Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings
By Karen Armstrong
Publisher: New York: Bantam Books, 1994
In Visions of God, Karen Armstrong presents selected writings of four mystics from fourteenth-century England: Richard Rolle of Hampole, Walter Hilton, Dame Julian of Norwich, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Particularly for readers who come from a background other than Christianity or who find reading medieval texts challenging, this book may serve as a useful point of access to medieval Christian mysticism.
In her introduction, to place these mystics in context, Armstrong offers a sweeping view of the history of world religions. Beginning with the Axial Age (800–200 BCE), she discusses general phases of development in world religions and the place of mysticism within religious experience. She then turns to medieval Christianity, discussing political and social developments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that may have created an environment ripe for the flourishing of mysticism in fourteenth-century England. Armstrong also introduces each of the four mystics, providing useful biographical and historical information, sometimes adding comparisons with mystics from other times, places, and religions.
The first of the four mystics, Richard Rolle (d. 1349), attained ecstatic states of divine love while living the solitary life of a hermit. In his book, The Fire of Love, he describes his experience of divine love as a palpable warmth, literally like a fire blazing within him which flooded him with joy.
For his love is a fire that sets our hearts ablaze so that they glow and burn, purifying them from all the dross of sin. Blazing in his chosen souls, this fire compels them to gaze continually in spirit toward heaven and to cultivate a constant longing for death.
Rolle found he would lose this sense of the presence of God whenever he engaged in intellectual discussion. “I find myself growing cold on those occasions until I put all outward matters behind me and try to stand in the presence of my Saviour. Only then do I retain this inner warmth.” Therefore, he explains, he wrote this book not for wise men, philosophers, or great theologians “but for the simple, unlearned people.”
Rolle writes of a divine music experienced in moments of one-pointed yearning for God:
Nothing can satisfy the human soul but God, because it has a capacity that only God can fill. That is why the people who love this world are never satisfied. The peace enjoyed by those who love Christ is a consequence of the fact that their hearts are fixed with yearning and consideration of the love of God, and they contemplate him as they sing with ardent love. This peace experienced by the spirit is very sweet. A divine and dulcet melody comes down to fill it with joy. The mind is ravished with this sublime and effortless music and it sings the joys of everlasting love.
Walter Hilton (d.1396) was perhaps the most widely read and influential of the four mystics. According to Armstrong, his book, The Ladder of Perfection, was “the first systematic and comprehensive account of the spiritual life to be written in English, and its immediate popularity shows that it answered a real need.” For the modern reader it may be “the most accessible and the least esoteric of the English mystical works of the fourteenth century.”
As the title of the book implies, Hilton sets out to provide step-by-step guidance, a ladder, for the spiritual aspirant. He begins with the three types of preparation for contemplation: lectio, meditatio, and oratio, that is, reading scripture, pondering deeply on spiritual topics, and prayer. He sees vocal prayer as a discipline, a daily practice which should not be abandoned before one has reached the prayer “of the heart” that “comes softly, using no words, together with great peace and quiet of body and soul.” When the Lord gives this peace to his servants, Hilton says, “it is as if he wanted to reward their efforts and give them a shadowy glimpse of the love they will enjoy in the bliss of heaven.”
To the beginner who complains that she is unable to pray as she ought to because so many useless thoughts crowd in upon her, Hilton offers this advice:
When you come to pray, direct your intention and your will to God as wholeheartedly and single-mindedly as you can in a brief mental act. Then get to work and do it as well as you can. Even if a myriad of distracting thoughts prevents you from carrying out your original intention, don’t be afraid and don’t be too angry with yourself or impatient with God.… Keep your prayer, however pathetic it is, firmly in your mind’s eye with a humble heart and put your trust in the mercy of our Lord, who is bound to turn this to your good in ways that you cannot conceive. You have to understand that you have discharged your duty and that you will benefit as much from this prayer as from any act of charity that you perform, even if your heart is not in it. So, do what you have to do and let our Lord give you what he wants and don’t give him orders.
Hilton says that there may be various methods, suitable to the different temperaments of men, leading to contemplation of the divine. However, all paths must pass through one gate, the death of the self. “If the seeker wants to enter by any other gate, he is just a thief and a gate-crasher and he will be thrown out because he is unworthy.”
Dame Julian of Norwich (1342–1416) experienced a series of visions at the age of thirty. She became an anchoress in a cell next to the church, praying in solitude but conversing with the community through a window into the church. Through her counsel and through her book Revelations of Divine Love, she sought to share what she understood from her visions. She wrote:
Our Lord showed me, in a spiritual manner, how intimately he loves us. I saw that he is everything that is good and which supports us. He clothes us in his love, envelops us and embraces us. He laps us round in his tender love and he will never abandon us.… Our Lord God also showed me what pleasure it gives him when a vulnerable soul comes to him, simply, openly, and as a friend.
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing kept his identity hidden, so we know nothing about his life. Like Richard Rolle, he stressed that love is the way to God.
Every single rational creature has two faculties: the power of knowledge and the power of love. God is always quite unable to be comprehended by the first faculty, that of intelligence, but he is totally and perfectly comprehensible by the second, the power of love.
The central image in this book, the “cloud of unknowing,” refers to the darkness of ignorance, impenetrable by the intellect, that separates the soul from God.
When you begin you only encounter a darkness and, as it were, a cloud of unknowing.… So prepare yourself to wait in this darkness for as long as you can, yearning all the time for him whom you love.
The anonymous author advises, “Lift up your heart to God in a humble impulse of love and aim for him alone, not for any of the good things you want from him.” He warns that God is a “jealous lover”:
He will not share your heart with anybody and will only work in your heart and will if he is in sole possession.… All he wants you to do is to keep your gaze fixed on him and to let him do the rest.… You need only lean on God humbly in prayer and he will soon come to your rescue. Lean on him, then, and see how he bears your weight. He is absolutely ready and is only waiting for you.
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