The Metaphysics of Mysticsm

a Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross


Geoffrey K. Mondello

Dedicated to Mary, Mother of God


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Preface to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
Foreword to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross
The Presuppositions of the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of the Will in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Understanding in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Memory in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Metaphysics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Metaphysics of the Night of the Spirit
The Problem of Induction as Pseudo-Problematic
Prolepsis: Objections to the Mystical Experience
Being, Becoming, and Eternity
A Biography of St. John of the Cross
Epilogue to the Metaphysics of Mysticism

© Copyright 2011-2017 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved


The Prolepsis:

Objections to the Mystical Experience



The Plight of the Mystic and the Occasion of Animus

It is inevitable that the claims of the mystic, even within the very ecclesiastical community through which his aspirations had been nurtured, will often be met by reproach, disdain, and hostility. True sanctity – the most fundamental prerequisite to union with God conceived as Most Holy – has seldom been greeted by less. And if there is one unerring mark of the authentic mystic, it is indubitable sanctity. The mystic is set apart. As everything deemed holy, he is understood as set apart not merely for God – but by God. This simple observation alone, I think, suffices to explain a good deal of the hostility with which the mystic has historically been greeted. We are, by and large, indefeasibly democratic in nature, and when this sense of democracy has been violated, our response, to a greater or lesser degree, has been similar to that of Cain before God’s predilection for Abel, expressing itself in hostility in having been disfranchised. We are indignant that prerogative, access, has been accorded another, while it has been denied to us. This appears to hold equally true for wealth, power, and knowledge – in fact, for the possession of anything from which we feel ourselves arbitrarily excluded. Anything whatever, exclusive in nature, is repugnant to our ingrained democratic sensibilities. In a larger sense, it is the same animosity, but on a much grander scale, encountered by the Church in maintaining Herself to be the indispensable means to salvation. No one likes being left out in the cold, understood either as outer darkness or invincible ignorance – especially when it is through no fault of their own. The perspective enjoyed by the mystic – or, for that matter, the physicist – from which one is excluded either by predilection or aptitude, is at least as likely to arouse resentment as to stir admiration. The question, in the end, inevitably becomes this: why this man and not another? Or more often than not, why him, and not me? And this, I think, is simply a candid assessment of human nature.

And then there is, of course, the discredit, even disrepute, into which mysticism has occasionally been brought by individuals uttering the most abhorrent and remarkable nonsense that in one way or another had come to be mistakenly associated with mysticism, but which really belong within the phenomenology of occultism, such as thought transference, metempsychosis and the like. I think that the problem, in large part, is due to the name which lends itself to such wide abuse, and for this reason should probably be dropped entirely and replaced with something much less general and altogether more specific. Too much in the way of undeserved but nevertheless common association with altogether discreditable notions accompany the term “mystic”, and I suggest that the term “infused contemplation”, which St. John frequently uses (he seldom uses the word “mystic”, and never “mysticism”) would be much more appropriate to the purpose. I think it entirely likely that a mystic would blench at being called a mystic, and would more probably consider himself a contemplative if he were forced to consider the point.

  What we are really considering, then, is the larger problem of the broad and often indiscriminate interpretation applied to what is essentially a clearly defined phenomena concerning man’s relation to Absolute Being in the person of God. Nor is the problem confined to those who have merely a superficial understanding of the subject. William James, for example, includes in his understanding of mysticism “voices and visions and leadings and missions,” 1 no less than the noted skeptic Bertrand Russell who apparently includes in his own understanding of the subject, visions of angels and saints.2 I suggest, however, that such visions and the like are “mystical” in another and more ordinary sense, and really do not compel our interest insofar as a coherent mystical epistemology is concerned.

This regrettable tendency, I think, results not simply from too broad an application of the term which suggests a fundamental misconception about the nature of authentic mystical experiences. It also appears to follow from an impulse to subsume too disparate an array of mystical interpretations under a single rubric and one general accounting. Mysticism – at least of the Christian variety with which we are dealing – however, does not readily lend itself to this rather facile subsumption. While most varieties of mystical experience undeniably share certain common features – which itself implicates something universal that in turn suggests something authentic about this experience that cuts across cultural and phenomenological lines – the disparities within the several accounts are often too metaphysically inconsistent, if not contradictory, to be ignored. Quite obviously, certain of these accounts, for example, narcotically induced states of so-called mystical awareness, demonstrate less logical and metaphysical coherence than others; and the account which equates visions invested with apparent corporeity with mystical experiences quite clearly conflicts with another account of the type described by St. John which explicitly suppresses such experiences as not pertaining by definition to the nature of mystical experience at all.

It is, then, patently impossible to ascribe equal validity to competing interpretations without at once becoming involved in numerous logical contradictions. We cannot hold, for example, that the mystical experience is sensuously embodied on the one hand, and at the same time maintain that it is explicitly non-sensuous on the other. Both assertions clearly cannot be true in any univocal sense. And as the criteria to which we appeal in our effort to categorize these essentially dissimilar experiences become increasingly general, they eventually reach the point at which they become altogether meaningless. How, then, do we set about distinguishing between authentic mystical experiences, and other experiences which are held to share similar features but which derive from entirely dissimilar sources, such as those observed in the dysperceptive reflexivity of pathological psychosis, or narcotically-induced states of pseudo-mystical awareness?

Before beginning to answer this question, it is necessary to avoid some confusion at the outset by agreeing upon a clear, if concise, definition of our understanding of mystical union, and I think that the following will be adequate to our purposes while remaining consistent with the text. By mystical union, St. John understands the direct, immediate, and intuitive participation of the finite and created being of the soul in the infinite and uncreated being of God. And while there are a wide variety of objections to an equally wide variety of interpretations, some more cogent than others, only those objections that have a direct bearing upon our understanding of St. John’s mystical thesis will be considered. This approach, I believe, will serve us in several ways: first and foremost it provides us with a reasonably clear index of the types of objections to which Christian mysticism is legitimately subject through a critical assessment of its actual premises, and not those commonly but mistakenly associated with it through its subreptive incorporation into essentially unrelated and incompatible systems. And in so doing, it will at once provide the focus necessary to systematically address problematic issues and legitimate criticisms specific to St. John’s account without the need to contend with issues only incidental to our strictly epistemological purview. Such an approach, at the same time, equally serves to eliminate a surprising number of objections which more properly address interpretations of experiences construed as mystical and which deny, for example, the reality of space, time, matter, and personality – a denial in which St. John has no part.

Ite ad fontis

While the queue of contemporary philosophers and epistemologists – considered as either skeptical or antagonistic to the mystical doctrine – is long and distinguished, each representative nevertheless appears, in one form or another, to either further articulate or simply reformulate  the principle and most cogent objections to mysticism already embodied in the writings of whom I consider to be the two greatest luminaries in this field: Bertrand Russell and William James.  Every other contemporary critic, albeit providing valuable, if ancillary, insight, pales before the contribution of these two exemplary thinkers. In scope, insight, perspicacity, and clarity, their analyses to this day stand unrivalled.

The first type of objection which we encounter is rather concisely, if sardonically, stated by Bertrand Russell in the seventh chapter of his treatise on Religion and Science. Here Russell argues the following:

“From a scientific point of view we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven, and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions.”

Let us look at this argument a little more closely. Russell contends that what pass for mystical experiences are directly induced (caused) by presumed physiochemical changes, characteristically morbid in nature, that attend (result from, are incurred by) specific forms of behavior, and that this experience, which is fundamentally symptomatic, is particularly manifested through physical privation. By this interpretation, then, mystical experience is essentially pathological in nature. Consequently, we can dismiss the phenomena as a purely physiological issue as quickly remedied by, as it is answerable in terms of, mere biochemistry or psychophysics. The problem with this argument, however, is that it simply is not the case, for example, that millions of people suffering involuntary privation of this sort throughout the world, and greater privation still, overwhelm us with reports of experiences of a mystical nature. I think it extremely unlikely that there is any genuinely scientific data to substantiate the claim that undernourished people are more likely to have ecstatic experiences as a result of malnutrition, than people who are well-nourished, or that any statistical analysis will prove it. Simply from the point of view of probability, the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise.

The argument, then, that abnormal physical conditions cause abnormal perceptions, although not entirely spurious in the most obvious sense, is nevertheless largely deceptive. If I have a fever I may indeed hallucinate, but when the fever has subsided I recognize the absurd nature of my perceptions; I do not set about attempting to construct a metaphysics around this clearly recognized pathological experience. Fasting, moreover – and this is unmistakably the point to which Russell adverts – is neither held to be necessary to, nor is it an explicit protocol of, Christian mysticism per se. Surely it is a discipline within the Church, and has been from time immemorial, but most Christians under this obligation are, I suggest, more likely to experience hunger than ecstasy. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that St. John, or for that matter St. Teresa, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso or van Ruysbroeck were anything but healthy, active, and productive individuals for the greater part of their lives, experiencing as much or as little in the way of abnormal conditions as any of their contemporaries, especially within the religious communities themselves where the discipline was equally exercised. In short, any statistical evidence, if indeed there is any, appealing to pathology upon which a disqualification of mysticism is held to rest can be equally applied to a given population at large and will subsequently yield quite different and essentially contradictory results.

But more apropos of this type of objection are statements to be found within the text itself. Even a cursory reading reveals St. John himself to be extremely skeptical about most reports of mystical experience, and most especially as they relate to embodied visions and the like. 3 But more importantly, we must recall that St. John insists that the majority of those who have gone through the preliminary stages to mystical union – never in fact achieve it. 4 And the reason that they do not, we will remember, was outlined by St. John earlier in his ascribing the cause of this experience to God alone. 5 In other words, the type of causality to which Russell appeals, and from which he elsewhere prescinds entirely – any irony in itself – is signally absent. And more compelling still, I think, is the fact that, with one or two very minor exceptions, the privation and poverty of which St. John speaks as necessary to the state of infused contemplation, are exclusively spiritual in nature. Nowhere do we find emphasis upon the physical aspects of asceticism in the writings of St. John who, at one point, tersely states that “all extremes are vicious”. 6 The type of argument, then, that would attempt to establish a causal relation between supposed pathological conditions and mystical states is clearly inconsistent both with the evidence at large and the premises of mysticism in particular.

If the mystical experience cannot be adequately accounted for pathologically, then perhaps its origin can be found elsewhere, specifically in a disordered state of the mind, and there are indeed those who maintain that a similarity exists between certain forms of delusional psychoses and mystical states of consciousness which indicate a common psychological ground in reference to which, like psychoses, mystical experiences are susceptible of explanation. This argument, of course, is a somewhat more sophisticated variation of the first argument we examined if, as some contemporary schools of thought maintain, psychological disorders are physiochemical in nature. In either event the objection remains essentially the same. Mystical experience and pathological psychoses are different in kind, but similar in nature. Fairly representative of this line of thought is William James who argues the following:

“... religious mysticism is only one half of mysticism. The other half has no  accumulated traditions except those which the textbooks on insanity supply. Open any one of these and you will find abundant cases in which mystical ideas are cited as characteristic symptoms of enfeebled or deluded states of mind. In delusional insanity, paranoia, as they sometimes call it, we may have a diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down. The same sense of ineffable importance in the smallest events ... the same controlling by extraneous powers, only this time the emotion is pessimistic: instead of consolations, we have desolations; the meanings are dreadful, point of view of their psychological mechanism, that classical mysticism, and these lower mysticisms spring from the same mental level, from that great subliminal or transmarginal region of which science is beginning to admit the existence, but of which so little is really known. That religion contains every kind of matter: ‘seraph and snake’ abide there side by side.” 7

Mysticism as Aberration:
A Clinical Objection

What are we to make of this argument? First of all, it seems to me that it is not at all clear just what James is arguing here. Is it that certain aspects of mysticism are analogous to certain aspects of pathological psychoses? Certainly no analogy obtains between the content of such experiences, for on this point he is quite clear that the two are not just dissimilar, but essentially diametrical. James, however, has failed to elaborate the point sufficiently, and it is precisely on this elaboration that our contention rests. The one, we have seen, is an experience of escalating unity, increasing coherence, within the universe of perception; the other of amplified disunity, dyscontextuality, and incoherence. For the contemplative, the universe of experiences gradually unfolds itself, reveals itself, as a providentially ordered and harmonious cosmos. Perfect ontological syntony, as it were, discloses itself among the infinitude of existents; opposition yields to complementarity, plurality to unicity – in short, the universe unveils itself to the mystic as infinitely coherent. On the other hand, within the solipsistic ambits of psychoses we find quite the converse to be true: the involuted world of experience is apprehended as incommensurable chaos; ordinarily lucid connections fail to obtain between rhapsodic and isolated perceptions. Experience is characteristically recalcitrant to order, syntony yields to opposition, coherence to incoherence. And where the mystic’s experiences are interpretable in terms of movement toward a coherent objective – and are in fact seen to correspond with a systematic and rational metaphysics – there is no end, no goal, no objective toward which the psychotic strives, or in light of which his behavior becomes subsequently intelligible. There is no discernible purpose toward which these apparently discrete or parenthetical states of mind are directed and in light of which his experiences become susceptible of interpretation beyond the abbreviated experience of the moment. Any meaningful notion of intentionality within a context at large vanishes amid the pure spontaneity of apparently discontinuous perceptions, and all correspondence to any coherent standard of what is presumably real breaks down, disintegrates, in a reflexively constructed dysreality.

Perhaps, then, in arguing that mysticism and psychoses “spring from the same mental level”, James is suggesting that they are analogous in that the two experiences share in fundamentally identical categories? But neither is this the case, for we have seen that the mystic’s experience is consistently – and quite necessarily – outside the categories of space, time, and radical individuation. On the other hand, whatever the psychotic perceives, however distorted and incoherent the context, he necessarily perceives as invested with spatial and temporal characteristics, and for this reason: the confusion encountered in this apparently rhapsodic type of consciousness presupposes a clearly defined chronology of erratically indexed perceptions. In other words, the confusion and incoherence which psychology understands as diagnostic of psychosis could not occur outside of a temporal matrix within which alone a sequence of disordered perceptions is possible. However disorganized, there is a temporal priority of one experience to another. Moreover, inasmuch as hallucinatory aspects of these perceptions, ordered in time, are typically embodied as discrete forms, and so are individuated one from another, such experiences are inescapably spatial in nature. Were they not spatially individuated, there would be no discrete perceptions for time to index, and consequently there would be no confusion. It is not merely a matter of psychological, or even pathological interpretation of experiences of a kind, as James suggests, for the categories involved in the types of these experiences are radically dissimilar. And the point is that they are dissimilar not from a psychological point of view concerning the way that the mind organizes, or fails to coherently organize, the data brought to bear upon it; still less from a pathological perspective as causative – but from a metaphysical perspective. It is not so much a different subjective response to essentially identical data, but to data altogether different; data which are outside the possibility of empirical or psychological acquaintance simply because these acquaintances are universally and necessarily defined in terms of time and space. In short, because an individual is psychotic does not exempt him from the conditions governing perceptions in general– irrespective of whether these perceptions are hallucinatory or not.

These rather general observations, however, fail to make an assessment of perhaps the most significant feature to be invoked in distinguishing between these essentially dissimilar experiences: the notion of volition. In his argument, James adverts to what he sees as “the controlling by extraneous powers” to which mystic and psychotic are subject alike. But we must argue in turn that while it is true that the mystic exercises no positive control over the mystical experience – a point upon which St. John is very clear – in the sense that he is unable to occasion, effect, this type of experience into which he is cooperatively inducted, it is equally true that these experiences are, at any moment of his choosing, negatively susceptible to his volition. That is to say, by a simple act of will – for the contemplative is never deprived of his freedom – a turning from God, the mystic may withdraw from the mystical state and terminate the experience at will, although all evidence suggests that he would be strongly disinclined to do so.8

But disinclination and inability are two quite different things. And this is to say that while mystical consciousness is not voluntarily attained, neither is it involuntarily imposed. The autonomy of the will is never subverted in ecstatic union. We may discern a coincidence of wills – the soul’s and God’s – to such a degree that the will of the soul is, as St. John had stated earlier, indistinguishable from the will of God, but it nevertheless remains a freely appropriated correspondence of wills. And this means that the experience, while not solely accessible through the will alone, is an experience preeminently conditioned by will. Psychotic states, on the other hand, are experiences over which the psychotic exercises no control whatever, either positive or negative. He presumably neither wills to induce them, nor to suspend them. He is not free to extricate, to exempt himself from the conditions to which he finds himself subject. He may not choose not to engage in these chaotic states of mind, or to resume at will that integrated state of consciousness associated with a sound mind. Nothing of the pathology of psychosis suggests that the condition lies even marginally within the province of the will. Here indeed there is a “controlling” of the sort that James describes, a controlling in the most rigorous sense through biochemical factors that appear to effectively preclude the meaningful exercise of the will relative to these states.

But let us consider this objection further. Perhaps it may be argued that the sufferings which the soul typically endures prior to union, and which, we had suggested earlier, derive not from a lack of orientation to, but from the complete absence of, every reference to the phenomenal world at large, are in fact similar to those encountered in psychoses in that both are a suffering resulting from the absence of ordinary frames of reference. In other words, these two experiences are identical in certain respects specifically related to suffering and perceptual orientation and therefore have at least a common psychological ground inasmuch as the suffering is causally related to conditions of perceptual reference. This objection, however, becomes decidedly less tenable when we consider that for the mystic, the dark night of the soul, unlike the cognitive chaos typical in psychosis, has a constant and coherent frame of reference: God. However dark the night that eclipses sensibility and reason, together with every ordinary frame of reference, the intentionality of the mystic remains singularly intact. He is always cognitively oriented toward and intensely focused upon a consistent and coherent end in the Person of God; an end first acquired and subsequently maintained through what St. John calls the infused theological virtue of faith. This coherent, almost teleological orientation suggests that the mystical experience is too susceptible of purpose, accords too closely, almost seamlessly with widely recognized theological canons, and remains too much in the domain of the will, to allow for anything but the most casual correspondence with psychotic states of the type to which James and others would advert in dismissing the phenomenon. In addressing the problem of suffering, we might better understand the apotheosized contemplative as, in a sense, a victim of his own sacrifice, for in one of the typical paradoxes of mysticism we find that in the prelude to ecstatic union the suffering of the mystic is palliated by the very virtue through which it is embraced. 9

Given disparities of this sort which cannot be objectively overlooked, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand the analogy which James attempts to draw between two types of experience that in fact become increasingly dissimilar the more closely we examine them. If this type of argument concludes to an assertion of identity (mysticism is form of psychosis) based upon the observation that the two experiences simply appear to invest ordinary perception with certain extraordinary features, albeit radically dissimilar in kind and nature, then the analogy, I suggest, would appear to hold equally well between narcotically-induced states of awareness and mysticism. But this analogy, in the end, is simply a variation of Russell’s earlier argument; an argument in which we had been unable to adduce any compelling evidence to substantiate precisely this type of claim; a claim suggesting that psychological states causally related to physical stimuli are equally explanatory of ecstatic union. Ironically, the more appropriate analogy may in fact be between this type of narcotically-induced consciousness and psychosis of the sort adduced by James. For here we find a strikingly similar inventory of evidence in the way of altered consciousness and disrupted cognitive processes, the re-composition of space and time accompanied by perceptual disorientation and the complete interpretive restructuring which James mistakenly sees as typifying both mystical and psychotic experiences. But unlike the relationship between psychosis and mystical experience, here a common ground is clearly distinguishable, and widely recognized, between psychotic states of mind and narcotically altered consciousness inasmuch as both are seen as resulting from, and are therefore explicable in terms of, biochemistry; the one disorder apparently spontaneous in nature, the other narcotically induced. In either event the cause and the effect are held to be identical in both cases. No such observable nexus, however, links the mystic to his experiences. And this brings us to what I think is an extremely interesting question relative to this entire line of reasoning, and it is simply this: why, relative to a discussion on mysticism, was the analogy from psychosis chosen over an analogy from narcosis, when the latter would appear to have served the purpose equally well?

The answer to this question, I think, is particularly illuminating. In the former analogy James could at least plausibly argue that the mystical experience is essentially explainable solely in terms of biophysics and without reference to anything extrinsic; a biological isolation within which alone his interpretation will hold, and which effectively excludes any other principle of causation. Any appeal to Divine causation, then, becomes not superfluous, but entirely unnecessary. Using the analogy from psychosis is clearly more congenial to James’s purposes: the mystical experience is more readily dismissed, together with God, if it can be shown that no appeal to a cause outside of man is necessary in order to explain it, and this is perfectly true – but the problem is that James’s argument does not offer this proof. He has not demonstrated that these experiences derive from a common source, merely that they are superficially related through the fact that ordinary perceptions sometimes acquire extraordinary features, which is clearly as answerable in terms of narcotics as clinical psychosis. James’s type of argument in a nutshell is this: change the biochemistry and you change the perceptions. But arguments of this type adduce no evidence whatever of biological alteration diagnosable in mystics. Moreover, were such evidence produced; even were it proven that the biochemical makeup of mystics is similar or even identical to that of psychotics, this still would not prove the point, for it still fails to account for the radical dissimilarities between these two experiences and the still coherent orientation of the mystic toward an objective as clearly maintained to exist within the experience itself as outside of it.

Mysticism as Constitutive

The type of argument exemplified by James might well be called a theory of psycho-mystical immanence, for James essentially attempts to understand the mystical experience as somehow immanent, albeit latent, within consciousness itself. Given the necessary protocols, the types of experiences associated with mystical states can be induced: ecstasy is elicitable within consciousness. If we ascribe to this theory, however, we confront several significant problems at once. An adequate understanding of the concepts, especially the metaphysical presuppositions involved in Christian mysticism, make this extremely problematic for those ascribing to this theory. First of all, it must be demonstrated that the mind contains certain data in the form of a priori intuitions that are very specific to this to this type of experience, particularly those relating to the transcendence of time, space, and finitude; intuitions which could not, in any event, be empirically derived from experience since all experience necessarily presumes them. But what the mind possesses a priori is necessarily understood in formal and not empirical terms: we speak of them as rational concepts, not empirical percepts. But mysticism, we have seen, if nothing else, is fundamentally an experience, an intuition; and while we can meaningfully argue for the a priority of certain rational concepts, we cannot without contradiction argue for the a priority of empirical percepts, for to do so is to argue that we possess certain experiences prior to experience, which is absurd. Any theory, in a larger sense, that would hold certain experiences to be immanent or innate, awaiting, as it were, the proper conditions to actualize them or to stimulate them from latency, has failed to grasp the immediacy of experience as such. It is unintelligible, because it is contradictory, to argue that we are innately possessed of certain experiences which are not immediately experienced, for in what sense is an experience one that is not experienced? I can argue that I possess the recollection of the experience of “hot”, but I cannot argue that I possess the experience “hot” even though I do not presently experience it. To further contend that under the proper stimulus I would reacquire this experience which is latent within me is to have missed the point of the immediacy of experience altogether. The only stimulus adequate to this immediacy is a renewal of the experience itself.

Let us take a different tack, and for the moment hold the entire question of the provenance of such data in consciousness in a kind of methodological suspension. Let us merely assume the point as proven. What would follow from it? What are the logical implications? Well, to begin with (and prescinding entirely from the question of what legitimately constitutes data per se) the data must, first of all, exist prior to experience: since such data are absolutely incommensurable with experience, they cannot derive from it. Such data, then, must be innate. But they are not innate in the way that, say, Plato held our acquaintance with forms to be innate, such that our empirical acquaintance with particularized instances of this form stimulates a recollection of the true form, epistemologically latent, of which the particular is recognized to be only an impoverished representation, a form, in Plato’s case, that we possess and had acquired, say, through an ante-natal existence. And while the critique of mysticism that we are presently examining would appear to explain mystical experiences much in the way that Plato endeavored to explain our acquaintance with forms – by maintaining them to be innate – the similarity between the two accounts is too superficial to be exploited. The fact of the matter is that the data we encounter within the mystical experience are entirely unique: they are not mere concepts much as Descartes famous chiliagon;10 still less the formal protocols of reason we find in the canons of logic. They are, rather, irreducible experiences; sheer intuitions with which the mystic is immediately acquainted. The question, then, remaining to be answered, is this: in what possible sense can an experience be understood to be innate or implicit?

As we had argued earlier, to speak of becoming conscious of an experience is absurd. An experience is a conscious perception. To put it another way, if we understand experiences to be coterminous with consciousness, such that the notion of an unconscious experience is essentially unintelligible and meaningless, how can we hold ourselves to possess experiences of which we are not simultaneously conscious? It would appear to be equally clear that we do not experience the laws of logic; we comprehend them. Nor do we, in any Cartesian sense, experience a chiliagon (a thousand-sided polygon); we conceptualize it. But these mystical data, we have argued, are neither logical functions nor capable of conceptualization: they are experiences, like any other kind of experience, mystical or not, to which we cannot ascribe the notion of a priority without contradiction. James’s type of argument in one respect, and Russell’s in another, draw illegitimate conclusions from basically defective premises; premises which I suggest are based upon a subreptive association between fundamentally dissimilar experiences. Both, in the end, are too quick to explain the phenomenon of mysticism by an appeal to superficialities.

The Real Contributions of Russell and James

While the types of arguments exemplified by Russell and James fall short of their purpose, it would be an error, I believe, to dismiss their general perspective altogether. And while I am not prepared to grant an inherent disposition on the part of the soul to certain states of quasi-mystical awareness – certainly not within the terms outlined by either – I do not think it is entirely unprofitable to consider some states of awareness to be suggestive of, and in a sense an empirical testimony to, the inherent limitations of reason, and more importantly, to the possibility of alternative modes of cognition. One paradigm which readily comes to mind concerns that state of consciousness we call dreaming. To wit, in dreams it is not uncommon to find ourselves quite suddenly and forcefully illuminated to some obscure connection between the most remote and erstwhile unrelated events, such that we are likely to say with the most profound conviction born of a truth that has suddenly been thrust upon us, “Aha, so that is the nature of such and such!”, or “So that is the connection!” And while the wording, obviously, may be different, the sense remains the same. A single object or concept, or perhaps the relation between several, suddenly assumes manifold aspects; a previously unknown dimension, a newly revealed facet, emerges in light of which the relation we perceive is changed instantly and dramatically, unfolding before us as something invincibly true. Connections become marvelously translucent and strike us with the inexorable force of revelation in light of which our previous understanding palls.

These connections, however, these insights, gradually evanesce as we recede from this state of subliminal intuition and as reason gradually, inexorably reasserts itself in waking consciousness. The more that reason becomes explicit, operative–the more it supplants intuition – the less able we are to grasp these erstwhile lucid connections until at last they disappear entirely and reason is left with the awkward conjunction of apparently incongruous, irrelevant, or irreconcilable ideas. Yet often, despite the verdict of reason which pronounces these relations absurd, we are left with an unmistakable feeling of an experience of certitude often more compelling than reason ever delivered us. We are left, momentarily, with a firm conviction in the unity of reality; with the impression that there are not so much alternative, as complementary categories to be discerned within reality. And in a larger sense I think that our perception of reality is enriched by these dreams: we are persuaded that a real and fundamental stratum of unity is at least possible beneath the equally real surface phenomena of plurality and distinction which reason critically divides and apportions to us. That somehow, perhaps, these connections are not entirely chimerical, were we to discover a cognitive faculty superior to reason and through which this iridescent reticulation of perceptions would once again become accessible to us.

However appealing such an alternate might be to consider and while, much like Russell and James, we might be initially persuaded to follow this tenuous skein of evidence to the end of the strand at which point it passes completely through our grasp to no good end, we must, in our pursuit of coherence, be ingenuous enough to come to frank terms with the phenomena from the outset. Dream states are, with few exceptions, characteristically lacking in overall contextuality: in most dreams, no perduring frame of reference consistently orients the dreamer throughout his dream-experiences–indeed, were this not the case, it would be impossible to distinguish between ordinary and somnolent states of consciousness. And it is precisely this incoherence which essentially has no analogue in mysticism. While it is true, as we have already said, that the sufferings which the soul endures throughout the dark night prior to union effectively stem from the absence of ordinary frames of reference, it nevertheless remains equally true, despite this fact, that such experiences are not experiences of incoherence, but of negation. The dark night prior to mystical union is not an incoherence among experiences, but an absence of specific types of experience. Indeed, subsequent to union, these experiences, we find, are transformed into experiences of a markedly coherent and unified nature.

Dreams, unlike mystical states, moreover, are not characteristically ineffable. The difficulty encountered in describing some dreams – by far not all dreams – derives not from any intrinsic incommensurability between the perceived experience and waking reality, but rather, from the attempt to impose contextual coherence upon essentially incoherent experiences. It is, I think, equally clear that dreams invariably contain, instantiate, simply the elements of ordinarily experienced perceptions, however bizarrely arranged, superimposed, and synthetized. Dreams, in other words, are not perceptions of an extraordinary or transcendent reality, but of ordinary reality reflexively projected in unsystematic consciousness; a somnolent consciousness upon which reason exercises only marginal influence. Lastly, of course, but perhaps most apropos of the point, dreams, however extraordinary, are, one and all, perceptions invested with spatio-temporal features. The similarities, then, which we might otherwise impulsively seize upon to prove a relationship between these essentially unlike experiences, are, as their predecessors were in the arguments of Russell and James, at best superficial only. They do, however, suggest something valuable no less: that reason may in fact not be the exclusive arbiter of every type of experience.

Metaphysical Objections

Another and more serious objection yet remains to be considered from an entirely different perspective which, unlike the objections we have previously addressed, questions not the psychology, but the metaphysics itself upon which the mystical thesis stands. And because it is a metaphysical objection to a fundamentally metaphysical issue, it is on this account by far the more potentially discrediting, for in questioning certain ontological features of the mystical experience, it calls into question the very credibility of the metaphysics of mysticism itself. The argument may be formulated as follows:

Given not the relative, but the absolute ontological otherness of this purported mystical dimension, how can such a reality not simply relate to experience in general, but be held to structure experiences with which it is understood to be totally incommensurate? In other words, given the acknowledged categorical opposition in ontology, how is it possible for these not merely apparent, but real, contradictions to be sublated in a mystical and metaphysical unity?

The essentially monistic aspect of mysticism is clearly problematic by this account, for mystical experiences are invariably experiences of unity; a unity, as we had seen, in which opposition is not so much abolished as reconciled, and in which dogmatic individuation yields to the attenuated distinction implied in the notion of participation. The difficulty arises when the principle of reconciliation, the unifying, structuring element in this experience, is not only incommensurable with, but in fact is held to be in ontological opposition to, its counterpart in ordinary experience. In short, it is totally other. What can the nature of this principle possibly be such that it structures and unifies that of which it is essentially the antithesis? If indeed it can structure the universe of experience, then it must in some way be related to the world at large. But as St. John has forcefully argued, it is not related to the world, neither formally nor materially.11 How, then, are we to answer this?

To begin with, it is, I suggest, equally clear that despite this apparent contradiction there is a connection – for the two dimensions are in fact experienced as structured and unified in the mystical experience; an experience, moreover, that has shown itself to be extremely recalcitrant to being proved illusory. This point was well illustrated in the case of explanations that would summarily dismiss the authenticity of the mystical experience through theories of psycho-mystical immanence. In fact, the psychological models we explored failed to adequately account for the most significant features of the mystical experience precisely because they mistakenly interpreted the phenomenon in terms of immanence; an immanence which could make no account, not merely of an implied disproportion among specific types of experience, but of a clearly perceived and experienced incommensurability between them. And this contradiction– which is central to the problem – is, I suggest, only capable of being resolved if a principle, not of immanence, but of transcendence is assumed in the account. And the whole point is that this is precisely the case with regard to Christian mysticism which posits God as a principle ontologically assumed which not only comprehends the exhaustive plenitude of reality, but is held to be the ground of its existence. 12

Given this universal ontological presupposition – that God is not merely the cause of every being, but ontologically necessary to every being as such – there is, despite contrariety in nature and categorical polarity in essence, a necessary and fundamental connection between the phenomenal world at large and the ens realissimum of God which is encountered in mysticism. To put it in other terms, there is a transcendent metaphysical nexus between God 13 and every aspect of reality (creation) – which cannot possibly obtain between man and reality. While we cannot argue for the unqualified reconciliation of ontological opposites, 14 it nevertheless remains incontestable that the relation of the one to the other is fundamentally and necessarily ontological if God is posited as the ground of existence.15 And this ontic relation, we had seen in an earlier context, derives from the notion of being-as-such: the primal, unqualified, and unpredicated ontic state which is only commensurate with God as Being Itself, in its being-only – and not its being such-and-such. However, once formal predicates are attached to this being-only, subsequent to which it becomes informed as a being-such-and-such, then all commensurability vanishes, for every ascribable predicate will be necessarily finite and stand in opposition to the Infinite (God).

Even so, inasmuch as all existents are primally possessed of being-only, some residual commensurability remains, however remote, and an ontological connection is in fact discernible in the account; the one, in other words, is understood to be coherently related to the other. But while we have succeeded in establishing relation, we are still left with the problem of incommensurability and opposition between predicated-being – the being-such-and-such understood in every existent beyond its being-only – and the infinite Being-in-Itself which is God. To complicate matters further, we have argued that this opposition cannot be ontologically reconciled – but indeed, it need not be reconciled, for while these experiences pertain to ontological categories reciprocally and necessarily remote through opposition, they are at the same time experiences transcendentally unified through what is essentially apotheosized consciousness; the consciousness acquired in ecstatic union. It is a transcendental structuring which does not alter, or encroach upon, the respective ontologies, but in which infinite or apotheosized cognition is brought to bear upon finite existents. It is a structuring that does not violate what is finite in ontology, but which elicits infinite epistemological dimensions from it. And it does so, I suggest, in the following way: while it remains a perception of a manifold in existence, it is at the same time a perception of the transcendental unity of relations that obtain between the manifold existents. And this is simply to restate what we had suggested earlier: that the experience of the mystic is that of a manifold not ontologically, but transcendentally unified. One in which the apparent ontological isolation of each entity is not abolished, but transcended through the epistemological disclosure of infinite relations obtaining between – and consequently unifying – otherwise isolated finite existents in a mutually implicative manifold in which the perception of the part entails a simultaneous perception of the whole to which it pertains. This perceived relation then, since it cannot be predicated of any being in isolation, but which obtains only between being, is, then, a transcendental relation deriving its unity not from the manifold in which it is discerned, but from an apotheosized apprehension of that manifold.

Extraordinary as this state of affairs may be, it is not without its analogue in ordinary human perception which is capable of eliciting limited, or finite, epistemological relations from, and in so doing effectively unifying, otherwise discrete and isolated ontological and conceptual elements. One conspicuous difference remains, however: in mysticism, ontology is already totalized in apotheosized consciousness through being transcendentally unified in an intuitional noesis. The entire ontological spectrum is already apprehended, not as unified ontologically, but as totalized epistemologically. And in point of fact, most of the errors involved in the misinterpretation of the mystical experience originate in a fundamental misunderstanding regarding this very point. What is actually a transcendental unity experienced in mysticism is mistakenly interpreted as ontological unity. It is not, however, the ontological aspect of reality that is transformed – such that the perception of individuation and distinction perceived in the phenomenal order is ultimately revealed to be illusory – it is rather the cognitive faculty itself that has been transformed, and through this transformation has been enabled to simultaneously perceive the multiplicity of relations that obtain between, and therefore mutually implicate, every instance of being, both created and Uncreated, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal. It is, in a word, to possess the mind of God. 16 It is, consequently, cognitive and perceptual limitation which is transcended and abolished – not real distinctions in ontology. It is not the case that being is one, monistic, and ultimately, essentially, unified; but rather that the sum of being, and being in every instance, is capable of being totalized in a cognitive apotheosis.

But this is merely one of two levels of unity discernible within the mystical experience. As finite and temporally-conditioned beings we are, of course. limited in our perception of any given item in experience. Reason, on the one hand, constrained by time, cannot simultaneously entertain the vast multiplicity of relations that enter into any single object falling under its purview, while perception, on the other hand, constrained by space, cannot simultaneously apprehend the multiple facets circumscribing and defining any object acquired through sensibility. And this means that the multidimensionality of being is never simultaneously disclosed to us. In a sense, our access to being, to any being, is dimensionally limited in the way that the geometer is limited to a plane. And the consequence of this limitation is a certain opacity to being finitely considered: from one standpoint certain relations and dimensions obtain which are not accessible from another and as a result, our perception, our knowledge, our understanding of being is characteristically and necessarily incomplete.

The Cubist and the Mystic:
A Common Agendum on Limitation

Within the mystical experience, on the other hand, finitude and limitation are transcended and cognition is no longer subject to these limitations, for it is no longer constrained by time and space. Our best analogy, I think, comes from art, and is that offered by certain Cubists who had the perspicacity to recognize these fundamentally spatial constraints inherent in perception and the artistic ingenuity to redefine them. Our first impression upon viewing the cubist’s rendering of his subject is that of formal chaos. The subject presented to our consideration is unlike anything that our ordinary perception would be likely to encounter in the world around us, the parameters of which are defined in terms of time and space. But this, for the cubist, is entirely superficial. Beneath what sense can only perceive as chaos, inasmuch as it appropriates data within the limitations of time and space, is the ingenious rendering – and unity – of the subject in terms appropriable only through the intellect. The Cubist, recognizing the totality of his subject, is not satisfied with the single facet, the one perspective, to which perception is limited by time and space – one given particular spatial perspective among a multiplicity of possible alternate perspectives permitted in one particular point in time. Realizing that we cannot attain to the totality and unity of the subject aspectually, facet by facet – as it were, by a process of addition, attempting to arrive at a sum from the parts – he strives, rather, to grasp, to render, the subject in its entirety, from all perspectives and simultaneously. And because he does so at the cost of the organization of space and time – by superimposing perspective upon perspective as so many temporal overlays upon his subject– the product is formally recalcitrant to perspective and strikes us as odd, even grotesque. Prescinding from a presumed aesthetic value, the rendering is perspicuous to the intellect only. In a similar manner, in the mystical experience the multifaceted dimensions of being, of any being and all being, become totalized in an intuitional noesis, and through this totalization become susceptible of being cognized simultaneously. It is a perception of erstwhile unrealized dimensions and relations in being – dimensions and relations latent in ontology and capable of being elicited only through the soul’s virtual participation in the Divine Mind, the absolutely illimitable cognition of God. And it is precisely for this reason that mysticism purports to convey to us an unqualified, veridical perception of reality, for it is reality simultaneously and exhaustively considered in all its luminescent dimensions and relations.

Objections from Orthodoxy:
Indwelling Unknown

The types of objections that we have been considering until now have largely come from perspectives outside the tradition to which St. John belongs and apart from which his metaphysics are incapable of being understood. The scientific perspective, while not in and of itself intrinsically inimical to mysticism, is nevertheless more often than not critically, if unsuccessfully, invoked in attempts to discredit the mystical experience, while the skeptic, to whom Christian metaphysics in general is not simply insufficient but abhorrent, is openly hostile toward it. In a greater sense we may have anticipated these objections beforehand, for while they are clearly brought to bear against mysticism in particular as epitomizing the religious impulse, we may equally anticipate their critical inquiry into any aspect of religion in general, especially when claims are made about religious experiences, for any experience as such would appear to bring at least certain aspects of putative religious phenomena within the competence, and therefore under the legitimate purview, of science. In any event, a long and often unnecessarily antagonistic association has existed between science and religion which leads us to expect, as a matter of course, at least a critical commentary on topics religious from science in general. This is no especial handicap to mysticism, as we have seen. But there are other types of objections, more critical still, brought against mysticism from the very tradition upon which it is nurtured; criticisms which have sometimes resulted in an internecine conflict between dogmatic elements embodied in orthodox doctrine, and a perceived incompatibility with, if not an outright repudiation of, acknowledged dogma in the sometimes rarefied metaphysics of mysticism. This tension, more often than not, has essentially resulted from either a misunderstanding, or too rigorous an understanding of the sometimes fluid metaphysics subtending the mystical experience. This, coupled with the limitations inherent in language – and not occasionally by concepts carelessly constructed or poorly thought through – had, until St. John of the Cross, combined to create an atmosphere not altogether congenial between Dogmatics and Mysticism.

Nor was St. John himself, as we had seen, exempt from the lingering odor of heresy inasmuch as his own doctrines were called before – although subsequently exonerated by – the Holy Office. 17 Historically this has not always been the case. The Holy Office had good reason, and ample evidence of justification, for its vigilant skepticism. A point in fact, among many others that could be invoked, involves no less a well known and influential mystic than Johann Eckhart who, to his credit, and as an enduring testimony to his humility, retracted several controversial positions before the scrutiny of a panel assembled against him by the archbishop of Cologne in 1326, subsequent to which some twenty-eight of his propositions were formally condemned, seventeen among them being pronounced no less than heretical. St. John, on the other hand, so brilliantly and meticulously synthesized dogma and mystical doctrine, that he earned the title Doctor of the Church Universal by proclamation of Pope Pius XI in 1926 – some 335 years after his death. That is to say, subsequent to 335 years of close doctrinal investigation and the unremitting dogmatic analysis of his work. This is no small achievement, and speaks, I think, extremely well of the mind of this inimitable, if diminutive, Spanish mystic. Even in his most ecstatic utterances, St. John has ground his doctrine firmly in the elements of dogmatic theology. This is not to say, of course, that misunderstandings will not inevitably occur given the often abstruse metaphysics upon which his doctrines rest, and for this reason it appears to me entirely worthwhile to consider some of these misunderstandings in light of a brief Scriptural exegesis from which dogma ultimately derives its own doctrine.

One of the more cogent objections that we encounter involves the doctrine of the resurrection, and the argument may be stated as follows: If the perfection of man, or the consummation of his being, consists in the beatific vision of God, 18 which the Christian understands to be heaven; and if such a vision is, according to mystical doctrine, inaccessible to man in his created and finite nature, then how is this to be understood as compatible with the divine eschatology in which the separated soul is held to be rejoined with the body in the general resurrection when the bodies and souls of the just will be assumed into heaven – that is to say, brought before the beatific vision? For indeed, Job himself in the midst of his afflictions utters:

“For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God.” 19 ("Scio enim quod Redemptor meus vivit, et in novissimo die de terra surrecturus sum: et rursum circumdabor pelle mea, et in carne meavidebo Deum meum.")

This is equally affirmed by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Thessalonians:

“... the dead who are in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left,  shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ ...” 20 ("... et mortui, qui in Christ sunt, resurgent primi. Deinde nos, qui vivimus, qui relinquimur, sumul rapiemur cum illis in nubibus obviam Christo.")

Moreover, the Apostle John in the Book of The Apocalypse reports seeing:

“... a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.” 21  ( "... turbam magnam, quam dinumerare nemo poterat, ex omnibus gentibus, tribubus, et populis, et linguis: stantes ante thronum, et in conspectu Agni, amicti stolis albis, et palmae in manibus eorum ...")

And again, from the same source, the Evangelist states that:

“They shall no more hunger nor thirst again; ... for the Lamb, which is in the midst of the throne ... shall lead them to the fountains of the waters of life; and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” 22 ( "... non esurient, neque sitient amplius ... quoniam Agnus, qui in medio throni est, reget illos et deducet eos ad vitae fontes aquarum, et absterget Deus omnem lacrimam ab oculis eorum.")

Given such passages, from unimpeachable sources, it would seem that we shall indeed see God in our created nature, for it is clearly the body, and not the soul, which is possessed of hands, and in need of raiment (Apoc. 7.9); which alone has eyes, and requires food (Apoc. 7.17). It would then appear that the mystical doctrine which maintains that the beatific vision of God is accessible to man only through the negation of that created nature with which he is providentially endowed, is incompatible with Scripture. But is it really? Consider the following statement by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians:

“... flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God: neither shall corruption possess incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall all indeed rise again: but we shall not all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible: and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption; and this mortal must put on immortality.” 23 ("Ecce mysterium vobis dico omnes quidem resurgemus sed non omnes inmutabimur in momento in ictu oculi in novissima tuba canet enim et mortui resurgent incorrupti et nos inmutabimur oportet enim corruptibile hoc induere incorruptelam et mortale hoc induere inmortalitatem." )

And earlier:

“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it shall rise in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour, it shall rise in glory. It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power. It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body. If there be a natural body, there is also a spiritual body ..." 24 ("Sic et resurrectio mortuorum seminatur in corruptione surgit in incorruptione seminatur in ignobilitate surgit in gloria seminatur in infirmitate surgit in virtute seminatur corpus animale surgit corpus spiritale si est corpus animale est et spiritale.")

And yet again:

“... our Lord Jesus Christ ...  Who will reform the body of our lowness, made like to the body of His glory.” 25 ("Dominum nostrum Jesum Cristum, qui reformabit corpus humilitatis nostrae configuratum corpori claritatis Suae ...")

And finally, the Evangelist John affirms this eschatological doctrine in stating that:

“... we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know, that, when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him: because we shall see Him as He is.” 26 ("... nunc filii Dei sumus et nondum apparuit quid erimus scimus quoniam cum apparuerit similes ei erimus quoniam videbimus eum sicuti est.")

While the historical development of doctrine pertaining to eschatology, especially as it unfolds within the canon of Scripture, is obviously another study altogether, it nevertheless remains pertinent to our understanding that from St. John’s point of view, it is not the case that the latter four citations are simply more compatible or more readily accord with his own mystical doctrine – and that therefore Scripture is somehow vindicated or validated by his own metaphysical insight. This would be to misunderstand St. John entirely. For St. John, it is rather the case that his mystical doctrine is in agreement with Scripture – and that therefore his metaphysical analysis is effectively validated in divine revelation. Nor is this relationship to be understood as coincidental in the least since St. John’s metaphysics is profoundly based upon Scripture – a fact amply attested to by his constant appeal to Sacred Scripture in elaborating his doctrine. Now certainly it was not the intent, and clearly aside from the purpose, of both St. Paul and the Apostle John to proclaim a metaphysical evangel – but the latent metaphysical implications upon which St. John of the Cross drew are nevertheless conspicuously present within that divinely inspired kerygma. The obvious question, then, remains as to how the four previously cited passages are to be understood in light of the latter four statements. First of all, I think it is important to understand that the use of symbolism and metaphors, which is largely a feature of apocalyptic literature in general, is a type of mystical signature in all eschatological accounts; and they are so precisely because these accounts are characteristically eschatological, being narrated either at the margin of, or in fact within, supernatural experience itself. In a very real sense they share in the unique mystical problematic of language: the attempt to communicate what is experienced as essentially ineffable. And as is often the case in mystical experience, only analogies, similes and metaphors can suffice where descriptive language either proves altogether inadequate or completely fails. The canonical books of Ezekiel and Daniel, to say nothing of the Apocalypse, are eminent examples of this type of encounter with linguistic limitations. Here we find a tremendous literal effort to introduce some measure of commensurability into the account of an experience that is commensurable with no other: hence the proliferation of symbols, metaphors, and similes, valuable in themselves only insofar as they intelligibly, albeit remotely, proximate or convey some sense of experiences inherently recalcitrant to the descriptive utility of language. St. Paul’s own mystical experience, to which we had briefly adverted earlier, is a good case in point. In his second epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul, speaking of himself, says:

“I know a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not: God knoweth), That he was caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter.” 27 (Scio hominem in Christo ante annos quattuordecim sive in corpore nescio sive extra corpus nescio Deus scit raptum eiusmodi usque ad tertium caelum et scio huiusmodi hominem sive in corpore sive extra corpus nescio Deus scit quoniam raptus est in paradisum et audivit arcana verba quae non licet homini loqui.")

It is, I suggest, precisely in light of this type of apparent incommensurability that we must endeavor to understand apocalyptic and eschatological symbolism. It is not the case that one part of Scripture is true from a mystical point of view and another part not true – it is essentially the manner in which that truth is communicated. One clear example at hand of the hermeneutic tension likely to result from this type of recurrent symbolism is to be found in the sense in which the Lamb (Christ) is understood to “feed” the souls of just as we had seen described in Apocalypse 7.17, and in the first Gospel where Christ says:

“Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” 28  ("Non in pane solo vivet homo sed in omni verbo quod procedit de ore Dei. )

And in The Apocalypse:

“... to him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna ...” 29 (“... vincenti dabo ei manna absconditum et dabo illi calculum candidum ...)

How are we to understand this symbolism? What, for example, is this “hidden manna”? It is nothing less than a share in the life of Christ as is evident from the fourth Gospel where Christ declares:

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. (Ego sum panis vitae. Patres vestri manducaverunt in deserto manna et mortui sunt. Hic est panis de Caelo descendens ut si quis ex ipso manducaverit non moriatur . Ego sum panis vivus qui de caelo descendi. Si quis manducaverit ex hoc pane vivet in aeternum et panis quem ego dabo caro mea est pro mundi vita. ... qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem in me manet et ego in illo.)

 Such passages, then, much as we had found in the Apocalypse 7.17 and the three citations subsequent to it, cannot, in and of themselves, be literally interpreted and therefore construed as disconfirming the mystical thesis. Much as we had found in our previous examples, the literal meaning – presented to us in terms that would appear to imply actual corporeity – inadvertently obscures, if not effectively corrupts, the authentic significance latent within the text itself. And I think that we must see this not as a literary device to conceal doctrine beneath ambiguities – but merely as the result of a certain default in language characteristically encountered before certain types of experience. And this, I think, is particularly true of those references we find to the body. It is virtually certain, in light of the sorts of statements made by the Apostles which we had just considered, that we must indeed assume a radically different kind of body than we now possess in order to accommodate ourselves to that vision of God in which perfect beatitude is held to consist; a body no longer possessed of the limitations to which it is presently subject; in the words of St. Paul, a spiritual body, one in which presently experienced limitations are transcended, overcome, abolished. And this, of course, is an essential element in mystical doctrine: the restoration of commensurability through the transcendence of limitation. And while this mystical contention that man in the state of nature – and by the state of nature we always mean prescinding from grace which is a share in the life of God – cannot attain to the beatific vision, is implied elsewhere in Scripture, 31 the whole point which St. John endeavors to develop is that it is of the essence of the mystical dialogue that we cannot prescind from grace and arrive at a coherent explanation of the mystical experience. St. John, we have insisted from the outset, is writing within a very clearly defined tradition to which an adequate notion of grace is indispensable. And what we understand by grace – essentially, participation in the life of God– is the crucial key to the most central, and at once most enigmatic, paradox of mysticism: the union of incommensurables. And here we enter into the mystery of the Incarnation.

A Two-Fold Doctrine:
Mysticism and The Incarnation

In order to understand how it is possible for man as a finite, created being to come to union with the Infinite, Uncreated Being of God – a union to which, of himself, he cannot possibly attain given an acknowledged ontological contrariety that can be neither breached nor reconciled – we must first understand how it is possible for the Infinite, Uncreated Being of God to come to union with the finite, created being of man; in other words, our answer must be formulated in terms of the Christian dogma of the Incarnation. Briefly summarized, this profound dogma is defined as the hypostatic union of the human with the divine nature in the one divine person, Jesus Christ, in whom, therefore, two distinct natures are held to subsist – the unique ontological integrity of each remaining equally intact – and which are understood to be substantially united and so constitute one substance in the one person. Simply put, the Divine and the human, God and man, the Infinite and the finite, the Eternal and the temporal, are united in the one person of Jesus Christ – arguably the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity.

Now, quite obviously, it cannot be our argument that the Incarnation is an inverse paradigm of the mystic’s relation to God. The mystic does not partake of the divine nature in the way that Christ assumed our humanity. It is, for that reason, called a mystical union – and not a hypostatic union. The human nature of the mystic does not become one substance with the divine nature of God. In fact, were this understood to be the case, he would be no different from Christ. But the point I wish to make in the way of explaining the divine paradox embodied in mysticism is that the doctrine of the Incarnation effectively establishes the ability of God – to whom nothing is held to be impossible 32 –to reconcile in His own person two otherwise mutually exclusive and incompatible ontological categories without conflating the two or diminishing the integrity of either. In other words, the reconciliation of otherwise incompatible categories that is impossible for man – is possible for God; and the whole point that is key to our understanding of mysticism is that it is possible only within His own person; the hypostasis, if you will, with whom the mystic is united through infused contemplation. Let us attempt to sort this out a bit.

Because the human and the divine can coexist without contradiction in Christ, the humanity of the mystic through his sacramental incorporation into the sacred humanity of the Christ, is susceptible of being united with God through the divinity of Christ. The participation of the mystic in God – beyond what is only latent in his created ontology as image of the Absolute in terms of his being-only–is only possible through the assumption of humanity by Christ, which is to say, by the Incarnation. Apart from Christ, the mystic has no ontological recourse to God, for his nature is one, created, and finite. He does not embody the terms of commensurability necessary to the union of ontological opposites. But Christ, as the Son of God, does. The mystic’s union with God, then, is (only possible) through God’s union with man in the person of His Son. Christ is the point of union between God and man, the created and the Uncreated, the finite and the Infinite, the temporal and the Eternal. This is the first point. The union of incommensurables is established in Christ. The second point is perhaps best introduced through the Johannine Prologue:

“... the Law was given by Moses, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” 33

There are essentially two vertical movements, then, to be found in St. John’s mystical account. The first, as we had seen above, involves the descent of God to man and the union of ontological opposites in the person of Christ through the Incarnation. And while this remains a profound mystery accepted on faith and not susceptible of proof, it nevertheless effectively establishes the basis for the possibility of the union of opposites in the created nature of the soul vis-à-vis the Uncreated nature of God – a possibility so radicated in, as to be inconceivable apart, from the Incarnation. The second movement, then, is of course the ascent of man to God through mystical union. And this is uniquely achieved through Christ – who, in the sublime poetry of St. John of the Cross, is the Spouse, the Beloved, the Bridegroom, with whom the contemplative ultimately attains to union. Christ alone, as true man, comprehends within himself the created nature of man reconciled with divine nature of God, and as True God the divine nature of God reconciled with the human nature of man. And it is of the essence of our argument that the mystic is only enabled to participate in both through his union with Christ in whom alone these otherwise irreconcilable natures, while yet remaining distinct, are united in one substance in one person. And this means that mystical union is not only unintelligible, but unattainable apart from Christ – who himself said that no one comes to Father except through him 34 who, in his divinity, is one with the Father. 35

While me may have acquired some insight into certain aspects of the mechanics involved in the movement to union through the via negativa, together with some of the metaphysical principles underlying it, the impelling force itself behind this movement is ultimately grace; not simply actual grace as the mystic’s subjective response to the invitation, but sanctifying grace through which the mystic already shares in the life of God Himself through his incorporation into the Mystical body of Christ. And this is to say that aside from the purely ontological relationship to God that is understood in terms of mans being-only, which, in the strictest sense, is possessed of an ontic dignity no greater than, and essentially no different from, anything else of which being-only may also be predicated through its participation in the Being-Absolute–a relationship, in any event, which we do not understand as constituting ontological union because of real metaphysical contrarieties in nature – or yet even in the more articulated ontological presupposition that is rooted in man’s being understood as a being-the-image-of-the Absolute, of God, which presumes to its being, the Imaged of which, and in virtue of which alone, it is an image – beyond all these relations which only metaphysically obtain, there is a far greater, a more binding and commensurable relationship that obtains through grace.

Ontology merely defines the terms of the relation legislated in nature. Within it we discern the metaphysical relation, but also the insuperable contrariety that metaphysics alone cannot reconcile. Grace, however, ever building upon nature, redefines the terms in the person of Christ, and specifically through the mystery of the Incarnation. The infusion of the divine, the infinite, the eternal, into the human, the finite, and the temporal, binds, with neither contradiction nor conflation, two erstwhile irreconcilable categories into one substance in the one person in a way analogous to that in which the mystic attains to union with God in Christ. The difficulty that we have, I think, in coming to terms with this notion is our tendency to confuse union with identity. Christ, in assuming human nature, did not make it divine such that it was no longer a human nature, but was transformed into, and therefore identical with, his divine nature. The Incarnation did not abolish his human nature. It brought it into substantive union with his divine nature. In other words, the notion of union, as we had pointed out earlier, presupposes two distinct terms attaining to a unity of those terms, and not a reciprocal transformation of those terms. And this is precisely the manner in which the mystic comes to union with God, while not becoming God. Where the mystic attains to this union through participation, God, in Christ, achieved an infinitely more profound union through the Incarnation – the Incarnation, subsequent to which, and through which alone, the participation of man in God is made possible because God first deigned to come to union with man.

This really brings us to what I feel is by far the most serious objection to mysticism; one that is occasioned by a misunderstanding of the most fundamental mystical doctrine that man not simply can participate in God, but effectively, be God-by-participation. This conclusion is so obviously fraught with possibilities of misunderstanding and so readily lends itself to misinterpretation, it is little wonder that historically it has consistently been the subject of ecclesiastical censure; and for very good reason. From the outset, as far back as Plotinus and Porphry, the third century antagonists to the philosophically naive Christians– and themselves the metaphysical precursors to Christianized mysticism – this doctrine has, in one way or another, either acquired or been tainted with the odor of heresy. This regrettable consequence had resulted largely from heretical conclusions that necessarily, or systematically followed from basically defective metaphysical premises; premises to which the Christian mystic had inadvertently committed himself in good faith, but from which he could not extricate himself without repudiating his own metaphysical doctrine. It is, I think, not so much a case of a lack of critical assessment as a lapse in critical judgment. The conclusions may well follow deductively from the premises, but the premises, and, a fortiori, the conclusions, are in some essential aspect defective, resulting in consequences unacceptable either to reason or orthodox doctrine, or more often than not, to both.

The great thirteenth century mystic Johann Eckhart, for example, in his celebrated Opus Tripartitum 36, maintained that man, already possessed of an “uncreated” scintilla (vünkelin) as the essence of his soul, is capable of total transformation into God, and that this transformation, because it is total, essentially requires the annihilation of his created nature. John Tauler, another acclaimed thirteenth century mystic, appears to suggest that mystical union is achieved only at the cost of man’s unique identity, as well as his own distinctive consciousness, apart from God. In the following century we find the equally renowned mystic, Jan Ruysbroeck, in the third chapter of his De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum 37, describing the union of the soul with God in terms which do not clearly admit of any recognizable distinction, or, for that matter, individuation, from God. Eckhart, it is important to note, submitted to the censure his writings provoked and had subsequently retracted these statements and publicly recanted his position, while Suso – despite his error– was nevertheless beatified by the Church in 1831. Those who like to see these early Dominican mystics as proto-antagonists to the institutional Church will be disappointed to find in their humility not a formal, but an earnest submission to what they recognized as the Magisterium of the Church. These men, in other words, were by and large faithful sons of the Church, even holy men, consumed with a love of God that sometimes led to impulsive, rather than closely reasoned, speculation on the nature of their mystical experiences.

It is against this background that we must begin to explore the objections to the fundamental mystical doctrine that man is capable of becoming God-by-participation, and in the process endeavor to understand how St. John avoided the errors that dogged his predecessors within the same tradition. Let us first be clear about the problem, especially as it is viewed from the perspective of dogmatic theology. That God’s nature is absolutely unique and essentially apart from every other nature is fundamental to some of the most ancient canons of Scripture beginning with the first proscription of the Decalogue 38 where God effectively establishes his unique transcendence beyond, not simply man, but everything that has a claim to man’s reverence through its transcendence, such that the prophet Isaiah simply states:

“To whom, then, have you likened God? Or what image could you make for Him?” 39 (Cui ergo similem fecistis Deum aut quam imaginem ponetis ei?")

Indeed, God Himself speaking through this same prophet, asks:

“To whom have you likened Me, and made Me equal, and compared Me, and made Me like? 40 ... I am God, and there is no god beside, neither is there the like to Me.” 41 ("Cui adsimilastis me et adaequastis et conparastis me et fecistis similem ... recordamini prioris saeculi quoniam Ego sum Deus et non est ultra Deus nec est similis Mei.")

The Odor of Heresy:

How, then, can St. John – indeed, any mystic – claim that through ecstatic union the soul becomes “God-by-participation” through this God “who has no like”; this God to whom nothing can be equated? But indeed, this has been the starting point of the mystic from the beginning, the very metaphysical realization that is both the focal point and whole purpose of the via negativa. What we find here, then, is essentially a restatement of the mystical problematic; not a contradiction, but an affirmation of the problem which mysticism takes to itself from the outset: given the absolute incommensurability, the categorical contrariety, that is perceived between man and God, how is it possible for man to attain to union with Him? Nor is the question merely speculative in the way of an attempt to define a relationship in terms of possibility only – it is a genuine, an earnest inquiry arising out of actual experiences, equally real experiences of contrariety and unity, that in turn demand coherence, a coherence which the mystic clearly perceives but toward which he must strive through the limitations and liabilities of language and in the context of dogmatic parameters with which his doctrine must accord. Nor are these parameters, at least for St. John, perceived as constraints upon the mystical impulse; to the contrary, as we had explained earlier they are understood as constituting an indispensable index of irrefragable truth in the form of dogmatic certainties derived from no less an unimpeachable source than divine revelation itself to which the mystic subsequently appeals both as a means of verifying the authenticity of his experiences, and in avoiding the impediment of error – the twofold source of which, we will remember, is human and diabolical – that would otherwise frustrate his journey to union. Dogma, in other words, is not something simply subsidiary to the mystical experience for St. John; it is requisite to achieving it.

If we succeed in understanding St. John’s mystical doctrine in its clear relationship to dogma, we immediately grasp the context in which his claim that the mystic does indeed become, in a carefully nuanced sense, “God-by-participation”, for the possibility of man’s participating in God ultimately derives, as we had seen, from man’s ontological status as essentially being-the-image-of-God, and Scriptural references to this effect are numerous. 42 At its most basic level, we have understood this participation to relate to man’s being-only, or being-contingent-upon-the-Being-Absolute of God. And in this sense, man’s being necessarily, but only remotely – in the most minimal sense that unpredicated being-only implies – participates in the being of God, in Whom, unlike man, being and essence coincide. Beyond this merely ontological relation that man shares with virtually every other created existent, a greater dignity obtains in man through the further articulation of his being-only into being-the-image-of-God which conveys a good deal more in the way of proximity than is implied in the remote concept of being-only.

The question then naturally arises, in what does this image consist? And St. John – unlike Aquinas and Eckhart before him, both of whom had understood this to consist in the intellect – answered, as we had seen earlier, that it principally consists in the faculty of love, which for St. John is the only proximate means to union with a God Who is Love. And while we tend to see this as an essentially affective faculty capable of embracing the totality of man’s being in the impulse to union with the Beloved – compellingly and beautifully illustrated in the poetry of St. John – love is essentially more than merely affective, at least as we are inclined to understand it in contemporary terms: indeed, a close analysis reveals that it fundamentally pertains to the will in its relationship to the good. In its essence, love simply consists in willing every possible good and no evil. And this, of course, is what we preeminently understand of God. It is not Divinity conceived in terms of power, or being, or intellect, that invincibly compels our affinity to God; it is his goodness, and the divine, the absolute and unqualified love that is the enactment of this goodness – the clearest expression of which, for the Christian mystic, became Incarnate in His Only Begotten Son. Reason, the intellect, only affords us an analogy – not a likeness between the soul and God. Love, on the other hand, is, for St. John, the impress of God upon the soul, the impress of likeness. But we have found that even this impress alone, that is to say, in and of itself, is insufficient to union – a union that can only be effected, not through nature, but through grace which alone is accessible through the Son, even as we had seen earlier in our discussion on the Incarnation. Man indeed can become God-by-participation – because God in His Son had first become man through the Incarnation.

The mind of St. John, then, is unequivocally the mind of the Church. But the genius of St. John, even beyond his inimitable, even sublime, poetic creativity, lies in his ability not simply to elicit, but to reconcile, a complex multiplicity of metaphysical and ontological antinomies, to submit them to the demands of reason and to the equally exacting demands of doctrine, and to arrive at a coherent synthesis that, without compromising either, is consonant with both. It lies in his capacity to discover not merely plausible but cogent relations between the formal articles of faith and the empirical deliverances of experience, between the cerebral austerity of metaphysics and the resolute passion of dogmatics, between the abstracted Absolute and the virtual real – in a word, between God and man. To view his achievement in terms less than this; to see it merely as the successful conclusion to an endeavor defined from the outset by a preconceived effort to conform doctrine to dogma – a success that his predecessors within the same tradition did not enjoy, and which in large part rightfully earned him the title of Doctor of the Church – is nevertheless to miss the point of St. John’s contribution altogether.

It is not the case that St. John modified or scaled down his doctrine as a theological expedience to conform to – in a greater sense, to comply with – the orthodox demands of dogma, and in the process sacrificed the authenticity of his account; much less that he exercised what amounts to duplicity in offering one doctrine while secretly subscribing to another. There is no evidence whatever suggestive of this in any of the Juanistic writings. His genius quite simply consists in his ability to coherently elicit from experience what dogma presents to faith. It is, in a sense, experience infused with theological reciprocity.

From a doctrinal standpoint there is essentially little difference between the Apostle Peter stating that “... you will be able to share the divine nature ...43, and St. John maintaining that the mystic in ecstatic union becomes “God-by-participation”. And this, of course, is no mere coincidence. St. John was renowned for his profound knowledge of Sacred Scripture, which he deftly quotes, often analogically, to illustrate a point in his own mystical doctrine, and while his writings are free of the scholastic encumbrances of many of his contemporaries – and are for this very reason accessible, as they were meant to be, to the average reader – the tradition within which he writes is unmistakable. One does not find a multiplicity of references outside of Sacred Scripture in the works of St. John, and the appeal to authority in establishing an argument (“... for according to the philosopher ...”) which had become somewhat of a hallmark in a good deal of scholastic philosophy, is conspicuously and refreshingly absent in the writings of St. John – but the scholastic stamp itself remains indelible. In any event, any question concerning the tension between St. John’s mysticism and orthodox doctrine was definitively settled, at least within the Church, upon St. John’s beatification in 1675, and his subsequent canonization in 1726. And despite the animus that motivates much of the criticism of the Church, her scholars, in their critical examination of the mystical doctrines of St. John, have, by and large, been men and women whose reason has been as profound as their faith.

Rewarding as such an analysis of St. John’s works has been, it is not unaccompanied by a certain sense of incompleteness. His intuitive grasp of Sacred Scripture, his uncanny and unerring insight into human nature, and, above all, his poetry, have been barely touched upon – the latter most regrettably of all. It is difficult to try to summarize even a few of the many profound dimensions in the thought of perhaps the greatest figure in the Western tradition of mysticism, and it is extremely doubtful that any commentary, however comprehensive, will completely succeed in plumbing their depths or exhausting their amplitude. But this, after all, is St. John’s own particular charism, both as philosopher and mystic. It is, in the end, a fitting testimony to the depth of one man’s being, whose being became inseparably bound to God’s.

Being, Becoming, and Eternity


1 Varieties of Religious Experience, lecture 17
2 Religion and Science, Chapter 7
3 AMC 2.11-12; 2.16ff; 2.19ff; & 3.2ff
4 AMC 1.1.5; DNS 1.9.9
5 AMC 1.1.4-5; DNS 1.1.1 & 1.9.7
6 DNS 1.6.2
7 The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 7.
8 The freedom implied in this possibility, incidentally, was apparently overlooked by the Illuminists mentioned in an earlier connection. Freedom is generally conceded to be a perfection in man; hence, the Illuminists, while holding man to be essentially impeccable in the state of union, inadvertently deprived man of this perfection. And this, of course, is incompatible with the notion of union with God as constituting man’s highest perfection. In other words, the highest, or consummate, perfection cannot be achieved through a privation of that very perfection.
9 i.e., faith (cf. AMC, 2.4.2 ff.)
10 The thousand-sided figure that we can conceive but not apprehend. Meditation VI
11 AMC 1.4.4, 1.5.4, etc.
12 Ex.3.14; Jn. 1.3, 8.58; Col. 1.16-17; Rev. 1.8 Also cf. ST I.3 Ques. 44 Art.1-4
13 And, eo ipso, man understood as participating in God.
14 Such an argument, were it successful, would in effect demonstrate this opposition to be, not real, but apparent only, and the ineluctable consequence of this line of reasoning would be a pantheistic interpretation of the universe; an interpretation which, beside being clearly outside the pale of Christianity, entails myriad contradictions within its own terms.
15 While we cannot offer proof of this assertion within the limited scope of our present inquiry, this presupposition constitutes the first principle apart from which nothing further intelligible in the mystical account may follow. God, in a word, simply must be taken as the sine qua non of Christian mysticism.
16 In the words of St. Paul, arguably the first mystic in the Christian tradition: “Nos autem sensum Christi habemus.” 1 Cor. 2.16
17 cf. page 191
18 cf. DNS 2.20.5; 1 Cor. 13.12; 1 Jn. 3.2; Aquinas, Sum. Cont. Gent. 4.1.1; Augustine, De Civit. Dei 22.24
19 Job 19.25-26
20 1 Thess. 4.16-7
21 Apoc. 7.9
22 Apoc. 7.17
23 1 Cor. 15.50-53
24 1 Cor. 15.42-44
25 Phlp. 3.21
26 1 Jn. 3.2
27 2 Cor. 12.2-4
28 Mat. 4.4
29 Apoc. 2.17
30 Jn.6.48-56, emphasis added
31 Ex. 33.20; Deut 18.16 (also cf. Gen. 32.30; Dt. 5.25 + 18.16; Jg. 6.22-23; Is. 6.5)
32 Mat. 19.26
33 Jn. 1.17
34 Jn 14.6
35 Jn.10.30
36 Work in Three Parts
37 Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage
38 Ex.20.1-5
39 Is. 40.18 (also cf. Dt. 3.24; Ps.86.8, 89.8, 113.5; Jer. 10.6)
40 Is. 46.5
41 Is. 46.9
42 Gen.1.26-27; Ps. 17.15; Rom. 8.29; 1 Cor. 11.7, 15.49; 2 Cor. 3.8; Col. 3.10; Jas. 3.9
2 Pt. 1.4

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Preface to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
Foreword to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross
The Presuppositions of the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of the Will in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Understanding in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Memory in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Metaphysics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Metaphysics of the Night of the Spirit
The Problem of Induction as Pseudo-Problematic
Prolepsis: Objections to the Mystical Experience
Being, Becoming, and Eternity
A Biography of St. John of the Cross
Epilogue to the Metaphysics of Mysticism

© Copyright 2011-2017 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved