Death, when understood by men, is immortality; but not being understood by the ignorant it is death. This death should not be feared; what should be feared is the perdition of the soul, which is ignorance of God; for this is terrible for the soul. ~ St Anthony the Great, Counsels on the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life
In tantum Deus cognoscitur, in quantum amatur. ~ St Bernard
In recent days we have been advised on how to be good:
- By the president: Support the right to traffic in human body parts
- By a candidate: Dedicate the USA to the benefit of Israel
- By the pope: Turn off the air conditioner
In The Sparkling Stone, Blessed John of Ruysbroeck provides a more traditional perspective, as summarized in the following outline:
- How a man becomes good
- Clean conscience
- Obedience to God
- The glory of God
- How a man becomes inward
- A heart unencumbered with images
- Spiritual freedom in his desires
- The feeling of inward union with God
- How a man can see God
- The foundation of his being is abysmal
- His inward exercise is wayless
- His indwelling is a divine fruition
Firs a man must have a clean conscience that is free of sin. There are three elements of sin.
- It must be a serious matter
- Knowledge that it is a serious matter
- Performed willfully
The pagan view found, for example, both among the ancient Greeks and Indians, stops at the second element. For them, ignorance, or avidya, alone would lead to the clean conscience. Then the practice of the virtues would follow from that knowledge. However, this didn’t take into account that, besides the ignorance of the mind, there is also a weakness of the will.
Hence, knowledge alone is insufficient, one must consciously follow God. John also adds that a man must be “obedient to his own proper convictions.” Of course, the most proper convictions must be based on true knowledge. At a higher stage, John claims that even knowledge must be left behind in a state of learned ignorance, in which a man becomes free of such sin.
Finally, a good man should act for the glory of God. John explains:
If it happens that by reason of his business or the multiplicity of his works, he has not always God before his eyes, at least there should be established in him the intention and desire to live according to the dearest will of God.
This three qualities make a man good, so he is prepared for the next stages.
John advises that anyone who considers himself spiritual needs to observe himself. Images in the imagination come from the flesh, not from God who is Spirit so no images are possible of Him. According to an old Norse adage,
The divine sleeps in the rock, breathes in the plant, dreams in the animal, and wakes in man.
This is related to Plotinus’ path from the psyche, through nous, to God. The material world is both physical (the “rock”) and psychical (the “animal”). The animal soul is material and is full of images. Thus it lives in a dream-like state, not yet self-conscious. To the extent that a man, who does indeed possess an animal soul, lives the same way, he is not yet awake and not living a fully human life. So for the heart to become unencumbered with images, it must rise to the level of the nous by consciously observing himself.
As a man becomes free of worldly images, he becomes inwardly free. He becomes oriented toward God rather than toward the world. As imageless and free, he beings to feel a true union with God within; this perfects his inward and spiritual life. This acts like a feedback loop. The feeling of union, the desiring power of the soul (epithetikos or eros) becomes enticed to seek deeper union. God’s knowledge of you is your knowledge of God; your willing of your own being is also God’s willing.
This union is experienced as “abysmal”, i.e., arising from the measureless depths, unbounded heights and an endless horizon. He plunges into the depths of the soul and ascends to the heights. The horizon of Being always recedes. Our knowledge of God is never complete so we dwell in a “knowledge that is ignorance”. By dying to things, the soul feels itself to be one life with God.
The next point is above reason and without condition. The inward drawing of the Divine Unity is experienced according to the measure of his love and the manner of his spiritual, interior exercises. Spiritually naked and unencumbered by images, he finds an Eternal Light in the inmost part of his spirit. This Light reveals the “eternal demand of the Divine Unity”. The more he feels it, the more he craves it.
The fruition is the loving adherence to God. There is an inner silence, so that thoughts and images begin to lose their impact and compulsion. The spirit then beholds a Darkness, where discursive thought cannot penetrate. Hence, the spiritual exercise is “wayless”, that is, there is no straight path to that Darkness, no mechanical process, no repetition of mantras. Rather one must be drawn into it, first though interior silence and the will to transcend discursive thought to a direct intuition.