The dialogue continues between Hard Going and Simply Rational. Hard Going represents a Christian point of view while Simply Rational represents a humanist, and sometimes sceptical, interpretation.

They come back to the verses ‘The Five Natures’ (blog entry 71) and to the last verse which translates: I’m the hidden, I’ve met the Being beyond self; / there is reverence and awe and joy in my face; / I’ve seen and felt the wholeness of the stars.
Inside the Abbey ...
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Too simple, too structured
SR: This all sounds very mystical. You talk about ‘aspects’ or ‘stages’ of the soul’s journey to God. I suppose this is the final stage.
HG: I’m not so sure any more. Remember how I told you I had changed my mind since writing these verses. When I wrote them, I was like yourself, using my reason to try and make sense of things. The verses are too simple, too structured. And you’re right, I was talking about mysticism.

William James and mystical experience
SR: I’ve read the book Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. He talks about mystical experience and he doesn’t deny that people, for example, Saint John of the Cross, may have had such experiences, but at the end of the day they prove nothing, because they are private. As he says, they are ‘absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come’ but also he says ‘No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically’.
HG: Absolutely. It’s a great book which I read years ago. I still have it. That’s the problem with mysticism , that it’s a private experience. It doesn’t help others, although the witness of a great number of mystical writers is impressive, as I think James acknowledges. What I find really impressive, however, is how honest James is about his own view of the supernatural in the Postscript at the end of the book. Can I quote you a piece from this? I find it really fascinating.
SR: Go ahead.
A picture window from a ruin, Kintra
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Naturalists and supernaturalists
HG: He says: ‘If one should make a division of all thinkers into naturalists and supernaturalists, I should undoubtedly have to go, along with most philosophers, into the supernaturalist branch. But there is a crasser and a more refined supernaturalism, and it is to the refined division that most philosophers at the present day belong. If not regular transcendental idealists, they at least obey the Kantian direction enough to bar out ideal entities from interfering causally in the course of phenomenal events’.

Supernaturalists – ‘crasser’ and ‘refined’
SR: He says there are two supernaturalist branches, the ‘crasser’ and the ‘refined’. What is the distinction between them and in which branch does he place himself?
HG: The ‘crasser’ or ‘piecemeal’ branch ‘admits miracles and providential leadings, and finds no intellectual difficulty in mixing the ideal and the real worlds together by interpolating influences from the ideal region among the forces that causally determine the real world’s details’. On the other hand, for the ‘refined’ branch the world of ‘the ideal has no efficient causality, and never bursts into the world of phenomena at particular points’. And, to answer your second question, he places himself in the ‘piecemeal’ branch.

He says: ‘ … I suppose that my belief that in communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world, and new departures are made here below, subjects me to being classed among the supernaturalists of the piecemeal or crasser type.’
SR: He was a pragmatist of course. If something was useful, it was true. But to come back to your verse. Is there any truth in what you say at all? Meeting ‘the Being beyond self’ and so on.
HG: Can I answer your question with another quotation.
SR: You’re fond of quotations.

Grains of sand and stones, Iona
(Photo: Scott Murray)

The Wound of knowledge
HG: I came across this book in a charity shop the other day. It’s called The Wound of Knowledge by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. It’s the story of the search for God from Paul, John, Ignatius to Luther and Saint John of the Cross. A truly amazing book. In the chapter on Saint John, who is one of the great mystics, Williams says: ‘And this is illumination; not rare mystical trances, visions or ecstasies, but the sense of being drawn into a central magnetic area of obscurity. Illumination is the running-out of language and thought, the compulsion exercised by a reality drastically and totally beyond the reach of our conceptual apparatus. Illumination is an entry into that ‘contradiction’ at the heart of Christian belief represented by Christ on the cross’.
SR: So illumination is a darkness?

The dark night of the soul
HG: There has to be complete darkness before the light can be seen. In this idea of abandonment, Saint John isn’t so far from Luther who says ‘Having entered into darkness and blackness I see nothing; I live by faith, hope and love alone …’ and again God ‘can manifest his power only in weakness’.
SR: Your verse doesn’t really reflect this dark side of illumination.

… and afterwards
HG: No, I didn’t do justice to the experiences people can have. I was imagining what happens after the dark night of the soul, I suppose. According to St John of the Cross the experience is beyond words. The soul ‘finds no terms, no means, no comparison whereby to render the sublimity of the wisdom and the delicacy of the spiritual feeling with which she is filled …’
SG: Hm. Silence.
HG: Me too.