Characteristics of Mysticism, Part 4: Method of Love

Last time we looked at the practical spiritual activity of mysticism in the first two characteristics. In part four, we continue the extracts from Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, and explore the third characteristic: the importance of Love. Extract:

“(3) The business and method of Mysticism is Love.

“Here is one of the distinctive notes of true mysticism; marking it off from every other kind of transcendental theory and practice and providing the answer to the question with which our last chapter closed. It is the eager, outgoing activity whose driving power is generous love, not the absorbent, indrawing activity which strives only for new knowledge, that is fruitful in the spiritual as well as in the physical world.

“Having said this, however, we must add…that the word Love as applied to the mystics is to be understood in its deepest, fullest sense; as the ultimate expression of the self’s most vital tendencies, not as the superficial affection or emotion often dignified by this name.

“Mystic Love is a total dedication of the will; the deep-seated desire and tendency of the soul towards its Source. It is a condition of humble access, a life-movement of the self: more direct in its methods, more valid in its results – even in the hands of the least lettered of its adepts – than the most piercing intellectual vision of the greatest philosophic mind. …

“Volumes of extracts might be compiled from the works of the mystics illustrative of this rule, which is indeed their central principle. “Some there are,” says Plotinus, “that for all their effort have not attained the Vision; the soul in them has come to no sense of the splendour there. It has not taken warmth; it has not felt burning within itself the flame of love for what is there to know.” “Love,” says Rolle, “truly suffers not a loving soul to bide in itself, but ravishes it out to the Lover, that the soul is more there where it loves, than where the body is that lives and feels it.” …

“Love to the mystic, then, is (a) the active, conative, expression of his will and desire for the Absolute; (b) his innate tendency to that Absolute, his spiritual weight. He is only thoroughly natural, thoroughly alive, when he is obeying its voice. For him it is the source of joy, the secret of the universe, the vivifying principle of things.

“In the words of Récéjac, “Mysticism claims to be able to know the Unknowable without any help from dialectics; and believes that, by the way of love and will it reaches a point to which thought alone is unable to attain.” Again, “It is the heart and never the reason which leads us to the Absolute.” …

“The jewels of mystical literature glow with this intimate and impassioned love of the Absolute; which transcends the dogmatic language in which it is clothed and becomes applicable to mystics of every race and creed. …

“But if we want to see what it really means to be “in love with the Absolute,” – how intensely actual to the mystic is the Object of his passion, how far removed from the spheres of pious duty or philosophic speculation, how concrete, positive and dominant such a passion may be – we must study the literature of autobiography, not that of poetry or exhortation.

“I choose for this purpose, rather than the well-known self-analyses of St. Augustine, St. Teresa or Suso, which are accessible to every one, the more private confessions of that remarkable mystic Dame Gertrude More, contained in her “Spiritual Exercises.” This nun, great-great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas More, and favourite pupil of the celebrated Benedictine contemplative, the Ven. Augustine Baker, exhibits the romantic and personal side of mysticism more perfectly than even St. Teresa, whose works were composed for her daughters’ edification. She was an eager student of St. Augustine, “my deere deere Saint,” as she calls him more than once. He had evidently influenced her language; but her passion is her own.

“Remember that Gertrude More’s confessions represent the most secret conversations of her soul with God. They were not meant for publication; but, written for the most part on blank leaves in her breviary, were discovered and published after her death. “She called them,” says the title-page with touching simplicity, “Amor ordinem nescit: an Ideot’s Devotions. …

“Never was there or can there be imagined such a Love, as is between an humble soul and thee. Who can express what passeth between such a soul and thee? Verily neither man nor Angell is able to do it sufficiently… In thy prayse I am only happy, in which, my Joy, I will exult with all that love thee. For what can be a comfort while I live separated from thee, but only to remember that my God, who is more myne than I am my owne, is absolutely and infinitely happy?… Out of this true love between a soul and thee, there ariseth such a knowledge in the soul that it loatheth all that is an impediment to her further proceeding in the Love of thee. O Love, Love, even by naming thee, my soul loseth itself in thee. … Nothing can Satiate a reasonable soul but only thou: and having of thee, who art indeed all, nothing could be said to be wanting to her. …

“Blessed are the cleans of hart for they shall see God. O sight to be wished, desired, and longed for; because once to have seen thee is to have learnt all things. Nothing can bring us to this sight but love. But what love must it be? not a sensible love only, a childish love, a love which seeketh itself more than the beloved. No, no, but it must be an ardent love, a pure love, a courageous love, a love of charity, an humble love, and a constant love, not worn out with labours, not daunted with any difficulties. … For that soul that hath set her whole love and desire on thee, can never find any true satisfaction, but only in thee.”

“Who will not see that we have here no literary exercise, but the fruits of an experience of peculiar intensity? It answers exactly to one of the best modern definitions of mysticism as “in essence, the concentration of all the forces of the soul upon a supernatural Object, conceived and loved as a living Person.” [P. Berger on William Blake.]

“Love and desire,” says the same critic, “are the fundamental necessities; and where they are absent man, even though he be a visionary, cannot be called a mystic.” Such a definition, of course, is not complete. It is valuable however, because it emphasizes the fact that all true mysticism is rooted in personality; and is therefore fundamentally a science of the heart.

“Attraction, desire, and union as the fulfilment of desire; this is the way Life works, in the highest as in the lowest things. The mystic’s outlook, indeed, is the lover’s outlook. It has the same element of wildness, the same quality of selfless and quixotic devotion, the same combination of rapture and humility. This parallel is more than a pretty fancy: for mystic and lover, upon different planes, are alike responding to the call of the Spirit of Life. The language of human passion is tepid and insignificant beside the language in which the mystics try to tell the splendours of their love. They force upon the unprejudiced reader the conviction that they are dealing with an ardour far more burning for an Object far more real.

“This monk can give lessons to lovers!” exclaimed Arthur Symons in astonishment of St. John of the Cross. It would be strange if he could not; since their finite passions are but the feeble images of his infinite one, their beloved the imperfect symbol of his First and only Fair. “I saw Him and sought Him: I had Him and I wanted Him,” says Julian of Norwich, in a phrase which seems to sum up all the ecstasy and longing of man’s soul. Only this mystic passion can lead us from our prison. Its brother, the desire of knowledge, may enlarge and improve the premises to an extent as yet undreamed of: but it can never unlock the doors.”

In part five, we’ll look at the final characteristic and the need for psychological transformation.

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