The Metaphysics of Mysticism: A Commentary

“In finem nostrae cognitionis Deum tamquam ignotum cognoscimus” *
                                                                                         Saint Thomas Aquinas

Dedication: to Mary, Mother of God


A Brief Note to the Reader

 Mysticism is a phenomenon fraught with nuances, both linguistic and metaphysical. The Metaphysics, consequently, as a philosophic work, presumes to address issues of a nature less than congenial to the universe of ordinary discourse. Philosophy, to be sure, demands a rigorous language, a syntax, if you will, that is subtly antagonistic to the fluid and sometimes extremely volatile concepts intrinsic to the phenomenon of the mystical experience.  The austere language that philosophy arrogates to itself is sometimes too rigid a probe to uncover, reveal, the subtle and often delicate complexities that inevitably arise in a careful examination of mysticism; hence a sometimes involuted terminology will be encountered in our fragile attempt to render linguistic what merely verges on becoming intelligible. I have, to the best of my ability, limited this proliferation of abstruse language applied to an already abstruse subject. I have attempted to keep neologisms to a minimal, but have not blenched from employing them when my own linguistic resources are exhausted. Notwithstanding the difficulties inevitably encountered in language, I have endeavored in this work not simply to clarify what is obscure, but to address what is unique and compelling in this type of experience, an experience that has challenged philosophy for something more than a parenthetical account, an account, more often than not, much too eager to either dismiss this phenomenon, or to relegate it to psychology through its own failure to provide it with an adequate epistemological framework. Philosophy, in a word, has not yet coherently responded to this challenge. I am not satisfied that I have done so to the extent required, and many readers will no doubt concur with my assessment. Nevertheless it is a beginning of sorts, and if it provokes more questions than it answers it will at least have served to rehabilitate the philosophical arrogance that has been too ready to dismiss what it finds uncongenial. Hence the impetus of this work.

What this Book is, and what it is not

Although this book is subtitled a “Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross” it will become immediately evident to the reader that, both in scope and purpose, it is a commentary structured around some very specific epistemological issues. In particular, it is concerned with exploring the possibility of articulating a coherent theory of knowledge that is implicit, or perhaps better yet, latent, in the writings of St. John. I say latent because the theory itself is really rather an aside to the very practical issues raised by St. John in the writing of his several treatises on mystical experience. Anyone who has read St. John will undoubtedly agree that his approach to the subject is more programmatic than analytical, at least in any contemporary sense. As such, the aperture, if you will, of our focus must go beyond the hard and fast boundaries that might otherwise define our expectations of a commentary dealing strictly with the theological complexities that inevitably arise upon a close reading of St. John of the Cross.

In one sense, of course, the works of St. John are a commentary unto themselves, and while this may simplify matters in one respect, it considerably complicates them in another. The verse by verse interpretation which St. John himself offers is, obviously, the first and most apparent level, a level where St. John provides us with an often detailed explication of the meaning behind his extremely subtle poetic utterances. This meaning, both in scope and intention, is purely theological. Our own purposes within this book, however, are not: they are, by and large, epistemological. And this is where the issue becomes a bit more complex.

A commentary of the type proposed, it seemed to me, must take this first level of meaning fundamentally rooted in theology, to the next and less apparent level of meaning radicated in epistemology; in other words, one that specifically emerges from an epistemological criticism of the first level. In this sense it is a striving for what might be called hypo-textual meaning, a meaning always latent within, but often suppressed by, the complexities of the text itself. At the same time it is also a striving for contextual coherence. In any critical encounter between mysticism and epistemology, it is the demand for coherence, and not credence, which inevitably predominates. The often attenuated and sometimes conflicting principles that have largely become part and parcel of mystical theology remain no more than mere speculations until coherence is demonstrated to obtain not merely between the principles themselves within their own legitimate province (theology), but more importantly, between these principles and the canons of reason to which epistemology presumes to hold them accountable. Questions likely to emerge from such an encounter are of the following sort: “Do the implications of St. John’s often abstruse statements actually hold up under epistemological criticism?” “Does a fully explicated meaning which accords with accepted theological principles, also accord with accepted epistemological principles?” "Is the via negativa, or the apophatic way, a legitimate epistemological venue?" In a word, do the theological principles have adequate epistemological credentials?

For this reason, and others, I thought it best to entitle this work a commentary dealing with St. John’s mystical “philosophy”, and not his “theology” as such, for a much broader range of issues, especially epistemological issues, are clearly necessary to the scope of this type of endeavor, issues which a purely theological analysis would otherwise, and legitimately, exclude. The reason I have done so will, I think, become apparent early on. I have essentially attempted to bring three related issues into focus within the present work: the phenomenon that we have come to understand as the “mystical experience”, the metaphysics ostensibly underlying it, and the consonance, if any, obtaining between the two when viewed under the objective lens of epistemology. The real question of the work, then, can be summarized simply as this: “Is the mystical experience epistemologically coherent?” There are, of course, inevitably a subset of questions latent within this: “Are the conclusions drawn from St. John’s arguments consistent with the premises implied?” “Do the premises and conclusions themselves coherently accord with the metaphysics?” In short, is the mystical experience described by St. John of the Cross at the very least epistemologically credible?

But why St. John of the Cross? Why not Eckhardt, Gerson, or Tauler? Even the briefest historical survey of the great Western Christian Mystics offers, especially in the way of speculative mysticism, a wide variety of other and perhaps better known candidates. The reason that I have chosen St. John is simply this: the works of St. John of the Cross, particularly the Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, stand, I think, as the culmination of the Western tradition of mysticism. Every other representative of this tradition is either in some way defective or deficient in articulating what has come to be accepted as orthodox doctrine in mystical theology. It is, in retrospect, no small token to the depth and scope of his writings that St. John was declared the first “Doctor of Mystical Theology” within the Roman Catholic Church. Much of this remains to be discussed later.  

As a final note in the way of explaining what this book is, or at least endeavors to be, I think it necessary to say something briefly about the term “mysticism” itself. It has always appeared to me somewhat regrettable that the term “mysticism” is used to define what would really be more accurately described as “contemplative theology”. With the term “mystical” we are likely to conjure up a good deal that is either unrelated, or deeply inimical to the contemplative theology that comes to us in the writings of the great Christian mystics. Mystical theology, in one of its typical paradoxes, is essentially a rational enterprise despite the fact that the mystical experience itself is not. While basically a practical undertaking, in presuming to set forth reasons for this practical task, it is at least implicitly a rational justification as well. And it is precisely this rational aspect of the mystical experience that is the focus of this book.  

On the other hand, it is equally important to the reader to understand what this book is not. This book is not a compendium. While it carefully attempts to chronologically accompany the text where possible, it does not blench from a departure where an examination of concurrent issues is warranted. Some will undoubtedly find this vexing. And while it adverts to the Mystical Tradition in general, a tradition out of which the thought of St. John very clearly emerges, it does not presume to exhaustively treat of the many notable figures who have contributed to this long-standing tradition. Deidre Carabine’s “The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena”, I suggest, would be much more suitable to this purpose. The goal of this book is unabashedly epistemological. Neither do I presume the reader to be intimately acquainted with Thomism as such, from which many of the metaphysical doctrines articulated by St. John unquestionably derive. For the sake of clarity, and the convenience of the reader, I have endeavored to reiterate them when necessary, providing pertinent documentation should the reader wish to explore the issue further. As dearly as I wish this work to be all things to all people, I have settled for the more modest goal of providing epistemological perspective on the sometimes fluid, sometimes volatile, but always paradoxical issues that mysticism perpetually engenders.


* In the end, we know God as unknown (In Boetium de Trinitate, q. 1, a. 2, ad 1um)