The Mirror of Simple Souls
This final study will look ahead to an illuminist book of Christian piety, called le Mirouer des simples ames, written in French, right at the end of the thirteenth century. It was burned at Valenciennes by Gui II, Bishop of Cambrai 1296-1305. Later its authoress, Marguerite Porète, was taken to Paris for examination by the inquisition. She was burned at the stake as a heretic, on the Place de Grève in 1310, 100 years after the same punishment was given to the Amalricians for holding similar illuminist and pantheist views.
I do not intend to review this book in the hope that it may throw light on Amalrician thinking of a century earlier: it comes out of a different generation and a different social milieu. This brief study is included, because the book gives a rare insight, from the inside, into a tradition which, in Marguerite’s time, was called ‘free spirit’ mysticism. (Some readers may also find themselves being reminded of “intoxicated” Sufis or of the Mahāsin al-Majālis of Ibn al-‘Arīf.)
It is partly written in the form of a courtly debate, in which the principal participants are Amour (Love of God), Raison (Reason) and the soul. The soul is always feminine and is occasionally given a personal name, sometimes Esther or Hester (because ‘estre’ = being) and sometimes Marguerite (because this is the authoress’ name, and maybe because marguerites (large daisies) respond to the source of light). It is obvious from the start, in the little poem which forms a prologue to the work, warning
“Theologians and other clerks,
You won’t understand this book,
However bright your wits,”
that Reason is going to be trounced by the Love of God, from beginning to end of the book.
“So bring low your sciences
Which are founded by Reason,
And put all your trust
In the sciences conferred by Love,
That are lit up by Faith.”
Early on, Amour (God’s Love) addresses himself to three types of Christian: firstly, ‘les actifs’, those who engage in the active Christian life of service; secondly, ‘les contemplatifs’, the contemplatives who devote their lives to the worship of God; and thirdly, ‘les adnientifs par vraie amour’, those who have been ‘obliterated’, brought to nothing, utterly taken over, by their union with True Love.
These three types can be linked to the three ‘deaths’ that the Christian soul needs to undergo:
the mortification of sin, inaugurating a life of grace;
the mortification of the self and its nature, bringing a new life in the spirit;
the mortification even of the spirit, for eternal life in God:
“now [the soul] lives that divine life, which is born in the death of the spirit.”
The book will try to chart the soul’s ascent, from her individual separateness to union with God, from her enslavement by material and corporeal desires to liberty in the spirit. This is described in one place as a progression through seven degrees of being.
Her seven stages of the ascent from the valley bottom to the top of the mountain are classified as:
– Turning away from all sin, and keeping all God’s commandments.
– Mortification of her body, despising riches, honours and delights.
– Trying not just to do what is right, but to be the right person; curbing her will.
– Feeling the delight of being accepted by Love.
– Illumination, a flooding in of divine light, when she understands that God is everything, that God is the being of all that is:
“that God is [he] who is, and of whom every thing is.”
– The soul feels naughted in God and feels freed, but she still cannot claim to be in perfect union with God, although God is described as being able to see himself in her, through her and without her.
– Finally comes Love’s secret, the perfect union that can only come after the soul has left the body.
There are two props, or crutches, for the soul to lean on. The left-hand staff is self-knowledge: this involves the acceptance of one’s own inabilities, which will lead to humility. The right-hand staff is knowledge of God: this involves the experience of the divine, which will lead to inebriation. Much is made of the intoxication of the liberated soul, although it has not been drinking:
“It is that drink which makes the Naughted Soul drunk, the Liberated Soul drunk, the Obliterated Soul drunk, but very drunk, without it having taken anything to drink.”
The principal emphasis of the book is on the naughting of the will, the complete surrender of the individual’s will to the will of God, so that it is indifferent to everything, including talk of heaven and hell:
“So that such a Soul desires none of the joys of paradise […] and refuses none of the torments of hell.”
As the historian of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, has pointed out, this constant reiteration, that the liberated soul takes no thought for anything and has no will of its own, brings with it the evident danger of quietism (the acceptance of absolutely everything, including things that could be harmful to others). According to Marguerite, the dwellers on the mountain-top, above the winds and the rain, i.e. the mystics who have attained their goal, are characterised as:
“those who have no shame, no honour and no fear for whatever might happen on earth.”
I should like to finish this glimpse into the Mirror of Simple Souls with a survey of some of the doctrinal consequences of its teachings. God – or the Trinity (the writer is very keen to stress the trinity of God) – is sometimes called the Loingprés, the far distant one who is very close. This is a good name for a transcendent God, who is also immanent. The fact that God is everywhere, and in everything, and beyond everything, is stressed many times. However, because God is everywhere, it is wrong to restrict one’s worship to ‘holy places’: God should not be worshipped only in temples and monasteries, but in all places.
The book gives an orthodox interpretation of the sacrament of the Eucharist and its beneficial effects for the believer, but also has to explain why sacraments are no longer always necessary for the ‘obliterated’ soul. There have to be different rules for, on the one hand, those who have been ‘clarified’ (i.e. enlightened, purified by divine illumination) and for, on the other hand, those who need to follow a safe, simple, effectively disciplined path, without constant self-analysis.
The enlightened souls should not be expected to follow the normal rules of moral and social behaviour. There is even a little ditty, which sings ‘Goodbye to the Virtues’. Not surprisingly, Raison (Reason) is alarmed: has the authoress gone mad? No, no, Love reassures Reason, such souls contain all the virtues, because they have Love, the fountainhead of all virtue, living within them. The ‘clarified’ soul may have taken leave of the virtues, but the virtues have not taken leave of her. There is even a suggestion that the liberated soul may have regained the innocence of Adam before the Fall, because Amour says, at one point, that all other souls, “except this one”, have original sin through the fall of Adam.
Amour (Love) often distinguishes between two levels of Christian experience. Most Christians follow the well-known, but easier, route of the lesser Saincte Eglise la Petite (Little Holy Church).
“There is Little Holy Church, says Love, which is governed by reason.”
For the spiritual Christian there is the more difficult way of the esoteric Saincte Eglise la Grant (Great Holy Church), which is governed by Love:
“…and Great Holy Church, says Divine Love, which is governed by us.”
Only God knows which soul is in which church:
“None can know which souls are which, except God who is inside them.”
Towards the end of her book, the writer may allude to alchemical imagery to identify her ‘clarified’ soul, now ‘obliterated’ in union with God. In one of the little poems near the end, Verité (Truth) calls her an “emerald and precious gem”; and in another, the Holy Trinity calls her a “heavenly stone”. She sings a final song about her gentle, beautiful, good, strong lover called Holy Spirit:
“The divine light delivered me out of prison,
And gently united me to the divine will of Love.”
She has attained her goal of self-transcendence:
“I’ve said that I will love him – I lie, it is not I:
It’s he alone who loves me – He is, and I am naught.”
I hope that this gives an insight into the illuminist devotions of one female Free Spirit nearly a century after the Amalricians. Some of her experiences may have been similar to theirs. The dangers of such a position (underestimating original sin) were similar too. Such dangers are real; but they seem to me to be much less pernicious to society, than the threat posed by those ordinary believers, who do not think that their Christianity has any relevance to their own bullying aggressiveness, or to their own selfish greed for wealth, power and privilege at the expense of others.
Le Miroir des simples ames shows that radical pantheist and illuminist mysticism, whose presence in the Western Church was first detected among the Amalricians, had survived. It would eventually grow, – in spite of persecution by those who genuinely believed that the Christian Church needed protection against Christian spirituality.