MYSTICISM: On Mystical Theology — The First and Speculative Treatise, by Jean Gerson


Repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15)

(1)  I bound myself recently by a promise to approach that subject which I now think you are expecting me to consider: to show, that is, “whether it is better to have the knowledge of God through a repentant affectivity rather than through an investigative intellect.”  Therefore, I am obliged to work out whether by chance through pious efforts and with God’s assistance it is possible to arrive at a common understanding of these matters, which the divine Dionysius treats, concerning a theology that is mystical and thus is hidden.  There is no doubt that he was taught by him who says, “We speak of wisdom among the perfect, wisdom that is hidden in mystery,” (Proverbs 25:27).

(2)  I am also considering if those matters concerning contemplation, meditation, rapture, ecstasy, extra-mental projection, division of spirit and soul, and the like, which outstanding doctors have described in their writings, can so openly take place and in a certain way be revealed that other people than they who experience them, rare as they are, can understand them.  Or at least they can strongly believe that these holy persons have had a knowledge far more elevated than our common knowledge.  These persons have been lifted up through divine contemplation to an extra-mental projection.

(3)  I would say that this is common for everyone when confronted by something that is either unusual or arduous.  For the mind is usually drawn in various ways according to the variety of what it considers.  I have often experienced this myself, namely in the present matter.

(4)  I have in mind the treatment of material of which nothing is more sublime or divine, but which cannot be more difficult in pursuing, just as none can be found more congenial to salvation.  In considering something attached to the hinge of our happiness, I have trembled at the sight of the majesty of this wisdom.  I am afraid that in trying to investigate the matter, I will be driven from the experience of glory.  Moreover, I have been afraid that some proud presumption will vex me, for who can attempt great things without being overcome by them?  I have been afraid, finally, that I will be seen to possess an insatiable singularity, which I condemned as criminal in my two last lessons.

(5)  Truly, such considerations can disturb me and make me retrace my steps so that I do not advance, at least if I confide in my own powers alone and not in him who says, “Seek the Lord always,” (Psalm 104:4).  If I am restricted by my double public office, will I not be frightened in seeing the damnation of the servant who hid the talent of her lord, (Matthew 22:25)? I will also hear from the angel in Tobias that, “it is honorable to reveal and confess God’s works,” (Tobias 12:7).

(6)  Finally, if the author of the book of Wisdom had feared what we have mentioned, he would have not said of wisdom: “I convey that which I have learned without falsehood and without reservation, and I do not hide its integrity,” (Wisdom 7:13).

(7)  But notice what is added concerning boasting or signs of boasting: would that “he who glories, glory in the Lord,” (1 Corinthians 1:31).  Who will provide assistance to someone living on the Earth, even if he has placed his dwelling beyond Heaven’s stars, even if he has slept in the bed of contemplation, even if he has tasted the hidden manna of devotion, (Isaiah 14:13; Numbers 24:21; Revelation 2:17)?”

 (8) What is the purpose of all this?  Who would not shudder in utter horror since Lucifer was removed from the place of Heaven, from the midst of the stones of fire, (Ezekiel 28:16), and was driven into the dung-pit of damnation?  Who would not shudder since “on that day,” when two are lying in one bed, one will be taken, the other left behind, (Matthew 24:20; Luke 17:34)?  Finally, who would not shudder since the sons of Israel were laid low in the desert, they who were eating the bread of Heaven, (Psalm 105:26; Exodus 16:15), and his enemies, they who lied to him, “the Lord fed with the best of wheat and from the rock filled them with honey,” (Psalm 80:17)?

(9)  Woe to me if I should seek my glory.  For that is nothing at all.  Nevertheless, it will condemn me.  Alas, if I should glory in my damnation and in nothingness.

(10)  The apostolic trumpet will terrify me, saying: “If I have prophecy and know all mysteries and have all knowledge: if I have faith so I can move mountains, but do not have charity, I am nothing,” (1 Corinthians 13:2).  But who can be sure, unless by a miracle, that he has charity?  What do you know, poor little man, if some light of understanding or some frail warmth of devotion seems to be given to you, wicked servant that you are?  Can this be useful for others, so that they receive enlightenment and so gain warmth, if in truth you are like a taper that has been lit but is quickly reduced to ash?

(11)  Let it not be, most merciful God, if we are to speak of you and rejoice in you.  Let us rejoice with fear and teach in humility.  We will seek the unique glory of your name through your servants, my lords and brothers.  I seem to want to tell them the secrets of your wisdom.  Thus, for the time being, I will put aside more sterile intellectual pursuits, which turn the mind in different directions.  Instead, let the word of your spirit put them on fire to seek you in simplicity of heart in order to understand what it means: “Rest and see how sweet is the Lord.”

(12)  Finally, may they be roused so that they do not give themselves over to intellect alone in instructing in such a way that desiccated affectivity, horrible and vile, is abandoned even to the passions.  For by what other persons or in what other place can this doctrine of mystical theology be conveyed?

(13) But if this understanding I want to attain is denied to me, may God forgive our sins.  May the holy desire I seem to have either take away my sin, if my yearning is unholy and I am being deceived, or, if I am acting rightly, then may he justify me “in his justifications,” (Psalm 118:80).  It is he who “hears the desire of the poor” and “hears the readying of their heart in his ear to do justice to the orphan and the needy, so that man while on Earth cannot come to magnify himself any longer,” (Psalm 10:17-18).

(14)  I have begun with these considerations especially in order to scoop out of the deep a place for humility, by which the whole structure of what is to be said can be strengthened from collapsing.  I have also begun as the holy Dionysius does, with a prayer.  Now I will treat the material divided up into considerations or annotations in the manner of chapters, by which the listener will be refreshed by pauses and not tired out by continuous and confusing speech.

(15)  And I am not about to bring forward anything new that cannot be found in other books of the saints.  For what could they have left out?  But I will explain their ideas in my own words and in my own order.

Here ends the Prologue

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