The Mystic Way 4: Purification of the Self – Detachment

Last time we introduced the second phase of the path and the need for purification of the Self. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism with a closer look at the process of purification through detachment and the stripping of any aspect of the self that stands between the mystic and realisation of the Truth:

“Apart from the plain necessity of casting out imperfection and sin, what is the type of “good character” which will best serve the self in its journey towards union with the Absolute? The mystics of all ages and all faiths agree in their answer. Those three virtues which the instinct of the Catholic Church fixed upon as the necessities of the cloistered life – … voluntary Poverty with its departments, Chastity, the poverty of the senses, and Obedience, the poverty of the will – are also, when raised to their highest term and transmuted by the Fire of Love, the essential virtues of the mystical quest.

“By Poverty the mystic means an utter self-stripping, the casting off of immaterial as well as material wealth, a complete detachment from all finite things. By Chastity he means an extreme and limpid purity of soul, cleansed from personal desire and virgin to all but God; by Obedience, that abnegation of selfhood, that mortification of the will, which results in a complete self-abandonment, a “holy indifference” to the accidents of life.

“These three aspects of perfection are really one: linked together as irrevocably as the three aspects of the self. Their common characteristic is this: they tend to make the subject regard itself, not as an isolated and interesting individual, possessing desires and rights, but as a scrap of the Cosmos, an ordinary bit of the Universal Life, only important as a part of the All, an expression of the Will Divine. Detachment and purity go hand in hand, for purity is but detachment of the heart; and where these are present they bring with them that humble spirit of obedience which expresses detachment of will. We may therefore treat them as three manifestations of one thing: which thing is Inward Poverty.”

“It is not love but lust – the possessive case, the very food of selfhood – which poisons the relation between the self and the external world and “immediately fatigues” the soul. Divide the world into “mine” and “not mine,” and unreal standards are set up, claims and cravings begin to fret the mind. We are the slaves of our own property. We drag with us not a treasure, but a chain. …”

“Some there are,” says Plotinus, “that for all their effort have not attained the Vision. . . . They have received the authentic Light, all their soul has gleamed as they have drawn near, but they come with a load on their shoulders which holds them back from the place of Vision. They have not ascended in the pure integrity of their being, but are burdened with that which keeps them apart. They are not yet made one within.”

“Accept Poverty, however, demolish ownership, the verb “to have” in every mood and tense, and this downward drag is at an end. At once the Cosmos belongs to you, and you to it. You escape the heresy of separateness, are “made one,” and merged in “the greater life of the All.” Then, a free spirit in a free world, the self moves upon its true orbit; undistracted by the largely self-imposed needs and demands of ordinary earthly existence. …

“Poverty, then, prepares man’s spirit for that union with God to which it aspires. She strips off the clothing which he so often mistakes for himself, transvaluates all his values, and shows him things as they are. “There are,” says Eckhart, “four ascending degrees of such spiritual poverty.

  1. The soul’s contempt of all things that are not God.
  2. Contempt of herself and her own works.
  3. Utter self-abandonment.
  4. Self-loss in the incomprehensible Being of God.”

“Poverty, then, consists in a breaking down of man’s inveterate habit of trying to rest in, or take seriously, things which are “less than God”: i.e., which do not possess the character of reality. Such a habit is the most fertile of all causes of “world-weariness,” disillusion and unrest; faults, or rather spiritual diseases, which the mystics never exhibit, but which few who are without all mystic feeling can hope to escape. Hence the sharpened perceptions of the contemplatives have always seen poverty as a counsel of prudence, a higher form of common sense. It was not with St. Francis, or any other great mystic, a first principle, an end in itself. It was rather a logical deduction from the first principle of their science – the paramount importance to the soul of an undistracted vision of reality.

“Here East and West are in agreement: “Their science,” says Al Ghazzali of the Sufis, who practised, like the early Franciscans, a complete renunciation of worldly goods, “has for its object the uprooting from the soul of all violent passions, the extirpation from it of vicious desires and evil qualities; so that the heart may become detached from all that is not God, and give itself for its only occupation meditation upon the Divine Being.”

All those who have felt themselves urged towards the attainment of this transcendental vision, have found that possessions interrupt the view; that claims, desires, attachments become centres of conflicting interest in the mind. They assume a false air of importance, force themselves upon the attention, and complicate life. Hence, in the interest of self-simplification, they must be cleared away: a removal which involves for the real enthusiast little more sacrifice than the weekly visit of the dustman. “Having entirely surrendered my own free-will,” says Al Ghazzali of his personal experience,” my heart no longer felt any distress in renouncing fame, wealth, or the society of my children.”

“Others have reconciled self-surrender with a more moderate abandonment of outward things; for possessions take different rank for almost every human soul. The true rule of poverty consists in giving up those things which enchain the spirit, divide its interests, and deflect it on its road to God – whether these things be riches, habits, religious observances, friends, interests, distastes, or desires – not in mere outward destitution for its own sake. It is attitude, not act, that matters; self-denudation would be unnecessary were it not for our inveterate tendency to attribute false value to things the moment they become our own.”

“The Poverty of the mystics, then, is a mental rather than a material state. Detachment of the will from all desire of possessions is the inner reality, of which Franciscan poverty is a sacrament to the world. It is the poor in spirit, not the poor in substance, who are to be spiritually blessed. … The soul,” says St. John of the Cross, “is not empty, so long as the desire for sensible things remains. But the absence of this desire for things produces emptiness and liberty of soul; even when there is an abundance of possessions.”

Every person in whom the mystical instinct awakes soon discovers in himself certain tastes or qualities which interrupt the development of that instinct. Often these tastes and qualities are legitimate enough upon their own plane; but they are a drain upon the energy of the self, preventing her from attaining that intenser life for which she was made and which demands her undivided zest. They distract her attention, fill the field of perception, stimulate her instinctive life: making of the surface-consciousness so active a thing that it can hardly be put to sleep.”

“The nature of these distracting factors which “confuse and enchain the mind” will vary with almost every individual. It is impossible to predict what those things will be which a self must give up, in order that the transcendental consciousness may grow. “It makes little difference whether a bird be held by a slender thread or by a rope; the bird is bound, and cannot fly until the cord that holds it is broken. It is true that a slender thread is more easily broken; still notwithstanding, if it is not broken the bird cannot fly. This is the state of a soul with particular attachments: it never can attain to the liberty of the divine union, whatever virtues it may possess. Desires and attachments affect the soul as the remora is said to affect a ship; that is but a little fish, yet when it clings to the vessel it effectually hinders its progress.”

“Thus each adventurer must discover and extirpate all those interests which nourish selfhood, however innocent or even useful these interests may seem in the eyes of the world. The only rule is the ruthless abandonment of everything which is in the way. … An admirable example of the mystic’s attitude towards the soul-destroying division of interests, the natural but hopeless human struggle to make the best of both worlds, which sucks at its transcendental vitality, occurs in St. Teresa’s purgative period. In her case this war between the real and the superficial self extended over many years; running side by side with the state of Illumination, and a fully developed contemplative life.

“At last it was brought to an end by a “Second Conversion” which unified her scattered interests and set her firmly and for ever on the Unitive Way. The virile strength of Teresa’s character, which afterwards contributed to the greatness of her achievement, opposed the invading transcendental consciousness; disputed every inch of territory; resisted every demand made upon it by the growing spiritual self. Bit by bit it was conquered, the sphere of her deeper life enlarged; until the moment came in which she surrendered, once for all, to her true destiny.

“Many a mystic, however, has found the perfection of detachment to be consistent with a far less drastic renunciation of external things … The test, as we have seen, does not lie in the nature of the things which are retained, but in the reaction which they stimulate in the self. “Absolute poverty is thine,” says Tauler, “when thou canst not remember whether anybody has ever owed thee or been indebted to thee for anything; just as all things will be forgotten by thee in the last journey of death.”

“Poverty, in this sense, may be consistent with the habitual and automatic use of luxuries which the abstracted self never even perceives. Thus we are told that St. Bernard was reproached by his enemies with the inconsistency of preaching evangelical poverty whilst making his journeys from place to place on a magnificently caparisoned mule, which had been lent to him by the Cluniac monks. He expressed great contrition, but said that he had never noticed what it was that he rode upon.

“To say that some have fallen short of this difficult ideal and taken refuge in mere abnegation is but to say that asceticism is a human, not a superhuman art, and is subject to “the frailty of the creature.” But on the whole, these excesses are mainly found amongst saintly types who have not exhibited true mystic intuition. This intuition, entailing as it does communion with intensest Life, gives to its possessors a sweet sanity, a delicate balance, which guards them, as a rule, from such conceptions of chastity as that of the youthful saint who shut himself in a cupboard for fear he should see his mother pass by; from the obedience which identifies the voice of the director with the voice of God; from detachment such as that exhibited by the Blessed Angela of Foligno, who, though a true mystic, viewed with almost murderous satisfaction the deaths of relatives who were “impediments.”

The detachment of the mystic is just a restoration to the liberty in which the soul was made: it is a state of joyous humility in which he cries, “Nought I am, nought I have, nought I lack.” To have arrived at this is to have escaped from the tyranny of selfhood: to be initiated into the purer air of that universe which knows but one rule of action – that which was laid down once for all by St. Augustine when he said, in the most memorable and misquoted of epigrams: “Love, and do what you like.”

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

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