The Mystic Way 7: Illumination of the Absolute

Last time we introduced the third phase of the mystic path where the mind is illuminated by a new perspective of Reality. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism to explore the first type of illumination: consciousness of the Absolute, or a sense of the presence of God:

This consciousness, in its various forms and degrees, is perhaps the most constant characteristic of Illumination; and makes it, for the mystic soul, a pleasure-state of the intensest kind. I do not mean by this that the subject passes months or years in a continuous ecstasy of communion with the Divine. Intermittent periods of spiritual fatigue or “aridity” – renewals of the temperamental conflicts experienced in purgation, the oncoming gloom of the Dark Night – all these may be, and often are, experienced at intervals during the Illuminated Life; as flashes of insight, indistinguishable from illumination, constantly break the monotony of the Purgative Way. But a deep certitude of the Personal Life omnipresent in the universe has been achieved; and this can never be forgotten, even though it be withdrawn.

“This “sense of God” is not a metaphor. Innumerable declarations prove it to be a consciousness as sharp as that which other men have, or think they have, of colour, heat, or light. It is a well-known though usually transitory experience in the religious life: like the homing instinct of birds, a fact which can neither be denied nor explained. … Modern psychologists have struggled hard to discredit this “sense of the presence”; sometimes attributing it to the psychic mechanism of projection, sometimes to “wish-fulfilments” of a more unpleasant origin. The mystics, however, who discriminate so much more delicately than their critics between true and false transcendental experience, never feel any doubt about its validity. Even when their experience seems inconsistent with their theology, they refuse to be disturbed.”

Such a sense of the divine presence may go side by side with the daily life and normal mental activities of its possessor; who is not necessarily an ecstatic or an abstracted visionary, remote from the work of the world. It is true that the transcendental consciousness has now become, once for all, his centre of interest, its perceptions and admonitions dominate and light up his daily life. The object of education, in the Platonic sense, has been achieved: his soul has “wheeled round from the perishing world” to “the contemplation of the real world and the brightest part thereof.” But where vocation and circumstances require it, the duties of a busy outward life continue to be fulfilled with steadiness and success: and this without detriment to the soul’s contemplation of the Real.

“In many temperaments of the unstable or artistic type, however, this intuitional consciousness of the Absolute becomes ungovernable: it constantly breaks through, obtaining forcible possession of the mental field and expressing itself in the “psychic” phenomena of ecstasy and rapture. In others, less mobile, it wells up into an impassioned apprehension, a “flame of love” in which the self seems to “meet God in the ground of the soul.” This is “pure contemplation“: that state of deep orison in which the subject seems to be “seeing, feeling and thinking all at once.” … This act of contemplation, this glad surrender to an overwhelming consciousness of the Presence of God, leaves no sharp image on the mind: only a knowledge that we have been lifted up, to a veritable gazing upon That which eye hath not seen.

“St. Bernard gives in one of his sermons a simple, ingenuous and obviously personal account of such “privy touchings,” such convincing but elusive contacts of the soul with the Absolute. “Now bear with my foolishness for a little,” he says, “for I wish to tell you, as I have promised, how such events have taken place in me. It is, indeed, a matter of no importance. But I put myself forward only that I may be of service to you; and if you derive any benefit I am consoled for my egotism. If not, I shall but have displayed my foolishness. I confess, then, though I say it in my foolishness, that the Word has visited me, and even very often. But, though He has frequently entered into my soul, I have never at any time been sensible of the precise moment of His coming.”

“Such a lifting up, such a condition of consciousness as that which St. Bernard is here trying to describe, seems to snatch the spirit for a moment into a state which it is hard to distinguish from that of true “union.” This is what the contemplatives call passive or infused contemplation, or sometimes the “orison of union”: a brief foretaste of the Unitive State, often enjoyed for short periods in the Illuminative Way, which reinforces their conviction that they have now truly attained the Absolute. It is but a foretaste, however, of that attainment.”

The real distinction between the Illuminative and the Unitive Life is that in Illumination the individuality of the subject – however profound his spiritual consciousness, however close his apparent communion with the Infinite – remains separate and intact. His heightened apprehension of reality lights up rather than obliterates the rest of his life, and may even increase his power of dealing adequately with the accidents of normal existence.

“Thus Brother Lawrence found that his acute sense of reality, his apprehension of the Presence of God, and the resulting detachment and consciousness of liberty in regard to mundane things, upheld and assisted him in the most unlikely tasks; as, for instance, when he was sent into Burgundy to buy wine for his convent, “which was a very unwelcome task to him, because he had no turn for business, and because he was lame, and could not go about the boat but by rolling himself over the casks. That, however, he gave himself no uneasiness about it, nor about the purchase of the wine. That he said to God, It was His business he was about: and that he afterwards found it very well performed. . . . So likewise in his business in the kitchen, to which he had naturally a great aversion.”

The mind, concentrated upon a higher object of interest, is undistracted by its own anxieties, likes, or dislikes; and hence performs the more efficiently the work that is given it to do. Where it does not do so, then the normal make-up or imperfect discipline of the subject, rather than its mystical proclivities, must be blamed. St. Catherine of Genoa found in this divine companionship the power which made her hospital a success. St. Teresa was an administrator of genius and an admirable housewife, and declared that she found her God very easily amongst the pots and pans.

“In persons of feeble or diffuse intelligence, however, and above all in victims of a self-regarding spirituality, this deep absorption in the sense of Divine Reality may easily degenerate into monoideism [fixation on a single idea]. Then the “shady side” of Illumination, a selfish preoccupation with transcendental joys, the “spiritual gluttony” condemned by St. John of the Cross, comes out.

“I made many mistakes,” says Madame Guyon pathetically, “through allowing myself to be too much taken up by my interior joys. . . . I used to sit in a corner and work, but I could hardly do anything, because the strength of this attraction made me let the work fall out of my hands. I spent hours in this way without being able to open my eyes or to know what was happening to me: so simply, so peacefully, so gently that sometimes I said to myself, ‘Can heaven itself be more peaceful than I?'”

“Here we see Madame Guyon basking like a pious tabby cat in the beams of the Uncreated Light, and already leaning to the extravagances of Quietism, with its dangerous “double character of passivity and beatitude.” The heroic aspect of the mystic vocation is in abeyance. Those mystical impressions which her peculiar psychic make-up permitted her to receive, have been treated as a source of personal and placid satisfactions; not as a well-spring, whence new vitality might be drawn for great and self-giving activities.”

“What is the nature of this mysterious mystic illumination? Apart from the certitude it imparts, what is the form which it most usually assumes in the consciousness of the self? The illuminatives seem to assure us that its apparently symbolic name is really descriptive; that they do experience a kind of radiance, a flooding of the personality with new light. A new sun rises above the horizon, and transfigures their twilit world. Over and over again they return to light-imagery in this connection. Frequently, as in their first conversion, they report an actual and overpowering consciousness of radiant light, ineffable in its splendour, as an accompaniment of their inward adjustment.”

“It really seems as though the mystics’ attainment of new levels of consciousness did bring with it the power of perceiving a splendour always there, but beyond the narrow range of our poor sight; to which it is only a “luminous darkness” at the best. … The cumulative testimony on this point is such as would be held to prove, in any other department of knowledge, that there is indeed an actual light, “lighting the very light” and awaiting the recognition of men.”

“… The self, by the process which mystics call “introversion,” the deliberate turning inwards of its attention, its conative powers, discerns Reality within the heart: “the rippling tide of love which flows secretly from God into the soul, and draws it mightily back into its source.” But the opposite or transcendental tendency is not less frequent. The cosmic vision of Infinity, exterior to the subject – the expansive, outgoing movement towards a Divine Light, … wholly other than anything the earth-born creature can conceive – the strange, formless absorption in the Divine Dark to which the soul is destined to ascend – all these modes of perception are equally characteristic of the Illuminative Way.

“As in conversion, so here Reality may be apprehended in either transcendent or immanent, positive or negative terms. It is both near and far; “closer to us than our most inward part, and higher than our highest”; and for some selves that which is far is easiest to find. To a certain type of mind, the veritable practice of the Presence of God is not the intimate and adorable companionship of the personal Comrade or the Inward Light, but the awestruck contemplation of the Absolute, the “naked Godhead,” source and origin of all that Is. It is an ascent to the supernal plane of perception, where “the simple, absolute and unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth lie hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty.”

It must never be forgotten that all apparently one-sided descriptions of illumination – more, all experiences of it – are governed by temperament. “That Light whose smile kindles the Universe” is ever the same; but the self through whom it passes, and by whom we must receive its report, has already submitted to the moulding influences of environment and heredity, Church and State.

“The very language of which that self avails itself in its struggle for expression, links it with half a hundred philosophies and creeds. The response which it makes to Divine Love will be the same in type as the response which its nature would make to earthly love: but raised to the nth degree. We, receiving the revelation, receive with it all those elements which the subject has contributed in spite of itself.

“Hence the soul’s apprehension of Divine Reality may take almost any form, from the metaphysical ecstasies which we find in Dionysius, and to a less degree in St. Augustine, to the simple, almost “common-sense” statements of Brother Lawrence, the emotional ardours of St. Gertrude, or the lovely intimacies of Julian or Mechthild.”

There are many more descriptions of the illuminated state of these mystics in the book – you can read the whole of this section here. Or listen to Wayne Teasdale describe one of his experiences in: All Reality in One Moment

Next we’ll explore the second type of illumination: a vision of the illuminated world

Image: Art of Silence

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