Then the Soul holds that there is no higher life than to have this of which she is made mistress, for Love has so generously filled her with his delights that she does not believe that God has any greater gift to bestow on any soul here below than this love which Love for love has poured forth within her… And in this she is deceived, for there are two other states of being, here below, which God bestows, which are greater and nobler than is this.

Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (quoted in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism)

Marguerite Porete was a Christian mystic who was executed in 1310 in what is now the center courtyard of city hall in Paris. She was a Beguine, which was a movement of women who lived simple, pious lives but who did not take the vows to be a nun and were thus not under the direct, everyday, control of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Thus, of course, they were always treated suspiciously by the Church.

She was executed for repeatedly refusing to stop teaching her mystical approach to God, which she set down in a book called The Mirror of Simple Souls. Although she was executed by the Church, her work went on to motivate and inform future Catholic mystics who were later beatified and canonized (declared to be saints).

There are a lot of interesting things about Porete’s writings, but here I want to focus on one specific thing: Unlike many other mystics, she says the ecstatic communion with God is only the fourth of seven steps to “the summit of the mountain.” In this, she seems to be saying that the main content of the works of (for example) John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila is only what I will call here a “trapping” (mere ornament or garnish) of the journey to the divine.

Several mystical traditions warn of an intermediate state of being in which it is easy to be ensnared or trapped on one’s way to the divine nature. In Zen, this is called makyo:

Other religions and sects place great store by experiences which involve visions of God or deities or hearing heavenly voices, performing miracles, receiving divine messages, or becoming purified through various rites and drugs… In varying degree these practices induce a feeling of well-being, yet from the Zen point of view all are abnormal states devoid of true religious significance and therefore only makyo.

Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen

So, interestingly, the state of mind that is often taken as the highest state of being is, according to this thinking, a trick of the mind:

What is the essential nature of these disturbing phenomena we call makyo? They are temporary mental states which arise during (meditation) when our ability to concentrate has developed to a certain point and our practice is beginning to ripen… Never be tempted into thinking that these phenomena are real or that the visions themselves have any meaning. To have a beautiful vision of the Buddha does not mean that you are any nearer to becoming one yourself.


And so, back to Marguerite Porete, who seems to be saying that all those good, old-fashioned, “safe” Christian mystics got stuck in makyo:

The (next) state is when the Soul considers that God is “He Who Is” (Ex 3:14), of whom all things are, and that she is not, and that it is not from her that all things are. And these two considerations give her a wondrous sense of dismay, and she sees that He is all goodness who had put free will into her, who is not, except in all evil.

Marguerite Porete, op cit

By the 14th century, the Catholic Church had gotten kind of used to mystics popping up every once in awhile, and would give them a long leash. But, evidently, Marguerite just went too far. After several attempts to get her to stop, they finally succeeded — by burning her at the stake.

One more tidbit that I find interesting: In some of her writings, she starts to sound like Hegel or (!) Heidegger, in that she has statements which are almost completely indecipherable:

Now divine goodness has put free will into her, out of pure divine goodness, so within that which is not, except in evil, which therefore is all evil, is enclosed free will of the being of God, who is being and who wishes that that which has no being should have being through this gift from him.

Marguerite Porete, op cit

I wonder if any mystic can write anything without nested subordinate clauses? 🙂

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