The varieties of religious experience

by William James

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII
Part IX Part X Part XI Part XII Part XIII Part XIV Part XV

Lectures XI, XII, AND XIII.

Saintliness. Continued

It is as a sacrifice, a mode of 'mortification,' that obedience is primarily conceived by Catholic writers, a "sacrifice which man offers to God, and of which he is himself both the priest and the victim. By poverty he immolates his exterior possessions; by chastity he immolates his body; by obedience he completes the sacrifice, and gives to God all that he yet holds as his own, his two most precious goods, his intellect and his will. The sacrifice is then complete and unreserved, a genuine holocaust, for the entire victim is now consumed for the honor of God." * Accordingly, in Catholic discipline, we obey our superior not as mere man, but as the representative of Christ. Obeying God in him by our intention, obedience is easy. But when the text-book theologians marshal collectively all their reasons for recommending it, the mixture sounds to our ears rather odd.

* LEJEUNE: Introduction a la Vie Mystique, 1899, p. 277. The holocaust simile goes back at least as far as Ignatius Loyola.

"One of the great consolations of the monastic life," says a Jesuit authority, "is the assurance we have that in obeying we can commit no fault. The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this thing or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received, and if you can furnish a clear account in that respect, you are absolved entirely. Whether the things you did were opportune, or whether there were not something better that might have been done, these are questions not asked of you, but rather of your Superior. The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account, and charges it to the Superior. So that Saint Jerome well exclaimed, in celebrating the advantages of obedience, 'Oh, sovereign liberty! Oh, holy and blessed security by which one becomes almost impeccable!'

"Saint John Climachus is of the same sentiment when he calls obedience an excuse before God. In fact, when God asks why you have done this or that, and you reply, it is because I was so ordered by my Superiors, God will ask for no other excuse. As a passenger in a good vessel with a good pilot need give himself no farther concern, but may go to sleep in peace, because the pilot has charge over all, and 'watches for him'; so a religious person who lives under the yoke of obedience goes to heaven as if while sleeping, that is, while leaning entirely on the conduct of his Superiors, who are the pilots of his vessel, and keep watch for him continually. It is no small thing, of a truth, to be able to cross the stormy sea of life on the shoulders and in the arms of another, yet that is just the grace which God accords to those who live under the yoke of obedience. Their Superior bears all their burdens.... A certain grave doctor said that he would rather spend his life in picking up straws by obedience, than by his own responsible choice busy himself with the loftiest works of charity, because one is certain of following the will of God in whatever one may do from obedience, but never certain in the same degree of anything which we may do of our own proper movement." *

* ALFONSO RODRIGUEZ. S.J.: Pratique de Perfection Chretienne, Part iii., Treatise v., ch. x.

One should read the letters in which Ignatius Loyola recommends obedience as the backbone of his order, if one would gain insight into the full spirit of its cult. * They are too long to quote; but Ignatius's belief is so vividly expressed in a couple of sayings reported by companions that, though they have been so often cited, I will ask your permission to copy them once more:

* Letters li. and cxx. of the collection translated into French by BOUIX, Paris, 1870.

"I ought," an early biographer reports him as saying, "on entering religion, and thereafter, to place myself entirely in the hands of God, and of him who takes His place by His authority. I ought to desire that my Superior should oblige me to give up my own judgment, and conquer my own mind. I ought to set up no difference between one Superior and another,... but recognize them all as equal before God, whose place they fill. For if I distinguish persons, I weaken the spirit of obedience. In the hands of my Superior, I must be a soft wax, a thing, from which he is to require whatever pleases him, be it to write or receive letters, to speak or not to speak to such a person, or the like; and I must put all my fervor in executing zealously and exactly what I am ordered. I must consider myself as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will; be like a mass of matter which without resistance lets itself be placed wherever it may please any one; like a stick in the hand of an old man, who uses it according to his needs and places it where it suits him. So must I be under the hands of the Order, to serve it in the way it judges most useful.

"I must never ask of the Superior to be sent to a particular place, to be employed in a particular duty.... I must consider nothing as belonging to me personally, and as regards the things I use, be like a statue which lets itself be stripped and never opposes resistance." *

* BARTOLI-MICHEL, ii. 13.

The other saying is reported by Rodriguez in the chapter from which I a moment ago made quotations. When speaking of the Pope's authority, Rodriguez writes:

"Saint Ignatius said, when general of his company, that if the Holy Father were to order him to set sail in the first bark which he might find in the port of Ostia, near Rome, and to abandon himself to the sea, without a mast, without sails, without oars or rudder or any of the things that are needful for navigation or subsistence, he would obey not only with alacrity, but without anxiety or repugnance, and even with a great internal satisfaction." *

* RODRIGUEZ: Op. cit., Part iii., Treatise v., ch. vi.

With a solitary concrete example of the extravagance to which the virtue we are considering has been carried, I will pass to the topic next in order.

"Sister Marie Claire [of Port Royal] had been greatly imbued with the holiness and excellence of M. de Langres. This prelate, soon after he came to Port Royal, said to her one day, seeing her so tenderly attached to Mother Angelique, that it would perhaps be better not to speak to her again. Marie Claire, greedy of obedience, took this inconsiderate word for an oracle of God, and from that day forward remained for several years without once speaking to her sister." *

* SAINTE-BEUVE: Histoire de Port Royal, i. 346.

Our next topic shall be Poverty, felt at all times and under all creeds as one adornment of a saintly life. Since the instinct of ownership is fundamental in man's nature, this is one more example of the ascetic paradox. Yet it appears no paradox at all, but perfectly reasonable, the moment one recollects how easily higher excitements hold lower cupidities in check. Having just quoted the Jesuit Rodriguez on the subject of obedience, I will, to give immediately a concrete turn to our discussion of poverty, also read you a page from his chapter on this latter virtue. You must remember that he is writing instructions for monks of his own order, and bases them all on the text, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

"If any one of you," he says, "will know whether or not he is really poor in spirit, let him consider whether he loves the ordinary consequences and effects of poverty, which are hunger, thirst, cold, fatigue, and the denudation of all conveniences. See if you are glad to wear a worn-out habit full of patches. See if you are glad when something is lacking to your meal, when you are passed by in serving it, when what you receive is distasteful to you, when your cell is out of repair. If you are not glad of these things, if instead of loving them you avoid them, then there is proof that you have not attained the perfection of poverty of spirit." Rodriguez then goes on to describe the practice of poverty in more detail. "The first point is that which Saint Ignatius proposes in his constitutions, when he says, 'Let no one use anything as if it were his private possession.' 'A religious person,' he says, 'ought in respect to all the things that he uses, to be like a statue which one may drape with clothing, but which feels no grief and makes no resistance when one strips it again. It is in this way that you should feel towards your clothes, your books, your cell, and everything else that you make use of; if ordered to quit them, or to exchange them for others, have no more sorrow than if you were a statue being uncovered. In this way you will avoid using them as if they were your private possession. But if, when you give up your cell, or yield possession of this or that object or exchange it for another, you feel repugnance and are not like a statue, that shows that you view these things as if they were your private property.'

"And this is why our holy founder wished the superiors to test their monks somewhat as God tested Abraham, and to put their poverty and their obedience to trial, that by this means they may become acquainted with the degree of their virtue, and gain a chance to make ever farther progress in perfection,... making the one move out of his room when he finds it comfortable and is attached to it; taking away from another a book of which he is fond; or obliging a third to exchange his garment for a worse one. Otherwise we should end by acquiring a species of property in all these several objects, and little by little the wall of poverty that surrounds us and constitutes our principal defense would be thrown down. The ancient fathers of the desert used often thus to treat their companions.... Saint Dositheus, being sick-nurse, desired a certain knife, and asked Saint Dorotheus for it, not for his private use, but for employment in the infirmary of which he had charge. Whereupon Saint Dorotheus answered him: 'Ha! Dositheus, so that knife pleases you so much! Will you be the slave of a knife or the slave of Jesus Christ? Do you not blush with shame at wishing that a knife should be your master? I will not let you touch it.' Which reproach and refusal had such an effect upon the holy disciple that since that time he never touched the knife again."...

"Therefore, in our rooms," Father Rodriguez continues, "there must be no other furniture than a bed, a table, a bench, and a candlestick, things purely necessary, and nothing more. It is not allowed among us that our cells should be ornamented with pictures or aught else, neither armchairs, carpets, curtains, nor any sort of cabinet or bureau of any elegance. Neither is it allowed us to keep anything to eat, either for ourselves or for those who may come to visit us. We must ask permission to go to the refectory even for a glass of water; and finally we may not keep a book in which we can write a line, or which we may take away with us. One cannot deny that thus we are in great poverty. But this poverty is at the same time a great repose and a great perfection. For it would be inevitable, in case a religious person were allowed to own superfluous possessions, that these things would greatly occupy his mind, be it to acquire them, to preserve them, or to increase them; so that in not permitting us at all to own them, all these inconveniences are remedied. Among the various good reasons why the company forbids secular persons to enter our cells, the principal one is that thus we may the easier be kept in poverty. After all, we are all men, and if we were to receive people of the world into our rooms, we should not have the strength to remain within the bounds prescribed, but should at least wish to adorn them with some books to give the visitors a better opinion of our scholarship." *

* RODRIGUEZ: Op. Cit., Part iii., Treatise iii., chaps. vi., vii.

Since Hindu fakirs, Buddhist monks, and Mohammedan dervishes unite with Jesuits and Franciscans in idealizing poverty as the loftiest individual state, it is worth while to examine into the spiritual grounds for such a seemingly unnatural opinion. And first, of those which lie closest to common human nature.

The opposition between the men who have and the men who are is immemorial. Though the gentleman, in the old-fashioned sense of the man who is well born, has usually in point of fact been predaceous and reveled in lands and goods, yet he has never identified his essence with these possessions, but rather with the personal superiorities, the courage, generosity, and pride supposed to be his birthright. To certain huckstering kinds of consideration he thanked God he was forever inaccessible, and if in life's vicissitudes he should become destitute through their lack, he was glad to think that with his sheer valor he was all the freer to work out his salvation. "Wer nur selbst was hatte," says Lessing's Tempelherr, in Nathan the Wise, "mein Gott, mein Gott, ich habe nichts!" This ideal of the well-born man without possessions was embodied in knight-errantry and templardom; and, hideously corrupted as it has always been, it still dominates sentimentally, if not practically, the military and aristocratic view of life. We glorify the soldier as the man absolutely unincumbered. Owning nothing but his bare life, and willing to toss that up at any moment when the cause commands him, he is the representative of unhampered freedom in ideal directions. The laborer who pays with his person day by day, and has no rights invested in the future, offers also much of this ideal detachment. Like the savage, he may make his bed wherever his right arm can support him, and from his simple and athletic attitude of observation, the property-owner seems buried and smothered in ignoble externalities and trammels, "wading in straw and rubbish to his knees." The claims which things make are corrupters of manhood, mortgages on the soul, and a drag anchor on our progress towards the empyrean.

"Everything I meet with," writes Whitefield, "seems to carry this voice with it,- 'Go thou and preach the Gospel; be a pilgrim on earth; have no party or certain dwelling place.' My heart echoes back, 'Lord Jesus, help me to do or suffer thy will. When thou seest me in danger of nesting,- in pity- in tender pity,- put a thorn in my nest to prevent me from it.'" *

* R. PHILIP: The Life and Times of George Whitefield, London, 1842, p. 366.

The loathing of 'capital' with which our laboring classes to-day are growing more and more infected seems largely composed of this sound sentiment of antipathy for lives based on mere having. As an anarchist poet writes:

"Not by accumulating riches, but by giving away that which you have,

"Shall you become beautiful;

"You must undo the wrappings, not case yourself in fresh ones;

"Not by multiplying clothes shall you make your body sound and healthy, but rather by discarding them...

"For a soldier who is going on a campaign does not seek what fresh furniture he can carry on his back, but rather what he can leave behind;

"Knowing well that every additional thing which he cannot freely use and handle is an impediment." *

* EDWARD CARPENTER: Towards Democracy, p. 362, abridged.

In short, lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or on being, and in the interest of action people subject to spiritual excitement throw away possessions as so many clogs. Only those who have no private interests can follow an ideal straight away. Sloth and cowardice creep in with every dollar or guinea we have to guard. When a brother novice came to Saint Francis, saying: "Father, it would be a great consolation to me to own a psalter, but even supposing that our general should concede to me this indulgence, still I should like also to have your consent," Francis put him off with the examples of Charlemagne, Roland, and Oliver, pursuing the infidels in sweat and labor, and finally dying on the field of battle. "So care not," he said, "for owning books and knowledge, but care rather for works of goodness." And when some weeks later the novice came again to talk of his craving for the psalter, Francis said: "After you have got your psalter you will crave a breviary; and after you have got your breviary you will sit in your stall like a grand prelate, and will say to your brother: 'Hand me my breviary.'... And thenceforward he denied all such requests, saying: A man possesses of learning only so much as comes out of him in action, and a monk is a good preacher only so far as his deeds proclaim him such, for every tree is known by its fruits." *

* Speculum Perfectionis, ed. P. SABATIER, Paris, 1898, pp. 10, 13.

But beyond this more worthily athletic attitude involved in doing and being, there is, in the desire of not having, something profounder still, something related to that fundamental mystery of religious experience, the satisfaction found in absolute surrender to the larger power. So long as any secular safeguard is retained, so long as any residual prudential guarantee is clung to, so long the surrender is incomplete, the vital crisis is not passed, fear still stands sentinel, and mistrust of the divine obtains: we hold by two anchors, looking to God, it is true, after a fashion, but also holding by our proper machinations. In certain medical experiences we have the same critical point to overcome. A drunkard, or a morphine or cocaine maniac, offers himself to be cured. He appeals to the doctor to wean him from his enemy, but he dares not face blank abstinence. The tyrannical drug is still an anchor to windward: he hides supplies of it among his clothing; arranges secretly to have it smuggled in in case of need. Even so an incompletely regenerate man still trusts in his own expedients. His money is like the sleeping potion which the chronically wakeful patient keeps beside his bed; he throws himself on God, but if he should need the other help, there it will be also. Every one knows cases of this incomplete and ineffective desire for reform,- drunkards whom, with all their self-reproaches and resolves, one perceives to be quite unwilling seriously to contemplate never being drunk again! Really to give up anything on which we have relied, to give it up definitively, 'for good and all' and forever, signifies one of those radical alterations of character which came under our notice in the lectures on conversion. In it the inner man rolls over into an entirely different position of equilibrium, lives in a new centre of energy from this time on, and the turning-point and hinge of all such operations seems usually to involve the sincere acceptance of certain nakednesses and destitutions.

Accordingly, throughout the annals of the saintly life, we find this ever-recurring note: Fling yourself upon God's providence without making any reserve whatever,- take no thought for the morrow,- sell all you have and give it to the poor, only when the sacrifice is ruthless and reckless will the higher safety really arrive. As a concrete example let me read a page from the biography of Antoinette Bourignon, a good woman, much persecuted in her day by both Protestants and Catholics, because she would not take her religion at second hand. When a young girl, in her father's house,

"She spent whole nights in prayer, oft repeating: Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And being one night in a most profound penitence, she said from the bottom of her heart: 'O my Lord! What must I do to please thee? For I have nobody to teach me. Speak to my soul and it will hear thee.' At that instant she heard, as if another had spoke within her: Forsake all earthly things. Separate thyself from the love of the creatures. Deny thyself. She was quite astonished, not understanding this language, and mused long on these three points, thinking how she could fulfill them. She thought she could not live without earthly things, nor without loving the creatures, nor without loving herself. Yet she said, 'By thy Grace I will do it, Lord!' But when she would perform her promise, she knew not where to begin. Having thought on the religious in monasteries, that they forsook all earthly things by being shut up in a cloister, and the love of themselves by subjecting of their wills, she asked leave of her father to enter into a cloister of the barefoot Carmelites, but he would not permit it, saying he would rather see her laid in her grave. This seemed to her a great cruelty, for she thought to find in the cloister the true Christians she had been seeking, but she found afterwards that he knew the cloisters better than she; for after he had forbidden her, and told her he would never permit her to be a religious, nor give her any money to enter there, yet she went to Father Laurens, the Director, and offered to serve in the monastery and work hard for her bread, and be content with little, if he would receive her. At which he smiled and said: That cannot be. We must have money to build; we take no maids without money; you must find the way to get it, else there is no entry here.

"This astonished her greatly, and she was thereby undeceived as to the cloisters, resolving to forsake all company and live alone till it should please God to show her what she ought to do and whither to go. She asked always earnestly, 'When shall I be perfectly thine, O my God?' And she thought he still answered her, 'When thou shalt no longer possess anything, and shalt die to thyself. 'And where shall I do that, Lord?' He answered her, In the desert. This made so strong an impression on her soul that she aspired after this; but being a maid of eighteen years only, she was afraid of unlucky chances, and was never used to travel, and knew no way. She laid aside all these doubts and said, 'Lord, thou wilt guide me how and where it shall please thee. It is for thee that I do it. I will lay aside my habit of a maid, and will take that of a hermit that I may pass unknown.' Having then secretly made ready this habit, while her parents thought to have married her, her father having promised her to a rich French merchant, she prevented the time, and on Easter evening, having cut her hair, put on the habit, and slept a little, she went out of her chamber about four in the morning, taking nothing but one penny to buy bread for that day. And it being said to her in the going out, Where is thy faith? in a penny? she threw it away, begging pardon of God for her fault, and saying, 'No, Lord, my faith is not in a penny, but in thee alone.' Thus she went away wholly delivered from the heavy burthen of the cares and good things of this world, and found her soul so satisfied that she no longer wished for anything upon earth, resting entirely upon God, with this only fear lest she should be discovered and be obliged to return home; for she felt already more content in this poverty than she had done for all her life in all the delights of the world." *

* An Apology for M. Antonia Bourignon, London, 1699, pp. 269, 270, abridged.

Another example from Starbuck's MS. collection:

"At a meeting held at six the next morning, I heard a man relate his experience. He said: The Lord asked him if he would confess Christ among the quarrymen with whom he worked, and he said he would. Then he asked him if he would give up to be used of the Lord the four hundred dollars he had laid up, and he said he would, and thus the Lord saved him. The thought came to me at once that I had never made a real consecration either of myself or of my property to the Lord, but had always tried to serve the Lord in my way. Now the Lord asked me if I would serve him in his way, and go out alone and penniless if he so ordered. The question was pressed home, and I must decide: To forsake all and have him, or have all and lose him! I soon decided to take him; and the blessed assurance came, that he had taken me for his own, and my joy was full. I returned home from the meeting with feelings as simple as a child. I thought all would be glad to hear of the joy of the Lord that possessed me, and so I began to tell the simple story. But to my great surprise, the pastors (for I attended meetings in three churches) opposed the experience and said it was fanaticism, and one told the members of his church to shun those that professed it, and I soon found that my foes were those of my own household."

The penny was a small financial safeguard, but an effective spiritual obstacle. Not till it was thrown away could the character settle into the new equilibrium completely.

Over and above the mystery of self-surrender, there are in the cult of poverty other religious mysteries. There is the mystery of veracity: "Naked came I into the world," etc.,-whoever first said that, possessed this mystery. My own bare entity must fight the battle- shams cannot save me. There is also the mystery of democracy, or sentiment of the equality before God of all his creatures. This sentiment (which seems in general to have been more widespread in Mohammedan than in Christian lands) tends to nullify man's usual acquisitiveness. Those who have it spurn dignities and honors, privileges and advantages, preferring, as I said in a former lecture, to grovel on the common level before the face of God. It is not exactly the sentiment of humility, though it comes so close to it in practice. It is humanity, rather, refusing to enjoy anything that others do not share. A profound moralist, writing of Christ's saying, 'Sell all thou hast and follow me,' proceeds as follows:

"Christ may have meant: If you love mankind absolutely you will as a result not care for any possessions whatever, and this seems a very likely proposition. But it is one thing to believe that a proposition is probably true; it is another thing to see it as a fact. If you loved mankind as Christ loved them, you would see his conclusion as a fact. It would be obvious. You would sell your goods, and they would be no loss to you, These truths, while literal to Christ, and to any mind that has Christ's love for mankind, become parables to lesser natures. There are in every generation people who, beginning innocently, with no predetermined intention of becoming saints, find themselves drawn into the vortex by their interest in helping mankind, and by the understanding that comes from actually doing it. The abandonment of their old mode of life is like dust in the balance. It is done gradually, incidentally, imperceptibly. Thus the whole question of the abandonment of luxury is no question at all, but a mere incident to another question, namely, the degree to which we abandon ourselves to the remorseless logic of our love for others." *

* J.J. CHAPMAN, in the Political Nursery, vol. iv. p. 4, April, 1900, abridged.

But in all these matters of sentiment one must have 'been there' one's self in order to understand them. No American can ever attain to understanding the loyalty of a Briton towards his king, of a German towards his emperor; nor can a Briton or German ever understand the peace of heart of an American in having no king, no Kaiser, no spurious nonsense, between him and the common God of all. If sentiments as simple as these are mysteries which one must receive as gifts of birth, how much more is this the case with those subtler religious sentiments which we have been considering! One can never fathom an emotion or divine its dictates by standing outside of it. In the glowing hour of excitement, however, all incomprehensibilities are solved, and what was so enigmatical from without becomes transparently obvious. Each emotion obeys a logic of its own, and makes deductions which no other logic can draw. Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears, and form another centre of energy altogether. As in a supreme sorrow lesser vexations may become a consolation; as a supreme love may turn minor sacrifices into gain; so a supreme trust may render common safeguards odious, and in certain glows of generous excitement it may appear unspeakably mean to retain one's hold of personal possessions. The only sound plan, if we are ourselves outside the pale of such emotions, is to observe as well as we are able those who feel them, and to record faithfully what we observe; and this, I need hardly say, is what I have striven to do in these last two descriptive lectures, which I now hope will have covered the ground sufficiently for our present needs.