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Bergson on the Active Mystic

 In his Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), Henri Bergson (1859-1941) presents an original interpretation of mysticism, explaining this ecstasy as a fleeting moment which needs to be lived through and surpassed: the mystic isn’t just an ecstatic or a contemplative; he or she is also – and necessarily – a person of action. For Bergson, the heart of mysticism is action and creativity, whose source is God. Of course, the mystic also has ecstatic experiences: being in touch with the “overarching cause of all things” or with “its authority on earth”, the mystic’s soul feels “an immensity of joy and ecstasy in which it is absorbed or taken up into rapture”. But the simple, unextended ecstatic is, for Bergson, “incomplete”; he can only be “whole” if, in addition, he goes beyond the instant of ecstasy into concrete action: “The soul of the great mystic never stops at ecstasy as his final destination.” This is the means whereby we can distinguish the genuine mystic from the deluded who think that they are: the fraud, contrary to the genuine article, does not possess “the thirst for action, the capacity to adapt and to readapt himself to different circumstances, the mixture of resolve and flexibility, the prophetic discernment of what is possible and what is impossible, the spirit of simplicity which triumphs over all complication, finally and above all a sound higher sense”.

In the true mystical soul, “God is present and there is boundless joy”, “it is God who acts through it, in it: the union is total and therefore conclusive”. The joy which characterises “true mysticism” is extremely “rare”: the mystic is “the object of a rare, undeserved favour”. Bergson readily recognises the importance of grace: it is never by a deserved merit that the mind encounters God, and mystical experience isn’t a reward for good spiritual effort. God affords an encounter with him to those who do not deserve it. In mystical intuition, there is a downward movement from God to humankind, and this movement is what we call grace.

But if the true mystic, as the undeserved object of divine grace, is passive, how can he also be a person of action? Well, being united with the God who is joy, love and creative energy, he is necessarily led into joyful and loving action for his neighbour. In this way, the love-filled mystical soul is “simultaneously active and acted-on”: mystics are “patient before God” because their soul lets itself be entered into by God; but they are also “active agents towards other people” because, being united to the God who is “creative energy”, they create new social structures and approaches, such as brotherly love, universal love and an “open heart”. By stressing action towards neighbour, the mystic frees his neighbour by breaking social behaviours, automatic reflexes and the vicious circle of the “closed heart”.

For Bergson, the “fulfilled mystic” is engaged on a “forward march” and can only be satisfied with solid, joyful action as his settled position in life.

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