Historical Sketch of Mysticism – A Biography in the Christian Era
by Michael Colantoni
Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism
Historical Sketch of Mysticism
If we try to represent the course of Mysticism in Europe during the Christian period by the common device of a chronological curve, showing by its rises and falls as it passes across the centuries the absence or preponderance in any given epoch of mystics and mystical thought, we shall find that the great periods of mystical activity tend to correspond with the great periods of artistic, material, and intellectual civilization. As a rule, they come immediately after, and seem to complete such periods: those outbursts of vitality in which man makes fresh conquests over his universe apparently producing, as their last stage, a type of heroic character which extends these victories to the spiritual sphere. When science, politics, literature, and the arts — the domination of nature and the ordering of life — have risen to their height and produced their greatest works, the mystic comes to the front; snatches the torch, and carries it on. It is almost as if he were humanity’s finest flower; the product at which each great creative period of the race had aimed.
Thus the thirteenth century expressed to perfection the medieval ideal in religion, art, philosophy, and public life. It built the Gothic cathedrals, put the finishing touch to the system of chivalry, and nourished the scholastic philosophers. It has many saints, but not very many mystics; though they increase in number as the century draws on. The fourteenth century is filled by great contemplatives; who lifted this wave of activity to spiritual levels, and brought the intellectual vigour, the romance and passion of the mediaeval temperament, to bear upon the deepest mysteries of the transcendental life. Again, the sixteenth century, that period of abounding vitality which left no corner of existence unexplored, which produced the Renaissance and the Humanists and remade the mediaeval world, had hardly reached its full development before the great procession of the post-Renaissance mystics, with St. Teresa at their head, began. If life, then — the great and restless life of the race — be described under the trite metaphor of a billowy sea, each great wave as it rises from the deep bears the mystic type upon its crest.
Our curve will therefore follow close behind that other curve which represents the intellectual life of humanity. Its course will be studded and defined for us by the names of the great mystics; the possessors of spiritual genius, the pathfinders to the country of the soul. These starry names are significant not only in themselves but also as links in the chain of manes growing spiritual history. They are not isolated phenomena, but are related to one another. Each receives something from his predecessors: each by his personal adventures enriches it, and hands it on to the future. As we go on, we notice more and more this cumulative power of the past. Each mystic, original though he be, yet owes much to the inherited acquirement of his spiritual ancestors. These ancestors form his tradition, are the classic examples on which his education is based; and from them he takes the language which they have sought out and constructed as a means of telling their adventures to the world. It is by their help too, very often, that he elucidates for himself the meaning of the dim perceptions of his amazed soul. From his own experiences he adds to this store; and hands on an enriched tradition of the transcendental life to the next spiritual genius evolved by the race. Hence the names of the great mystics are connected by a thread; and it becomes possible to treat them as subjects of history rather than of biography.
I have said that this thread forms a curve, following the fluctuations of the intellectual life of the race. At its highest points, the names of the mystics are clustered most thickly, at its descents they become fewer and fewer, at the lowest points they die away. Between the first century A.D. and the nineteenth, this curve exhibits three great waves of mystical activity besides many minor fluctuations. They correspond with the close of the Classical, the Mediaeval, and the Renaissance periods in history: reaching their highest points in the third, fourteenth, and seventeenth centuries. In one respect, however, the mystic curve diverges from the historical one. It rises to its highest point in the fourteenth century, and does not again approach the level it there attains; for the mediaeval period was more favourable to the development of mysticism than any subsequent epoch has been. The fourteenth century is as much the classic moment for the spiritual history of our race as the thirteenth is for the history of Gothic, or the fifteenth for that of Italian art.
The names upon our curve, especially during the first ten centuries of the Christian era, are often separated by long periods of time. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that these centuries produced few mystics: merely that few documents relating to them have survived. We have now no means of knowing, for instance, the amount of true mysticism which may have existed amongst the initiates of the Greek or Egyptian Mysteries; how many advanced but inarticulate contemplatives there were amongst the Alexandrian Neo-platonists, amongst the pre-Christian communities of contemplatives described by Philo , the deeply mystical Alexandrian Jew (20 B.C.-A.D. 40), or the innumerable Gnostic sects which replaced in the early Christian world the Orphic and Dionysiac mystery-cults of Greece and Italy. Much real mystical inspiration there must have been, for we know that from these centres of life came many of the doctrines best loved by later mystics: that the Neoplatonists gave them the concepts of Pure Being and the One, that the New Birth and the Spiritual Marriage were foreshadowed in the Mysteries, that Philo anticipated the theology of the Fourth Gospel.
As we stand at the beginning of the Christian period we see three great sources whence its mystical tradition might have been derived. These sources are Greek, Oriental, and Christian— i.e. , primitive Apostolic—doctrine or thought. As a matter of fact all contributed their share: but where Christianity gave the new vital impulse to transcendence, Greek and Oriental thought provided the principal forms in which it was expressed. The Christian religion, by its very nature, had a profoundly mystical side. Putting the personality of its Founder outside the limits of the present discussion, St. Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel are obvious instances of mystics of the first rank amongst its earliest missionaries. Much of the inner history of primitive Christianity still remains unknown to us, but in what has been already made out we find numerous, if scattered, indications that the mystic life was indigenous in the Church and the natural mystic had little need to look for inspiration outside the limits of his creed. Not only the epistles of St. Paul and the Johannine writings, but also the earliest liturgic fragments which we possess, and such primitive religious poetry as the “Odes of Solomon” and the “Hymn of Jesus,” show how congenial was mystical expression to the mind of the Church how easily that Church could absorb and transmute the mystic elements of Essene, Orphic, and Neoplatonic thought.
Towards the end of the second century this tendency received brilliant literary expression at the hands of Clement of Alexandria (c. 160-220) — who first adapted the language of the pagan Mysteries to the Christian theory of the spiritual life — and his great pupil Origen (c. 183-253). Nevertheless, the first person after St. Paul of whom it can now be decisively stated that he was a practical mystic of the first rank, and in whose writings the central mystic doctrine of union with God is found, is a pagan. That person is Plotinus , the great Neoplatonic philosopher of Alexandria (A.D. 205-c. 270). His mysticism owes nothing to the Christian religion, which is never mentioned in his works. Intellectually it is based on the Platonic philosophy, and also shows the influence of the Mysteries, and perhaps certain of the Oriental cults and philosophies which ran riot in Alexandria in the third century. Ostensibly a metaphysician, however, Plotinus possessed transcendental genius of a high order, and was consumed by a burning passion for the Absolute: and the importance of his work lies in the degree in which his intellectual constructions are made the vehicle of mystical experience. His disciple Porphyry has left it on record that on four occasions he saw his master rapt to ecstatic union with “the One.”
The Neoplatonism of which Plotinus was the greatest exponent became the medium in which much of the mysticism — both Christian and pagan—of the first six centuries was expressed. But since mysticism is a way of life — an experience of Reality, not a philosophic account of Reality—Neoplatonism, and the mysticism which used its language, must not be identified with one another. Porphyry (233-304) the favourite pupil of Plotinus seems to have inherited something of his master’s mysticism, but Neoplatonism as a whole was a confused, semi-religious philosophy, containing many inconsistent elements. Appearing when the wreck of paganism was complete, but before Christianity had conquered the educated world, it made a strong appeal to the spiritually minded; and also to those who hankered after the mysterious and the occult. It taught the illusory nature of all temporal things, and in the violence of its idealism outdid its master Plato. It also taught the existence of an Absolute God, the “Unconditioned One,” who might be known in ecstasy and contemplation; and here it made a direct appeal to the mystical instincts of men. Those natural mystics who lived in the time of its greatest popularity found in it therefore a ready means of expressing their own intuitions of reality. Hence the early mysticism of Europe, both Christian and pagan, has come down to us in a Neoplatonic dress; and speaks the tongue of Alexandria rather than that of Jerusalem, Athens, or Rome.
The influence of Plotinus upon later Christian mysticism was enormous though indirect. During the patristic period all that was best in the spirit of Neoplatonism flowed into the veins of the Church. St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) and Dionysius the Areopagite (writing between 475 and 525) are amongst his spiritual children; and it is mainly through them that his doctrine reached the mediaeval world. Proclus (412-c. 490), the last of the pagan philosophers, also derives from his teaching. Through these three there is hardly one in the long tale of the European contemplatives whom his powerful spirit has failed to reach.
The mysticism of St. Augustine is partly obscured for us by the wealth of his intellectual and practical life: yet no one can read the “Confessions” without being struck by the intensity and actuality of his spiritual experience, and the characteristically mystical formula under which he apprehended Reality. It is clear that when he composed this work he was already an advanced contemplative. The immense intellectual activities by which he is best remembered were fed by the solitary adventures of his soul. No merely literary genius could have produced the wonderful chapters in the seventh and eighth books, or the innumerable detached passages in which his passion for the Absolute breaks out. Later mystics, recognizing this fact, constantly appeal to his authority, and his influence ranks next to that of the Bible in the formation of the mediaeval school.
Second only to that of St. Augustine was the influence exercised by the strange and nameless writer who chose to ascribe his works to Dionysius the Areopagite, the friend of St. Paul, and to address his letters upon mysticism to Paul’s fellow-worker, Timothy. The pseudo-Dionysius was probably a Syrian monk. The patristic quotations detected in his work prove that he cannot have written before A.D.475; it is most likely that he flourished in the early part of the sixth century. His chief works are the treatises on the Angelic Hierarchies and on the Names of God, and a short but priceless tract on mystical theology. From the ninth century to the seventeenth these writings nourished the most spiritual intuitions of men, and possessed an authority which it is now hard to realize. Medieval mysticism is soaked in Dionysian conceptions. Particularly in the fourteenth century, the golden age of mystical literature, the phrase “Dionysius saith” is of continual recurrence: and has for those who use it much the same weight as quotations from the Bible or the great fathers of the Church.
The importance of Dionysius lies in the fact that he was the first and for a long time the only, Christian writer who attempted to describe frankly and accurately the workings of the mystical consciousness, and the nature of its ecstatic attainment of God. So well did he do h s work that later contemplatives, reading him, found their most sublime experiences reflected and partly explained. Hence in describing those experiences, they adopted his language and metaphors; which afterwards became the classic terms of contemplative science. To him Christian literature owes the paradoxical concept of the Absolute Godhead as the “Divine Dark,” the Unconditioned, “the negation of all that is ”— i.e., of all that the surface consciousness perceives — and of the soul’s attainment of the Absolute as a “divine ignorance,” a way of negation. This idea is common to Greek and Indian philosophy. With Dionysius it enters the Catholic fold.
Side by side with the Neoplatonic mysticism of St. Augustine and Dionysius runs another line of spiritual culture, hardly less important for the development of the contemplative life. This takes its rise among the Fathers of the Egyptian desert, whose heroic spirituality was a contributory factor in St. Augustine’s conversion. It finds beautiful expression in the writings of St. Marcarius of Egypt (c. 295-386), the disciple of St. Anthony and friend of St. Basil, and reaches the West through the “Dialogues” of John Cassian (c. 350- ), one of the most important documents for the history of Christian mysticism. The fruit of a seven-year pilgrimage among the Egyptian monasteries, and many conversations on spiritual themes with the monks, we find in these dialogues for the first time a classified and realistic description of the successive degrees of contemplative prayer, and their relation to the development of the spiritual life. Adopted by St. Benedict as part of the regular spiritual food of his monks, they have had a decisive influence on the cloistered mysticism of the Middle Ages. Their sober and orderly doctrine, destined to be characteristic of the Roman Church, received fresh emphasis in the works of St. Gregory the Great (540-604), which also helped to form the souls of succeeding generations of contemplatives.
We have therefore, at the opening of the Middle Ages, two great streams of spiritual culture; the Benedictine, moderate and practical, formed chiefly on Cassian and St. Gregory, and the Neoplatonic, represented by Dionysius the Areopagite, and in a less exclusive form by St. Augustine. The works of Dionysius were translated from Greek into Latin about A.D. 850 by the Irish philosopher and theologian, John Scotus Erigena , one of the scholars assembled at the court of Charlemagne: and this event marks the beginning of a full tradition of mysticism in Western Europe. John the Scot, many of whose own writings exhibit a strong mystical bias, is the only name in this period which the history of mysticism can claim. We are on the descending 458line of the “Dark Ages”: and here the curve of mysticism runs parallel with the curves of intellectual and artistic activity.
The great current of medieval mysticism first shows itself in the eleventh century, and chiefly in connection with the Benedictine Order for the work of such monastic reformers as St. Romuald (c. 950-1027) St. Peter Damian (1007-1072), and St. Bruno (1032-1101), the founder of the Grande Chartreuse, was really the effort of contemplative souls to establish an environment in which the mystical life could be lived. Thus too we must regard at least a large proportion of the hermits and solitaries who became so marked a feature in the religion of the West. At this period mysticism was not sharply distinguished from the rest of the religious complex, but was rather the realistic experience of the truths on which religion rests. It spread mainly through personal instruction and discipleship. Its literary monuments were few among the most important and widely influential being the “Meditations” of St. Anselm (1033-1109), which, disentangled by recent scholarship from the spurious material passing under his name, are now seen to have been a chief channel of transmission for the Augustinian mysticism which dominated the early Middle Ages. The general religious revival of the twelfth century had its marked mystical aspect, and produced four personalities of great historical importance: the Benedictines St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), St. Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179), and Joachim of Flora (1132-1202); and the Scotch or Irish Augustinian Richard of St. Victor (ob. c. 1173), whom Dante held to be “in contemplation more than man.” Richard’s master and contemporary, the scholastic philosopher Hugh (1097-1141) of the same Abbey of St. Victor at Paris, is also generally reckoned amongst the mystics of thus period, but with less reason; since contemplation occupies a small place in his theological writings. In spite of the deep respect shown towards him by Aquinas and other theologians, Hugh’s influence on later mystical literature was slight. The spirit of Richard and of St. Bernard, on the contrary, was destined to dominate it for the next two hundred years. With them the literature of mediaeval mysticism properly so called begins.
This literature Falls into two classes: the personal and the didactic. Sometimes, as in a celebrated sermon of St. Bernard, the two are combined; the teacher appealing to his own experience in illustration of his theme. In the works of the Victorines the attitude is didactic: one might almost say scientific. In them mysticism — that is to say, the degrees of contemplation, the training and exercise of the spiritual sense — takes its place as a recognized department of theology. It is in Richard’s favourite symbolism, “Benjamin,” the beloved child of Rachel, emblem of the Contemplative Life: and in his two chief works, “Benjamin Major” and “Benjamin Minor,” it is classified and described in all its branches. Though mysticism was for Richard the “science of the heart” and he had little respect for secular learning, yet his solid intellectuality did much to save the medieval school from the perils of religious emotionalism. In his hands the antique mystical tradition which flowed through Plotinus and the Areopagite, was codified and transmitted to the mediaeval world. Like his master, Hugh, he had the mediaeval passion for elaborate allegory, neat arrangement, rigid classification, and significant numbers in things. As Dante parcelled out Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell with mathematical precision, and proved that Beatrice was herself a Nine, so these writers divide and subdivide the stages of contemplation, the states of the soul, the degrees of Divine Love: and perform terrible tours de force in the course of compelling the ever-variable expressions of man’s spiritual vitality to fall into orderly and parallel series, conformable to the mystic numbers of Seven, Four, and Three.
The influence of Richard of St. Victor, great as it was, is exceeded by that of St. Bernard; the dominant spiritual personality of the twelfth century. Bernard’s career of ceaseless and varied activity sufficiently disproves the “idleness” of the contemplative type. He continued and informed with his own spirit the Benedictine tradition, and his writings quickly took their place, with those of Richard of St. Victor, among the living forces which conditioned the development of later mysticism. Both these mystics exerted a capital influence on the formation of our national school of mysticism in the fourteenth century. Translations and paraphrases of the “Benjamin Major,” “Benjamin Minor,” and other works of Richard of St. Victor, and of various tracts and epistles of St. Bernard, are constantly met with in the MS. collections of mystical and theological literature written in England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. An early paraphrase of the “Benjamin Minor,” sometimes attributed to Richard Rolle, was probably made by the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” who was also responsible for the first appearance of the Areopagite in English dress.
If mediaeval mysticism in the West develops mainly under the sane and enduring influence of the Victorines and St. Bernard, in Germany and Italy it appeared in a more startling form; seeking, in the prophetic activities of St. Hildegarde of Bingen and the Abbot Joachim of Flora, to influence the course of secular history. In St. Hildegarde and her fellow-Benedictine St. Elizabeth of Shönau (1138-1165) we have the first of that long line of women mystics — visionaries, prophetesses, and political reformers — combining spiritual transcendence with great practical ability, of whom St. Catherine of Siena is probably the greatest example. Exalted by the strength of their spiritual intuitions, they emerged from an obscure life to impose their wills, and their reading of events, upon the world. From the point of view of Eternity, in whose light they lived, they attacked the sins of their generation. St. Hildegarde, a woman of powerful character, apparently possessed of abnormal psychic gifts, was driven by that Living Light which was her inspiration to denounce the corruptions of Church and State. In the inspired letters which she sent like firebrands over Europe, we see German idealism and German practicality struggling together; the unflinching description of abuses, the vast poetic vision by which they are condemned. These qualities are seen again in the South German mystics of the next century: the four Benedictine women of genius, who had their home in the convent of Helfde. These are the Nun Gertrude (Abbess 1251-1291) and her sister St. Mechthild of Hackborn (ob. 1310), with her sublime symbolic visions: then, the poet of the group, the exquisite Mechthild of Magdeburg (1212-1299), who, first a béguine at Magdeburg, where she wrote the greater part of “The Flowing Light of the Godhead,” came to Helfde in 1268; last the celebrated St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1311). In these contemplatives the political spirit is less marked than in St. Hildegarde: but religious and ethical activity takes its place. St. Gertrude the Great is a characteristic Catholic visionary of the feminine type: absorbed in her subjective experiences, her often beautiful and significant dreams, her loving conversations with Christ and the Blessed Virgin. Close to her in temperament is St. Mechthild of Hackborn; but her attitude as a whole is more impersonal, more truly mystic. The great symbolic visions in which her most spiritual perceptions are expressed are artistic creations rather than psycho-sensorial hallucinations, and dwell little upon the humanity of Christ, with which St. Gertrude is constantly occupied. The terms in which Mechthild of Magdeburg — an educated and well-born woman, half poet, half seer — describes her union with God are intensely individual, and apparently owe more to the romantic poets of her time than to earlier religious writers. The works of this Mechthild, early translated into Latin, were read by Dante. Their influence is traceable in the “Paradiso”; and by some scholars she is believed to be the Matilda of his Earthly Paradise, though others give this position to her sister-mystic, St. Mechthild of Hackborn.
Modern scholarship tends more and more to see in the strange personality of the Abbot Joachim of Flora, whom Dante placed among the great contemplatives in the Heaven of the Sun, the chief influence in the development of Italian mysticism. The true import of his prophecies, which proclaimed in effect the substitution of mystical for institutional Christianity, was only appreciated after his death. But their prestige grew during the course of the thirteenth century; especially after the appearance of the mendicant friars, who seemed to fulfil his prediction that the new era of the Holy Spirit would be brought in about the year 1260 by two new Orders who would live in poverty the spiritual life. From this time, Joachism found its chief vehicle of expression through Franciscan mysticism of the more revolutionary sort. Though there is no evidence that St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) knew the prophecies of the “Eternal Gospel,” he can hardly have grown up without some knowledge of them, and also of the Cathari and other semi-mystical heresies — many of them stressing the idea of evangelical poverty — which were spreading through Italy from the north. But the mystical genius which may have received food from these sources was itself strikingly original; the spontaneous expression of a rare personality, a great spiritual realist who admitted no rival to the absolute claims of the mystical life of poverty and joy. St. Francis was untouched by monastic discipline, or the writings of Dionysius or St. Bernard. His only literary influence was the New Testament. With him, mysticism comes into the open air, seeks to transform the stuff of daily life, speaks the vernacular, turns the songs of the troubadours to the purposes of Divine love; yet remains completely loyal to the Catholic Church. None who came after him succeeded in recapturing his secret which was the secret of spiritual genius of the rarest type: but he left his mark upon the history, art and literature of Western Europe, and the influence of his spirit still lives.
In a general sense it is true to say that Italian mysticism descends from St. Francis, and in its first period seems almost to be the prerogative of his disciples; especially those of the “Spiritual” party who strove to maintain his ideals in their purity. It is here that we find Franciscan ardour and singlemindedness in alliance with apocalyptic notions deriving from Joachist ideas. In Provence, a widespread mystical movement coloured by Joachism was led by Hugues de Digne and his sister St. Douceline ( n . 1214); in whom we find a spirit which, like that of Francis, could find the Divine through flowers and birds and simple natural things. In Italy, nourished by the influence of such deeply mystical friars as John of Parma (ob. 1288 ) and John of La Verna , this Franciscan spirituality entered into conflict with the ecclesiastical politics of the day; taking up that duty of denouncing the corruptions of the Church, which has so often attracted the mystics. Here the typical figure is that of Jacopone da Todi ( 1228-1306), the converted lawyer turned mystical poet. On one hand deeply influenced by St. Augustine and Dionysius the Areopagite, on the other the devoted exponent of the Founder’s ideals, his “spiritual songs” lift Franciscan mysticism to the heights of ecstatic rapture and literary expression; whilst his savage castigations of the Papacy give him a place among the great mediaeval satirists. Jacopone’s poems have been shown by Von Hügel to have had a formative influence on St. Catherine of Genoa; and have probably affected many other mystics, not only in Italy but elsewhere, for they quickly attained considerable circulation.
In his contemporary the Blessed Angela of Foligno (1248-1309) who was converted from a sinful life to become a tertiary hermit of the Franciscan Order we have a mystic of the first rank whose visions and revelations place her in the same class as St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Teresa. Known to her followers as the Mistress of Theologians, and numbering among her disciples the brilliant and tempestuous “spiritual” friar Ubertino da Casale, the lofty metaphysical element in Angela’s mysticism suggests the high level of spiritual culture achieved in Franciscan circles of her time. By the sixteenth century her works, translated into the vernacular, had taken their place amongst the classics of mysticism. In the seventeenth they were largely used by St. François de Sales, Madame Guyon, and other Catholic contemplatives. Seventeen years older than Dante, whose great genius properly closes this line of spiritual descent, she is a link between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italian mysticism.
We now approach the Golden Age of Mysticism: and at the opening of that epoch, dominating it by their peculiar combination of intellectual and spiritual power stand the figures of the “Seraphic and Angelic Doctors,” St. Bonaventura , the Franciscan (1221-1274), and St. Thomas Aquinas , the Dominican (1226-1274). As with St. Augustine, the intellectual greatness of St. Thomas has obscured his mystical side, whilst St. Bonaventura, the apostle of a wise moderation, may easily appear to the hurried reader the least mystical of the Franciscan mystics. Yet both were contemplatives, and because of this were able to interpret to the medieval world the great spiritual tradition of the past. Hence their immense influence on the mystical schools of the fourteenth century. It is sometimes stated that these schools derive mainly from St. Bonaventura, and represent an opposition to scholastic theology; but as a matter of fact their greatest personalities — in particular Dante and the German Dominicans — are soaked in the spirit of Aquinas, and quote his authority at every turn.
In Europe the mystic curve is now approaching its highest point. In the East that point has already been passed. Sufi, or Mahommedan mysticism, appearing in the eighth century in the beautiful figure of Rabi’a , the “Moslem St. Teresa” (717-801), and continued by the martyr Al Hallaj (ob. 922), attains literary expression in the eleventh in the “Confessions” of Al Ghazzali (1058-1111), and has its classic period in the thirteenth in the works of the mystic poets ‘Attar (c. 1140-1234), Sadi (1184-1263), and the saintly Jalalu ‘d Din (1207-1273). Its tradition is continued in the fourteenth century by the rather erotic mysticism of Hafiz (c. 1300-1388) and his successors, and in the fifteenth by the poet Jámí (1414-1492).
Whilst Hafiz already strikes a note of decadence for the mysticism of Islam, the year 1300 is for Western Europe a vital year in the history of the spiritual life. Mystics of the first rank are appearing, or about to appear. The Majorcan scholar-mystic Ramon Lull (ob. 1315) is drawing to the end of his long life. In Italy Dante (1265-1321) is forcing human language to express one of the most sublime visions of the Absolute which has ever been crystallized into speech. He inherits and fuses into one that loving and artistic reading of reality which was the heart of Franciscan mysticism, and that other ordered vision of the transcendental world which the Dominicans through Aquinas poured into the stream of European thought. For the one the spiritual world was all love: for the other all law. For Dante it was both. In the “Paradiso” his stupendous genius apprehends and shows to us a Beatific Vision in which the symbolic systems of all great mystics and many whom the world does not call mystics — of Dionysius, Richard, St. Bernard, Mechthild, Aquinas, and countless others — are included and explained.
The moment in which the “Commedia” was being written coincides with the awakening of mystical activity in Germany and Flanders. Between the years 1280 and 1309 was produced, probably in the Liege district and under Franciscan influence, the curious anonymous work which is now only known to us in Latin and English translations — “The Mirror of Simple Souls.” This long treatise, clearly influenced by Dionysius, the Victorines, and the twelfth-century tract known as the “Letter to the Brethren of Mons Dei,” is a piece of mystical literature of an advanced kind, often fringing the borders of orthodoxy and looking forward to the speculative Flemish mysticism of the fourteenth century. Its writer was probably contemporary with the founder of this school; the great Dominican scholar Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who resembled Dante in his combination of mystical insight with intense intellectual power, and laid the foundations at once of German philosophy and German mysticism. These two giants stand side by side at the opening of the century; perfect representatives of the Teutonic and Latin instinct for transcendental reality.
Eckhart, though only a few years younger than St. Gertrude the Great, seems to belong to a different world. His commanding personality, his genius for the supra-sensible nourished by the works of Dionysius and Erigena, moulded and inspired all whom it came near. The German and Flemish mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, differing much in temperament from their master and from each other, have yet something in common: something which is shared by no other school. This something is derived from Eckhart; for all have passed under his hand, being either his immediate disciples, or the friends or pupils of his disciples. Eckhart’s doctrine is chiefly known to us by reports of his vernacular sermons delivered at Strassburg; then the religious centre of Germany. In these we see him as a teaching mystic full of pastoral zeal, but demanding a high level both of intellect and spirituality in those he addressed. Towards the end of his life he fell into disgrace. A number of propositions extracted from his writings, and representing his more extreme views, were condemned by the Church as savouring of pantheism and other heresies: and certainly the violence and daring of his language laid him open to misconstruction. In his efforts to speak of the unspeakable he was constantly betrayed into expressions which were bound to seem paradoxical and exaggerated to other men. Eckhart’s influence, however, was little hurt by ecclesiastical condemnation. His pupils, though they remained loyal Catholics, contrived also to be loyal disciples. To the end of their lives their teaching was coloured — often inspired — by the doctrines of the great, if heretical, scholar whose memory they venerated as that of a saint.
The contrast in type between Eckhart and his two most famous disciples is an interesting one. All three were Dominican friars; all were devout followers of St. Augustine, the Areopagite, St. Bernard, and Aquinas; all had been trained in the schools of Cologne, where Albert the Great and St. Thomas had taught, and where their powerful influence still lived. The mysticism of Eckhart, so far as he allows us to see it in his sermons and fragmentary writings, is objective — one might almost say dogmatic. He describes with an air of almost terrible certainty and intimacy, not that which he has felt, but the place or plane of being he has known—“the desert of the Godhead were no one is at home.” He is a great scholar, a natural metaphysician passionately condensed with the quest of Absolute Truth.
Of his two pupils, John Tauler (c. 1300-1361), friar-preacher of Strassburg, was a born missionary: a man who combined with great theological learning and mystical genius of a high order an overwhelming zeal for souls. He laboured incessantly to awaken men to a sense of their transcendental heritage. Without the hard intellectualism occasionally noticeable in Eckhart, or the tendency to introspection and the excessive artistic sensibility of Suso, Tauler is the most virile of the German mystics. The breadth of his humanity is only equalled by the depth of his spirituality. His sermons—his only authentic works—are trumpet-calls to heroic action upon spiritual levels. They influenced many later mystics, especially St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. Tauler is not a subjective writer: only by implication can we assure ourselves that he speaks from personal experience. He has sometimes, though unfairly, been described as a precursor of the Reformation. Such a claim could only be made by those who look upon all pure Christianity as a form of Protestant heresy. He attacked, like St. Hildegarde, St. Catherine of Siena, and many others, the ecclesiastical corruption of his period: but his writings, if read in unexpurgated editions, prove him to have been a fervent and orthodox Catholic.
Tauler was one of the leading spirits in the great informal society of the Friends of God , which sprang into being in Strassburg, spread through the Rhenish province and beyond to Switzerland and Bavaria, and worked in this moment of religious decadence for the spiritual regeneration of the people. In a spirit of fierce enthusiasm and wholehearted devotion, the Friends of God set themselves to the mystic life as the only life worthy of the name. A great outburst of transcendental activity took place: many visions and ecstasies were reported: amazing conversions occurred. The movement had many features in common with that of the Quakers; except that it took place within, instead of without, the official Church, and was partly directed against the doctrines of the Brethren of the Free Spirit and other heretical sects. With it was connected the third of the trio of great German Dominican mystics, the Blessed Henry Suso (c. 1295-1365), a natural recluse and ascetic, and a visionary of the most exuberant Catholic type. To Suso, subjective, romantic, deeply interested in his own soul and his personal relation with God, mysticism was not so much a doctrine to be imparted to other men as an intimate personal adventure. Though a trained philosopher and theologian, and a devoted follower of Eckhart, his autobiography — a human document far more detailed and ingenuous than St. Teresa’s more celebrated “Life” — is mainly the record of his griefs and joys, his pains, visions, ecstasies, and miseries. Even his mystical treatises are in dialogue form, as if he could hardly get away from the personal and dramatic aspect of the spiritual life.
Around these three — Eckhart, Tauler, Suso — are gathered other and more shadowy personalities: members of this mystical society of the Friends of God, bound to the heroic attempt to bring life — the terribly corrupt and disordered religious life of the fourteenth century — back into relation with spiritual reality, to initiate their neighbours into the atmosphere of God. From one of these nameless members comes the literary jewel of the movement: the beautiful little treatise called the “Theologia Germanica,” or “Book of the Perfect Life,” probably written in Frankfort about the year 1350 by a priest of the Teutonic Order. One of the most successful of many attempts to make mystic principles available for common men, this book was greatly loved by Luther, who published an incomplete edition in 1518. Other Friends of God are now only known to us as the authors of letters, descriptions of conversions, visions, and spiritual adventures—literature which the movement produced in enormous quantities. No part of the history of mysticism has been more changed by recent research than that of the Rhenish school: and the work is still but partly done. At present we can only record the principal names which we find connected with the mystical propaganda of the Friends of God. These are first the nuns Margaret Ebner (1291-1351) and her sister Christina , important personages in the movement upon whose historicity no doubts have been cast. Margaret appears to have been a psychic as well as a mystic: and to have possessed, like Madame Guyon, telepathic and clairvoyant powers. Next the rather shadowy pair of laymen, Henry of Nordlingen and Nicolas of Basle . Lastly the puzzling figure of Rulman Merswin (c. 1310-1382), author of the series of apocalyptic visions called The Book of the Nine Rocks”; whose story of his conversion and mystic life, whether it be regarded as fact or “tendency literature,” is a psychological document of the first rank.
In immediate dependence on the German school, and like it drawing its intellectual vigour from the genius of Eckhart, is the mysticism of Flanders: best known to us in the work of its most sublime representative, the Blessed John Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), one of the greatest mystics whom the world has yet known. In Ruysbroeck’s works the metaphysical and personal aspects of mystical truth are fused and attain their highest expression. Intellectually indebted to St. Augustine, Richard of St. Victor, and Eckhart, his value lies in the fact that the Eckhartian philosophy was merely the medium by which he expressed the results of profound experience. In his early years a priest in Brussels, in old age a recluse in the forest of Soignes, Ruysbroeck’s influence on his own generation was great. Through his disciple Gerard Groot (1340-1384), founder of the Brotherhood of the Common Life, it formed the inspiration of the religious movement of the New Devotion; which carried over into the next century the spirit of the great mediaeval mystics. The mystical writings of Henry de Mande (c. 1360-1415), the “Ruysbroeck of the North,” the beautiful and deeply Platonic “Fiery Soliloquy with God” of Gerlac Petersen (1378-1411), and above all the “Imitation of Christ” of his friend Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471), in which some of Gerard Groot’s meditations may be enshrined, are the chief channels through which this mystical current passed. In the next century the Franciscan Henry de Herp or Harphius (ob. 1477) and two greater personalities—the learned and holy Platonist, Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), and his friend the theologian and contemplative Denis the Carthusian (1402-1471), one of the great religious figures of the fifteenth century—drew their inspiration from Ruysbroeck. Denis translated the whole of his works into Latin; and calls him “another Dionysius” but “clear where the Areopagite is obscure.” It was mainly through the voluminous writings of Denis, widely read during succeeding centuries, that the doctrine of the mediaeval mystics was carried over to the Renaissance world. Ruysbroeck’s works, with those of Suso, appear in English MSS. early in the fifteenth century, taking their place by the side of St. Bernard, St. Bonaventura, and the great English mystic Richard Rolle. The influence of his genius has also been detected in the mystical literature of Spain.
English mysticism seems to have its roots in the religious revival which arose during Stephen’s reign. It was then, and throughout its course, closely linked with the solitary life. Its earnest literary monument, the “Ancren Riwle,” was written early in the twelfth century for the use of three anchoresses. So too the “Meditations” of St. Aldred (Abbot of Rievaulx 1146-1166), and the Rule he wrote for his anchoress sister, presuppose the desire for the mystical life. But the first English mystic we can name with certainty is Margery Kempe (probably writing c. 1290), the anchoress of Lynn. Even so, we know nothing of this woman’s life; and only a fragment of her “Contemplations” has survived. It is with the next name, Richard Rolle of Hampole (c. 1300-1349), that the short but brilliant procession of English mystics begins. Rolle, educated at Oxford and perhaps at Paris, and widely read in theology, became a hermit in order to live in perfection that mystic life of “Heat, Sweetness, and Song,” to which he felt himself to be called. Richard of St. Victor, St. Bernard, and St. Bonaventura are the authors who have influenced him most; but he remains, in spite of this, one of the most individual of all writers on mysticism. A voluminous author, his chief works are still in MS., and he seems to have combined the careers of writer and wandering preacher with that of recluse. He laid claim to direct inspiration, was outspoken in his criticisms of religious and secular life, and in the next generation the Lollards were found to appeal to his authority. Rolle already shows the practical temper characteristic of the English school. His interest was not philosophy, but spiritual life; and especially his own experience of it. There is a touch of Franciscan poetry in his descriptions of his communion with Divine Love, and the “heavenly song” in which it was expressed, of Franciscan ardour in his zeal for souls. His works greatly influenced succeeding English mystics.
He was followed in the second half of the fourteenth century by the unknown author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” and its companion treatises, and by the gracious spirit of Walter Hilton (ob. 1396). With “The Cloud of Unknowing,” the spirit of Dionysius first appears in English literature. It is the work of an advanced contemplative, deeply influenced by the Areopagite and the Victorines, who was also an acute psychologist. From the hand that wrote it came the first English translation of the “Theologia Mystica,” “Dionise Hid Divinite”: a work which says an old writer, “ran across England at deere rates,” so ready was the religious consciousness of the time for the reception of mystical truth.
Hilton, though also influenced by Dionysius and Richard of St. Victor, addresses a wider audience. He is pre-eminently a spiritual director, the practical teacher of interior ways, not a metaphysician; and his great work “The Scale of Perfection” quickly took rank among the classics of the spiritual life. The moment of his death coincides with the completion of the most beautiful of all English mystical works, the “Revelations of Love” of the anchoress Julian of Norwich (1343–died after 1413), “theodidacta, profunda, ecstatica,” whose unique personality closes and crowns the history of English mediaeval mysticism. In her the best gifts of Rolle and Hilton are transmuted by a “genius for the infinite” of a peculiarly beautiful and individual type. She was a seer, a lover, and a poet. Though considerable theological knowledge underlies her teaching, it is in essence the result of a direct and personal vision of singular intensity.
Already before the completion of Julian’s revelations two other women of genius, the royal prophetess and founder St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) and St. Catherine of Siena(1347-1380), had lived and died. St. Bridget, or Birgitta, a mystic and visionary of the Hildegardian type, believed herself called to end the exile of the Papacy and bring peace to the Church. Four months after her death, St. Catherine—then aged 26—took up her unfinished work. The true successor of Dante as a revealer of Reality, and next to St. Francis the greatest of Italian mystics, Catherine exhibits the Unitive Life in its richest, most perfect form. She was a great active and a great ecstatic: at once politician, teacher, and contemplative, holding a steady balance between the inner and the outer life. Well named “the mother of thousands of souls,” with little education she yet contrived, in a short career dogged by persistent ill-health, to change the course of history, rejuvenate religion, and compose, in her “Divine Dialogue,” one of the jewels of Italian religious literature.
With the first half of the fifteenth century it is plain that the mystic curve droops downwards. At its opening we find the influential figure of the Chancellor Gerson (1363-1429) at once a mystic in his own right and a keen and impartial critic of extravagant mystical teachings and phenomena. But the great period is over: the new life of the Renaissance, already striving in other spheres of activity, has hardly touched the spiritual plane. A transient revival of Franciscan spirituality is associated with the work of three reforming mystics; the energetic French visionary St. Colette of Corbie (1381-1447), her Italian disciple St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), and the ecstatic Clarisse, St. Catherine of Bologna (1413-1463). Contemporary with this group are the careers of two strongly contrasted woman-mystics: St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431), and the suffering Flemish visionary St. Lydwine of Schiedam (1380-1432).
With the second half of the century the scene shifts to Italy, where a spiritual genius of the first rank appeared in St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510). She, like her namesake of Siena, was at once an eager lover and an indomitable doer. More, she was a constructive mystic, a profound thinker as well as an ecstatic: an original teacher, a busy and practical philanthropist. Her influence lived on, and is seen in the next generation in the fine, well-balanced nature of another contemplative: the Venerable Battista Vernazza (1497-1587), her goddaughter and the child of one of her most loyal friends. Catherine of Genoa stands alone in her day as an example of the sane and vigorous mystic life. Her contemporaries were for the most part visionaries of the more ordinary female type, such as Osanna Andreasi of Mantua (1449-1505), Columba Rieti (c. 1430-1501) and her disciple Lucia of Narni . They seem to represent the slow extinction of the spirit which burned so bright in St. Catherine of Siena.
That spirit reappears in the sixteenth century in Flanders in the works of the Benedictine Abbot Blosius (1506-1565); and, far more conspicuously, in Spain, a country hardly touched by the outburst of mystical life which elsewhere closed the medieval period. Spanish mysticism first appears in close connection with the religious orders: in the Franciscans Francisco de Osuna (ob. c. 1540), whose manual of contemplative prayer influenced the development of St. Teresa, and St. Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562), her friend and adviser; in the Dominican Luis de Granada (1504-1588) and the Augustinian Luis de Leon (1528-1591). It attains definite and characteristic expression in the life and personality of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the great founder of the Society of Jesus. The concrete nature of St. Ignatius’ work, and especially its later developments, has blinded historians to the fact that he was a true mystic, own brother to such great actives as St. Teresa and George Fox, actuated by the same vision of reality, passing through the same stages of psychological growth. His spiritual sons greatly influenced the inner life of the great Carmelite, St. Teresa (1515-1582).
Like St. Catherine of Siena, these mystics — and to them we must add St. Teresa’s greatest disciple, the poet and contemplative St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) — seem to have arisen in direct response to the need created by the corrupt or disordered religious life of their time. They were the “saints of the counter-Reformation”; and, in a period of ecclesiastical chaos, flung the weight of their genius and their sanctity into the orthodox Catholic scale. Whilst St. Ignatius organized a body of spiritual soldiery, who should attack heresy and defend the Church, St. Teresa, working against heavy odds, infused new vitality into a great religious order and restored it to its duty of direct communion with the transcendental world. In this she was helped by St. John of the Cross; who, a psychologist and philosopher as well as a great mystic, performed the necessary function of bringing the personal experience of the Spanish school back again into touch with the main stream of mystic tradition. All three, practical organizers and profound contemplatives, exhibit in its splendour the dual character of the mystic life. They left behind them in their literary works an abiding influence which has guided the footsteps and explained the discoveries of succeeding generations of adventurers in the transcendental world. The true spiritual children of these mystics are to be found, not in their own country, where the religious life which they had lifted to transcendent levels degenerated when their overmastering influence was withdrawn, but amongst the innumerable contemplative souls of succeeding generations who have fallen under the spell of the “Spiritual Exercises,” the “Interior Castle,” or the “Dark Night of the Soul.”469
The Divine fire lit by the great Carmelites of Spain is next seen in Italy, in the lives of the Dominican nun St. Catherine dei Ricci (1522-1590) and the Florentine Carmelite St. Maria Maddelena dei Pazzi (1566-1607), the author of voluminous literary works. It appears in the New World in the beautiful figure of St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617), the Peruvian nun; and at the same moment, under a very different aspect, in Protestant Germany, in the person of one of the giants of mysticism, the “inspired shoemaker” Jacob Boehme (1575-1624).
Boehme, one of the most astonishing cases in history of a natural genius for the transcendent, has left his mark upon German philosophy as well as upon the history of mysticism. William Law, Blake, and Saint-Martin are amongst those who have sat at his feet. The great sweep of Boehme’s vision includes both Man and the Universe: the nature of God and of the Soul. In him we find again that old doctrine of Rebirth which the earlier German mystics had loved. Were it not for the difficult symbolism in which his vision is expressed, his influence would be far greater than it is. He remains one of those cloud-wrapped immortals who must be rediscovered and reinterpreted by the adventurers of every age.
The seventeenth century rivals the fourteenth in the richness and variety of its mystical life. Two main currents are to be detected in it: dividing between them the two main aspects of man’s communion with the Absolute. One, symbolic, constructive, activistic, bound up with the ideas of regeneration, and often using the language of the alchemists sets out from the Teutonic genius of Boehme. It achieves its successes outside the Catholic Church, and chiefly in Germany and England, where by 1650 his works were widely known. In its decadent forms it runs to the occult: to alchemy, Rosicrucianism, apocalyptic prophecy, and other aberrations of the spiritual sense. The other current arises within the Catholic Church, and in close touch with the great tradition of Christian mysticism. It achieves fullest expansion in France, and tends to emphasize the personal and intimate side of contemplation: encouraging passive receptivity and producing in its exaggerated forms the aberrations of the Quietists.
In the seventeenth century England was peculiarly rich, if not in great mystics, at any rate in mystically minded men, seekers after Reality. Mysticism, it seems, was in the air; broke out under many disguises and affected many forms of life. It produced in George Fox (1624-1690), the founder of the Quakers, a “great active” of the first rank, entirely unaffected by tradition, and in the Quaker movement itself an outbreak of genuine mysticism which is only comparable to the fourteenth-century movement of the Friends of God.
We meet in Fox that overwhelming sense of direct relationship with God, that consciousness of the transcendent characteristic of the mystic; and Quaker spirituality, in spite of its marked aversion to institutional religion, has much in common not only with those Continental Quietists who are its most obvious spiritual affinities, but also with the doctrine of the Catholic contemplatives. Mysticism crops up frequently in the writings of the school; and finds expression in the first generation in the works of Isaac Penington (1616-1679) and in the second in the Journal of the heroic American Friend John Woolman (1720-1772).
At the opposite end of the theological scale, the seventeenth century gives us a group of English mystics of the Catholic type, closely related to the contemporary French school. Of these, one of the most individual is the young Benedictine nun Gertrude More (1606-1633), who carries on that tradition of the communion of love which flows from St. Augustine through St. Bernard and Thomas à Kempis, and is the very heart of Catholic mysticism. In the writings of her director, and the preserver of her works, the Venerable Augustine Baker (1575-1641) — one of the most lucid and orderly of guides to the contemplative life — we see what were still the formative influences in the environment where her mystical powers were trained. Richard of St. Victor, Hilton, and “The Cloud of Unknowing”; Angela of Foligno; Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck; St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross; these are the authorities to whom Augustine Baker most constantly appeals, and through these, as we know, the family tree of the mystics goes back to the Neoplatonists and the first founders of the Church.
Outside that Church, the twins Thomas Vaughan the spiritual alchemist and Henry Vaughan, Silurist, the mystical poet (1622-1695) show the reaction of two very different temperaments upon the transcendental life. Again, the group of “Cambridge Platonists,” Henry More (1614-1687), John Smith (1618-1652), Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), Peter Sterry (c. 1614-1672), and John Norris (1657-1711) developed and preached a philosophy deeply tinged with mysticism; and Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674) gave poetic expression to the Platonic vision of life. In Bishop Hall (1574-1656) the same spirit takes a devotional form. Finally, the Rosicrucians, symbolists, and other spiritually minded occultists—above all the extraordinary sect of Philadelphians, ruled by Dr. Pordage (1608-1698) and the prophetess Jane Lead (1623-1704)—exhibit mysticism in its least balanced aspect mingled with mediumistic phenomena, wild symbolic visions, and apocalyptic prophecies. The influence of these Philadelphians, who were themselves strongly affected by Boehme’s works, lingered for a century, appearing again in Saint-Martin the “Unknown Philosopher.”
The Catholic mysticism of this period is best seen in France, where the intellectual and social expansion of the Grande Siècle had also its spiritual side. Over against the brilliant worldly life of seventeenth-century Paris and the slackness and even corruption of much organized religion there sprang up something like a cult of the inner life. This mystical renaissance seems to have originated in the work of an English Capuchin friar, William Fitch, in religion Benedict Canfield (1520-1611), who settled in Paris in old age and there became a centre of spiritual influence. Among his pupils were Madame Acarie (1566-1618) and Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629), and through them his teaching on contemplation affected all the great religious personalities of the period. The house of Madame Acarie — a woman equally remarkable for spiritual genius and practical ability — became the gathering-point of a growing mystical enthusiasm, which also expressed itself in a vigorous movement of reform within the Church. Bérulle was one of the founders of the Oratory. Madame Acarie, known as the “conscience of Paris,” visited the relaxed convents and persuaded them to a more strict and holy life. Largely by her instrumentality, the first houses of reformed Carmelites were established in France in 1604, nuns being brought to direct them from St. Teresa’s Spanish convents, and French mysticism owes much to this direct contact with the Teresian school. Madame Acarie and her three daughters all became Carmelite nuns; and it was from the Dijon Carmelites that St. Jeanne Françoise de Chantal (1572-1641) received her training in contemplation. Her spiritual father, and co-founder of the Order of the Visitation, St. François de Sales (1567-1622), had also been in youth a member of Madame Acarie’s circle. He shows at its best the peculiar talent of the French school for the detailed and individual direction of souls. Outside this cultured and aristocratic group two great and pure mystics arise from humbler social levels. First the intrepid Ursuline nun Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672), the pioneer of education in the New World, in whom we find again St. Teresa’s twin gifts for high contemplation and practical initiative. Secondly the Carmelite friar Brother Lawrence (1611-1691), who shows the passive tendency of French mysticism in its most sane, well-balanced form. He was a humble empiricist, laying claim to no special gifts: a striking contrast to his contemporary, the brilliant and unhappy genius Pascal (1623-1662), who fought his way through many psychic storms to the vision of the Absolute.
The genuine French and Flemish mysticism of this period, greatly preoccupied with the doctrines of self-naughting and passivity, constantly approached the frontiers of Quietism. The three great Capuchin teachers of contemplation, the Flemings Constantine Barbançon (1581-1632) and John Evangelist of Barluke (1588-1635), and the English Benedict Canfield, were not entirely beyond suspicion in this regard; as their careful language, and the scrutiny to which they were subjected by contemporary authority, clearly shows. The line between the true and false doctrine was a fine one, as we see in the historic controversy between Bossuet and Fenelon; and the perilous absurdities of the Quietist writers often tempted the orthodox to draw it in the wrong place.
The earliest in date and most exaggerated in type of these true Quietists is the Franco-Flemish Antoinette Bourignan (1616-1680): a strong-willed and wrong-headed woman who, having renounced the world with Franciscan thoroughness, founded a sect, endured considerable persecutions, and made a great stir in the religious life of her time. An even greater uproar resulted from the doctrinal excesses of the devout Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos (1640-1697); whose extreme teachings were condemned by the Church, and for a time brought the whole principle of passive contemplation into disrepute. Quietism, at bottom, was the unbalanced expression of that need which produced the contemporary Quaker movement in England: a need for personal contact with spiritual realities, evoked by the formal and unsatisfying quality of the official religion of the time. Unfortunately the great Quietists were not great mystics. Hence their propaganda, in which the principle of passivity — divorced from, and opposed to, all spiritual action — was pressed to its logical conclusion, resulted in a doctrine fatal not only to all organized religion but to the healthy development of the inner life.
Madame Guyon (1648-1717), the contemporary of Molinos, is usually quoted as a typical Quietist. She is an example of the unfortunate results of an alliance of mystical tendencies with a feeble surface intelligence. Had she possessed the robust common sense so often found in the great contemplatives, her temperamental inclination to passivity would have been checked, and she would hardly have made use of the exaggerated expressions which brought about the official condemnation of her works. In spite of the brilliant championship of Fenelon, and the fact that much of her writing merely reproduces orthodox teaching on contemplative prayer in an inferior form, she was involved in the general condemnation of “passive orison” which the aberrations of the extreme Quietists had called forth.
The end of the seventeenth century saw a great outburst of popular Quietism, some within and some without the official Church. Well within the frontiers of orthodoxy, and exhibiting the doctrine of passivity in its noblest form, was the Jesuit J. P. de Caussade (still living 1739). Among those who over-stepped the boundary — though all the Quietists appealed to the general tradition of mysticism in support of their one-sided doctrine — were Malaval , whose “Théologie Mystique” contains some beautiful French translations from St. Teresa, and Peter Poiret (1646-1719), once a Protestant pastor, then the devoted disciple of Antoinette Bourignan. Later generations owe much to the enthusiasm and industry of Poiret, whose belief in spiritual quiescence was combined with great literary activity. He rescued and edited all Madame Guyon’s writings; and has left us, in his “Bibliotheca Mysticorum,” the memorial of many lost works on mysticism. From this unique bibliography we can see how “orthodox” was the food which nourished even the most extreme of the Quietists: how thoroughly they believed themselves to represent not a new doctrine, but the true tradition of Christian mysticism.
With the close of the seventeenth century, the Quietist movement faded away. The beginning of the eighteenth sees the triumph of that other stream of spiritual vitality which arose outside the Catholic Church and flowed from the great personality of Jacob Boehme. If the idea of surrender be the mainspring of Quietism, the complementary idea of rebirth is the mainspring of this school. In Germany, Boehme’s works had been collected and published by an obscure mystic, John Gichtel (1638-1710); whose life and letters constantly betray his influence. In England, where that influence had been a living force from the middle of the seventeenth century, when Boehme’s writings first became known, the Anglo-German Dionysius Andreas Freher was writing between 1699 and 1720. In the early years of the eighteenth century, Freher was followed by William Law (1686-1761), the Nonjuror: a brilliant stylist, and one of the most profound of English religious writers. Law, who was converted by the reading of Boehme’s works from the narrow Christianity to which he gave classic expression in the “Serious Call” to a wide and philosophic mysticism, gave, in a series of writings which burn with mystic passion, a new interpretation and an abiding place in English literature to the “inspired shoemaker’s” mighty vision of Man and the Universe.
The latter part of a century which clearly represents the steep downward trend of the mystic curve gives us three strange personalities; all of whom have passed through Boehme’s school, and have placed themselves in opposition to the ecclesiasticism of their day. In Germany, Eckartshausen (1752-1803), in “The Cloud upon the Sanctuary” and other works, continued upon individual lines that tradition of esoteric and mystical Christianity, and of rebirth as the price of man’s entrance into Reality, which found its best and sanest interpreter in William Law. In France the troubled spirit of the transcendentalist Saint-Martin (1743-1803), the “Unknown Philosopher,” was deeply affected in his passage from a merely occult to a mystical philosophy by the reading of Boehme and Eckartshausen, and also by the works of the English “Philadelphians,” Dr. Pordage and Jane Lead, who had long sunk to oblivion in their native land. In England, William Blake , poet, painter, visionary, and prophet (1757-1827), shines like a solitary star in the uncongenial atmosphere of the Georgian age.
The career of Blake provides us with a rare instance of mystical genius, forcing not only rhythm and words, but also colour and form to express its vision of truth. So individual in his case was this vision, so strange the elements from which his symbolic reconstructions were built up, that he failed in the attempt to convey it to other men. Neither in his prophetic books nor in his beautiful mystical paintings does he contrive to transmit more than great and stimulating suggestions of “things seen” in some higher and more valid state of consciousness. Whilst his visionary symbolism derives to a large extent from Swedenborg, whose works were the great influence of his youth, Blake has learned much from Boehme, and probably from his English interpreters. Almost alone amongst English Protestant mystics, he has also received and assimilated the Catholic tradition of the personal and inward communion of love. In his great vision of “Jerusalem,” St. Teresa and Madame Guyon are amongst the “gentle souls” whom he sees guarding that Four-fold Gate which opens towards Beulah — the gate of the contemplative life — and guiding the great “Wine-press of Love” whence mankind, at the hands of its mystics, has received, in every age, the Wine of Life.