Christian Mystics & the Soul

The first on the horizon to give birth to what became known as Christian Mysticism is undoubtedly Dionysius the Areopagite. He in essence formulated the terminology that Christian Mystics use to describe their experience of Union with the Godhead. Yea, despite the overwhelming influence of Dionysian ideas on writers such as Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing and many others, there has never been anything like Dionysian theology—it set the apophatic standard for all that came after it. Dionysius shed illuminative light on the notion of the soul:

The human soul has its own type of movement as well: first, in a circle when it turns within itself and away from what is outside, and thus there occurs an inner concentration of its intellectual powers. Its fixed revolution causes it to return from the multiplicity of external things to gather in upon itself and then to join those who are in a more powerful union with higher things. The centrifugal movement coupled with the centripetal movement brings the soul to the good and beautiful, which itself is beyond all things. But when the soul receives knowledge by way of discursive reasoning, in mixed and changeable activities, it moves in a spiral fashion. When the soul proceeds to the things around it and is uplifted from them to a simple and united vision it moves in a straight line. Letters, symbols and words are used in coming to understand divine things because at that stage the soul makes use of sensory images. When our souls are moved by intelligent energies in the direction of intellectual things, then the senses are no longer needed. The intelligent powers in turn are abandoned when the soul becomes divinized; these powers ‘concentrate sightlessly and through an unknowing union on the rays of unapproachable light’.

From the world of symbolic discourse Dionysius takes the language of darkness (skotos, gnophos), cloud (nephelē), and silence (sigē) drawn from the account of Moses’ ascent to meet God on Sinai (Ex 19:16-20) to provide metaphorical descriptions of attaining the hidden God. Moses is the model of one who, breaking free of all seeing, ‘plunges into the truly mystical darkness of unknowing’. We should note that the mysticism of darkness is not found among pagan Neoplatonists. Indeed, we may even surmise that this distinctively Biblical apophaticism serves as critique of late antique pagan theology with its heavy use of light imagery. Although the Areopagite did not invent the theme of divine darkness, and although he uses it in a primarily objective sense to signify God’s utter unknowability, the fact that this unknowability indicates that we attain him only through unknowing (agnōsia) means. (Paul S. Macdonald, History of the Concept of Mind, Volume Two, pg. 220-221)

It also is true that those mystics who followed after him enhanced his teachings in their own spirituality. The English Mystic of the renowned Cloud of Unknowing wrote that “The mystic who seeks the divine Cloud of Unknowing is to be surrendered to the direction of his deeper mind, his transcendental consciousness: that “spark of the soul” which is in touch with eternal realities.” He also stressed that it is forever necessary to guard the windows of your soul unless the foul vermin that lurk about succeeds in devouring you; for him, the soul is the gateway to the spirit and beyond…It is a matter of the working power of your soul—namely your will. It was within the depths of contemplation where the spirit alone can work…“inward” work is only done by THAT spirit alone and no outside agencies, not even the mind and soul of the spiritual adepts themselves.

John of the Cross, the Great Doctor of the Soul, heightened the apophatic teachings even further. His classic treatises the Ascent of Mount Carmel, and the Dark Night of the Soul forever imprinted on the mind the stages of Divine Union. When the soul has passed through the dark night of sense and the dark night of spirit ‘it receives only that which is given to it’. It receives this gift from the Holy Spirit when all the soul’s own natural operations have ceased. This occurs in the ‘third night’, the perfection of the communion of God with the spirit, whereby the innermost depths of the soul are touched and transformed by the Godhead. Hence, this is a two-fold purification. The former with the dark night of the senses—a purification of exterior and even superficial interior skandhic factors; and the latter with the dark night of the spirit, which purifies the interior-self that is contaminated with even more abysmal things from the alaya-receptacle. The Dark Night of the Spirit is an inflowing of the Unborn Spirit. It purges the Unborn Mind adept of all imperfections, both natural, psychophysical and spiritual. This is known by contemplatives as “Infused Contemplation”. This is also when celestial agencies transmit secret gnosis and perfects the adept in the Unitive Way of the Unborn. The adept does not move an inch nor is required to use the reasoning faculty. All natural faculties are now subdued in order to receive the Dark Contemplation that is reserved for those few shining ones who dare enter such illuminating heights of the Spirit. For those few brave souls who do, they need to be prepared for the harsh arid and desolate experiences that await them on the ‘Unitive-Way’ of the Unborn. Yea, this is the passive-intuition of our inmost Self—the passive Contemplation that is devoid of discursive reasoning and meditation and of all inferior images. It is the Imageless Initiative par excellence. In time one becomes indifferent to one’s lower-self and even all spiritual ambitions. This is the apparent contradiction of the Illuminative Way that involves an En-Darkening of all exterior and even semi-interior modes of being and a direct-enlightening of the Self in the Unborn Mind. Thus, the souls own “Dark Night”. The spirit now experiences a peace so exquisite that it yearns for no-thing else. In actuality, the adept’s spirit is becoming illumined by the Holy Dark Night of Divine Illumination. When all one’s previous imperfections have been ignited on this pyre of Dark Light, what remains is an ecstatic-joy of the Absolute union with the Unborn Mind and Spirit. (Extracted from our series, Ascending the Noble Mountain of Primordial Perfection.)

The other Discalced Carmelite Doctor of the Soul is Teresa of Avila. Teresa’s approach also bespeaks of an infusion of the spirit with the divine, but her primary focus is on that Recollection of the spirit’s hidden majesty in the Unborn. Perhaps her greatest work, The Interior Castle, depicts the soul’s route to union in the Absolute Center of the Godhead. In other words, the Castle depicts that of the soul en route to Self-Union. Soul in this context can also refer to heightened-consciousness, or an en-soul-ment of the awareness principle, determining whether or not it recognizes and attunes (strengthening its Diamond body) to its Primordial Stature. As Teresa states, “Like a Castle made out of diamond-crystal.” The soul is like a crystal in the sunshine over which a thick black cloth (of sin) has been thrown, so that however brightly the sun may shine the crystal can never reflect it. For Teresa, It is far better to struggle alone than to have fools along for the ride beckoning the soul to quit and return from whence it came. She also teaches to forget about any form of spiritual consolations appearing at this stage of the journey—they will eventually come, but they need to be won through much trial and effort before entrance to the center which is the very citadel of Mind itself. This is a metaphor for the necessity of removing any [forms] of sensate garbs in order to see more clearly the need for renunciation, and hence purgation, of these skhandhic confinements before the soul can break free from the cage and soar to the heights of the Unborn! Along the way, the spiritual adept is now discerning how the Unborn Spirit is taking a more prominent role in the soul’s development. During the time of the actual union, the soul is left as though without its senses, for it has no power to think even if it wants to. In loving, if it does love, it doesn’t understand how or what it is it loves or what it would want. In sum, it is like one who in every respect has died to the world so as to live more completely in God. Thus the death is a delightful one, an uprooting from the soul of all the operations it can have while being in the body. The death is a delightful one because in truth it seems that in order to dwell more perfectly in God the soul is so separated from the body that I don’t even know if it has life enough to breathe. Or, as scripture says, “in order for one to save one’s life, one must lose it.” A radical death to samsaric worlds. All of this is a comparison to the transformation of souls. Hence by weaving that cocoon, the skandhic self-dies, in essence getting rid of “self-love and self-will.” In so doing, final preparation is made to be transformed into that white butterfly which is a symbol of Divine Metamorphosis. Now then, this mystical transformation doesn’t rule out what is commonly known as religious-conversion, rather it is its fulfillment. Thus, true, unequivocal existential transformation. It’s a final filiation with the Unborn that happens when one dies to the skandhic-self. You see, the soul’s yearning for Absolute Union with the Unborn Lord will now strike a fevering-pitch—passing through great waves of inner mental-torment as well as mind-numbing and heart bursting encounters of a soul enraptured to the point of never desiring anything from any created samsaric realms ever again. Yet, as Meister Eckhart wrote, “There’s a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.” The soul now sees as it were, eye to eye with the Absolute Stature of the Unborn, here manifested as the Holy Trinity; for a Lankavatarian, it would refer to as Absolute Union with the Blessed Three Jewels: Dharmakaya Buddha; the splendid Word of the Buddhadharma; and the Mystical Community of the Illuminative Light of the Unborn. (Extracted from our series, Journey to the Center of the Mind.)

There are, of course, numerous other mystics during those centuries of critical reform of the notions concerning the soul, such as the Rhineland Mystics, Mechthild of Magdeburg’s Flowing Light of the Godhead and Thomas a Kempis with his Imitation of Christ. But the ones noted could be considered more direct spiritual descendants of Dionysius the Areopagite.

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