Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal1
Bernard McGinn


The relation between mysticism and spirituality has long been a topic of discussion. The links between the two are rooted in the history of the use of terms like mysticus and spiritualis in Christianity since at least the second century. Spiritualitas is an ancient term, first appearing in the fourth century and based on the frequent use of pneumatikos/spiritualis in the New Testament.2 The Greek qualifier mystikos and its derivatives do not occur in the New Testament, but from ca. 200 C. E. Christian authors began to use mystikos/mysticus to signify the hidden realities of their beliefs and practices.3 By about 500 C. E., the mysterious author who wrote under the pseudonym Dionysius had invented the term mystical theology (theologia mystikê), although “mysticism” as a stand-alone substantive is more modern, not used before the seventeenth century at the earliest.4 These two language-fields, the mystical and the spiritual, became so intertwined in the course of history as to seem almost necessarily related, however one understands their meanings. If we take spirituality as a broad term signifying the whole range of beliefs and practices by which the Christian church strives to live out its commitment to the Spirit present in the Risen Christ (1 Cor. 6:14–20; 2 Cor. 3:17), then we can understand mysticism as the inner and hidden realization of spirituality through a transforming consciousness of God’s immediate presence. Mysticism, or more precisely, the mystical element within Christian spirituality, is the goal to which spiritual practices aim. It is a personal appropriation, but not an individualistic one, because it is rooted in the life of the Christian community and the grace mediated through that community and its sacraments and rituals. If this way of construing the relationship between spirituality and mysticism makes sense, it is clear that the investigation of the nature of mysticism, especially the role of what is usually called mystical experience, is an important part of the study of spirituality. The following essay argues that mystical experience, while often analyzed and explored, may not be the best term for discerning the meaning of mysticism as an integral part of spirituality. My alternative proposal is to suggest that the notion of consciousness as developed by Bernard Lonergan in his analysis of human intentionality may provide a more adequate theoretical basis


Spiritus 8 (2008): 44–63 © 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

for investigating mysticism, and also one that provides a better insight into the writings of the mystics themselves. After briefly setting out some of the problems concerning the use of mystical experience, Part I of the essay will lay out the basic structure of a Lonergan-inspired theory of mystical consciousness, while Part II will illustrate this theory through a short investigation of three of the most noted Western Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, and St. John of the Cross. Some ProblemS wIth myStIcal exPerIence For more than a century, books and articles have been devoted to the analysis of mystical experience. Although the qualifier mysticus was long used by Christians, and the word experientia in relation to encountering God achieved importance in the twelfth century, “mystical experience,” to the best of my knowledge, was not an expression used by mystics or students of mysticism before the nineteenth century. What we call mystical experience, the mystics themselves, following Dionysius, often called “mystical theology.” As Teresa of Avila put it in her Life: “When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, . . . I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was totally engulfed in him. This was in no sense a vision. I believe that it is called mystical theology.”5 Because many mystics, at least over the past eight centuries, have spoken about their own “experience,” scholars have often taken it for granted that the study of the mystical element in religion should take mystical experience as a central category. But did the mystics understand experientia in the same way as modern investigators? And is experience really a self-evident term? In Experience and its Modes (1933), the philosopher Michael Oakeshott issued the sober warning: “‘Experience,’ of all the words in the philosophic vocabulary, is the most difficult to manage; and it must be the ambition of every writer reckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains.”6 All too many writers who treat mystical experience seem to take experience as an unproblematic word, one scarcely in need of analysis because everyone knows what it means. Many writers on mysticism use mystical experience as the equivalent of a special form of feeling and/or perception, one that is common across all religions and that exists independently of the theological constructions in which the mystics try to present it to others.7 From this perspective, the study of mysticism seeks to free mysticism from theology as an intellectual enterprise, something that would have puzzled St. Teresa and many other mystics, who insisted that they were creating theologia, that is, a true discourse about God, even if not an academic one.

McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal


William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, first published in 1902, contains an influential analysis of mystical experience that has been seen by some as an ancestor of this approach. James was a subtle thinker whose writings cannot be reduced to a system and I do not wish to suggest that his provoking analysis is guilty of the errors of those who believe that thought always distorts experience.8 James allows that both feeling and thought act in determining conduct, but that in the realm of religion feelings are more determinent in grasping the essence of the phenomenon.9 “I do believe,” James says, “that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophical and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations into another tongue.” Therefore, he concludes, “intellectual operations, whether they be constructive or comparative, or critical, presuppose immediate experience as their subjectmatter. They are interpretive and inductive operations, operations after the fact, consequent upon religious feeling, not coordinate with it, not independent of what it ascertains.”10 This postulation of feeling as the basis for religion and mysticism and the split it suggests between experience as primary and interpretation as a secondary phenomenon has had a long history in the modern study of mysticism, but it may be questioned, both historically and theoretically. The priority given to feeling is historically questionable because the great mystics of the Christian tradition believed that it was not their own experience (however they understood the term) that was important, but rather the truth claims advanced in their writings and how these claims provided deeper understanding of the life of faith. From a philosophical perspective, the assertion of the existence of some form of already-in-here-now-real-pure feeling or experience that can be separated out from the total intentional dynamism of knowing and loving that characterizes the human subject is in danger of implying an objectivist illusion, as a number of contemporary students of mysticism have argued.11 While it may be possible to re-formulate the language of mystical experience to avoid the dangers implicit in James and others,12 returning to the hint given in the passage from Teresa cited above, I am suggesting that her phrase about the “consciousness of the presence of God” may hint at a more adequate way of understanding the nature of mysticism, what the older tradition (and Teresa) usually called mystical theology.13 The argument developed here is that mystical consciousness is a fruitful way to conceive of the forms of special encounter with God spoken of by Christian mystics, primarily because consciousness emphasizes the entire process of human intentionality and self-presence, rather than just an originating pure feeling, sensation, or experience easily separable from subsequent acts of thinking, loving, and deciding. The investigator of mystical consciousness attempts to analyze the writings and witnesses of mystical teachers for what they reveal about all the forms of thinking and loving in which the human subject


achieves self-transcendence and transformation through an encounter with God, the ultimate Source and final Goal. an aPProach to myStIcal conScIouSneSS Mystical consciousness makes claims beyond those put forth by the ordinary exercise of consciousness. All forms of consciousness involve both the consciousness of the objects intended by operations of feeling, knowing, and loving, as well as the consciousness or self-presence of the agent in such acts, either directly and implicitly as an “I,” or reflexively and in an objectified manner through the self-appropriation of one’s acts of intending. Mystical consciousness, however, adds another dimension that transforms the usual components.14 This third element might be called a consciousness-beyond, or “meta-consciousness” as Thomas Merton once described it.15 Meta-consciousness is the co-presence of God in our inner acts, not as an object to be understood or grasped, but as the transforming Other who is, as Augustine put it, “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.”16 In other words, in mystical consciousness God is present not as an object, but as a goal that is both transcendent and yet immanent. He (She) is active in the human agent as the source, or co-author, of our acts of experiencing (that is, the reception of inner and outer data), knowing, and loving. The infinite horizon of all knowing and loving somehow becomes really “here” in a new form of awareness in what mystics call the ground, apex, or center of the soul. Such an approach to mystical consciousness finds an important resource in the transcendental method of the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan.17 Lonergan himself wrote little on mysticism, though there are remarks in his book Method in Theology and in several late works, such as The Philosophy of God and Theology. Nevertheless, the implications of his transcendental method for the study of mysticism have been developed by a number of later investigators. I have learned a good deal from these works,18 but my own adaptation of Lonergan is rather different. Lonergan’s account of the basic structures of human knowing and loving as exercises in self-transcending can be summarized briefly: to be human is to be possessed by an unrestricted desire to know. Critical realism, according to Lonergan, insists that objectivity is not a matter of some direct intuition of an already-out-there-now-real (or already-in-here-now-real, as noted above), but rather an issue of appropriating one’s conscious acts of attention, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility as grounding true judgments about the nature of reality and ethical choices about the proper values to be pursued in life.19 As he once put it: “Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.”20 The structure of intentionality develops through four dialectically-integrated hierarchical stages of consciousness, beginning with experience, that is, percep-


McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal


tion or sensation of data, both the data of sense and the data of consciousness. Data, or information, gives rise to wonder, that is, asking questions on the level of intelligence. Inquiry leads to the discoveries and acts of understanding that Lonergan describes as insights, hypothetical formulations, or intelligible organizations, that call out to be tested by acts of reflection. Reflection gives rise to the act of judgment that answers the question “Is it so?” on the basis of determining that a particular insight conforms to the evidence available. Finally, as a result of acts of critical judgment humans are drawn to ask “What should I do?,” that is, to make decisions about what kind of values to cultivate and what form of life to live based upon judgments about the nature of reality. Lonergan makes two important claims about his analysis of transcendental method. The first is that while his own account of knowing may be incomplete and partial in many respects, the invariant structure of human consciousness means that the corrective process itself will be an expression of that structure and therefore not essentially different or radically revisable, however diverse in form and language.21 The second claim is that the unrestricted dynamism of human consciousness means that the Infinite End, that is, God, is in some way present within our acts of knowing and loving in a real, if unthematized, way and therefore the activity of thinking, when critically appropriated by the self, postulates the existence of the Transcendent toward which all knowing and loving aims.22

Peace. © Georg Sedlmeir.

Lonergan’s account of general transcendental method is well known. His subsequent analysis of the application of this method to the realm of religion is found in the fourth chapter of Method in Theology. The adjustments involved

in making this transposition are significant. Religious consciousness begins with a special gift of God’s love, not with any specific attentiveness, insight, or choice on the part of the human subject. Lonergan often cites the Pauline text about “God’s love being poured out in our hearts” (Rom. 5:5) to indicate the basis for religious intentionality in a gift from above.23 As received in the subject, this gift produces a state of being in love with God in an unrestricted way. Lonergan characterizes the location of this reception in rather different ways. In Method he says “God’s love occupies the ground and root of the fourth and highest level of man’s intentional consciousness. It takes place over the peak of the soul, the apex animae,”24 whereas in Philosophy of God and Theology he is willing to speak of the permanent dynamic state of being in love with God as existing on a “fifth level.”25 Lonergan insists that the gift of love is prior to all knowledge. Reflecting on the Latin tag, “Nihil amatum nisi praecognitum” (Nothing is loved unless known), he says that this is the rule for ordinary operations on the fourth level, but that the gift of God’s love flooding our hearts forms the major exception.26 Furthermore, the gift of divine love produces a special form of knowledge called faith—“From an experience of love focused on mystery there wells forth a longing for knowledge.”27 When we ask why the longing for knowledge that is identified with fundamental faith (not, Lonergan insists, the judgments that constitute religious beliefs) must be posterior to love, the reasons given are a mixture of the theoretical and the practical. He summarizes: “We have distinguished between faith and religious beliefs. We have done so as a consequence of our view that there is a realm in which love precedes knowledge. And we have also done so as a consequence of our view that this manner of speech facilitates ecumenical discourse.”28 One can, however, question whether love must be given either temporal or logical priority over knowing as the basic experiential root of religious conversion, especially when we are dealing with the unrestricted divine gift of the God in whom infinite intelligibility and absolute love are one and the same (more on this below). If general transcendental method is further specified and differentiated in religious method, we may ask if there is a specifically mystical form of method. Is mystical consciousness a development of religious consciousness, or something different and special? Lonergan is not clear on this.29 Nevertheless, I believe that the implications of Lonergan’s analysis of transcendental method support an argument that mystical consciousness is a further differentiation of religious consciousness and not some different thing. This does not mean, however, that it is not possible to analyze the distinctive transformations of the forms of intentionality present in mystical consciousness. Lonergan himself suggests this in allowing for what he called “mystical experience of the transcendent,” without trying to specify the difference between religious experience and mystical experience. When asked about whether mystical works such


McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal


as those of John of the Cross were the result of insight, because they were attempts of reason to formulate in language the content of mystical experience of the Transcendent, Lonergan responded that mystical works are like any other form of writing—“a matter of experience and understanding and judgment and verbal creativity. But that doesn’t mean that the mystical experience is that.”30 Still, one can ask if a further distinction may not be called for here. The evidence of many mystical writings suggests that it may be possible to distinguish between the acts of reflection involved in the production of mystical writings insofar as they proceed from the subject’s own self-awareness and the same acts insofar as they involve the meta-conscious presence of the divine knowing and loving operative in the mystic. Mystical witness to meta-consciousness has often involved attempts to express how the presence of God both in initial experiential consciousness, as well as in acts of knowing and loving, enriches and subsumes all ordinary mental operations, not just the perception of data. This is another way of saying that in the states described by Christian mystics religious consciousness as proceeding from the acts of a human subject and intending some kind of object is necessarily always intertwined with mystical consciousness, that is, the divine presence in these acts, a presence that cannot be given any content (it is not a thing), but that can be expressed as a state of loving attraction and mental awareness in the face of the divine mystery. One advantage of approaching mysticism through the analysis of consciousness is that it allows us to see the mystical element of religion as a process, a form of life, and not merely as a matter of raw experience, even of some special kind. The direct consciousness of the presence of God, the “mystical theology” that Teresa spoke about, involves an inner perception of God different from those found in ordinary religious acts in its intensity and directness. Such an experience of God’s presence ordinarily occurs within states of interiority, ecstasy, and the voiding of ordinary operations and the objects they intend. Some mystics, however, such as Eckhart, Ignatius of Loyola, and Teresa, taught that it is possible to attain awareness of the immediate presence of God even in the midst of ordinary acts of internal and external sensation (in contemplatione activus, as was said of Ignatius). What is essential is the transcendent dimension of the new dynamic state, one in which God makes God-self co-present within all the structures of human consciousness. In Christianity mystical consciousness is always conceived of as a gift, like the gift of God’s love given in the grace of religious consciousness. It is not the result of one’s own efforts. Christian mystics teach that although one can and should prepare for God’s coming by acts of asceticism, prayer, and the like, awareness of presence is a donation or grace. In the view being presented here, however, mystical consciousness is not just a gift that stops at the level of a


new and special perception or experience of God; it also involves the way in which this perception restructures the subject’s drive to understand, affirm, and live out the gift received. The intellectual and affective appropriation of the new perception of God’s presence is not a secondary phenomenon, an interpretation that almost inevitably alters and distorts the original perception. It is demanded by the reception itself. This appropriation involves both ordinary acts of understanding, loving, and deciding, as well as transcendentalized forms of the same intentional acts that reflect the presence of the divine by way of what Merton called meta-consciousness. This position agrees with the witness of the Christian mystics, who have taught that both knowing and loving are integral to the encounter with God.31 Most mystics have accorded some kind of priority to love, because as 1 John 4:16 puts it, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” They also argue that the divine infinity is radically unknowable to the limited human mind, but that love involves endless yearning for the enjoyment of the beloved that can never reach fulfillment and therefore shares in infinity. But is knowing God through co-presence the same kind of knowing as that of the philosopher or theologian who seeks to present an argued account of the divine nature and attributes? Rather, it seems that the kind of knowing by which we come to affirm something of God on the basis of our inner reception of the divine presence, as well as the kind of loving with which we respond to this gift, are not the same, at least in all respects, as the knowing and loving we direct toward limited created persons and realities, or even toward God as an object of rational reflection. Mystical teachers such as William of Saint-Thierry, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross reflected deeply on the similarities and differences between ordinary knowing and mystical knowing of God. Other mystics such as Richard of St. Victor and Jan van Ruusbroec explored the differences between loving created persons and loving the Uncreated Divine Lover. An analysis based on consciousness provides a better understanding of the relation between love and knowledge in the mystical pursuit of God, as well as casting light on the kinds of transformations that ordinary knowing and loving undergo in this journey. This approach suggests that on the initial pre-reflective level where the subject is grasped by the gift of God’s presence it is not possible to distinguish knowing from loving. There is no apprehension of God as object here; rather, the divine presence becomes active in the soul’s ground of awareness. So too there is no loving God as an object of desire, but only a co-presence of infinite divine love.32 This new affective state is conscious, that is, present to the subject, but not yet explicitly known or objectified. It can become known, but only in an indirect way as a tendency or drive, not as something capable of conceptualization, because of its unlimited and unrestricted nature. This state may be described as an intensification of the gift of love given in
McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal


religious consciousness, which is also without specific content. Speaking of the latter, Lonergan said, “Being in love with God, as experienced, is being in love in an unrestricted fashion. All love is self-surrender, but being in love with God is being in love without limits or qualifications or conditions or reservation.”33 Differentiation (not separation) between knowing and loving begins as the subject moves from the world of immediacy to the mediation of meaning by means of conscious acts of insight, judgment, and decision, acts that are selfconscious and therefore potentially open to self-reflection.


Stone Fort, Kerry, Ireland. © Georg Sedlmeir.

Lonergan and many of the investigators who have expanded on his insights in investigating mystical consciousness have emphasized its affective nature. As Louis Roy summarizes, “Mystical experience occurs in an objectless consciousness and yet includes more. The ‘more’ is the element of infinite lovingness.”34 Yet we can ask if infinite lovingness is all there is to the divine gift. If in God infinite lovingness is one with infinite intelligibility, are not both aspects of God’s reality made present in the new objectless awareness and therefore capable of becoming co-present in subsequent acts of understanding, affirming, loving and choosing? To be sure, if such acts were to attempt to reduce God to a specific content of thought or object of love, that is, to

affirm the final validity of any idea of God, such a move would abandon the realm of the mystical and threaten to subvert the very ground of its distinctive intentionality. But are there other modes of approaching the intellective side of mystical meta-consciousness? Lonergan himself several times evoked the mystical metaphor of the “cloud of unknowing,” although he did not try to integrate its potential into his analysis of consciousness.35 In reflecting on the intellective dimension of mystical awareness James Price distinguished between “bare consciousness,” “traditionally identified with the apophatic state,” and “mystical consciousness,” which he described as “a state in which an explicit awareness of union with the transcendent emerges,” that is, oneness with the ground of consciousness.36 Louis Roy questioned this distinction, which, in his eyes, risks the danger of giving an “object-like content to mystical consciousness.”37 I propose another way of thinking about the intellective dimension of mystical consciousness, one that both utilizes an aspect of Lonergan’s transcendental method and that also reflects a central element in Christian mysticism, the notion of docta ignorantia. In both Insight and Method Lonergan spoke of “inverse insight,” that is, apprehending “that in some fashion the point is that there is no point.”38 Lonergan restricted the term to the realm of ordinary cognition, but we might conceive of the intellective aspect of mystical metaconsciousness as the ground for a form of transcendental inverse insight, that is, a negative act of understanding in line with what mystics since Augustine (who first used the term) called “learned ignorance.”39 A transcendental inverse insight has no specific content. It is not a concept, but a thematized awareness of the truth that the human drive to know is grounded in the constant pursuit of the God who always remains unknowable in his infinite mystery. This is not mere, or “ignorant” ignorance, but the “learned ignorance” that is the product of intense efforts to thematize the limits of all knowing (see, for example, Dionysius, Eckhart, and Cusa, to name but a few). Through this intellectual effort God’s unknowable infinity becomes co-present in the mystic’s mind as a new and higher form of inverse insight, though naturally when he or she brings this insight to expression words and concepts must be employed. These concepts, however, because they have a different origin from our ordinary insights, often do not make sense in the world of customary Aristotelian discourse and logic.40 The mystic therefore both loves, consciously and unrestrictedly, on the basis of the gift of God’s direct presence in the ground of awareness, and consciously and unrestrictedly knows and affirms the horizon of divine unknowability through the practice of docta ignorantia. KnowIng and lovIng In three myStIcS A brief glance at three major mystics of the Western Christian tradition will show how their endeavors to explore mystical consciousness incorporated both
McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal



the affective and intellective dimensions that are integral to mysticism.41 First, a word of caution. Dividing mystics into intellective and affective categories rarely provides much insight into their teaching, given the fact that almost all Christian mystics have dealt with the roles of both knowing and loving in the encounter with God. Meister Eckhart (d. 1328), for example, has been held up as a paragon of intellective mysticism. Eckhart’s teaching certainly expresses the priority of intellect in many ways, but the Dominican also preached and discussed loving God throughout his works.42 The goal of Eckhart’s teaching is to help his listeners become aware of the indistinct union with God always present in the depth (grunt) of the soul. Eckhart discussed this identity in terms of love as well as intellect. His Commentary on Wisdom says that “Everything that loves what is indistinct and indistinction hates what is distinct, as much as distinction. But God is indistinct, and the soul loves to be indistinguished, that is, to be and to become one with God.”43 Since God exists “without a why” (sunder warumbe), the life lived out of an awareness of indistinction from God is spoken of as a life “without a why.” Eckhart spoke of such a mode of life in a number of ways, including the pure spontaneity of love: “He who dwells in the goodness of his nature, dwells in God’s love, and love has no why.”44 This kind of “whyless” love is described as pure, unmixed and perfectly detached.45 The pure love that we direct to God is different from the love we give to creatures, according to Eckhart. German Sermon 82 comments on this transcendental mode of loving by noting that God is Nothing (niht), neither “this nor that that one can speak about.” Rather, as Eckhart puts it, “He is a being above all being. He is a being without a mode of being, and therefore the way in which one should love him is without a way; he is beyond all speech.”46 The non-duality of love of God, however, is not-other than the non-duality of intellect as identical with God in the ground. In his Parisian Questions Eckhart reversed Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on esse as the most appropriate term for God by saying, “I demonstrate that it is not my present view that God understands because he exists, but rather that he exists because he understands. God is an intellect and understanding and his understanding itself is the foundation of his existence.”47 In his Latin Sermon XXIX he went even further in exploring the role of the mutually-informing transcendental predicates of intelligere-esse-unum (understanding-existence-oneness) as ways of expressing God’s indistinction. God can be spoken of as Absolute Unity, or Indistinct Existence (esse indistinctum/lûter wesen), only because he is most properly Pure Intellect. Eckhart, like Thomas Aquinas, adopted the Aristotelian teaching on knowing as the identification of knower and known in the one act of understanding. If true knowing is becoming absolutely one with what is known,


then the divine self-reflection, the “complete return” (reditio completa) that constitutes God as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the only act of understanding that truly exists. This divine “No-thing-ness,” or indistinction, is also present in us, that is, in the human mind as true imago dei. Humanity, according to Eckhart, is what it is through intellect, “because intellect is open to infinity.”48 Eckhart, unlike Thomas, insisted that the human mind exists on two levels: on the virtual, or pre-existent, level in God as imago dei, the perfect image identical with the Word; and also on the actual level of created existence as made ad imaginem. On the virtual level the intellect is not just no material thing and therefore capable of receiving the forms of all material things, as Thomas taught, but it is no-thing at all in its complete identity with God. “Therefore,” as Eckhart says in Sermon XXIX, “to rise up to intellect, to be attached to it, is to be united to God. To be united, to be one, is to be one with God. . . . Every kind of existence that is outside or beyond intellect is a creature; it is creatable, other than God, and is not God. In God there is nothing other” (In deo enim non est aliud).49 In Eckhart’s view the infinite receptivity of the intellect as intellect is the ground of mystical consciousness. In the silence and stillness of perfect interiority God works in the passive intellect not by bestowing knowledge of any-thing, but by a “learned ignorance,” a “notknowing” that draws the soul “into amazement and keeps her on the hunt, for she clearly recognizes ‘that he is,’ but she does not know ‘what’ or ‘how’ he is.”50 On this level the created self vanishes so that it is no longer “I” who thinks, sees, or loves, but God who knows, sees, and loves. Rather, as Eckhart says in several sermons, “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me.”51 One of Eckhart’s keenest readers, Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1461), went on to explore the nature of God as “not-other,” and even wrote a treatise on this approach to the divine mystery in his last years. In this context, however, it is not Cusa’s The Not-Other (De Non-Aliud) that I wish to look at, but the Cardinal’s mystical masterpiece, the treatise On the Vision of God (De visione dei).52 Cusa was moved to write this work because of a quarrel over the relation of love and knowledge in the ascent to God, more specifically in the Dionysian writings, the traditional textbook of mystical theology. The Carthusian Vincent of Aggsbach had attacked Cusa for teaching that both love and knowledge played important roles in the path to union, insisting that the Dionysian writings demonstrated that in true mystical theology (although not in the lower stages of contemplation) intellect must be discarded so that God may be attained in the apex affectus. Cusa sent several letters to his friends in the monastery at Tegernsee who had become caught up in the debate, explaining that both love and knowledge played necessary roles. “In every love by which a person is carried into God,” Cusa says, “knowledge enters in, although it does


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not know the essence that it loves. There is, then, a coincidence of knowledge and ignorance, or a learned ignorance.”53 Cusa did not merely try to answer attacks; he used the opportunity to reflect on the nature of mysticism through a series of meditations on the theme of what it means to see God. In late 1453 he sent On the Vision of God to the monks at Tegernsee with instructions of how to engage in “a very simple and commonplace method” designed to lead them “experientially into the most sacred darkness” of mystical theology. Cusa’s mystical summa takes up many issues, not least that of the modes of knowing and loving involved in seeing God. After introducing the practical exercise of a procession before an all-seeing icon of the face of Jesus, Cusa explores the meaning of visio dei understood as both our seeing God and God’s seeing us through a series of meditations on the dialectical nature of such vision (Chaps. 4–16). He then turns to the necessarily trinitarian nature of God revealed in the proper understanding of vision (Chaps. 17–18), and the role of filiation, that is, how the Son of God made flesh is our archetype for achieving union with God (Chaps. 19–26). The long first part of the treatise may be conceived of as Cusa’s exploration of the ocular identity summarized in the Eckhartian statement quoted above. The Cardinal expounds this in terms of his central theme of learned ignorance set forth in his earlier On Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia) of 1440, as well as a series of new symbols, such as the “wall of paradise” (murus paradisi), the barrier to all human cognition, even that of the coincidence of opposites. He also engages in a detailed investigation of the divine nature as Absolute Infinity (infinitas absoluta). In this first part of the treatise Cusa’s language, though infused with an affective impetus reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions, is predominantly intellective, or perhaps better, supra-intellective, in its exploration of mystical consciousness. Toward the end of the first section, however, as well as in the shorter second and third parts, he explicitly takes up the relation of loving and knowing. Cusa teaches that God’s infinity is present to us as the deep reality of all our acts of knowing (that is, seeing): “What other, O Lord, is your seeing, when you look upon me with the eye of mercy, than your being seen by me? In seeing me you, who are the hidden God, give yourself to be seen by me.”54 While knowing and loving are identical in God, this is not the case in human subjects. True to the position laid out in his earlier letters, Cusa insists that making use of our capacity to know is necessary for approaching the God who lies beyond both affirmation and negation. Going beyond the position adopted in On Learned Ignorance, Cusa now claims that the coincidence of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum) is not the goal of the journey to God, but is only the limit of all conceptual thinking found at the wall of paradise. If intellect has helped bring the mystic to this point, only the love revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity will enable him to leap over the wall to meet God in wordless


rapture in the garden of paradise. In Chapter 17, Cusa, speaking in the voice of a monastic contemplative, declares: “I perceive that the distinction between the one who loves and the lovable exists inside the wall of the coincidence of unity and otherness. . . . For the wall shuts out the power of every intellect, although the eye looks beyond into paradise. Yet that which the eye sees it can neither name nor understand, for what it sees is the eye’s secret love and a hidden treasure, which remains hidden after it is found. . .”55 So, love does indeed go beyond knowledge, though Cusa takes care to underline that both are necessary. Late in the treatise he summarizes his position in the language of prayer: “O Christ, our Savior, you have taught two things only: faith and love. By faith the intellect approaches the Word; by love it is united to it. The nearer the intellect approaches, the more it is given increase in power; the more it loves, the more it is established in the light of the Word.”56


Accelerator. © Josh Gardner.

John of the Cross (d. 1591) also reflected deeply on the role of knowing and loving in the path to union with God, specifically on the way in which the faculties of memory, understanding, and will are transformed through the purifying, illuminating, and unifying power of mystical grace.57 John’s examination of how the thinking and loving subject attains union with God at first glance appears dualistic in the way in which he separates the sensual from the spiritual aspects of the soul and constructs two different accounts of knowing and loving. He insists that the knowing that begins in the physical senses and produces natural knowledge of and love for created realities through the activa-

McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal


tion of the inner senses and the powers of memory, intellect, and will can never attain God. All such knowledge and desire must be purged in the long and difficult journey inward set out in detail in the Ascent to Mount Carmel and the Dark Night of the Soul. In order to know and love God in reality, John, like Eckhart, teaches that the inner faculties must be emptied and put to rest so that God can work directly from within. The knowledge of God that becomes gradually available during this purgative process is general, not particular, that is, it is not objectifiable as a concept. Book two of the Ascent describes it this way: “This divine knowledge of God never deals with particular things, since its object is the Supreme Principle. Consequently, one cannot express it in particular terms unless a truth about something less than God is seen together with knowledge of him. . . . This sublime knowledge can be received only by a person who has arrived at union with God, for it is itself that union. It consists of a certain touch of the divinity produced in the soul, and thus it is God himself who is experienced and tasted there.”58 The “certain touch” (cierto toque) of divinity that John speaks of here is a spiritual and formless infusion into the substance of the soul that effects a reorientation of the three essential powers of memory, intellect, and will. John therefore is now in a position to analyze the new mystical knowing and loving that parallel natural knowing and loving and make use of the same faculties, but now as moved by God from within and not by sense perception from without.59 The divine touches are felt in what John calls “the deep caverns of feeling,” that is, in the depths of the faculties of memory, intellect, and will in their spiritual operations.60 The caverns function like the bodily senses in ordinary knowing. Just as the images received from the bodily senses are stored in the interior senses of fantasy and common sense in natural knowing, so too in spiritual knowing the soul’s inner power of feeling present in its very substance stores the divine touches so that they can be remembered and enjoyed. In the Ascent to Mount Carmel John described the role of reoriented memory in this new form of consciousness: “The communications of this knowledge [of the Creator] are touches and spiritual feelings of union with God, the goal to which we are guiding the soul. The memory does not recall these through any form, image, or figure that may have been impressed on the soul. . . . It remembers them through the effect of light, love, delight, and spiritual renewal, and so on, produced in it. Something of this effect is renewed as often as the soul recalls them.”61 Other passages analyze how the other two powers, those of intellect and will, take their respective roles in the new mystical consciousness. John of the Cross saw the threefold powers of the human subject as an image of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Throughout his works, but especially in the Living Flame of Love, he analyzed the trinitarian nature of mystical consciousness. An important aspect of such analyses is the relation


between the three faculties and the substance of the soul. The substance is not some fourth, deeper, aspect of the human subject as imago Dei, but mirrors the relation between the three persons of the Trinity and the Godhead. As Edward Howells puts it, “The three faculties are distinct from the substance of the soul while also, on a deeper level, unified in this subsistence.”62 The trinitarian basis of John’s view of mystical consciousness is the root of its Christological dimension—the union of the divine and human natures in the person of the Word is both the exemplar and source for how the mystic unifies the divine way of knowing and loving present in the “center of the soul” (John’s equivalent of Eckhart’s grunt, or ground) and the ordinary human knowing and loving that the mystic must still employ in daily life, but now in a transformed fashion.63 The key is that “The soul’s center is God,” as John says in the Living Flame of Love.64 The more that the soul penetrates into the center, the more its activity becomes a divine activity; nevertheless, John always insists that the soul remains a created reality. While John can sometimes echo Eckhart’s and Cusa’s strong formulations of identity, that is, the operative fusion of divine and human activities in mystical consciousness, he is more attentive to the importance of ongoing distinction than Eckhart was, and also perhaps than Cusa. by way of concluSIon There is no doubt that explorations of the nature of mystical experience will continue to be produced by students of different religious traditions and diverse disciplines. Despite the wide range of understandings given to that slippery term, many of the treatments centering on experience will be worth pondering in order to help enrich our understanding of mysticism. The argument advanced here is that the category of consciousness, embracing experience but also extending beyond it, may provide a more helpful way of investigating mysticism and its relation to spirituality. This approach seeks to avoid the danger involved in restricting the “real” mystical element of religion to the first level of consciousness, that is, the reception of the gift of God’s presence in feeling, or basic inner experience. It also critiques views of mystical consciousness that tend to emphasize the affective dimension of direct contact with God to the detriment of the intellective aspect. Both from the theoretical perspective of consciousness analysis set out in Part I, as well as from a consideration of the historical evidence of how three significant mystics understood the role of both knowing and loving in their encounters with God in Part II, the conclusion emerges that a more extensive analysis of the full range of the activities of the human subject as they are transformed and reoriented through the presence of God acting directly within the subject will help us gain deeper understanding of the mystical encounter between God and human.


McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal

1. This essay has been developed in several venues. Some of the ideas were first put forth in a paper entitled “Reflections on the Mystical Self,” given at the Conference “Le Soi/The Self,” held at the University of Chicago Center in Paris, March 3–4, 2006, and published in the Cahiers Parisiens/Parisian Notebooks 3 (2007): 110–30. The longer form that is the basis for this essay was first delivered at the International Seminar on “The Experience of God Today and Carmelite Mysticism,” held at the Carmelite Retreat Center at Zidine (Bosnia and Herzegovina), September 17–22, 2007. This form of the essay, entitled “The Dynamic Structure of Mystical Consciousness,” will appear among the conference papers to be published under the title The Experience of God Today and Carmelite Mysticism. Mystagogy and Inter-Religious and Cultural Dialog. The paper was also delivered as the Roland Bainton Lecture at Yale Divinity School on October 16, 2007, and then at the “International Conference on ‘Mystical Experience: Communication between God and Man,’” held at Fu Jen Catholic University, Taipei, Taiwan, November 2–3, 2007. This form of the essay will be published in Fu Jen International Journal of Religious Studies. Finally, I have modified the essay for the readership of Spiritus, profiting from the remarks of two anonymous reviewers. I want to thank the organizers of these conferences and lectureships for the opportunity to present my views, as well as all those whose questions and comments helped me to clarify my argument. 2. For reflections on the history of the term spirituality, see Bernard McGinn, “The Letter and the Spirit: Spirituality as an Academic Discipline,” in Minding the Spirit. The Study of Christian Spirituality, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer and Mark S. Borroughs (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 25–41. 3. For a short history of the term mysticus and its derivatives, see Louis Bouyer, “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of a Word,” in Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods, O.P. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 42–55. 4. On the creation of “mysticism” (la mystique in French), see Michel de Certeau, “‘Mystique’ au XVIIe siècle: Le problème du language mystique,” in L’Homme devant Dieu: Mélanges offerts au Pere Henri de Lubac, 3 vols. (Paris: Aubier, 1964) 2: 267–91. 5. Teresa of Avila, Life 1.10, quoted from The Life of Teresa of Jesus. The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. by E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960), 119. 6. Michael Oakeshott, Experience and its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933; reprint 2002), 9. 7. For examples of this approach, see, W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (New York and London: Macmillan, 1960); and Ninian Smart, “Interpretation and Mystical Experience,” Religious Studies 1 (1965): 75–87. 8. For James on mysticism, see Don Browning, “William James’s Philosophy of Mysticism,” The Journal of Religion 59 (1979): 56–70; and G. William Barnard, Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism (Albany: SUNY, 1997). 9. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), “Conclusions,” 501–04. 10. James, Varieties, 431, 433. 11. Among those who argue this case are some thinkers who employ the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan, which will also be utilized in my own account. See, for example, Louis Roy, O.P., Transcendent Experiences. Phenomenology and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2001); and Mystical Consciousness. Western Perspectives and Dialogue with Japanese Thinkers (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003). 12. This point deserves emphasis. I do not intend to rule out the possibility of more developed and nuanced conceptions of mystical experience that would address the problems found in many of prior uses. My case is that mystical consciousness as a category already can perform this function and therefore deserves a hearing.



13. The importance of the category of presence in mysticism was argued by Joseph Maréchal, S.J., in his Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics (Albany: Magi Books, 1964: French original 1926–37), especially Essay II, “On the Feeling of Presence in Mystics and Non-Mystics” (55–145). 14. Transformation, a central theme in mystical writings, will not be directly analyzed here. For a discussion, see Kees Waaijman, “Transformation. A Key Word in Spirituality,” Studies in Spirituality 8 (1998): 5–37. 15. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), 74. 16. Augustine, Confessions, 3.6. 17. Lonergan set out his transcendental method briefly in Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), especially Chap. 1. His fundamental work is Insight. A Study of Human Understanding (London: Longmans, 1957). See also the essay, “Cognitional Structure,” in Collection. Papers by Bernard Lonergan (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), 221–39. 18. Among these works, see especially James Robertson Price III, The Reintegration of Theology and Mysticism. A Dialectical Analysis of Bernard Lonergan’s Theological Method and the Mystical Experience of Symeon the New Theologian (Chicago: University of Chicago Ph.D. Dissertation, 1980). Price has also published several essays on mysticism utilizing Lonergan’s thought; see “Lonergan and the Foundation of Contemporary Mystical Theology,” Lonergan Workshop 5, ed. Fred Lawrence (Chico: Scholars Press, 1985), 163–95; “Typologies and the Cross-Cultural Analysis of Mysticism,” in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lonergan, S.J., ed. Timothy P. Fallon, S.J., and Philip Boo Riley (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), 181–90; and “Transcendence and Images: The Apophatic and the Kataphatic Revisited,” Studies in Formative Spirituality 11 (1990): 195–201. 19. Lonergan at times speaks of consciousness as “just experience” (Method, 106), but because his theory insists that the operations of understanding, judging, and deciding are also conscious activities whose self-presence can be objectified by “applying the operations as intentional to the operations as conscious” (Method, 9–15), I will use consciousness in this wider sense here. Important for understanding Lonergan’s view of consciousness is his distinction between the objectivist view of “consciousness as perception” and his own insistence on “consciousness as experience,” that is, self-presence. See his De constitutione Christi ontologica et psychologica (Rome: Gregorian University, 1959), 130–34; and the essay “Christ as Subject: A Reply,” in Collection, 175–78. 20. Bernard Lonergan, The Philosophy of God and Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 13 (see also 61–62). 21. Lonergan, Method, xii, and 18–20. 22. In Chapter XIX of Insight Lonergan developed this co-presence of primary Intelligibility and Being in human intentionality as an argument for the existence of God. In later works he admitted that this “proof” depended on religious conversion and was therefore not a universal argument for all; see, for example, Logernan, Philosophy of God and Theology, 11–14. 23. Lonergan, Method, 104–07, 111–13, and 122–23; and Lonergan, Philosophy of God and Theology, 8–10. 24. Lonergan, Method, 107. 25. Lonergan, Philosophy of God and Theology, 38. On the issue of the fifth level, see Michael Vertin, “Lonergan on Consciousness: Is There a Fifth Level?,” Method. A Journal in Lonerganian Studies 12 (1994): 1–36. 26. Lonergan, Method, 122–23. 27. Lonergan, Method, 109. 28. Lonergan, Method, 123. 29. The question is reminiscent of the Neoscholastic debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries over whether mystical states were intensifications of the grace given


McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal

30. 31.

32. 33.

34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40.




44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49.

to all believers or special gifts meant only for the few. The general acceptance of the former view has had important ramifications for late-twentieth Roman Catholic theology of mysticism. Lonergan, Philosophy of God and Theology, 38–39. For a sketch of the relations of love and knowledge in mysticism, see Bernard McGinn, “Love, Knowledge and Unio mystica in the Western Christian Tradition,” in Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. An Ecumenical Dialogue, ed. Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn (New York: Continuum, 1996), 59–86. On the relation between the affective and the noetic levels, see Roy, Transcendental Experience, Chapter 10. Lonergan, Method, 105–06. Price has noted an ambiguity in Lonergan’s account here and suggests distinguishing two moments in religious experience: the gift of God’s love poured out upon the subject and the state of “being in love with God,” the human response to the gift which must express itself in particular acts intending specific objects; see “Lonergan and the Foundation of a Contemporary Mystical Theology,” 167. Roy, Mystical Consciousness, 50. Lonergan, Method, 266, 342. Price, “Transcendence and Images,” 198–99. Roy, Mystical Consciousness, 46–48. Lonergan, Insight, 19–25; Lonergan, Method, 188. Augustine, Letter 117. Nicholas of Cusa’s reflections on the nature of docta ignorantia explicitly reject the application of ordinary logic to the realm of learned ignorance and its coincidentia oppositorum. Similar forms of supra-logical discourse can be found in Eckhart and many other masters of apophatic language. An insightful study based on pagan, Christian and Islamic mysticism is Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). The account that follows makes use in part of materials on John of the Cross in “Reflections on the Mystical Self,” 123–27. I have chosen these three mystics because they attempt to give due attention to both knowing and loving. A choice of other figures (for example, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Julian of Norwich) would produce a somewhat different picture, stressing love and cataphatic language more than intellect and the apophatic dimension. The “symphonic” truth of the Christian mystical tradition, I argue, embraces both dimensions. For some reflections on love in Eckhart’s mysticism and how the Dominican used the love language of Bernard of Clairvaux, see Bernard McGinn, “St. Bernard and Meister Eckhart,” Cîteaux 31 (1980): 373–86. Meister Eckhart’s works will be cited according to the critical edition: Meister Eckhart. Die deutschen und lateinischen Werke. Herausgegeben im Auftrage der deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1936). The edition is divided into two sections: Die deutschen Werke (hereafter DW with volume and page number); and Die lateinischen Werke (hereafter LW with paragraph number [n.], and volume and page). The passage cited is from Eckhart’s Expositio in Sapientiam n. 282 (LW 2: 614–15). See also Latin sermon (Sermo) VI.1 (LW 4: 53). All translations are my own. Eckhart, German Sermon (Pr.) 28 (DW 2: 59). Eckhart, Pr. 27 (DW 2: 45–46), and Pr. 29 (DW 2: 80). Eckhart, Pr. 82 (DW 3: 431). Eckhart, Quaestiones Parisienses q. 1, n. 4 (LW 5: 40). Eckhart, Sermo XI, n. 112 (LW 4: 105). Eckhart, Sermo XXIX, n. 304 (LW 4: 270); see also Sermo XXIV.2, n. 250 (LW 4: 229). For a treatment of Sermo XXIX and Eckhart’s view of intellect, see Bernard McGinn, “Sermo XXIX. ‘Deus unus est,’” in Lectura Eckhardi II, edd. Georg Steer and Loris Sturlese (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2003), 205–32.


50. Eckhart, Pr. 101 (DW 4: 360–61). 51. Eckhart, Pr. 12 (DW 1: 201). See also Pr. 76 (DW 3: 320–21); and Eckhart’s Expositio in Evangelium secundum Iohannem, nn. 506–09 (LW 3: 437–41). 52. For a more detailed investigation of Cusa’s De visione dei, see Bernard McGinn, “Seeing and Not Seeing. Nicholas of Cusa’s De visione Dei in the History of Western Mysticism,” in Cusanus. The Legacy of Learned Ignorance, ed. Peter J. Casarella (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 2006), 26–53. 53. Nicholas of Cusa, Letter of September 22, 1452, as translated in Bernard McGinn, ed., Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York: Random House, 2006), 271. For more detail on the Tegernsee debates on mysticism, see Bernard McGinn, The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (1300–1500) (New York: Herder & Herder, 2005), 445–56. 54. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione dei, 5.13. For the quotations from this treatise I will use the translation of H. Lawrence Bond, Nicholas of Cusa. Selected Spiritual Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), where this passage is found on 241. 55. Cusa, De visione dei, 17.75 (trans., 269). 56. Cusa, De visione dei, 24.113 (trans., 286). See also 18.81 and 21.99–100. 57. On mystical transformation in John of the Cross, see especially André Bord, Mémoire et espérence chez Jean de la Croix (Paris: Beauchesne, 1971); and Edward Howells, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Mystical Knowing and Selfhood (New York: Crossroad, 2002). 58. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2.26.5, using the translation of Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., The Collected Works of John of the Cross (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), where this passage is found on 246–47. 59. For a more detailed account of how this takes place, see Howells, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, 26–34. 60. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love, 3.69. 61. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, 3.14.2 (trans., 290). 62. Howells, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, 33. 63. See the analysis in Howells, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Chapter 3. 64. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love, 1.12 (trans., 645).


McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal

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