Mysticism as manifested in “Christ of the burnt men” by Sheila Cussons

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This article is intended to demonstrate that Sheila Cussons’s poem “Christ of the burnt men” can be regarded as an outstanding example of a theistic mystical poem. The poem is set within a theoretical framework of views on mysticism in general, Christian mysticism, as well as mystical poetry.

An investigation of the mystical poetical tradition in Afrikaans reveals that since the 1800s, in spite of the fact that a strong mystical tradition is not part of Afrikaans speakers’ culture, signs of writings with mystical elements do exist. From that period, although few and far between, poems which can be described as mystical saw the light. Brümmer (2013) pointed out that mysticism played an inherent and crucial role in a remarkable phase in the Protestant religious discourse of the 19th century in South Africa. He referred to the works and convictions of influential theologians and clerical leaders such as Andrew Murray, Nicolaas Hofmeyr, John Murray and J.H. Neethling. Brümmer (2013) links this mystical spirituality with the Dutch Réveil to which these persons were exposed during their student years in Utrecht. This evangelical tradition took a stance against theological rationalism and the intellectualising of faith (under the influence of the Enlightenment), especially owing to the destructive consequences it had on religious and ecclesiastical life.

Olivier (1985:5), however, points out that within the Christian tradition, mysticism and the mystical experience are regarded as tendencies within the Roman Catholic Church in particular, and that contemplative life, the crux of mysticism, is foreign to Calvinists with their focus on a life of justification by means of God’s grace. According to Spencer (1966:268, 288) the Calvinist dogma of the total corruptness of man excludes receptivity for mysticism.

De Villiers (2015:639) states that during the apartheid years, opposition against mysticism reached a climax as the theology became increasingly rationalistic with an emphasis on the intellectual faculties and criticism against mysticism which was regarded as arbitrary, emotional and individualistic. From the first half of the 20th century, a cold intellectualism prevails, which favours orthodox dogma.

Sheila Cussons is considered our only true Afrikaans mystical poet. Hugo (2006) contends that she is our most recognised mystical poet and points out that, as a Roman Catholic, she was familiar with the mystical tradition which is manifested in her poetry, and it is evidence of her profound experiential knowledge thereof. Kannemeyer (2005:457) refers to a central motif in her work as a great anticipation of union with God.

Within her lifetime, 11 award-winning poetry anthologies saw the light, and in 1983 she won the prestigious Hertzog Prize for her whole oeuvre.

The focus of the next section is on mysticism. There is consensus amongst scholars that the mystical experience is a concept that escapes rigid categorisation and definitions. It can, however, be regarded as the experience of a union with the divine as a result of burning love for God. The great 15th-century churchman and theologian Jean de Gerson’s following definition became classic: “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”) (Harmless 2008:5).

Christian and theistic mystical thinking are based on the views of the great philosopher Plato and those of the Neoplatonists who developed and regenerated Plato’s ideas. Plato had a dualistic belief that the soul and body exist separately, that the immortal soul was imprisoned in a mortal body – soma sema – and that the true identity of a person lies with the soul.

The Neoplatonist school developed the basic dualistic principle that the soul contained something of its source and desired to be reunited with it. The Neoplatonists Philo, Origen and Plotinus made an important contribution to mysticism. The tenets of Plotinus are briefly discussed.

Certain essential elements which form an integral part of mysticism – the three stages of the way to union, the allegorical; divine intoxication; the via negativa or apophatic; the emanation theory; and the νος, which is closely connected to the noetic aspect – are undeniably present in the thinking of the Neoplatonists.

The scope of this article allows an elucidation of only those mystical aspects which are manifested in this poem. These are in particular the via mystica, the paradoxical, embodiment and the traumatic.

The via mystica is an inevitable way for mystics with a desire for union with God. It is a road characterised by distinct phases, and to traverse these phases requires dedication and sacrifice. Kourie (2016) calls it “a path of purification in order to effect what could be called a divine ‘osmosis’”. The via mystica (via purgativa, via illuminata and via unitiva) is also known as the Sanjuanist Way, and is based on the work of St. John of the Cross (1542–1591 A.D.), a Spanish mystic and monk of the Carmelite Order. With him, the via mystica, or the mystical “journey”, reached a peak and was a further development of the phases of the mystical way which began with St. Paul’s two stages of growth in Christ, namely that of the child and that of maturity (Eph. 4:12–16), as well as St. Paul’s reference in Hebrews 5:13–4 to those who still live from milk as distinct from those who eat solid food. Subsequently Philo and Origen developed the Neoplatonist categorisation of the active and the contemplative life. Dionysius developed it even further and distinguished the classical three stages – purification, illumination and union – after which Bernard of Clairvaux and Jan van Ruysbroeck identified the same three stages.

Paradox is, according to McGinn (1993:51), “the essence of Mysticism”. In Merton’s words: “The God whom the contemplative seeks is both experienced and beyond experience, is both knowable and unknowable” (in Harmless 2008:35). Merton (1998:167) states: “The heart of the Christian mystical experience is that it experiences the ineffable reality of what is beyond experience. It ‘knows’ the presence of God, not in clear vision but ‘as unknown’.” Andreach (1964:16) puts it as follows: “Paradoxicality [...] is one of the universal common characteristics of mysticism in all cultures, ages, religions, and civilizations of the world.”

Embodiment plays a crucial role in both mysticism and in the reader of mystical poetry. According to Kugle (2007:13) the body is not only something supplementary as a vehicle in which the soul travels (Plato’s metaphor), also not something supplementary to thinking (as Descartes believed). The body is both the foundation and the product of being in a meaningful world. Farid Al-Zahī, a Moroccan scholar of Arabic literature and Islamic cultural studies, made an important contribution to the theory of embodiment. He distinguishes different types of consciousness, one of which he calls rapture (Kugle 2007:24). It is described as consciousness experiencing intimacy with the body, which is achieved in a powerful but often tantalisingly ephemeral moment when the ego is suffused into the body’s being and movement. This experience leads consciousness to intimate identification with the body through total concentration and absorption into the body’s actions. Amongst others, this form of consciousness would include experience of the body in drama, musical performance, orgasmic climax, dance, as well as mystical experiences.

In the words of Anderson (2001:2, original emphasis): “Relaying human experience from the inside out and entwining in words our senses with the senses of the world, embodied writing affirms human life as embedded in the sensual world in which we live our lives”

Trauma, which often is closely connected to the sublime in mystical experiences, forms the basis of and is poignantly woven into Cussons’s poem. The next section focuses and investigates this relationship.

Versteeg contends that the wound has a certain attraction as access for truth which we cannot experience in any other way. She believes that both trauma and the sublime touch the boundaries of our cognitive faculties (Van der Merwe 2014:212).

The nature of trauma is discussed with reference to the Lacanian concepts the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, as well as the views of Žižek and Heidegger. Mysticism as trauma is characterised by the disintegration of a familiar world.

The characteristics of mystical poetry are subsequently investigated. As was stated above, the mystical experience is regarded as ineffable. Yet, there are those mystics who feel driven to share these experiences.

Anderson (1993:116) states: “It may be that the most intriguing facet of mystical writing, poetry or prose, is that the element of obscurity and mystery never diminishes. Like clouds it changes shape, but cloud it remains – bright, dark, or fog.” There is clearly a link between the essence of mysticism and poetry, especially love poetry.

Marie Howe, State Poet of New York (2012), also refers to the sacred in her view on poetry: “It can’t be paraphrased. […] The great poetry I love holds the mystery of on being alive. It holds it in a kind of basket of words that feels inevitable […] It has the quality of a spell […] its roots can never wholly be pulled out from sacred ground.” (Tippett 2016)

“Christ of the burnt men” is subsequently analysed and interpreted within this contextual framework. The mystical elements are highlighted and discussed. The conclusion is reached that this poem is indeed an excellent example of mystical poetry in which Cussons does not only succeed in expressing her experience evocatively and poignantly, but also in moving the reader to participate in her divine encounter.

Keywords: Afrikaans poetry; “Christ of the burnt men”; Sheila Cussons; mysticism; mystical poetry


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