The Preparation Of The Mystic

Here the practical man will naturally say: And pray how am I

going to do this? How shall I detach myself from the artificial

world to which I am accustomed? Where is the brake that shall

stop the wheel of my image-making mind?

I answer: You are going to do it by an educative process; a drill,

of which the first stages will, indeed, be hard enough. You have

already acknowledged the need of such mental dril
, such

deliberate selective acts, in respect to the smaller matters of life.

You willingly spend time and money over that narrowing and

sharpening of attention which you call a "business training," a

"legal education," the "acquirement of a scientific method." But

this new undertaking will involve the development and the

training of a layer of your consciousness which has lain fallow in

the past; the acquirement of a method you have never used

before. It is reasonable, even reassuring, that hard work and

discipline should be needed for this: that it should demand of

you, if not the renunciation of the cloister, at least the virtues of

the golf course.

The education of the mystical sense begins in self-simplification.

The feeling, willing, seeing self is to move from the various and

the analytic to the simple and the synthetic: a sentence which

may cause hard breathing and mopping of the brows on the part

of the practical man. Yet it is to you, practical man, reading these

pages as you rush through the tube to the practical work of

rearranging unimportant fragments of your universe, that this

message so needed by your time--or rather, by your want of time--

is addressed. To you, unconscious analyst, so busy reading the

advertisements upon the carriage wall, that you hardly observe

the stages of your unceasing flight: so anxiously acquisitive of

the crumbs that you never lift your eyes to the loaf. The essence

of mystical contemplation is summed in these two experiences--

union with the flux of life, and union with the Whole in which all

lesser realities are resumed--and these experiences are well

within your reach. Though it is likely that the accusation will

annoy you, you are already in fact a potential contemplative: for

this act, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is proper to all men--is,

indeed, the characteristic human activity.

More, it is probable that you are, or have been, an actual

contemplative too. Has it never happened to you to lose yourself

for a moment in a swift and satisfying experience for which you

found no name? When the world took on a strangeness, and you

rushed out to meet it, in a mood at once exultant and ashamed?

Was there not an instant when you took the lady who now orders

your dinner into your arms, and she suddenly interpreted to you

the whole of the universe? a universe so great, charged with so

terrible an intensity, that you have hardly dared to think of it

since. Do you remember that horrid moment at the concert, when

you became wholly unaware of your comfortable seven-and-sixpenny

seat? Those were onsets of involuntary contemplation; sudden

partings of the conceptual veil. Dare you call them the least

significant, moments of your life? Did you not then, like the

African saint, "thrill with love and dread," though you were not

provided with a label for that which you adored?

It will not help you to speak of these experiences as "mere

emotion." Mere emotion then inducted you into a world which

you recognised as more valid--in the highest sense, more rational--

than that in which you usually dwell: a world which had a

wholeness, a meaning, which exceeded the sum of its parts. Mere

emotion then brought you to your knees, made you at once proud

and humble, showed you your place. It simplified and unified

existence: it stripped off the little accidents and ornaments which

perpetually deflect our vagrant attention, and gathered up the

whole being of you into one state, which felt and knew a Reality

that your intelligence could not comprehend. Such an emotion is

the driving power of spirit, and august and ultimate thing: and

this your innermost inhabitant felt it to be, whilst your eyes were

open to the light.

Now that simplifying act, which is the preliminary of all mystical

experience, that gathering of the scattered bits of personality into

the one which is really you--into the "unity of your spirit," as

the mystics say--the great forces of love, beauty, wonder, grief,

may do for you now and again. These lift you perforce from the

consideration of the details to the contemplation of the All: turn

you from the tidy world of image to the ineffable world of fact.

But they are fleeting and ungovernable experiences, descending

with dreadful violence on the soul. Are you willing that your

participation in Reality shall depend wholly on these incalculable

visitations: on the sudden wind and rain that wash your windows,

and let in the vision of the landscape at your gates? You can, if

you like, keep those windows clear. You can, if you choose to

turn your attention that way, learn to look out of them. These are

the two great phases in the education of every contemplative: and

they are called in the language of the mystics the purification of

the senses and the purification of the will.

Those who are so fortunate as to experience in one of its many

forms the crisis which is called "conversion" are seized, as it

seems to them, by some power stronger than themselves and

turned perforce in the right direction. They find that this

irresistible power has cleansed the windows of their homely coat

of grime; and they look out, literally, upon a new heaven and new

earth. The long quiet work of adjustment which others must

undertake before any certitude rewards them is for these

concentrated into one violent shattering and rearranging of the

self, which can now begin its true career of correspondence with

the Reality it has perceived. To persons of this type I do not

address myself: but rather to the ordinary plodding scholar of life,

who must reach the same goal by a more gradual road.

What is it that smears the windows of the senses? Thought,

convention, self-interest. We throw a mist of thought between

ourselves and the external world: and through this we discern, as

in a glass darkly, that which we have arranged to see. We see it in

the way in which our neighbours see it; sometimes through a

pink veil, sometimes through a grey. Religion, indigestion,

priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes. The prismatic

colours of a fashionable school of art may stain them. Inevitably,

too, we see the narrow world our windows show us, not "in

itself," but in relation to our own needs, moods, and preferences;

which exercise a selective control upon those few aspects of the

whole which penetrate to the field of consciousness and dictate

the order in which we arrange them, for the universe of the

natural man is strictly egocentric. We continue to name the living

creatures with all the placid assurance of Adam: and whatsoever

we call them, that is the name thereof. Unless we happen to be

artists--and then but rarely--we never know the "thing seen" in its

purity; never, from birth to death, look at it with disinterested

eyes. Our vision and understanding of it are governed by all that

we bring with us, and mix with it, to form an amalgam with

which the mind can deal. To "purify" the senses is to release

them, so far as human beings may, from the tyranny of egocentric

judgments; to make of them the organs of direct perception.

This means that we must crush our deep-seated passion for

classification and correspondences; ignore the instinctive, selfish

question, "What does it mean to me?" learn to dip ourselves in

the universe at our gates, and know it, not from without by

comprehension, but from within by self-mergence.

Richard of St. Victor has said, that the essence of all purification

is self-simplification; the doing away of the unnecessary and

unreal, the tangles and complications of consciousness: and we

must remember that when these masters of the spiritual life speak

of purity, they have in their minds no thin, abstract notion of a

rule of conduct stripped of all colour and compounded chiefly of

refusals, such as a more modern, more arid asceticism set up.

Their purity is an affirmative state; something strong, clean, and

crystalline, capable of a wholeness of adjustment to the

wholeness of a God-inhabited world. The pure soul is like a lens

from which all irrelevancies and excrescences, all the beams and

motes of egotism and prejudice, have been removed; so that it

may reflect a clear image of the one Transcendent Fact within

which all others facts are held.

"All which I took from thee I did but take,

Not for thy harms,

But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms."

All the details of existence, all satisfactions of the heart and

mind, are resumed within that Transcendent Fact, as all the

colours of the spectrum are included in white light: and we

possess them best by passing beyond them, by following back the

many to the One.

The "Simple Eye" of Contemplation, about which the mystic

writers say so much, is then a synthetic sense; which sees that

white light in which all colour is, without discrete analysis of its

properties. The Simple Ear which discerns the celestial melody,

hears that Tone in which all music is resumed; thus achieving

that ecstatic life of "sensation without thought" which Keats

perceived to be the substance of true happiness.

But you, practical man, have lived all your days amongst the

illusions of multiplicity. Though you are using at every instant

your innate tendency to synthesis and simplification, since this

alone creates the semblance of order in your universe--though

what you call seeing and hearing are themselves great unifying

acts--yet your attention to life has been deliberately adjusted to a

world of frittered values and prismatic refracted lights: full of

incompatible interests, of people, principles, things. Ambitions

and affections, tastes and prejudices, are fighting for your

attention. Your poor, worried consciousness flies to and fro

amongst them; it has become a restless and a complicated thing.

At this very moment your thoughts are buzzing like a swarm of

bees. The reduction of this fevered complex to a unity appears to

be a task beyond all human power. Yet the situation is not as

hopeless for you as it seems. All this is only happening upon the

periphery of the mind, where it touches and reacts to the world of

appearance. At the centre there is a stillness which even you are

not able to break. There, the rhythm of your duration is one with

the rhythm of the Universal Life. There, your essential self exists:

the permanent being which persists through and behind the flow

and change of your conscious states. You have been snatched to

that centre once or twice. Turn your consciousness inward to it

deliberately. Retreat to that point whence all the various lines of

your activities flow, and to which at last they must return. Since

this alone of all that you call your "selfhood" is possessed of

eternal reality, it is surely a counsel of prudence to acquaint

yourself with its peculiarities and its powers. "Take your seat

within the heart of the thousand-petaled lotus," cries the Eastern

visionary. "Hold thou to thy Centre," says his Christian brother,

"and all things shall be thine." This is a practical recipe, not a

pious exhortation. The thing may sound absurd to you, but you

can do it if you will: standing back, as it were, from the vague

and purposeless reactions in which most men fritter their vital

energies. Then you can survey with a certain calm, a certain

detachment, your universe and the possibilities of life within it:

can discern too, if you be at all inclined to mystical adventure, the

stages of the road along which you must pass on your way

towards harmony with the Real.

This universe, these possibilities, are far richer, yet far simpler

than you have supposed. Seen from the true centre of personality,

instead of the usual angle of self-interest, their scattered parts

arrange themselves in order: you begin to perceive those

graduated levels of Reality with which a purified and intensified

consciousness can unite. So, too, the road is more logically

planned, falls into more comprehensible stages, than those who

dwell in a world of single vision are willing to believe.

Now it is a paradox of human life, often observed even by the

most concrete and unimaginative of philosophers, that man seems

to be poised between two contradictory orders of Reality. Two

planes of existence--or, perhaps, two ways of apprehending

existence--lie within the possible span of his consciousness. That

great pair of opposites which metaphysicians call Being and

Becoming, Eternity and Time, Unity and Multiplicity, and others

mean, when they speak of the Spiritual and the Natural Worlds,

represents the two extreme forms under which the universe can

be realised by him. The greatest men, those whose consciousness

is extended to full span, can grasp, be aware of, both. They

know themselves to live, both in the discrete, manifested,

ever-changeful parts and appearances, and also in the Whole Fact.

They react fully to both: for them there is no conflict between the

parochial and the patriotic sense. More than this, a deep instinct

sometimes assures them that the inner spring or secret of that

Whole Fact is also the inner spring and secret of their individual

lives: and that here, in this third factor, the disharmonies between

the part and the whole are resolved. As they know themselves to

dwell in the world of time and yet to be capable of transcending

it, so the Ultimate Reality, they think, inhabits yet inconceivably

exceeds all that they know to be--as the soul of the musician

controls and exceeds not merely each note of the flowing melody,

but also the whole of that symphony in which these cadences

must play their part. That invulnerable spark of vivid life, that

"inward light" which these men find at their own centres when

they seek for it, is for them an earnest of the Uncreated Light, the

ineffable splendour of God, dwelling at, and energising within

the heart of things: for this spark is at once one with, yet separate

from, the Universal Soul.

So then, man, in the person of his greatest and most living

representatives, feels himself to have implicit correspondences

with three levels of existence; which we may call the Natural, the

Spiritual, and the Divine. The road on which he is to travel

therefore, the mystical education which he is to undertake, shall

successively unite him with these three worlds; stretching his

consciousness to the point at which he finds them first as three,

and at last as One. Under normal circumstances even the first of

them, the natural world of Becoming, is only present to him--

unless he be an artist--in a vague and fragmentary way. He is, of

course, aware of the temporal order, a ceaseless change and

movement, birth, growth, and death, of which he is a part. But the

rapture and splendour of that everlasting flux which India calls

the Sport of God hardly reaches his understanding; he is too busy

with his own little movements to feel the full current of the


But under those abnormal circumstances on which we have

touched, a deeper level of his consciousness comes into focus; he

hears the music of surrounding things. Then he rises, through and

with his awareness of the great life of Nature, to the knowledge

that he is part of another greater life, transcending succession. In

this his durational spirit is immersed. Here all the highest values

of existence are stored for him: and it is because of his existence

within this Eternal Reality, his patriotic relationship to it, that the

efforts and experiences of the time-world have significance for

him. It is from the vantage point gained when he realises his

contacts with this higher order, that he can see with the clear eye

of the artist or the mystic the World of Becoming itself--

recognise its proportions--even reach out to some faint intuition

of its ultimate worth. So, if he would be a whole man, if he would

realise all that is implicit in his humanity, he must actualise his

relationship with this supernal plane of Being: and he shall do it,

as we have seen, by simplification, by a deliberate withdrawal of

attention from the bewildering multiplicity of things, a deliberate

humble surrender of his image-making consciousness. He already

possesses, at that gathering point of personality which the old

writers sometimes called the "apex" and sometimes the "ground"

of the soul, a medium of communication with Reality. But this

spiritual principle, this gathering point of his selfhood, is just that

aspect of him which is furthest removed from the active surface

consciousness. He treats it as the busy citizen treats his national

monuments. It is there, it is important, a possession which adds

dignity to his existence; but he never has time to go in. Yet as the

purified sense, cleansed of prejudice and self-interest, can give us

fleeting communications from the actual broken-up world of

duration at our gates: so the purified and educated will can

wholly withdraw the self's attention from its usual concentration

on small useful aspects of the time-world, refuse to react to its

perpetually incoming messages, retreat to the unity of its spirit,

and there make itself ready for messages from another plane.

This is the process which the mystics call Recollection: the first

stage in the training of the contemplative consciousness.

We begin, therefore, to see that the task of union with Reality

will involve certain stages of preparation as well as stages

of attainment; and these stages of preparation--for some

disinterested souls easy and rapid, for others long and full of

pain--may be grouped under two heads. First, the disciplining and

simplifying of the attention, which is the essence of Recollection.

Next, the disciplining and simplifying of the affections and will,

the orientation of the heart; which is sometimes called by the

formidable name of Purgation. So the practical mysticism of the

plain man will best be grasped by him as a five-fold scheme of

training and growth: in which the first two stages prepare the self

for union with Reality, and the last three unite it successively

with the World of Becoming, the World of Being, and finally

with that Ultimate Fact which the philosopher calls the Absolute

and the religious mystic calls God.