Rant Number 408 26 August 2010
Question: who is afraid of mysticism? Answer: this writer might be. When even Rupert Murdoch’s unashamedly tabloid-style The Times devoted a 16-page supplement to the subject, well, forgive him, Fr Frank feels like reaching for his spiritual kalashnikov. Mystic Meg he can abide – mystic Rupert, never.
But this rant is not a moan. Its hero, the prolific, phenomenal Ramon Llull, a sensible, rational contemplative all right, believed that alegria - gaiety, joy, cheerfulness – was the right attitude for anyone approaching these things. Jolly good, Blessed Ramon, you could not have been righter!
Present-day package tour visitors to the pleasurable, zenithal island of Mallorca may find a passing, perfunctory reference to Llull in their guide books. Mine – a handy AA spiral affair – extravagantly compared him to Stephen Hawkins and Bill Gates. His boundless universal science might conceivably connect him with the Cambridge invalid, and his ‘thinking machine’ to the Microsoft entrepreneur, but the Mallorcan mystic, poor as a church mouse and fit as a fiddle till ripe old age, would not necessarily exult at the compliment.
Llull’s lifelong passion was Islam. Born in Palma, in 1232, a mere three years after the reconquest of the island from the Moors by the Catalan King Jaime I, he grew up in a ‘multicultural’ environment, with Jews, Muslims and Christians freely mingling around him. A well-to-do fellow and a royal courtier, married with children, Ramon was also a bit of a poet, a troubadour. At the age of 30, one night he was in his room, writing verse, inspired by his infatuation for a lady whom he loved with ‘wild love’. It was then that Christ crucified appeared to him, changing his frivolous life forever. Donning the habit of a Franciscan, Ramon, St Francis-like, gave away all his earthly goods and devoted his life to God alone. The form that took included the study of Arabic and of Islamic thought and texts. His first published book was a study of the logic of the Muslim mystic Al-Ghazzali. Another of his 300 known works, The Book of the Lover and the Beloved (actually the 99th chapter of a torrential novel, Blanquerna), which I enjoyed perusing while in Mallorca once, states explicitly that its composition is based on Sufi methods. Its 366 paragraphs, one for each day of the year, exemplify a steady, relentless dialectic between Lover – the human soul – and Beloved – the infinite, revealed God who is both in and beyond the world, with Love providing the amorous link between the two.
However, it was on a modest, low Mallorcan mountain – only 542 metres - Puig (pronounced ‘pooch’ in Catalan) Randa, that a handsome-visaged young shepherd, or angel, disclosed to Llull the idea that his celebrated Great Art was to take.
Analogies with a super algebra, computer model, thinking machine, proto-word processor and the like are of limited use. Basically, Llull was aiming to construct no less than a universal conceptual tongue, a prodigious lexicon which embodied all forms of knowledge, religion included. It meant to show its necessary relation with God’s ‘dignities’ or essential attributes. These daring ideas he illustrated by diagrams and figures, which still hold a peculiar fascination, as well as a certain suspicion. Jonathan Swift is said to have had our Ramon in his sights when satirising the follies of the grand academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels. Jorge Louis Borges, writing for a ladies’ magazine, Home, ridiculed Llull’s thinking machine, first by stating that it was unable to think a single thought, and then, in mock-recantation, asserting that it could think ‘too much’. In the end, though, he seemed to concede the machine’s utility ‘as a literary and poetic device’. I doubt the Mallorcan scientist-kabbalist would have felt flattered by that.
As Gertrude Stein would put it: a caricature is a caricature a caricature a caricature. Humanist thinkers of the Renaissance like Pico and Bruno highly valued Llull’s ideas – they viewed them as a wonderful mnemonic technique, a scientific art of memory. Philosophers like Leibnitz admired him and pursued his vision of a world super-language. If indeed Bill Gates had ever heard of Ramon, I would not be too surprised if he held him in some regard. Borges, a declared, occasionally fervent unbeliever, as befits his lot, is petty. He deliberately shuts his blind eyes to Llull’s central, overarching and overriding aim: the Divine. All of the Mallorcan’s labours are devoted to providing a visionary interfaith theology, a mystical-rational model of divine contemplation, a royal way to the One God of the three monotheistic faiths.
Here I come back to Islam. In an age echoing with clamours of crusades and reconquistas, Llull offered an approach to the rival religion based not on confrontation and violence, but on knowledge, intellectual conversation, spirituality, even synthesis. I see him as a kind of pioneer, a bridge-builder between civilisations, a wise, righteous Christian who today would be ideally well-equipped to lead the great, much needed, worldwide rapprochement between Cross and Crescent.
What response Llull received from his Muslim interlocutors is not clear. With sages, Sufis and theologians he could have dialogued OK, I think. With the ordinary people, well, I imagine it would not be all that different from what a Muslim preacher at the time would have experienced in the cities of Christian Europe. Happily, it is not true that he was stoned to death in North Africa, aged 84. It is certain he died later in Mallorca. The legend of his suffering a martyr’s death is pious hagiography, not history. Still, it must have come in handy when he was beatified – proclaimed a Blessed – by Pius IX in 1847.
Years ago, before the tomb of Blessed Ramon, hidden in the dark interior of the fine Sant Francesc Basilica in Palma, my friend Leo and I spent some time, quietly meditating. I had already felt something, just a hint of that noble soul’s presence, when on the windy summit of Mount Randa two days before. This time, it was stronger, but putting it into words…no, I will not try. Instead, listen to these words, of a strongly Sufi flavour, from Blanquerna:
‘The Lover was singing the praise of his Beloved. He said he had transcended place, because he is in a placeless place. Therefore, when they asked the Lover where his Beloved was, he replied, “He is - but no one know where.’ Yet he knew his Beloved was in his remembrance.’
Revd Frank Julian Gelli