For The "Curious Learned And Unlearned"
The Unchanging Tradition Of The Mystic Life
The Cloud of Unknowing, by an English Mystic of the 141h Century, Edited by Dom Justin McCann, O.S.B. (Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 6s.) Second Edition.
The Mystic Life of Graces, by Hieronymus Jaegen, Translated by the R. W. I. Anderson (Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 7s. 6d.)
In the darkest hours of the history of the church there have always been souls drawn to intimate union with Christ; thus in the 14th century, the century of the captivity of Avignon and the Great Schism (in England the Black Death and rise of Wycliffe and of Lollardry), we have such mystics as Richard Rolle, and Blessed Juliana of Norwich pursuing in solitude and detachment, the search for and the finding of God upon earth.
Yet, turbulent, rebellious and sinful as was the 14th century, it has the glamour of history upon it, and it is easier to imagine Blessed Juliana in her anchorhold receiving her "showings" from God, than to imagine Herr Hieronymus Jaegen, twentieth century engineer, soldier, director of a bank and member of the Landtag, speaking intimately with Our Lord in nightly vigils. But in our own day when an open and bloodthirsty attack has been launched upon God all over the world, He has "come to His own " and to those who receive Him. gives power to become the sons of God.'"
Surely we may see an indication of this truth in the publication today of so many books on religion and the saints, and in movements such as the Oxford group. "The great discovery of the 20th Century is Union with God," said an " undergraduette " who belonged to this last movement, with unconscious irony addressing her history tutor, an authority on the Middle Ages!
All this is aptly illustrated by the two volumes reviewed here. Times and periods lose their meaning in the presence of God and the human soul. Detachment from the world is the same, whether the world goes in the Rolls Royce or on the richly comparisoned palfrey. And in the higher places, the more intimete combat with self is identical.
Perhaps one of Jaegen's most significant experiences occurred when he sought to offer to his Lord a posy of flowers representing the virtues he would practise for His love; to his distress, Our Lord gently pushed aside the proffered gift. Then He explained: !rot even a posy of flowers that thou hast gathered for love of Me . . . must come between thee and Me." So with scarcely less vivid phrasing, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing bids the soul "loathe and be weary with all that thing that worketh in thy mind and will unless it he only .God. For, otherwise snrcly whatsoever it be. it is betwixt thee and thy God."
This gentle but searching detachment from all that is not God is the one rule which emerges from all the books and from the Mystic Life itself. No matter what age or period the world is traversing, this is the one thing the soul must seek to accomplish, for the rest is the work of God Himself. As Saint John of the Cross so beautifully puts it: " As the eastern sun comes into the house when the windows are opened, so God the unsleeping Keeper of Israel enters the emptied soul and fills it with good things."
So the mystic of the 20th and of the
14th century say the same thing. The editors of the modern mystic have prepared him to suit the taste of the modern reader, they supply him with sections, chapters, sub-divisions, so that he may " skim through much, pass over much, but diligently read and study some other part," while the 14th century author bids all who read his work "distinguished in 70 chapters and five" to " take them time to read it, speak it, write it, or hear it over" .
In these days therefore, the "curious learned and unlearned" eschewed by the older writer, have to be catered for, but the result is the same, for those who " by inward stirring under the privy spirit of God--whose dooms be hid-be full graciously disposed" will read and understand, and "the curious learned and unlearned " will read without being able to
gather the full import. But the Spirit breatheth where He will, and not improbably some of these "curious" readers will take up the book to skim and pass over, and put it down with the seed of true mysticism in their hearts.
Francis Thompson Fan
An Essay on Francis Thompson. By F. C. Owlett. (Bumpus. 2s. 6d.)
Mr. Owlett is a devotee-and devotees arc usually well-advised to leave criticism alone. Especially is this so when they use a style that is quasi-poetic: three words where one will do, and grandiloquent allusions that succeed only in being comic. Thompson could write his essay on Shelley in a, style as luscious as any of his verse, and get awey with it. But that was in spite of the style, not .because of it.
It is difficult to trace any coherence in Mr. Owlett's turgid prose. There is a long and absurdly inaccurate digression on the difference between Romanticism and Classicism, eked out with some particularly unconvincing quotations from Shakespeare. Constantly there are such sentences as " his mind was oxygenised in those high Parnassian airs" which arc very funny but hardly conducive to serious reading.
Mr. Owlett is obviously sincere and his account of Thompson's verse would be adequate enough if shorn of so heavy a load of elegancy. There is a passage in the Imaginary Conversations of Landor which may be commended to his attention. Epictetus is speaking: "First I consider whether what I cuti about to say is true; then whether I can say it with brevity. in such a manner as that others shall see it as clearly as I do in the light of truth."