The Christian mystical experience and the limits of language

“If the mystic wishes to describe the mystical union of the soul with God and its effects, he has to make use of words which are not designed to express any such thing. For example, in order to express the closeness of the union, the elevation of the soul and the effect of the union on the soul’s activity, he employs a verb like ‘transform’ or ‘change into’. But ‘change into’ denotes such processes as assimilation (of food), consumption of material by fire, production of steam from water, heat from energy, and so on, whereas the mystical union of the soul with God is sui generis and really requires an altogether new and special word to describe it. But if the mystic coined a brand new word for this purpose, it would convey nothing at all to anyone who lacked the experience in question. Therefore he has to employ words in more or less ordinary use, even though these words inevitably suggest pictures and parallels which do not strictly apply to the experience he is attempting to describe. There is nothing to be surprised at, then, if some of the mystic’s statements, taken literally, are inadequate or even incorrect. And if the mystic is also a theologian and philosopher, as Eckhart was, inexactitude is likely to affect even his more abstract statements, at least if he attempts to express in theological and philosophical statements an experience which is not properly expressible, employing for this purpose words and phrases which either suggest parallels that are not strict parallels or already possess a defined meaning in theology and philosophy.”

 

Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 3, Part 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 206. Print.

Evelyn Underhill on the Creed

“”Lord,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “set my life in order; making me to know what I ought to do and do it in the way that I should.” The civilized world seems now to have reached the point at which only this prayer can save it; and the answer is already given us in the Christian creed. We talk much of reconstruction; but no one has yet dared to take the Christian’s profound beliefs about Reality as the basis of a reconditioned world. We treat them as dwellers in the plain treat the mountains. We lift up our eyes to their solemn beauty with respect; but refuse to acknowledge that plain and mountain are part of the same world. Yet the Creed is no mere academic document, no mere list of “dogmas.” It is an account of that which is; and every word it contains has a meaning at once universal, practical, and spiritual within the particular experience of each soul. It irradiates and harmonizes every level of our life, not one alone. All great spiritual literature does this to some extent; but the Creed, the condensed hand-list of those deep truths from which spiritual literature is built up, does it supremely. Continue reading

Fra Angelico, “Crucifixion”

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“In the chapter-house of S. Marco at Florence, the artist-saint, Fra Angelico, has painted the patrons of the city and the founds of the great religious orders—dedicated servants of the Eternal Charity—adoring the Crucified who is their Pattern, and from whom their mandate comes. There they are: real human beings of every type, transfigured by a single costly loyalty. There is Mark, the self-effacing writer of the earliest Gospel. There is the Magdalen, completely sanctified by penitence and love. There are the holy women, whose service was of the homeliest kind. There are Cosmo and Damian, the good and honest physicians. There too are the devoted scholars, Jerome, and Augustine; and Benedict, the creator of an ordered life of work and prayer. There are Francis, lost in an ecstasy of loving worship, and Thomas Aquinas gazing at the key to that great Mystery of Being to which he had given his vast intellectual powers. All these—mystics, lovers, teachers, scholars, workers—are linked with the Crucified, the Holy and Self-given, whose agents they are and from whom they draw power and love. The whole range of human accomplishment, in these its chosen representatives, is shown to us in direct and glad dependence on the very-flowing Charity of God. That is the very substance of religion. Like an immense impetus of generosity, it powers out from the Heart of Reality; self-given through generous and adoring spirits of every sort and kind, to rescue and transform the world” (Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity p 58).

Evelyn Underhill on the creed: “Crucified”

A Christian’s belief about reality is a wonderful blend of confidence and experience. On one hand it asks great faith in the inivisible world that enfolds us. On the other hand it includes and embraces the hardest facts of the actual life we know, and gives them a creative quality. It is a religion which leaves nothing out. After the great phrases in which the Creed tries to describe or suggest the eternal Divine Nature, and the mystery of that Infinite God disclosing Himself in and through His creatures—incarnate by the action of the Holy Spirit of Charity—it goes on to a series of plain statements about the life of Christ. He was born, a baby; made man; entered completely into our human situation. He was crucified at a particular moment in the history of a particular country, suffered, was buried, and rose again to a new quality of life. This sequence of facts, deliberately picked out as specially significant moments in the revelation of Divine Charity to us, is not merely a series of symbolic or spiritual events. These things, on their surface so well known—but in their deep significance and bearing on life so carefully ignored by us—happened in time and space to a real man, a real body; of flesh and nerve and bone, accessible to all the demands of our physical nature and all the humiliations of physical pain. To the world He merely appeared a local prophet of somewhat limited appeal; yet endowed with the strange power of healing and transforming all lives given into His hand. Having roused the hostility of official religion by His generous freedom of love, He was condemned by a combination of political cowardice and ecclesiastical malice to a barbarous and degrading death; and made of that death the supreme triumph of self-abandoned Charity.

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