A conversation [colloque] takes place when man imagines before him Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross.
—From the teaching of St Ignatius Loyola on contemplation
Of thyself do not form imaginings, and do not pay attention to those that form of themselves, and do not allow the mind to imprint them on itself. For all that is imprinted and imagined from without serves to entice the soul.
—From the teachings of the ascetics of the Eastern Church
May the reader not think that having titled this chapter “Mysticism of the East and Mysticism of the West,” we have taken upon ourselves to research in detail the comparative mysticism of the Eastern and Western Churches in all their characteristic manifestations and in various eras. We must say that such a task would go far beyond the scope of the present work, which concerns the lives of the saints of the Eastern Church proper and the manifestations of their spiritual contemplation. Such a comparative account of Eastern and Western mysticism would be an undertaking so broad that it would require a great deal of specialized research. It would have to contain an accurate study of the lives of notable Catholic mystics, parallel with a study of the lives of Orthodox clairvoyants and contemplative ascetics. We are not taking upon ourselves such a task. In this chapter we will dwell only upon some striking manifestations of Western mysticism, manifestations appearing in the Catholic world after Francis, so that by comparing these manifestations with the mysticism of the Philokalia we can understand the significance of Eastern mysticism, the most perfect mysticism of all that humanity has attained in this direction for its long life on earth.
Therefore, we will not talk about the many notable Catholic saints showing forth in the mysticism of the West. We will not, for example, touch on the life of such a famous Catholic saint as the Franciscan monk Bonaventure¹ (thirteenth century). We will likewise only slightly touch on the mysticism of such Catholic ascetics as Thomas à Kempis (fifteenth century) and St Teresa of Avila (sixteenth century). However, we will dwell at length on the mysticism of the Catholic spiritual striver, St Ignatius, for this mysticism is interesting to us in that Ignatius broadly developed Francis’s mysticism in the direction of mentalism. This trait of Ignatius’s mysticism especially characterizes Catholic mysticism and distinguishes it most from the mysticism of the Eastern Church.
Thus, the mysticism of Francis was developed, as we said, by another prominent representative of the Catholic world—St Ignatius. This is the same Ignatius Loyola who (three centuries after the death of Francis) founded the famous Catholic order of the Jesuits, the main difference between the statutes of this order and the statutes of the Franciscans being the fact that in the rule of the Jesuit order, it was clearly and definitely stated concerning the vow of each Jesuit to continually and faithfully serve the vicar of Christ on earth—the Roman pope. And the chief means of attaining this goal in the aforesaid order was by preaching and educating youth.
Ignatius Loyola left the Catholic world a vivid memory of his mysticism. Among his other works, he wrote a remarkable guide to attaining states of ecstasy. This guide is called Spiritual Exercises (Exercitia spiritualia). We consider it necessary to expatiate on this guide because it very distinctly defines that direction toward mentalism and sensuality that contaminated the Catholic spiritual world.
But before all this, let us say a few words about the author of this guide—Ignatius himself. Ignatius Loyola was born in 1491 in Spain of an aristocratic family. He spent his early years at the court of the Spanish king, and in his youth, just like Francis, was fascinated by novels of the Middle Ages. He was ambitious. At the age of thirty, he took part in a battle with the French defending Pamplona, and was severely wounded. During his illness, he began to read the lives of the saints, whose endeavors—especially those of Francis of Assisi—took on in his eyes the very same value as earlier did the endeavors of the knights and heroes. The example of Francis fascinated Loyola. The greatness of the apostolic vocation was pictured in his imagination, and he decided to devote himself to preaching. At first he gave himself over to the ascetic life (in the small town of Catalonia, Manresa). He acknowledged later that at that time he was overshadowed by various visions. Subsequently, in 1528 he went to Paris to receive a theological education. In Paris, he formed a circle of friends who were very interested in preaching. The forming of this circle was finalized in 1534. In 1537, Loyola left for Rome; he obtained from the pope a blessing on the organization of the Society of Jesus. The rule of this order was established in 1540. Loyola was able to soundly organize and develop this institution, making of it a powerful instrument for Catholic propaganda. Undoubtedly, Loyola possessed an enormous talent for organizing. Loyola died in 1556 in Rome. Almost seventy years after his death, the Catholic Church canonized him.
At first acquaintance with Loyola’s treatise Spiritual Exercises and with how these exercises are practiced in the Catholic world,² one comes away with the general impression that Loyola’s method of spiritual exercises has in many ways bases similar to the method of exercises in the Hindu Raja yoga, of which we spoke in detail in our book, Super-Consciousness. There we pointed out that, according to the explanation of A. Besant, the method of Raja yoga is always a method of thinking and requires concentrated thought and
contemplation.³ And so as we said, these mental exercises begin with meditation, that is, with devoting oneself for several minutes to deep reflection on some noble thought,⁴ after which this meditation passes over into a more concentrated form of mental contemplation, and in these contemplative states the chief role be-
longs to the power of cerebral imagination.
Similar meditations and contemplative exercises are recommended by Loyola as well, and the chief role in these exercises, just as in Raja yoga, belongs also to mental imagination. But Loyola’s mentalism is not as pure as in Raja yoga. A. Besant says that the method of Raja yoga is always a method of thinking.
With Loyola, it is united also with religious emotions, inflamed by the work of the imagination, the main subject of contemplation most often being a vivid scene from the life of Christ.
Now passing on to a closer examination of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, we see that after the first steps of the exercises, acknowledged to be very important, namely the exercises of a recluse in examining his conscience (examen) and in repentance of sins,⁵ the next most important exercises are defined by Loyola using the terms mediter [meditation] and contempler [contemplation]. By the word meditation is understood the exercise in abstract contemplations (by abstract thought), “when a man calls to mind a memory of some Christian dogmatic or moral truth, when along with this thought he begins to strive to penetrate it, while the will of the Christian ascetic is directed toward submission to the truth, toward suggesting to oneself the desire to become attached to it.”⁶ By the word contemplation is understood contemplation not of something abstract, but rather contemplation of the truth, incarnate in the life of the Savior, the soul of man training itself in its imagination to see and hear the Word made flesh, merging with the God-man, contemplating Him.⁷
Finally, besides these contemplative states, with Loyola there is still a higher state—“application des sens.” This is “when the effort of the working imagination has already ceased, when the mystery from the life of the Savior appears freely before the soul of the contemplative, when it takes place before his eyes and makes an impression on all his bodily senses.”⁸
The method of leading a man into all of these contemplative states is as follows:
The object or subject of contemplation, according to Loyola, should be envisioned in advance and arranged into two or three points (en deux ou trois points), which rivet the memory and which contain within themselves circumstances worthy of note. Then the ascetic approaches the beginning of the exercises, called entrance (prelude). He seizes control of his memory, his imagination, and his will. “The memory provides the points fixed in advance in the brain. The imagination forms in it a kind of picture, the heart in fervent prayer asks for knowledge and love, and all this is done, as it were, in the presence of Christ Himself.”⁹
According to the words of the Catholic book, Manrese, St Ignatius proposes with the help of these exercises and, above all, the exercises in examining one’s conscience (examen) and repentance of sins, to give man the possibility of attaining the following:
Even if a man starting out in spiritual striving is sinful, yet if he is armed with good intentions, if he is reasonable, and if he is free for spiritual striving (is master of his own time and future), then of such a man, although he be a “wretched sinner,” St Ignatius hopes to make a saintly man, and even a great saint.¹⁰
Let us cite from Ignatius Loyola’s book, Spiritual Exercises, examples of his contemplative exercises. We have said that, according to Loyola’s directions, the object or subject of contemplation should be envisioned in advance and arranged into two or three points that rivet the memory and that contain within themselves
circumstances worthy of note.
We will first take examples of such points and indicate the rather interesting points that Loyola advises the one doing the exercises to fix in his brain before the contemplation of hell. (The purpose of this contemplation is to bring the recluse to a sincere repentance of sins.)
The first point is that the one doing the exercises see with “the help of the imagination” the terrible flames of hell. Loyola says, “I will see there, will look attentively at the souls of people imprisoned in their burning bodies, as if in eternal dungeons.”
The second point is “also with the help of the imagination to hear the groans, complaints, heart-rending cries resounding in this ruinous place, hear the curses constantly being spewed out against Jesus and His saints.”
The third point is again to imagine that one smells the smoke, brimstone, pitch, in a word, that foul smell that is emitted by the den of all sorts of putrefaction.
The fourth point is to “experience all that is most bitter in the world. In this way, try to make oneself sensitive to the tears continually being shed by those who are excommunicated; try to suffer pangs of conscience—the worm gnawing in sinners.”¹¹
Now we will cite an example of the exercises called entrance (prelude). The entrance that we are now taking pertains to contemplation of the “first day of the incarnation of God the Word.” The first prelude of this contemplation is to imagine to oneself, as if this were before one’s eyes, the whole historical course of the mystery of the incarnation, namely, how the three Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity look down upon this earth, populated with people who in great crowds are rushing into hell; how the Holy Trinity, touched with compassion, decides to send down the Word to be incarnate of man in order to save the human race; how, as the result of this decision, on a foreordained day the Archangel Gabriel appears as a messenger to the blessed Virgin Mary.
The second prelude consists in “a vivid imagining of a place which they see as if before their own eyes. Here they represent to themselves at first the earth, populated by various tribes, and in one corner of this world, in Galilee, in Nazareth, a small house in which the Holy Virgin lives.”
The third prelude is described this way: “This is a supplication that I, the supplicant, may know the mystery of the incarnation of the Word for my sake, a supplication that this knowledge kindle more and more my love for Him and compel me to serve Him exclusively.”¹²
And here is an example of a contemplation presented already in the form of a conversation (colloque) between the recluse and the crucified Christ, Whom he sees in his contemplative state. We take this conversation word for word as it is set forth in Spiritual Exercises.
This conversation takes place when the person imagines before himself Jesus Christ crucified on the cross…. At that time, when this striking picture appears before the person’s eyes, he begins to ask himself, to ponder, weigh what exactly inclined the Creator to become man and take on the form of a creature and slave. How did it happen that, possessing by His very essence an eternal nature, He willed to come down to a state of death, to true mortal sufferings.
Moreover, one should blame oneself, reproach one’s conscience, asking: what have I done so far for Jesus Christ? Can I say that I have really done anything for him? And at the least, what will I do from now on? What should I do?
Directing in such a way my gaze on the crucified Jesus, I will tell Him all that my mind and heart prompt me to say…. The present conversation can be compared to a conversation between two friends or a conversation of a servant with his master.¹³
Here one must not ignore the close similarity of this contemplative conversation of Loyola with how St Francis prayed on Mt Alverna, when he pictured to himself “two great lights,” in one of which he recognized the Savior, and in the other himself.
Along with this, we consider it interesting here to mention some purely external methods that Loyola advises the one doing these exercises to employ. Thus, for example, Loyola says that “during the exercises in contemplation of hell and repentance, the one exercising should deprive himself of daylight as much as possible. For this he should keep the doors and windows closed all the time while he is occupied with this endeavor, and he will admit to himself daylight only as much as needed in order to read or in extreme
From all these excerpts taken from Loyola, one can see that his mysticism leads almost to pure mentalism, that it is close to Raja yoga, in which cerebral imagination plays a large role. For this, it is enough to recall, for example, this exercise in yoga that Vivekananda advises to carry out: “Picture to yourself,” he says, “some place in your heart and in the center a flame; imagine that this flame is your own soul, that within this flame there is a radiant space and that this space is the soul of your soul—God—contemplate this is your heart,” and so forth.¹⁵
Yet if St Ignatius Loyola developed St Francis’s mysticism in the direction of pure mentalism, in this regard taking it to the extreme, still one must say that in the Catholic world there were also deviations from such enthusiasms; that there were spiritual strivers who did not attempt in their mystical states to give themselves over solely to the impulses of their cerebral imagination, but rather strove for spiritual super-consciousness. We number among such Catholic saints the famous Thomas à Kempis (died 1471) whose ideas were not far from those of the ascetics of the Eastern Church, which is why Thomas à Kempis’ main work, The
Imitation of Christ, was translated many times into the Slavonic and Russian languages. (The first translation into Slavonic was made in 1647.)
Thomas à Kempis understood well the higher stages of spiritual super-consciousness. This is evident, for example, in the following statement in his composition, “De nativitate Christi” [“On the Birth of Christ”]. He says that
there are such holidays of the soul, in which the sweet rapture of the inner feeling is so strong that the weakness of human nature can barely endure it; no signs or words can possibly express what the soul feels within itself at such visitations…. When the soul, forgetting itself and all else, remembers God alone, when freeing itself from all corporeal imagination and contemplating only eternity, plunging itself into the abyss of
divine light, when illuminated by the rays of the eternal Sun, it soars higher than all creation, then it accomplishes this great and mysterious celebration, a celebration that belongs more to the glory of eternal blessedness than to the grievous state of our present life.¹⁶
If one were to compare this description of a mystical state with the description by St Isaac of Syria (see Chapter 1, note 19), many common traits would be found.
Speaking of typical manifestations of Western mysticism, neither can we be silent about St Teresa of Avila, recounting her mystical experiences in her autobiography written in 1561–1562. To define the mysticism of this saint, it is sufficient that we refer to the authoritative opinion of William James, who studied the writings
of St Teresa.
In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James says that the piety of St Teresa does not give the impression of great depth and in general “her presentation of religion amounts to, if one can
express it like this, an endless amorous flirtation between a suitor and his Divinity.”¹⁷
The mystical rapture of Teresa aroused her physical nature; she tells of a feeling of delight as of something that is diff cult to endure and almost bordering on physical pain. Of the part played by the body in heavenly joys, she says that the feeling of joy “pierces it (the body) to the marrow of the bone, while earthly delights act only superficially. This is only an approximate description,” she adds, “but I am unable to express myself more clearly.”¹⁸
From this information it is evident that a sensual element also entered into the super-consciousness of St Teresa; and this quality of her mysticism she has in common with the sensual mysticism of St Francis, expressing itself, as we already know, even in such physiological phenomenon as stigmatization.
Now we will turn to Eastern mysticism and remind the reader of its principal foundations. We said that the super-consciousness of St Seraphim, developed according to the way of the Christian ascetics of the Philokalia, was concentrated in Seraphim’s heart. There, within himself he sensed the fire of Divinity; he sensed Christ. This feeling of unity with God descended upon him naturally and freely, as the direct result of his spiritual growth, as the result of his enormous work on himself in the path of humility and repentance. Spiritual consciousness descended upon St Seraphim just as St Isaac of Syria said of it—Seraphim’s soul perceived this super-consciousness within itself immaterially and unexpectedly, without thinking about it (i.e., without deliberately searching for it). This realization of super-consciousness in Seraphim was the same realization of that pure spirituality overshadowing the heart of man, spoken of by the Christian ascetics of the Philokalia, which we discussed in detail in the last four chapters of our book, Super-Consciousness.
Therefore, now that we have acquainted ourselves with Western mysticism, as it differs from Eastern mysticism, it would be interesting to learn how the Eastern ascetics regarded the kind of mysticism we see in St Francis and St Ignatius; namely, to ascertain whether or not there were any indications in the Philokalia on the possibility of similar ecstatic manifestations as we saw in Francis and about which Loyola speaks in his writing, and what opinions concerning such states of ecstasy were expressed by Eastern Christian ascetics.
After a close study of the works of the ascetics in the Philokalia, it turns out there are such indications. Although the mysticism of the Catholic saints, Francis and Ignatius, took root and became established considerably later than the time of the lives of the Eastern Christian ascetics, as for example, St Isaac of Syria, Nilus of Sinai, and Symeon the New Theologian, nevertheless, it seems that directions in mysticism similar to Loyola’s arose in their era. Therefore, in the aforementioned Eastern ascetics we found writings defining their views on such mysticism. We also found typical instructions on such mysticism in saints of a later era, namely, Gregory of Sinai and Gregory Palamas.
We will quote the writings of these Eastern Christian ascetics as they pertain to the question of interest to us. We will begin with the fifth-century Christian ascetic, Nilus of Sinai. Nilus of Sinai, addressing monks with his instructions on prayer, says,
When you pray, do not attach to the Godhead some sort of appearance and do not allow your mind to become transformed into some kind of image (or conceive oneself in the form of some image, or that any kind of image become im- pressed in your mind); but immaterially approach the Immaterial One and come together with Him.¹⁹
Further, he says, “Do not think that the Godhead is qualitative (takes up space, is extended, has parts); as the Divinity has neither quantity nor form.”²⁰ Besides this, Nilus of Sinai says definitely, “Do not desire to see sensorially Angels or Powers or Christ, so as not to go out of one’s mind, accepting the wolf for the pastor and worshipping the enemy demons.”²¹ He adds, “If you wish to pray in the spirit, borrow nothing from the flesh.”²²
And here is what St Isaac of Syria says: “As long as man uses force so that spirituality come down to him, it does not submit.
And if he is boldly puffed up and raises up his gaze to the spiritual, and approaches it in his mind before the time (before acquiring true holiness), then soon his vision will become dulled and instead of reality he will perceive phantoms and shapes.”²³
Also of interest are the following words of St Symeon the New Theologian on the state of one praying, close to what Ignatius Loyola is striving after in his spiritual exercises. Symeon the New Theologian says,
When someone standing in prayer and raising to heaven his hands, eyes and mind, keeps in his mind divine thoughts, imagines heavenly blessings, the ranks of angels, the abodes of the saints … and sometimes even elicits tears and weeps, then during this type of prayer, he little by little begins to be conceited in his heart, he himself not understanding this: it seems to him that what he is doing is from the Grace of God…. But this is a sign of prelest [delusion].
In the opinion of Symeon the New Theologian, such a state can be very dangerous for a Christian ascetic, and “if it turns out that he does not go out of his mind, yet still it will be impossible for him to acquire virtue or passionlessness” (higher spiritual super-consciousness). Symeon says further, “Those standing in this path are in prelest who see light with their bodily eyes, smell fragrances with their sense of smell, hear voices with their ears, and so on.”²⁴
The fourteenth-century ascetic Gregory of Sinai has this to say about the same thing: “From yourself do not form imaginations and do not pay attention to those that form by themselves and do not allow them to be imprinted upon yourself. For all this which from without is imprinted and imagined serves for the captivation of the soul.”²⁵ “The mind (the lower reason) in itself has the natural power to dream and can easily build illusory images of what it desires…. Then the one experiencing this is now a dreamer, and not a keeper of silence.”²⁶ “May he who approaches contemplation without the light of Grace know that he is forming fantasies and does not have contemplation, is in a dreaming spirit, being entangled in fantasies and deceiving himself.”²⁷
Finally, Gregory Palamas, also a Christian ascetic of the fourteenth century, says concerning contemplative states,
In this case, man rises up not on fantastical wings of the imagination, which like a blind man wanders around everything and does not receive a true and certain understanding of either sensory or mental subjects; but here man rises up to truth by the ineffable power of the Spirit, and with his spiritual ear hears ineffable words and sees the invisible, and all this is a miracle.²⁸
These views of the Christian ascetics of the Philokalia passed on, along with the spreading of religious enlightenment, into Russian Orthodox mysticism as well.²⁹
Here, in conclusion, we cite one very characteristic opinion of a Russian Orthodox writer close to us in time—the ascetic, Bishop Theophan the Recluse (who died in 1894)—on mysticism based on the ecstasies of an exulted imagination. Thus he writes to one of his students, who was carried away by rapturous prayers,
May the Lord deliver you from rapturous prayers. Raptures, strong movements with excitement are simply the sanguine mental movements of an inflamed imagination. For them Ignatius Loyola wrote many instructions. Men reach these ecstasies and think that they have reached high degrees, but meanwhile all this is soap bubbles. Real prayer is quiet, peaceful and it is such in all its degrees.³⁰
In another of his letters, Theophan says,
The imagination—the ability to form and retain images—is an unskilled labor ability … the very lowest! So therefore it is not proper to allow it to appear with its images in a higher realm such as prayer … mental/contemplative activity is lofty, but spiritual activity as manifested in prayer is still loftier…. If one
admits images, then there is the danger of praying to a dream. There is one path—heartfelt prayer (prayer of pure feeling)…. It comes to mind what was said of a staretz [elder] who always imagined God in a form. When it was explained to him that this should not be done, he said: you have taken God from me…. But they did not take God from him, but rather his dream.”³¹
And so we see that the kind of mysticism for which Francis laid the foundation and which Ignatius Loyola subsequently developed was disapproved of by the Eastern ascetics, and they even considered the path of this mysticism unsafe for the soul of a Christian ascetic.³²
There is one aspect that we have still not touched upon in this comparison of Eastern and Western mysticism—this is the aspect of special manifestations of mystical power in both forms of mysticism, manifestations expressed in the performance of so-called miracles, namely, those of healing. We did not have to concern ourselves with this in comparing the lives of St Seraphim and St Francis because of the number of books from which we studied the life of St Francis (the works of Jørgensen, Ger’e, Sabatier, and Jebar); Francis’s miracles of healing are only brief y mentioned in the research of Sabatier and Ger’e, and this information was not sufficient for judging the process of these miracles. It is to be supposed that these researchers did not find in the original sources on Francis trustworthy information regarding this side of the saint. And this explains why in Jørgensen also nothing is said of such miracles by Francis. In his extensive research Jørgensen expatiates only on one, as he says, big miracle (le grand miracle) of Francis, his stigmatization. In our opinion, it would be most probable to assume that in general Francis did not perform miracles of healing. Such an assumption concurs with Francis’s spiritual super-consciousness (which generally gives the power to perform healings) being darkened by the impulses of his mentalism.
Francis could not perform those mentalistic miracles which yogis perform by their conscious will³³ because the path of Francis’s mysticism was still the Christian path in which faith in the power of God comes first; and in this faith can be manifested the action of a great super-universal power, called divine grace, which is immeasurably more powerful than man’s will. In any case, for a believing Christian one’s own will cannot receive that tension attained by yogis, who believe first of all in their own mental power and will and with this power create phenomena that from the outside resemble miracles performed by holy people.