The Spiral Way
The Joyful Mysteries of the Soul's Ascent
Note: Footnotes have been appended in text in a pale blue box.
"And Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste." Activity followed close upon the heels of revelation; as if the new dower of vitality poured in on her must somehow be expressed. She could not stay passively in those angel-haunted solitudes, where she had been overshadowed by the power and the presence of God. Not in stillness, in rapt meditation, was the Child Emmanuel to be quickened in her womb. The pendulum of spirit, that swings perpetually between fruition and self-donation—the mysterious give-and-take of the living soul—drove her out into life’s arena, and up to the hilltops of prayer: the double movement of the awakened heart.
Three times in the long story of man’s transcendence, we are shown the soul driven up into the mountain by the growing spirit within: three times a prayerful ascent to life’s summits is shown to be an implicit of the Way. In the mystery of the Visitation that soul goes joyfully and hastily. She seeks of her own volition the hill country: the new life within her stings to instant consciousness the spiritual passion for the heights. Here is the first instinct of the soul that is touched by God. "My beloved spake and said unto me: Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away." There is but one answer to that heavenly invitation. It is the active, exultant prayer of the neophyte; that unlearned prayer of utmost simplicity and beauty which seems like childish footsteps running up and out towards its home. It is so full of gladness, charged with gratitude and trust, that the very labour of ascent becomes a joy: "for He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is His name."
In another mood than this the adult and heroic Christian must bear the cross uphill towards his death in God: in another glory, power, and beauty ascend at last from the Mount of Vision to the ecstatic union with Reality. But the time for these things is not yet: a merciful cloud covers them. The soul at the beginning of her course dreams not of the sorrows and the triumphs that must attend upon her steady growth in prayer.
But there is another aspect of this outgoing of Mary from her home. She goes, not only to God, but to Man. Charity has been engendered in her, and already demands expression under two orders: in Service and in Adoration, the life of active love, the life of prayer. The quickening of that mysterious Divine life within sharpens her ears to the call of the human life without: already she is reminded that she cannot sever her experience from that of the race. Humility, and its flower, which is Courtesy, spring up within her: the first unfolding fronds of the new growth. This is an earnest of the reality of her vocation; the supernal nature of her destiny as bridge-builder between two worlds. So she goes up into the hill country in a spirit of prayer, yet goes upon a simple human errand, love Divine and human interwoven in her outlook from the first: and humanity, simple yet far-seeing, comes to meet her with a blessing on its lips. Filled with an exultant consciousness of new and crescent life she goes: possessed of a joy so lyrical in quality that it can only find expression in a song. "And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." It is the greatest poem of Christendom, yet from homeliest natural intercourse its ecstatic periods are born. The music of the Magnificat springs out of the very heart of life.
In that hour of the Divine Office which looks forward to the coming day as yet unborn, the coming life implicit but unseen, the striving, growing Church—at once type and mother of all Christians—takes upon her lips this exultant, passionate song. She speaks then, as it seems, for every soul that has learned her secret, that participates in her mystical life: for the hungry filled, for the lowly so wondrously exalted, for each humble human creature who has felt the vivifying touch of love Divine. Yet we ask ourselves as we listen to those rapturous declarations, whether mere humanity, however pure, meek, and Godward-tending, were capable of such a song as this? Rather it seems as though the Magnificat were the first earnest of the Incarnation: truth apprehended under the veils of poetry before it could be recognised in the garment of flesh. Here Christ, finest flower of the Divine Immanence, sings and prays by our side; even whilst He grows within our hearts. It was not with such high poetry, so magical a touch upon reality, that Mary could have replied to Gabriel’s message. A world of experience lies between the meek surrender of Ecce ancilla Domini and the exaltation of Magnificat anima mea. Now, she and her God inextricably entwined together in the common life He shall redeem, she knows that it is with her as His word proclaimed: and can afford to exult because all generations shall call her the blessed, the supremely happy, the Pioneer of the race on its steady growth towards its home. "And His mercy is on them that fear Him, throughout all generations": —yea! on all those, my daughters in the spirit, who have shared their Mother’s experience: all those who, taught by me, have opened their hearts to the inflowing Spirit of God. All these shall rise up and call me blessed, for I am the Church, their nursing Mother, I am Life, running to meet her Maker and her Love. I am Wisdom, Mother of all fair things. See my descendants, carrying my secret life through the centuries: Gertrude and Julian, Catherine and Teresa, those handmaidens of Perfect Love, whose low estate He has regarded indeed. See them grow with my growth, and share my sorrows and my triumphs. A Rod sprang from Jesse. Out of the virginal heart of Mary springs the very Tree of Life. "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us."
Of growth, then, this mystery speaks to us: the hidden, secret, yet unhindered growth of the buried seed. The soul has accepted its destiny: now "according to His Word" the irresistible process of its life goes on. In this living, growing world, this place of passionate efflorescence, where the great trees stand like spreading flames, and every humble plant, each furred and finned and feathered thing, has by its gift of growth a part in the great process of God—here of a sudden, Spirit, which is to say Life in its sublimest aspect, has started into being within the web of visible creation. A seed has germinated that shall indeed "grow up, and become greater than all herbs and shoot out great branches": branches that shall reach to highest heaven, and bridge the gap that separates two worlds.
"Fiorito è Cristo nella carne pura,
or se ralegri l’umana natura.
Natura umana, quanto eri scurata,
ch’ al secco fieno tu eri arsimigliata!
Ma lo tuo sposo t’ ha renovellata,
or non sie ingrata
de tale amadore,
Tal amador è fior de puritade,
nato nel campo de verginitade,
egli è lo giglio de l’umanitade,
e de perfetto odore."
"Christ hath flowered in stainless flesh,
therefore let human nature rejoice.
O human nature, how wert thou dimmed!
Thou hadst become like faded grass;
but thy Bridegroom hath renewed thee,
therefore be not ungrateful to such a lover.
This Lover is flower of purity,
born in the meadow of virginity;
He is the lily of humanity, of sweetness,
and of perfect fragrance."
(Jacopone da Todi: Lauda C.)
1906 - The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary
1911 - Mysticism
1912 - Introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing
1913 - The Mystic Way
1914 - Introduction: Richard Rolle - The Fire of Love
1915 - Practical Mysticism
1915 - Introduction: Songs of Kabir
1916 - Introduction: John of Ruysbroeck
1920 - The Essentials of Mysticism, and other Essays
1922 - The Spiral Way
1922 - The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (Upton Lectures)
1926 - Concerning the Inner Life
1928 - Man and the Supernatural
1929 - The House of the Soul
1933 - The Golden Sequence
1933 - Mixed Pasture: Twelve Essays
1936 - The Spiritual Life
1943 - Introduction to the Letters of Evelyn Underhill
by Charles Williams
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