Lover longing is often awakened through the experience of first love; such was the case with Dante when he discovered Beatrice for the first time on the streets of Florence; he called the experience “la vita nuova” (the new life). The longing, though awakened by a human relationship, cannot be sustained by such a relationship. Human loves, as fulfilling as they may be, cannot fulfill this particular longing. Those who expect their earthly beloved to do for them what only God can do for them will project disappointment on this same beloved when the earthly love cannot satisfy a love which is ultimately meant for God.
If you have ever felt lonely, what might this mean? Hunger indicates the capacity for food; thirst the capacity for drink, so loneliness indicates that humans are by nature social beings. The fact that communication is a human trait also indicates that we are made for community. But there is an experience that may indicate a desire for a relationship that transcends mere human companionship. This is the loneliness one experiences even when surrounded by a crowd, or a loneliness that sometimes occurs while living under the same roof with others, family or friends who care for us but still cannot satisfy this particular longing. While this second type of loneliness does not prove anything definitive, it may, nevertheless, indicate that we are made for a relationship no mere human relationship can satisfy.
The ascetic-saint longing is a reminder that each of us has a deep sense of our own brokenness and an ache to have the pieces put back together. Nobody is very life-skilled. Each of us lives beneath the level of our own convictions. Furthermore, we may sense the failures in others while being blind to similar failures in ourselves. Nevertheless, the time comes, when we begin to see those things in ourselves we have so quickly disdained in others, to recognize what is contemptible within, sets us on the quest to discover what may restore us and make us whole. The ascetics of old, in an attempt to contemplate their own deficiencies, would take to the wilderness, to hermitages, or to monasteries in the hope of discovering the power of God to heal this brokenness. Transformation followed as these contemplatives discovered the mending grace of God. These ascetics then became spiritual guides for others, mentoring them in these healing processes. Some, in light of their spiritual guidance, called them saints.
The Dialectic of Desire
All of life sets us on a course where we go through a process C. S. Lewis described in <em>The Pilgrim’s Regress</em> as “the dialectic of Desire.” Awakening desires seek to tether themselves to some object that, in the end, proves incapable of satisfying the desire. These disappointing experiences may also testify to the grace of God. He gives gifts to woo us to himself, but these gifts cannot replace him. James 1:17 (NASB) says, “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
While the gift is mutable, the Giver is not. Hearts set on such mutabilities will be broken. God’s gifts, in this way, remain true to him; their true nature sets the recipient on a quest once again for what can truly satisfy. In “The Hound of Heaven,” Francis Thompson called this quality “traitorous trueness.” When we give idolatrous devotion to the gifts, they betray us and let us down. In that moment of their traitorousness to us, they remain true to the Giver, who has awakened our devotion by the gift, and by the gift’s falseness directs us to himself, that in him alone ultimate satisfaction may be found.
Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”C. S Lewis, <em>Mere Christianity.</em> (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), 108. In God alone is found the true home for the pilgrim longing, true love for the lover longing, and forgiveness and nurture for the ascetic-saint longing.
The recognition that our deepest longings cannot be satisfied by any created thing awakens desire for the transcendent, but this desiring is not specifically Christian. Underhill clarifies that all religions have their mystics, those who testify to a hunger and thirst for God. It is understandable that this should be so, for God made us for himself. He made us as worshiping beings. If we will not worship him, we will worship something in his place. This is evidenced by the fact all societies have their mystics, and all cultures have their religions.
The Christian mystic, however, is marked by the uniqueness of Christianity, found in the Incarnation. Underhill distinguishes mere religious mysticism and longing, what she calls exclusive mysticism, from inclusive mysticism, which is Christian. Exclusive mysticism, “the attempt to ascend to the vision of God by turning away from His creatures by unmitigated other worldliness, is not Christian at all.” It “cannot be distinguished from pantheism.”Evelyn Underhill, <em>Collected Papers.</em> Lucy Menzies, ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1946), 116. Inclusive mysticism, on the other hand, has discovered satisfaction knowing that God, in Christ, has come in the Incarnation. This “alone,” writes Underhill, “is truly Christian; because its philosophic basis is the doctrine of the Incarnation, with its continuance in the Church and the Sacraments.”Underhill, <em>Collected Papers,<em> 116.</em></em>
God comes in time and place to demonstrate his love, to forgive sins, and to provide the promise of his presence forever. Inclusive mysticism recognizes God’s grace to include others and reconcile them to him; furthermore, the believer now unites with God’s purpose in a mission to encourage others to experience union with God as well.
It must be understood that the Incarnation is at the center of Christian mystical spirituality, for in Christ the longings of the soul find their proper object, and in Christ one begins the process of the spiritual maturity that leads to union with God.
Scale of Perfection
The maturity of the Christian in the way of union with God is highlighted in what is called the Scale of Perfection. Underhill is explicit in saying that the Scale of Perfection is derived from Isaiah’s vision of God as outlined in Isaiah 6.Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church (Cambridge: James and Clarke, 1975), 32–33. The prophet defines himself as he stands in relation to God. It is true that we tend to define ourselves by how we perceive that others see us. But when we look to others in the hope of making sense of ourselves, we are disappointed, for we are looking to those who are at least as insecure as we are. We can gain a proper understanding of who we are only when we grasp how God sees us, and he loves us and forgives us. Knowing his love and forgiveness allows us to look honestly at ourselves so that we might adjust our lives to Reality; that is, we might mature according to the truth of God as he reveals it by his love.
Isaiah passed through three phases of self-definition. As he looked at God, he first discovered God’s holiness, by which Isaiah recognized his own contrasting sinfulness; this is the phase in mystical tradition known as the Purgative. Isaiah continued to gaze at God and discovered God’s willingness to forgive and cleanse sin, a testimony to his love and grace; this is known as the Illuminative. At this point the prophet could not divert his eyes from the unutterable and ineffable love of God and thus discovered the heart of God for the world; Isaiah naturally volunteered himself for service for God in the world; this phase is known as the Unitive.
Underhill writes, “Truth cannot be summed up in a formula nor life reduced to a system.”Underhill, Collected Papers, 27. Certainly this is true, for reality is complex; nevertheless, it is possible to give a true, though tentative, description of the way things are. The truths known do not have to be disregarded while acquiring deepening understanding, any more than the interior rings of a tree must be rejected because the tree adds new rings. Underhill clarifies that “the mystic way . . . describes in general terms the way in which the soul of the mystic usually develops.”Underhill, The Mystics of the Church, 26.