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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

The heads of the Spanish Inquisition viewed this Mysticism


He

had his visions as before, but they were no longer temptations of Satan, the source of doubt and torture. He believed that he could actually see with bodily eyes divine mysteries which the intelligence could not comprehend. After lengthened prayer, every faculty concentrated in one prolonged gaze, he felt assured that he could _see_ the mystery of Transubstantiation actually taking place. At the supreme moment he saw Christ in the form of a white ray pass into the consecrated bread and transform it into the Divine Victim (Host). He declared that in moods of exaltation the most impenetrable mysteries of theology, the Incarnation of our Lord, the Holy Trinity, the personality of Satan, were translated into visible symbols which made them plainly understood. These visions so fascinated him, that he began to write them down in simple fashion for his own satisfaction and edification.

In all this the student of the religious life of Spain during the sixteenth century will recognise the mystical devotion which was then characteristic of the people of the Peninsula. The Spanish character, whether we study it in the romances of chivalry which the land produced, or in the writing of her religious guides, was impregnated by enthusiasm. It was passionate, exalted, entirely penetrated and possessed by the emotion which for the time dominated it. In no country were the national and religious sentiment so thoroughly fused and united. The long wars with the

Moors, and their successful issue in the conquest of Grenada, had made religion and patriotism one and the same thing. Priests invariably accompanied troops on the march, and went into battle with them. St. James of Compostella was believed to traverse the country to bring continual succour to the soldiers who charged the Moors invoking his name. A victory was celebrated by a solemn procession in honour of God and of the Virgin, who had delivered the enemy into the hands of the faithful. This intensity of the Spanish character, this temperament distinguished by force rather than moderation, easily gave birth to superstition and burning devotion, and both furnished a fruitful soil for the extravagances of Mysticism, which affected every class in society. Statesmen like Ximenes, no less than the common people, were influenced by the exhortations or predictions of the _Beatae_,--women who had devoted themselves to a religious life without formally entering into a convent,--and changed their policy in consequence. It was universally believed that such devotees, men and women, could be illuminated divinely, and could attain to a state of familiar intercourse with God, if not to an actual union with Him, by giving themselves to prayer, by abstinence from all worldly thoughts and actions, and by practising the most rigid asceticism. It was held that those who had attained to this state of mystical union received in dreams, trances, and ecstasies, visions of the divine mysteries.

The heads of the Spanish Inquisition viewed this Mysticism, so characteristic of the Peninsula, with grave anxiety. The thought that ardent believers could by any personal process attain direct intercourse, even union with God, apart from the ordinary machinery of the Church, cut at the roots of the mediaeval penitential system, which always presupposed that a priestly mediation was required. If God can be met in the silence of the believer's soul, where is the need for the priest, who, according to mediaeval ideas, must always stand between the penitent and God, and by his action take the hand of faith and lay it in the hand of the divine omnipotence? Other dangers appeared. The Mystic professed to draw his knowledge of divine things directly from the same source as the Church, and his revelations had the same authority. It is true that most of the Spanish Mystics, like St. Teresa, had humility enough to place themselves under ecclesiastical direction, but this was not the case with all. Some prophets and prophetesses declared themselves to be independent, and these _illuminati_, as they were called, spread disaffection and heresy. Hence the attitude of the Inquisition towards Mystics of all kinds was one of suspicious watchfulness. St. Teresa, St. Juan de la Cruz, Ignatius himself, were all objects of distrust, and did not win ecclesiastical approbation until after long series of tribulations.


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