JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


But Scholasticism is only one phase of mediaeval thought. Many a learned mind, wearied with the disputes of the schools, sought refuge in Mysticism. This was especially the case in the fourteenth century, after St. Thomas had put the last hand to Scholastic philosophy. Had some of those reactionary minds been two centuries later, they would have retired into themselves and lived sceptics. But theirs was still an age of faith and religious fervor, and they were not disposed to question the foundations of all knowledge, and summarize everything said or written into a "What know I?" They rather sought in the affections of the heart directed to the supremely Good, and in the contemplation of the perfectly Beautiful, the infinitely True that their philosophy too dimly revealed.

Mysticism has had at all times attraction for the human mind. It has created the Yogi of India and the hermit of the Thebaid. Both seek "vision by means of a higher light, and action under higher freedom."{1} But outside of Christianity, Mysticism generally ends in pantheism, immorality, and inaction. Christianity, by presenting for contemplation the sacred Humanity of the Redeemer, places the only safe barrier to its abuse. The soul leaves reason and imagination behind, forgets itself, and all its faculties become entirely absorbed in the contemplation of the Divinity. In such a state it is only the greatest purity of life, a total detachment from things earthly, that can save it from illusion. Imagine an age with aspirations for a more intimate acquaintance with the infinite truth than books could impart. Such was the fourteenth century. The Mysticism of Italy at this period was Platonic, and therefore ideal. it was a learned mysticism. But in Germany, along the banks of the Rhine, it became the passion of the people. They flocked by thousands to hear Henry Suso and the celebrated Tauler. They received, remembered, and reported the words of these two great men with respect and veneration. They practised their counsels. Religious confraternities were formed, headed no longer by clergy, but by pious laymen. Tauler himself, in his mystical life, was the disciple of such a layman -- the one that organized the society of the Friends of God. From this society emanated that flower of mystical life -- the book of the Imitation of Christ -- the unadulterated product of the spirit of Christianity, written with that characteristic simplicity and dignity that belong only to the sacred Scriptures. Its fundamental doctrine is that God alone is worthy of the intelligence, life, and aspirations of man.{2} "O Truth, my God," exclaims the simple-hearted author, "make me one with Thee in everlasting love. I am wearied with often reading and hearing many things; in Thee is all that I will or desire. Let all teachers hold their peace; let all creatures be silent in Thy sight: speak Thou alone to me!"{3} Such is the spirit in which this book is written. Faith before reason, love before understanding, good life before fine words: these are the mottoes in which it everywhere abounds, and on which it not unfrequently is profound, mystical, and eloquent.{4}

{1} This is Görres' definition of Mysticism. {2} Bk. i., ch. i.

{3} Bk. i., ch. iii.

{4} The author has made a fuller analysis of The Imitation of Christ in his Culture of the Spiritual Sense. This analysis has been quoted at length by Dr. F. R. Cruise, in his admirable book, Thomas à Kempis. London, Kegan, Paul & Co., 1887, pp. 13-31. See Thought and Culture, chaps. iii, iv.

<< ======= >>