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THE MYSTIC'S EXPERIENCE OF GOD
BY RUFUS M. JONES
THE revival of mysticism, which has been one of the noteworthy features in the Christianity of our time, has presented us with a number of interesting and important questions. We want to know, first of all, what mysticism really is. Secondly, we want to know whether it is a normal or an abnormal experience. And omitting many other questions, which must wait their turn, we want to know whether mystical experiences actually enlarge our sphere of knowledge, that is, whether they are trustworthy sources of authentic information and authoritative truth concerning realities which lie beyond the range of human senses.
The answer to the first question appears to be as difficult to accomplish as the return of Ulysses was. The secret is kept in book after book. One can marshal a formidable array of definitions, but they oppose and challenge one another, like the men sprung from the dragon's teeth. For the purposes of the present consideration, we can eliminate what is usually included under psychical phenomena, that is, the phenomena of dreams, visions, and trances, hysteria and dissociation and esoteric and occult phenomena. Thirty years ago Professor Royce said: 'In the Father's house are many mansions, and their furniture is extremely manifold. Astral bodies and palmistry, trances and mental healing, communications from the dead and "phantasms of the living" - such things are for some people to-day the
sole quite unmistakable evidence of the supremacy of the spiritual world.' These phenomena are worthy of careful, painstaking study and attention, for they will eventually throw much light upon the deep and complex nature of human personality are, in fact, already throwing much light upon it. But they furnish us slender data for understanding what is properly meant by mystical experience and its religious and spiritual bearing.
We can, too, leave on one side the metaphysical doctrines that fill a large amount of space in the books of the great mystics. These doctrines had a long historical development, and they would have taken essentially the same form if the exponents of them had not been mystics. Mystical experience is confined to no one form of philosophy, though some ways of thinking no doubt favor and other ways retard the experience, as they also often do in the case of religious faith in general. Mystical experience, furthermore, must not be confused with what technical expert writers call 'the mystic way.' There are as many mystical 'ways' as there are gates to the New Jerusalem. 'On the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.' One might as well try to describe the way of making love, or the way of appreciating the Grand Cañon, as to describe the way to the discovery of God, as if there were only one way.
I am not interested in mysticism as an ism. It turns out, in most accounts, to be a dry and abstract thing, hardly more like the warm and intimate experience than the color of the map is like the country for which it stands. 'Canada is very pink,' seems quite an inadequate description of the noble country north of our border. It is mystical experience, and not mysticism, that is worthy of our study. We are concerned with the experience itself, not with second-hand formulations of it. "The mystic,' says Professor Royce, 'is a thoroughgoing empiricist.' 'God ceases to be an object and becomes an experience,' says Professor Pringle-Pattison. If it is an experience, we want to find out what happens to the mystic himself inside where he lives.
According to those who have been there, the experience that we call mystical is charged with the conviction of real, direct contact and commerce with God. It is the almost universal testimony of those who are mystics that they find God through their experience. John Tauler says that, in his best moments of 'devout prayer and the uplifting of the mind to God,' he experiences 'the pure presence of God' in his own soul; but he adds that all he can tell others about the experience is 'as poor and unlike it as the point of a needle is to the heavens above us.' 'I have met with my God; I have met with my Saviour. I have felt the healings drop upon my soul from under his wings,' says Isaac Penington, in the joy of his first mystical experience.
Without needlessly multiplying such testimonies for data, we can say with considerable assurance that mystical experience is consciousness of direct and immediate relationship with some transcendent reality which, in the moment of experience, is believed to be God. "This is He, this is He,' exclaims Isaac Penington; 'there is no other. This is
He whom I have waited for and sought after from my childhood.' Angela of Foligno says that she experienced God, and saw that the whole world was full of God.
There are many different degrees of intensity, concentration, and conviction in the experiences of different individual mystics, and also in the various experiences of the same individual from time to time. There has been a tendency in most studies of mysticism to regard the state of ecstasy as par excellence mystical experience. That is, however, a grave mistake. The calmer, more meditative, less emotional, less ecstatic experiences of God are not less convincing and possess greater constructive value for life and character than do ecstatic experiences which presuppose a peculiar psychical frame and disposition. The seasoned Quaker, in the corporate hush and stillness of a silent meeting, is far removed from ecstasy, but he is not the less convinced that he is meeting with God. For the essentia of mysticism we do not need to insist upon a certain 'sacred' mystic way, or upon ecstasy, or upon any peculiar type of rare psychic upheavals. We do need to insist, however, upon a consciousness of commerce with God amounting to conviction of his Presence.
Where one heard noise And one saw flame,
I only knew He named my name. Jacob Boehme calls the experience that came to him, 'breaking through the gate' into 'a new birth or resurrection from the dead'; so that, he says, 'I knew God.' 'I am certain,' says Eckhart, 'as certain as that I live, that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself.' One of these experiences of these experiences the first one was an ecstasy, and the other, so far as we can tell, was not. It was the flood
ing in of a moment of God-consciousness in the act of preaching a sermon to the common people of Cologne. The experience of Penington, again, was not an ecstasy; it was the vital surge of fresh life on the first occasion of hearing George Fox preach after a long period of waiting silence. A simple normal case of a mild type is given in a little book of recent date, reprinted from the Atlantic Monthly: 'After a long time of jangling conflict and inner misery, I one day, quite quietly and with no conscious effort, stopped doing the disingenuous thing [I had been doing]. Then the marvel hap pened. It was as if a great rubber band, which had been stretched almost to the breaking-point, were suddenly released and snapped back to its normal condition. Heaven and earth were changed for me. Everything was glorious because of its relation to some great central life
nothing seemed to matter
but that life.'
Brother Lawrence, a barefooted lay brother of the seventeenth century, according to the testimony of the brotherhood, attained 'an unbroken and undisturbed sense of the Presence of God.' He was not an ecstatic; he was a quiet, faithful man, who did his ordinary daily tasks with what seemed to his friends 'an unclouded vision, an illuminated love, and an uninterrupted joy.' Simple and humble though he was, he nevertheless acquired, through his experience of God, 'an extraordinary spaciousness of mind.'
The more normal, expansive mystical experiences come apparently when the personal self is at its best. Its powers and capacities are raised to an unusual unity and fused together. The whole being, with its accumulated submerged life, finds itself. The process of preparing for any high achievement is a severe and laborious one; but nothing seems easier in the moment of success than is
the accomplishment for which the life has been prepared. There comes to be formed within the person what Aristotle called 'a dexterity of soul,' so that the person does with ease what he has become skilled to do. Clement of Alexandria called a fully organized and spiritualized person 'a harmonized man' that is, adjusted, organized, and ready to be a transmissive organ for the revelation of God. Brother Lawrence, who was thus 'harmonized,' finely says: "The most excellent method which I found of going to God was that of doing my common business purely for the love of God.' An earlier mystic of the fourteenth century stated the same principle in these words: 'It is my aim to be to the Eternal God what a man's hand is to a man.'
There are many human experiences which carry a man up to levels where he has not usually been before, and where he finds himself possessed of insight and energies that he had hardly suspected were his until that moment. One leaps to his full height when the right inner spring is reached. We are quite familiar with the way in which instinctive tendencies in us, and emotions both egoistic and social, become organized under a group of ideas and ideals into a single system, which we call a sentiment, such as love, or patriotism, or devotion to truth. It forms slowly, and one hardly realizes that it has formed until some occasion unexpectedly brings it into full operation, and we find ourselves able with perfect ease to overcome the most powerful inhibitory and opposing instincts and habits, which, until then, had usually controlled us. We are familiar, too, with the way in which a well-trained and disciplined mind, confronted by a concrete situation, will sometimes, alas, not always, in a sudden flash of imaginative insight, discover a universal law revealed there and then in
the single phenomenon, as Sir Isaac Newton did, and as, in a no less striking way, Sir William Rowan Hamilton did in his discovery of Quaternions. Literary and artistic geniuses supply us with many instances in which, in a sudden flash, the crude material at hand is shot through with vision, and the complicated plot of a drama, the full significance of a character, or the complete glory of a statue stands revealed, as if, to use R. L. Stephenson's illustration, a geni had brought it on a golden tray as a gift from another world. Abraham Lincoln, striking off in a few intense minutes his Gettysburg address, as beautiful in style and perfect in form as anything in human literature, is as good an illustration as we need of the way in which a highly organized person, by a kindling flash, has at his hand all the moral and spiritual gains of a lifetime.
There is a famous account of the flash of inspiration, given by Philo, which can hardly be improved. It is as follows:
I am not ashamed to recount my own experience. At times, when I have proposed to enter upon my wonted task of writing on philosophical doctrines, with an exact knowledge of the materials which were to be put together, I have had to leave off without any work accomplished, finding my mind barren and fruitless, and upbraiding it for its selfcomplacency, while startled at the might of the Existent One, in whose power it lies to open and close the wombs of the soul. But at other times, when I had come empty, all of a sudden I have been filled with thoughts, showered down and sown upon me unseen from above, so that by Divine possession I have fallen into a rapture and become ignorant of everything, the place, those present, myself, what was spoken or written. For I have received a stream of interpretation, a fruition of light, the most clear-cut sharpness of vision, the most vividly distinct view of the matter before me, such as might be received through the eyes from the most luminous presentation.
The most important mystical experiences are something like that. They occur usually, not at the beginning of the religious life, but rather in the ripe and developed stage of it. They are the fruit of long-maturing processes. Clement's 'harmonized man' is always a person who has brought his soul into parallelism with divine currents, has habitually practised his religious insights, and has finally formed a unified central self, subtly sensitive, acutely responsive to the Beyond within him. In such experiences, which may come suddenly or may come as a more gradual process, the whole self operates and masses all the cumulations of a lifetime. They are no more emotional than they are rational and volitional. We have a total personality, awake, active, and 'aware of his life's flow.' Instead of seeing in a flash a law of gravitation, or the plot and character of Hamlet, or the uncarven form of Moses the Law-giver in a block of marble, one sees at such times the moral demonstrations of a lifetime and vividly feels the implications that are essentially involved in a spiritual life. In the high moment God is seen to be as sure as the soul is.
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth
But the night's black was burst through by a blaze
Thunder struck blow on blow, earth groaned and bore,
Through her whole length of mountain visible.
To some the truth of God never comes closer than a logical conclusion. He is held to be as a living item in a creed. To the mystic He becomes real in the same sense that experienced beauty is real, or the feel of spring is real, or summer sunlight is real: He has been found, He has been met, He is present.
Before discussing the crucial ques
tion whether these experiences are evidential and are worthy of consideration as an addition to the world's stock of truth and knowledge, I must say a few words about the normality or abnormality of them. Nothing of any value can be said on this point of mystical experience in the abstract. One must first catch his concrete case. Some instances are normal, and some are undoubtedly abnormal. Trance, ecstasy, and rapture are unusual experiences, and, in that sense, not normal occurrences. They usually indicate, furthermore, a pathological condition of personality, and are thus abnormal in the more technical sense. There is, however, something more to be said on this point. It seems pretty well established that some persons and they have often been creative leaders and religious geniuses
have succeeded in organizing their lives, in finding their trail, in charging their whole personality with power, in attaining a moral dynamic, and in tapping vast reservoirs of energy by means of states which, if occurring in other persons, would no doubt be called pathological. The real test here is a pragmatic one. It seems hardly sound to call a state abnormal if it has raised the 'experient,' as a mystic experience often does, into a hundred-horsepower man, and by his influence has turned multitudes of other men and women into more joyous, hopeful, and efficient persons. This question of abnormality and reality is thus not one to be settled off-hand by a superficial diagnosis.
An experience which brings spacious ness of mind, new interior dimensions, ability to stand the universe,— and the people in it, and capacity to work at human tasks with patience, endurance, and wisdom may quite intelligently be called normal, though to an external beholder it may look like what he usually calls a trance of hysteria, a state of dissociation, or hypnosis by
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auto-suggestion. It should be added, however, as I have already said, that mystical experience is not confined to these extremer types. They may or may not be pathological. The calmer and more restrained stages of mysticism are more important and significant, and are no more marked with the stigma of hysteria than is love-making, enjoyment of music, devotion to altruistic causes, risking one's life for one's country, or any lofty experience of value.
We come at length to the central question of our consideration: Do mystical experiences settle anything? Are they purely subjective and one-sided, or do they prove to have objective reference and so to be two-sided? Do they take the experient across the chasm that separates 'self' from 'other'? Mystical experience undoubtedly feels as if it had objective reference. It comes to the individual with indubitable authority. He is certain that he has found something other than himself. He has an unescapable conviction that he is in contact and commerce with reality beyond the margins of his personal self. 'A tremendous muchness is suddenly revealed,' as William James once put it.
We do not get very far when we undertake to reduce knowledge to an affair of sense-experience. "They reckon ill who leave me out,' can be said by the organized, personal, creative mind as truly as by Brahma. There are many forms of human experience in which the data of the senses are so vastly transcended that they fail to furnish any real explanation of what occurs in consciousness. This is true of all our experiences of value, which apparently spring out of synthetic or synoptic activities of the mind, that is, activities in which the mind is unified and creative. The vibra tions of ether that bombard the rods