The Third Form Of Contemplation

The hard separation which some mystical writers insist upon

making between "natural" and "supernatural" contemplation, has

been on the whole productive of confusion rather than clearness:

for the word "supernatural" has many unfortunate associations for

the mind of the plain man. It at once suggests to him visions and

ecstasies, superstitious beliefs, ghosts, and other disagreeable

interferences with the order which he
calls "natural"; and inclines

him to his old attitude of suspicion in respect of all mystical

things. But some word we must have, to indicate the real

cleavage which exists between the second and third stages in the

development of the contemplative consciousness: the real change

which, if you would go further on these interior paths, must now

take place in the manner of your apprehension of Reality.

Hitherto, all that you have attained has been--or at least has

seemed to you--the direct result of your own hard work. A

difficult self-discipline, the slowly achieved control of your

vagrant thoughts and desires, the steady daily practice of

recollection, a diligent pushing out of your consciousness from

the superficial to the fundamental, an unselfish loving attention;

all this has been rewarded by the gradual broadening and

deepening of your perceptions, by an initiation into the

movements of a larger life, You have been a knocker, a seeker,

an asker: have beat upon the Cloud of Unknowing "with a sharp

dart of longing love." A perpetual effort of the will has

characterised your inner development. Your contemplation, in

fact, as the specialists would say, has been "active," not


But now, having achieved an awareness--obscure and indescribable

indeed, yet actual--of the enfolding presence of Reality,

under those two forms which the theologians call the "immanence"

and the "transcendence" of the Divine, a change is to take

place in the relation between your finite human spirit and

the Infinite Life in which at last it knows itself to dwell. All that

will now come to you--and much perhaps will come--will happen

as it seems without effort on your own part: though really it will

be the direct result of that long stress and discipline which has

gone before, and has made it possible for you to feel the subtle

contact of deeper realities. It will depend also on the steady

continuance--often perhaps through long periods of darkness and

boredom--of that poise to which you have been trained: the

stretching-out of the loving and surrendered will into the dimness

and silence, the continued trustful habitation of the soul in the

atmosphere of the Essential World. You are like a traveller

arrived in a new country. The journey has been a long one; and

the hardships and obstacles involved in it, the effort, the perpetual

conscious pressing forward, have at last come to seem the chief

features of your inner life. Now, with their cessation, you feel

curiously lost; as if the chief object of your existence had been

taken away. No need to push on any further: yet, though there is

no more that you can do of yourself, there is much that may and

must be done to you. The place that you have come to seems

strange and bewildering, for it lies far beyond the horizons of

human thought. There are no familiar landmarks, nothing on

which you can lay hold. You "wander to and fro," as the mystics

say, "in this fathomless ground"; surrounded by silence and

darkness, struggling to breathe this rarefied air. Like those who

go to live in new latitudes, you must become acclimatised. Your

state, then, should now be wisely passive; in order that the great

influences which surround you may take and adjust your spirit,

that the unaccustomed light, which now seems to you a darkness,

may clarify your eyes, and that you may be transformed from a

visitor into an inhabitant of that supernal Country which St.

Augustine described as "no mere vision, but a home."

You are therefore to let yourself go; to cease all conscious,

anxious striving and pushing. Finding yourself in this place of

darkness and quietude, this "Night of the Spirit," as St. John of

the Cross has called it, you are to dwell there meekly; asking

nothing, seeking nothing, but with your doors flung wide open

towards God. And as you do thus, there will come to you an ever

clearer certitude that this darkness enveils the goal for which you

have been seeking from the first; the final Reality with which you

are destined to unite, the perfect satisfaction of your most ardent

and most sacred desires. It is there, but you cannot by your efforts

reach it. This realisation of your own complete impotence, of the

resistance which the Transcendent--long sought and faithfully

served--now seems to offer to your busy outgoing will and love,

your ardour, your deliberate self-donation, is at once the most

painful and most essential phase in the training of the human

soul. It brings you into that state of passive suffering which is to

complete the decentralisation of your character, test the purity of

your love, and perfect your education in humility.

Here, you must oppose more thoroughly than ever before the

instincts and suggestions of your separate, clever, energetic self;

which, hating silence and dimness, is always trying to take

the methods of Martha into the domain of Mary, and seldom

discriminates between passivity and sloth. Perhaps you will find,

when you try to achieve this perfect self-abandonment, that a

further, more drastic self-exploration, a deeper, more searching

purification than that which was forced upon you by your first

experience of the recollective state is needed. The last fragments

of selfhood, the very desire for spiritual satisfaction--the

fundamental human tendency to drag down the Simple Fact and

make it ours, instead of offering ourselves to it--must be sought

out and killed. In this deep contemplation, this profound Quiet,

your soul gradually becomes conscious of a constriction, a

dreadful narrowness of personality; something still existing in

itself, still tending to draw inwards to its own centre, and keeping

it from that absolute surrender which is the only way to peace.

An attitude of perfect generosity, complete submission, willing

acquiescence in anything that may happen--even in failure and

death--is here your only hope: for union with Reality can only be

a union of love, a glad and humble self-mergence in the universal

life. You must, so far as you are able, give yourself up to, "die

into," melt into the Whole; abandon all efforts to lay hold of It.

More, you must be willing that it should lay hold of you. "A pure

bare going forth," says Tauler, trying to describe the sensations of

the self at this moment. "None," says Ruysbroeck, putting this

same experience, this meek outstreaming of the bewildered spirit,

into other language, "is sure of Eternal Life, unless he has died

with his own attributes wholly into God."

It is unlikely that agreeable emotions will accompany this utter

self-surrender; for everything will now seem to be taken from

you, nothing given in exchange. But if you are able to make it, a

mighty transformation will result. From the transitional plane of

darkness, you will be reborn into another "world," another stage

of realisation: and find yourself, literally, to be other than you

were before. Ascetic writers tell us that the essence of the change

now effected consists in the fact that "God's action takes the

place of man's activity"--that the surrendered self "does not act,

but receives." By this they mean to describe, as well as our

concrete language will permit, the new and vivid consciousness

which now invades the contemplative; the sense which he has of

being as it were helpless in the grasp of another Power, so utterly

part of him, so completely different from him--so rich and

various, so transfused with life and feeling, so urgent and so

all-transcending--that he can only think of it as God. It is for

this that the dimness and steadily increasing passivity of the

stage of Quiet has been preparing him; and it is out of this

willing quietude and ever-deepening obscurity that the new

experiences come.

"O night that didst lead thus,

O night more lovely than the dawn of light,

O night that broughtest us

Lover to lover's sight--

Lover with loved in marriage of delight,"

says St. John of the Cross in the most wonderful of all mystical

poems. "He who has had experience of this," says St. Teresa of

the same stage of apprehension, "will understand it in some

measure: but it cannot be more clearly described because what

then takes place is so obscure. All I am able to say is, that the

soul is represented as being close to God; and that there abide a

conviction thereof so certain and strong, that it cannot possibly

help believing so."

This sense, this conviction, which may be translated by the

imagination into many different forms, is the substance of the

greatest experiences and highest joys of the mystical saints. The

intensity with which it is realised will depend upon the ardour,

purity, and humility of the experiencing soul: but even those who

feel it faintly are convinced by it for evermore. In some great and

generous spirits, able to endure the terrific onslaught of Reality,

it may even reach a vividness by which all other things are

obliterated; and the self, utterly helpless under the inundations of

this transcendent life-force, passes into that simple state of

consciousness which is called Ecstasy.

But you are not to be frightened by these special manifestations;

or to suppose that here the road is barred against you. Though

these great spirits have as it were a genius for Reality, a

susceptibility to supernal impressions, so far beyond your own

small talent that there seems no link between you: yet you have,

since you are human, a capacity for the Infinite too. With less

intensity, less splendour, but with a certitude which no arguments

will ever shake, this sense of the Living Fact, and of its

mysterious contacts with and invasions of the human spirit, may

assuredly be realised by you. This realisation--sometimes felt

under the symbols of personality, sometimes under those of an

impersonal but life-giving Force, Light, Energy, or Heat--is the

ruling character of the third phase of contemplation; and the

reward of that meek passivity, that "busy idleness" as the mystics

sometimes call it, which you have been striving to attain. Sooner

or later, if you are patient, it will come to you through the

darkness: a mysterious contact, a clear certitude of intercourse

and of possession--perhaps so gradual in its approach that the

break, the change from the ever-deepening stillness and peace of

the second phase, is hardly felt by you; perhaps, if your nature be

ardent and unstable, with a sudden shattering violence, in a

"storm of love."

In either case, the advent of this experience is incalculable, and

completely outside your own control. So far, to use St. Teresa's

well-known image, you have been watering the garden of your

spirit by hand; a poor and laborious method, yet one in which

there is a definite relation between effort and result. But now the

watering-can is taken from you, and you must depend upon the

rain: more generous, more fruitful, than anything which your own

efforts could manage, but, in its incalculable visitations, utterly

beyond your control. Here all one can say is this: that if you

acquiesce in the heroic demands which the spiritual life now

makes upon you, if you let yourself go, eradicate the last traces of

self-interest even of the most spiritual kind--then, you have

established conditions under which the forces of the spiritual

world can work on you, heightening your susceptibilities,

deepening and purifying your attention, so that you are able to

taste and feel more and more of the inexhaustible riches of


Thus dying to your own will, waiting for what is given, infused,

you will presently find that a change in your apprehension has

indeed taken place: and that those who said self-loss was the only

way to realisation taught no pious fiction but the truth. The

highest contemplative experience to which you have yet attained

has seemed above all else a still awareness. The cessation of your

own striving, a resting upon and within the Absolute World--

these were its main characteristics for your consciousness. But

now, this Ocean of Being is no longer felt by you as an

emptiness, a solitude without bourne. Suddenly you know it to be

instinct with a movement and life too great for you to apprehend.

You are thrilled by a mighty energy, uncontrolled by you,

unsolicited by you: its higher vitality is poured into your soul.

You enter upon an experience for which all the terms of power,

thought, motion, even of love, are inadequate: yet which contains

within itself the only complete expression of all these things.

Your strength is now literally made perfect in weakness: because

of the completeness of your dependence, a fresh life is infused

into you, such as your old separate existence never knew.

Moreover, to that diffused and impersonal sense of the Infinite, in

which you have dipped yourself, and which swallows up and

completes all the ideas your mind has ever built up with the

help of the categories of time and space, is now added the

consciousness of a Living Fact which includes, transcends,

completes all that you mean by the categories of personality and

of life. Those ineffective, half-conscious attempts towards free

action, clear apprehension, true union, which we dignify by the

names of will, thought, and love are now seen matched by an

Absolute Will, Thought, and Love; instantly recognised by the

contemplating spirit as the highest reality it yet has known, and

evoking in it a passionate and a humble joy.

This unmistakable experience has been achieved by the mystics

of every religion; and when we read their statements, we know

that all are speaking of the same thing. None who have had it

have ever been able to doubt its validity. It has always become

for them the central fact, by which all other realities must

be tested and graduated. It has brought to them the deep

consciousness of sources of abundant life now made accessible to

man; of the impact of a mighty energy, gentle, passionate,

self-giving, creative, which they can only call Absolute Love.

Sometimes they feel this strange life moving and stirring within

them. Sometimes it seems to pursue, entice, and besiege them. In

every case, they are the passive objects upon which it works. It is

now another Power which seeks the separated spirit and demands

it; which knocks at the closed door of the narrow personality;

which penetrates the contemplative consciousness through and

through, speaking, stirring, compelling it; which sometimes, by

its secret irresistible pressure, wins even the most recalcitrant

in spite of themselves. Sometimes this Power is felt as an

impersonal force, the unifying cosmic energy, the indrawing love

which gathers all things into One; sometimes as a sudden access

of vitality, a light and heat, enfolding and penetrating the self and

making its languid life more vivid and more real; sometimes as a

personal and friendly Presence which counsels and entreats the


In each case, the mystics insist again that this is God; that here

under these diverse manners the soul has immediate intercourse

with Him. But we must remember that when they make this

declaration, they are speaking from a plane of consciousness far

above the ideas and images of popular religion; and from a place

which is beyond the judiciously adjusted horizon of philosophy.

They mean by this word, not a notion, however august; but an

experienced Fact so vivid, that against it the so-called facts of

daily life look shadowy and insecure. They say that this Fact is

"immanent"; dwelling in, transfusing, and discoverable through

every aspect of the universe, every movement of the game of

life--as you have found in the first stage of contemplation. There you

may hear its melody and discern its form. And further, that It is

"transcendent"; in essence exceeding and including the sum of

those glimpses and contacts which we obtain by self-mergence in

life, and in Its simplest manifestations above and beyond

anything to which reason can attain--"the Nameless Being, of

Whom nought can be said." This you discovered to be true in the

second stage. But in addition to this, they say also, that this

all-pervasive, all-changing, and yet changeless One, Whose melody

is heard in all movement, and within Whose Being "the worlds

are being told like beads," calls the human spirit to an immediate

intercourse, a unity, a fruition, a divine give-and-take, for

which the contradictory symbols of feeding, of touching, of

marriage, of immersion, are all too poor; and which evokes in the

fully conscious soul a passionate and a humble love. "He devours

us and He feeds us!" exclaims Ruysbroeck. "Here," says St.

Thomas Aquinas, "the soul in a wonderful and unspeakable

manner both seizes and is seized upon, devours and is herself

devoured, embraces and is violently embraced: and by the knot of

love she unites herself with God, and is with Him as the Alone

with the Alone."

The marvellous love-poetry of mysticism, the rhapsodies which

extol the spirit's Lover, Friend, Companion, Bridegroom; which

describe the "deliberate speed, majestic instancy" of the Hound of

Heaven chasing the separated soul, the onslaughts, demands, and

caresses of this "stormy, generous, and unfathomable love"--all

this is an attempt, often of course oblique and symbolic in

method, to express and impart this transcendent secret, to

describe that intense yet elusive state in which alone union with

the living heart of Reality is possible. "How delicately Thou

teachest love tome!" cries St. John of the Cross; and here indeed

we find all the ardours of all earthly lovers justified by an

imperishable Objective, which reveals Itself in all things that we

truly love, and beyond all these things both seeks us and compels

us, "giving more than we can take and asking more than we can


You do not, you never will know, what this Objective is: for as

Dionysius teaches, "if any one saw God and understood what he

saw, then it was not God that he saw, but something that belongs

to Him." But you do know now that it exists, with an intensity

which makes all other existences unreal; save in so far as they

participate in this one Fact. "Some contemplate the Formless, and

others meditate on Form: but the wise man knows that Brahma is

beyond both." As you yield yourself more and more completely

to the impulses of this intimate yet unseizable Presence, so much

the sweeter and stronger--so much the more constant and steady--

will your intercourse with it become. The imperfect music of

your adoration will be answered and reinforced by another music,

gentle, deep, and strange; your out-going movement, the

stretching forth of your desire from yourself to something other,

will be answered by a movement, a stirring, within you yet not

conditioned by you. The wonder and variety of this intercourse is

never-ending. It includes in its sweep every phase of human love

and self-devotion, all beauty and all power, all suffering and

effort, all gentleness and rapture: here found in synthesis. Going

forth into the bareness and darkness of this unwalled world of

high contemplation, you there find stored for you, and at last

made real, all the highest values, all the dearest and noblest

experiences of the world of growth and change.

You see now what it is that you have been doing in the course of

your mystical development. As your narrow heart stretched

to a wider sympathy with life, you have been surrendering

progressively to larger and larger existences, more and more

complete realities: have been learning to know them, to share

their very being, through the magic of disinterested love. First,

the manifested, flowing, evolving life of multiplicity: felt by you

in its wonder and wholeness, once you learned to yield yourself

to its rhythms, received in simplicity the undistorted messages of

sense. Then, the actual unchanging ground of life, the eternal and

unconditioned Whole, transcending all succession: a world

inaccessible alike to senses and intelligence, but felt--vaguely,

darkly, yet intensely--by the quiet and surrendered consciousness.

But now you are solicited, whether you will or no, by a greater

Reality, the final inclusive Fact, the Unmeasured Love, which "is

through all things everlastingly": and yielding yourself

to it, receiving and responding to its obscure yet ardent

communications, you pass beyond the cosmic experience to the

personal encounter, the simple yet utterly inexpressible union of

the soul with its God.

And this threefold union with Reality, as your attention is

focussed now on one aspect, now on another, of its rich

simplicity, will be actualised by you in many different ways: for

you are not to suppose that an unchanging barren ecstasy is now

to characterise your inner life. Though the sense of your own

dwelling within the Eternal transfuses and illuminates it, the

sense of your own necessary efforts, a perpetual renewal of

contact with the Spiritual World, a perpetual self-donation, shall

animate it too. When the greater love overwhelms the lesser, and

your small self-consciousness is lost in the consciousness of the

Whole, it will be felt as an intense stillness, a quiet fruition of

Reality. Then, your very selfhood seems to cease, as it does in all

your moments of great passion; and you are "satisfied and

overflowing, and with Him beyond yourself eternally fulfilled."

Again, when your own necessary activity comes into the foreground,

your small energetic love perpetually pressing to deeper

and deeper realisation--"tasting through and through, and

seeking through and through, the fathomless ground" of the

Infinite and Eternal--it seems rather a perpetually renewed

encounter than a final achievement. Since you are a child of Time

as well as of Eternity, such effort and satisfaction, active and

passive love are both needed by you, if your whole life is to be

brought into union with the inconceivably rich yet simple One in

Whom these apparent opposites are harmonised. Therefore

seeking and finding, work and rest, conflict and peace, feeding on

God and self-immersion in God, spiritual marriage and spiritual

death--these contradictory images are all wanted, if we are to

represent the changing moods of the living, growing human

spirit; the diverse aspects under which it realises the simple fact

of its intercourse with the Divine.

Each new stage achieved in the mystical development of the

spirit has meant, not the leaving behind of the previous

stages, but an adding on to them: an ever greater extension of

experience, and enrichment of personality. So that the total result

of this change, this steady growth of your transcendental self, is

not an impoverishment of the sense-life in the supposed interests

of the super-sensual, but the addition to it of another life--a huge

widening and deepening of the field over which your attention

can play. Sometimes the mature contemplative consciousness

narrows to an intense point of feeling, in which it seems

indeed "alone with the Alone": sometimes it spreads to a vast

apprehension of the Universal Life, or perceives the common

things of sense aflame with God. It moves easily and with no

sense of incongruity from hours of close personal communion

with its Friend and Lover to self-loss in the "deep yet dazzling

darkness" of the Divine Abyss: or, re-entering that living world

of change which the first form of contemplation disclosed to it,

passes beyond those discrete manifestations of Reality to realise

the Whole which dwells in and inspires every part. Thus

ascending to the mysterious fruition of that Reality which is

beyond image, and descending again to the loving contemplation

and service of all struggling growing things, it now finds and

adores everywhere--in the sky and the nest, the soul and the

void--one Energetic Love which "is measureless, since it is all

that exists," and of which the patient up-climb of the individual

soul, the passionate outpouring of the Divine Mind, form the

completing opposites.