Today is William Blake’s 250th birthday.
I first learned that such a thing as mysticism existed when I studied Blake in my 11th grade English class. My teacher, Mrs. Romano, gave us a handout about Blake, in which she described him as “a mystic.” I asked her what that meant. She fumbled through her answer, but basically suggested he was a super-spiritual visionary. I don’t know if I fell in love with Blake or with mysticism that day, but both appealed to me.
When I was in college, I simply adored Blake, and thought that I would eventually go on to get my Ph.D. writing a dissertation on Blake. Obviously that never happened, and eventually I grew impatient with how idiosyncratic Blake’s vision is. Even so, I’ve always loved him, and consider his best works to be shining jewels in the crown of English literature. In Ulysses, James Joyce talks about “Blake’s wings of excess;” in Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says Blake “shines like a solitary star in the uncongenial atmosphere of the Georgian age.” She calls Blake a “Protestant mystic” but I think Blake’s genius as a mystic belongs to world mysticism, rather than to its Christian sub-genre.
Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows my favorite Blake quote, from the Songs of Innocence:
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
But my all-time favorite work of his is clearly The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Granted, the ideas in this poem fall outside the boundaries of orthodox Christian theology (C. S. Lewis even tried to grant heaven and hell a divorce), but it is a brilliant glimpse into the promise of integral mysticism. The climax of the tale comes when Blake, accompanied by an angel, descends into the maelström of hell; in the midst of a vision worthy of Dante or Bosch, Leviathan appears and lunges toward them. The terrified angel quickly scrams and leaves Blake who notes that once the fear-ridden consciousness of the angel had left, so too the terrors of hell suddenly disappeared:
then this appearance was no more, but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sang to the harp, & his theme was, The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.
Seen integrally, this represents the transition out of mythic-membership consciousness — where spirituality is all about who is a sheep and who is a goat — and into unitive consciousness (grounded in Psalm 139:8, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there”). If mysticism means finding joy in God’s presence, then the division between heaven and hell is meaningless, for God is everywhere — even though liberals, who get squeamish about the terrors of hell, explain them away by saying what really puts the hell in hell is that it’s a place where one is separated from God. Poppycock! It’s impossible to be separated from God. Hell is not about being separated from God, it’s about choosing to resist the fire of Divine Love. Then, instead of making us incandescent, it burns. Integral consciousness recognizes that the key to heaven and hell lies within our heart. We are all predestined to spend eternity immersed in the presence of God, bearing the beams of God’s love. How we experience those beams — as heavy and burdensome, or as joyous as light — is, thanks to the free gift of grace, pretty much left up to us.
Okay, so I’ve wandered a long way off of William Blake, but that in itself is testimony to the splendor of his thought, idiosyncratic though it may be.
Happy birthday, William. Tell the harper I said hello.