The Dangers of Mysticism
Affectionately inscribed to Arthur Edward Waite
A curious idea is being sedulously disseminated, and appears to be gaining ground, that mysticism is the “Safe” Path to the Highest, and magic the dangerous Path to the Lowest.
There are several comments to be made on this assertion. One may doubt whether anything worth doing at all is free from danger, and one may wonder what danger can threaten the man whose object is his own utter ruin. One may also smile a little grimly at the integrity of those who try to include all Magic under Black Magic, as is the present trick of the Mystic Militant here on earth.
Now, as one who may claim to a slight acquaintance with the literature of both paths, and to have been honoured by personal exposition from the adepts of both paths, I believe that I may be able to bring them fairly into the balance.
This is the magical theory, that the first departure from the Infinite must be equilibrated and so corrected. So the “great Magician,” Mayan, the maker of Illusion, the Creator, must be met in combat. Then “if Satan be divided against Satan, how shall his kingdom stand?” Both vanish: the illusion is no more. Mathematically, 1 + (–1) = 0. And this path is symbolised in the Taro under the figure of the Magus, the card numbered 1, the first departure from 0, but referred to Beth, 2, Mercury, the god of Wisdom, Magic and Truth.
And this Magus has the twofold aspect of the Magician himself and also of the “Great Magician” described in Liber 418 (Equinox, No. V., Special Supplement, p. 144).1
Now the formula of the mystic is much simpler. Mathematically, it is 1 – 1 = 0. He is like a grain of salt cast into the sea; the process of dissolution is obviously easier than the shock of worlds which the magician contemplates. “Sit down, and feel yourself as dust in the presence of God; nay, as less than dust, as nothing,” is the all-sufficient simplicity of his method. Unfortunately, many people cannot do this. And when you urge your inability, the mystic is only too likely to shrug his shoulders and be done with you.
This path is symbolised by the “Fool” of the Tarot, who is alike the Mystic and the Infinite.
But apart from this question, it is by no means certain that the formula is as simple as it seems. How is the mystic to assure himself that “God” is really “God” and not some demon masquerading in His image? We find Gerson sacrificing Huss to his “God”; we find a modern journalist who has done more than dabble in mysticism writing, “This mystic life at its highest is undeniably selfish”; we find another writing like the old lady who ended her criticism of the Universe, “There’s only Jock an’ me’ll be saved; an’ I’m no that sure o’ Jock”; we find another who at the age of ninety-nine foams at the mouth over an alleged breach of her alleged copyright; we find another so sensitive that the mention of his name by the present writer induces an attack of epileptic mania; if such are really “united with” or “absorbed in” God, what of God?
We are told in Galatians that the fruits of the Spirit are peace, love, joy, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperence; and somewhere else, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Of these evil-doers then we must either think that they are dishonest, and have never attained at all, or that they have united themselves with a devil.
Such are “Brethren of the Left Hand Path,” described so thoroughly in Liber 418 (Equinox, No. V., Special Supplement, pp. 119 sqq.).2
Of these the most characteristic sign is their exclusiveness. “We are the men.” “Ours is the only Way.” “All Buddhists are wicked,” the insanity of spiritual pride.
The Magician is not nearly so liable to fall into this fearful mire of pride as the mystic; he is occupied with things outside himself, and can correct his pride. Indeed, he is constantly being corrected by Nature. He, the Great One, cannot run a mile in four minutes! The mystic is solitary and shut up, lacks wholesome combat. We are all schoolboys, and the football field is a perfect prophylactic of swelled head. When the mystic meets an obstacle, he “makes believe” about it. He says it is “only illusion.” He has the morphino-maniac’s feeling of bien-étre, the delusions of the general paralytic. He loses the power of looking any fact in the face; he feeds himself on his own imagination; he persuades himself of his own attainment. If contradicted on the subject, he is cross and spiteful and cattish. If I criticise Mr X, he screams, and tries to injure me behind my back; if I say that Madame Y is not exactly St. Teresa, she writes a book to prove that she is.
Such persons “swollen with wind, and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread,” as Milton wrote of a less dangerous set of spiritual guides.
For their unhappy followers and imitators, no words of pity suffice. The whole universe is for them but “the glass of their fool’s face”; only, unlike Sir Palamedes, they admire it. Moral and spiritual Narcissi, they perish in the waters of illusion. A friend of mine, a solicitor in Naples, has told me strange tales of where such self-adoration ends.
And the subtlety of the devil is shown particularly in the method by which neophytes are caught by the Black Brothers. There is an exaggerated awe, a solemnity of diction, a vanity of archaic phrases, a false veil of holiness upon the unclean shrine. Stilted affectation masquerades as dignity; a rag-bag of mediævalism apes profundity; jargon passes for literature; phylacteries increase about the hem of the perfect prig, prude, and Pharisee.
Corollary to this attitude is the lack of all human virtue. The greatest magician, when he acts in his human capacity, acts as a man should. In particular, he has learnt kind-heartedness and sympathy. Unselfishness is very often his long suit. Just this the mystic lacks. Trying to absorb the lower planes into the higher, he neglects the lower, a mistake no magician could make.
The Nun Gertrude, when it came to her turn to wash up the dishes, used to explain that she was very sorry, but at that particular moment she was being married, with full choral service, to the Saviour.
Hundreds of mystics shut themselves up completely and for ever. Not only is their wealth-producing capacity lost to society, but so is their love and good-will, and worst of all, so is their example and precept. Christ, at the height of his career, found time to wash the feet of his disciples; any Master who does not do this on every plane is a Black Brother. The Hindus honour no man who becomes “Sannyasi” (nearly our “hermit”) until he has faithfuly fulfilled all his duties as a man and a citizen. Celibacy is immoral, and the celibate shirks one of the greatest difficulties of the Path.
Beware of all those who shirk the lower difficulties: it’s a good bet that they shirk the higher difficulties too.
Of the special dangers of the path there is here no space to write; each student finds at each step temptations reflecting his own special weakness. I have therefore dealt solely with the dangers inseparable from the path itself, dangers inherent in its nature. Not for one moment would I ask the weakest to turn back or turn aside from that path, but I would ask even the strongest to apply these correctives: first, the sceptical or scientific attitude, both in outlook and method; second, a healthy life, meaning by that what the athlete and the explorer mean; third, hearty human companionship, and devotion to life, work, and duty.
Let him remember that an ounce of honest pride is better than a ton of false humility, although an ounce of true humility is worth an ounce of honest pride; the man who works has no time to bother with either. And let him remember Christ’s statement of the Law “to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself.”
1. The Vision and the Voice, 7th Æthyr.
2. ibid., 3rd Æthyr.