Indeed, it is a vast and exceedingly scattered literature and some of its most important texts are available in no modern language; they stand very seriously in need of codification, and — if I may be so frank — even of re-expression. However, if, for other reasons, they are in their entirety a study which must be left to the expert, there is no person now living in Europe who has not close at hand the specific, simple, isolated texts — much too numerous to name. Those are sufficient to give some general idea of the scope and aims of the tradition.
If I were asked to define the literature in a concise way and comprehensively as a whole, I should call it the texts of the way, the truth and the life in respect of the mystic term. It is not only full but exhaustive as to the way — which is that of the inward world, recollection, meditation, contemplation, the renunciation of all that is lower in the quest of all that is higher — but perhaps the most catholic word of all would be centralisation. It is full also to the fundamental truth, out of which it arises, that a way does exist and that the way is open. The truth is formulated in all simplicity by the Epistle to the Hebrews — that God is and that He recompenses those who seek Him out. I have cited this testimony on several occasions in the same connection, and I do so here and now without a word of apology and with no sense of repetition, since it can never be a matter of redundancy to remember after what manner the Divine ways are justified to humanity, when humanity is seeking the Divine.
The literature, in fine, is full as to that which it understands in respect of life, but this is the Divine Life; it is grace which fills the heart; it is the Holy Spirit of God which makes holy the spirit of man; it is life in God. There is no doubt that in its formulation it was presented to the mind of Christian Mysticism as the life which was hidden with Christ in God, and this ineffable concealment was equivalent to the presentation in the open teaching of that mystery of emblematic death which lies behind all the pageants of initiation. This was the state, and the dogma from which the state depended is defined by Johannine Epistle who affirms: (1) That God hath given to us eternal life; (2) That this life is His Son; (3) That whosoever hath the Son hath life; (4) That whosoever is without the Son is without life also. These points follow naturally enough from the testimony of the Fourth Gospel: (1) In the person of the Divine Voice, saying — I am the Way, the Truth and the Life: I am the Resurrection and the Life: I am the Bread of Life; (2) In the person of the witness, saying: In Him was life and the life was the light of men.
There is no doubt, that the Divine Voice was incarnate for Christian Mysticism in Jesus of Nazareth, and we must cast out from us the images of those false witnesses who from time to time have pretended that the masters of the hidden life in the Christian centuries had become far too enlightened spiritually to tolerate the external cortex of their faith and creed. This point is of much higher importance than it may appear in the present connection, for I am not doing less than establish a canon of criticism. I will take two typical examples, one of which is moderately early and the other sufficiently late to serve as a distinction in time. The anonymous Cloud of Unknowing belongs, I believe, to the early part of the fifteenth-century, and it is to be classed among the most signal presentations of the conditions and mode of the Union which I have met with in Christian literature. It offers an experiment in integration which seems more practical because it is more expressive than the great intimations of Dionysius. The integration is grounded on the identity of our essential nature with the Divine Nature and our eternal being therein: “That which thou art thou hast from Him, and He it is”; and again: “Yet hath thy being been ever in Him, without all beginning, from all beginning, from all eternity, and ever shall be, without end, as Himself is.”
There is sufficient kinship on the surface of these statements for the casually literate and not too careful reader to speak of them as a simple presentation of the pantheistic doctrine of identity; but they are saved herefrom by the important qualification that — this state of eternal Divine indwelling notwithstanding — man had “a beginning in the substantial creation, the which was sometime nothing.” This beginning signifies the coming forth of man’s spirit into the state of self-knowing in separateness or some more withdrawn condition to which we cannot approximate in language — I mean in language that will offer an adequate consideration to the higher part of our understanding. If it is conceivable that there is a possible state of distinction in Divine Consciousness by which the true self of our spirit became self-knowing, but not in separateness, then it is this state which is called The Cloud of Unknowing “a beginning in the substantial creation.” It will be seen that I set aside implicitly the suggestion that the passage is a simple reference to the soul in physical birth. I do not think that the mystic whose chief flowers are of all things exotic would offer a distinction like this as a qualification of the soul’s eternity by integration in the Godhead, or, more correctly, by substantial unity. That which I take, therefore, to have been present to the writer’s mind was the implicit pre-existence of all souls in the Divine Being forever, and secondly their explication — as if the living thought became the living word; but there are no commensurate analogies. In this manner there arose “the substantial creation, of which was sometimes nothing,” and we know of all that has followed in the past and continued ages of our separateness. This state is our sickness, and the way of return is our healing. That return, according to The Cloud and its connections and identities in the great literature, is “the high wisdom of the Godhead […] descending into man’s soul […] and uniting it to God Himself.”
The path is a path of undoing, though it is at this point that so many mystics stand in fear of the irresistible consequences which follow from their own teachings: it is the returning of the substantial creation into nothing; it is an entrance into the darkness; an act of unknowing wherein the soul is wholly stripped and unclothed of all sensible realisation of itself, that it may be reclothed in the realisation of God.
It may well seem that in this House Mystic of ineffable typology all the old order has passed away. The secret of attainment does not lie in meditation or in thinking, in the realisation of Divine qualities, in the invocation of saints or angels; it is a work between the naked soul and God in His uttermost essence, in an essence so uttermost that “it profiteth little, or nothing at all, to think upon the loving-kindness of God, or upon the holy angels and saints, or else upon the glory and joys of heaven.” That, and all that, is fair work and square work, good and true work, but it is not materials for building the Most Secret, Most Holy Temple, into which God and the soul go in, and one only comes out. Is the old doctrine the true doctrine still; there is nothing abrogated, and there is nothing reduced. In all but the most profound paths, it is meek and right and salutary to seek the interceding angels and the communion of saints, to dwell upon the Passion of Christ, and so forth. The old histories also are genuinely understood in the old way; the Passion was no shadowy pageant; Christ died and rose in the body; in the body, He ascended into Heaven, and no less and no different in that body He sitteth at the right hand of the Father Almighty.
Moreover, yet these references to doctrine and practice, to symbol, rite and ceremony, are only like the hills standing about Jerusalem, and into the city mystic, into the central place of debate, they do not enter otherwise. They have not been expelled they are just not there, and the reason is that there they do not belong. Once more, it is between God and the soul. It is as if the ways were filled with the pageants of the Heavenly and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies; as if the Masses and the Matins and the Vespers celebrated in marvellous and stately measures the Holy Trinity, the dilucid contemplation of the Persons, the ineffable secrets of the hypostatic state and the super-incession of Divine natures. But after all these wonders, rank after rank of the Blessed Angels, after all visions of the Great White Throne, it is as if a quiet centre opened unawares and through an immeasurable silence drew down the soul-from the many splendours into the one splendour, from the populous cities of the blest, from the things that are without in the transcendence into the thing that is of all within — as if the soul saw there the one God and itself as the one worshipper. However, after a little while the worshipper itself has dissolved, and from henceforth and forever it has the consciousness of God only.
This is the knowledge of self, no longer attained by a reflex act of the consciousness, but by a direct act of the unity of the infinite consciousness; in this mode of knowledge there is that which knows even as it is known, but such mode is by virtue of such a union that the self-does not remain, because there is no separateness henceforth. It follows that the Divine Union, as I have sought to give it expression apart from all antecedents and warrants of precursors — I think indeed that there are none is something much more profound and higher than is understood by the Beatific Vision, which shines with all the lights of noon and sunrise and sunset at the summit of the mountain of theology. That Vision is more especially of Saint Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, the mighty Angel of the Schools, expounding the Transcendence to himself in the most resplendent and spiritual terms of logical understanding. The intervening distinction between it and the term of all is that the one is the state of beholding and the other is the state of being; the one sees the Vision, and the other is becoming it. Blessed and Holy are those who receive the experience of God in the dilucid contemplation, but sanctity and benediction and all in all is that state wherein contemplation is ineffably unified, by a super-eminent leap over of love, with that which is its object; and in that love and in that joining together there is no passage longer from subject to object. However, this is the Godhead.