Chapter 8


“As the Pilgrim passes while the Country permanent remains

So Men pass on; but the States remain permanent forever.”

Blake, “Jerusalem.”

W e are now to turn from general principles and study those principles in
action: to describe the psychological process, or “Mystic Way,” by which
that peculiar type of personality which is able to set up direct relations
with the Absolute is usually developed. The difficulty of this description
will lie in the fact that all mystics differ one from another; as all the
individual objects of our perception, “living” and “not living,” do. The
creative impulse in the world, so far as we are aware of it, appears upon
ultimate analysis to be free and original not bound and mechanical: to
express itself, in defiance of the determinists, with a certain artistic
spontaneity. Man, when he picks out some point of likeness as a basis on
which to arrange its productions in groups, is not discovering its methods;
but merely making for his own convenience an arbitrary choice of one or
two—not necessarily characteristic—qualities, which happen to appear in a
certain number of different persons or things. Hence the most scientific
classification is a rough-and-ready business at the best. [331]

When we come to apply such classification to so delicate and elusive a
series of psychological states as those which accompany the “contemplative
life,” all the usual difficulties are increased. No one mystic can be
discovered in whom all the observed characteristics of the transcendental
consciousness are resumed, and who can on that account be treated as
typical. Mental states which are distinct and mutually exclusive in one
case, exist simultaneously in another. In some, stages which have been
regarded as essential are entirely omitted: in others, their order appears
to be reversed. We seem at first to be confronted by a group of selves which
arrive at the same end without obeying any general law.

Take, however, a number of such definitely mystical selves and make of them,
so to speak, a “composite portrait”: as anthropologists do when they wish to
discover the character of a race. From this portrait we may expect a type to
emerge, in which all the outstanding characteristics contributed by the
individual examples are present together, and minor variations are
suppressed. Such a portrait will of course be conventional: but it will be
useful as a standard, which can be constantly compared with, and corrected
by, isolated specimens.

The first thing we notice about this composite portrait is that the typical
mystic seems to move towards his goal through a series of strongly marked
oscillations between “states of pleasure” and “states of pain.” The
existence and succession of these states—sometimes broken and confused,
sometimes crisply defined—can be traced, to a greater or less degree, in
almost every case of which we possess anything like a detailed record.
Gyrans gyrando radii spiritus . The soul, as it treads the ascending spiral
of its road towards reality, experiences alternately the sunshine and the
shade. These experiences are “constants” of the transcendental life. “The
Spiritual States of the Soul are all Eternal,” said Blake, with the true
mystical genius for psychology. [332]

The complete series of these states—and it must not be forgotten that few
individuals present them all in perfection, whilst in many instances several
are blurred or appear to be completely suppressed—will be, I think, most
conveniently arranged under five heads. This method of grouping means, of
course, the abandonment of the time-honoured threefold division of the
Mystic Way, and the apparent neglect of St. Teresa’s equally celebrated
Seven Degrees of Contemplation; but I think that we shall gain more than we
lose by adopting it. The groups, however, must be looked upon throughout as
diagrammatic, and only as answering loosely and generally to experiences
which seldom present themselves in so rigid and unmixed a form. These
experiences, largely conditioned as they are by surroundings and by
temperament, exhibit all the variety and spontaneity which are
characteristic of life in its highest manifestations: and, like biological
specimens, they lose something of their essential reality in being prepared
for scientific investigation. Taken all together, they constitute phases in
a single process of growth; involving the movement of consciousness from
lower to higher levels of reality, the steady remaking of character in
accordance with the “independent spiritual world.” But as the study of
physical life is made easier for us by an artificial division into infancy,
adolescence, maturity, and old age, so a discreet indulgence of the human
passion for map-making will increase our chances of understanding the nature
of the Mystic Way.

Here, then, is the classification under which we shall study the phases of
the mystical life.

(1) The awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. This
experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense
feelings of joy and exaltation.

(2) The Self, aware for the first time of Divine Beauty, realizes by
contrast its own finiteness and imperfection, the manifold illusions in
which it is immersed, the immense distance which separates it from the One.
Its attempts to eliminate by discipline and mortification all that stands in
the way of its progress towards union with God constitute Purgation: a state
of pain and effort.

(3) When by Purgation the Self has become detached from the “things of
sense,” and acquired those virtues which are the “ornaments of the spiritual
marriage,” its joyful consciousness of the Transcendent Order returns in an
enhanced form. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Cave of Illusion,” it has
awakened to knowledge of Reality, has struggled up the harsh and difficult
path to the mouth of the cave. Now it looks upon the sun. This is
Illumination: a state which includes in itself many of the stages of
contemplation, “degrees of orison,” visions and adventures of the soul
described by St. Teresa and other mystical writers. These form, as it were,
a way within the Way: a moyen de parvenir, a training devised by experts
which will strengthen and assist the mounting soul. They stand, so to speak,
for education; whilst the Way proper represents organic growth. Illumination
is the “contemplative state” par excellence. It forms, with the two
preceding states, the “first mystic life.” Many mystics never go beyond it;
and, on the other hand, many seers and artists not usually classed amongst
them, have shared, to some extent, the experiences of the illuminated state.
Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the
Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.

(4) In the development of the great and strenuous seekers after God, this is
followed—or sometimes intermittently accompanied—by the most terrible of all
the experiences of the Mystic Way: the final and complete purification of
the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the “mystic pain” or
“mystic death,” by others the Purification of the Spirit or Dark Night of
the Soul. The consciousness which had, in Illumination, sunned itself in the
sense of the Divine Presence, now suffers under an equally intense sense of
the Divine Absence: learning to dissociate the personal satisfaction of
mystical vision from the reality of mystical life. As in Purgation the
senses were cleansed and humbled, and the energies and interests of the Self
were concentrated upon transcendental things: so now the purifying process
is extended to the very centre of I-hood, the will. The human instinct for
personal happiness must be killed. This is the “spiritual crucifixion” so
often described by the mystics: the great desolation in which the soul seems
abandoned by the Divine. The Self now surrenders itself, its individuality,
and its will, completely. It desires nothing, asks nothing, is utterly
passive, and is thus prepared for

(5) Union: the true goal of the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute
Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination:
but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous
oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of
purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by
intense certitude. To call this state, as some authorities do, by the name
of Ecstasy, is inaccurate and confusing: since the term Ecstasy has long
been used both by psychologists and ascetic writers to define that short and
rapturous trance—a state with well-marked physical and psychical
accompaniments—in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the
phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the
Divine Vision. Ecstasies of this kind are often experienced by the mystic in
Illumination, or even on his first conversion. They cannot therefore be
regarded as exclusively characteristic of the Unitive Way. In some of the
greatest mystics—St. Teresa is an example—the ecstatic trance seems to
diminish rather than increase in frequency after the state of union has been
attained: whilst others achieve the heights by a path which leaves on one
side all abnormal phenomena.

Union must be looked upon as the true goal of mystical growth; that
permanent establishment of life upon transcendent levels of reality, of
which ecstasies give a foretaste to the soul. Intense forms of it, described
by individual mystics, under symbols such as those of Mystical Marriage,
Deification, or Divine Fecundity, all prove on examination to be aspects of
this same experience “seen through a temperament.”

It is right, however, to state here that Oriental Mysticism insists upon a
further stage beyond that of union, which stage it regards as the real goal
of the spiritual life. This is the total annihilation or reabsorption of the
individual soul in the Infinite. Such an annihilation is said by the Sufis
to constitute the “Eighth Stage of Progress,” in which alone they truly
attain to God. Thus stated, it appears to differ little from the Buddhist’s
Nirvana, and is the logical corollary of that pantheism to which the
Oriental mystic always tends. Thus Jalalu d’Din:

“O, let me not exist! for Non-Existence

Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.’” [333]

It is at least doubtful, however, whether the interpretation which has been
put by European students upon such passages as this be correct. The language
in which Al Ghazzali attempts to describe the Eighth Stage is certainly more
applicable to the Unitive Life as understood by Christian contemplatives,
than to the Buddhistic annihilation of personality. “The end of Sufi-ism,”
he says, “is total absorption in God. This is at least the relative end to
that part of their doctrine which I am free to reveal and describe. But in
reality it is but the beginning of the Sufi life, for those intuitions and
other things which precede it are, so to speak, but the porch by which they
enter. . . . In this state some have imagined themselves to be amalgamated
with God, others to be identical with Him, others again to be associated
with Him: but all this is sin .” [334]

The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the
truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected
by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them
by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its
intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox
which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality
by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded
amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a
negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation
rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they
are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point
of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a
Dark, a Self-loss. Further it will be found that this language is often an
attempt to describe the conditions of transitory perception, not those of
permanent existence: the characteristics, that is to say, of the Ecstatic
Trance, in which for a short time the whole self is lifted to transcendent
levels, and the Absolute is apprehended by a total suspension of the surface
consciousness. Hence the Divine Dark, the Nothing, is not a state of
non-being to which the mystic aspires to attain: it is rather a paradoxical
description of his experience of that Undifferentiated Godhead, that
Supernal Light whence he may, in his ecstasies, bring down fire from heaven
to light the world.

In the mystics of the West, the highest forms of Divine Union impel the self
to some sort of active, rather than of passive life: and this is now
recognized by the best authorities as the true distinction between Christian
and non-Christian mysticism. “The Christian mystics,” says Delacroix, “move
from the Infinite to the Definite; they aspire to infinitize life and to
define Infinity; they go from the conscious to the subconscious, and from
the subconscious to the conscious. The obstacle in their path is not
consciousness in general, but self -consciousness, the consciousness of the
Ego. The Ego is the limitation, that which opposes itself to the Infinite:
the states of consciousness free from self, lost in a vaster consciousness,
may become modes of the Infinite, and states of the Divine Consciousness.”
[335] So Starbuck: “The individual learns to transfer himself from a centre
of self-activity into an organ of revelation of universal being, and to live
a life of affection for and one-ness with, the larger life outside.” [336]

Hence, the ideal of the great contemplatives, the end of their long
education, is to become “modes of the Infinite.” Filled with an abounding
sense of the Divine Life, of ultimate and adorable reality, sustaining and
urging them on, they wish to communicate the revelation, the more abundant
life, which they have received. Not spiritual marriage, but divine fecundity
is to be their final state. In a sense St. Teresa in the Seventh Habitation,
Suso when his great renunciation is made, have achieved the quest, yet there
is nothing passive in the condition to which they have come. Not Galahad,
but the Grail-bearer is now their type: and in their life, words or works
they are impelled to exhibit that “Hidden Treasure which desires to be

“You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa, “that the soul in this state
[of union] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing.
You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before
to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations
leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.”

No temperament is less slothful than the mystical one; and the “quiet” to
which the mystics must school themselves in the early stages of
contemplation is often the hardest of their tasks. The abandonment of bodily
and intellectual activity is only undertaken in order that they may, in the
words of Plotinus, “energize enthusiastically” upon another plane. Work they
must but this work may take many forms—forms which are sometimes so wholly
spiritual that they are not perceptible to practical minds. Much of the
misunderstanding and consequent contempt of the contemplative life comes
from the narrow and superficial definition of “work” which is set up by a
muscular and wage-earning community.

All records of mysticism in the West, then, are also the records of supreme
human activity. Not only of “wrestlers in the spirit” but also of great
organizers, such as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross; of missionaries
preaching life to the spiritually dead, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St.
Ignatius Loyola, Eckhart, Suso Tauler, Fox; of philanthropists, such as St.
Catherine of Genoa or St. Vincent de Paul; poets and prophets, such as
Mechthild of Magdeburg, Jacopone da Todi and Blake, finally, of some
immensely virile souls whose participation in the Absolute Life has seemed
to force on them a national destiny. Of this St. Bernard, St. Catherine of
Siena, and Saint Joan of Arc are the supreme examples. “The soul enamoured
of My Truth,” said God’s voice to St. Catherine of Siena, “never ceases to
serve the whole world in general.” [338]

Utterly remade in the interests of Reality, exhibiting that dual condition
of fruition and activity which Ruysbroeck described as the crowning stage of
human evolution, the “Supreme summit of the Inner Life,” [339] all these
lived, as it were, with both hands towards the finite and towards the
Infinite, towards God and man. It is true that in nearly every case such
“great actives” have first left the world, as a necessary condition of
establishing communion with that Absolute Life which reinforced their own:
for a mind distracted by the many cannot apprehend the One. Hence something
equivalent to the solitude of the wilderness is an essential part of
mystical education. But, having established that communion, re-ordered their
inner lives upon transcendent levels—being united with their Source not
merely in temporary ecstasies, but in virtue of a permanent condition of the
soul, they were impelled to abandon their solitude; and resumed, in some
way, their contact with the world in order to become the medium whereby that
Life flowed out to other men. To go up alone into the mountain and come back
as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best
friends. This systole-and-diastole motion of retreat as the preliminary to a
return remains the true ideal of Christian Mysticism in its highest
development. Those in whom it is not found, however great in other respects
they may be, must be considered as having stopped short of the final stage.

Thus St. Catherine of Siena spent three years in hermit-like seclusion in
the little room which we still see in her house in the Via Benincasa,
entirely cut off from the ordinary life of her family. “Within her own
house,” says her legend, “she found the desert; and a solitude in the midst
of people.” [340] There Catherine endured many mortifications, was visited
by ecstasies and visions: passed, in fact, through the states of Purgation
and Illumination, which existed in her case side by side. This life of
solitude was brought to an abrupt end by the experience which is symbolized
in the vision of the Mystic Marriage, and the Voice which then said to her,
“Now will I wed thy soul, which shall ever be conjoined and united to Me!”
Catherine, who had during her long retreat enjoyed illumination to a high
degree, now entered upon the Unitive State, in which the whole of her public
life was passed. Its effect was immediately noticeable. She abandoned her
solitude, joined in the family life, went out into the city to serve the
poor and sick, attracted and taught disciples, converted sinners, and began
that career of varied and boundless activity which has made her name one of
the greatest in the history of the fourteenth century. Nor does this mean
that she ceased to live the sort of life which is characteristic of mystical
consciousness: to experience direct contact with the Transcendental World,
to gaze into “the Abyss of Love Divine.” On the contrary, her practical
genius for affairs, her immense power of ruling men, drew its strength from
the long series of visions and ecstasies which accompanied and supported her
labours in the world. She “descended into the valley of lilies to make
herself more fruitful,” says her legend. [341] The conscious vehicle of some
“power not herself,” she spoke and acted with an authority which might have
seemed strange enough in an uneducated daughter of the people, were it not
justified by the fact that all who came into contact with her submitted to
its influence.

Our business, then, is to trace from its beginning a gradual and complete
change in the equilibrium of the self. It is a change whereby that self
turns from the unreal world of sense in which it is normally immersed, first
to apprehend, then to unite itself with Absolute Reality: finally, possessed
by and wholly surrendered to this Transcendent Life, becomes a medium
whereby the spiritual world is seen in a unique degree operating directly in
the world of sense. In other words, we are to see the human mind advance
from the mere perception of phenomena, through the intuition—with occasional
contact—of the Absolute under its aspect of Divine Transcendence, to the
entire realization of, and union with, Absolute Life under its aspect of
Divine Immanence.

The completed mystical life, then, is more than intuitional: it is
theopathetic. In the old, frank language of the mystics, it is the deified
life .

[331] Science seems more and more inclined to acquiesce in this judgment.
See especially A. N. Whitehead: “Man and the Modern World” and “Religion in
the Making.”

[332] “Jerusalem,” pt. iii.

[333] Quoted by R. A. Nicholson, “The Mystics of Islam,” p. 168.

[334] Schmölders, “Les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 61.

[335] “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 235.

[336] “The Psychology of Religion,” p. 147.

[337] “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sétimas, cap. i.

[338] Dialogo, cap. vii.

[339] “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. lxxiii.

[340] E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 15.

[341] S. Catherine Senensis Vitae (Acta SS. Aprilis t. iii.), ii. ii. § 4.