The Mystic Way 5: Purification of the Self – Mortification

Last time we looked at the process of purification through detachment. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism with a closer look at the process of purification through mortification and the adjustment of the character of the mystic to bring the self closer to God:

“By mortification, I have said, is to be understood the positive aspect of purification: the remaking in relation to reality of the permanent elements of character. These elements, so far, have subserved the interests of the old self, worked for it in the world of sense. Now they must be adjusted to the needs of the new self and to the transcendent world in which it moves. Their focal point is the old self; the “natural man” and his self-regarding instincts and desires. The object of mortification is to kill that old self, break up his egoistic attachments and cravings, in order that the higher centre, the “new man,” may live and breathe.

“In psychological language, the process of mortification is the process of setting up “new paths of neural discharge.” That is to say, the mystic life has got to express itself in action: and for this new paths must be cut and new habits formed … resulting in a complete sublimation of personality. The energy which wells up incessantly in every living being must abandon the old road of least resistance and discharge itself in a new and more difficult way. … the old paths, left to themselves, must fade and die. When they are dead, and the new life has triumphed, Mortification is at an end. The mystics always know when this moment comes. Often an inner voice then warns them to lay their active penances aside.

“Since the greater and stronger the mystic, the stronger and more stubborn his character tends to be, this change of life and turning of energy from the old and easy channels to the new is often a stormy matter. It is a period of actual battle between the inharmonious elements of the self, its lower and higher springs of action: of toil, fatigue, bitter suffering, and many disappointments. Nevertheless, in spite of its etymological associations, the object of mortification is not death but life: the production of health and strength, the health and strength of the human consciousness …”

“No more than detachment, then, is mortification an end in itself. It is a process, an education directed towards the production of a definite kind of efficiency, the adjustment of human nature to the demands of its new life. Severe, and to the outsider apparently unmeaning – like their physical parallels the exercises of the gymnasium – its disciplines, faithfully accepted, do release the self from the pull of the lower nature, establish it on new levels of freedom and power. …

This transformation accomplished, mortification may end, and often does, with startling abruptness. After a martyrdom which lasted sixteen years, says Suso – speaking as usual in the third person – of his own experience, “On a certain Whitsun Day a heavenly messenger appeared to him, and ordered him in God’s name to continue it no more. He at once ceased, and threw all the instruments of his sufferings [irons, nails, hair-shirt, etc.] into a river.” From this time onward, austerities of this sort had no part in Suso’s life.”

“Thus, St. Catherine of Genoa, after a penitential period of four years, during which she was haunted by a constant sense of sin, and occupied by incessant mortifications, found that “all thought of such mortifications was in an instant taken from her mind: in such a manner that, had she even wished to continue such mortifications, she would have been unable to do so . . . the sight of her sins was now taken from her mind, so that henceforth she did not catch a glimpse of them: it was as though they had all been cast into the depths of the sea.” In other words, the new and higher centre of consciousness, finally established, asserted itself and annihilated the old.

“This mortifying process is necessary, not because the legitimate exercise of the senses is opposed to Divine Reality, but because those senses have usurped a place beyond their station; become the focus of energy, steadily drained the vitality of the self. … The senses have grown stronger than their masters, monopolized the field of perception, dominated an organism which was made for greater activities, and built up those barriers of individuality which must be done away if true personality is to be achieved, and with it some share in the boundless life of the One. It is thanks to this wrong distribution of energy, this sedulous feeding of the cuckoo in the nest, that “in order to approach the Absolute, mystics must withdraw from everything, even themselves.”

The soul is plunged in utter ignorance, when she supposes that she can attain to the high estate of union with God before she casts away the desire of all things, natural and supernatural, which she may possess,” says St. John of the Cross, “because the distance between them and that which takes place in the state of pure transformation in God is infinite.” Again, “until the desires be lulled to sleep by the mortification of sensuality, and sensuality itself be mortified in them, so that it shall war against the spirit no more, the soul cannot go forth in perfect liberty to union with the Beloved.”

The death of selfhood in its narrow individualistic sense is, then, the primary object of mortification. All the twisted elements of character which foster the existence of this unreal yet complex creature are to be pruned away. Then, as with the trees of the forest, so with the spirit of man, strong new branches will spring into being, grow towards air and light. “I live, yet not I” is to be the declaration of the mystic who has endured this “bodily death.” The self-that-is-to-be will live upon a plane where her own prejudices and preferences are so uninteresting as to be imperceptible. She must be weaned from these nursery toys: and weaning is a disagreeable process. The mystic, however, undertakes it as a rule without reluctance: pushed by his vivid consciousness of imperfection, his intuition of a more perfect state, necessary to the fulfilment of his love.”

“This “divine furnace of purifying love” demands from the ardent soul a complete self-surrender, and voluntary turning from all impurity, a humility of the most far-reaching kind: and this means the deliberate embrace of active suffering, a self-discipline in dreadful tasks. … Detachment may be a counsel of prudence, a practical result of seeing the true values of things; but the pain of mortification is seized as a splendid opportunity, a love token, timidly offered by the awakened spirit to that all-demanding Lover from Whom St. Catherine of Siena heard the terrible words “I, Fire, the Acceptor of sacrifices, ravishing away from them their darkness, give the light.”

“The mystics have a profound conviction that Creation, Becoming, Transcendence, is a painful process at the best. Those who are Christians point to the Passion of Christ as a proof that the cosmic journey to perfection, the path of the Eternal Wisdom, follows of necessity the Way of the Cross. That law of the inner life, which sounds so fantastic and yet is so bitterly true – “No progress without pain” – asserts itself. It declares that birth pangs must be endured in the spiritual as well as in the material world: that adequate training must always hurt the athlete. Hence the mystics’ quest of the Absolute drives them to an eager and heroic union with the reality of suffering, as well as with the reality of joy.”

“Pain, therefore, the mystics always welcome and often court: sometimes in the crudely physical form which Suso describes so vividly and horribly in the sixteenth chapter of his Life, more frequently in those refinements of torture which a sensitive spirit can extract from loneliness, injustice, misunderstanding – above all, from deliberate contact with the repulsive accidents of life.

“It would seem from a collation of the evidence that the typical mystical temperament is by nature highly fastidious. Its passionate apprehension of spiritual beauty, its intuitive perception of divine harmony, is counterbalanced by an instinctive loathing of ugliness, a shrinking from the disharmonies of squalor and disease. Often its ideal of refinement is far beyond the contemporary standards of decency: a circumstance which is alone enough to provide ample opportunity of wretchedness. This extreme sensitiveness, which forms part of the normal psychophysical make-up of the mystic, as it often does of the equally highly-strung artistic type, is one of the first things to be seized upon by the awakened self as a disciplinary instrument.

“Two reasons at once appear for this. One is the contempt for phenomena, nasty as well as nice – the longing to be free from all the fetters of sense – which often goes with the passion for invisible things. Those mystics to whom the attractions of earth are only illusion, are inconsistent if they attribute a greater reality to the revolting and squalid incidents of life. St. Francis did but carry his own principles to their logical conclusion, when he insisted that the vermin were as much his brothers as the birds. Real detachment means the death of preferences of all kinds: even of those which seem to other men the very proofs of virtue and fine taste.

“The second reason is nobler. It is bound up with that principle of self-surrender which is the mainspring of the mystic life. To the contemplative mind, which is keenly conscious of unity in multiplicity … all disinterested service is service of the Absolute which he loves: and the harder it is, the more opposed to his self-regarding and aesthetic instincts, the more nearly it approaches his ideal. The point to which he aspires – though he does not always know it – is that in which all disharmony, all appearance of vileness, is resolved in the concrete reality which he calls the Love of God. Then, he feels dimly, everything will be seen under the aspect of a cosmic and charitable beauty; exhibiting through the woof of corruption the web of eternal life.”

The object, then, of this self-discipline is, like the object of all purgation, freedom: freedom from the fetters of the senses, the “remora of desire,” from the results of environment and worldly education, from pride and prejudice, preferences and distaste: from selfhood in every form. Its effect is a sharp reaction to the joy of self-conquest. The very act that had once caused in the enchained self a movement of loathing becomes not merely indifferent, but an occasion of happiness. …”

Underhill then gives some examples of various ways mystics have tormented themselves! And goes on to discuss how the process alternates between states of purgation and of ecstasy because the soul isn’t yet ready for total union:

“The struggle of the self to disentangle itself from illusion and attain the Absolute is a life-struggle. … There are in this struggle three factors.

  1. The unchanging light of Eternal Reality: that Pure Being “which ever shines and nought shall ever dim.”
  2. The web of illusion, here thick, there thin; which hems in, confuses, and allures the sentient self.
  3. That self, always changing, moving, struggling – always, in fact, becoming – alive in every fibre, related at once to the unreal and to the real; and, with its growth in true being, ever more conscious of the contrast between them.

“In the ever-shifting relations between these three factors, the consequent energy engendered, the work done, we may find a cause of the innumerable forms of stress and travail which are called in their objective form the Purgative Way. One only of the three is constant: the Absolute to which the soul aspires. Though all else may fluctuate, that goal is changeless.

“In the moment of conversion those eyes were opened for an instant: obtained, as it were, a dazzling and unforgettable glimpse of the Uncreated Light. They must learn to stay open: to look steadfastly into the eyes of Love: so that, in the beautiful imagery of the mystics, the “faithful servant” may become the “secret friend.” … So hard an art is not at once acquired in its perfection. It is in accordance with all that we know of the conditions of development that a partial achievement should come first; bewildering moments of lucidity, splendid glimpses, whose brevity is due to the weakness of the newly opened and unpractised “eye which looks upon Eternity,” the yet undisciplined strength of the “eye which looks upon Time.” Such is that play of light and dark, of exaltation and contrition, which often bridges the gap between the Purgative and the Illuminative states. …”

Next we’ll explore the third phase of the Mystic Way: Illumination of the Self

Image: Orange Verdicio

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