Seven adverbs that God loveth
Once upon a time, there was a plague. Fearing disease and death, people led a hermit-like existence, distanced from each other in their domestic cells, advancing masked against a contaminated and untrustworthy reality defined by pestilence, pain and suffering. They were suddenly aware of living in a world of contagion, and possibly being contagious themselves. They followed a practice that the ancients called anachoreisis, a retreat from the world, a withdrawal into solitude.
Some of them, the richer ones, fled their cities for the apparent safety of the countryside. The poorer ones stayed put, hoping for the best while fearing the worst. Cut off from their compulsory commutes and their mind-numbing round of distraction from distraction by distraction, they heard silence, or something close to it, sometimes punctuated by birdsong. Whether they liked it or not, they all became anchorites or anchoresses. They became unwitting mystics.
There was a strange asceticism to the world of isolation and disease experienced by these people, which opened them up to extreme experiences of doubt, dereliction, dreams, hypochondria, and hallucination. Many of them felt a desperate desire for the touch of love, for a connection with something or someone outside or larger than the self, however that might be understood, possibly even as something divine.
Their intense and confused feelings seemed to have echoes with practices and beliefs long considered outdated, superstitious, irrational and, frankly, embarrassing. It was as if something archaic – elemental, primeval and long dead – awakened in the plague. Some of them began to wonder about the nature of these archaic feelings and how they might understand the mysticism that had revived, like some unbidden ghost.
I think I am temperamentally a mystic. I feel very drawn to this form of experience and this mode of conceptualizing and, in particular, the deepening and layering of concepts with experience and experience with concepts that can be seen in mystical traditions. Scepticism is not an instinctual or default response for me. If someone tells me something, I am inclined to believe it, no matter how strange it sounds. Maybe I’m just gullible, particularly when it comes to profound experiences that I have never really had, or never had in the way that I would really like. Maybe I’m just a bad philosopher. The thought has certainly crossed my mind.
For example, I believe that Julian of Norwich had Shewings or revelations of Christ, that George Fox, founder of the Quakers was carried up to heaven, that William Blake was visited by Angels in his dark little dwelling off The Strand in London, that Wordsworth had a total sensuous apprehension of the divine in nature during his ascent of Mount Snowden, and that Philip K. Dick had an intellectual intuition of the divine in February 1974. This list could be continued. In fact, it could be nicely endless.
I don’t doubt these things, at least not at first, and I sometimes wonder whether I (as someone who teaches philosophy as a day job) should always be cultivating scepticism or praising the power of critical thinking. There is a defensive myopia to the obsession with critique, a refusal to see what you can’t make sense of, blocking the view of any strange new phenomenon with a misty drizzle of passive aggressive questions. At this point in history, it is at least arguable that understanding is as important as critique, and patient, kind-hearted, sympathetic observation more helpful than endless personal opinions, as we live in a world entirely saturated by suspicion and fuelled by vicious judgments of each other. I’m not arguing for dogmatism, but I sometimes wonder whether philosophy’s obsession with critique risks becoming a form of obsessional self-protection against strange and novel forms of experience. Evelyn Underhill, who did so much to popularize mysticism in the early 20th Century, defines it as “experience in its most intense form”.1 Shouldn’t one at least try to have a taste of this intensity? Mysticism is not primarily a theoretical issue. It is existential and practical. It is – and this can serve as a sort of definition – the cultivation of practices which allow you to free yourself of your standard habits, your usual fancies and imaginings and see what is there and stand with what is there ecstatically. My background concern is both with the poverty of contemporary experience and how that misery can be transformed with a wealth of words and sounds that might permit us to push back against the pressure of reality and allow a richness of life and a possible transfiguration of self and world. This is the possibility of something like ecstasy, not as an altered state, but as this state intensified, elevated, deepened.
I am powerfully drawn to the way mystics experience what they experience, and then think, speak and write about that experience. But it can be quite hard to describe, particularly to sceptical eyes who might see mystics as simply crazy, which in a way they are. Mad with God (whichever God that might be). So, I’ve decided to frame my approach to mysticism around seven adverbs that might get us closer to seeing the phenomenon. For – as the old saying goes – God loveth adverbs. Mystics can be said to think and to work in the following seven adverbial ways:
6. Erotically, and
Adverb one, obliquely: that is to say: enigmatically, negatively, through unsaying, oxymorons, antitheses, paradoxes, exaggerations and subtractions. The writer of The Mystical Theology, who is known to us as Dionysius, and very possibly Syriac, is the progenitor of apophatic or negative theology. He writes excessively of “super-essential darkness” or “darkness beyond radiance” to describe God. The anonymous, but Dionysius-inspired and Dionysius-translating, late 14th Century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, writes “Of God himself, can no man think…”.2 The Cloud-author’s English translation of The Mystical Theology is simply and beautifully called: Hid Divinitie. If God is hidden, then God has to be approached obliquely, negatively. God transcends all affirmation.
It is the indirection of much mystical writing that interests me. Maybe indirection is the best direction to take in writing. What we can see in so many mystical texts, to borrow from my friend Eugene Thacker, is a logic and a poetics. This is a logic of saying and not saying, a non-negative negation, or a series of what we might call ascending negations, which is a way of approaching or adumbrating what St. John Chrysostom calls, “the incomprehensibility of God”, or the cloud of unknowing the separates us from the divine. Mystical logic with respect to God is not a series of descending affirmations, from some postulation of God or substance down through some purported chain of being, from angels to humans, animals and stones. It is rather a series of ascending negations, moving up from here below obliquely and superlatively, putting a cloud of forgetting between us and all creatures and peering up through a cloud of unknowing.
This logic of negation is also a poetics which places emphasis on a series of figures, like darkness, the desert, cloud, mist, sea, shadow, abyss, radiance, and the whole palette of colours that can be seen in my favoured mystic, Julian of Norwich. Here, the intellectual insight into God is conceived on analogy with empirical sight. It is a multiplying of vision, from the perceptual to the conceptual. What is particularly interesting are the climatological motifs in the poetics of mysticism. There is a conceptual environmentalism within mysticism. But this is not merely or simply empirical, but also conceptual, where concepts endlessly enrich and enliven experience.
Adverb two, autobiographically: the birth of autobiography, especially female autobiography, occurs with mystical writing. The ‘I’ in Julian is the first ‘I’ of an Englishwoman. The second is Margery Kempe, a generation later than Julian (they met in 1413; Margery wanted the counsel of “Dame Julian” as she called her). The earliest women’s lives we possess are in many cases the lives of the mystics. Sometimes, these lives will be written directly by the mystic, as with Julian, Marguerite Porete or Teresa of Avila, sometimes they will be recorded by “Brother Scribe”, as with Angela of Foligno, Christina of Markyate, Christine the Astonishing and many others.
This autobiographical tradition begins a lot earlier in a different mode with Saint Augustine where Augustine and his mother, Santa Monica, have a fleeting vision and reach out and touch what they see as the eternal wisdom of the Lord. This is the vision at Ostia in Book IX of the Confessions. But the autobiographical tradition develops significantly in the Medieval period, taking on some remarkably novel gender inversions along the way. For example, there is a 14th Century text called The “Sister Catherine” Treatise, apocryphally attributed to Meister Eckhart (but certainly deeply influenced by the metaphysics of flow in his radical theology of the Godhead), which is a dialogue between a young woman or ‘daughter’, and her confessor or ‘father’. The dialogue begins with the father instructing the daughter in but ends the other way round, with the daughter becoming the father’s teacher after she has gone through a period of exile which culminates with an extraordinary experience of self-deification, “Father, rejoice with me, I have become God”.3 It is also not simply the case that ‘Brother Scribe’ is documenting the mystical ecstasies of an illiterate woman. Henry Suso’s (circa 1295-1366) remarkable autobiography, The Life of the Servant, the first such book in German and very widely circulated, only exists because it was written by his ‘spiritual daughter’, Suso’s disciple and novice, Elsbeth Stagel.
Importantly, if there is a discovery of the autobiographical ‘I’ in mystical writing, then it has the structure of “I as an other”, as Rimbaud said. The I finds its voice and itself through its relation to the otherness of God. Maybe this is why autobiographies without God are often so dull (one thinks of the contemporary tyranny of memoir) unless they stage autobiography as the self’s conflictual, dialectical relation to itself, the division within the self that still inhabits the form of the religious narrative. I am thinking here of Rousseau’s Confessions or, even more acutely, of his second of three autobiographies, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, which takes the form of Rousseau interrogating himself. Or think of Nietzsche’s stunning self-presentation in his 1886 Prefaces and Ecce Homo, where Nietzsche is always doubled, at war with himself. Autobiographies without an “I is an other” structure are doomed to dullness, unless extraordinary things have happened to you.
Adverb three, Vernacularly: that is, in the local spoken language, often by ‘unlettered’ women (in the case of Julian when she uses that word, it probably meant that she didn’t know Latin and wasn’t litteratus), but other mystics like Angela of Foligno from the 13th Century were probably entirely illiterate and relied on “Brother Scribe”, a devoted monk. Julian’s book is the first book in English by an English woman, but the same is true of Hadewijch of Antwerp in Middle Dutch, Porete in Old French, Mechthild of Magdeburg in Middle Low German and Eckhart’s sermons in Middle High German. Medieval mysticism, especially in northern Europe, is the discovery of the vernacular as a religious language.
Of course, the use of the vernacular is an implicit challenge to the authority of the Catholic church and its use of Latin. One can see this in England with John Wycliffe and the Lollards and the rise of what is called ‘Lollardy’, and their insistence on the use of the translated Bible from the late 14th Century onwards, which is linked to popular insurgency against the powers of Church, King and State – The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (and one of the prime causes of the Revolt was a pandemic, namely the Black Death). Mysticism is often linked to what emerges in the Reformation in the early 16th Century with Luther, who also translates the Bible into German. Luther is anti-mystical, committed to the “alien” nature of grace, and opposed to the so-called enthusiasts of the Reformation, like Thomas Muentzer and the Anabaptists, who stressed the immanence of God in every person. Although this is a much more complex issue than I am allowing here, which requires considerable historical nuance, the Reformation opens a different space for mysticism, where the turn to the vernacular permits a democratization of religious institutions and a progressive laicization, an undermining of clerical power which can be traced with a particularly wild intensity in America (in groups like the Quakers, the Shakers, the Baptists and the Mormons, and even all the way to Scientology).4
Adverb four, performatively: We can approach this issue by following Michel de Certeau, who was an interesting fellow, both a Jesuit priest and a psychoanalyst. Although de Certeau was, amongst other things, a scholar of early modern French mysticism, I want to take literally the epigraph to this chapter, where he says that mysticism is most closely approached at a distance, like a savage in the kitchen. As might already be evident, my approach to mysticism will have a certain kitsch, kitchenesque savagery. For de Certeau, mysticism is not a domain of knowledge or a series of texts whose truth is evidenced with reference to some exterior reality, like the substantiality of God, or simply authorized through an appeal to experience. On the contrary, mysticism is a style, a set of practices, a way of speaking and acting that is self-authorizing. Mysticism is performative. It is a certain form of writing and speaking which does not just record experience, but which produces experience, an experience that might be unlived, but is not necessarily unloved. Mystical writing is a heterology, where the presence of the speaker as subject is an effect of utterance made possible through the other speaking through the subject, where that other is usually God. ‘I is an other’ is the basic mode of production for mystical texts. Mysticism is a heterology where God and the I become one, or – as we saw with McGinn’s interpretation of Meister Eckhart – enter into a zone of indistinction. This is lack of distinction between the I and God which is premised on the annihilation of the Soul, the strangely passive activity of decreation.
Adverb five, practically: The point about the performative dimension of mysticism can be put differently, and this is at the core of Amy Hollywood’s understanding of mysticism as it develops within monasticism.5 She rightly views mysticism as it develops in relation to rigorous religious practices, specifically the practices of reading (of scripture), preaching and participation in liturgy, especially the recitation of the Psalms. Importantly, these practices of reading, meditation, prayer, composition and contemplation are both spiritual and physical practices. As Hollywood writes, “…the Benedictine’s life is one in which the monk or nun strives to make every action a ritual action”.6 Mysticism has to be understood in relation to the cultivation of such practices. Perhaps such practices are the best that we can hope to attain when the world has fallen to pieces. I will return to the question of ritual and devotional practice.
Another, very simple, way of putting this point is that mysticism is not some noetic or intellectual activity, or some state of belief or non-belief, or even some theoretical apprehension of the divine. Rather, mysticism is a practical matter, a matter of organizing one’s life around a set of practices which are ritually organized. This is a point that Evelyn Underhill makes very much against William James in Practical Mysticism and elsewhere. She rather charmingly addresses throughout “the practical man”, the man on the Clapham Omnibus.7 Mysticism is not a question of theoretical knowledge or even about focusing on the interiority of the self. It is about doing, about the repetition of deeds, indeed of work, and good works. It is about living according to a rule, however that might be understood. And this is the meaning of asceticism. Askesis is sometimes translated into Latin as studium, which is both spiritual and bodily. This is what it means to study, to be a student. Namely to become ascetic. If it ceases to mean that, then I do not know what study means. When one’s life has become practically and performatively ritualized in accordance with a rule, then that experience that we call ‘mystical’ might happen. It also might not.
Here is a provisional thought: we can also link the theme of practice to the origins of monasticism in Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers. One of the widely read books in the history of Christendom, much more widely read than Plato or Aristotle, was Athanasius’s Life of Antony (d.373), and it was itself a kind of rewriting of Plato’s Apology, where Socrates becomes Antony, the philosopher becomes the monk. Antony engages in a withdrawal or retreat from the City (in this case, Alexandria, which was the Manhattan of the ancient world, a commercial island city off the coast of a vast continent, set up by foreign, colonial powers, with a voracious appetite for everything) and goes first into the necropolis of the city and from there into the desert. Here the desert is seen as a temple without walls. This is anachoreisis, a retreat into solitude, where the monk is the monos, the solitary. The idea here is that one can find God in the desert by withdrawing into a cave or into a cell. A cave is a cell. The desert is a kind of mystical laboratory where one can find God, a figure which is retained in changed form in the idea of the hermitage and the anchorhold. The point is that withdrawal is a practice. In the Desert Fathers, the fruit of withdrawal can be hesychia, quiet, stillness, silence; and the cultivation of apatheia, passionlessness or equanimity, disinterestedness, to become a corpse, dead to the world. And one has to struggle with acedia, the noonday demon, or listlessness and sloth. Such is what we call depression, which Julian calls in Middle English hevynes, the heaviness with which the self is attached to itself, riveted to itself. It is only through such acedia that God can be felt, heard, communicated with. It is only through dereliction and despair that one might engage in ekeptasis, the “straining forward” into God. It is only through listlessness that one might both listen to and lust for God (both these senses are present in the Middle English liste, which recurs in The Cloud of Unknowing. And it’s there in Hamlet, when he says to the Ghost, “list, list, O list”). In place of the imprisoned philosopher, Socrates, we find the figure of the monk, running to his prison cell. Remember the advice that the elderly desert monk gives to the doubting novice: “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”.8
Adverb six, erotically. I’d like to say a little more about this adverb. My interest in mysticism is a move towards what we can call a hystericization of philosophical discourse, as opposed to philosophy’s typical anti-enthusiastic, anti-visionary, obsessional neurotic, rationalism. This can be better understood as transforming philosophy from the love of wisdom into the love of wisdom or the wisdom of love. In order to listen to God, we must both listen to and lust for the divine. On this point, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has something to say. What is at stake for Lacan is the possibility of a lust, an enjoyment that is other than phallic, what Lacan calls an other jouissance, or feminine jouissance, something en plus, as he says, something more, transgressive. It is fascinating that mystics place an emphasis upon the enjoyment of God. Marie of the Incarnation (1599-1672), a French missionary in Quebec, Canada, wrote, “God alone was my only enjoyment”.9 God is spiritually and physically enjoyed, which is why Christ is so important, why the incarnation is so vital (Christ is a sensuous being with a sensuous mother and a supersensuous father), and also why the Eucharist is so central to Medieval mysticism (you get to eat God and drink his blood). God is orality and enters into one’s mouth with a kiss. Madame Guyon (1648-1717) writes, “We must remember that God is all mouth”.10 These words are taken from a commentary Guyon writes on the most important text for Jewish and Christian mysticism, which also turns up in Sufism: The Song of Songs, Shir Hashirim. If this book communicates nothing else than the following, then I will be happy: read and re-read The Song of Songs.
This is not the place to do justice to the intense eroticism of the Song of Songs, this ancient, near-Eastern, nuptial drama, originally composed in Aramaic.11 The love described in the Song by a young woman – the Shulamite – and a young man is clearly sexual. But it is not sexually explicit. Instead, the Song uses a powerful language of agrarian simile. Her belly is like a stack of wheat, her hair is like a flock of goats streaming Mount Gilead, her breasts are like two fawns or clusters of grapes. His abdomen is like a block of ivory, his lips are like roses, and so on. Within Judaism, the Song is interpreted allegorically, not as the love between a girl and a boy, but as Israel’s love for God and God’s love for his chosen people. Within Christianity, the Song of Songs is the mystical book par excellence, where the Church – the universal Catholic Church – takes the place of Israel and the two lovers are transformed into God in the person of Christ and the soul expressed through the community of the Church. The Song becomes an ode of love between Christ and the soul and Christian mysticism can be understood as a millennia-long meditation on the meaning of such love.
Already in the 3rd Century, Origen interprets the Song allegorically as an epithalamion between a bridegroom, understood as the logos or Christ as the Word of God, and the bride, understood as the soul. He insists on the distinction between eros and agape, or love and charity, where eroticism becomes chaste, and fleshly lust becomes refined love. But, in the medieval Christian tradition, everything passes through Saint Bernard, who wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs between 1135 and 1153, only reaching verse four of chapter three of the Song. Bernard’s sermons are beautiful, subtle, densely layered palimpsests of quotation and allusion, where Bernard allegorizes each sensuous detail in the Song – references to fragrance, ointment, myrrh and aloes – as expressions of the soul itinerary toward a loving union with Christ. But matters become even more compelling when the affective force of Bernard’s sermons on the Song authorizes and licenses an entire tradition of medieval mystical interpretation which is intensely felt and deeply personal.
In Hadewijch’s Book of Visions, the union with Christ is described in physical terms, “Then he came to me himself and took me completely in his arms and pressed me to him (…) Then I was externally completely satisfied to the utmost satiation. At that time I also had, for a short while, the strength to bear it. But all too soon I lost sight of that beautiful man”.12 One can hear echoes of this intensely erotic relation to Christ in a significant number of fascinating female mystics, obviously Julian, but also Angela of Foligno (circa 1250-1309), Teresa of Avila (1515-82), down through Madame Guyon (1648-1717) and Marie of the Incarnation in the 17th Century. But it would be a mistake to think of the eroticism of this tradition of affective piety as uniquely feminine. Building from the Song of Songs, the 14th Century English mystic, Richard Rolle (circa 1300-1349) describes the fire of love, the incendium amoris, in terms of heat, sweetness and song. The effect of song, sound and music, especially the Song of Songs, induces a sweetness of love that is felt through physical heat and compared to jewels and gems like topaz. In “The Spiritual Canticle” of John of the Cross (1542-91), the spiritual marriage of Christ and the soul is compared with the kiss that opens the Song, “There I, being alone, “kiss you”, who are alone”.13 Once again, God is all mouth and when his love flows into us, it is sweeter than wine. In this connection, we could also think of St. Francis, with his open, porous, stigmatized body receiving the love of God. Or, indeed, Henry Suso’s identification of himself and Christ as feminine.
The obvious eroticism of the Song of Songs develops into a complex tradition of affective piety where the path of the spirit opens through the body and where Christ is a transfigured mystical body, a material body, a spiritual body and a political body. Many mystics have a fiercely erotic connection with God through the person of Christ. Think perhaps of the many medieval images of the lactating Christ who feeds us from his breast or with the blood of his side wound, what Amy Hollywood calls “that glorious slit”.14
To put it mildly, the gender of Christ is fluid, at once masculine and feminine, neither and both, a most queer God. One of great virtues of the mystical tradition is that it allows, and indeed encourages, a more complex topology of sex and gender, of new behaviours and rich potentialities.
Adverb seven, the final adverb, ascetically. To my mind, mysticism is ascetic not despite its eroticism, but because of it. And this is a line of thinking that is perhaps puzzling for us: there is not a contradiction between eros and askesis, between love or lust and denial or discipline, rather, there is a relation of complementarity where spiritual discipline permits the possible transfiguration of love. And it is love’s transfiguration which is of ultimate importance. This is the reason why I am sympathetic to the allegorical reading of the Song of Songs that begins with Origen and continues through into the medieval female mystics. What is going on in the Song is not some banal literalism which sees it in terms of sex, but a transformation of the carnal, another thinking of the erotic, a distillation, what psychoanalysts would call sublimation. What is glimpsed here is some other lineament of desire, that would allow for other possibilities of enjoyment, even the enjoyment of God.
I am curious about the meaningfulness of asceticism today. That is, both the forms of ascetic practice in which people engage (which are legion: yoga, meditation, fasting, various forms of detox, excessive exercise, and compulsive forms of routine-following, which was particularly acute during the Covid-19 pandemic), or which we pathologize (anorexia, bulimia, and so on). We are still strongly drawn by the desire for asceticism, it seems to me, but we find the extremity of mystical practice (think of the self-mortification of monks, stylites, hermits and anchorites) difficult to understand and its metaphysical demands too rigorous and weighty for softer secular souls. For us, the purgation of sin has become a juice detox, and flagellation has become our relation to a bad selfie posted on social media. We are also, I think, deeply puzzled by the way in which mystical practice conceives of the relation between the spirit and the flesh, mind and body. We have all apparently become holists or monists, where we are all body and body is all that there is. We are endlessly encouraged to listen to our body, let the body do the talking and keep the score. This would be nice if it were true. But it isn’t. we are not identical to our bodies, but rather our experience of our selves is eccentric, divided from itself. Body holism is a new ideological discourse, which is refuted every time we get sick or sit in the dentist’s chair, or – even better (or, actually, worse) – are plagued by hypochondriac symptoms, conversion disorders of the type that have become remarkably widespread: a pandemic of genuinely felt illusion.
Mysticism is an attempt to describe another relation to the body, centred around some distinction between spirit and flesh, pneuma and sarkos. Mysticism is about the spiritualization of the flesh and the fleshly, incarnate nature of the spirit and to understand this requires a certain asceticism. We do not coincide with ourselves. Only psychopaths coincide with themselves.
With these seven adverbs, we can begin to approach the strange and compelling phenomenon that is mysticism, although we have barely even scratched the surface. At its core is love. What mysticism offers is an elevation and transfiguration of love. Its meaning is love. Gleaning the meaning of love’s meaning is one of the ambitions of this little book. At the very end of her Showings, Julian of Norwich famously writes,
“And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.”15