From The Essentials of Mysticism
The Mirror of Simple Souls – a rare work on the spiritual life, of which manuscripts exist in the British Museum, the Bodleian, and one or two other public libraries – has so far received little or no attention from students of religious literature. Yet it may turn out to possess great importance, as one of the missing links in the history of English mysticism: for it is a middle-English translation, made at the close of the fourteenth century or beginning of the fifteenth, of the lost work of a French thirteenth-century mystic. It shows, therefore, that the common view of French medieval religion as unmystical needs qualification; and further indicates a path by which the contemplative tradition of western Europe reached England and affected the development of our native mystical school.
The Mirror of Simple Souls, as we now have it, is a work of nearly 60,000 words in length. So far from being simple, it deals almost exclusively with the rarest and most sublime aspects of spiritual experience. Its theme is the theme of all mysticism: the soul’s adventures on its way towards union with God. It is not, like the Melum of Richard Rolle, or Revelations of Julian of Norwich, a subjective book; the record of personal experiences and actual “conversations in Heaven.” Rather it is objective and didactic, a work of geography, not a history of travel; an advanced textbook of the contemplative life. Only from the ardor and exactitude of its descriptions, its strange air of authority, its defiance of pious convention, can we gather that it is the fruit of first-hand experience, not merely of theological study: though its writer was clearly a trained theologian, familiar with the works of Saint Augustine and Dionysius the Areopagite, whom no mystic of the Middle Ages wholly escaped, and apparently with those of Saint Bernard, Hugh and Richard of Saint Victor, and other medieval authorities on the inner life.
I have said that the Mirror, as we have it, purports to be the translation of an unknown French treatise. This translation, so far as we can judge from its language, was probably made in the early years of the fifteenth century, perhaps at the end of the fourteenth. Its author, then, lived at the close of the golden age of English mysticism: he was the contemporary of Julian of Norwich, who was still living in 1413, and of Walter Hilton, who died in 1395. Himself a mystic, he was no servile translator; rather the eager interpreter of the book which he wished to make accessible to his countrymen. Our manuscripts begin with his prologue: an ingenuous confession of the difficulties of the undertaking, his own temerity in daring to touch these “high divine matter,” his fear lest the book should fall into unsuitable hands and its more extreme teachings be misunderstood. It appears from this prologue that our version of the Mirror is a second, or revised edition; the first having failed to be comprehensible to its readers.
The character of the translator, as disclosed for us in his prologue, is itself interesting. Clearly he was a contemplative; and the “high ghostly feelings” of which he treats are to him the strictly practical objects of supreme desire, though he modestly disclaims their possession. He appears before us as a gentle, humble rather timid soul: often frankly terrified by the daring flights of his “French book,” which he is at pains to explain in a safe sense. One would judge him, from the peeps which he gives us into his mind, a disciple of the devout and homely school of Walter Hilton, rather than a descendant of the group of advanced mystics which produced in the mid-fourteenth century The Cloud of Unknowing, The Pistle of Private Counsel, and other profound studies of the inner life. These books were written under the strong influence of Dionysius the Areopagite; whose Mystical Theology, under the title of Dionise Hid Divinite, was first translated into English by some member of the school. But to the translator of the Mirror his author’s drastic applications of the Dionysian paradoxes of indifference, passivity, and nescience as the path to knowledge teem with “hard sayings.” His attitude towards them is that of reverential alarm: he fears their probable effect on the mind of the hasty reader. They seem, as he says in one place, “fable or error or hard to understand” until one has read them several times. He is sure that their real meaning is exceptionable; but terribly afraid that they will be misunderstood.
Here, then, is the prologue which sets forth his point of view.
To the worship and laud of the Trinity be this work begun and ended! Amen.
This book, the which is called The Mirror of Simple Souls, I, most unworthy creature and outcast of all other, many years gone wrote it out of French into English after my lewd cunning; in hope that by the grace of God it should profit the devout souls that shall read it. This was forsooth mine intent. But now I am stirred to labor it again new, for because I am informed that some words thereof have been mistaken. Therefore, if God will, I shall declare these words more openly. For though Love declare the points in the same book, it is but shortly spoken, and may be taken otherwise than it is meant of them that read it suddenly and take no further heed. Therefore such words to be twice opened it would be more of audience [understanding]: and so by grace of our Lord, good God, it shall the more profit to the auditors. But both the first time and now, I have great dread to do it. For the book is of high divine matters and high ghostly feelings, and cunningly and full mystically it is spoken, and I am a creature right wretched and unable to do any such work: poor and naked of ghostly fruits, darkened with sins and defaults, environed and wrapped therein oft times, the which taketh away my taste and my clear sight; so that little I have of ghostly understanding and less of the feeling of divine love. Therefore I may say the words of the prophet: “My teeth be nought white to bite of the bread.” But Almighty Jesu, God that feedeth the worm and gives sight to the blind and wit to the unwitty; give me grace of wit and wisdom in all times wisely to govern myself, following away his will, and send me clear sight and true understanding well to do this work to his worship and pleasaunce: profit also and increase of grace to ghostly lovers that be disposed and called to this high election of the freedom of soul.
He goes on to the difficulty which dogs all writers on mysticism; the impossibility of making mystic truth seem real to those who have no experience of the mystic life. It has been said that only mystics can write about mysticism. It were truer to say that only mystics can read about it.
Oh ye that shall read this book! do ye as David says in the Psalter, Gustate et videte: that is to say, “Taste and see.” But why trow ye he said, taste first, e’er than he said see? For first a soul must taste, e’er it have very understanding and true sight; sight of ghostly workings of divine love. Oh full naked and dark, dry, and unsavory be the speakings and writings of these high ghostly feelings of the love of God to them that have not tasted the sweetness thereof. But when a soul is touched with grace, by which she has tasted somewhat of the sweetness of this divine fruition, and begins to wade, and draweth the draughts to her-ward, then it savors the soul so sweetly that she desires greatly to have of it more and more, and pursueth thereafter. And then the soul is glad and joyful to hear and to read of all thing that pertains to this high feeling of the workings of divine love, in nourishing and increasing her love and devotion to the will and pleasing of him that she loves, God, Christ Jesu. Thus she enters and walks in the way of illumination, that she might be taught into the ghostly influences of the divine work of God, there to be drowned in the high flood, and oned to God by ravishing of love, by which she is all one spirit with her spouse. Therefore to these souls that be disposed to these high feelings Love has made of him this book in fulfilling of their desire.
But even for those who have been initiated into this way of illumination, the translator acknowledges that many things in the Mirror are difficult and obscure: “Often he leaveth the nut and the kernel within the shell unbroken, that is to say, that Love in this book leaves to souls the touches of his divine works privily hid under dark speech, for they should taste the deeper the draughts of his love and drink; and also to make them have the more clear insight in divine understandings to divine love, and declare himself.” Therefore he has added his own explanations to the more difficult passages. “Where meseems most need I will write more words thereto in manner of gloss after my simple cunning as meseems best. And in these few places that I put in more than I find written I will begin with the first letter of my name, M., and end with this letter, N., the first of my surname.”
He ends with a gentle complaint of the badness of the text from which he worked, and the confession that he has allowed himself a certain amount of editorial liberty. “The French book that I shall write after is evil written, and in some places for default of words and syllables the reason is away. Also in translating of French some words need to be changed, or it will fare ungoodly, not according to the sentence. Wherefore I will follow the sentence according to the matter, as near as God will give me grace; obeying me ever to the correction to Holy Kirk, praying ghostly livers and clerks that they will vouchsafe to correct and amend there that I do amiss.”
So much for M.N., the English mystic. The prologue of the author, which comes next, tells us all that we know about the anonymous French writer of the book. This person was of a very different temper from M.N. As a Catholic scholar has observed of Saint Teresa, “L’auteur ne se faisait pas illusion sur le mèrite de son oeuvre.” Like Teresa, he believed himself to have written under immediate divine inspiration; a fact which somewhat excuses his complacency in regard to the result. This is a common claim with the mystics, in whom subconscious cerebration is always exceptionally active, and whose writings often exhibit an automatic and involuntary character, seeming to them the work of another mind. Jacob Boehme, Madame Guyon, and Blake are obvious cases in point. The author of the Mirror, however, was anxious that his claim to inspiration should be endorsed. He therefore – most fortunately for us – sent his work to various “learned clerks,” persons of importance in the theological world, and chronicles their appreciatory remarks in the prologue; which becomes in his hands a form of medieval “advance-notice.” It will be observed that his critics share the opinion of M.N., that though full of “ghostly cunning” this is a dangerous work to put into the hands of the plain man.
Of these critics, “The first was a Friar Minor of great name, of life of perfection. Men called him Friar John of Querayne. He said soothly that this book is made by the Holy Ghost. And though all the clerks of the world heard it, but if they understand it, that is to say, but if they have high ghostly feelings and this same working, they shall nought wit what it means. And he prayed for the love of God that it be wisely kept: and that but few should see it. And he said thus, that it was so high that himself might not understand it. And after him, a monk of Cisetyns [Citeaux] read it, that hight Dan Frank Chantor of the Abbey of Viliers: and he said that it proved well by the scripture that it is all truth that this book says. And after him read it a Master of Divinity, that hight Master Godfrey of Fountaynes: and he blamed it nought, no more than did the other. But he said thus, that he counselled nought [sic] that few should see it; and for this cause, for they might leave their own working and follow this calling, to the which they should never come, and so they might deceive themselves, for it is made of a spirit so strong and so cutting, that there be but few such or none. For the peace of auditors was this proved, and for your peace we say it to you. For this seed should bear holy fruit to them that hear it and worthy be.”
Of the three persons here mentioned, Friar John and Dan Frank still remain unidentified: but Godfrey of Fountaynes is almost certainly the Master of Divinity, called Doctor Venerandus, who was a prominent member of the University of Paris at the end of the thirteenth century. He was at the height of his fame about 1280-1290, and died about 1306. “Grande lumen studii magister Godefridum de Fontanis,” he is called in a letter of 1301. In the great war between Friars and Seculars which divided the university at the end of the thirteenth century, this Godfrey was one of the bitterest opponents of the Mendicant Orders. He wrote against them, and attacked them in the Synod of Paris in 1283. We see therefore that the author of the Mirror, in placing Godfrey’s testimonial beside that of Friar John, secured with a cunning other than ghostly a friend in each of the opposing camps.
There is, however, one obvious and significant omission in this list of patrons. There is o name which emanates directly from the great school of Saint Thomas Aquinas; supreme at that moemnt in the university, and the custodian of orthodox philosophy. There is, indeed, little trace of scholastic influence in the Mirror, which is far more in harmony with the mystical theology favored by Saint Bonaventura, and continued during hte following century in the Franciscan schools: a fact which explains at once the guarded approbation of Friar John, and the absence of Dominican patronage. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Franciscans were eager students of and commentators on Dionysius the Areopagite: and the order which produced and upheld the hardy speculations of Duns Scotus might well look with indulgence on the most extravagant statements of The Mirror of Simple Souls.
The original version of this book, then, was probably written in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, and certainly before 1306. Its writer was therefore the contemporary of Eckhart and Jacopone da Todi, the great mystical lights of the Preaching and the Minor Friars. He was no provincial recluse, but a person in touch with the intellectual life of his time. He had connections with the University of Paris, but the names of his patrons prove him to have been neither a member nor an enemy of the Mendicant Orders. It is probable that he was a monk, possible that he was a Carthusian; a strictly contemplative order celebrated for its mystical leanings, which produced in the later Middle Ages many students of the Dionysian writings, and many works upon contemplation. He was widely read, and many parallels could be established between his doctrines and the classics of Christian mysticism. His lost book is so far our only evidence that abstruse prose treatises of this kind were already written in the vernacular; and this alone gives it great interest from the literary point-of-view. He was, so far as we know, the first French mystic to write in French; the forerunner of Saint Francis de Sales, of Madame Guyon, of Malaval. If we except the semi-mystical writings of Gerson, we must wait till the seventeeth century to provide him with a worthy successor.