded question of the relation between mysticism and what is called "institutional" religion -- that is, a religion the doctrines of which are defined, and of which the practices are rigorously enjoined by a supreme and unquestionable authority. The two are often regarded as being, to a very great extent, mutually incompatible; the tendency of mysticism is, it is thought, to depreciate the external obligations, and to disregard the doctrines imposed by organised religious authority.

Something has already been said on this point. The alleged opposition between mysticism and scholasticism (which deals mainly with the doctrine and discipline imposed by external authority) has been seen to be purely imaginary. The same may undoubtedly be said of the alleged antagonism between the practical system of the Church, which follows certain prescribed methods in regard both to the obligatory elements of Christian life and those left free to individual devotion, and the inner life of contemplation, for which no rules are laid down beyond such as may be drawn from the recorded practices of pious persons.

The fact is that human nature has a twofold aspect, and consequently a twofold set of needs. On the one hand, man is a "social animal," and cannot even exist, much less lead a truly human life, in isolation; some kind of social organisation is an absolute necessity for him, in regard alike to his material, intellectual and moral requirements. On the other hand, the life of every man is individual and personal; he is self-conscious and reflective, as well as active and responsive: the social activities necessary to human life do not exhaust the "abysmal depths of personality," which nevertheless can only exist in a social environment. The ideally perfect condition is one in which full play is allowed to both sides of human nature -- in which social needs are fully provided for, and individual thought, feeling and enterprise are hampered by no restrictions but such as are needed for their due protection. Probably no State has ever existed, or can ever exist, in which this perfect balance is maintained; in the Church, however, the restrictions imposed, deeply as they affect the external activities of the individual, are merely the necessary safeguards of spiritual liberty.

Thus in the Church, as to a great extent in the State, compliance with the obligations imposed by external authority is no more than the necessary condition of the exercise of personal liberty. Freedom for the citizen implies a condition of things in which his life and property are duly protected, not one in which he is left entirely to shift for himself; and in like manner, religious or spiritual freedom is only possible under circumstances in which the fundamental needs of spiritual life are supplied, and its energies rightly directed. A man may not, in a rightly ordered State, preach sedition or commit suicide; that is, he is not allowed to violate the conditions under which alone he and his neighbours can freely exercise their natural powers. In like manner, the Church forbids her members to neglect the means of grace, or to teach heresy. But freedom to enjoy life, natural or supernatural, is not interfered with, but safeguarded in each case.

It is, indeed, undeniable that one aspect of human nature is from time to time unduly emphasised at the other's expense. The "Friends of God" and the disciples of Molinos, like the many forms of Protestantism, undoubtedly were led by their principles to make light of Christian institutions and of Church authority. On the other hand, a too exclusive attention to the external and legislative aspects of religion frequently produces such an intellectual aridity as may be observed in the later and degenerate scholastics, or such a materialistic formalism as gave rise to the religious notions upheld by Febronius and put in practice by the Emperor Joseph; or to the extravagant ideas of the spiritual authority of the State which were entertained by Hobbes. But it should be observed that this depreciation of external obligations has never resulted simply from mysticism, rightly understood, but only from speculative principles alleged to be deduced from mysticism, and wrongly identified with it. True mysticism cannot come into collision with Church ordinances of any kind, simply because it belongs to a totally different sphere; it can no more be the subject of Church legislation than the height, weight or ear for music of the population can be the subject of State decrees.

It is, unfortunately, within the power of human beings -- a power too frequently exercised -- to separate things that are naturally and properly united. Faith and charity, public spirit and domestic affection, respect for authority and individual enterprise, are all complementary virtues. But in point of fact faith exists without charity, public men are not invariably models of domestic virtue, nor are the most enterprising spirits always the most law-abiding. But it would be absurd to maintain that there is any natural opposition between the two factors of any of these pairs of excellences; and it is really not less absurd to imagine any natural antagonism between mysticism and spiritual authority, or that they can be mutually opposed otherwise than by the practical inadequacy due to the infirmities of human nature.

It has been abundantly shown that mysticism is in a true sense different in kind, and not merely in degree, from prayer and contemplation of the natural order. But it does not by any means follow that the two are to be regarded as radically distinct, or as mutually independent. On the contrary, there is a connection between them which may perhaps be characterised as that of continuity, as distinct from identity. The soul, it will be remembered, has, ordinarily speaking, to go through a preparation before the life of mystical contemplation can be entered upon; and this preparation is nothing more than exercise in the lower, or more commonplace methods of devotion and piety. All religion is an approach to God, and mysticism represents, not a short cut, but an advanced stage of the journey -- the more advanced the stage, the more frequent or constant is the mystical condition. The traveller sets out on his journey with no sight of his distant goal before him; he knows only that he is on the right road, and he recognises features in the landscape which others who have made the journey before him have noted, and which assure him of his progress in the right direction. But it is not till he nears his journey's end that he catches sight, indistinctly at first and intermittently, of the city he is bound for. The distant towers and spires grow clearer and clearer as he approaches them; they are seen no longer in glimpses, vanishing and reappearing at the turns of the road; till at last the whole mass of buildings comes into full sight, even while some distance remains to be travelled before the pilgrim can pass through the gates and take his well-earned rest. It is one thing to see the finger-post and to observe the landmarks by the way side, and quite another to see the city standing graceful and sunlit, like a welcoming host, at the road's end. Yet both are incidents of the same journey, and the end cannot be reached without the beginning.

The relation between the two states may be very clearly seen in the Imitation of Christ -- a book which probably owes much of its vast popularity to its constant recurrence to the elementary duties of religion and morality, and its insistence on the necessity of their performance as the prerequisite of the more exalted spiritual states. The "purgative," "illuminative" and "unitive" ways are seen, so to speak, together, and are dealt with as aspects or constituents of the Christian life as a whole, to the completeness of which all three are necessary, and, in different way, of equal importance. The purely mystical passages are comparatively few and short; and the abundance of practical directions the book contains has sometimes caused its mystical character to be entirely overlooked This disproportion, however, is quite sufficiently to be accounted for by the character of the work, which is that of a directory of spiritual life in general, and not a scientific treatise on any particular department of it. In such a book attempts at describing the indescribable phenomena of mysticism would obviously have been out of place, whereas the practical details of the lower and preliminary states admit of and require minute explanation. But the tone of the whole book is mystical, and the most commonplace duties and the most humiliating strivings with temptation are in a manner illuminated and glorified by the brilliancy of the result to which they tend. Thus, in point of fact, the higher and the lower elements, the mystical and the non-mystical, the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive, are blended in actual human experience. The proportion may indeed vary almost indefinitely; with some, the mystical consciousness would seem to be almost habitual, and with others a rare and exceptional privilege. But in greater or less degree, all the elements of Christian life are present in its highest most perfect form.

From this we are led to the consideration of a question of very great interest, in regard to which a speculative opinion may be considered allowable for which no direct evidence can be adduced. Since the higher walks of spirituality are thus inevitably interpenetrated by the lower, and since no height of mystical contemplation will wholly emancipate the contemplative from the humble necessities of penance and of temptation, is it not possible to suppose that the lower life need not wholly exclude the higher, but however dry and commonplace and, generally speaking, unspiritual it may be, may nevertheless be enriched by some occasional and transient participation in the privilege of the more perfect state? It is admitted by all spiritual writers that the mystical life does not exclude the vicissitudes of the ordinary or non-mystical states.{2} Little or nothing is said by them, however, as to the possibility of some measure of the higher life entering into the lower -- of some passing foretaste of "infused" contemplation being granted to those whose lives are, as a whole, by no means of the contemplative order. Yet it seems natural to suppose that such may be the case. If there is no incongruity in the recurrence in the unitive life of the distinctive features of the purgative, there can hardly be any in the occasional occurrence of the converse process; and it seems not unreasonable to suppose that such a largesse of spiritual favours, of which the best are unworthy, may be occasionally granted even to the most undeserving. It can hardly be denied that an aspect which it is difficult to distinguish from that of genuine mysticism seems at times to belong to some of the inward experiences of ordinary persons who have no thought or knowledge of the contemplative life. Such states of consciousness are, indeed, too transitory and elusive to be judged of with any degree of certainty; and it may be that they are really no more than the product of purely natural feeling. Proof is either way out of the question. But it is at least allowable opinion that the "mystical in religion" may extend beyond the limits within which alone evidence of any direct kind is attainable; and such an opinion must unquestionably be nearer the truth than that which would equalise all religious experience by denying to mysticism its genuinely supernatural character.

{1} Such attempts as that of M. Récéjac to formulate a purely metaphysical theory of mysticism necessarily part company with the Christian, and even with the Theistic principles on which true mysticism is based. From their point of view, the "universal mysticism" consists of "tous les moyens de transcendance qui tendent à égaler l'exp&ience aux désirs de la liberté"; hence it is required "que la charactère symbolique de nos rapports avec l'Absolu serait franchement reconnu, c'est-à-dire qu'on renonce à l'intuition directe d'une essence divine, universelle et infinie." (Récéjac, Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique, pp. 4, 5; 184.) A tendency in the same direction appears in Professor Inge's Personal Idealism and Mysticism, where mysticism is described as "a type of religion which puts the inner light above human authority, and finds its sacraments everywhere."

{2} E.g., Suarez, De Orat., 1. 2. 11; and cf. Devine, Manual of Mystical Theology, ch. 1., and Macarius, Christian Perfectiom, V. 13, 14.

<< ======= >>