|Finally, on September 21-23, 1938 at the Fourth
Congress on Religious Psychology held at Avon-Fontainbleu Maritain fully expressed his
intuition in a talk entitled, "L'experience mystique naturelle et le vide"
(Natural Mysticism and the Void). It was published in Etudes Carmélitaines the following
month and appeared in his book Quatre essais sur l'esprit dans sa condition
charnelle in 1939.
In this essay Maritain characterizes mystical experience as "a possession-giving experience of the absolute." This is a wider definition than equating mystical experience with supernatural contemplation, and it leaves the door open to considering the possibility, not of a naturally attained supernatural mystical experience, but a natural mystical experience. Such a natural mystical experience is not to be confused with the natural philosophical contemplation of Chapter I: "Is this natural contemplation of divine things a mystical experience in the natural order? I believe not." (27) The reason it is not is because this philosophical contemplation, despite the affective overtones that can accompany it, knows God at a distance through the mirror of creatures; it knows God in and through the intuition of being that makes use of concepts. But can there be a natural mystical experience, a kind of "metaphilosophical contemplation" that is the result of a deeper and more religious desire, not just to know that the cause of creatures exists, but to embrace and contact in some way this source of being? Mystical experience wants to do this. It wants to go beyond concepts and experience the absolute by a kind of knowledge that Maritain calls "nescience, of possession-giving not knowing." And this mystical knowledge can be divided into two types depending on the kind of connaturality that it involves. The first is a mystical experience by means of affective connaturality which is the supernatural contemplation of Chapter II. The second is mystical experience by an intellectual connaturality, "a natural contemplation which by means of a supra or para-conceptual intellection attains a transcendent reality." (28) This is a metaphilosophical contemplation that reverses rather than continues the normal direction of philosophical contemplation by achieving its knowledge at the price of the elimination of all concepts.
Maritain's starting point for exploring this natural mysticism is the knowledge that we have of ourselves, "the inner and obscure experience of myself, through myself." (29) Inspired by Ambrose Gardeil's book he realized that although there cannot be even a "partial actualization of the latent self-intellection of the soul reflecting upon itself," (30) this self-knowledge can become an invaluable entranceway to a genuine natural mystical experience. Our self-awareness is a "true experience of the singular existence" of the soul in and through its operations. (31) But this awareness of our existence does not directly reveal to us "what" we are. We know this what only in a piecemeal fashion by making use of our concepts. In contrast, our experimental knowledge of ourselves is a "purely existential" knowledge. However, this existential knowledge is usually intimately commingled with our discursive activities, but now Maritain envisions the possibility of a deliberate and determined effort in which spiritual seekers, like the sages of India, would concentrate on this primordial fact of their existence and eliminate every image and distinct operation of the mind. By means of this negative act, "an act of supreme silence," they would try to penetrate this experience of existence to its depths and finally come to a state in which "the soul empties itself absolutely of every specific operation and of all multiplicity, and knows negatively by means of the void and the annihilation of every act and of every object of thought coming from outside - the soul knows negatively - but nakedly, with veils - that metaphysical marvel, that absolute, that perfection of every act and of every perfection, which is to exist, which is the soul's own substantial existence." (32)
Laying aside every what or essence, they descend into a silence which is "a negation, a void, and an annihilation which are in no sense nothingness." (33) Instead, this very void becomes the formal means by which they know, not an intuitive vision of the soul, but its very existence which seems to surge up and be a gift passively received. Instead of supernatural contemplation's amor transit in conditionem objecti, in this natural mysticism "vacuitas, abolitio, denudatio transit in conditionem objecti" (voidness, annihilation and denudation become the formal means by which the object is known.) The abolition of all acts becomes the supreme act, and it is this emptiness that becomes the way in which "the deep fathomless 'to exist' of subjectivity" is negatively experienced as a "mystical experience of the Self." (34) But if this experience of the existence of the soul can only take place by the elimination of all essences, then "it is comprehensible that this negative experience, in attaining the existential esse of the soul, should at the same time attain, indistinctly, both this same existence proper to the soul and existence in its metaphysical amplitude, and the sources of existence." (35) "And how could this experience, being purely negative, distinguish one absolute from the other? Inasmuch as it is a purely negative experience, it neither confuses nor distinguishes them. And since therein is attained no content in the 'essential' order, no quid, it is comprehensible that philosphic thought, reflecting upon such an experience, fatally runs the danger of identifying in some measure one absolute with the other, that absolute which is the mirror and that which is perceived in the mirror. The same word 'atman' designates the human self and the supreme Self." (36)
In short, the very powerful yet obscure experience of our own existence can become the doorway through which we can pursue, not the path of essence, but that of existence to the very bedrock of the human spirit which is our very existence as it comes forth from the source of existence. But this existence is known through the medium of emptiness so that there is no way to distinguish the existence of the soul, the existence of all created things and the existence which is God. All of this will remain incomprehensible if we have not understood that metaphysics is supremely alive and lives principally not in words but in the intuitions that give birth to them. This is not Maritain trying to make some academic evaluation of Hindu mystical experience, but rather trying to awaken us to the riches of the metaphysics of St. Thomas that can allow us to begin to see into the dark yet luminous depths of natural mystical experience.
Maritain, in an important footnote to this discussion, finally completes the journey that he had started back in the Degrees, and clarifies the relationship between the experience of the existence of the soul and the experience of God: "It is the substantial esse of the soul which is the object of (negative) possession; and by this negative experience of the self God is attained at the same time without any duality of act, though attained indirectly... God being known (1) by and in the substantial esse of the soul, itself attained immediately and negatively by means of the formal medium of the void; (2) in the negative experience itself of that substantial esse (just as the eye , by one and same act of knowing, sees the image, and in the image the signified) -, all this being the case, I think, it is permissible in such an instance to speak of a 'contact' with the absolute, and of an improperly 'immediate' experience (that is to say, one rapt up in the very act of the immediate experience of the self) of God creator and author of nature." (37)
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