The Mystic Way 8: Illuminated Vision of the World

Last time we looked at the illumination of the Absolute on the mystic path. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and explore the second type of illumination, that of the temporal world:

“Closely connected with the sense of the “Presence of God,” or power of perceiving the Absolute, is the complementary mark of the illuminated consciousness; the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” or an added significance and reality in the phenomenal world. Such words as those of Julian, “God is all thing that is good as to my sight, and the goodness that all thing hath, it is He,” seem to supply the link between the two.

“Here again we must distinguish carefully between vaguely poetic language … and descriptions which can be referred to a concrete and definite psychological experience. This experience, at its best, balances and completes the experience of the Presence of God at its best. That is to say, its “note” is sacramental, not ascetic. It entails the expansion rather than the concentration of consciousness; the discovery of the Perfect One self-revealed in the Many, not the forsaking of the Many in order to find the One.

“It takes, as a rule, the form of an enhanced mental lucidity – an abnormal sharpening of the senses – whereby an ineffable radiance, a beauty and a reality never before suspected, are perceived by a sort of clairvoyance shining in the meanest things. “From the moment in which the soul has received the impression of Deity in infused orison,” says Malaval, “she sees Him everywhere, by one of love’s secrets which is only known of those who have experienced it. The simple vision of pure love, which is marvellously penetrating, does not stop at the outer husk of creation: it penetrates to the divinity which is hidden within.”

“Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand,” Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” Vaughan’s “Each bush and oak doth know I AM,” and the like, are exact though over-quoted reports of “things seen” in this state of consciousness, this “simple vision of pure love”. … Mystical poets of the type of Wordsworth and Walt Whitman seem to possess in a certain degree this form of illumination. It is this which Bucke, the American psychologist, analysed under the name of “Cosmic Consciousness.” It is seen at its full development in the mystical experiences of Boehme, Fox, and Blake.”

“To know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being” – know it with an invulnerable certainty, in the all-embracing act of consciousness with which we are aware of the personality of those we truly love – is to live at its fullest the Illuminated Life, enjoying “all creatures in God and God in all creatures.” Lucidity of this sort seems to be an enormously enhanced form of the poetic consciousness of “otherness” in natural things – the sense of a unity in separateness, a mighty and actual Life beyond that which eye can see, a glorious reality shining through the phenomenal veil – frequent in those temperaments which are at one with life.

“The self then becomes conscious of the living reality of that World of Becoming, the vast arena of the Divine creativity, in which the little individual life is immersed. Alike in howling gale and singing cricket it hears the crying aloud of that “Word which is through all things everlastingly.” It participates, actively and open-eyed, in the mighty journey of the Son towards the Father’s heart: and seeing with purged sight all things and creatures as they are in that transcendent order, detects in them too that striving of Creation to return to its centre which is the secret of the Universe.

A harmony is thus set up between the mystic and Life in all its forms. Undistracted by appearance, he sees, feels, and knows it in one piercing act of loving comprehension. … The heart outstrips the clumsy senses, and sees – perhaps for an instant, perhaps for long periods of bliss – an undistorted and more veritable world. All things are perceived in the light of charity, and hence under the aspect of beauty: for beauty is simply Reality seen with the eyes of love. … For such a reverent and joyous sight the meanest accidents of life are radiant. The London streets are paths of loveliness; the very omnibuses look like coloured archangels, their laps filled full of little trustful souls.

“Often when we blame our artists for painting ugly things, they are but striving to show us a beauty to which we are blind. They have gone on ahead of us, and attained that state of fourfold vision to which Blake laid claim; in which the visionary sees the whole visible universe transfigured, because he has “put off the rotten rags of sense and memory,” and “put on Imagination uncorrupt.” In this state of lucidity symbol and reality, Nature and Imagination, are seen to be One: and in it are produced all the more sublime works of art, since these owe their greatness to the impact of Reality upon the artistic mind.

“I know,” says Blake again, “that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eye of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the sun and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.”

“If the Mystic Way be considered as an organic process of transcendence, this illuminated apprehension of things, this cleansing of the doors of perception, is surely what we might expect to occur as man moves towards higher centres of consciousness. It marks the self’s growth towards free and conscious participation in the Absolute Life; its progressive appropriation of that life by means of the contact which exists in the deeps of man’s being – the ground or spark of the soul – between the subject and the transcendental world.

“The surface intelligence, purified from the domination of the senses, is invaded more and more by the transcendent personality; the “New Man” who is by nature a denizen of the independent spiritual world, and whose destiny, in mystical language, is a “return to his Origin.” Hence an inflow of new vitality, a deeper and wider apprehension of the mysterious world in which man finds himself, an exaltation of his intuitive powers.”

The true mystic, so often taunted with “a denial of the world,” does but deny the narrow and artificial world of self: and finds in exchange the secrets of that mighty universe which he shares with Nature and with God. Strange contacts, unknown to those who only lead the life of sense, are set up between his being and the being of all other things. In that remaking of his consciousness which follows upon the “mystical awakening,” the deep and primal life which he shares with all creation has been roused from its sleep. Hence the barrier between human and non-human life, which makes man a stranger on earth as well as in heaven, is done away. Life now whispers to his life: all things are his intimates, and respond to his fraternal sympathy.”

“The mystic whose illumination takes such forms as these, who feels with this intensity and closeness the bond of love which “binds in one book the scattered leaves of all the universe,” dwells in a world unknown to other men. He pierces the veil of imperfection, and beholds Creation with the Creator’s eye. …

“The whole consciousness,” says Récéjac, “is flooded with light to unknown depths, under the gaze of love, from which nothing escapes. In this stage, intensity of vision and sureness of judgment are equal: and the things which the seer brings back with him when he returns to common life are not merely partial impressions, or the separate knowledge of ‘science’ or ‘poetry.’ They are rather truths which embrace the world, life and conduct: in a word, the whole consciousness.”

“It is curious to note in those diagrams of experience which we have inherited from the more clear-sighted philosophers and seers, indications that they have enjoyed prolonged or transitory periods of this higher consciousness; described by Récéjac as the marriage of imaginative vision with moral transcendence. I think it at least a reasonable supposition that Plato’s doctrine of Ideas owed something to an intuition of this kind; for a philosophy, though it may claim to be the child of pure reason, is usually found to owe its distinctive character to the philosopher’s psychological experience.

“The Platonic statements as to the veritable existence of the Idea of a house, a table, or a bed, and other such concrete and practical applications of the doctrine of the ideal, which have annoyed many metaphysicians, become explicable on such a psychological basis. That illuminated vision in which “all things are made new” can afford to embrace the homeliest as well as the sublimest things; and, as a matter of experience, it does do this, seeing all objects, as Monet saw the hayrick, as “modes of light.” Blake said that his cottage at Felpham was a shadow of the angels’ houses, and I have already referred to the converted Methodist who saw his horses and hogs on the ideal plane.”

“The minds to whom we owe the Hebrew Kabalah found room for it too in their diagram of the soul’s ascent towards Reality. The first “Sephira” above Malkuth, the World of Matter, or lowest plane upon that Tree of Life which is formed by the ten emanations of the Godhead is, they say, “Yesod,” the “archetypal universe.” In this are contained the realities, patterns, or Ideas, whose shadows constitute the world of appearance in which we dwell. The path of the ascending soul upon the Tree of Life leads him first from Malkuth to Yesod: i.e., human consciousness in the course of its transcendence passes from the normal illusions of men to a deeper perception of its environment – a perception which is symbolized by the “archetypal plane” or world of Platonic Ideas.”

“That serene and illuminated consciousness of the relation of things inward and outward – of the Hidden Treasure and its Casket, the energizing Absolute and its expression in Time and Space – which we have been studying in this chapter, is at its best a state of fine equilibrium; a sane adjustment of the inner and outer life. By that synthesis of love and will which is the secret of the heart, the mystic achieves a level of perception in which the whole world is seen and known in God, and God is seen and known in the whole world. It is a state of exalted emotion: being produced by love, of necessity it produces love in its turn.”

“… The spirit, indeed, is invaded by a heavenly peace; but it is the peace, not of idleness, but of ordered activity. “A rest most busy,” in Hilton’s words: a progressive appropriation of the Divine. The urgent push of an indwelling spirit, aspiring to its home in the heart of Reality, is felt more and more, as the invasion of the normal consciousness by the transcendental personality – the growth of the New Man – proceeds towards its term.

Therefore the great seekers for reality are not as a rule long delayed by the exalted joys of Illumination. Intensely aware now of the Absolute Whom they adore, they are aware too that though known He is unachieved. … The greater the mystic, the sooner he realizes that the Heavenly Manna which has been administered to him is not yet That with which the angels are full fed. Nothing less will do: and for him the progress of illumination is a progressive consciousness that he is destined not for the sunny shores of the spiritual universe, but for “the vast and stormy sea of the divine.”

Next we’ll explore the final aspect of illumination: Voices and Visions

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