§ 1. The claims of mysticism
Direct awareness of God, and even consciousness of union with Him, is the special claim of mysticism. There are many to-day who, whether or not they follow one of the historic religions, look to the testimony of the mystics as the best assurance and ground of religious faith. To others of a more rationalistic type of mind the mystic experience is one source of the emotionalism and mystification by which religion is bedevilled.
The mystic union appears to be an outcome or development of ordinary religious experience, and it is not confined to one special form of religion. Although it is coloured, as might be expected, by the theological beliefs of the individual mystic, there is a widely accepted claim that it takes similar forms, and passes through similar stages, in votaries of very different religions. It is this which is said to give it special importance, particularly in the eyes of those who seek for a common element in religion as such. Whether it be regarded as the highest attainment of the religious spirit or as a mere aberration, there can be no doubt as to its reality and its compelling power. Although it is reserved for men and women with special susceptibilities, and although these may have to prepare themselves for it by certain ways of life—whether by prayer or asceticism or moral action or thought or communion with nature—the experience itself seizes upon the mystic: it is not anything which he can do or acquire or control by his own volition.
The difficulty of discussing this way of religious life is that we have to deal with something wholly outside the experience of most of us. Hence we can have no hope of confirming it for ourselves, or even of understanding it when it is described. The mystics are apt to say that it is ineffable, although they are themselves not always noticeably silent. We have to take it on trust, but we may find grounds for doing so in the character and intelligence of those who have had such experiences and are prepared to speak of them by way of analogies and images. Because these experiences cannot be tested by others, there is opened up a wide field of opportunity both for charlatans and for the mentally diseased. But this fact, though it may present difficulties and disturb confidence, is no reason for denying either the reality of the experience or its importance for the understanding of religion.
Even from an external point of view the subject can be treated adequately, if at all, only by those who have made a prolonged study of the relevant literature. In the absence of expert knowledge the best course, especially for a brief discussion, is to follow a reliable guide, checking him so far as one can by other authorities and by one's own reading of the mystics themselves. The guide I have chosen for this purpose is Father Poulain, a clear-headed, good-hearted, simple-minded Jesuit, who has written a widely read treatise called ‘Des grâces d'oraison’: it is translated into English under the title ‘The Graces of Interior Prayer’. His treatment of the subject is dry, scholastic, and matter of fact; and this is all to the good in dealing with a topic which lends itself to cloudiness and emotion. The combination of literalness and logic may give us confidence that we are getting at least the external facts, which are all we can hope to understand.
In so vast an enquiry it may be a positive advantage that he is concerned almost exclusively with Catholic mystics. He is specially interested in St. Teresa, whose charming, but at times inconsequential, writings he reduces to a system. An authority whom he follows almost as closely is St. John of the Cross, a more philosophic writer than St. Teresa, although one not so conspicuous for natural healthiness of mind. But Father Poulain casts his net very wide, and he gives us an anthology of Catholic mystical writings arranged under appropriate headings, as well as his own conscientious analyses and precise definitions. If at times his credulity induces him to offer us a certain amount of dross along with the pure gold, even this may serve to remind us of the need for caution.
It is not my ambition to explain within the limits of an hour what mysticism is, although Father Poulain assures us that this can be done. As in the case of religious experiences generally, the topic is here being approached from a special point of view—from a desire to find, if we can, some indications of the way in which the mystic experience claims to give men knowledge of God. This epistemological interest is not that of Father Poulain, who treats the subject, not as a philosopher, but as a director of souls. This in no way diminishes the value of his evidence, for we are trying to find out what the experience claims to be in itself. I will follow him at first without criticism.
§ 2. Ordinary prayer
If we are to get any conception of the mystic union, we must contrast it with ordinary religious experience. Ordinary prayer, we are told, has four stages or degrees of progress: (1) vocal prayer; (2) meditation or discursive prayer; (3) affective prayer; and (4) the prayer of simple regard or of simplicity. The first two stages are in no need of explanation. The last two—and especially the last—are more difficult, and more relevant to our present enquiry.
Affective prayer differs from the prayer of meditation in two ways. In the first place, the thinking involved becomes simpler: it contains less reasoning and more intuition, and it tends to be dominated, though not exclusively, by one main idea. In the second place, emotions, and also practical resolutions, begin to play a larger part.
This double process, as it is carried further, passes into the prayer of simple regard, the prayer of simplicity. Here intuition in great measure replaces reasoning, while the emotions and resolutions show little variety and are expressed in few words. There is a thought or sentiment which ‘returns incessantly and easily (although with little or no development) amongst many other thoughts, whether useful or no’. The persistent recurrence of one idea and the vivid impression it produces constitute, when prolonged, the prayer of simplicity. Broadly speaking, this is a ‘prayer of loving attention to God’, not one of meditation upon God. Although other subjects are not excluded, they are of secondary importance.
In all this there is a gradual transition, a gradual simplification, and a gradual diminution of reasoning: but we are still in the realm of ordinary prayer, which can be cultivated by human efforts although not without divine grace. The prayer of simplicity may even pass gradually—perhaps by way of what St. John of the Cross calls ‘the first dark night of the soul’—into the prayer of quiet, which is the lowest stage of the mystic experience. Nevertheless the two prayers are not to be confused, for the prayer of quiet is different, not merely in intensity, but in kind. At all levels of ordinary prayer—and here Poulain seems to differ fundamentally from Otto—we have only abstract knowledge of God, a thought of His presence and a feeling of love towards Him. The mystic experience is always more than this and is reserved for the very few.
§ 3. The mystic way
In the mystic experience or the mystic union there are also four stages or degrees: (1) incomplete union, or the prayer of quiet; (2) full union or semi-ecstatic union; (3) ecstatic union or ecstasy; (4) transforming union or the spiritual marriage. The first three grades have a certain unity or continuity: they differ primarily in strength or intensity so that the first may be compared to a spark, the second to a flame, the third to a conflagration. The transforming union or spiritual marriage, on the other hand, completes the three previous grades, not by strengthening them, but by modifying them. It must be put in a class by itself.
The first three grades, in spite of their continuity, differ in more than strength or intensity. At each stage a new fact emerges, and by means of this the different grades can be distinguished.
In the prayer of quiet the soul is still subject to the distractions of imagination. In the semi-ecstatic union the soul suffers from no distractions, but it is still in possession of the bodily senses and able to control bodily movements. In ecstasy the communications of the senses are entirely, or almost entirely, interrupted, and voluntary movements are impossible. The mind is in a state of trance.
So far we have only a negative description of the different grades. We must try to be more positive.
The first and essential characteristic which distinguishes the mystic union from all ordinary prayer is this. The mystic does not merely think of God's presence with love: he feels or experiences union with God and has what is called ‘an experimental, intellectual knowledge’ of His presence. Such knowledge or feeling is said to be produced by God's own action, not by anything that men can do. In the prayer of quiet this knowledge may be obscure, but it increases in distinctness as the union becomes of a higher order. Although from its description the prayer of quiet may seem very like the ordinary prayer of simplicity, the difference in actual experience is said to be unmistakable, and the prayer of quiet is at first received by beginners with surprise and even with distrust.
The phrase ‘experimental, intellectual knowledge’ is not familiar to us in English. I take it to mean knowledge derived from sensation (not from reasoning), but from sensation that is spiritual and entirely distinct from bodily sensation. This special spiritual sensation is the second essential characteristic of the mystic union, and it bears a resemblance to Otto's faculty of divination. By it the mystic is said to know a present object as existing and as operating in order to make itself known.
Spiritual sensation, we are told, in spite of its uniqueness, shows certain analogies with the bodily sensations through which we become aware of material objects. Curiously enough, although there is a spiritual sight without images and a spiritual hearing without words, these are not the senses of which the mystics most commonly speak. As regards sight in particular, we cannot say, save in exceptional cases, that God is ‘seen’ in states inferior to ecstasy. The spiritual senses to which the mystics usually refer are those of taste, smell, and—above all—touch. At all stages of the mystic union the presence of God is felt as of something within, something which penetrates the soul. The sensation is one of absorption, fusion, immersion, and to this Father Poulain gives the name ‘interior touch’.
This may seem surprising and over-literal, even although it means only ‘that everything happens as if there were touch’. It is, I suppose, a way of saying that God is felt almost as we feel the presence of our own bodies—a view confirmed even by ordinary religious experience and expressed in Tennyson's line: ‘Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands or feet’. In a sceptical and scientific age, on the other hand, it may raise difficult psychological questions, especially when, as so often, it is elaborated in the language of love; but into these questions I do not propose to enter. I must also pass over the subsidiary characteristics ascribed to the mystic union. Most of these reinforce the doctrine that the mystic state is one which we do not control and do not fully comprehend. Perhaps the most extraordinary characteristic is the presence, at all stages—although in varying degree—of what is called technically the ‘ligature’ of the faculties. This is some sort of impediment to the voluntary production of interior acts—even such acts as the repetition of a customary prayer. In ecstasy it amounts to complete suspension of the faculties.
§ 4. Ecstasy and the spiritual marriage
Alienation of the sensuous faculties—an incapacity to see, hear, feel, or move—is the external and corporeal characteristic of ecstasy. A positive and internal characteristic is a very intense attention to some religious subject. We are here concerned with this only so far as it professes to give knowledge of God.
Ecstasy may occur gently and gradually. When it is sudden and violent, it is called ‘rapture’; and it is at the stage of rapture that we get, not a mere feeling that God is in us and we in Him, but an intellectual vision of Him—that is, a vision which excludes images.
This vision is said to be sometimes a vision of the Blessed Trinity; and Father Poulain is of opinion that even without the Church's teaching we should come to know, by way of experience, how many Persons there are in God, and how they proceed One from the Other. Other writers have held that the vision is generally of an impersonal God, even in the case of Christian mystics. We can say at least—with the agreement of Father Poulain—that St. John of the Cross, unlike St. Teresa, describes the vision even of the spiritual marriage as the contemplation of the divine attributes, not as the contemplation of the Trinity.
Although at the level of rapture the mystic has an intellectual vision, not merely a spiritual touch or feeling, of God, the vision is still experimental—that is, it does not depend on reasoning or inference. Furthermore, it is never without a certain obscurity. It is as if we were blinded partly by the divine light and partly by some of the attributes that are manifested. Certain attributes, such as beauty, justice, mercy, and intelligence, can be reflected in creatures, and we are able to receive their radiance. But there are also incommunicable attributes which can be possessed by no creature—such as infinity, eternity, creative power, universal knowledge. These, though they are manifested in the vision, are to us incomprehensible, and they produce the terrifying obscurity known as ‘the great darkness’. This great darkness is sometimes pierced by the blaze of a rapid flash of light which is readily interpreted as the light of glory, because it seems to show God as He is. But Father Poulain shares the opinion of the majority of theologians that even the mystic vision is not a sight of God as He is in Himself. It consequently differs in kind from the beatific vision, which is reserved for the saints in Heaven.
Less need be said about the transforming union or spiritual marriage. There seems to be some doubt whether this highest form of union introduces a claim to any different kind of knowledge. The intellectual vision of God is said to become permanent, though it may vary in clearness. There is, however, also a ‘transformation’ of the higher faculties such that the mystic is conscious of divine co-operation in their use. ‘God is no longer merely the object of the supernatural operations of the mind and will, as in the preceding degrees.’ He shows Himself as being ‘the joint cause of these operations’. Our own acts appear to us as in a way divine.
Another remarkable characteristic of this transforming union is not only that it is almost permanent, but that it persists even amid ordinary occupations and yet does not interfere with them. The spiritual marriage appears to be a time of peace after storm. It contains fewer ecstasies, but its inner calm is unbroken by the trials and tribulations inseparable from human life. Much of the language used of it by St. Teresa herself reads rather like the language of ordinary religious experience—except that this experience seems to have become more stable and more secure. So far as I can judge, the view that there is a mystical transformation of the higher faculties comes mainly from St. John of the Cross; but something like it may be found in St. Paul, when he says, for example, ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…’ This claim has been echoed, not always with sufficient qualification, by many religious men.
§ 5. The element of suffering
There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that the mystic way is merely a path of consolations and spiritual delights. It is, on the contrary, full of trials, and the intensity of spiritual delight is accompanied by a similar intensity of spiritual pain.
I will not attempt to follow Father Poulain in his long chapter on the trials that beset the contemplative life. He enters into almost too many details, some of which are not wholly convincing, as, for example, his circumstantial account of the way in which many saints have been mercilessly beaten or bitten by devils. There is, however, conclusive evidence that mystics have often to suffer long periods of aridity—that is, of desolation in prayer—during which they experience tedium and even disgust. If some of this arises from a mistaken attempt to wind human nature too high, a recurrent aridity may none the less be inescapable in the religious life and even in ordinary intellectual life as such. What is more important is that ecstasy itself may be followed, and even accompanied, by spiritual pain. As we have already learned from Otto, the vision of God's holiness and our own unworthiness may produce a feeling of dread and even horror; but there appears to be in, or after, the experience of ecstasy an element of suffering which is not to be so rationally explained. This suffering may be made light of, or even welcomed, in relation to the experience as a whole. In itself it may be extreme.
§ 6. The element of negation
Although pain is opposed to pleasure it is at least more than a mere negation. What are we to make of the negative element in the mystic's experience?
It may have been observed that progress in ordinary prayer was already described as a process of simplification—a process of becoming dominated by one idea so that variety in thought and even in emotion was gradually diminished. This process is continued further in the mystic union. At first there may still be distractions and a considerable measure of self-control. With further advance the distractions disappear, and finally in ecstasy or rapture the senses cease to function and voluntary movement becomes impossible. Is this further process of simplification an emptying of the mind, or is it one of greater concentration and clearer awareness? Is it knowledge of a reality unknown in ordinary experience?
This is the crucial question, and we may be tempted to think-especially when we remember the negative way as practised and explained by Eastern mystics—that the end of the progress is an apprehension of nothing, or of an undifferentiated continuum which is barely distinguishable from nothing. Some of the language used even by Christian mystics lends support to this supposition. Insistence on the complete emptying of the mind if God is to make His presence known seems to be carried further into nihilism. Thus we are told by Meister Eckhart that ‘all creatures are one pure nothing’. We are even told by Scotus Erigena that ‘God in virtue of his excellence is not inappropriately spoken of as nothing’.
There could be no other end to a process that was solely one of emptying. But there is still the possibility that what has to be thought by means of negations is felt as something positive. The use of negative language may be necessary to describe indirectly attributes which cannot fall within ordinary experience. This view is held both by Otto and by Poulain, although the latter, unlike the former, refuses to extend it to the practice of what he calls ‘certain Hindu Buddhists’: he considers their ecstasies to be counterfeit and asserts that they are ‘immersed in the great All, that is to say in the great nothing’.
Without personal experience it is hard to see how one could decide these questions between rival mysticisms; but we may incline to think that the more charitable view which recognizes common elements in the different varieties is also likely to be the more correct. The one thing which appears certain is that in the most intense mystic experience there is no conscious reasoning or inference. This need not mean that there is no element of judgement or of what Father Poulain calls ‘understanding’. We may take it to be at least the orthodox theory of Catholic mysticism that even in ecstasy the understanding is enlarged as well as overwhelmed.
§ 7. The difficulties of criticism
It may seem a mere impertinence if we pass from an external and summary description of the mystic union to the question of its validity. Only those who have had the experience are entitled to judge, and they will need no help from a detached philosophy. For them the experience itself is the guarantee of truth, and their conviction of its validity is absolute.
On this point the evidence is conclusive, but philosophical criticism is required, not in order to strengthen the conviction of the mystic—this would indeed be an impertinence—but in order to assess the claim that mystical experience is to be accepted as a ground for religious belief by those who have had no such experience themselves.
Even in this more modest endeavour it must be recognized that we are moving in the dark, and it is only right to display caution as well as humility. The account I have chosen to follow makes an absolute separation between ordinary religious experience and the experience of the mystics, and it postulates a special religious faculty which is wholly denied to others. If this were entirely true, the evidence of the mystics would be so unintelligible to us as to be useless. We must be able to suppose that at least the beginnings of what the mystic enjoys in its fulness are present dimly and gropingly in the experience of his less favoured brethren. We must also be able to suppose that his special awareness has some relation to ordinary cognition and is not dependent on a new faculty or a sixth sense. We must even be able to suppose that if God reveals himself to mystics in a special way, there must at least be analogous ways in which He reveals Himself, even if more obscurely, to others. These suppositions may be mistaken; but if they are, I do not see how the topic can profitably be discussed at all.
To many at the present time discussion will in any case seem unprofitable and even childish: the topic on their view should be reserved for abnormal psychology. Such a contention is encouraged by talk of special faculties and also by the fringes and accompaniments of mystical experience, some of which are accepted all too readily by such a writer as Father Poulain in spite of his honesty and natural common sense. We must agree that the subject is a proper one for investigation by psychology, although it would be more polite—and perhaps more scientific—not to specify the character of its particular branch before the investigations are completed. But if religion is partly concerned with questions of value, we need not accept without criticism everything that we may be told by psychologists, just as we need not accept it as an enlightening account of art when we are informed, on dubious evidence, that some supreme artists were certifiable. If we are allowed to judge by our native intelligence, many of the great mystics seem to have been conspicuously sane.
Besides the special difficulties inevitable in attempting to criticize the claims of the mystics—and indeed of any religious man—to possess assured knowledge of God, there are also more general difficulties which have to be met whenever the validity of knowledge, even of mundane knowledge, becomes subject to question.
Consider, for example, our supposed knowledge of physical bodies. This must be based on what is given to sense; but it may be hard to say what is given to sense, if by ‘given’ we mean ‘given without any mental activity on our part’. Even if this difficulty be ignored, how can we pass from the given to something that is not given? Are bodies posited entities or postulated entities or inferred entities? Are they entities at all or mere ‘logical constructions’? Similar questions may be raised about the atoms and electrons of the scientists. Philosophers differ widely in their answers.
Again, how can we know that we have minds and that other people have minds like our own? It used to be supposed that we know our own states of mind by introspection, but this possibility is sometimes denied to us to-day. Even if such introspection be admitted, how can we pass from given states of mind to knowledge of the mind which ‘has’ them? Some philosophers maintain that we have no minds to know. But even supposing we do know our own minds, how do we get from this to the minds of other people? Are we to believe that from certain sights and sounds and feelings we first of all infer that there are bodies, then that some of these bodies are alive, and, finally, by an analogy with our own bodies, that some of these living bodies are connected with, or animated by, minds like our own? This seems an elaborate inferential process to take place before a child can recognize his mother as a person like himself.
No doubt we should distinguish between the process by which we come to a belief and the grounds on which the belief is to be justified; but so far as our belief in the existence of other persons is concerned, it is not easy to find an entirely convincing account of either. All these commonplace difficulties will reappear if we try to think about the mystic's knowledge of God as if it were analogous to our knowledge of other human beings; and incomparably greater difficulties will arise from the fact that God is not to be conceived as a finite person and cannot be known or encountered as if He were.
§ 8. The question of validity
If we ask how far religious faith is to be supported by what is known of mystic experience, the answer will depend on what we believe the character of that experience to be. On this point it may be possible to make some tentative suggestions if the analogy with our knowledge of other persons is borne in mind.
First of all, it should not be supposed that the claim to have experimental knowledge of God rests on an inference from an effect to its cause. There is no such causal inference in our awareness of other people, or even in our awareness of physical objects. Hence it is not too difficult to accept the claim that the mystic's awareness of God is direct and is not the result of reasoning.
This admission should not lead us to the opposite extreme. There is no ground for supposing that mystical experience—unless possibly in some forms of ‘nihilism’—can be one of pure feeling unadulterated by thought. This experience, like any other, takes some of its form and content from previous experience and previous thinking, as is obvious from the evidence of the mystics themselves. How could unmixed feeling seem, even on subsequent reflexion, to know God as infinite and eternal and omniscient, or again as just and merciful?
The thought present in mystical experience is admittedly not inference, but some mystics claim also that it is not ‘discursive’—that is to say, it does not use abstract concepts in order to run over a number of instances or to pass consciously from one member of a class to another.
This claim also is not difficult to accept. Even on the humblest level of thought we can solve an anagram by running through the possible permutations and combinations, but sometimes, perhaps immediately or after a night's sleep, the answer, as it were, leaps into our mind. Similar sudden insights may be given to poets and even to philosophers—perhaps all poems begin in this way, and it has been suggested that philosophies are often the working out of some simple original intuition, which may from time to time be renewed. Whatever conceptual elements may be present, the mystical experience as a whole is presumably more like feeling or aesthetic creation than like discursive thinking, and it is only natural that it has to be expressed in something more like poetry than like philosophy. Some mystics may find their way to the vision by means of dialectic; but even for them it is the vision, not the dialectic, that is fundamental.
Perhaps we should not go too far wrong if we said that in the mystic union judgement must be present, as it is in aesthetic appreciation, or in recognizing a footstep, or even in an approach shot at golf; but the word ‘judgement’ should not be taken to mean the conscious application of abstract concepts to a given reality, and still less the utterance in words of a theoretical proposition. What is meant is something different from this, something with which we are all familiar, although we have no accepted name for it. A failure to take this factor into account leads men to speak as if sensation—whether spiritual or non-spiritual—could by itself be knowledge of the existence of an object. But we have no sensation of existence, and knowledge of existence requires more than mere sensation. This ‘something more’ has to be described as a thought, a concept, a judgement, though it is neither a discursive thought nor an abstract concept nor an explicit judgement—or at least it is none of these until it has been made clear by reflexion. We may, if we like, call it a ‘positing’, but this only explains the obscure by the more obscure. The mere fact that we find it so hard to describe this commonplace factor in our ordinary experience of finite objects may help us to understand the difficulty of the mystics in describing their experience of an object which to them is infinite.
Strictly speaking, there can be no experience of an infinite object, and the judgement present in the mystic vision must be strained beyond the limits of our finite powers. Hence it is not surprising that the mystics feel themselves to be in the presence of a mystery before which thoughts and words alike are poverty-stricken and unavailing. We may hope to get more light on this when we come to consider the intellectual element in religious experience. Here it is enough if we can see—so far as we can see at all—that the conceptual factor in the mystic union, as in ordinary religious experience, is not accidental, but necessary: it is not merely read into it by commentators or by the mystic writers themselves. This is very obvious in the poetic vision with which this chapter ends. Even if—as might be suggested—Father Poulain is reading the theology of his Church into the mystic vision, and even if St. Teresa is obviously anxious to do the same, this does not do away with the need for judgement both in the experience itself and in the descriptions of it. On the other hand, it would be a gross error to suppose that the mystics are merely dressing up an accepted theology in poetical language. It is their personal experience which makes them speak as they do. They have a marked tendency to leave the theological rails altogether and so to get into trouble with their ecclesiastical superiors. Even the good Father himself seems not to have been free from difficulties of this kind.
An attempt to isolate the cognitive element must distort the whole picture, but in spite of this we have to ask how far it is reasonable for those who have no inside knowledge to rely on the reports of mystic experience as a ground for religious belief.
So far as the mystic vision is granted only to those in a state of partial or complete trance, this is likely nowadays to inspire doubt rather than confidence. Yet this objection is not in itself conclusive; for something not wholly unlike a trance may be required for the highest achievements in art and literature—perhaps even in science. All creative work seems to depend on the unconscious, and it demands an intensity of concentration that excludes attention to ordinary perceptions. But whatever defence may be made, it must be admitted that an abnormal condition of body is no guarantee of spiritual insight into a transcendent reality. Similarly, if the so-called ‘ligature’ of the sensuous faculties is made the basis for a claim that God, as it were, seizes upon the soul, this too must be received by a workaday philosopher with caution if not with distrust.
Some thinkers may be inclined to sweep aside the whole of mystic experience as a kind of self-hypnotism or even as a mental aberration; but such a conclusion would be reckless unless it were supported by a vast body of unbiased psychological evidence. It would be equally reckless to accept without question the claims of Mr. Aldous Huxley, who speaks as if it must be manifest to any impartial thinker that in the mystic way God is revealed ‘in His fullness’. There is no reason why we should have to choose between unquestioning acceptance and utter rejection. It is hard to resist the conclusion that a dispassionate decision must ultimately turn, not on the mode of reception, but on the positive content of the mystic vision as conveyed to us, however dimly, by analogies and images. This must be judged—if it can be judged at all—only by its continuity with ordinary religious experience, and perhaps also with aesthetic experience and even with philosophical reflexions and moral aspirations.
On this basis it is not unreasonable to maintain that mystics may grasp vividly in a sudden flash of insight what is laboriously sought and dimly seen by lesser mortals. Hence their writings may be of the utmost value to a philosopher in his attempts to understand the nature of religious experience. Nevertheless if these writings are to be used as evidence, it would be a mistake to regard them as exempt from philosophical criticism or to suppose that there was no need for a much wider enquiry. Although mystics may claim with complete sincerity and absolute assurance that they have experimental knowledge of God's presence and nature and even of His actions, this cannot be interpreted as if it were on all fours with our knowledge and understanding of a human friend. If these claims are taken in a literal and matter of fact way, which the mystics would be the first to reject, there is a danger of falling back to a very primitive level of theology.
From the religious point of view men may have their faith strengthened if they find in the mystics reports of a supreme experience which is at least remotely analogous to their own and may even seem to be, as it were, its crown and goal. But they too cannot base their beliefs simply on the evidence of experts, as most of us have to do in physics; for religious belief is nothing apart from personal experience and personal conviction. Hence the meaning of the mystic vision even for them depends on the light which it throws on their own faith.
I have chosen to examine a cloistered mysticism because it is the best documented. It is confined to those who, besides accepting a traditional theology, have given themselves up to devotion and in a lesser degree to good works. It is indifferent to argument; and it is far from being inspired by any contact with nature or with natural beauty, which it tends to regard as a snare. So far as it can be said to look outward at all, it looks only to God, If it stood alone, it would have a weaker title to our consideration, but there are other ways of mysticism—including the practice of dialectic and of communion with nature—as well as the way of prayer. All these different ways are often said to lead by similar stages to the same vision and so to establish a very special claim on human credence.
Although there are striking resemblances in the works of very different kinds of mystic, this sweeping statement should be received with some reserve. Father Poulain would himself repudiate it. We may perhaps suspect that he makes the stages in the mystic way a little tidier than they really are; and I should like to see further evidence that different ways have the same stages—this obviously cannot be true of dialectic—and still more that they lead to the same vision of reality, no matter how different may be the background of life and thought in which mystical experiences have their origin. But this caveat may be taken as an expression of ignorance: I have no wish to deny that there is at least a strong prima facie case which demands further investigation.
§ 9. The voice of poetry
Mysticism, like religion, finds its natural expression, not in prose, but in poetry. My prosaic account, and perhaps even the language of my learned guide, may seem external, pedantic, niggling, and possibly repugnant. If we wish to look at a living mysticism, not at one carefully docketed in the cabinets of a museum, we may turn to the writings of Emily Brontë. She is a nature-mystic and a lover of liberty. Her inspiration comes from the Yorkshire moors,
‘Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain-side’.
Yet the lines of her experience are strangely close to the pattern drawn from the study of the cloister. I quote from three poems and add no comments; but after the fashion of my Jesuit friend I will arrange the passages under appropriate headings, without, I hope, doing too much violence to their original context. Every word in them deserves the closest scrutiny.
But, first, a hush of peace—a soundless calm descends,
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast—unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.
Then dawns the Invisible: the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free—its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulf, it stoops—and dares the final bound.
Oh! dreadful is the check—intense the agony—
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more the anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of Hell, or bright with Heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine.
O God within my breast,
Almighty ever-present Deity!
Life, that in me has rest,
As I, undying Life, have power in Thee.
With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is no room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou—THOU art Being and Breath,
And what THOU art may never be destroyed.
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.