Demystifying mysticism – Scottish style

The Future of Early Modern Scottish Studies Conference
St. Andrews, 13-14 January 2017

In 1934, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Aberdeen, G.D. Henderson, published an account of the piety of northern Scotland after the Revolution of 1689. Mystics of the North-East focused on the community surrounding James Ogilvie, Lord Deskford. Deskford was one of a group of ministers, physicians and nobles, responsible for publicising mystical literature across Britain.

Henderson explained his subjects’ mysticism by their opposition to Presbyterianism and support for the exiled house of Stuart. He concluded the three elements of their world-view were intimately connected: the deprivation of Episcopalian ministers from their charges following 1689 encouraged many in the North-East to embrace mysticism, which in turn led them into the service of the Jacobite pretenders.

Unfortunately for later scholarship, only two of Henderson’s mystics — George Garden and Alexander Forbes of Pitsligo — fit his picture, and neither look entirely conferrable posing for it. In reality, mysticism was embraced by middling and more than middling Scots from across the political spectrum: Gilbert Burnet flirted with mysticism before he left for the Dutch Republic to become chief spin-doctor to William of Orange; Burnet’s kinsman, Thomas of Kemnay, acted as a link between the British establishment, and Sophia, Electress of Hanover. Deskford’s father, the Earl of Findlater, was appointed a union commissioner and served Queen Anne as Lord Chancellor. But Henderson sowed the seeds of reductionism well, and the myth persists in certain quarters that North-Eastern mystics embraced Quietist spirituality because of the failure to win political power in the wake of 1689 and 1707.

Although there is an industry of scholarship that tries to reduce religious ideas to social history, and a mountain of work suggesting that mysticism is simply a small-s stoic response to failure, the history of mysticism – and the Scottish engagement with it – cannot be written away so easily, unless its most important advocates are excluded. Christianity is inherently theological. To take Christians seriously, we need to appreciate that their ideas shape practice. That commonplace of intellectual history cannot be emphasised enough in relation to mysticism, which is all too often read as all about ‘experience’, and therefore not explicable in terms historians of ideas employ. The anachronism of applying ‘experience’, a term of nineteenth-century phycology, to seventeenth-century protagonists is evident even in the works of those, like Bernard McGinn, who claim to make a rigorously-historical approach to mystical texts.

We need to take the history of mysticism back to the plotting board, by exploring how we came to use the term in the first instance. In this article, I’d like to make three interrelated claims: the first is that the concept of ‘mysticism’ first emerged among seventeenth-century English Catholics to describe the sort of pious conduct expected of those who lived under the Rule of St. Benedict. Secondly, the novelty of Henderson’s Scottish mystics lay with their attempt to ‘demystify mysticism’, which is my catchy way of saying they brought it from out the monastery onto the streets of Britain. Thirdly, and most intriguingly, Scottish mystics not only made Catholic texts the centrepiece their own mystical oeuvre (this sort of appropriation was common in early modern Britain), but appear to have done so in response to suggestions by Catholics that they would gain something in the process. That’s to say, they weren’t just arrogating Catholic mysticism for Protestant purposes, their mysticism was inherently Catholic in conception.

We’ll look first, then, at the historical origins of mysticism. Thanks to Aldous Huxley, many people see mysticism as a ‘perennial philosophy’. Histories of mysticism usually run from Plato’s Republic through the mystical revival in the first half of last century. In 1998, however, one of the leading historians of the fourteenth-century English mystical cannon, Nicholas Watson, provoked alarm by suggesting that the subject of his scholarship was bunk: the mystical tradition had, he argued, been invented in the late nineteenth century when the interests of Anglican occultism and English Catholicism came together. For Anglicans like Evelyn Underhill, mysticism was a perennial philosophy: it had existed across cultures since the beginning of time. Modernising Catholics, such as Underhill’s friend Friedrich von Hügel, saw mystical theology as an alternative to the papacy’s assertions of scholastic dogma. It was in this context that G.D. Henderson published his Mystics of the North-East, which comes littered with footnotes to histories of mysticism penned by the modernists and the Anglicans.

The term, however, is not a twentieth-century construction. A conceptual history of mysticism must begin in sixteenth-century France, where an emerging language of ‘la mystique’ was taken up by Pierre de Bérulle and the new monastic order he founded, the Oratory. Late medieval French piety was intense and personal. In part because of confusion between and St. Denis of Paris, French contemplatives followed the Areopagite’s Mystical Theology, which taught the necessity of abrogating the outward selves and abandoning ourselves into the divine. Bérulle believed that such enthusiasm did not meet the needs of post-Reformation controversy. The Oratory was conceived to assist the agenda of the Council of Trent, to retrain the post-Reformation ministry in their new roles as Catholic controversialists. Oratorian mysticism was Christocentric, and focused on devotions which would move the French priesthood away from its worldly vices towards the pure love of God and charity to one’s fellow creatures, core elements of the Christian heritage which would appeal to the anti-Papal heretics.

One of Berullé’s colleagues in the Oratory was the English monk, Benet Canfield, who began the task of recovering the works of English contemplatives who had revived the Dionysian corpus in the fourteenth-century. Canfield’s commentary on the mystics became popular among English religious exiles, because it was used by Augustine Baker, the confessor to the exiled nuns at Cambrai in the Spanish Northlands. It is through Baker’s Secretum sive Mysticorum that the term ‘mystic’ enters the English vocabulary, to represent writers, in the tradition of St. Benedict, who produced regulae for the governance of the cloistral life. Baker dubbed Benedict and his successors ‘mystick authors’ for two reasons: first, they taught that contemplation was best suited for the enclosed — secret, or ‘mystic’ — orders. Baker suggested that mystical matters should be shielded from those outwith orders who ‘do more use their external Senses’. He drew a second lexical connection, between ‘mysticism’ and ‘obscurity’: mystical texts may appear unclear because we lack the ‘proper words and terms … for the expressment’ of matters divine.

While Baker’s manuscripts had stirred controversy among English nuns in exile in the 1630s, they attracted no wider attention until 1656, when they published in a much abbreviated edition by Serenus Cressy. Cressy had converted to Catholicism ten years earlier over the Church of England’s failure to unite a flock divided by civil war. He believed monastic devotion could restore Protestants to the universal Church. Cressy was introduced to mysticism at a Carthusian monastery in Paris, where he was impressed by the piety of the order. He believed Carthusian spirituality could restore Church unity, because the order had ‘continued without interruption’ for six hundred years, in the absence of scandal or need for Reformation, as the rest of the world had descended into religious and civil strife. This revelation led Cressy to Baker’s works, which synthesised the ‘Mystical Theology’ practiced by the order. For Cressy, ‘Mysticall Theology’ would bring Protestants back to the universal church. He believed that the dissolution of the monasteries left no place where Protestants might be instructed in piety. Protestant practical theology was underdeveloped because the reformers had disavowed the evangelical counsels of perfection — charity, poverty and obedience — necessary for following a Christian life. Cressy openly challenged Protestants to invent their own ‘mystick divinity’.

Cressy’s distillation of Baker, the Sancta Sophia, did not go down well with most Protestants. From Perthshire, the minister of Dron, Alexander Pitcairne, riled against ‘popish zelots in their mystical theology’ who had ‘exceeded all bounds’ and had thus fallen into ‘gross euthusiasme’. Catholic mystics were prone to receiving ‘enthusiastick raptures’ and fell into ‘exstasic fits’ during their religious practices. As Liam Temple has shown, such opprobrium reverberated across these Islands.

But the link critics drew between mysticism and fanaticism failed to convince many Protestants, who believed that Cressy was right, despite his ulterior motives. Many Britons came to believe the mystic’s quiet retreat made the perfect Restoration cocktail, unifying Christians in peace and love after years of fighting one another. We had divided over outward liturgies and controversy. What really mattered were our inner spiritual lives. If we learnt to direct our souls towards God, we could live in peace and harmony with our neigbours.

This ‘reformation of our lives’ was made possible by a wholesale appropriation of Catholic devotional literature which was piloted from Scotland, where Cressy’s work became the standard go-to for information on the history of mystical theology. Moderate Episcopalians surrounding the Bishop of Dunblane, Robert Leighton, produced translations of European mystical texts, based on the reading lists originally prepared for the nuns of Cambrai. English renditions were published in cheap editions distributed by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and competing foundations across the archipelago. From the 1670s onwards, Leighton’s followers in Aberdeen embarked on an ambitious project to disseminate mystical literature to Protestants across Europe. James Garden produced a list of approved mystical authors, and wrote a companion piece, the Comparative Theology, in which he argued that mysticism was the best way to promote the golden rule: love for neighbour and for God. Garden’s Comparative theology, and his ‘catalogue of mystic authors’ enjoyed a life of their own down to the nineteenth century, thanks to their publication by Pierre Poiret in the Bibliothecca Mysticorum Selecta of 1708.

Comparing Garden’s ‘catalogue of mystic authors’ with the lists written by Augustine Baker reveals that this was a project guided by the spirit of the Welsh Benedictine. But the Scots also attempted to divorce mysticism from its Catholic associations, by stripping it of the two things, we’ll recall, that Baker thought made it mystical in the first place: the association with enclosed monastic orders, and the idea that there was a higher mysticism reserved for those who had advanced in their mystical knowledge. I’ll examine each type of ‘demystification’ in turn. But first, we need to ask why it was that moderate Episcopalians turned to mysticism in the first place.

The self-styled ‘moderate Episcopalians’ were those who rejected attempts by supporters by Archbishop James Sharp to impose Episcopacy by violent means. The leaders of the moderates were Robert Leighton, Gilbert Burnet, James Nairn and Laurence Charteris. They entered the lists against Sharp’s policy of ejecting Presbyterian ministers who had signed the covenant. Burnet, then minister in the East Lothian parish of Saltoun, believed Sharp’s proceedings against the covenanters were ‘contrary to the meek spirit of the gospel’. Burnet and his fellow moderates turned to the primitive church, particularly the works of St. Cyprian, for guidance on a settlement which could accommodate aspects of Presbyterian government under an episcopate in control of the King.

The moderates believed church unity had been destroyed by religious controversy, and called for a return to the practical piety of the primitive Christians who had taught a religion of love. Love for God was reflected in this world by the love we showed to our neighbours. This theology hinged on the concept of a mystical union with the Father: we could achieve salvation only by clearing our minds of worldly things and becoming more like God. The ‘Leightonians’ embarked on a far-reaching programme to train up ministers to preach this philosophy, which Leighton and Burnet did in their academic posts at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Nairn assisted by giving his library of mystical piety to Edinburgh University.

The moderates knew Cressy’s works well. Leighton made extensive use of Sancta Sophia when compiling his own Spiritual exercises. In a long digression on mysticism in his Three letters from Italy, Burnet credited Cressy with distilling mysticism into a system, or theology, which Burnet used as the basis for his own spiritual exercises at Saltoun.

The moderates differed from their teacher, however, in their belief that mysticism should not be reserved for monks and nuns in orders, but could serve the interests of Protestant Reformation. For Leighton and Burnet, the solution was a Protestant monastery. The ‘fatal error’ of the sixteenth-century Reformers, Leighton argued, was not to preserve the monastic way of life. Protestants enjoyed ‘neither places of education, nor retreat for men of mortified tempers’. Burnet concurred that ‘something like monasteries without wows would be a glorious design’. Henry Scougal went further. In his Life of God in the Soul of Man, he suggested that monastic contemplation should not be limited to the Religious. It could be practiced by anyone, so long as they followed his easy method, which would ensure they always acted in accordance with God’s will. In other words, mysticism, did not, as George Garden noted in Scougal’s funeral sermon, mean retiring ‘into cells and cloisters … like Nuns and Recluses’.

These arguments were engagements with Cressy’s suggestion that Protestants did not have the right kit to pursue the pious life. The Scottish mystics attempted to furnish them with the tools they needed.

So, Protestant monasticism could bring mysticism from the cloister to the public sphere. But as Leighton and his colleagues found to their cost, even Protestant mysticism was open to charges of religious enthusiasm, charges rooted in its obscurity of language. The difficulties of ‘obscurity’ were recognized by Burnet, who lambasted the density of the Dionysian corpus. The problem did not go away: the English mystic, William Law was complaining about obscurity in the 1750s, and as late as 1827, Dugald Stewart could define mystics — rather brilliantly — as those ‘who, in attempting to conceal their ignorance for themselves or from others by means of theoretical expressions, darken the study of nature by words without knowledge’.

The Scots attempted to tackle the problem head on. A sermon written by one of the mystics in the North-East makes distinction between lesser mystics, like Dionysus, and greater mystics, of whom the greatest is Christ himself. The two classes were distinguished by their position in relation to their creator. Mystics who ‘have their Maker below them, or on the same Levell with them’ have been shunned for the lapses of their mediocre followers, who use obscure language to conceal the fact that they have not approached the inner sanctum. Lesser mystics justified their obscurantism by claiming their ‘obscurity preceded from the sublimity’ of their subject and its object, the secrets of the divine, which could not be shared publically. Like modern doctors and chemists, they concealed their ‘Science under these terms, from such as were not capable of it, while the Mystiques did sufficiently understand one another’.

This faux-scholarly elitism is not in the spirit of the Gospel, which is for everyone. As an alternative, the preacher proposes that Protestants turn to the sayings of Christ for true mysticism. We must give up our obsession with worldly goods, and be ‘poor in spirit’. The Gospel teaches ‘the whole Mystick way’ which consists in denying our own wills and doing the will of God, by following Christ’s example. Union with God was something all Christians could attain in this world.

Stripped of its monastic associations and obscure language, mysticism could buttress a reformation in the ways that all Christians lived their lives. Scottish thinkers promoted a form of practical mysticism which involved constantntly directing ourselves to God. We could enjoy union with the deity by practicing ‘continual prayer’. In the words of the Scots’ favourite mystic, Antoinette Bourignon,

He who lifts up his Heart to God only when he is in the Church, or says the [Lords Prayer], does not pray always: Because he cannot be always in the Church, nor mutter his Prayers from Morning till Night: But he who resigns his Will to that of God prays continually, whether he eat, drink, walk, or take his rest: He is always by his Will united to God, and has no need of other Means· because he is arrived at the End, where Means would be a Hindrance to him

Antoinette Bourignon

By focusing on an attempt to untie our wills with God, Bourignon reads the divine union as something we can achieve in this life, simply by quietly praying our way through life.

This novel understanding of mysticism was promoted by the mystics of the North-East, who disseminated works of practical, mystical divinity to those inclined to the ‘internal way’. The project was led by James Keith, who went to England in 1704. Keith organized for the translation, and dissemination, of works of mystical literature across Britain. Keith elicited sponsors for a library of mystical literature which would serve ‘breathe a spirit of Pure devotion, Strictness of Life, and express the greatest Gravity, and a most profound Experience in all the Affairs of the Human Life’. Keith’s appeal to followers of the ‘internal way’ across Britain, was able to raise hundred British subscribers, of whom forty-two came from Scotland.

Keith’s audience were not Catholics, but Anglicans and Dissenters, who came to believe that Catholic ‘mystics’ could reverse Britain’s moral degradation. They saw quiet retreat as a way to unify Britian after years of civil strife. The wars that gripped Scotland, England and Ireland in mid-century had resulted from Britain’s division among numerous ‘sects and parties’. Competing factions wrangled over ecclesiological and liturgical externals, which many now came to see as irrelevant to salvation. Instead, our lives must be redirected to God who we would find inside our souls.

You are welcome to link to, and cite, this article. Please do not use material from this article without citation. This article is a version of a paper I delivered some time ago, and does not necessarily represent the current state of my research. I have tried to provide links to representative sources, where possible. Full references can be found in my published articles.