The Mystic Way 6: Illumination of the Self

Last time we looked at how the Self is purified through mortification after awakening. Here we continue with the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism to introduce the third phase of the mystic path:

“In illumination we come to that state of consciousness which is popularly supposed to be peculiar to the mystic: a form of mental life, a kind of perception, radically different from that of “normal” men. … This change of consciousness, however abrupt and amazing it may seem to the self which experiences it, seems to the psychologist a normal phase in that organic process of development which was initiated by the awakening of the transcendental sense. Responding to the intimations received in that awakening, ordering itself in their interest, concentrating its scattered energies on this one thing, the self emerges from long and varied acts of purification to find that it is able to apprehend another order of reality.

“It has achieved consciousness of a world that was always there, and wherein its substantial being – that Ground which is of God – has always stood. Such a consciousness is “Transcendental Feeling” in excelsis: a deep, intuitional knowledge of the “secret plan.”

“It will be observed that in these passages the claim of the mystic is not yet to supreme communion; the “Spiritual Marriage” of the Christian mystic, or that “flight of the Alone to the Alone” which is the Plotinian image for the utmost bliss of the emancipated soul. He has now got through preliminaries; detached himself from his chief entanglements; re-orientated his instinctive life. The result is a new and solid certitude about God, and his own soul’s relation to God: an “enlightenment” in which he is adjusted to new standards of conduct and thought. In the traditional language of asceticism he is “proficient” but not yet perfect. He achieves a real vision and knowledge, a conscious harmony with the divine World of Becoming: not yet self-loss in the Principle of Life, but rather a willing and harmonious revolution about Him, that “in dancing he may know what is done.”

“This character distinguishes almost every first-hand description of illumination; and it is this which marks it off from mystic union in all its forms. All pleasurable and exalted states of mystic consciousness in which the sense of I-hood persists, in which there is a loving and joyous relation between the Absolute as object and the self as subject, fall under the head of Illumination, which is really an enormous development of the intuitional life at high levels. All veritable and first-hand apprehensions of the Divine obtained by the use of symbols, as in the religious life; all the degrees of prayer lying between meditation and the prayer of union; many phases of poetic inspiration and “glimpses of truth,” are activities of the illuminated mind.

To “see God in nature,” to attain a radiant consciousness of the “otherness” of natural things, is the simplest and commonest form of illumination. Most people, under the spell of emotion or of beauty, have known flashes of rudimentary vision of this kind. Where such a consciousness is recurrent, as it is in many poets, there results that partial yet often overpowering apprehension of the Infinite Life immanent in all living things, which some modern writers have dignified by the name of “nature-mysticism.” Where it is raised to its highest denomination, till the veil is obliterated by the light behind, and “faith has vanished into sight,” as sometimes happened to Blake, we reach the point at which the mystic swallows up the poet.” …

“We have seen that all real artists, as well as all pure mystics, are sharers to some degree in the Illuminated Life. They have drunk, with Blake, from that cup of intellectual vision which is the chalice of the Spirit of Life; know something of its divine inebriation whenever Beauty inspires them to create. Some have only sipped it. … But to all who have seen Beauty face to face, the Grail has been administered; and through that sacramental communion they are made participants in the mystery of the world.”

“We have seen that a vast tract of experience – all the experience which results from contact between a purged and heightened consciousness and the World of Becoming in which it is immersed; and much, too, of that which results from contact set up between such a consciousness and the Absolute Itself – is included in that stage of growth which the mystics call the Illuminative Way. This is the largest and most densely populated province of the mystic kingdom. Such different visionaries as Suso and Blake, Boehme and Angela of Foligno, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Fox, Rolle, St. Teresa, and countless others have left us the record of their sojourn therein.

“Amongst those who cannot be called pure mystics we can detect in the works of Plato and Heracleitus, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Walt Whitman indications that they too were acquainted, beyond most poets and seers, with the phenomena of the illuminated life. In studying it then, we shall be confronted by a mass of apparently irreconcilable material: the results of the relation set up between every degree of lucidity, every kind of character, and the suprasensible world.

“To say that God is Infinite is to say that He may be apprehended and described in an infinity of ways. That Circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, may be approached from every angle with a certainty of being found. Mystical history, particularly that which deals with the Illuminative Way, is a demonstration of this fact.

“Here, in the establishment of the “first mystic life,” of conscious correspondence with Reality, the self which has oscillated between two forms of consciousness, has alternately opposed and embraced its growing intuitions of the Absolute, comes for a time to rest. To a large extent, the discordant elements of character have been purged away. Temporally at least the mind has “unified itself” upon high levels, and attained, as it believes, a genuine consciousness of the divine and veritable world. The depth and richness of its own nature will determine how intense that consciousness shall be.

“Whatever its scope, however, this new apprehension of reality generally appears to the illuminated Self as final and complete. As the true lover is always convinced that he has found in his bride the one Rose of the World, so the mystic, in the first glow of his initiation, is sure that his quest is now fulfilled. Ignorant as yet of that consummation of love which overpasses the proceedings of the inward eye and ear … He has yet to pass through that “night of the senses” in which he learns to distinguish the substance of Reality from the accidents under which it is perceived; to discover that the heavenly food here given cannot satisfy his “hunger for the Absolute.” His true goal lies far beyond this joyful basking in the sunbeams of the Uncreated Light.

“Only the greatest souls learn this lesson, and tread the whole of that “King’s Highway” which leads man back to his Source. … The rest stay here, in this Earthly Paradise, these flowery fields; where the liberated self wanders at will, describing to us as well as it can now this corner, now that of the Country of the Soul.

“It is in these descriptions of the joy of illumination – in the outpourings of love and rapture belonging to this state – that we find the most lyrical passages of mystical literature. Here poet, mystic, and musician are on common ground: for it is only by the oblique methods of the artist, by the use of aesthetic suggestion and musical rhythm, that the wonder of that vision can be expressed. When essential goodness, truth, and beauty – Light, Life, and Love – are apprehended by the heart, whether the heart be that of poet, painter, lover, or saint, that apprehension can only be communicated in a living, that is to say, an artistic form.

“The natural mind is conscious only of succession; the special differentia of the mystic is the power of apprehending simultaneity. In the peculiarities of the illuminated consciousness we recognize the effort of the mind to bridge the gap between Simultaneity and Succession: the characters of Creator and Creation. Here the successive is called upon to carry the values of the Eternal.

“… Hence it is natural and inevitable that the mystic should here call into play all the resources of artistic expression: the lovely imagery of Julian and Mechthild of Magdeburg, Suso’s poetic visions, St. Augustine’s fire and light, the heavenly harmonies of St. Francis and Richard Rolle. Symbols, too, play a major part, not only in the description, but also in the machinery of illumination: the intuitions of many mystics presenting themselves directly to the surface-mind in a symbolic form. We must therefore be prepared for a great variety and fluidity of expression, a constant and not always conscious recourse to symbol and image, in those who try to communicate the secret of this state of consciousness.

“There are three main types of experience which appear again and again in the history of mysticism; nearly always in connection with illumination, rather than any other phase of mystical development. … These three characteristics are:

1. A joyous apprehension of the Absolute: that which many ascetic writers call “the practice of the Presence of God.” This, however, is not to be confused with that unique consciousness of union with the divine which is peculiar to a later stage of mystical development. The self, though purified, still realizes itself as a separate entity over against God. It is not immersed in its Origin, but contemplates it. This is the “betrothal” rather than the “marriage” of the soul.

2. This clarity of vision may also be enjoyed in regard to the phenomenal world. The actual physical perceptions seem to be strangely heightened, so that the self perceives an added significance and reality in all natural things: is often convinced that it knows at last “the secret of the world.” In Blake’s words “the doors of perception are cleansed” so that “everything appears to man as it is, infinite.” In these two forms of perception we see the growing consciousness of the mystic stretching in two directions, until it includes in its span both the World of Being and the World of Becoming; that dual apprehension of reality as transcendent yet immanent which we found to be one of the distinguishing marks of the mystic type.

3. Along with this two-fold extension of consciousness, the energy of the intuitional or transcendental self may be enormously increased. The psychic upheavals of the Purgative Way have tended to make it central for life: to eliminate from the character all those elements which checked its activity. Now it seizes upon the ordinary channels of expression; and may show itself in such forms as (a) auditions, (b) dialogues between the surface consciousness and another intelligence which purports to be divine, (c) visions, and sometimes (d) in automatic writings. …

“Illumination, then, tends to appear mainly under one or all of these three forms. Often all are present; though, as a rule, one is dominant. The balance of characteristics will be conditioned in each case by the self’s psychic make-up; its temperamental leaning towards “pure contemplation,” “lucid vision,” or automatic expression; emanation or immanence, the metaphysical, artistic, or intimate aspects of truth. The possible combinations between these various factors are as innumerable as the possible creations of Life itself.”

Next we’ll explore the illuminated consciousness of the Absolute

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