The Mystic Way 3: Purification of the Self

Last time we looked at how the mystic enters onto the path through the awakening of the Self using extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. Here we continue to explore the mystical process in the second phase of the path:

“Here then, stands the newly awakened self: aware, for the first time, of reality, responding to that reality by deep movements of love and of awe. She sees herself, however, not merely to be thrust into a new world, but set at the beginning of a new road. … What must be the first step of the self upon this road to perfect union with the Absolute? Clearly, a getting rid of all those elements of normal experience which are not in harmony with reality: of illusion, evil, imperfection of every kind.

“By false desires and false thoughts man has built up for himself a false universe: as a mollusc by the deliberate and persistent absorption of lime and rejection of all else, can build up for itself a hard shell which shuts it from the external world, and only represents in a distorted and unrecognisable form the ocean from which it was obtained. This hard and wholly [innutritious] shell, this one-sided secretion of the surface-consciousness, makes as it were a little cave of illusion for each separate soul. A literal and deliberate getting out of the cave must be for every mystic, as it was for Plato’s prisoners, the first step in the individual hunt for reality.

“In the plain language of old-fashioned theology “man’s sin is stamped upon man’s universe.” We see a sham world because we live a sham life. We do not know ourselves; hence do not know the true character of our senses and instincts; hence attribute wrong values to their suggestions and declarations concerning our relation to the external world. That world, which we have distorted by identifying it with our own self-regarding arrangements of its elements, has got to reassume for us the character of Reality, of God.”

“That which we call the “natural” self as it exists in the “natural” world … is wholly incapable of supersensual adventure. All its activities are grouped about a centre of consciousness whose correspondences are with the material world. In the moment of its awakening, it is abruptly made aware of this disability. It knows itself finite. It now aspires to the infinite. It is encased in the hard crust of individuality; it aspires to union with a larger self. It is fettered; it longs for freedom. Its every sense is attuned to illusion; it craves for harmony with the Absolute Truth.

“God is the only Reality,” says Patmore, “and we are real only as far as we are in His order and He is in us.” Whatever form, then, the mystical adventure may take it must begin with a change in the attitude of the subject; a change which will introduce it into the order of Reality, and enable it to set up permanent relations with an Object which is not normally part of its universe. Therefore, though the end of mysticism is not adequately defined as goodness, it entails the acquirement of goodness. The virtues are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage” because that marriage is union with the Good no less than with the Beautiful and the True.

“Primarily, then, the self must be purged of all that stands between it and goodness: putting on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or “sin.” It longs ardently to do this from the first moment in which it sees itself in the all-revealing radiance of the Uncreated Light. …”

“So, with Dante, the first terrace of the Mount of Purgatory is devoted to the cleansing of pride and the production of humility: the inevitable – one might almost say mechanical – result of a vision, however fleeting, of Reality, and an undistorted sight of the earthbound self. All its life that self has been measuring its candlelight by other candles. Now for the first time it is out in the open air and sees the sun. …”

“The first thing that the self observes, when it turns back upon itself in that awful moment of lucidity – enters, as St. Catherine says, into “the cell of self-knowledge,” – is the horrible contrast between its clouded contours and the pure sharp radiance of the Real; between its muddled faulty life, its perverse self-centred drifting, and the clear onward sweep of that Becoming in which it is immersed.

“It is then that the outlook of rapture and awe receives the countersign of repentance. The harbinger of that new self which must be born appears under the aspect of a desire: a passionate longing to escape from the suddenly perceived hatefulness of selfhood, and to conform to Reality, the Perfect which it has seen under its aspect of Goodness, of Beauty, or of Love – to be worthy of it, in fact to be real. “This showing,” says Gerlac Petersen of that experience, “is so vehement and so strong that the whole of the interior man, not only of his heart but of his body, is marvellously moved and shaken, and faints within itself, unable to endure it. And by this means, his interior aspect is made clear without any cloud, and conformable in its own measure to Him whom he seeks.”

“The lives of the mystics abound in instances of the “vehemence of this showing”: of the deep-seated sense of necessity which urges the newly awakened self to a life of discomfort and conflict, often to intense poverty and pain, as the only way of replacing false experience by true. Here the transcendental consciousness, exalted by a clear intuition of its goal, and not merely “counting” but perceiving the world to be obviously well lost for such a prize, takes the reins. It forces on the unwilling surface mind a sharp vision of its own disabilities, its ugly and imperfect life; and the thirst for Perfection which is closely bound up with the mystic temperament makes instant response. … It is the inner conviction that this conformity – this transcendence of the unreal – is possible and indeed normal which upholds the mystic during the terrible years of Purgation …”

“To the true lover of the Absolute, Purgation no less than Illumination is a privilege, a dreadful joy. It is an earnest of increasing life. “Let me suffer or die!” said St. Teresa; a strange alternative in the ears of common sense, but a forced option in the spiritual sphere. However harsh its form, however painful the activities to which it spurs him, the mystic recognizes in this breakup of his old universe an essential part of the Great Work: and the act in which he turns to it is an act of loving desire, no less than an act of will. …”

“It is in this torment of contrition, this acute consciousness of unworthiness, that we have the first swing back of the oscillating self from the initial state of mystic pleasure to the complementary state of pain. It is, so to speak, on its transcendental side, the reflex action which follows the first touch of God.”

“I saw full surely,” says Julian of Norwich, “that it behoveth needs to be that we should be in longing and in penance, until the time that we be led so deep into God that we verily and truly know our own soul.” Dante’s whole journey up the Mount of Purgation is the dramatic presentation of this one truth. So, too, the celebrated description of Purgatory attributed to St. Catherine of Genoa is obviously founded upon its author’s inward experience of this Purgative Way. In it, she applies to the souls of the dead her personal consciousness of the necessity of purification; its place in the organic process of spiritual growth.

“It is, as she acknowledges at the beginning, the projection of her own psychological adventures upon the background of the spiritual world: its substance being simply the repetition after death of that eager and heroic acceptance of suffering, those drastic acts of purification, which she has herself been compelled to undertake under the whip of the same psychic necessity – that of removing the rust of illusion, cleansing the mirror in order that it may receive the divine light.

“… Such a tendency, such a passionate desire, the aspiring self must have. No cool, well-balanced knowledge of the need of new adjustments will avail to set it on the Purgative Way. This is a heroic act, and demands heroic passions in the soul.

“In order to overcome our desires,” says St. John of the Cross, who is the classic authority upon this portion of the mystic quest, “and to renounce all those things, our love and inclination for which are wont so to inflame the will that it delights therein, we require a more ardent fire and a nobler love – that of the Bridegroom. Finding her delight and strength in Him, the soul gains the vigour and confidence which enable her easily to abandon all other affections. It was necessary, in her struggle with the attractive force of her sensual desires, not only to have this love for the Bridegroom, but also to be filled with a burning fervour, full of anguish … if our spiritual nature were not on fire with other and nobler passions we should never cast off the yoke of the senses, nor be able to enter on their night, neither should we have the courage to remain in the darkness of all things, and in denial of every desire.”

“… Once his eyes have been opened on Eternity, his instinct for the Absolute roused from its sleep, he sees union with that Reality as his duty no less than his joy: sees too, that this union can only be consummated on a plane where illusion and selfhood have no place.

“… Hence the purgation of the senses, and of the character which they have helped to build is always placed first in order in the Mystic Way; though sporadic flashes of illumination and ecstasy may, and often do, precede and accompany it. Since spiritual no less than physical existence, as we know it, is an endless Becoming, it too has no end. In a sense the whole of the mystical experience in this life consists in a series of purifications, whereby the Finite slowly approaches the nature of its Infinite Source: climbing up the cleansing mountain pool by pool, like the industrious fish in Rulman Merswin’s vision, until it reaches its Origin. …”

“In this sense, then, purification is a perpetual process. That which mystical writers mean, however, when they speak of the Way of Purgation, is rather the slow and painful completion of Conversion. It is the drastic turning of the self from the unreal to the real life: a setting of her house in order, an orientation of the mind to Truth. Its business is the getting rid, first of self-love; and secondly of all those foolish interests in which the surface-consciousness is steeped.

“… Purgation, which is the remaking of character in conformity with perceived reality, consists in these two essential acts: the cleansing of that which is to remain, the stripping of that which is to be done away. It may best be studied, therefore, in two parts: … Negative Purification, or self-stripping, and … Positive Purification, or character-adjustment.

“These, then, are the branches into which this subject will here be split. (1) The Negative aspect, the stripping or purging away of those superfluous, unreal, and harmful things which dissipate the precious energies of the self. This is the business of Poverty, or Detachment. (2) The Positive aspect: a raising to their highest term, their purest state, of all that remains – the permanent elements of character. This is brought about by Mortification, the gymnastic of the soul: a deliberate recourse to painful experiences and difficult tasks.”

Next we’ll continue with an exploration of the process of purification through detachment

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