Theosophy – June 1897

MYSTICS AND MYSTICISM IN CHRISTIANITY — J. D. Buck

It is no part of the purpose of the writer of this paper to give a connected history of mysticism, or to introduce all the writers who in such a history would have to be admitted to consideration. Mysticism is a vague term, and while there is some element common to all genuine mystics, these writers differ very widely in their method of philosophizing, and particularly in the extent in which the emotional element is mingled with their philosophy.

Mysticism is not Theosophy, though there are certain elements common to both, and the two terms have been often applied by different writers to the same individual. No history of either Theosophy or Mysticism would be complete that left out any prominent mystic or theosophist. Neither Mysticism nor Theosophy can be adequately defined in a phrase; neither of these forms of thought readily crystalizes into a creed: either form may, and often has adopted without dissent the Christian creed in vogue at the time, and each has undertaken to give the inner sense, or spiritual meaning of the accepted dogmas. Mysticism has more often been emotional, than philosophical, and hence is strongly characterized by religious devotion. Tauler was a typical mystic and it is said of him that in his sermons he was often so wrought up by his emotions, and the idea of union with God, that he could no longer speak or stand, and was carried out fainting.

Aspiration differs widely from emotion and yet is equally akin to devotion, and when once centred in the soul is less liable to transitions and oscillations and is nearer related to philosophy. Meditation or contemplation may coexist with either the emotional or aspirational nature, and both mystic and theosophist recognize the Divine Unity and aim at the union of the human with the divine. If this difference between aspiration and emotion, between the true light and the perturbations produced in the individual by that light, be kept in mind, and the closer consonance of philosophy with aspiration, the relation of Theosophy to Mysticism can be more clearly apprehended. Another point should also be held clearly in view, viz.: the philosophical relation between Faith and Reason; between the existence, immutability, and beneficence of the Divine Life, and the orderly sequence of its manifestation, and apprehension by the mind of man. It is only through the establishment of a perfect equilibrium between faith and reason that the Divine Life and the Divine Wisdom can become manifest in man. Faith without reason becomes fanaticism; reason divorced from faith becomes sordid materialism, and while prating of order and law begets anarchy.

Christian mysticism may be said to date from the first quarter of the ninth century, a.d., though there were Christian mystics from the beginning of the present era. There were the Essenes, the Therapeutae, the Gnostic sects and the Neoplatonists during the early centuries, but with the conquests of Constantine and the Mohammedan these disappeared and western Europe was left in darkness and superstition. The monasteries became almost the only seats of learning, and though in secrecy the spiritually minded among the monks might pore over the philosophy of Plato woe unto him who dared to antagonize the blind superstitious and crass materialism of his fellows or of potentate in church or state.

In the year 824 the Greek Emperor Michael sent as a present to Lewis the Mild the treatise of the supposed Dionysius the Areopagite. This book was translated into Latin by Joannes Scotus. This treatise contained the following sections: "On the Celestial Monarchy"; "On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy"; "On Divine Names" and "On Mystic Theology." These books were eagerly read by the Western Church, but being without the Pope's sanction; they were soon condemned by Pope Nicholas the First, who ordered that Scotus should be banished from the University of Paris and sent to Rome, instead of which he fled from Paris and subsequently returned to England.

It was this book, says Enfield, which revived the knowledge of Alexandrian Platonism in the West. "Thus," continues Enfield, "philosophical enthusiasm, born in the East, nourished by Plato, educated in Alexandria, matured in Asia, and adopted into the Greek Church, found its way, under the pretext and authority of an apostolic name, into the Western Church."

The history of the Church for the next two or three centuries and its various councils is chiefly interesting from the efforts made to get rid of the influences of the mystical philosophy and the heresies of Origen and Nestorius. Four hundred years after the Greek emperor sent the books of the Areopagite to Lewis the Mild, Thomas Aquinas was born. He was called the "Angelic Doctor," was canonized by Pope John XXII, and it was popularly believed that miracles were wrought at his tomb and that the soul of St. Augustine had reincarnated in him.

Bonaventura was contemporaneous with Thomas Aquinas, and equally famous in his day, being designated as the "Seraphic Doctor." Both of these famous men connected the scholastic philosophy with theology. They considered knowledge the result of supernatural illumination and to be communicated to men through the medium of the holy scriptures. Meditation on the Divine attributes, prayer, and religious devotion were considered as the source of real illumination. They were mystics in the strictest sense, and though Aquinas is better known to modern times, they both influenced all subsequent religious thought.

Roger Bacon was born in 1214, and was thus seven years older than Bonaventura and ten years the senior of Aquinas. Though a monk, and familiar with the scholastic philosophy, he was less a mystic than any of his predecessors or contemporaries, and stands as a fair example of the difference between Theosophy and Mysticism. He transferred the philosophy of Aristotle to the plane of physical investigation in place of the vagaries of theological speculation, and was far more of a philosopher than a theologian. He made theology subservient to philosophy, instead of the reverse, as with Thomas Aquinas, and united faith with reason to an extent seldom found and never transcended, perhaps, previous to his day, since the beginning of the Christian era. He was undoubtedly the greatest mind of his age, and had much to do with the revival of learning which dates about two centuries after his death, which occurred in 1294 at the age of 80. (There is a discrepancy in dates as given by his biographers.)

From the eighth to the fourteenth century the scholastic philosophy served as the basis of endless theological speculations and with the great mass of ecclesiastics these angry disputes served only to engender hatred and foment strife. The dispute between Calvin and Servetus may serve as an illustration. To differ in intellectual conception of the nature of the trinity from a vindictive and brutal priest in power, was a sufficient ground for ecclesiastical murder; and the history of the "Holy Inquisition" and the list of martyrs is a sufficient commentary. The anathemas of Councils of the Church during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries a.d., specifying wherein it was a crime to differ from the opinions of those in power, show conclusively how liberty was enchained, spirituality dethroned, progress prevented and power maintained at any cost.

The numberless creeds and sects into which modern Christianity is divided find their roots in these angry disputations of the dark ages, demonstrating beyond all controversy that to repress truth is to break religion into fragments. Nothing but liberty and light can ever unify and perpetuate. To attempt to unify by force is to sow the seed of inevitable dissolution. Modern Christendom is reaping the reward of its follies and crimes.

The theologian differs from the mystic as the doctrine of the head ever differs from the religion of the heart. The former wrangles and grows dangerous over human conceptions of the Divine nature. The latter meditates on the Divine attributes, and seeks to unfold within the soul the Divine Love and the Divine Light. The theologian has often begun as a heresy-hunter and ended as a murderer. The true mystic is the most gentle and compassionate of beings in regard to the failings of others, whether of the head or heart, but is continually bent on purifying his own heart and elevating his own spiritual nature, while a divine compassion governs all his relations to his fellow men. The theological and the mystical natures have often mingled in varying proportion in the same individual.

The philosophical basis of mysticism is the Platonic doctrine of emanation; its method is meditation; and its result is charity and good works, or altruism. The real source of mysticism as found in the Christian church is the philosophy of Plato, fragments of which survived the extinction of the Essenes and the Gnostic sects and were in every age exemplified by the purest and noblest of men. Contemplation and religious devotion, and the resulting degree of spirituality were permitted and encouraged in every age by the church provided the mystic either avoided all theological disputations, or when interrogated answered in the orthodox form. Just as theological disputations have rent the church in pieces, and as she apologizes for, where she can no longer conceal or deny her ecclesiastical murders; so on the other hand, has she been ready to exalt many a true mystic to the order of saintship. But for these examples of genuine piety regardless of all theological ideas, the church would have nothing with which to face an age of liberation and intelligence but a record of barbarism, and this in the face of the fact that she has often butchered the most saintly of her children!

The beginning of the sixteenth century ushered in a new era of thought and paved the way for all subsequent progress and enlightenment. Luther, Melancthon, Tauler, Erasmus and many lesser lights, broke down the old barriers and destroyed organized abuses. Luther was essentially a reformer, a theologian and a Soldier of the Cross, with little of the mystic in his nature. He was versed in the scholastic philosophy, and was influenced and inspired by Melancthon who was more of a philosopher, by the great scholar and Kabalist, his friend and teacher, John Reuchlin, and by the mystics, Tauler and Erasmus. Bent on reforming abuses Luther gave a practical turn to church affairs and was aided and sustained by the fiery eloquence with which Erasmus denounced the scholastic philosophy, and made intellectual disputation inferior to grace. In seeking through religious emotion, the hearts of his hearers, Tauler exhausted himself, made friends with the masses, and bitter enemies among the priests. To these active agencies in the Church Reformation must be added, Trithemius of St. Jacob and his illustrious pupils, Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa.

Such a coterie of Reformers, Mystics and Occultists can nowhere else be found in history. Had Trithemius, Reuchlin, Paracelsus and Agrippa prevailed, instead of merely influencing events at the time, the world would have been saved four hundred years of blind intellectual belief, the "Triumph of Faith" born of ignorance and superstition. But the world was not ready for such an era of enlightenment. The Kabalah was obscured, denied, tabooed, and the literal text of the Pentateuch gained the ascendency, with the resulting wrangles over Predestination, Free-will, the Trinity, Atonement, etc., etc., to the utter confusion of reason, the darkening of the understanding, and the unbrotherliness of man to man. In other words: faith dethroned reason, and religious fanaticism was the inevitable result.

Christian Mysticism alone remained of the genuine elements of a true religious renaissance, and has worked its ethical results just in proportion as theological wrangles have ceased, and humanitarianism has encroached upon the boundaries and prerogatives of eclesiasticism. The downfall of creeds has been the uplifting of humanity.

It may be denied that there is any relation between mysticism and humanitarianism, and claimed that the former is as vague and uncertain as the latter is practical and beneficent. It is in the motive and method, rather than in the verbiage of mysticism that the key to its influence is to be sought. Meditation with one of sincere motive and a pure heart, striving to put down selfishness, lust, pride and all manner of uncharitableness can give rise to but one result, viz: love to God and love to man. The desire of the heart is the motive power in man, and long ere the Christian dispensation began it had been demonstrated that self-renunciation is the only way to holiness, and that its synonym is Divine Compassion, and its sure fruitage the Universal Brotherhood of man. The very essence of true mysticism is the unification of the whole human race.

Now the philosophy of this Kabalah, or of Occultism, or of Theosophy differs from Mysticism in this: not in setting the intellect against the heart and placing knowledge above devotion, but in uniting both heart and mind and thus establishing a perfect equilibrium between faith and reason, and basing both on a complete philosophy of Nature and of Life. Such knowledge was in the possession of Trithemius, Reuchlin, Paracelsus and Agrippa, and not hidden from Luther and his more immediate co-workers. But the age was too dark, the priesthood too corrupt and too much in power, and while gross abuses could be exposed and held up to public scorn and chastizement, new light and real knowledge could not be disseminated, for the power to apprehend, and the willingness to serve them was confined to the very few. Luther wrote an introduction to the "Theologia Germanica," one of the purest and best treatises on mysticism that exists, and there were not wanting fraternities like the "Friends of God," among whom the pure Doctrine of the Heart led to peace and true knowledge. It may thus be seen what an immense influence mysticism has had upon Christianity, all apparent triumphs of dogmatic theology to the contrary notwithstanding. Theosophy is capable of dissipating all the mists of mysticism, of removing all obscurity, and by reconciling faith with reason of restoring the true religion of Jesus, and thus of hastening the time when all nations, kindred and tongues shall acknowledge One Redeemer, viz.: Divine Compassion in the soul of man.

"A new Commandment I give unto you; That ye love one another — as I have loved you."


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