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Tauler and Mysticism

It may be convenient to some of those into whose hands this little volume will come, if a brief account is here given of that “Mysticism” to which repeated reference has been made, and to which reference must be made, when the significance of Tauler’s teaching is under consideration. Although the subject is now much better understood than it was in 1856, when Robert Vaughan published his “Hours with the Mystics,” a notable book, queerly put together, interesting in its facts, but irritating in its manner, and one that was sympathetically reviewed by Kingsley in “Fraser’s Magazine,”99    The review was reprinted in Kingsley’s “Miscellanies,” Vol. I.; and with it should be read his Prefaces to Miss Winkworth’s edition of the Theologia Germanica (1854, and now reprinted in the “Golden Treasury” series) and of Tauler (1857). there is still need to point out what mystics are not, more perhaps than what they are. Mystics are not dreamers; they are not fanatics; they are not fools; they are not a sect; and mysticism is not a religion. As a rule, mystics are so termed by others; they do not use the term of themselves. But thousands and millions of Christian believers have been and are mystics, without themselves knowing the word. In fact, as Dr. Bigg says, “mysticism is an element in all religion that is not mere formalism”; and it is confined to no one form of Christianity. A Carthusian hermit, prostrate on the floor of his cell in meditation, may or may not be a mystic; but so may also be a grocer’s assistant who occasionally attends a Methodist chapel. When Cardinal Newman taught that in the act of faith the conclusion is more certain than the premises, he (perhaps inadvertently) proclaimed himself a mystic; and so, I think, did Ritschl, in spite of himself, when he affirmed the certitude of the “value-judgment” by which a man lays hold on the historic Christ; for mysticism is such a way of apprehending spiritual truth; it is a way that is neither purely intellectual, nor purely emotional; but one that employs, in one act, all the powers of a man’s soul. The mystical attitude towards truth is thus in harmony with Matthew Arnold’s lines:—

“Affections, Instincts, Principles and Powers,

Impulse and Reason, Freedom and Control -

So men, unraveling God’s harmonious whole,

Rend in a thousand shreds this life of ours.

Vain labour! Deep and broad, where none may see,

Spring the foundations of that shadowy throne,

Where man’s One Nature, queen-like, sits alone,

Centered in a majestic unity.”

It is true that mysticism has to do with mystery; and that is why the term is popularly held in disrepute. But the mysteries with which mysticism chiefly has to do are neither numerous nor fantastic: they are God, and the Soul, and Revelation; the last being the making known of the One to the other: and, beyond this, Christian mysticism views the Eternal as approached through Jesus Christ, the Door; a few texts from St Paul and St John sufficing to state the whole case. Individual mystical writers have, no doubt, gone far beyond this, and have said extravagant things; but the essence of the whole lies herein; and (again to quote Dr. Bigg), “the Church can never get rid of the mystic spirit; nor should she attempt to do so, for it is, in fact, her life. It is another name for conscience, for freedom, for the rights of the individual soul, for the grace and privilege of direct access to the Redeemer, for the presence of the Divine Spirit in the heart.” 1010    “Unity in Diversity,” p.93

And further, most people are now familiar with the distinction between the dreamy, unpractical mysticism of the East and the vigorous variety of the same mode of thought in the West. In both cases it produces the same consciousness of certitude and of interior peace; but in the one case that tends to mere contemplation and self-introspection, while in the other it inspires a Tauler of a Cromwell or a Coleridge; and from the latter’s mysticism, movements that are vigorous to-day have derived their spiritual energy, though but few of those whom the movements affect may be aware of the fact. It is also necessary to distinguish between mysticism as a way of holding spiritual truth, and mysticism as an interpretation, sometimes fantastic, of the world and of man; and again between this interpretation and the mystical interpretation of Scripture, already referred to, which is apt, indeed, to allegorise wantonly, though its fancies are almost always of service in securing a broader and more edifying interpretation for texts which, if regarded as mere history or legon, would lack religious significance. The evolution of these other aspects of the subject from that first mysticism, which is the apprehension of spiritual things by the soul, a few moments reflection will make clear. The mystic, who sees God in all things and all things in God, recognises more in nature than mere natural phenomena, and more in the Word of God than its first literal significance. To him every thing, every event, every person, is a vision from the Unseen, a voice from the Inaudible. He lives in a world of parables, full of spiritual significance; and, while for him there is a Real Presence everywhere, he finds it also most truly and effectively where it is most clearly discerned by faith. Nothing that might be accounted magical is required to produce it, for it is there and everywhere already. So too, in his interpretation of the Book, which contains, with whatever admixture, the fullest record of that which has been revealed to man as necessary for the salvation of his soul, he sees more than the mere student of the letter. In God’s dealings with man from first to last he perceives a harmony that implies a foreshadowing of the last in the first, of the whole in the part; and in this way he can find an interpretation of spiritual value even in the thoughts of good men, who have pictured to themselves, inaccurately, it may be, as to matters of fact, God’s earlier work in the creation of the world and of man. And, thus broadly understood, mysticism is now “in the air,” and is becoming recognised as a force that makes for unity among Christians, who differ somewhat as to dogma, and more as to their methods of external expression. Happily however, its interior and reserved character will always hinder mysticism from being degraded, as external religion can be and is, to the position of a mere badge or cry of an ecclesiastical party. 1111    Those who are interested in this subject may be referred to Bigg’s “Christian Platonists of Alexandria” (1886), and to Inge’s Bampton Lectures on “Christian Mysticism” (1899), as also to Professor Royce’s Gifford Lectures on “The World and the Individual,” whence are taken some of the thoughts and phrases in the paragraphs which follow.

Not to know anything about mysticism is, according to Professor Royce, not to know anything about a large part of human nature; for mysticism is the philosophy of experience; the mystics are the only thorough-going empiricists in the whole history of philosophy; and the realm of experience is that which is decisive of truth. A complete history of mysticism would cover a very large field in the history of the world; and that not only of the world of thought; for, in the West at any rate, the mystics have repeatedly built the platform on which great dramas have been played; and in this sense (but in this sense only) Tauler and the “Friends of God” were “precursors of the Reformation,” much as the Puritans were the precursors of the modern Revolution. It may be quite possible to show that Tauler was an orthodox Catholic friar, and that his obedience to the Church was throughout irreproachable; but, none the less, his mystical doctrine of the inner and outer, of the letter and the spirit, tended irresistibly towards the overthrow of Catholicism, so far as in his day is consisted in mere formalism and obedience to external rule. The same doctrine in the teaching of St Paul made short work of the Jewish Law; and again in our own day (for there are symptoms of its revival) it will either destroy or will newly inspire modern Catholicism, whether Roman or Anglican, which, without the mystic spirit, must inevitably degenerate into mere Byzantinism, the religion of credulity and of ceremonial routine.

The earliest home of mysticism was in the East; but before the Christian era it had passed over into Europe, or had an independent origin there. So at least is the alternative stated by Professor Royce. But its independent origin in the West, in the mystical teaching of Jesus Christ, as we recognize it in the language used by St Paul and St John, must surely be acknowledged as beyond question, save by those who hold that the Prophet of Nazareth acquired mystical doctrines in the farther East, perhaps by residence there; and of this there is at present absolutely no evidence that can be termed historical. According to Professor Seth, it is a mode of thought or of feeling, from its very nature insusceptible of exact definition, in which reliance is placed on spiritual intuition or illumination, believed to transcend the ordinary powers of the human understanding. In this sense Plato (whom Eckhart quaintly describes as “the great Parson”—der grosse Pfaffe), was a mystic. It is the endeavour of the human soul (in its own judgment successful) to grasp the Divine Essence, or the ultimate Reality of things, and to enjoy the blessedness of actual communion with the Highest. Thus, mystical theology is that knowledge of God and of things divine, which is derived, not from observation or from argument, but from conscious spiritual experience; and, being thus based, it possesses, for the individual who holds it, an irrefragable certainty.

From Plato and from Aristotle’s account of God’s inner life, the Greek mysticism, as a stream distinct from the mysticism of the New Testament (i.e. of St Paul, and of the writings attributed to St John), passed into Plotinus, and so, through Philo and the neo-Platonists, it became an element in Christian theology; and the writer known as “pseudo-Dionysius” was its chief prophet in the early Church. It would take long to trace, so far as it can be traced, the filiation of the doctrine from the age of the neo-Platonists to the fourteenth century; and it must suffice to say that there existed in Tauler’s day at least four Latin versions of the works of Dionysius, that of Scotus Erigena being the one with which he was most likely to be familiar. Dionysius was also commented on by the greatest scholastics, incidentally even by St Thomas Aquinas, who sought to deal justly with the mystics without endangering orthodoxy. Eckhart, whose disciple Tauler in some sense way, had been trained in the school of St Thomas; but he gradually emancipated himself from the scholastic yoke; and he is commonly reckoned the spiritual ancestor of Kant and Hegel. Indeed, in other ways and by a more direct descent, mysticism at this day largely affects multitudes to whom its very name is unknown. The favourite devotional books of all the churches, and many of our most popular hymns, are essentially mystical. It has been defined above as philosophical empiricism; but it is more than that, and much more than mere sentimentality. Again to quote Professor Royce:—“It is the conception of men whose piety has been won after long conflict, whose thoughts have been dissected by a very keen inner scepticism, whose single-minded devotion to an abstraction has resulted from a vast experience of painful complications of life...It has been the ferment of the faiths, the forerunner of spiritual liberty, the inaccessible refuge of the nobler heretics, the inspirer, through poetry, of countless youth who know no metaphysics, the teacher, through the devotional books, of the despairing, the comforter of those who are weary of finitude; it has determined directly or indirectly, more than half of the technical theology of the Church.”

With the above eloquent passage, written only the other day, may be compared Kingsley’s lament, written in 1856, that mysticism was a form of thought and feeling then all but extinct in England. The Anglican divines, he said, looked on it with utter disfavour; they used the word always as a term of reproach; and they interpreted the mystical expressions in the Prayer-book (chiefly to be found in the collects) in accordance with the philosophy of Locke, being ignorant that these collects were really the work of Platonist mystics. But meanwhile, he pointed out, it was the mysticism of Coleridge “the fakir of Highgate,” that had originated both the Oxford Movement and Emersonian free-thought; while Carlyle, “the only contemporary mystic of any real genius,” was exercising more practical influence, and was infusing more vigorous life into the minds of thousands of men and women, than all the other teachers of England put together. If he had also mentioned Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning and Ruskin, he would have made still clearer how immense has been the power of our latter-day mysticism; while the names of Neale and of Keble, of Faber and of Newman, can speak for the same potent influence among those who were ecclesiastics by profession.

This perhaps may suffice, if any need there was to secure or those who read Tauler’s sermons now for the first time, sympathy with him instead of suspicion on account of his reputation as a mystic. There is no need to follow him when he becomes subtle or extravagant; but of his generally broad and spiritual teaching no one can doubt the wholesome influence. Ritschl, in his zeal for his new rational Lutheranism, is bitter against the mystics; yet even he admits that Tauler did good service in inculcating interior as compared with mere ceremonial religion, and in lessening the great medieval distinction between clergy and laity. There was in Tauler’s day a great need for a revival of the religion of the heart—when is there not such a need?—but it was also necessary that the established methods of religion should be respected and remain intact; for there existed no other social bond equally fitted to hold men together. And this was the secret of Tauler’s influence. He was able to fill the old bottles with new wine from an ancient vineyard without bursting them. Recent historical criticism may have destroyed some of the romance with which his name was associated. But if, as it now appears—and Harnack as well as Ritschl agree with Denifle in this—he was not a “Reformer before the Reformation,” and was not the subject of a singular conversion in the midst of his successful career as preacher, he still remains, and will always remain, a striking and venerable figure in the medieval Church, a reformer at any rate of practical abuses, and a prophet of righteousness in days that were corrupt as well as stormy.

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