The Cloud of Unknowing
By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo
This essay is the continuation of Western Mysticism I. In it we will discuss the psychic phenomena that often come along with the Mystic Way and the contemplation and meditation techniques of Western Mysticism.
Voices and Visions
These psychic phenomena have been debated as to whether they are true supernatural happenings or are they hallucinations and neuroses. They are so common among mystics that one must look at these phenomena rationally without emotion or bias. The historical background of the mystic must and do play a part. His thoughts of Christ may very well bring on a vision of Christ. His prayers to God could also produce messages and instructions from God. The internal yearnings and desires can very well presage such voices and visions. What he hopes to see or hear can turn up in a deep and intense meditation. But still, predictions of some mystics have come out to be true all the time. The mystic might have been given raw materials from the transcendent realm, but when he re-constructs the ineffable raw material, the visions or voices will turn up according to his educational background and emotional colouring. That means voices and visions are the expressions of the creations of (a) of thought, (b) of intuition, and (c) of direct perception. Of course the product may not fully represent the intuitive message received, but it does not mean that the symbolism is useless. The common psychic phenomena of Western mystics are audition, vision and automatic writing. We will discuss these briefly.
These are voices giving instructions, encouragement or dialogues. The messages are crisp and clear. They are usually classified as (1) Intellectual, the inarticulate voice, which the mystic finds it difficult to define. (2) Imaginary, the distinct, interior voice, which is perfectly articulate speaking only within the mind. (3) Corporal, the external voice of hallucination, which appears to be speaking to the subject by the outward ear.
1. Most mystics find that the first variety, intellectual, is the best and most comforting. They are mostly translated as messages from God. The content is usually of transcendental quality and is often attributed to divine truths. It brings in new knowledge of inspiration. It sounds very authoritative.
2. The interior voice is not so authoritative and does not simultaneously translate into words. They do not seem to come directly from God. It arrives as a knowing. Sometimes the re-arrangement of one’s own thoughts cannot be distinguished from these automatic messages from mystic intuition. This true audition most often rises up during the absorption state of meditation when the mind is without thoughts, but the message is most distinctly understood, more so than spoken words. It may also break in during normal daily activities.
3. This last corporal variety is the exterior voice, which appears to be speaking externally to the ear of the subject. Mystics on the whole distrust this form of communication. St. Joan of Arc and St. Francis of Assisi are the types that hear these voices, giving them instructions to do something. Sometimes music is heard instead of words. Dialogues between the Divine source and the mystic also fall into this category. The dialogue identifies the self as separate from the Divine realty, and quite often it takes the form of questions and answers.
Mystics on the spiritual path quite often see forms from the other world, deities and angels. The figures are interpreted as ghosts or diseased persons. They also may hear sounds and voices supposedly pertaining to the divine. Fragrances and awful odours may also be experienced. Most of these should not be relied upon as true occurrences from the divine realm. Most true communications from God do not come through the body senses. As individuals tend to bring on their own desires and fears through their senses, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa warn us against taking these illusions and hallucinations as true intimations of the Divine Realm. As in audition, the mystics classify vision as (1) Intellectual, which is substantial or inarticulate, (2) Imaginary, which is interior and distinct, and (3) Corporal vision, which are exterior words. The last category is mere externalisation of memories, thoughts and intuitions, and cannot be depended upon.
1) The intellectual vision is presented to the mystic, who does not look for it. The vision is encountered by a sense that is neither sight nor feeling, but has a quality of both. It is intimate but indescribable: definite yet impossible to define. The phrase “formless vision” is most apt. Sometimes uncalled for, God instils into a soul love, fire and sweetness and this delights the soul so much that she is certain that God is in her. In this instance the feeling of the soul is much more certain than seeing God in person. When God is in the subject, she cannot behold anything else. This intellectual vision is connected with the consciousness of the Presence of God. This is because it can be located precisely in space and it is so personally and concretely defined that it is more convincing than bodily sight. This divine presence is usually attributed to Jesus Christ. The presence is also always there for more than a few days and even stretching to a year. This perpetual presence will definitely enhance the mystic’s service to a higher keel. The word vision is quite a misnomer, as nothing is seen, and everything is felt. The purer the “intellectual vision” the more it approaches the state of pure contemplation.
2) In Imaginary Vision, it is the inner eye that sees without any sensorial hallucination. It is the imagination that is spontaneous and automatic. It arises like a dream from the subliminal mind from a combination of love, belief and intuition. It may come in two forms: (a) symbolic, and (b) personal.
a) In the symbolic form an image is used to illustrate a truth. They appear to mystics who live with symbolism. It is equivalent to a very imaginative dream, which touches the transcendental, but the mystic interprets it as an elaborate instruction from Divine Reality. That means there is a great amount of poetic licence. Sometimes in this ‘dream’ voices and vision are combined. In deep meditation, the mystics who are skilful in visualisation can whip up elaborate dreams which depict the more accurate impression of Reality than his own discursive mind.
b) Personal. The vision here is very vivid and is related to the mystic’s beliefs and spiritual passions. The vision is more of a ‘presence’, which is frequently of Christ. Although the image is indistinct the mystic is surer about the identity than seeing with the physical eyes. The picture is like an impressionistic painting as a living person who sometimes speaks and reveals deep mysteries. The vision comes and goes as fast as lightning, and this brief encounter is interpreted as a real contact with the Absolute. The accompanying feeling is great joy and bliss and a certainty of being touched by God. This vision is ineffable but distinctly beautiful and irradiated by an unearthly white light, which is entirely different from that of the sun.
c) This is a special category of imaginary vision, Active Imaginary Visions. The visions here quite often follow an emotional crisis and it entails the mystic acting out its mission. He is no more a mere observer. Quite often it is like a dream in bizarre situations. The mystic, subsequent to these visions, normally ends up in a new level of consciousness, strengthened by the awareness of the Absolute. It may in some initiate them into Unitive Life. They depict travelling to heaven or hell, or moving up the scale in the spiritual realm. The other celebrated active vision is that of St Teresa in, which she saw an angel piercing her with a spear of gold into her heart. This caused pain and yet sweetness and love.
This is the rarest psychic phenomenon experienced by mystics. Most literary works penned by mystics have to some extent an element of automatism, but we are talking of an extreme form here. Like poets, the mystic has no control of his will and the process of writing is far removed from his surface consciousness. It is as if the mystic is in a trance. The work is out of character to the mystic. Its style is widely discursive; its tone is rich with a strange mixture of intimacy and remoteness. Quite often a touch of prophecy is included. All these suggest coursing along the edge of subliminal consciousness of Reality. Blake insisted that he was ‘under the direction of Messengers from Heaven.’ The automatic writing is always spontaneous and the hand cannot keep up with the new knowledge welling up from the deep reaches of the inner mind.
One can go on infinitum with these psychic excitements, but space does not allow more discussion on dialogues with God, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy and prophecy. These are but by-products of the mystic path and their essential nature is not of paramount importance.
Non-mystics as well as mystics may experience all the above psychic phenomena. And with the mystics they may appear at any stage of their Mystic Way.
We will now discuss the meditative processes of the Western Mystics. The general term used by mystics is orison. The overall outline is the withdrawal of attention of all external images, duties, plans and thoughts so that the inner mind is emptied in order to ponder on the transcendent towards union with the Godhead. In this exercise, he must be alone, but he must be tutored. Orison generally includes all forms of prayers and meditation but particularly meditation. Christian meditation is called Introversion normally. Introversion can be subdivided into Recollection, Quiet and Contemplation. Recollection actually means one-pointed concentration until the stage of absorption with the object of meditation, which is usually God. At this stage he is said to have arrived at the Quiet stage. The deepest stage of absorption is the merging or the union with the object of meditation. One-pointed concentration is explained in detail in my article on Samatha Meditation. The last stage of concentration with form is in the 4th stage of absorption, where subject and object are merged into one. The early stages consist mostly of pushing away all thoughts, desires and planning and sticking to only that one object. Another method to arrive at the Quiet is similar to Insight Meditation, where the awareness of the mind finally sinks into nothingness. This nothingness or void deepens for many layers inwards until the mystic approaches the ground of the soul. The whole process is called Introversion. To the Christian mystic this is the inward journey to the centre of Divine Immanence, where angels and God are within us. To some of them, they experience flights of ecstasy or rapture, a sudden Divine Transcendence surge, which is a glimpse of God. These occasions are rare compared to the more common slow and deliberate inward concentration towards the emptiness of Divine Immanence.
The Christians use a term, “Orison” or degrees of prayer. It is not the ordinary type of petition or asking for something, but it is more of a yearning of the soul for the Divine. This orison is an act of love or a supernatural intercourse between the soul and the divine. Orison covers all steps from the beginning to the merging with God. It includes all forms of prayers, meditation and contemplation. It is a discipline of the mind, which should be cleared of external and extraneous objects into a stage of emptiness. Going deeper and deeper into the layers of silence and emptiness a passage will be found, and this will lead the mystic to the Divine. This journey is sometimes dark and bare and sometimes full of light and joy. To the mystic it seems free and easy. This training and purging is a progressive cleaning of the mirror, a progressive self-emptying of all that is not real. It should finally attain that consciousness that can see Reality, which ironically is without image. It is a Void! Christians called it naked orison. Amongst the famous mystics, terms like orison, contemplation, recollection and introversion had all been mixed up and a term had been misused for various stages of growth. So the student is totally confused and bewildered. Therefore let us tabulate the degrees of orison, which is actually the entire practice, into three divisions: Recollection, Quiet and Contemplation. This is a continuous slope up wards and not a jagged stairway. Recollection starts with Meditation and develops into the ‘Orison of Inward Silence,’ which is the true Quiet. Quiet goes deeper into Ordinary Contemplation. It then grows through Contemplation proper to that Orison of Passive Union, which is the highest of introversive states. The object of this contemplative prayer or orison is to develop a ‘transcendental new man.’
Roughly the Meditative or Recollective stage goes hand in hand with Purification (read Mysticism I). The stage of Illumination is characterised by “Quiet” state of orison. The Unitive Way is accompanied or propelled by Contemplation proper. During this upward path of degrees of orison, the mystic would occasionally have a glimpse of the Absolute, but this state is not sustainable as he has not arrived at Unitive Life proper. So in Recollection, the unruly mind is brought into discipline by concentration. All surface thoughts are eradicated. In Quiet imagination, will and desires are subdued and stilled. This is the ground of the soul. In Contemplation the mystic has finally met God without any intermediary. Now let us look at the mechanics of these subdivisions.
Strong will must be utilised to begin the process of recollective concentration. All thoughts, images and planning must come to an end. They must be repeatedly pushed away by effort and will. This task of expelling all thoughts and images is very arduous. This difficult early beginning must be fought strenuously and persistently. In order to help, use an object of meditation, say the breath or word or a phrase. One can visualise as well, but visualisation is extremely difficult. This concentration on one point is the beginner’s practice in all eastern religious meditation. The term Recollection is a misnomer. It is not remembering. One should completely wipe out all memories and thoughts except one, the object of meditation. Continuing in this fashion, there will come a day when the consciousness becomes more and more narrow and is fixed to that object. This fixation is the beginning of absorption. The mind then enters into itself or God enters into the mind. He cannot hear or see and does not receive any mental messages. This stage of emptiness (except for the object) is blissful, full of joy. He is also quite aware of his own presence but no thoughts can enter his mind. His mind has only one thought and that is his object of meditation and from thence he detects the Divine Presence, but only just. Thus summarising, Recollection is the exercise and discipline of erasing all thoughts, images, and memories and planning in order to retreat into that ground of the soul. This ground is silent and still but with one thought (the object of meditation) in the entire mental field. This exercise is achieved mainly by the will and yet one feels the presence of the Divine when entering this groundswell of the soul.
The next stage of orison is that mental state of Interior Silence or the Prayer of Quiet or Simplicity. This is the deeper retreat into absorption. It is equivalent to the Buddhist third and fourth absorptions where there are no thoughts allowed in. Even the bliss of the 3rd absorption must give way to pure one-pointedness of the 4th absorption. From here the mystic can descend deeper into boundless space and thence to pure consciousness until the Void of nothingness. The last absorption is the 8th, which has such subtlety as in ‘neither perception nor non-perception.’ In other words it is ineffable. The mystic is now quiet, silent and at peace. Temporarily he has no more I-hood and feels that he is no more separate. He has power and beauty. However there is still some sense of his own personality. That means he has not yet merged with the Absolute. He has glided into a consciousness of the infinite, totally shut off from any senses of the body. He is only aware of the power and bliss of impending Reality. He can just wallow in this Being and is beginning to abolish his separateness with the Absolute. Having suspended all thoughts, memories and planning and feelings, he is now aware of nothingness, a Void. But this Void is not empty. If he were to concentrate harder, he will be able to detect something omnipresent and intangible. It is ‘That’ which has always been there since birth. So now he is able to immerse himself in this Divine atmosphere. There are then two aspects of the summit of the Quiet: 1) there is the deprivation of all senses onto emptiness, the Divine Dark and 2) there is this sense of awe, an intimation of the Divine Light full of joy. It is a sweet, calm and gentle silence. This is a supernatural state. After depleting himself of everything of the phenomenal world, he has now entered the silence and stillness of the Divine Ignorance. This is “the Cloud of Unknowing.” This ignorance is not a defect but the highest of perfection. As it is a supernatural action of the soul, one should not have the slightest movement of the body or the slightest flickering of the mind. In fact, it is beyond the mystic at this stage: he cannot think nor move in this absorption. He could have pre-timed this period of quiet according to his availability of time. However, he must not wallow too much on the bliss and peace of this stage. He should really be swallowing the wisdom that is being poured into him during this period of Quiet. This is surrender for self-renewal. Although there is no more intellect, the personality is not lost. He is being influenced by the Absolute. In this state he is really both active and passive. He may appear immobile, but in reality he is really being fed with spiritual energy that is penetrating every fibre of the soul. This process cannot be seen by the onlooker, but a certain glow or shine can be discerned by the astute observer. Although he is in this plane of utter stillness and silence, he does not desire any favours or miracles. He must only be actively in Love with God.
From here the Orisons of Quiet and Silence will indubitably flow into true contemplation. Knowing that the Quiet is only a transitional state the soul’s stillness is ruffled by its joy! The self is now ready for the next stage of contemplation.
The mystic has arrived at a situation where he can have a temporary union with the Divine, which is closed to other people. He is now going to energise himself in the area where intellectual awareness is completely shut and his domain of work is at the heart. As he is now in the 4th Jhana and above, he appears as if in a trance: he cannot hear, see or feel and remains rigid. Contemplation proper then is a manifestation of that indivisible power of knowing which is at the ground of being of all true artists and spiritual mystics. Thought, love and will are united and feeling and perception are fused. That means the whole personality is propelled by mystic love leading to good, beauty and truth. The mystical literature depicts it as contraction of the consciousness to a single focus and eventually merging with the object of meditation: typically the 4th Jhana. Although all faculties are suspended, the self knows that it is in this state of one-pointedness and nothing else. Delacroix describes it as such (a) it produces a condition of indifference, liberty and peace, an elevation above the world, a sense of beatitude. The subject ceases to perceive himself in the multiplicity and division of his general consciousness. He is raised above himself. A deeper and purer soul substitutes itself for the normal self. (b) In this state, in which consciousness of I-hood and world disappears, the mystic is conscious of being in immediate relation with God Himself, in participating with Divinity. Contemplation installs a method of being and of knowing. Moreover, these two things tend at the bottom to become one. The mystic has more and more the impression of being that which knows, and of knowing “that which he is.” In other words, he knows Reality. This is because in most mystics their objects are either of Infinite Life, God or Reality. The contemplative then knows that he is in contact with God and his freedom is immense, where reason and logic do not apply.
However, the mystic cannot sustain this vision for long. In a flash, for only an instant, he is allowed to view the invisible things and how they are made. Quickly after returning to his normal consciousness, he can only hold to a memory of “That which Is.” This memory remains forever with the fragrance of immortality, but it is ineffable. He just knows that he had a temporary merging with God. The characteristics of William James apply here: (1) Ineffability and (2) Noetic quality.
Having said all the above, contemplation really covers a whole range of psychic conditions, depending on the temperament and emotion of the mystic. It could be peaceful. It could be rapturous. In some, psychic phenomena are common, e.g. voices and visions. In others the Quiet is coupled with darkness. From this darkness it may go out into the light. Great Bliss is associated with this absorption. In the remainder they will realise it only after the contemplation is over. In order to distinguish from other introversive states, we find two marks that make them real: (1) His experience of the All is given to him. The totality is Absolute and is revealed to him. It is not symbolic as in earlier types of meditation and in vision. (2) This Reality is apprehended by participation and not by observation. The passive receptivity of the Quiet is developed into an active response to the Divine. By a free act, God is disclosed to the soul, and the soul rushes out willingly to lose itself in Him. A divine osmosis is set up between the finite and the infinite. This is the passive union of contemplation, a temporary condition of ineffable happiness and ultimate reality. Only God can choose this union and man cannot reach it by reason, knowledge or any form of exercise. The successful contemplative would have seen Truth by Truth.
Remoteness and intimacy, darkness and light are terms to describe these opposites: joyful beatific vision against an unfathomable Abyss, a Divine Dark. This is the Cloud of Unknowing, which represents the relationship with the transcendent and not the transcendent itself. There was nothing to observe, but it is his impression of the Absolute during this communion with Reality, which is One. The ineffability makes these descriptions sound like feeling states, but they are not. The emotions expressed can be classified as (a) Transcendence and (b) Immanence.
(a) The Contemplation of Transcendence. ----- The metaphysical type uses the unfathomable Abyss of Pure Being. This concept is born of the mystic’s own uselessness, his unworthiness and ignorance compared to the Absolute Godhead. He would like to lose himself into this Divine Reality. This passionate desire governs his utmost goal for the Unconditioned Godhead, this Wholly Other, for whom no words or symbols can be used to describe It. This spiritual humility can only see him through the Darkness of the Cloud of Unknowing. At this height, the air is too rarefied for normal human beings. As for locality, it is as the Boundless Space of the 5th Jhana. He feels simply in God, which is Divine Ground: no form, no image, but unfathomable Abyss. This is the dwelling place of God. It is neither heaven nor a dwelling place of man. No thought or emotion has ever entered here. Once the mystic has entered here, he finds that it is familiar ground.
(b) The Contemplation of Immanence. ------ The other avenue to God is through the heart, where the soul resides. Where the absorption enters this depth of emptiness, it has to proceed downwards through layer after layer of Void. Thence when he arrives at this sacred ground of the Divine Dark, he feels joy, confidence and affection. Utilising love as a medium, he now has a sense of intimacy, nearness and sweetness of the Infinite Life. This attainment of ‘That which Is’ is the most joyous communion with the Bridegroom, a rapturous immersion in the Uncreated Light. With this grace of contemplation, he enjoys indescribable peace and delight. In this instant with the Divine Life, he has learnt the world’s secret, not by knowing but by being.
In this type of contemplation, this adorable Friendship is mostly described as a Person and not a State. This orison of union is where God meets the soul in his Ground, the secret depth of personality where he partakes in the Absolute Life. Even more intimate is how Mechthild of Magdeburg described it: “Orison draws the great God down into the small heart: it draws the hungry soul out to the full God. It brings together the two lovers, God and the soul, into a joyful room where they speak much of love.”
Although Christian mystics tend to be both personal and intimate with the Lover identifying it with Christ or to the unknowable transcendent Godhead, both are truly One. Whether they walk the path of transcendence or immanence, the goal of the Godhead is the same. In some contemplatives both types of perception exist together, light and dark occurring alternatively. Both however, can enter the Divine Dark only by eradicating all thoughts and emotions of the phenomenal world, thence they can ascend to that ray of Divine Dark. The latter is God, which is unknowable in His absolute Reality. In this Cloud of Unknowing, there is no reason, sight, sound or movement of all faculties of the mind. This transcendence must be done by the whole man, which is then free and unfettered (the removal of the 10 fetters of the Arahant). This surrender with humility and intellectual ignorance is the prelude to the entrance into the Cloud towards the Absolute. To the mystic after inhibiting thought and rejecting images in the orison of the Quiet this is one way of entering the Dark. Another way is by detachment and introversion in order to enter the naked Ground of the Soul, where God lives. At the first entrance, the darkness means ignorance, confusion and dimness, the unknowing. One just waits in this darkness and does not fret. After withdrawing energy from the other centres of intellect and feeling, there remains a radiance of the heart, which comes spontaneously. This union with Love results in the birth of mystical wisdom and the hiding of the soul within a lovely and sweet solitude. These two facts sustain the soul in splendour, unmatched by any pleasure on earth.
In this orison of union or Spiritual marriage, the mystics apprehend the passionate aspect of the Infinite Life. This Divine Embrace is a personal surrender of the finite to the Infinite, the bride to the Bridegroom, heart to Heart. This surrender is so complete and ecstatic that it approximates to a trance, where the soul may cross over from contemplation to ecstasy. It is so real that there are physical as well as psychical effects. St Teresa called it a drowsiness (the soul is asleep to the worldly things) in which she was deprived of all emotions and thought. Being dead to the world, she lived better in God. In this short period of time of union, the soul knows nothing, but after the union, she was certain that her soul ‘has been in God and God in it.’ This certitude will last for years even though the union lasted a very short time.
Ecstasy and Rapture
Ecstasy is considered by the mystics as a more advanced stage of orison of union, the oneness with the Absolute. Although it is deemed to be a state above that of contemplation, it may also be experienced by all grades of personalities, religious or otherwise. The shaman, the temple medium, the hysterical or the psychotic and the ultra-sensitive may all go into the trance of ecstasy. This range of persons is not equivalent to the contemplative mystic in their spiritual attainment. To the outsider, the body of the subject is the telling factor, where either stiffness or tremors and unconsciousness are the main features. In contemplation, the mystic refuses to attend to the external world, which is a blurred vision at the fringe of his conscious field. In ecstasy, he cannot attend to it even if he wants to. We can study the ecstatic state in three aspects: (a) the physical, (b) the psychological and (c) the mystical.
A) Physically it is a trance, more or less deep or prolonged. The mystic may glide into it gradually from a period of absorption or contemplation. Or the subject may go into a trance suddenly when an idea, a word, a piece of music, some chanting or some temple bells, comes into his awareness. These latter individuals may or may not be spiritually advanced, e.g. mediums, sensitives or psychotic patients. The advanced mystic calls this sudden episode Rapture. There are of course gradations of Ecstasy or Rapture.
During trance, breathing and circulation are depressed. The body is more or less cold and rigid, remaining in the exact position of the onset of the trance. There may also be anaesthesia, moderate to complete, and anaesthesia may also happen in pathological states.
The trance includes two phases --- (a) a short period of lucidity, and (b) a longer period of complete unconsciousness, which may pass into catalepsy lasting for hours or days. This happens in both union as well as a non-mystical trance. Phase two lasts longer; the breathing apparently stops and more obviously the medium cannot speak or see. In both, the limbs become cold and stiff. So this state of trance can happen to sensitives, mediums or mystics in ecstasy. Per se therefore ecstasy has no spiritual value. Ecstasy therefore occurs in those whose consciousness is very mobile and a tendency for the subject to remain on one idea or intuition. In the hysterical patient the ecstasy is an illness. In the mystic it is the strength of the spirit overpowering the soul. So in the former, the religious call it the action of the devil, but the rapture in the advanced mystic it is God communicating high things. In the latter, the goodness is for life, whilst in the diseased mind it is bad for life. Sometimes the good and the bad types of rapture are seen in one person. This happens when the mystic is failing in health. In some sickly persons, the rapture may heal the illness.
B) Psychologically, it is concentration on one thing to the extreme. It is withdrawing the attention from the circumference to the centre. It is always paid for by psychophysical disturbances or rewarded in healthy cases by lucidity and an acute intuition on the mystic’s subject. Ecstasy is then a mono-ideism (complete concentration on one thing to the exclusion of everything else), which is contemplation exalted to the highest pitch culminating in a trance. Will started the process, but will cannot stop the trance. He cannot see, hear or feel: this is the 3rd-4th Jhana of Samatha (Buddhist concentration). Naturally, the same conditions persist in the higher Jhanas. In order to achieve union with the Divine, everything external must be blotted out so that the whole person’s energy can be concentrated in this unification of Ecstasy. In this extremis, there is no more energy left in the body-mind complex. The energy is solely for the soul to unite with the Divine. In both the healthy mystic and the morbid ecstatic, a mere symbol or sight or sound or thought can trigger a sudden trance. Thus the symbols for some mystics are very important, e.g. taking of the Holy Communion or hearing of certain psalms. In the trance no feelings of pain are felt, but the pain is there after they awaken. Exceptionally the mystic may levitate whether standing or sitting.
C) Mystically speaking it is an exalted act of perception. It is the greatest reach, which the spiritual consciousness can attain to the Pure Being or Eternal Life. Everything concerning the phenomenal world is erased: thought or feeling or I-hood or space or time is all suspended. This is the 7th-8th Jhana (the 7th is nothingness and 8th is neither perception nor non-perception). He is totally free in this ‘passive union’ and is truly living temporarily in the Eternal Life of God. It is difficult to describe in words this Ecstasy as he can only feel in this darkness and cannot see, but this invisible contact is much more complete than the tail end of the orison of union. His certainty is made more definite by the beatific and exultant feelings than in the last stage of the Cloud of Unknowing. There is no image though, but the paradox of life is solved.
To the saints, Ecstasy is more excellent than union, because in Ecstasy, there are greater fruits and there are more multifarious operations than union. Union is uniform and staid. Ecstasy ends up in the higher reaches of spirit and is truly unstoppable. In this entrancement, what was the Object of his ecstatic perception? The mystic calls this elevation of the soul out of the body of flesh ‘ravishing.’ It is a lifting the mind or soul into God by contemplation. It is always agreeable and full of gladness. What news of God can he tell us? In this short moment of Ecstasy he enjoys supreme knowledge of or participation in Divine Reality. That Divine Love draws out the soul into God only for a short while, but when he comes back he is inundated with life and joy. It is because he has had his fill of Divine Wisdom, which was given with exuberant love. Although he says that he is conscious of nothing, he must have knowledge that is stupendous, but ineffable. Although he was into God, there was no room for reflection or self-observation. He was solely in Eternity. He “knew all and knew nought.” He was so merged with the Absolute; he could not perceive it as an object of thought, as his faculties were all suspended. The ecstatic consciousness is not self-conscious: it is intuitive, not discursive. In other words, when he returns he knows that he was with God and learned much wisdom, but he cannot translate it into normal worldly language. While alive on earth, he cannot understand what he learnt or deduce the meaning of Existence given to him. He knows it because of his experience. While the soul is united with God, he forgets himself totally. The soul disappears but not entirely. He has acquired certain qualities of divinity, but he is not yet divine. The soul is rapt by the power of resplendent Being, above its natural faculties into the nakedness of the Nothing. According to Plotinus, “Ecstasy is another mode of seeing, a simplification and an abandonment of oneself, a desire of contact, rest and a striving after union.” To the Pagan ecstatics, Ecstasy is also “Tranquil and alone with God, mingled for an instant of time, like two concentric circles with the Divine life, perceiver and perceived made one.” The secret of ecstasy is in self-abolishment when united with God, the mystic receives the communication of Life and Beatitude, in which all things are consummated and all things are renewed. At this peak, it is not easy to distinguish between ecstasy and the last stage of contemplation (orison of union). When the contemplation becomes expansive, out-going and receives a definite fruition of the Absolute in return, its content is already ecstatic. This ineffable ‘awareness’ entails more of symbolic vision rather than pure perception of the Absolute. Therefore one could argue that ecstasy is more likely the name of an outward condition rather than that of an inward experience.
In the orison of Quiet or of union, at the end of a culminating point in contemplation, a gradual onset of ecstatic trance begins. However, the ecstasy may suddenly come about in someone while in normal consciousness. This is strictly the meaning of Rapture. Mystic life consists of having a relationship with the Absolute. An art of contemplation is accomplished in the Mystic Way. This genius must begin with a voluntary attention (concentration) to his supreme object of meditation. Sometimes the genius of this orison is too strong for the other elements of his character, and this ends up in psychic disturbances. The latter is abrupt and uncontrollable, as in the ‘fine frenzy’ of the prophet, composer or poet. This is Rapture, a violent expression of genius for the Absolute. It temporarily or may permanently injure the nervous system of the self. It often yields splendour and value for life. This is an accident and not a mystical intent. Therefore, Rapture can occur at any stage on the spiritual path, e.g. mystical conversion. It need not occur at the end of contemplation. There is still the unforgettable knowledge of an exalted intuition of Perfection and Reality: Certitude, Peace and Joy. This is quite characteristic of ecstatic perception. Ecstatic trance comes on gradually, but Rapture comes as a shock, quick and sharp, as a flight of the spirit on the wings of an eagle to the heavens. This flight upwards sometimes is accompanied by bodily levitation when the senses are still intact. During this period, the body seems weightless and buoyant, not knowing when the feet touch the ground. While sitting it is like a bout of bouncing on the buttocks. Ironically, the body feels dead. So the outward sense of immobility coincides with the sensation of the body being lifted up. In Rapture, except for levitation just described, there is normally no bodily movement or speech, but the power of hearing and seeing is still there except that things heard and seen are far away. However, as in ecstasy, breathing and pulse rate are rather slow. Sometimes the hands and feet are cold and occasionally even breathing appears to be absent. This period of rapture is short in duration.
These raptures increase the vitality of the person, who awakens to a more vigorous life. Having imbibed the heavenly secrets only for a short time, these supreme states of ecstasy can leave the mind inebriated and the person incapable of normal and mundane duties for days. When he is back to normal life, his strength is much stimulated. Thence with practice, he now can approach new levels of Reality with greater facility. These ecstatic raptures not only make them more knowledgeable but also contribute to transforming the individual to a higher consciousness. So with a good ecstasy, he comes back, strengthened, humbled and exultant, all ready for more hard work of pain and sacrifice for the love of the Absolute.
This ardent love for God pulls him into the Infinite Sea. In this state all earthly desire is absorbed in the heavenly glory. In this mystic way, ecstasy and rapture remake the soul into Goodness, Truth and Beauty, which is God. Thence the soul is able to pass wholly into God without obstacles.
I will now try and summarise two of the famous teachings on Western Mysticism.
The Cloud of Unknowing
The most intriguing teaching is “The Cloud of Unknowing”. This small and concise work is available in the Penguin Classics. An English monk wrote it in the latter half of the fourteenth century. The author was only 24 years old. From analysis of the language it points to a province in the East Midland of England. The fact that he did not put his name onto the work meant that he was afraid to do so. This is not a casual or whimsical work. He has thought this out thoroughly.
During that period in the 14th century, the belief is that God is indescribable, but it is not unknowable. He can be reached and known by love and love alone. We are able to approach Him only by his grace. He must love us first especially through his revelation in Jesus Christ. We may try to reach Him by prayer: vocal and mental. Mental prayer is usually deem as meditation. Christian meditation is not the same as the Buddhist or Hindu meditation. Christian meditation is usually the systematic reflection of a truth or phrase from the bible. Ejaculatory prayer is normally short and secret words sent up to God outside the regular times of devotion. After a while, meditation is dispensed with and direct communication is practised in the form of mental conversations with God. Then comes a stage when the soul is in love with God. From here onwards it could be a struggle. The soul thinks that he has given everything to God, but truly he has not. Although he wants God, but he is unable to receive His grace because the soul has not completely surrendered himself. The love must be so absolute that there should not be anything between the soul and God. There is not only a cloud around God, but he must also establish a Cloud of Forgetting beneath the soul. The Cloud of Unknowing around God prevents any direct contact. The Cloud of Forgetting must be so solidified that nothing concerning earth and heaven should come in between the self and God. It is God alone that one loves. One should not even contemplate on God’s good attributes. These do not count. In fact they obstruct the scene. So in this journey of transcendence, there is much pain and suffering, because it is unable to reach its loved one.
An outline of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing.’
The Call with Grace
God in his love for a young disciple is calling him to ascend the scale up the spiritual path. The disciple, although undeserved, must respond by a great longing and love for God. This involves spiritual awareness, a forgetting of the past and everything worldly and an intense dedicated determination to reach out to God by penetrating the Cloud of Unknowing. In order to facilitate this penetration, a Cloud of Forgetting of all worldly things must be constructed so that no thoughts may be entertained. It is only through God’s grace that the soul may begin to contemplate Him. Throughout the soul’s journey, he is also sustained by God’s grace. In this text of 75 short chapters, the word grace appears more than 90 times.
The soul must prepare for this life by reading, prayers and meditation. He must be a willing and co-operative soul for this privilege of grace. He must have a naked intent directed to God.
This purpose of loving God must be so absolute that nothing is allowed to deflect it. “Look that nothing live in thy working mind but a naked intent stretching into God” (Epistle of Privy Counsel, Chapter 1). This intent is the dart of longing and love persistently piercing the Cloud of Unknowing wrapping around God. Through love God is known, not through the intellect: ‘He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never’ (Chapter 6). In contemplation the mind is blank and empty, which is the Cloud of Unknowing. In this emptiness, the soul must concentrate on God, which is the divine in his soul. He must only concentrate on Him and not God’s qualities or goodness. The latter practice will detract from the purity of the contemplation. In this fashion sin is also totally destroyed, as sin cannot be alive in the presence of God. The by-products of this contemplation are humility and charity. The author used Martha and Mary as examples of the above. Love begets humility and charity and encourages activity (karma yoga). Martha is tireless in her active daily chores whilst Mary sits besides Jesus listening with love. Jesus reckons that the contemplation of Mary is of a higher order than Martha’s activity. Throughout the book Love is placed in the highest order of contemplation. Nothing can replace it.
In order for God’s grace to infuse contemplation to the mystic, he has to read and pray first. When it comes to contemplation the book persists that the mystic uses love to penetrate this Cloud of Unknowing over and over again. The cloud is the emptiness after the preliminary preparation of reading the scriptures and meditation (orison). Together with the Cloud of Forgetting he is in total emptiness or trance to be lifted up by God’s grace in contemplation.
Uphill Battle and Sin
All this needs hard work and discipline. Everything else in this world has to be forgotten at the same time. This part of the practice is most difficult, because one also has to forget oneself. Then there is also the lure of the flesh together with its seven sins of lust, pride, sloth, anger, gluttony, envy and avarice. It serves no purpose by analysing all vagaries of sin. So it is much more beneficial if sin can be grouped as one ‘lump’ of sin. Although one has to be on guard with the ‘devil’ from the beginning, the devil’s power will progressively decrease as the contemplative improves in his climb upwards.
At this stage it is an uphill battle. Not only is the forgetting has to be absolute, the rest of the world does not understand, including his colleagues in the same religious lineage. The contemplative will be criticised, abused and reprimanded for being slothful. According to the author when the mystic is ostracised, he would be more subjected to the tricks of the ‘devil’, and he would deviate from the path towards God. That is why, some of these mystics have to withdraw from the task.
Peculiarly, the book suggests that those bad sinners appear to do better than the less sinful. The U-turn must be very abrupt and finite. However these sinners normally find the contemplation more difficult at the beginning.
There is, however, some compensation with a contemplative life. The contemplative’s aura has been transformed into brighter colours, and consequently they become more attractive to other people, some of who were previously avoiding him. The contemplative has become more cheerful and poised in his stance. Other people suddenly begin to come for advice. He may also be mixing with sinners and yet uncontaminated by them. But in order to overcome temptation there are two methods suggested: (1) to look over the shoulders and straight towards God, and (2) when temptation is unavoidable the contemplative must totally succumb to God, who will then come down to protect him by bringing him up into the spiritual realms and dry his ghostly eyes. Thence he lumps all sins including himself into the Cloud of Forgetting as a ‘naked intent unto God’. He must identify the soul with sin until he sees God. In the mean while this practice will bring a fresh of goodness and mercy of God; it will keep the soul humble; and finally the separateness with God does not exist.
Contemplation is not an emotion. It is not a reaction to a beautiful sunset or a serene atmosphere in nature. It is an awareness of God at the core of one’s being. During contemplation, this awareness may not be pleasurable or blissful throughout. The mystic is slowly being transformed into a higher being sometimes with no discernible movement. Yet it is not a static situation. The soul is growing imperceptibly but inevitably towards God. At times he may be awed and humbled as to be entranced, exalted, daunted and finally lured towards enlightenment.
In some of them, bliss does appear but it is ineffable. He can only allude to its beauty and glory. He can give metaphors and to give advice as to what course to take, the pitfalls to avoid etc. The author of the Cloud does give a simple map of his way. In chapter 26 he did suggest the splendour of this bliss of contemplation. He said that when God sent out a beam of ghostly light to pierce the cloud between God and the soul, he would see things so fantastic and bountiful that he cannot come to talk about it. He does, however, get so inflamed with the fire of love that his desire for God is redoubled. The book puts it down in Chapter 48 as ‘full wonderful sweetness and comforts’. It is so wondrous that ‘all nature quaketh, all clerks be foolish, and all saints and angels be blind’ can only be known in the Cloud of Unknowing (chapter 13). Although the glory of contemplation cannot be written, the life of it is chronicled in chapters 68-70, where it is stated that ‘Nought’ which is the ‘All’. God is ‘an unmade ghostly thing’ and he is nothing and nowhere. We must then purify ourselves until we ourselves become nothing (Cloud of Forgetting). Thence we become the unknowing itself to experience the ‘full blind and full dark’ in this life endowed with an ‘abundance of ghostly light’.
An Outline of ‘The Interior Castle’ by S. Teresa of Avila (1515—82)
St Teresa and St John at the Cross (1542—92) were jointly reforming and expanding the Carmelite Order. St John was a junior colleague of St Teresa. St. Teresa already had written in her book called Life the four stages of mental prayer that lead to the ecstasy of Divine Union. She testified in 1577 that God showed her that the soul was like a castle made entirely of diamond or clear crystal globe, in which there were seven dwelling places. In the centre God dwelt in splendour. From the centre God illumined beautifully all the dwelling places to the outer wall. The nearer the inhabitants got to the centre the more light they would receive. Outside the castle all was dark with toads, vermin and vipers. While watching the castle the light suddenly went off, the castle was covered with darkness and was ugly with a stench. The poisonous creatures were able to enter the castle then. This is a state when the soul is in sin. The spiritual life within the castle is a complex matter involving the individual’s capacities, the diversities of ways and differing spiritual depths. The seven stages represent only types and allow for a wide range of variations. In each of these seven dwelling places, there are many below, above and to the sides with gardens, fountains and labyrinths, all of which are delightful.
The gate of entry is prayer. Prayer opens up the door of communication with God.
The first dwelling places. Very little light from God’s royal chamber filters into this dwelling area. At this early stage, the soul is still too distracted by worldly things like possessions, honour and business affairs. Although the soul has good desires and prays occasionally, it needs to have self-knowledge of the beauty of grace in the soul and the ugliness of one in sin. As the soul progresses to the centre self-knowledge and humility will grow.
The second dwelling places. The promptings of Christ’s grace is through books, sermons and good friendships. The soul at this stage is more receptive. The struggle with evil is more keenly felt, and one has to strive to conform to God’s will.
The third dwelling places. Guarding against sin, they are now fond of ascetic practices with periods of meditation. Further they practice charity and behave with decorum with speech and dress. Here, a threat to wealth and honour will still be felt, and they are very careful with their preservation of health. They could still be turned away when told about the requirements to perfection. They have not yet tasted the peace and quiet of contemplation.
The fourth dwelling places. This is the beginning of the mystic path. In order to explain about the supernatural infused prayer, Teresa analysed the difference between consolations and spiritual delight. The former begins with human nature and ends with God, while the latter begins with God and it overflows to human nature. The consolations, then result from our own efforts accompanied by God’s grace; the spiritual delight is received not through human efforts but passively. The first degree of infused prayer is not the length of time required, but to love much and not to think at all. Love here means to desire with strong determination to please God in everything, in striving, insofar as possible, not to offend Him.
This contemplative prayer begins with a withdrawing of all faculties inwards in passive recollection without human effort. In this prayer of quiet, the intellect is still allowed to move about until it falls into the arms of love. This is strikingly similar to Shikantaza.
Another analogy of infused and acquired prayer (meditation) is the way two water troughs are filled. One is from the aqueducts, and the other is from the springs on the spot. The true value of this meditation is the effects and deeds that follow it.
In this dwelling place with passive prayer (meditation), the natural (active) and supernatural (passive) are joined. Fresh souls may also enter here.
The fifth dwelling places. These rooms are where the prayer of union is held. All faculties are silent or suspended. Teresa said: “the soul was in God and God was in the soul.” Such certitude was not present in the last rooms.
Teresa used an analogy of the silkworm. This silkworm lives in a cocoon of God. When the person or silkworm dies to itself and its attachments, he breaks out transformed as a butterfly. He has now a new life in Christ.
Teresa made another analogy of a period of engagement, during which the soul and God come to know each other better: did the likeness, similarities and love grow between them? These experiences of union should enhance the depth and knowledge of the soul and God.
In order not to allow love to be idle, the practice of ‘love thy neighbour’, charity and humility etc must be included in the exercise of virtue during this period of intimacy with God.
The sixth dwelling places. The soul needs a lot of courage in these rooms of betrothal. Fortitude is required because of the many-fold trials and tribulations. Externally, there is opposition from others, praise (itself becomes a trial) and severe illnesses. Internally, there are inner sufferings and fears of being rejected by God. There is also anxiety and depression. This is the Dark Night of the Soul. There may be certain spiritual awakenings and impulses within the soul. These are many including the wounding of love. The latter may cause pain and delight.
In the betrothal, God gives the soul raptures that make the outward man senseless. Although unconscious, the soul is very much awake to the things of God, deep in enlightenment. If he is not unconscious during these ecstasies he may die.
Divine mysteries would be divulged to the individual, but these divine secrets are ineffable. There are real and false supernatural phenomena to be discerned out. These include the grandeur of God, and self-knowledge to make one humble and reject earthly things. There is so much joy attached that the individual wants to trumpet it to the whole world.
Teresa made a point the importance of the human and divine Christ in this spiritual path. She made a distinction between discursive meditation about Christ and contemplative presence to Him. The former is very difficult, but forgetting Christ to live in pure divinity will not get you to the last two dwelling places. So one must not only suffer mortification as a human, one must also continually remember Christ’s humanity and divinity.
Through these purifications, increasing love will make the butterfly more restless. These desires cause great torment and a final cleansing in purgatory is required before the seventh dwelling place. Although this ecstasy can cause both spiritual joy as well as death, the soul knows that it is a special favour.
The seventh dwelling places. There are no doors between the sixth and the seventh dwelling places. It is because there are things in the seventh that are not revealed in the sixth that a division is created. In the fifth and sixth, the soul is blind and deaf and in this union the soul does not understand anything of the nature or favour enjoyed. In the seventh God open the eyes of the soul so that he can see and understand the favours given to him. At this peak, he does not lose balance or go into ecstasy.
Entry into these last dwelling places is through the intellectual vision of the Blessed Trinity, which leads the way into the deep interior. The beauty of the Trinity is that it does not interfere with the daily activities of service of the individual.
This spiritual marriage is a perfect union and the spirit is made one with God. This union is not separable. It is like rain fallen into the river or a stream entering the sea.
Now the butterfly is happy to die, as its new life is Christ. This union with Christ includes His earthly adventure and His resurrection and His attributes. The purpose of the entire spiritual path is to live like Christ and to do good deeds. With internal calm, the good work needs not be great, but it must done with love. One must serve the company around one first, and this small deed has the value of a great work. All the travelling through the dwelling places could be done only through God’s love.
1. Clifton Wolters. (1961). The Cloud of Unknowing (translated into English). Penguin.
2. The Interior Castle, translated by Kieran Kavanagh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (1980). The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications. Institute of Carmelite Studies.
3. Evelyn Underhill (1915). Practical Mysticism. Columbus, Ohio: Ariel Press.
4. Gilbert, R. A. (1991). The Elements of Mysticism. Element Books.