Hours with the Mystics

Charles Kingsley


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Hours with the Mystics

Fraser’s Magazine, September, 1856. —“Hours with the Mystics.” By Robert Alfred Vaughan, B.A. Two Volumes. London: John W. Parker and Son. 1856.

Few readers of this magazine probably know anything about “Mystics;” know even what the term means: but as it is plainly connected with the adjective “mystical” they probably suppose it to denote some sort of vague, dreamy, sentimental, and therefore useless and undesirable personage. Nor can we blame them if they do so; for mysticism is a form of thought and feeling now all but extinct in England. There are probably not ten thorough mystics among all our millions; the mystic philosophers are very little read by our scholars, and read not for, but in spite of, their mysticism; and our popular theology has so completely rid itself of any mystic elements, that our divines look with utter disfavour upon it, use the word always as a term of opprobrium, and interpret the mystic expressions in our liturgy — which mostly occur in the Collects — according to the philosophy of Locke, really ignorant, it would seem, that they were written by Platonist mystics.

We do not blame them either, save in as far as teachers of men are blameworthy for being ignorant of any form of thought which has ever had a living hold upon good and earnest men, and may therefore take hold of them again. But the English are not now a mystic people, any more than the old Romans were; their habit of mind, their destiny in the world, are like those of the Romans, altogether practical; and who can be surprised if they do not think about what they are not called upon to think about?

Nevertheless, it is quite a mistake to suppose that mysticism is by its own nature unpractical. The greatest and most prosperous races of antiquity — the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindoos, Greeks — had the mystic element as strong and living in them as the Germans have now; and certainly we cannot call them unpractical peoples. They fell and came to ruin — as the Germans may do — when their mysticism became unpractical: but their thought remained, to be translated into practice by sounder-hearted races than themselves. Rome learnt from Greece, and did in some confused imperfect way that which Greece only dreamed; just as future nations may act hereafter, nobly and usefully, on the truths which Germans discover, only to put in a book and smoke over. For they are terribly practical people, these mystics, quiet students and devotees as they may seem. They go, or seem to go, down to the roots of things, after a way of their own; and lay foundations on which — be they sound or unsound — those who come after them cannot choose but build; as we are building now. For our forefathers were mystics for generations; they were mystics in the forests of Germany and in the dales of Norway; they were mystics in the convents and the universities of the Middle Ages; they were mystics, all the deepest and noblest minds of them, during the Elizabethan era.

Even now the few mystic writers of this island are exercising more influence on thought than any other men, for good or for evil. Coleridge and Alexander Knox have changed the minds, and with them the acts, of thousands; and when they are accused of having originated, unknowingly, the whole “Tractarian” movement, those who have watched English thought carefully can only answer, that on the confession of the elder Tractarians themselves, the allegation is true: but that they originated a dozen other “movements” beside in the most opposite directions, and that free-thinking Emersonians will be as ready as Romish perverts and good plain English churchmen to confess that the critical point of their life was determined by the writings of the fakeer of Highgate. At this very time too, the only real mystic of any genius who is writing and teaching is exercising more practical influence, infusing more vigorous life into the minds of thousands of men and women, than all the other teachers of England put together; and has set rolling a ball which may in the next half century gather into an avalanche, perhaps utterly different in form, material, and direction, from all which he expects.

So much for mystics being unpractical. If we look faithfully into the meaning of their name, we shall see why, for good or for evil, they cannot be unpractical; why they, let them be the most self-absorbed of recluses, are the very men who sow the seeds of great schools, great national and political movements, even great religions.

A mystic — according to the Greek etymology — should signify one who is initiated into mysteries, one whose eyes are opened to see things which other people cannot see. And the true mystic in all ages and countries, has believed that this was the case with him. He believes that there is an invisible world as well as a visible one — so do most men: but the mystic believes also that this same invisible world is not merely a supernumerary one world more, over and above the earth on which he lives, and the stars over his head, but that it is the cause of them and the ground of them; that it was the cause of them at first, and is the cause of them now, even to the budding of every flower, and the falling of every pebble to the ground; and therefore, that having been before this visible world, it will be after it, and endure just as real, living, and eternal, though matter were annihilated to-morrow.

“But, on this showing, every Christian, nay, every religious man, is a mystic; for he believes in an invisible world?” The answer is found in the plain fact, that good Christians here in England do not think so themselves; that they dislike and dread mysticism; would not understand it if it were preached to them; are more puzzled by those utterances of St. John, which mystics have always claimed as justifying their theories, than by any part of their bibles. There is a positive and conscious difference between popular metaphysics and mysticism; and it seems to lie in this: the invisible world in which Englishmen in general believe, is one which happens to be invisible now, but which will not be so hereafter. When they speak of the other world they mean a place which their bodily eyes will see some day, and could see now if they were allowed; when they speak of spirits they mean ghosts who could, and perhaps do, make themselves visible to men’s bodily eyes. We are not inquiring here whether they be right or wrong; we are only specifying a common form of human thought.

The mystic, on the other hand, believes that the invisible world is so by its very nature, and must be so for ever. He lives therein now, he holds, and will live in it through eternity: but he will see it never with any bodily eyes, not even with the eyes of any future “glorified” body. It is ipso facto not to be seen, only to be believed in; never for him will “faith be changed for sight,” as the popular theologians say that it will; for this invisible world is only to be “spiritually discerned.”

This is the mystic idea, pure and simple; of course there are various grades of it, as there are of the popular one; for no man holds his own creed and nothing more; and it is good for him, in this piecemeal and shortsighted world, that he should not. Were he over-true to his own idea, he would become a fanatic, perhaps a madman. And so the modern evangelical of the Venn and Newton school, to whom mysticism is neology and nehushtan, when he speaks of “spiritual experiences,” uses the adjective in its purely mystic sense; while Bernard of Cluny, in his once famous hymn, “Hic breve vivitur,” mingles the two conceptions of the unseen world in inextricable confusion. Between these two extreme poles, in fact, we have every variety of thought; and it is good for us that we should have them; for no one man or school of men can grasp the whole truth, and every intermediate modification supplies some link in the great cycle of facts which its neighbours have overlooked.

In the minds who have held this belief, that the unseen world is the only real and eternal one, there has generally existed a belief, more or less confused, that the visible world is in some mysterious way a pattern or symbol of the invisible one; that its physical laws are the analogues of the spiritual laws of the eternal world: a belief of which Mr. Vaughan seems to think lightly; though if it be untrue we can hardly see how that metaphoric illustration in which he indulges so freely, and which he often uses in a masterly and graceful way, can be anything but useless trifling. For what is a metaphor or a simile but a mere paralogism — having nothing to do with the matter in hand, and not to be allowed for a moment to influence the reader’s judgment, unless there be some real and objective analogy — homology we should call it — between the physical phenomenon from which the symbol is taken, and the spiritual truth which it is meant to illustrate? What divineness, what logical weight, in our Lord’s parables, unless He was by them trying to show his hearers that the laws which they saw at work in the lilies of the field, in the most common occupations of men, were but lower manifestations of the laws by which are governed the inmost workings of the human spirit? What triflers, on any other ground, were Socrates and Plato. What triflers, too, Shakespeare and Spenser. Indeed, we should say that it is the belief, conscious or unconscious, of the eternal correlation of the physical and spiritual worlds, which alone constitutes the essence of a poet.

Of course this idea led, and would necessarily lead, to follies and fancies enough, as long as the phenomena of nature were not carefully studied, and her laws scientifically investigated; and all the dreams of Paracelsus or Van Helmont, Cardan or Crollius, Baptista Porta or Behmen, are but the natural and pardonable errors of minds which, while they felt deeply the sanctity and mystery of Nature, had no Baconian philosophy to tell them what Nature actually was, and what she actually said. But their idea lives still, and will live as long as the belief in a one God lives. The physical and spiritual worlds cannot be separated by an impassable gulf. They must, in some way or other, reflect each other, even in their minutest phenomena, for so only can they both reflect that absolute primeval unity, in whom they both live and move and have their being. Mr. Vaughan’s object, however, has not been to work out in his book such problems as these. Had he done so, he would have made his readers understand better what Mysticism is; he would have avoided several hasty epithets, by the use of which he has, we think, deceived himself into the notion that he has settled a matter by calling it a hard name; he would have explained, perhaps, to himself and to us, many strange and seemingly contradictory facts in the annals of Mysticism. But he would also not have written so readable a book. On the whole he has taken the right course, though one wishes that he had carried it out more methodically.

A few friends, literate and comfortable men, and right-hearted Christians withal, meet together to talk over these same mystics, and to read papers and extracts which will give a general notion of the subject from the earliest historic times. The gentlemen talk about and about a little too much; they are a little too fond of illustrations of the popular pulpit style; they are often apt to say each his say, with very little care of what the previous speaker has uttered; in fact these conversations are, as conversations, not good, but as centres of thought they are excellent. There is not a page nor a paragraph in which there is not something well worth recollecting, and often reflections very wise and weighty indeed, which show that whether or not Mr. Vaughan has thoroughly grasped the subject of Mysticism, he has grasped and made part of his own mind and heart many things far more practically important than Mysticism, or any other form of thought; and no one ought to rise up from the perusal of his book without finding himself if not a better, at least a more thoughtful man, and perhaps a humble one also, as he learns how many more struggles and doubts, discoveries, sorrows and joys, the human race has passed through, than are contained in his own private experience.

The true value of the book is, that though not exhaustive of the subject, it is suggestive. It affords the best, indeed the only general, sketch of the subject which we have in England, and gives therein boundless food for future thought and reading; and the country parson, or the thoughtful professional man, who has no time to follow out the question for himself, much less to hunt out and examine original documents, may learn from these pages a thousand curious and interesting hints about men of like passions with himself, and about old times, the history of which — as of all times — was not the history of their kings and queens, but of the creeds and deeds of the “masses” who worked, and failed, and sorrowed, and rejoiced again, unknown to fame. Whatsoever, meanwhile, their own conclusions may be on the subject-matter of the book, they will hardly fail to admire the extraordinary variety and fulness of Mr. Vaughan’s reading, and wonder when they hear — unless we are wrongly informed — that he is quite a young man —

How one small head could compass all he knew.

He begins with the mysticism of the Hindoo Yogis. And to this, as we shall hereafter show, he hardly does justice; but we wish now to point out in detail the extended range of subjects, of each of which the book gives some general notion. From the Hindoos he passes to Philo and the neo-Platonists; from them to the pseudo-Dionysius, and the Mysticism of the early Eastern Church. He then traces, shrewdly enough, the influence of the pseudo-Areopagite and the Easterns on the bolder and more practical minds of the Western Latins, and gives a sketch of Bernard and his Abbey of Clairvaux, which brings pleasantly enough before us the ways and works of a long-dead world, which was all but inconceivable to us till Mr, Carlyle disinterred it in his picture of Abbot Sampson, the hero of “Past and Present.”

We are next introduced to the mystic schoolmen — Hugo and Richard of St. Victor; and then to a far more interesting class of men, and one with which Mr. Vaughan has more sympathy than with any of his characters, perhaps because he knows more about them. His chapters on the German Mysticism of the fourteenth century; his imaginary, yet fruitful chronicle of Adolf of Arnstein, with its glimpses of Meister Eckart, Suso, the “Nameless Wild,” Ruysbroek, and Tauler himself, are admirable, if merely as historic studies, and should be, and we doubt not will be, read by many as practical commentaries on the “Theologia Germanica,” and on the selection from Tauler’s “Sermons,” now in course of publication. Had all the book been written as these chapters are, we should not have had a word of complaint to make, save when we find the author passing over without a word of comment, utterances which, right or wrong, contain the very keynote and central idea of the men whom he is holding up to admiration, and as we think, of Mysticism itself. There is, for instance, a paragraph attributed to Ruysbroek, in p. 275, vol. i., which, whether true or false — and we believe it to be essentially true — is so inexpressibly important, both in the subject which it treats, and in the way in which it treats it, that twenty pages of comment on it would not have been misdevoted. Yet it is passed by without a word.

Going forward to the age of the Reformation, the book then gives us a spirited glimpse of John Bokelson and the Munster Anabaptists, of Carlstadt and the Zurichian prophets, and then dwells at some length on the attempt of that day to combine physical and spiritual science in occult philosophy. We have enough to make us wish to hear more of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Behmen, with their alchemy, “true magic,” doctrines of sympathies, 309 signatures of things, Cabbala, and Gamahea, and the rest of that (now fallen) inverted pyramid of pseudo-science. His estimate of Behmen and his writings, we may observe in passing, is both sound and charitable, and speaks as much for Mr. Vaughan’s heart as for his head. Then we have a little about the Rosicrucians and the Comte de Gabalis, and the theory of the Rabbis, from whom the Rosicrucians borrowed so much, all told in the same lively manner, all utterly new to ninety-nine readers out of a hundred, all indicating, we are bound to say, a much more extensive reading than appears on the page itself.

309 Why has Mr. Vaughan omitted to give us a few racy lines on Sir Matthew Hale’s “Divine Contemplations of the Magnet,” Sir Kenelm Digby’s “Weapon-Salve,” and Valentine Greatrake’s “Magnetic Cures”? He should have told the world a little, too, about the strange phenomenon of the Jesuit Kircher, in whom Popery attempted to recover the very ground which Behmen and the Protestant Nature-mystics were conquering from them.

From these he passes to the Mysticism of the counter-Reformation, especially to the two great Spanish mystics, St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross. Here again he is new and interesting; but we must regret that he has not been as merciful to Theresa as he has to poor little John.

He then devotes some eighty pages — and very well employed they are — in detailing the strange and sad story of Madame Guyon and the “Quietist” movement at Louis Quatorze’s Court. Much of this he has taken, with all due acknowledgment, from Upham; but he has told the story most pleasantly, in his own way, and these pages will give a better notion of Fénelon, and of the “Eagle” (for eagle read vulture) “of Meaux,” old Bossuet, than they are likely to find elsewhere in the same compass.

Following chronological order as nearly as he can, he next passes to George Fox and the early Quakers, introducing a curious — and in our own case quite novel — little episode concerning “The History of Hai Ebn Yokhdan,” a medieval Arabian romance, which old Barclay seems to have got hold of and pressed into the service of his sect, taking it for literal truth.

The twelfth book is devoted to Swedenborg, and a very valuable little sketch it is, and one which goes far to clear up the moral character, and the reputation for sanity also, of that much-calumniated philosopher, whom the world knows only as a dreaming false prophet, forgetting that even if he was that, he was also a sound and severe scientific labourer, to whom our modern physical science is most deeply indebted.

This is a short sketch of the contents of a book which is a really valuable addition to English literature, and which is as interesting as it is instructive. But Mr. Vaughan must forgive us if we tell him frankly that he has not exhausted the subject; that he has hardly defined Mysticism at all — at least, has defined it by its outward results, and that without classifying them; and that he has not grasped the central idea of the subject. There were more things in these same mystics than are dreamt of in his philosophy; and he has missed seeing them, because he has put himself rather in the attitude of a judge than of an inquirer.

He has not had respect and trust enough for the men and women of whom he writes; and is too much inclined to laugh at them, and treat them de haut en bas. He has trusted too much to his own great power of logical analysis, and his equally great power of illustration, and is therefore apt to mistake the being able to put a man’s thoughts into words for him, for the being really able to understand him. To understand any man we must have sympathy for him, even affection. No intellectual acuteness, no amount even of mere pity for his errors, will enable us to see the man from within, and put our own souls into the place of his soul. To do that, one must feel and confess within oneself the seed of the same errors which one reproves in him; one must have passed more or less through his temptations, doubts, hunger of heart and brain; and one cannot help questioning, as one reads Mr. Vaughan’s book, whether he has really done this in the case of those of whom he writes. He should have remembered too how little any young man can have experienced of the terrible sorrows which branded into the hearts of these old devotees the truths to which they clung more than to life, while they too often warped their hearts into morbidity, and caused alike their folly and their wisdom. Gently indeed should we speak even of the dreams of some self-imagined “Bride of Christ,” when we picture to ourselves the bitter agonies which must have been endured ere a human soul could develop so fantastically diseased a growth. “She was only a hysterical nun.” Well, and what more tragical object, to those who will look patiently and lovingly at human nature, than a hysterical nun? She may have been driven into a convent by some disappointment in love. And has not disappointed affection been confessed, in all climes and ages, to enshroud its victim ever after in a sanctuary of reverent pity? If sorrow “broke her brains,” as well as broke her heart, shall we do aught but love her the more for her capacity of love? Or she may have entered the convent, as thousands did, in girlish simplicity, to escape from a world she had not tried, before she had discovered that the world could give her something which the convent could not. What more tragical than her discovery in herself of a capacity for love which could never be satisfied within that prison? And when that capacity began to vindicate itself in strange forms of disease, seemingly to her supernatural, often agonising, often degrading, and at the same time (strange contradiction) mixed itself up with her noblest thoughts, to ennoble them still more, and inspire her not only with a desire of physical self-torture, which would seem holy both in her own eyes and her priest’s, but with a love for all that is fair and lofty, for self-devotion and self-sacrifice — shall we blame her — shall we even smile at her if, after the dreadful question: “Is this the possession of a demon?” had alternated with, “Is this the inspiration of a god?” she settled down, as the only escape from madness and suicide, into the latter thought and believed that she found in the ideal and perfect manhood of One whom she was told to revere and love as a God, and who had sacrificed His own life for her, a substitute for that merely human affection from which she was for ever debarred? Why blame her for not numbering that which was wanting, or making straight that which was crooked? Let God judge her, not we: and the fit critics of her conduct are not the easy gentlemanlike scholars, like Mr. Vaughan’s Athertons and Gowers, discussing the “aberrations of fanaticism” over wine and walnuts; or the gay girl, Kate; hardly even the happy mother, Mrs. Atherton; but those whose hairs are gray with sorrow; who have been softened at once and hardened in the fire of God; who have cried out of the bottomless deep like David, while lover and friend were hid away from them, and laid amid the corpses of their dead hopes, dead health, dead joy, as on a ghastly battle-field, “stript among the dead, like those who are wounded, and cut away from God’s hands;” who have struggled drowning in the horrible mire of doubt, and have felt all God’s billows and waves sweep over them, till they were weary of crying, and their sight failed for waiting so long upon God; and all the faith and prayer which was left was “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.” Be it understood, however, for fear of any mistake, that we hold Mr. Vaughan to be simply and altogether right in his main idea. His one test for all these people, and all which they said or did, is — Were they made practically better men and women thereby? He sees clearly that the “spiritual” is none other than the “moral”— that which has to do with right and wrong; and he has a righteous contempt for everything and anything, however graceful and reverent, and artistic and devout, and celestial and super-celestial, except in as far as he finds it making better men and women do better work at every-day life.

But even on this ground we must protest against such a sketch as this; even of one of the least honourable of the Middle-age saints:

ATHERTON. Angela de Foligni, who made herself miserable — I must say something the converse of flourished — about the beginning of the fourteenth century, was a fine model pupil of this sort, a genuine daughter of St. Francis. Her mother, her husband, her children dead, she is alone and sorrowful. She betakes herself to violent devotion — falls ill — suffers incessant anguish from a complication of disorders — has rapturous consolations and terrific temptations — is dashed in a moment from a seat of glory above the empyrean . . .

Very amusing, is it not? To have one’s mother, husband, children die — the most commonplace sort of things — what (over one’s wine and walnuts) one describes as being “alone and sorrowful.” Men who having tasted the blessings conveyed in those few words, have also found the horror conveyed in them, have no epithets for the state of mind in which such a fate would leave them. They simply pray that if that hour came, they might just have faith enough left not to curse God and die. Amusing, too, her falling ill, and suffering under a complication of disorders, especially if those disorders were the fruit of combined grief and widowhood. Amusing also her betaking herself to violent devotion! In the first place, if devotion be a good thing, could she have too much of it? If it be the way to make people good (as is commonly held by all Christian sects), could she become too good? The more important question which springs out of the fact we will ask presently. “She has rapturous consolations and terrific temptations.” Did the consolations come first, and were the temptations a revulsion from “spiritual” exaltation into “spiritual” collapse and melancholy? or did the temptations come first, and the consolations come after, to save her from madness and despair? Either may be the case; perhaps both were: but somewhat more of care should have been taken in expressing so important a spiritual sequence as either case exhibits.

It is twelve years and more since we studied the history of the “B. Angela de Foligni,” and many another kindred saint; and we cannot recollect what were the terrific temptations, what was the floor of hell which the poor thing saw yawning beneath her feet. But we must ask Mr. Vaughan, has he ever read Boccaccio, or any of the Italian novelists up to the seventeenth century? And if so, can he not understand how Angela de Foligni, the lovely Italian widow of the fourteenth century, had her terrific temptations, to which, if she had yielded, she might have fallen to the lowest pit of hell, let that word mean what it may; and temptations all the more terrific because she saw every widow round her considering them no temptations at all, but yielding to them, going out to invite them in the most business-like, nay, duty-like, way? What if she had “rapturous consolations”? What if she did pour out to One who was worthy not of less but of more affection than she offered in her passionate southern heart, in language which in our colder northerns would be mere hypocrisy, yet which she had been taught to believe lawful by that interpretation of the Canticles which (be it always remembered) is common to Evangelicals and to Romanists? What if even, in reward for her righteous belief, that what she saw all widows round her doing was abominable and to be avoided at all risks, she were permitted to enjoy a passionate affection, which after all was not misplaced? There are mysteries in religion as in all things, where it is better not to intrude behind the veil. Wisdom is justified of all her children: and folly may be justified of some of her children also.

Equally unfair it seems to us is the notice of St. Brigitta — in our eyes a beautiful and noble figure. A widow she, too — and what worlds of sorrow are there in that word, especially when applied to the pure deep-hearted Northern woman, as she was — she leaves her Scandinavian pine-forests to worship and to give wherever she can, till she arrives at Rome, the centre of the universe, the seat of Christ’s vicegerent, the city of God, the gate of Paradise. Thousands of weary miles she travels, through danger and sorrow — and when she finds it, behold it is a lie and a sham! not the gate of Paradise, but the gate of Sodom and of hell. Was not that enough to madden her, if mad she became? What matter after that her “angel dictated discourses on the Blessed Virgin,” “bombastic invocations to the Saviour’s eyes, ears, hair?”— they were at least the best objects of worship which the age gave her. In one thing she was right, and kept her first love. “What was not quite so bad, she gives to the world a series of revelations, in which the vices of popes and prelates are lashed unsparingly and threatened with speedy judgment.” Not quite so bad? To us the whole phenomenon wears an utterly different aspect. At the risk of her life, at the risk of being burned alive — did anyone ever consider what that means? — the noble Norse-woman, like an Alruna maid of old, hurls out her divine hereditary hatred of sin and filth and lies. At last she falls back on Christ Himself, as the only home for a homeless soul in such an evil time. And she is not burnt alive. The hand of One mightier than she is over her, and she is safe under the shadow of His wings till her weary work is done and she goes home, her righteousness accepted for His sake: her folly, hysterics, dreams — call them by what base name we will — forgiven and forgotten for the sake of her many sorrows and her faithfulness to the end.

But whatever fault we can find with these sketches, we can find none with Mr. Vaughan’s reflections on them:

What a condemning comment on the pretended tender mercies of the Church are those narratives which Rome delights to parade of the sufferings, mental and bodily, which her devotees were instructed to inflict upon themselves! I am reminded of the thirsting mule, which has, in some countries, to strike with his hoof among the spines of the cactus, and drink, with lamed foot and bleeding lips, the few drops of milk which ooze from the broken thorns. Affectionate, suffering natures came to Rome for comfort; but her scanty kindness is only to be drawn with anguish from the cruel sharpness of asceticism. The worldly, the audacious, escape easily; but these pliant excitable temperaments, so anxiously in earnest, may be made useful. The more dangerous, frightful, or unnatural their performances, the more profit for their keepers. Men and women are trained by torturing processes to deny their nature, and then they are exhibited to bring grist to the mill — like birds and beasts forced to postures and services against the laws of their being — like those who must perform perilous feats on ropes or with lions, nightly hazarding their lives to fill the pockets of a manager. The self-devotedness of which Rome boasts so much is a self-devotion she has always thus made the most of for herself. Calculating men who have thought only of the interest of the priesthood, have known well how best to stimulate and to display the spasmodic movements of a brainsick disinterestedness. I have not the shadow of a doubt that, once and again, some priest might have been seen, with cold gray eye, endeavouring to do a stroke of diplomacy by means of the enthusiastic Catherine, making the fancied ambassadress of Heaven in reality the tool of a schemer. Such unquestionable virtues as these visionaries may some of them have possessed cannot be fairly set down to the credit of the Church, which has used them all for mercenary or ambitious purposes, and infected them everywhere with a morbid character. Some of these mystics, floating down the great ecclesiastical current of the Middle Age, appear to me like the trees carried away by the inundation of some mighty tropical river. They drift along the stream, passive, lifeless, broken; yet they are covered with gay verdure, the aquatic plants hang and twine about the sodden timber and the draggled leaves, the trunk is a sailing garden of flowers. But the adornment is that of Nature — it is the decoration of another and a strange element: the roots are in the air; the boughs which should be full of birds, are in the flood, covered by its alien products, swimming side by side with the alligator. So has this priestcraft swept its victims from their natural place and independent growth, to clothe them in their helplessness with a false spiritual adornment, neither scriptural nor human, but ecclesiastical — the native product of that overwhelming superstition which has subverted and enslaved their nature. The Church of Rome takes care that while simple souls think they are cultivating Christian graces they shall be forging their own chains; that their attempts to honour God shall always dishonour, because they disenfranchise themselves. To be humble, to be obedient, to be charitable, under such direction, is to be contentedly ignorant, pitiably abject, and notoriously swindled.

Mr. Vaughan cannot be too severe upon the Romish priesthood. But it is one thing to dismiss with summary contempt men, who, as they do, keep the keys of knowledge, and neither enter in themselves nor suffer others to enter, and quite another thing to apply the same summary jurisdiction to men who, under whatsoever confusions, are feeling earnestly and honestly after truth. And therefore we regret exceedingly the mock trial which he has introduced into his Introduction. We regret it for his own sake; for it will drive away from the book — indeed it has driven — thoughtful and reverent people who, having a strong though vague inclination toward the Mystics, might be very profitably taught by the after pages to separate the evil from the good in the Bernards and Guyons whom they admire, they scarce know why; and will shock, too, scholars, to whom Hindoo and Persian thoughts on these subjects are matters not of ridicule but of solemn and earnest investigation.

Besides, the question is not so easily settled. Putting aside the flippancy of the passage, it involves something very like a petitio principii to ask offhand: “Does the man mean a living union of heart to Christ, a spiritual fellowship or converse with the Father, when he talks of the union of the believer with God — participation in the Divine nature?” For first, what we want to know is, the meaning of the words — what means “living”? what “union”? what “heart”? They are terms common to the Mystic and to the popular religionist, only differently interpreted; and in the meanings attributed to them lies nothing less than the whole world-old dispute between Nominalist and Realist not yet to be settled in two lines by two gentlemen over their wine, much less ignored as a thing settled beyond all dispute already. If by “living union of heart with”— Mr. Vaughan meant “identity of morals with”— he should have said so: but he should have borne in mind that all the great evangelicals have meant much more than this by those words; that on the whole, instead of considering — as he seems to do, and we do — the moral and the spiritual as identical, they have put them in antithesis to each other, and looked down upon “mere morality” just because it did not seem to them to involve that supernatural, transcendental, “mystic” element which they considered that they found in Scripture. From Luther to Owen and Baxter, from them to Wesley, Cecil, and Venn, Newton, Bridges, the great evangelical authorities would (not very clearly or consistently, for they were but poor metaphysicians, but honestly and earnestly) have accepted some modified form of the Mystic’s theory, even to the “discerning in particular thoughts, frames, impulses, and inward witnessings, immediate communications from heaven.” Surely Mr. Vaughan must be aware that the majority of “vital Christians” on this ground are among his mystic offenders; and that those who deny such possibilities are but too liable to be stigmatised as “Pelagians,” and “Rationalists.” His friend Atherton is bound to show cause why those names are not to be applied to him, as he is bound to show what he means by “living union with Christ,” and why he complains of the Mystic for desiring “participation in the Divine nature.” If he does so, he only desires what the New Testament formally, and word for word, promises him; whatsoever be the meaning of the term, he is not to be blamed for using it. Mr. Vaughan cannot have forgotten the many expressions, both of St. Paul and St. John, which do at first sight go far to justify the Mystic, though they are but seldom heard, and more seldom boldly commented on, in modern pulpits — of Christ being formed in men, dwelling in men; of God dwelling in man and man in God; of Christ being the life of men; of men living, and moving, and having their being in God; and many another passage. If these be mere metaphors let the fact be stated, with due reason for it. But there is no sin or shame in interpreting them in that literal and realist sense in which they seem at first sight to have been written. The first duty of a scholar who sets before himself to investigate the phenomena of “Mysticism” so called, should be to answer these questions: Can there be a direct communication, above and beyond sense or consciousness, between the human spirit and God the Spirit? And if so, what are its conditions, where its limits, to transcend which is to fall into “mysticism”?

And it is just this which Mr. Vaughan fails in doing. In his sketch, for instance, of the Mysticism of India, he gives us a very clear and (save in two points) sound summary of that “round of notions, occurring to minds of similar make under similar circumstances,” which is “common to Mystics in ancient India and in modern Christendom.”

Summarily, I would say this Hindoo mysticism —

(1) Lays claim to disinterested love as opposed to a mercenary religion;

(2) Reacts against the ceremonial prescription and pedantic literalism of the Vedas;

(3) Identifies, in its pantheism, subject and object, worshipper and worshipped;

(4) Aims at ultimate absorption in the Infinite;

(5) Inculcates, as the way to this dissolution, absolute passivity, withdrawal into the inmost self, cessation of all the powers: giving recipes for procuring this beatific torpor or trance;

(6) Believes that eternity may thus be realised in time;

(7) Has its mythical miraculous pretensions, i.e. its theurgic department;

(8) And, finally, advises the learner in this kind of religion to submit himself implicitly to a spiritual guide — his Guru.

Against the two latter articles we except. The theurgic department of Mysticism — unfortunately but too common — seems to us always to have been (as it certainly was in neo-Platonism) the despairing return to that ceremonialism which it had begun by shaking off, when it was disappointed in reaching its high aim by its proper method. The use of the Guru, or Father Confessor (which Mr. Vaughan confesses to be inconsistent with Mysticism), is to be explained in the same way — he is a last refuge after disappointment.

But as for the first six counts. Is the Hindoo mystic a worse or a better man for holding them? Are they on the whole right or wrong? Is not disinterested love nobler than a mercenary religion? Is it not right to protest against ceremonial prescriptions, and to say, with the later prophets and psalmists of the Jews: “Thinkest thou that He will eat bull’s flesh, and drink the blood of goats. Sacrifice and burnt-offering Thou wouldst not . . . I come to do thy will, O God!” What is, even, if he will look calmly into it, the “pantheistic identification of subject and object, worshipper and worshipped,” but the clumsy yet honest effort of the human mind to say to itself: “Doing God’s will is the real end and aim of man?” The Yogi looks round upon his fellow-men, and sees that all their misery and shame come from self-will; he looks within, and finds that all which makes him miserable, angry, lustful, greedy after this and that, comes from the same self-will. And he asks himself: How shall I escape from this torment of self? — how shall I tame my wayward will, till it shall become one with the harmonious, beautiful, and absolute Will which made all things? At least I will try to do it, whatever it shall cost me. I will give up all for which men live — wife and child, the sights, scents, sounds of this fair earth, all things, whatever they be, which men call enjoyment; I will make this life one long torture, if need be; but this rebel will of mine I will conquer. I ask for no reward. That may come in some future life. But what care I? I am now miserable by reason of the lusts which war in my members; the peace which I shall gain in being freed from them will be its own reward. After all I give up little. All those things round me — the primeval forest, and the sacred stream of Ganga, the mighty Himalaya, mount of God, ay, the illimitable vault of heaven above me, sun and stars — what are they but “such stuff as dreams are made of”? Brahm thought, and they became something and somewhere. He may think again, and they will become nothing and nowhere. Are these eternal, greater than I, worth troubling my mind about? Nothing is eternal, but the Thought which made them, and will unmake them. They are only venerable in my eyes, because each of them is a thought of Brahm’s. And I too have thought; I alone of all the kinds of living things. Am I not, then, akin to God? what better for me than to sit down and think, as Brahm thinks, and so enjoy my eternal heritage, leaving for those who cannot think the passions and pleasures which they share in common with the beasts of the field? So I shall become more and more like Brahm — will his will, think his thoughts, till I lose utterly this house-fiend of self, and become one with God.

Is this a man to be despised? Is he a sickly dreamer, or a too valiant hero? and if any one be shocked at this last utterance, let him consider carefully the words which he may hear on Sunday: “Then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us.” That belief is surely not a false one. Shall we abhor the Yogi because he has seen, sitting alone there amid idolatry and licentiousness, despotism and priestcraft, that the ideal goal of man is what we confess it to be in the communion service? Shall we not rather wonder and rejoice over the magnificent utterance in that Bhagavat-Gita which Mr. Vaughan takes for the text-book of Hindoo Mysticism, where Krishna, the teacher human, and yet God himself, speaks thus:

There is nothing greater than I; all things hang on me, as precious gems upon a string. . . . . I am life in all things, and zeal in the zealous. I am the eternal seed of nature: I am the understanding of the wise, the glory of the proud, the strength of the strong, free from lust and anger. . . . Those who trust in me know Brahm, the supreme and incorruptible. . . . . In this body I am the teacher of worship. He who thinks of me will find me. He who finds me returns not again to mortal birth. . . . . I am the sacrifice, I am the worship, I am the incense, I am the fire, I am the victim, I am the father and mother of the world; I am the road of the good, the comforter, the creator, the witness, the asylum, and the friend. They who serve other Gods with a firm belief, involuntarily worship me. I am the same to all mankind. They who serve me in adoration are in me. If one whose ways are ever so evil serve me alone, he becometh of a virtuous spirit and obtaineth eternal happiness. Even women, and the tribes of Visya and Soodra, shall go the supreme journey if they take sanctuary with me; how much more my holy servants the Brahmins and the Ragarshees! Consider this world as a finite and joyless place, and serve me.

There may be confused words scattered up and down here; there are still more confused words — not immoral ones — round them, which we have omitted; but we ask, once and for all, is this true, or is it not? Is there a being who answers to this description, or is there not? And if there be, was it not a light price to pay for the discovery of Him “to sit upon the sacred grass called koos, with his mind fixed on one object alone; keeping his head, neck, and body steady, without motion; his eyes fixed upon the point of his nose, looking at no other place around”— or any other simple, even childish, practical means of getting rid of the disturbing bustle and noise of the outward time-world, that he might see the eternal world which underlies it? What if the discovery be imperfect, the figure in many features erroneous? Is not the wonder to us, the honour to him, that the figure should be there at all? Inexplicable to us on any ground, save that one common to the Bhagavat-Gita, to the gospel. “He who seeks me shall find me.” What if he knew but in part, and saw through a glass darkly? Was there not an inspired apostle, who could but say the very same thing of himself, and look forward to a future life in which he would “know even as he was known”?

It is well worth observing too, that so far from the moral of this Bhagavat-Gita issuing in mere contemplative Quietism, its purpose is essentially practical. It arises out of Arjoun’s doubt whether he shall join in the battle which he sees raging below him; it results in his being commanded to join in it, and fight like a man. We cannot see, as Mr. Vaughan does, an “unholy indifference” in the moral. Arjoun shrinks from fighting because friends and relatives are engaged on both sides, and he dreads hell if he kills one of them. The answer to his doubt is, after all, the only one which makes war permissible to a Christian, who looks on all men as his brothers:

“You are a Ksahtree, a soldier; your duty is to fight. Do your duty, and leave the consequences of it to him who commanded the duty. You cannot kill these men’s souls any more than they can yours. You can only kill their mortal bodies; the fate of their souls and yours depends on their moral state. Kill their bodies, then, if it be your duty, instead of tormenting yourself with scruples, which are not really scruples of conscience, only selfish fears of harm to yourself, and leave their souls to the care of Him who made them, and knows them, and cares more for them than you do.”

This seems to be the plain outcome of the teaching. What is it, mutatis mutandis, but the sermon “cold-blooded” or not, which every righteous soldier has to preach to himself, day by day, as long as his duty commands him to kill his human brothers?

Yet the fact is undeniable that Hindoo Mysticism has failed of practical result — that it has died down into brutal fakeerism. We look in vain, however, in Mr. Vaughan’s chapter for an explanation of this fact, save his assertion, which we deny, that Hindoo Mysticism was in essence and at its root wrong and rotten. Mr. Maurice (“Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy,” p. 46) seems to point to a more charitable solution. “The Hindoo,” he says, “whatsoever vast discovery he may have made at an early period of a mysterious Teacher near him, working on his spirit, who is at the same time Lord over nature, began the search from himself — he had no other point from whence to begin — and therefore it ended in himself. The purification of his individual soul became practically his highest conceivable end; to carry out that he must separate from society. Yet the more he tries to escape self the more he finds self; for what are his thoughts about Brahm, his thoughts about Krishna, save his own thoughts? Is Brahm a projection of his own soul? To sink in him, does it mean to be nothing? Am I, after all, my own law? And hence the downward career into stupid indifferentism, even into Antinomian profligacy.”

The Hebrew, on the other hand, begins from the belief of an objective external God, but One who cares for more than his individual soul; as One who is the ever-present guide, and teacher, and ruler of his whole nation; who regards that nation as a whole, a one person, and that not merely one present generation, but all, past or future, as a one “Israel”— lawgivers, prophets, priests, warriors. All classes are His ministers. He is essentially a political deity, who cares infinitely for the polity of a nation, and therefore bestows one upon them —“a law of Jehovah.” Gradually, under this teaching, the Hebrew rises to the very idea of an inward teacher, which the Yogi had, and to a far purer and clearer form of that idea; but he is not tempted by it to selfish individualism, or contemplative isolation, as long as he is true to the old Mosaic belief, that this being is the Political Deity, “the King of Kings.” The Pharisee becomes a selfish individualist just because he has forgotten this; the Essene, a selfish “mystic” for the same reason; Philo and the Jewish mystics of Alexandria lose in like manner all notion that Jehovah is the lawgiver, and ruler, and archetype of family and of national life. Christianity retained the idea; it brought out the meaning of the old Jewish polity in its highest form; for that very reason it was able to bring out the meaning of the “mystic” idea in its highest form also, without injury to men’s work as members of families, as citizens, as practical men of the world; and so to conquer at last that Manichæan hatred of marriage and parentage, which from the first to the sixteenth century shed its Upas shade over the Church.

And here let us say boldly to Mr. Vaughan and to our readers: As long as “the salvation of a man’s own soul” is set forth in all pulpits as the first and last end and aim of mortal existence; as long as Christianity is dwelt on merely as influencing individuals each apart — as “brands plucked, one here and another there, from the general burning”— so long will Mysticism, in its highest form be the refuge of the strongest spirits, and in its more base and diseased forms the refuge of the weak and sentimental spirits. They will say, each in his own way: “You confess that there can be a direct relation, communion, inspiration, from God to my soul, as I sit alone in my chamber. You do not think that there is such between God and what you call the world; between Him and nations as wholes — families, churches, schools of thought, as wholes; that He does not take a special interest, or exercise a special influence, over the ways and works of men — over science, commerce, civilisation, colonisation, all which affects the earthly destinies of the race. All these you call secular; to admit His influence over them for their own sake (though of course He overrules them for the sake of His elect) savours of Pantheism. Is it so? Then we will give up the world. We will cling to the one fact which you confess to be certain about us — that we can take refuge in God, each in the loneliness of his chamber, from all the vain turmoil of a race which is hastening heedless into endless misery. You may call us Mystics, or what you will. We will possess our souls in patience, and turn away our eyes from vanity. We will commune with our own hearts in solitude, and be still. We will not even mingle in your religious world, the world which you have invented for yourselves, after denying that God’s human world is sacred; for it seems to us as full of intrigue, ambition, party-spirit, falsehood, bitterness, and ignorance, as the political world, or the fashionable world, or the scientific world; and we will have none of it. Leave us alone with God.”

This has been the true reason of mystical isolation in every age and country. So thought Macarius and the Christian fakeers of the Thebaid. So thought the medieval monks and nuns. So thought the German Quietists when they revolted from the fierce degradation of decaying Lutheranism. So are hundreds thinking now; so may thousands think ere long. If the individualising phase of Christianity which is now dominant shall long retain its ascendancy, and the creed of Dr. Cumming and Mr. Spurgeon become that of the British people, our purest and noblest spirits will act here, with regard to religion, as the purest and noblest in America have acted with regard to politics. They will withdraw each into the sanctuary of his own heart, and leave the battle-field to rival demagogues. They will do wrong, it may be. Isolation involves laziness, pride, cowardice; but if sober England, during the next half-century, should be astonished by an outburst of Mysticism, as grand in some respects, as fantastic in others, as that of the thirteenth or the seventeenth centuries, the blame, if blame there be, will lie with those leaders of the public conscience who, after having debased alike the Church of England and the dissenting sects with a selfish individualism which was as foreign to the old Cromwellite Ironside as to the High Church divine, have tried to debar their disciples from that peaceful and graceful Mysticism which is the only excusable or tolerable form, of religion beginning and ending in self.

Let it be always borne in mind, that Quakerism was not a protest against, or a revulsion from, the Church of England, but from Calvinism. The steeple-houses, against which George Fox testified, were not served by Henry Mores, Cudworths, or Norrises: not even by dogmatist High-Churchmen, but by Calvinist ministers, who had ejected them. George Fox developed his own scheme, such as it was, because the popular Protestantism of his day failed to meet the deepest wants of his heart; because, as he used to say, it gave him “a dead Christ,” and he required “a living Christ.” Doctrines about who Christ is, he held, are not Christ Himself. Doctrines about what He has done for man, are not He himself. Fox held, that if Christ be a living person, He must act (when He acted) directly on the most inward and central personality of him, George Fox; and his desire was satisfied by the discovery of the indwelling Logos, or rather by its re-discovery, after it had fallen into oblivion for centuries. Whether he were right or wrong, he is a fresh instance of a man’s arriving, alone and unassisted, at the same idea at which Mystics of all ages and countries have arrived: a fresh corroboration of our belief, that there must be some reality corresponding to a notion which has manifested itself so variously, and among so many thousands of every creed, and has yet arrived, by whatsoever different paths, at one and the same result.

That he was more or less right — that there is nothing in the essence of Mysticism contrary to practical morality, Mr. Vaughan himself fully confesses. In his fair and liberal chapters on Fox and the Early Quakers, he does full justice to their intense practical benevolence; to the important fact that Fox only lived to do good, of any and every kind, as often as a sorrow to be soothed, or an evil to be remedied, crossed his path. We only wish that he had also brought in the curious and affecting account of Fox’s interview with Cromwell, in which he tells us (and we will take Fox’s word against any man) that the Protector gave him to understand, almost with tears, that there was that in Fox’s faith which he was seeking in vain from the “ministers” around him.

All we ask of Mr. Vaughan is, not to be afraid of his own evident liking for Fox; of his own evident liking for Tauler and his school; not to put aside the question which their doctrines involve, with such half-utterances as —

The Quakers are wrong, I think, in separating particular movements and monitions as Divine. But, at the same time, the “witness of the Spirit,” as regards our state before God, is something more, I believe, than the mere attestation to the written word.

As for the former of these two sentences, he may be quite right, for aught we know. But it must be said on the other hand, that not merely Quakers, but decent men of every creed and age, have — we may dare to say, in proportion to their devoutness — believed in such monitions; and that it is hard to see how any man could have arrived at the belief that a living person was working on him, and not a mere impersonal principle, law, or afflatus —(spirit of the universe, or other metaphor for hiding materialism)— unless by believing, rightly or wrongly, in such monitions. For our only inductive conception of a living person demands that that person shall make himself felt by separate acts.

But against the second sentence we must protest. The question in hand is not whether this “witness of the Spirit” “is something more” than, anything else, but whether it exists at all, and what it is. Why was the book written, save to help toward the solution of this very matter? The question all through has been: Can an immediate influence be exercised by the Spirit of God on the spirit of man? Mr. Vaughan assents, and says (we cannot see why) that there is no mysticism in such a belief. Be that as it may, what that influence is, and how exercised, is all through the de quo agitur of Mysticism. Mr. Vaughan, however, seems here for awhile to be talking realism through an admirable page, well worth perusal (pp. 264, 265). Yet his grasp is not sure. We soon find him saying what More and Fox would alike deny, that “The story of Christ’s life and death is our soul’s food.” No; Christ Himself is — would the Catholic Church and the Mystic alike answer. And here again the whole matter in dispute is (unconsciously to Mr. Vaughan) opened up in one word. And if this sentence does not bear directly on that problem, on what does it bear? It was therefore with extreme disappointment that on reading this, and saying to ourselves: “Now we shall hear at last what Mr. Vaughan himself thinks on the matter,” we found that he literally turned the subject off, as if not worth investigation, by making the next speaker answer, apropos of nothing, that “the traditional ascetism of the Friends is their fatal defect as a body.”

Why, too, has Mr. Vaughan devoted a few lines only to the great English Platonists, More, Norris, Smith of Jesus, Gale, and Cudworth? He says, indeed, that they are scarcely Mystics, except in as far as Platonism is always in a measure mystical. In our sense of the word they were all of them Mystics, and of a very lofty type; but surely Henry More is a Mystic in Mr. Vaughan’s sense also. If the author of “Conjectura Cabbalistica” be not a mystical writer (he himself uses the term without shame), who is?

We hope to see much in this book condensed, much modified, much worked out, instead of being left fragmentary and embryotic; but whether our hope be fulfilled or not, a useful and honourable future is before the man who could write such a book as this is, in spite of all defects.


Since the above was written, Mr. Vaughan’s premature death has robbed us of a man who might have done brave work, by lessening, through his own learning, the intellectual gulf which now exists between English Churchmen and Dissenters. Dîs aliter visum. But Mr. Vaughan’s death does not, I think, render it necessary for me to alter any of the opinions expressed here; and least of all that in the last sentence, fulfilled now more perfectly than I could have foreseen.

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