The Mystic Way 14: Deification in Union

Last time we looked at the characteristics of the Unitive Life. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism to explore the first style of language used by mystics to describe the experience of union, that of deification:

“We have said that the mystic of the impersonal type, the seeker of a Transcendent Absolute, tends to describe the consummation of his quest in the language of deification. The Unitive Life necessarily means for him, as for all who attain it, something which infinitely transcends the sum total of its symptoms, something which normal men cannot hope to understand. In it he declares that he “partakes directly of the Divine Nature,” enjoys the fruition of reality. Since we “only behold that which we are,” the doctrine of deification results naturally and logically from this claim.

Such a word as ‘deification’ is not, of course, a scientific term. It is a metaphor, an artistic expression which tries to hint at a transcendent fact utterly beyond the powers of human understanding, and therefore without equivalent in human speech. … Since we know not the Being of God, the mere statement that a soul is transformed in Him may convey to us an ecstatic suggestion, but will never give exact information, except of course to those rare selves who have experienced these supernal states.

“Such selves, however, or a large proportion of them, accept this statement as approximately true. Whilst the more clear-sighted are careful to qualify it in a sense which excludes pantheistic interpretations, and rebuts the accusation that extreme mystics preach the annihilation of the self and regard themselves as co-equal with the Deity, they leave us in no doubt that it answers to a definite and normal experience of many souls who attain high levels of spiritual vitality. Its terms are chiefly used by those mystics by whom Reality is apprehended as a state or place rather than a Person, and who have adopted, in describing the earlier stages of their journey to God, such symbols as those of rebirth or transmutation.

“The blunt and positive language of these contemplatives concerning deification has aroused more enmity amongst the unmystical than any other of their doctrines or practices. It is of course easy, by confining oneself to its surface sense, to call such language blasphemous, and the temptation to do so has seldom been resisted. Yet, rightly understood, this doctrine lies at the heart, not only of all mysticism, but also of much philosophy and most religion. It pushes their first principles to a logical end.

The Christian mystics justify this dogma of the deifying of man, by exhibiting it as the necessary corollary of the Incarnation, the humanizing of God. They can quote the authority of the Fathers in support of this argument. “He became man that we might be made God,” says St. Athanasius. … Eckhart therefore did no more than expand the patristic view when he wrote, “Our Lord says to every living soul, “I became man for you. If you do not become God for me, you do me wrong.'”

“If we are to allow that the mystics have ever attained the object of their quest, I think we must also allow that such attainment involves the transmutation of the self to that state which they call, for want of exact language, “deified.” The necessity of such transmutation is an implicit of their first position: the law that “we behold that which we are, and are that which we behold.” Eckhart, in whom the language of deification assumes its most extreme form, justifies it upon this necessity. “If,” he says, “I am to know God directly, I must become completely He and He I: so that this He and this I become and are one I.”

“The first thing which emerges from these reports, and from the choice of symbols which we find in them, is that the great mystics are anxious above all things to establish and force on us the truth that by deification they intend no arrogant claim to identification with God, but as it were a transfusion of their selves by His Self; an entrance upon a new order of life, so high and so harmonious with Reality that it can only be called divine. Over and over again they assure us that personality is not lost, but made more real. … The achievement of reality, and deification, are then one and the same thing; necessarily so, since we know that only the divine is the real.

“Mechthild of Magdeburg, and after her Dante, saw Deity as a flame or river of fire that filled the Universe, and the “deified” souls of the saints as ardent sparks therein, ablaze with that fire, one thing with it, yet distinct. Ruysbroeck, too, saw “Every soul like a live coal, burned up by God on the heart of His Infinite Love.” Such fire imagery has seemed to many of the mystics a peculiarly exact and suggestive symbol of the transcendent state which they are struggling to describe. No longer confused by the dim Cloud of Unknowing, they have pierced to its heart, and there found their goal: that uncreated and energizing Fire which guided the children of Israel through the night. By a deliberate appeal to the parallel of such great impersonal forces – to Fire and Heat, Light, Water, Air – mystic writers seem able to bring out a perceived aspect of the Godhead, and of the transfigured soul’s participation therein, which no merely personal language, taken alone, can touch.

“Other contemplatives say that the deified soul is transfigured by the inundations of the Uncreated Light; that it is like a brand blazing in the furnace, transformed to the likeness of the fire. “These souls,” says the Divine voice to St. Catherine of Siena, “thrown into the furnace of My charity, no part of their will remaining outside but the whole of them being inflamed in Me, are like a brand, wholly consumed in the furnace, so that no one can take hold of it to extinguish it, because it has become fire. In the same way no one can seize these souls, or draw them outside of Me, because they are made one thing with Me through grace, and I never withdraw Myself from them by sentiment, as in the case of those whom I am leading on to perfection.”

“For the most subtle and delicate descriptions of the Unitive or Deified State, understood as self-loss in the “Ocean Pacific” of God, we must go to the great genius of Ruysbroeck. He alone, whilst avoiding all its pitfalls, has conveyed the suggestion of its ineffable joys in a measure which seems, as we read, to be beyond all that we had supposed possible to human utterance. Awe and rapture, theological profundity, keen psychological insight, are here tempered by a touching simplicity. We listen to the report of one who has indeed heard “the invitation of love” which “draws interior souls towards the One” and says “Come home.”

“A humble receptivity, a meek self-naughting is with Ruysbroeck, as with all great mystics, the gate of the City of God. “Because they have abandoned themselves to God in doing, in leaving undone, and in suffering,” he says of the deified souls, “they have steadfast peace and inward joy, consolation and savour, of which the world cannot partake; neither any dissembler, nor the man who seeks and means himself more than the glory of God. … the Unity is ever drawing to itself and inviting to itself everything that has been born of It, either by nature or by grace. … Yet the creature does not become God, for the union takes place in God through grace and our homeward-turning love, and therefore the creature in its inward contemplation feels a distinction and an otherness between itself and God. And though the union is without means, yet the manifold works which God works in heaven and on earth are nevertheless hidden from the spirit. For though God gives Himself as He is, with clear discernment, He gives Himself in the essence of the soul, where the powers of the soul are simplified above reason, and where, in simplicity, they suffer the transformation of God. There all is full and overflowing, for the spirit feels itself to be one truth and one richness and one unity with God.”

“When love has carried us above and beyond all things,” he says in another place, “above the light, into the Divine Dark, there we are wrought and transformed by the Eternal Word Who is the image of the Father; and as the air is penetrated by the sun, thus we receive in idleness of spirit the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us and penetrating us. And this flight is nothing else but an infinite gazing and seeing. We behold that which we are, and we are that which be behold; because our thought, life and being are uplifted in simplicity and made one with the Truth which is God.”

“Here the personal aspect of the Absolute seems to be reduced to a minimum, yet all that we value in personality – love, action, will – remains unimpaired. We seem caught up to a plane of vision beyond the categories of the human mind: to the contemplation of a Something Other. … Such an endless contemplation, such a dwelling within the substance of Goodness, Truth and, Beauty, is the essence of that Beatific Vision, that participation of Eternity, … which theology presents to us as the objective of the soul.

“Those mystics of the metaphysical type who tend to use these impersonal symbols of Place and Thing often see in the Unitive Life a foretaste of the Beatific Vision: an entrance here and now into that absolute life within the Divine Being, which shall be lived by all perfect spirits when they have cast off the limitations of the flesh and re-entered the eternal order for which they were made. For them, in fact, the “deified man,” in virtue of his genius for transcendental reality, has run ahead of human history, and attained a form of consciousness which other men will only know when earthly life is past.

“All the mystics agree that the stripping off of the I, the Me, the Mine, utter renouncement, or “self-naughting” – self-abandonment to the direction of a larger Will – is an imperative condition of the attainment of the unitive life. The temporary denudation of the mind, whereby the contemplative made space for the vision of God, must now be applied to the whole life. Here, they say, there is a final swallowing up of that wilful I-hood, that surface individuality which we ordinarily recognize as ourselves. It goes for ever, and something new is established in its room.

The self is made part of the mystical Body of God, and, humbly taking its place in the corporate life of Reality, would “fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man.” That strange “hunger and thirst of God for the soul,” “at once avid and generous,” of which they speak in their profoundest passages, here makes its final demand and receives its satisfaction. … The self, they declare, is devoured, immersed in the Abyss; “sinks into God, Who is the deep of deeps.”

“In their efforts towards describing to us this, the supreme mystic act, and the new life to which it gives birth, they are often driven to the use of images which must seem to us grotesque, were it not for the flame which burns behind, as when Ruysbroeck cries, “To eat and be eaten! this is Union!”

Next time we finish this series the only way we can, with spiritual marriage and joy

One thought on “The Mystic Way 14: Deification in Union

  1. “He has created each person’s soul as a living mirror, on which he has impressed the image of his nature. In this way he lives imaged forth in us and we in him, for our created life is one…with this image and life which we have eternally in God.” Ruysbroek


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