A Paper III
Bernard McGinn tells this story:
A female visionary told [Gerson] that in the contemplation of God her mind had been annihilated, really annihilated, and then created anew. 'How do you know?' he asked of her. 'I experienced it,' she had answered. The logical absurdity of this reply had sufficed him to prove the reprehensible nature of these fantasies.(6)
What was so obvious to Gerson is sadly not so obvious to present day interpreters.
The vexed word experience can be extremely misleading for contemporary readers when used in reference to ancient, patristic, and medieval religious texts. Here is an example of a misleading translation: 'Mystical theology is an experiential knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love' (theologia mystica est cognitio experimentalis habita de Deo per amoris unitivi complexum (emphasis mine)).(7) What has been translated as experiential in this sentence should in fact be translated experimental.(8) This misunderstanding, or, at least, mistranslation of Gerson's famous definition is an example of how medieval texts are adversely affected when knowledge of the dynamics of the work of silence—theoretical or otherwise—is lacking. There is a tendency to seize upon and isolate the first half of the definition—when in fact the first part of the definition is the second and consequent phase of the process Gerson is describing.
His definition has three parts. First there is the engagement with divine love, which is apophatic; then there is experimental knowledge, which is interpretation in retrospect of the traces which the apophatic engagement leaves behind. (Richard of St Victor uses the charming phrase "angelic footprints" to gesture towards these traces.) And finally, entailed in Gerson's remark, and as the Cloud-author and others similarly note, is the understanding that contemplation properly speaking requires the relinquishing all claims to experience.(9)
But experience does have a role to play. Martin Buber similarly notes that experience, although opposite to beholding, is necessary to negotiate the presenting world; the deep mind needs to be fed and enlarged.(10) But experience is always interpretation, and as such it must always be provisional. Michael Casey(11) has written that people today consider experience to be automatically self-authenticating, that they locate truth in the subjective, which is, in fact, paradoxically, objectifying and therefore distorting. This modern understanding of experience as self-authenticating is far from either the medieval mind, or the paradoxical way in which the mind in fact works. As Buber remarks, 'The improvement in the ability to experience and use generally involves a decrease in man's power to relate', that is, to behold.(12)
This reifying subjectivity posing as objectivity also eliminates the true subject who would be present in a genuine and self-forgetful I-Thou engagement. Beholding bestows a far more objective—as opposed to objectified—impression than 'how-I-experienced-you' claims would give. A zen archer does not experience his shot, or indulge in watching himself make it. The more he focuses on the experience, the more likely he is to miss. He hits the target by forgetting about experience; he beholds the target and its engagement with the arrow (Cloud, ch. 5; 13/24-14/12). He can hit it blindfolded. The more experience is used as a criterion, the more distorted the interpretation of what appears—and the lower the theological anthropology.
(6) Bernard McGinn, '"Evil-Sounding, Rash, and Suspect of Heresy": Tensions Between Mysticism and Magisterium in the History of the Church', The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. xc, April 2004, No. 2, pp. 193-212, p. 211; Gerson, Epistle 26 in Jean Gerson, Oeuvres complètes, Introduction, texte et notes par Mgr [Palémon] Glorieux, 10 vols. (Paris, 1960), vol. 2, p. 98.
(7) Translation by William Harmless, S.J., Mystics, (New York, 2009), p. 5. Gerson, De Mystica Theologia I.28.4-7, André Combes, Ioannis Carlerii de Gerson: De Mystica Theologia (Lugano, 1958), p. 72. To give him credit, Harmless seems to understand the problem far more deeply than he is willing (or perhaps, able) to admit in his fine book.
(8) This understanding is picked up by Augustine Baker, who, in the seventeenth-century, renewed interest in the medieval contemplative tradition. He speaks of 'the experimentall knowledge' that the Jesuits do not have [in contrast to the Benedictines]. The English Benedictines:, 1540-1688: From Reformation to Revolution by David Lunn (London, 1980) p. 206. Cf., Companion to English Medieval Mysticism, ed. Samuel Fanous and Vincent Gillespie (Cambridge: 2011) p. 260.
(9) This is the 'kynde knowyng' that Langland's Will so greatly desired, and which Holy Church signally failed to teach him. 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ', Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255.
(10) Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 91. Pseudo-Denys makes the same point; for him, salvation comes through interpretation of symbolic action on successively higher/deeper/more silent planes. Biblical and Liturgical Symbols ... but especially p. 75. Compare The Mystical Ark, 5:3.
(11) Michael Casey, "Bernard's Biblical Mysticism," Studies in Spirituality 4, (1994), p. 14.
(12) I and Thou, p. 92.