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Nicholas Arseniev

Transfiguration of the World and of Life in Mysticism

From "Mysticism and the Eastern Church". Translated from the German by Arthur Chambers. St, Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1979.

Chapter 1: Joy in Mysticism

THE soul which, after much striving and seeking, has touched the abundant fullness is flooded with joy; so the mystics tell us. "Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy!" ("Joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie! ") cries Pascal at the moment of his decisive mystic experience. The soul feels itself possessed of immeasurable riches, it trembles with silent sighing or is swept away by "inward" jubilant "singing (88). For all that it deemed of worth hitherto is as nothing beside what it now experiences and knows (89), what now permeates it and dominates it with incomparable majesty, with overwhelming might and beauty. "Ο beauty that exceedest all beauty "—"Ο hermosura, que excedeis a todas las hermosuras’’ (90)! Ο pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova” (91)! The soul has touched the "wells of living water," has drunk eagerly of them (92), and received a new, eternal life.

All the preaching of primitive Christianity palpitates with the joy of this realization and possession, exhales this joy, is this joy. "The friend of the bridegroom rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this joy therefore is fulfilled’’ (93) these words are applicable to the whole of primitive Christianity. Eternal life has entered into the world, "and we have seen it, and bear witness and shew unto you that eternal life which was in the Father and was manifested unto us. ..."And of His fullness have all we received and grace for grace “(94). This is that costly pearl of which it is said that the merchant who found it sold all to possess it; this is that treasure in the field of which it is said that the man who found it sold all his possessions and bought that field (95). Paul speaks of the "unsearchable riches of Christ’’ (ανεξιχνίαστος πλούτος του Χριστού) [96], of the "riches of the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you"(97), of the " treasure" which men carry about in " earthen vessels “(98). And in this consciousness the whole inward life of the Christians becomes a joyful song of thanksgiving: " Be filled with the Spirit," cries Paul, "... singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord: giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (99). Like a constantly reiterated, unceasing, triumphant leitmotif it rings through his letters: "Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks" "As sorrowful yet always rejoicing." "I am filled with comfort, I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation." (πεπλήρωμαι τη παρακλήσει, υπερπερισσεύομαι τη χαρά επί πάση τη θλίψει ημών)[100]. Not for nothing are Christians called "children of joy" (in the letter of Barnabas)[101]. Filled with this joy they walk boldly to meet death, confessors and martyrs of Christianity (102). So are fulfilled the words of Jesus: "These things have I spoken unto you that My joy might remain in you and that your joy might be full"(103).

As a living realization of this spirit of primitive Christianity, as a living commentary to it, appear also the experiences of the great Christian mystics of later times. Concerning the early Christian recluses and ascetics of the Egyptian desert, we are told by an eye-witness of their manner of life -Bishop Palladius (end of the fourth century): "They rejoiced, as could be seen, in their life in the desert. Such gladness and rejoicing in the body as theirs is not to be witnessed anywhere on earth. Not one among them was troubled or downcast ..."(104). Isaac the Syrian speaks of “waves of inward joy "(105); from joy spring the outpourings of prayer of Simeon, the New Theologian; another mystic of the Christian East, Abba Philemon, teaches from the fullness of his spiritual experience: " By constant prayer the eyes of the soul are opened, and it is filled with a great joy and an inexpressible ardour of feeling, and the whole man is spiritualized"(106).

And in the Christian West of the Middle Ages! Here this spirit is evident in even greater exuberance. For example, Francis of Assisi, after the decisive break with his whole former life, can no longer contain his inward exaltation -it presses outwards (107), he is as though "drunk in spirit." He shouts and sings (108). And we read further (in the Italian text of the noble old «Legenda di tre compagni ") of the «unbounded joy and delight in the Holy Spirit «experienced by him and by his disciples -" smisurata letitia et alegrezza dello Spirito santo." "Tanta era la letitia in loro, quasi havessero trovato un gran tesoro nel’evangelico campo delta madonna povertà"(109). They have found an endless treasure in the field of humility! The Franciscan Jacopone da Todi, poet and mystic, cannot repress his joy -his soul shouts and he feels himself compelled to sing, to declaim, even simply to shout out from excess of feeling (110). German mediaeval mysticism also knows a similar special state of grace, " genade jubilus"(111). And Jacob Boehme felt the very divinity, the inward life in the depths of the divinity, as joy, as a joyful -in and out- pouring of living fullness; the man who is illumined by the Spirit can already taste thereof. "From the Son, who is the heart of the Father," writes Boehme, "rises the eternal heavenly joy, that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath ever risen in the heart of man, as St Paul says. But when a man here on earth is illumined by the Holy Spirit from the spring of Jesus Christ ..., there enters into his heart and into all his veins such joy that the whole body trembles and the animal spirit triumphs, as though it were in the Holy Trinity, which they alone understand who have been its guests"(112).

Two more examples which are chronologically nearer to us. Our contemporary, Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Christian mystic of India, speaks in a way similar to Paul's of the abundance of comfort and joy in the midst of tribulation. "I know not why, but my heart was so filled with joy that I could do nothing but sing and preach"(113). And, in conclusion, the confessions of an anonymous Russian pilgrim of the middle of the nineteenth century, who in the course of his wanderings traversed the whole of European Russia and Siberia (on the way to the Holy Land); a man of great capacity for intense inward prayer. (The notes were written on a manuscript in the possession of an old monk of Athos, which was printed in Kasan in 1883.) This pilgrim is possessed by the sweetness of inward prayer, and thereby his whole life is transfigured. It is a curious little book of exceptional weight of religious experience, which reveals to our eyes the quite unexpected, indeed, astounding depth of the religious life of the Russian people (and that, moreover, in its lowest strata!). "So I set out again on my lonely path," the pilgrim relates," and I felt as I did so much lightness of heart, as though a block of stone had been rolled from my shoulders. Prayer brought me ever-increasing joy, so that many times my heart overflowed with a measureless love for Jesus Christ, and from this sweet spring soothing streams poured through all my bones. The memory of Jesus Christ was so stamped upon my mind ... that I felt a joy that cannot be expressed. It sometimes happened that for three days and three nights I entered no human habitation, and I felt a thrill as though I were alone on earth, alone, an abandoned sinner, before the face of a merciful and benevolent God" (114).

In non-Christian mysticism also, the expression of deep inward joy is frequently to be met with. It occurs even in Buddhist texts: "We live in great joy, which possess nothing. Joy is our food, as it is with the radiant gods" (115), etc. But -to make this clear from the outset- in Buddhism there can be no question of this spirit glorifying the world; for Buddhism there is no absolute, supreme divine reality, its goal being the denial and destruction of every form of world and life. And, therefore, for Buddhism the feeling of joy is merely a transient stage of the way. The highest achievement, the loftiest summit of the Buddhist way is a state in which all joy and every emotion of the heart have long been overcome and cast aside, leaving nothing but emotionless, joyless, frozen "emptiness " of the spirit. " He recognizes neither joy nor sorrow," the Sutta-Nipata says of the man of perfect wisdom, "he has no attachments; therefore he never rejoices" (116).

There is also evidence of inward joy of the soul in the mysticism of the Upanishads. The faces of those who have seen the Atman shine, as in Buddhism the faces of those who have attained the light (117): "They experience supreme, indescribable blessedness, as they say: 'This is that' (i.e., as they identify themselves with the Atman) [118]. At times even the very Absolute is felt as abundance and fullness of joy. Brahman is joy (or rapture)," we read in the Taittiriya Upanishad. "For out of joy these creatures spring. By joy they live after their birth, and into joy they return when they depart hence" (119). For the rest the pantheistic mysticism of the Upanishads and the Vedânta (and of the corresponding parts of the Mahabhâratâm) is in general decisively influenced by the ideal of an emotionless and rigid indifferentism. In the depths of the infinite and, at the same time, impersonal and indifferent Absolute, all individual feeling, nay, more, all consciousness and perception, are submerged.

Richer in positive tones -tones of the joy and rapture of love- is the Hindu Bhakti mysticism. "Thinking of me and surrendering their life to me ... they find in me their peace and joy," so speaks Krishna, the highest Being in the Bhagavadgita (120) [for the rest, here, too, cooler tones penetrate from time to time, tones of absolute indifferentism] (121).

A fiery breath of jubilant abandonment and rapture permeates the outpourings of the Tamil saint and poet, Mânikka - Vâšâgar (A.D. 7th-8th centuries). "Ο thou, our great possession," he prays to Siva, "thou hast held as a sacred shrine my empty, worthless mind, thou hast given me rapturous joy that knows no bounds ..."(122). And Kabir, the great Indian mystic, describes his transcendent experience as follows: "Joy for ever, no sorrow, no struggle! There have I seen joy, filled to the brim, perfection of joy" (123).


88. Cf. my essay: Archiv f. Religionswissenschaft, « 1923, H. 3-4.

89. Cf., e.g., Plot. Ennead., vi, 7, 39.

90. Santa Teresa, Escritos, tomo primero (Biblioteca de autores espanoles, 53), Madrid, 1861, p. 511 (Poesia, v).

91. Cf. Augustine Confessions, x, 27.

92. John iii, 29.

93. Cf., for instance, this cry of a contemporary mystic : " Je me suis penchée sur la source vive et j'ai été désaltérée " (Th. Flournoy, " Une mystique moderne " in " Archives de Psychologie," xv, 1915, p.103)•

94. I John i, 2 ; John i, 16.

95. Matt, xiii, 44-46, 49.

96. Ephesians iii, 8.

97. Colossians i, 27.

98. 2 Cor. iv, 6-7, etc.

99. Ephesians v, 19-20.

100. I Thess. ν, 16-18 ; 2 Cor. vi, 10 ; vii, 4 ; cf. Phil, iv, 7 ; iii, I; 2 Cor. iii, II et seq., etc.

101. Epistle of Barnabas, vii, ι ; cf. Hermae Pastor Mandat, xi, 2.”The Odes of Solomon“ , 7, 8, 15, 40, 41, etc.

102. Cf. Martyrium Polycarpi : " θάρσους και χαράς ενεπίμπλατο και το πρώσοπον αυτού χάριτος επληρούτο " (c. xii, cf. c. xiv), Acts of Carpus, 38-39 (" ... είδov την δόξαν κυρίου και εχάρην " ... ), 41; of the Lugdunian Martyrs we read: "εκείνους μεν επεκούφιζεν η χαρά της μαρτυρίας" ... "oι μεν γαρ ιλαροί ττροήεσαν•, δόξης και χάριτος πολλής ταις ύψεσιv αυτών συγκεκραμένης" (34. 35)• Cf. Martyrium der Perpetua und Felicitas, c. xviii, etc.

103. John xv, II; cf. xvi, 20, 22, 24.

104. Palladius Historia Lausaica, c. 97.

105. Philokalia (the great mystico-ascetic chrestomathy of the Christian East), vol. ii (Russian edition, 1889), p. 722.

106. Ibid,, vol. iii, p. 401.

107. "Tanto repletus est gaudio, quod non capiens se pro laetitia, etiam nolens de hujus modi secretis in aures aliquid hominum eructabat ". La Leggenda di San Francesco scritta da tre suoi compagni (legenda trium sociorum), Rome, 1899, c. 5.

108. "... coepit per plateas et vicos civitatis, tamquam ebrius spiritu, dominum collaudare," ibid., c. 7.

109. Ibid., c. ii.

110. Jacopone da Todi, Laude, xxvi, xxxi (edition of his " Laude in the series " Scritori d'ltalia," 1915).

111. Cf., for instance, " Aufzeichnungen über das mystische Leben der Nonnen von Kirchberg " (Alemania, xxi, 1893), pp. 105, 107, 110, 111, 113; also H. Wilms : "Das Beten der Mystikerinnen, published from the Chronicles of the Dominican Convents, 1916, p. 173•

112. Also : " But this is only an example, or glimpse of the Son of God in men, whereby the faith is strengthened and maintained; for joy cannot be as great in an earthly vessel as in a heavenly where the power of God is complete " (Aurora, iii, 15-17). For the joy of the soul penetrated by the Holy Spirit, vide also, e.g., i, 102. For joy in the Divinity Himself, vide also, e.g., iii, ii, 20-24 ; xii, 23 et seq.: "De signatura rerum," xvi, 2 passim.

113. Streeter and Appasamy, "The Sadhu : A Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion," London, 1921. Cf. Heiler, Sadhu Sundar Singh, 1924, 83 et seq.

114. " Otkrovennye raskazy strannika duchovnomu otzu swoemu, Kazan, 3rd edition, 1884, p. 59 ; cf. pp. 19-20, 36, 40.

115. Dhammapadam, 200.

116. Suttai Nipáta, 813, 33.

117. Chándogya-Up., 4, 9, 2; cf. Mahávagga, i, 23, 6, 23, 4 (Sacred books of the East, xiii, pp. 147, 145) ; Majjh-Nik., 185.

118. Kath-Up., 5, 14; cf. 5, 12. Also cf. Svetásvat. Up., 4, 18; Kath-Up., 2, 12-13öI Maitr. Up., vi, 30; vi, 34, 4 ; vi, 34, 9.

119. Taittiriya-Up., 3, 6 ; cf. Maitr. Up., 4, 4.

120. Bhagavadgitâ, x, 9 ; cf. vi, 21, 27, 28.

121. E.g., vii, 18, 19.

122. G.U. Pope, Tiruváçagam or the Sacred Utterances of Mânikka Vâcagar, 1900, hymn xxxvii, 6, 9.

123. One hundred poerns of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore, hymn xvii (cf. also the state of spiritual joy as it is described in the "Psalms of Maratha Saints," translated by Nic. Macnicol, 1919). Cf. also similar accounts by the Indian poet and mystic Tukaram (seventeenth century A.D., quoted in Sydney Cave, Redemption, Hindu and Christian, 1919, p. 118). In Julal eddin Rumi God says: " Except My service, which is joy's sunrise, Man has never felt and never will feel an impression of joy ! " Selected poems from the Divini Shamsi Tabriz, trans, by Reynolds A. Nicholson, 1898, p. 179.

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