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The Test of the Veil by Tom Cheetham

Are You Alive? In his profound and beautiful book on the great Islamic mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, Henry Corbin recounts an incident from the Master’s life that illuminates the question at the heart of the soul’s journey. It lingers in my mind as one of the most powerful passages in all of Corbin’s great opus. In Mecca in the year 1201 (A.H. 598) the mystic and poet was a guest in the home of an Iranian family originally from Isfahan. The daughter of the house was a figure of surpassing intelligence, beauty and spiritual discernment. Her name was Nizam, ‘ayn al-Shams wa’lBaha’, which is Harmonia, Eye of the Sun and of Beauty. As Beatrice did for Dante, so she revealed the human face of the eternal Sophia for Ibn ‘Arabi. One day in contemplation while performing the ritual circumambulation of the Ka’aba, the poet recited these desolate lines to himself: Ah! to know if they know what heart they have possessed! How my heart would like to know what mountain paths they have taken! Ought you to suppose them safe and sound, or to suppose that they have perished? The fedeli d’amore remain perplexed in love, exposed to every peril.1 We know from Ibn ‘Arabi’s own commentary that they are the Individuations of Eternal Wisdom, the personal theophanies of the divine love that binds together the mystic and his Lord. The words express the anguish of the lover whose beloved has withdrawn, of the mystic who has lost contact with the figure of the Lord, and of all who have come to doubt the existence of the divine Beloved. The fedeli d’amore, the Faithful in Love, the Italian phrase for Dante’s companions, is the Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Translated by Ralph Manheim, Princeton/ Bollingen Series XCI, 1969. (Re-issued as Alone with the Alone. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 140.



Tom Cheetham translation Corbin favors for a group of words in Persian and Arabic that his mystical lovers of God use to designate themselves.2 While lost in his melancholy, Ibn ‘Arabi was startled by the touch of Nizam emerging from the crowd, who had overheard his cry of distress. Astounded by his question, she reprimanded him at length, concluding with these heart-stopping words: And what did you ask…: Ought you to suppose them safe and sound, or to suppose that they have perished?—As for them, they are safe and sound. But one cannot help wondering about you: Are you safe and sound, or have you perished, O my Lord? The gentle tone of her chastisement underlines the profundity of her question. For the crisis of doubt opens the way to despair. It initiates a re-orientation of cosmic proportions. At times it happens that in less than a heartbeat the center of Creation shifts from God to the human soul. The limitless plenitude of a sacred world collapses to the confines of a finite and darkened mind. But the contraction is unstable, and the void is soon compensated by a mad expansion of the human will. The abandoned soul becomes the measure of all things. While the world had been a mysterious and luminous window, it becomes a reflection of the human soul and its isolated imaginings. The order of things is inverted, turned inside-out. Nizam’s ironic question, Have you perished My Lord? is a call to turn back, to re-turn, and signals a revolution of the heart that can heal both disorientation and despair. They are safe. There is no need to wonder about them. It is we who have perished. The doubt arises in us. It does not affect God or the Angels. But for us it is fatal. The soul does, somehow, contain all things, as Aristotle said. The Kingdom of God is within us. But our inner depths become opaque and we are barred from the Kingdom when we lose our connection to our Angel. We become, in a word, unconscious. But this unconsciousness is a blindness to the supraconscious, for it means being cut off from the Celestial Pole. Unconsciousness of our source and origin is a fall into darkness from which we may escape only with great travail. It is a measure of the power of our desire to return Home that the darkened and disoriented human soul can so expand in hubris and in power as to eclipse God and threaten all Creation. Without a Guide,


See ibid., 110.


The Test of the Veil the anguish of abandonment that begins as an intimate and personal despair expands to become public and dogmatic a-gnosticism that descends naturally into nihilism. To be unconscious in this way is to be unbalanced in the absence of the figure of the Heavenly Twin, the Angel Holy Spirit who is the Orient of the soul and the foundation of all community. Bereft of any consciousness of this figure I am abandoned. My anguish and despair are mine, and I am alone. But because I am plunged into unconsciousness there appears no boundary to my soul and my passions seem to fill all the cosmos. If I let them consume me, my private terrors become absolute, and I am undone. Then I cannot sense the bounds of the doubts and fears that belong to me as a limited, fallible and ignorant creature, and boundless, they eclipse the Angels and even God, and so I perish in confusion and misery. Released from the bonds of communion, my solitary despair knows no limits and I plunge into the abyss. This extraordinary inflation, the tormented arrogance with which the human soul becomes the measure of all things, is a form of philautia, self-love. The love which is properly turned towards the Angel and to others through whom the Angel’s beauty shines is turned entirely inward. The energies of the soul are blocked from natural expression and release. The result is a chaos of emotion. Maximus Confessor, the great 7th century mystic and martyr, says “Whoever has philautia has all the passions.”3 Passion, as the term is used by the ascetics of the early Christian church, covers all the forms of compulsion to which we are prey, and corresponds very closely to what C.G. Jung called a complex. Maximus tells us that philautia is a form of idolatry, that we are idolators of ourselves, and that this is the root of all the passions. And so it seems we cannot turn away from the Angel, for to do so invites only inevitable madness and death. But here we find a great paradox. We cannot turn away, and yet we must. For to come into being at all as creatures distinct from the Creator, we must exist at some remove from the source of our being. Otherwise we would have no independent being whatever, and there would be no creatures, no Creation. Our eternal individualities would be impossible. For us to be at all there must be an original separation, a fall or a rupture giving Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts From the Patristic Era with Commentary (London: New City Press, 1993), 134.



Tom Cheetham birth to our independence as persons. It is this original otherness that makes possible both our independent being and our perpetual longing. It is the necessary curtain separating God from his creatures and it gives rise to what the Sufis call the Test of the Veil. To paraphrase Henry Corbin,4 the Test of the Veil is this: at each stage in the hierarchy of creation, when the creatures contemplate the Light that gives them life, they are both different from and identical with that glory. In order to see God, they must be other than God, and yet it is from God that they have their very being—for they are nothing, they have nothing, in themselves. This is their radical poverty. Insofar as any being is contemplated in its difference from God, it will appear to be self-subsistent. That is when we are most at risk of idolatry. For an idol is any being understood as a totality unto itself, self-sufficient, independent. Any being understood as an end in itself is an idol. But to shift the emphasis from the object to the act we must recognize that to idol-ize is a most active verb. It is a way of seeing and of acting, an inability to perceive the transcendent dimension of the world. It is founded on the desire to find and hold to a Truth which is complete and total. But God, the ineffable Divinity, is open-ended, unpredictable, uncontrollable and awe-ful. Insofar as anything is perceived as determinate and comprehensible, to that degree it is a Veil of the divinity. And yet in truth all things are masks of the infinite and their being is the gift of God. All things are organs by which God contemplates Himself and are not other than He. To overcome the Test of the Veil requires that we not become trapped in the literal face of any being, that we not idolize it but rather see in it a Face of God. The Test of the Veil expresses one aspect of the essential paradox of monotheism. To worship God as One, or equally, to deny the existence of the One God, is to set God and the world apart as external to each other. Corbin explains, For if God is known and witnessed by an other than Himself, it is because there is such an Other. However, for there to be an Other, there must be this opacity, this darkness of a being that stops at itself, at the non-being of its pretensions, its ignorance, or even its devotions. If he claims to be an Other, he Henry Corbin, “The Jasmine of the Fedeli d’Amore: A Discourse on Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz,” Sphinx 3: A Journal for Archetypal Psychology and the Arts (London, 1990), 189-223.



The Test of the Veil cannot look at God, as God can only be looked at by Himself. God can only look at a world which is his own gaze, that is his own eyes which look at him from this world. This is why a world which wishes itself other (either by agnosticism or by piety) is not a world that God looks at. Literally, it is a world that God does not look at… [And] there must be a world that God does not look at so that Nietzsche’s tragic exclamation of the last century: God is dead can resound and spread in it. Uttered from the West and since then echoed in all consciousnesses, this cry is precisely what, for a Sufi, is experienced as the Supreme Test, the Test of the Veil, and, facing up to this Test, Sufism opens the way precisely for one who wishes to pass through it.5 And so, our original and necessary Fall, the original opacity and otherness by which we have our being and through which we must learn to see, is the source of our self-idolatry, of our philautia. It is ineradicable. The Test of the Veil is a necessary condition of the act of being a creature. The paradox of monotheism is equally the paradox of individualism, for the Angel as a Face of God is linked to the soul of whom it is the Twin in a bond of love which is essential for the being of each. Nietzsche’s cry requires a world that God does not look at, a world without His Face, a world that is without Angels. But in such a world the reality of the person begins to fade. For if God is dead, then so are we. What of you My Lord, is it you who have perished? It is useful to distinguish two forms of the idolatry of the self, which generally occur together in a potent and confusing mixture, one at least partly willed, the other entirely compelled. On the one hand there is the doubt of the intellect, of the philosopher, who as Corbin says, demands rational proof for realities to which such proof cannot apply. For rational doubt assumes that human reason can cast its net over everything and extend its reach to capture even God. It is this hubris that drives much of modern culture. We are liberated from it if we can take to heart the words attributed to the 19th century British scientist Lord J.B.S. Haldane: “The universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.” This humility is foreign to the modern temper. Such an attitude is required for spiritual life. When we think that we are in principle capable of understanding


Ibid., 209.


Tom Cheetham everything, when we believe we can rely entirely on ourselves to make our way in the world, we are lost. The other form of the idolatry that drives spiritual despair is more primordial, darker and more dangerous because it is wholly compelled. In other times and places our compulsions, our passions, were often attributed to the attacks of demons. I do not find this in the least bizarre. It is a completely natural assumption. For the passions are not ours— they come to us from outside and rule us entirely. Doubt, though it is rooted in the heart, is in large measure a phenomenon of the head, of the intellect, and to that degree it is willed. But the primordial spiritual crisis, born in the heart, and governed by passions inflamed by the demons, is the crisis not of doubt, but rather, of abandonment. Doubt may be coolly rational. Feelings of abandonment are no such thing. The terrible image of the inseparability of abandonment and death is the central drama at the still point of the Christian story: And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice… “My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken me?” … And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.6 Each crisis of faith restages this drama. I had long assumed, entirely unthinking, that this is a story of nihilistic despair, and that in his final moments Jesus doubted his Father’s existence. But of course that isn’t so. Jesus was no nihilist—his anguish was that of the abandoned. But here all the world stands still, poised on the brink of the abyss. For abandonment disrupts the balance of the world and the stage of the cosmic drama threatens to shift irrevocably to the forsaken and solitary soul. The danger is a fall into nihilism founded on philautia, on an idolatry of the merely human. The withdrawal of God grants us our very being and our freedom to choose life or choose death. This is a moment of initiation, a decisive temptation by delusions of power, autonomy and pride. Faced with the utter despair of abandonment we must choose between our mortal soul and the Image of the absent and eternal God. Jesus did not fail this initiation. His final words according to the Gospel of Luke were these: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was abandoned, and died a shameful death. But, mysteriously, he was not abandoned, and his death was not final. The modern


Mark 15:34-38.


The Test of the Veil agnostic fears the finality of utter abandonment and extinction. The nihilist despairs, and may even revel in that despair. But by acquiescing in unconsciousness, by turning away from the Angel, they are both thereby complicit in their exile and therefore in their death. Henry Corbin has stunningly laid bare our responsibility: “The decision of the future falls to the soul, depends upon how the soul understands itself, upon its refusal or acceptance of a new birth.”7 “…[T]o leave this world, it does not suffice to die. One can die and remain in it forever. One must be living to leave it. Or rather, to be living is just this.”8 Have you perished My Lord? We are responsible for our life, and our death, for our exile or our return. But the responsibility is not tied to the will to power. It does not require the stance of a “man of action.” It requires a profound humility and the ability to open to the influence of the Angel who alone can provide the balance that keeps the world in harmony. The decision to turn towards the Angel, says Corbin, prefigures and conditions a whole chain of spiritual development with far-reaching consequences. For it announces either that each human being is oriented towards a quest for his personal invisible Guide or that he entrusts himself to the collective, magisterial authority as the intermediary between himself and Revelation.9 In our time, the magisterial authority of the collective most often entirely obliterates any trace of Revelation. The underlying nihilism of contemporary secular culture is entirely foreign to the spirituals who are Corbin’s guides. He says “what to a philosopher is doubt, the impossibility of proof, is to the fidele d’amore absence and trial.”10 In spite of Ibn ‘Arabi’s momentary hesitation, Corbin writes, What we experience as an obsession with nothingness or as acquiescence in a non-being over which we have no power, was to [the spiritual Masters of Islam] a manifestation of Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Translated by Willard Trask. Bollingen Series LXVI (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960), 10. 8 Henry Corbin, “Cyclical Time in Ismaili Gnosis” in Cyclical Time & Ismaili Gnosis (London: KPI, 1983), 58. 9 Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, 33. 10 Ibid., 143. 7


Tom Cheetham divine anger, the anger of the mystic Beloved. But even that was a real Presence, the presence of an Image which never forsook our Sufis.11 The rational mind demands proof, and the suffering soul knows abandonment. This potent mixture is deadly. But the Image of the Angel Holy Spirit completes and perfects the human soul with the form of the celestial Twin and keeps the world from being thrown out of balance. It is knowledge of the Heart that holds the worlds together. In the absence of this, the heartlessness of a doubting mind couples with the terror of abandonment to produce the will to power and the astounding murder of which Nietzsche thought us capable. The stakes are immense. If we do not choose to remain turned towards the Image of the Angel, even when that Image is veiled and the choice seems absurd, then we risk losing connection with our Twin and we abandon the possibility of the knowledge of the heart. Our longing and our nostalgia are profound signs of the Presence who has withdrawn. If we refuse to accept them as sources of knowledge, equal to—in fact, more inclusive than—the knowledge of the mind, then we risk permanent blindness to any vision of the Angel. Our inner balance shifts from the heart to the head, the sources of knowledge are vastly diminished, and all hope of spiritual opening is lost. And there follows that great rupture between thought and being, between the mind and the heart, which Corbin so poignantly laments and the consequences of which are so damning. If we lose even the Image of the Angel, then the Imagination that opens the mediating world between abstract intellect and material reality loses its profundity and becomes merely fantasy and entertainment. It no longer has the power to transform the soul. That is the catastrophe of the Fall. The loss of the figure of the Celestial Twin, catastrophic though it is, may seem quite otherwise. For the terrors of abandonment may well be accompanied by the exhilaration of independence. Fascination with the power and autonomy of a human-centered vision of the world is not restricted to any particular time or place, but manifests variously in perhaps all cultures. In our time Nietzsche’s mad, triumphant proclamation that “God is dead, and we have killed Him!” was meant to liberate people from the bondage of dogmatic, life-denying forms of fundamentalist religion. And no doubt it did. But it also ushered in Ibid., 282.



The Test of the Veil a nihilism that leaves us freed only to wander aimless and disoriented as Corbin says, in “vagabondage and perdition.”12 How are we to learn to turn back towards this receding Figure without whom we are lost in the universe? The philosopher’s doubts about the meaning of life and the existence of God are undercut, and the anguish of the abandoned soul is dissolved by the simple beauty of the voice of Harmonia, and by the gentle humor in her question, What of you My Lord, is it you who have perished? Corbin says of Ibn ‘Arabi’s melancholy, He has forgotten for a moment that…the reality of theophanies … depends not on fidelity to the laws of Logic, but on fidelity to the service of love. Do not ask them whether they have perished; the question is whether you have perished or whether you are still alive…13 We should pause over this extraordinary claim: The reality of theophanies, of the appearance of the Divine, depends upon our fidelity to the service of love. Here, finally, is the center of the world, the very Heart of Creation. This is so utterly foreign to the sense of reality that has come to dominate contemporary culture. We do contain all things—the Kingdom of God is within us. But it is not found in the mind, nor in the passions, nor in the idolatries of philautia—but only in the freedom of the Heart. The radiance of the world depends on the active service of love. Our response to the original rupture, the primal abandonment that throws the very existence of the Beloved into question, must not be despairing doubt. That can only plunge us into the darkness of the solitary and abandoned ego. No, the challenge of abandonment requires a living and passionate response. For the answer to the question of the existence of God depends on us. The response to the dimming of the Image of the Angel must be to throw ourselves into question, not God. The question is: Am I alive? And if the answer is that I fear I am dying of loneliness and heartbreak, what must I do? I must love, in spite and because of it all. But love is not need, which is grasping and desperate. Nor is loving a passion; it is an action. Love requires life and devotion. Our real work, our real life, let us repeat, is active devotion to the service Henry Corbin, “De la théologie apophatique comme antidote du nihilisme.” In Le Paradoxe du Monothéisme, 211-255. (Paris: l’Herne, 1981), 243-244. 13 Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, 143. 12


Tom Cheetham of love. One of Corbin’s close friends and colleagues, Denis de Rougemont puts it quite clearly: To be in love is not necessarily to love. To be in love is a state; to love, an act. A state is suffered or undergone; but an act has to be decided upon… The imperative, ‘Love God and thy neighbor as thyself’, creates structures of active relations. The imperative ‘Be in love!’ would be devoid of meaning; or if it could be obeyed, would deprive man of his freedom.14 This then describes the life of the fidele d’amore, a life of the spiritual chivalry which is the central core of the message that is Corbin’s gift to us. It is this, perhaps this alone, that may save us.

The Dynamics of Love

“The fedele d’amore remain perplexed in love, exposed to every peril.” Love is withdrawn, the soul is abandoned. The disoriented ego swells and churns with passions. The perils are legion. This is common knowledge within the Christian tradition as I am coming to know it. If I had been aware of this earlier, it would perhaps have saved me some measure of distress. The Test of the Veil is a necessary condition of our existence, and the testing is perpetual. We exist at a distance from God, and so from the source of love. And our position is far from static. The dynamics of our pilgrimage are known in every tradition. In Russian Orthodox ascetic practice we are told that in order to attain to the perfection of prayer the supplicant is subjected to great tensions and endures multitudinous fluctuating states. He fluctuates from states of spiritual euphoria to a sense of inner aridity, and from an increase to a diminution of his ‘prayer strength.’ …these fluctuations and states lead him to the priceless experience of humility.15 Corbin tells us of the extraordinary ecstatic mystic Rūzbehān Baqli of Shiraz who was 14 Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World. Translated by Montgomery Belgion. Rev. ed., with Postscript. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 310-11. 15 Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart in the Theology of Saint Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex. Edited by Christopher Veniamin (South Canaan, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2006), 116.


The Test of the Veil certainly not one of those who could reach a definitive peace of mind; the victory over doubt, over the Test of the Veil, must be won every day… Indeed, the whole inner life of Rūzbehān passed through alternations between what he called the “dementia of the inaccessible”, the agony of absence of the eternally further-beyond that he tasted in the encounter itself, and the salutary renewal of the certainty of the “theophanic function” of love…16 The Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément writes of the rhythms of baptismal grace: The baptismal sequence of death and resurrection is repeated throughout our pilgrimage, enlightening its ‘initiatory’ moments. When everything seems lost, baptismal grace, if we pay heed to it, can convert a situation of death into one of resurrection.17 The pace, the rhythm and the duration of these fluctuations differ widely from person to person, and over the course of each individual life. But even if we are blessed enough to know that these alternations, whatever their pace and intensity, are normal and necessary, as I for a long while did not, even then, when we are in darkness, it is all-encompassing and devouring. Hear this powerful passage from the 7th century master of the Christian East, Isaac the Syrian: Sometimes our soul is engulfed by the waves and drowned… Whatever we do we are increasingly imprisoned in darkness . . . it is an hour filled with despair and fear. The soul is utterly deprived of hope in God and the consolation of faith. It is entirely filled with perplexity and anguish.18 I read these lines in extremis and found I was not alone. I wrote in the margins of the text, “Isaac knows.” It is essential in times of trial to have such companionship. This is the service of the communion of the Saints in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. To feel oneself in the presence of these souls is the essence of what it means to belong to a Church. Henry Corbin, “The Jasmine of the Fedeli d’Amore: A Discourse on Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz,” 210-211. 17 Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, 106. 18 In ibid., 188. 16


Tom Cheetham And we do indeed emerge from the dark. The despair and the anguish loosen their grip and we return to something like normality for a time. And then, it all happens again. And every time the darkness descends, once more the very existence of the light is completely forgotten. And yet, over time, with perseverance and with grace, the fact of this pattern, the fact that there is a transition between alternating states, becomes more evident to the exhausted soul. The fact that there is a boundary between the light and the dark slowly comes to consciousness. To know that there is a boundary to the totalizing darkness gives it a shape, a limit, and an Image which may come in a dream or in a vision, and this gradually makes it possible to know that world from the outside. Only then does it become possible to distinguish the soul itself from the total eclipse of hope which is the dark. It is the dynamic of movements across the boundary between light and dark that makes possible the dawn of consciousness within the dark itself. And this slowly leads to the realization of freedom. Olivier Clément describes the situation with clarity: The divine light veils itself in order that the human being may break free from illusion and pride, and from all masks, including that of the ascetic, and may become a pure receptacle for the grace which is able to fashion a new creature… God calls the heart and makes it exult; then he disappears; and then he reveals himself again. By the test of renunciation and a more lively ‘feeling’ of God, a person escapes gradually from the attacks of evil; light penetrates and protects his or her nature more and more.19 This test of renunciation, which is the Test of the Veil, produces a “feeling” of God, and simultaneously of that which is not God, but is the dark. The passage across the boundary begins to take on the attributes of a journey and seems less an endless series of intense passions interrupted by periods of calm. That is to say, we become Oriented, and our suffering begins to feel meaningful. The struggle with the passions that dominate what the Sufis call the lower soul, and with the despair that comes of unconsciousness is what C.G. Jung describes as a process of becoming conscious of a “complex.” The active presence of a “feeling-toned complex of emotions” is always signaled by strong affect. It is a rule of Jung’s 19

Ibid., 189-90. My italics.


The Test of the Veil depth psychology that whenever there is strong emotion, a complex has been activated. A complex is not something that one has—it is rather something that has you. You are possessed, out of control, in the grip of emotions that have the power and impersonality of forces of nature. To escape from the unconsciousness that characterizes this state of possession requires tremendous perseverance, struggle and time. It is the Great Work of alchemy, and the Test of the Veil that purifies the soul so that it may in the end return to God rejuvenated, reborn. The sequence of deaths and resurrections that makes up this pilgrimage towards the light is so fundamental to the human condition that it occurs in one form or another in nearly every culture. Here is a tale from the Nunivak Eskimo: A shaman once died. Before he died, he commanded people to burn him after his death. They did. He came to life again. At his second death, they hung his body on a drying rack as he had commanded. He came alive again. At the third death, they tied him in a kayak, towed him out to sea and set him adrift. He came back. At the fourth death, they cut him up and cooked him in five pots, and scattered the pieces around everywhere, all at his command. He returned to life. When he died the fifth time, he was reborn as a child.20 Progress on this difficult path may be measured by a gradual increase in consciousness and the freedom it brings. This is made evident by the ability to perceive distinctions among powerful emotions which in the beginning rage as a tumultuous chaos of demands and compulsions. Wrestling with these emotional demons may make it possible to distinguish them and to transform them into feelings. There is a world of difference between the passionate and violent demands of the emotions and the life-giving, complex and sensitive range of sensations that are opened by the ability to feel. The fallen state of the world often dooms our best efforts to love. But unless we are freed from the domination of the passions we have no chance of peace and no chance of truly living and loving. One of the most fundamental distinctions that must be made conscious is that between the existential despair, the “obsession with 20 Margaret Lantis, “The Social Culture of the Nunivak Eskimo,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 35, Part 3, (1946), 308. Cited in Holger Kalweit, Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the Shaman (Boston: Shambala, 1988).


Tom Cheetham nothingness” of the nihilist, and the sufferings of a normal life. If you are cut off from all hope of contact with the image of the Angel, and are entirely consumed by the Dark—if, that is, you are a practicing nihilist for whom there is always Death and never Resurrection—then that primal horror can contaminate, confuse and infiltrate all the other emotions. Then the myriad doubts and abandonments, the disappointments and conflicts of normal life lose their distinctions and their boundaries and all seem to bleed from the same primal wound. This is especially so if ­­ you are unconscious of your nihilism, as I think is the case with many in the modern world. Jung said that neurosis was inauthentic suffering, an “unconscious fraud” with none of the “moral merit of real suffering.”21 This seems a bit harsh but it does point to the energy wasted when the great darkness extends its shadow into all the corners of one’s life. This is one aspect of what Jung called the Mother Complex—the Devouring Mother to be precise. And the “feeling-toned complex” that dominates a life lived within the belly of that Beast is powerful and tenacious indeed. There are other darknesses, but psychologically speaking, this is the Mother of them all. The gravitational power of that horror draws all of life’s manifold sufferings to itself like the cosmic Black Hole which it is, and thereby magnifies, distorts and obliterates the distinctions among them, keeping us terrified, overwhelmed, incoherent and unconscious.


t seems to me that the only way to defeat that dragon, and here mixed metaphors have ample historical and cultural precedent, is to establish contact with the Image of one’s celestial Twin, of one’s Angel. The emptiness of death is countered by the power of resurrection. The turn towards the Angel is a profound response to the challenges of doubt and abandonment both. Here again Clément is a gift. On the journey…there are trials of anguish and despair. Then it is important to fall, not into nothingness, but at the feet of the Crucified who went down to Hell.22 The face of the Crucified is revealed only personally, individually, and only “in secret.” In Henry Corbin’s theology of the Holy Spirit, the 21 22

CW17, §154 Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, 188.


The Test of the Veil figure of Christ is always the Christ of the Cross of Light—this is a Christianity with an Angel Christology. Christ is always a profoundly personal Lord, appearing uniquely to each. A Christian imagination of the Lord and of the Angel is one among many, but it is the one which I inhabit most naturally, and Corbin considered himself as a Protestant Christian so it takes central stage here. But some image of light is essential as long as we still feel the pull of the great dark. There are apparently those who do not. Perhaps they are citizens of that strange new world of totally secular consciousness that some think may be approaching. But I do know that once one is seized by the pull of the Devouring Mother it is nearly impossible to distinguish the multiple sufferings of fallen life, the failures of love and hope, from the effects of the over-powering despair of nihilism. Life’s concrete sufferings are magnified, confused and contaminated, their limits and boundaries obliterated and violated. The normal pains and failures of human life are impossible to bear if they have no boundaries—if they are experienced as the mouths of a many-headed dragon whose belly is an undifferentiated Hell. To counterbalance this Fall requires a vision as powerful as that of Beatrice to Dante. The light of an Angel can draw the soul towards consciousness and so make possible the individuation—of the soul itself and of all the beings in its world—that is required to create a world out of chaos. The Test of the Veil, the test of renunciation, the baptismal drama of death and resurrection—these are all ways of speaking of a process of becoming conscious, and so, of individuation, becoming the distinct being you are destined to be. As Corbin has told us, to say that God is One is a description of an act and a process—God is the Unifier, the active source of the unity and individuality of human souls, but also of all things in the world. As the soul becomes more conscious, more differentiated and less dominated by the impersonal forces of emotions, it becomes easier to see the people and things and other creatures in the world as themselves and not as mirrors in which we see only the reflections of our own lives. As we become more distinct, so the outlines of the world gain clarity. As we are released, so is the world. The poet David Ignatow says


Tom Cheetham I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is and not as a comment on my life.23 Our connection to the Heavenly Twin determines our eternal individuality. We exist as one pole of a duality. But more than this, if we abandon the image of the Angel we lose not only the possibility of our own individuation but also the ability to experience the uniqueness and the startling otherness of all the beings in creation. Bereft of the Angel we fall inward on ourselves, unable to touch and to love. And yet we know that our distance from the Lord can never be entirely eliminated and that the dance of the soul with its Angel is never-ending. Our relation to the Angel can never be one of identity and fusion. The union is nuptial—it is a kind of marriage. A personal relation, with the Angel or with another human soul, is never static. Our lives are lived in the chiaroscuro between darkness and light. The struggle is endless. Corbin tells us that “the victory over doubt, over the Test of the Veil, must be won everyday.”24 It is a necessary condition of our humanity that we so often find ourselves drowning, the shadows dominating the light, and feeling overwhelmed by “an obsession with nothingness.” But even this we can learn to experience as “a manifestation of divine anger, the anger of the mystic Beloved… [and as] a real Presence, the presence of an Image” which we must never abandon, even if we feel ourselves abandoned. The deep mystery of love bestowed and love withdrawn is constantly enacted in endlessly fertile variety as it forms the pattern of so much of the drama of human life. We exist only in relation to others, both divine and human. The interpersonal relation par excellence is that between the soul and its Angel—all others derive from this. The fundamental style and music of our lives depends upon the character of this relation. It governs our dealings with every human being we meet. The passions of the lower soul are powerful and impersonal forces of disorientation that obscure the Image of the Angel. The 23 In Robert Bly (ed.), News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980), 123. 24 Henry Corbin, “The Jasmine of the Fedeli d’Amore: A Discourse on Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz,” 210.


The Test of the Veil struggle against these powers and for the Angel whose light shines in every human face shapes the drama of our lives. The marriage of souls is inevitably disturbed, the fragile connections strained. Corbin calls us to join in the endless struggle against the darkness that would destroy the person, bury hope and love, and obliterate the light at the heart of creation. But the ideal of personal life in relationship is not one of static perfection. Even in the absence of the passions, in that state of grace which is freedom from compulsion, the relation between persons is always dynamic, always alive in a perpetual dance. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity gives a theological account of this. The rhythms of approach and withdrawal, revelation and concealment, are those of the beating heart that links the partners in a mystical marriage that provides the pattern for all human love.



by Tom Cheetham Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Translated by Ralph Manheim, Princeton/ Bollingen Series XCI...

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