Dialogues on the Supersensual Life - Jacob Boehme - ebook

Taken from the Preface: “Man has a spark of the Light and Spirit of God, as a supernatural gift of God given into the birth of his Soul to bring forth by degrees a new birth of that life which was lost in Paradise. This holy spark of the Divine Nature within him has a natural, strong, and almost infinite tendency or reaching after that eternal Light and Spirit of God, from whence it came forth. It came forth from God, it came out of God, it partaketh of the Divine Nature, and therefore it is always in a state of tendency and return to God. All this is called the breathing, the moving, the quickening of the Holy Spirit within us, which are so many operations of this spark of life tending towards God. On the other hand the Deity as considered in itself, and without the Soul of man, has an infinite unchangeable tendency of love and desire towards the Soul of man, to unite and communicate its own riches and glories to it, just as the Spirit of the air without Man unites and communicates its riches and virtues to the Spirit of the air that is within Man”.

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The Works of Jacob Behmen, the “Teutonic Theosopher,” translated into English, were first printed in England in the seventeenth century, between 1644 and 1662. In the following century, a complete edition in four large volumes was produced by some of the disciples of William Law. This edition, completed in the year 1781, was compiled in part from the older English edition, and in part from later fragmentary translations by Law and others. It is not easily accessible to the general reader, and, moreover, the greater part of Behmen’s Works could not be recommended save to those who had the time and power to plunge into that deep sea in search of the many noble pearls which it contains.

Behmen’s language and way of thought are remote and strange, and in reading his thought one has often to pass it through a process of intellectual translation. This is chiefly true of his earlier work, the “Aurora” or “Morning Redness.” But among those works which he wrote during the last five years of his life there are some written in a thought-language less difficult to be understood, yet containing the essential teaching of this humble Master of Divine Science. From these I have selected some which may, in a small volume, be useful. It seemed that for this purpose it would be best to take the “Dialogues of the Supersensual Life,” including as one of them the beautiful, really separate, Dialogue, called in the Complete Works, “The way from darkness to true illumination.” In the case of neither of these works is the translation used that of the seventeenth century. The first three dialogues are a translation made by William Law, one of the greatest masters of the English language, and found in MS. after his death. This translation from the original German is not exactly literal, but rather a liberal version, or paraphrase, the thought of Behmen being expanded and elucidated, though in nowise departed from. The dialogue called “The way from darkness to true illumination” was taken by the eighteenth-century editors from a book containing translations of certain smaller treatises of Behmen then lately printed at Bristol and made, as they say, “in a style better adapted to the taste and more accommodated to the apprehension of modern readers.” I do not know who was the translator, but the work seems to be excellently well done.

It will be well to say a few words first as to the life, then as to the leading ideas of Jacob Behmen. This name is more correctly written Jacob Bœhme, but I prefer to retain the more easily pronounced spelling of Behmen, adopted by the Editors of both the complete English editions.

Jacob Behmen’s outward life was simplicity itself. He was born in the year 1575 at Alt Seidenberg, a village among pastoral hills, near Görlitz in Lusatia, a son of poor peasants. As a boy, he watched the herds in the fields, and was then apprenticed to a shoemaker, being not enough robust for rural work. One day, when the master and his wife were out, and he was alone in the house, a stranger entered the shop and asked for a pair of shoes. Jacob had no authority to conclude a bargain and asked a high price for the shoes in the hope that the stranger would not buy. But the man paid the price, and when he had gone out into the street, called out “Jacob, come forth.” Jacob obeyed the call, and now the stranger looked at him with a kindly, earnest, deep, soul-piercing gaze, and said, “Jacob, thou art as yet but little, but the time will come when thou shalt be great, and become another man, and the world shall marvel at thee. Therefore, be pious, fear God, and reverence his Word; especially read diligently the Holy Scriptures, where thou hast comfort and instruction; for thou must endure much misery and poverty, and suffer persecution. But be courageous and persevere, for God loves, and is gracious unto thee.” So, saying, the stranger clasped his hand, and disappeared.

After this Jacob became even more pensive and serious, and would admonish the other journeymen on the work-bench when they spoke lightly of sacred things. His master disliked this and dismissed him, saying that he would have no “house-prophet” to bring trouble into his house. Thus, Jacob was forced to go forth into the world as a travelling journeyman, and, as he wandered about in that time of fierce religious discord, the world appeared to him to be a “Babel.” He was himself afflicted by troubles and doubts, but clave to prayer and to Scripture, and especially to the words in Luke xi.; “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.” And once, when he was again engaged for a time by a master, he was lifted into a state of blessed peace, a Sabbath of the Soul, that lasted for seven days, during which he was, as it were, inwardly surrounded by a Divine Light. “The triumph that was then in my soul I can neither tell nor describe. I can only liken it to a resurrection from the dead.”

Jacob returned in 1594 to Görlitz, became a master shoemaker in 1599, married a tradesman’s daughter, and had four children. In the year 1600 “sitting one day in his room, his eye fell upon a burnished pewter dish which reflected the sunshine with such marvellous splendour that he fell into a deep inward ecstasy and it seemed to him as if he could now look into the principles and deepest foundations of things. He believed that it was only a fancy, and in order to banish it from his mind he went out upon the green. But here he remarked that he gazed into the very heart of things; the very herbs and grass, and that Nature harmonised with what he had inwardly seen. He said nothing about this to anyone, but praised and thanked God in silence. He continued in the honest practice of his craft, was attentive to his domestic affairs, and was on terms of goodwill with all men.” (1)

At the age of thirty-five, in the year 1610, Jacob Behmen suddenly perceived that all which he had seen in a fragmentary way was forming itself into a coherent whole, and felt a “fire-like” impulse, a yearning to write it down, as a “Memorial,” not for publication, but lest he should forget it himself. He wrote it early in the morning before work, and late in the evening after work. This was his “Morning Redness” or “Aurora.”

A nobleman of the country, called Carl von Endern, happened to see the MS. at the shoemaker’s house, was struck by it, and had some copies made. One of these fell into the hands of the Lutheran Clergyman of Görlitz, Pastor Primarius Gregorius Richter, who thenceforth became a bitter opponent of Behmen. He assailed him in sermons, in language of savage invective, as a heretic of the most dangerous kind, until Jacob was summoned before the Magistrates, and forbidden to write anything in future. He was told that as a shoemaker he must confine himself to his own trade. But the affair, as is usually the case, had an effect the reverse of that intended by persecutors. It made him known to various persons more learned than himself who were interested in the subject, and from his converse with them he learned a better style, and some Latin technical terms, which he afterwards found useful for expressing his thoughts.

Jacob obeyed for some years the magisterial command to write nothing, but it was very grievous to him, and he often reflected with dismay on the parable of the talents and how “that one talent which ‘tis death to hide” was lodged with him useless. At length, he would keep silence no more. He says himself: “I had resolved to do nothing in future, but to be quiet before God in obedience, and to let the devil, with all his host, sweep over me. But it was with me as when a seed is hidden in the earth. It grows up in storm and rough weather against all reason. For in winter time all is dead, and reason says: ‘It is all over with it.’ But the precious seed within me sprouted and grew green, oblivious of all storms, and, amid disgrace and ridicule, it has blossomed forth into a lily.”

Between the year 1619 and his death in 1624, at the age of forty-nine, he poured forth his stored-up thoughts, writing a number of Works, including those in the present volume, which were among his very latest. He had the more time to write because his shoemaking business had fallen off, by reason, perhaps, of the question as to his orthodoxy, but some friends supplied him with the necessaries of life. He was now exposed to fresh attacks from Gregorius Richter and was forced this time to go into exile. At this period, he went to the Electoral Court at Dresden where the Prince was curious about him, and a conference took place between him and John Gerhard and other eminent theologians. At the close of this Dr Gerhard said: “I would not take the whole world and help to condemn this man.” And his colleague Meissner said, “My good brother, neither would I. Who knows what stands behind this man? How can we judge what we have not understood? May God convert this man if he is in error. He is a man of marvellously high mental gifts who at present can neither be condemned nor approved.”

Soon afterwards, while Jacob was staying at the house of one of his noble friends in Silesia he fell into a fever. At his own request, he was carried back to Görlitz, and there awaited his end. On Sunday, November 21st 1624, in the early hours he called his son Tobias and asked him if he did not hear that sweet melodious music. As Tobias heard nothing, Jacob asked him to set wide the door so that he might the better hear it; then he asked what was the hour, and when he was told that it had just struck two he said, “My time is not yet; three hours hence is my time.” After some silence he exclaimed, “Oh thou strong God of Sabaoth, deliver me according to thy Will,” and immediately afterwards “Thou Crucified Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me and take me to thyself into thy Kingdom.” At six in the morning he suddenly bade them farewell with a smile, and said, “Now I go hence into Paradise,” and yielded up his Spirit.

Frankenberg writes of him: “His bodily appearance was somewhat mean; he was small of stature, had a low forehead but prominent temples, a rather aquiline nose, a scanty beard, grey eyes, sparkling into heavenly blue, a feeble but genial voice. He was modest in his bearing, unassuming in conversation, lowly in conduct, patient in suffering, and gentle-hearted.”

As the shoemaker of Görlitz had in his life-time some disciples among highly educated men, so has he always had a few since his departure from this life. Men so diversely situated as the non-juror William Law in England; St Martin, the “philosophe inconnu” of the French Revolution; the sincere Catholic, Franz Baader, in Germany; Martensen, the Protestant Bishop in Denmark, have found in him their Teacher.

The selections contained in the present book belong rather to the practical or ethical side of Jacob Behmen’s teaching than to his Cosmogony, or Vision, as one may best call it, of the nature of all things. I think that any old cottager, who had read nothing but his Bible, but had lived his life, would well understand the general teaching of most that is contained in these Dialogues, and would find all Behmen’s words most beautiful and comforting. It is not, therefore, necessary for the present purpose to attempt fully to set forth the whole Vision of Behmen, nor, in any case would it be within my power to do so. But it may be of service to those readers who are not acquainted with the writings of Behmen or of his disciples, if I here say something as to his general teaching with regard to the nature of the soul of man and its relation to that which is not itself, but like to itself.

The Soul, in the doctrine of Behmen, is a Being which has a will or desire, and is aided by a mirror of understanding or imagination. Will or Desire is of the very essence of the Soul, inseparable from its existence. He says: “Where Desire is there is also Essence or Being.” The Soul is subject to the diverse attractions of the Centre of Divine Life and Light, and of the Spirit of the World. Enlightened by its understanding it has the free power to turn its will towards, and unite itself to, this or that. “Choose well, thy choice is brief and yet endless.”

The Soul is a magic Fire derived out of, or from, God the Father’s Essence, lumen de lumine, and imprisoned in darkness. It is an intense and incessant Desire after the Light; it longs to return to the Light-centre, whence it originally came, that is, to the “heart of God.” Thus longing, it is a “Fire of Anguish,” until it becomes a “Fire of Love.” It is a fire of anguish, so long as it is shut up in its dark self. It is a fire of love when it pierces through and escapes from its dark self-prison and burns freely and softly in union with the Divine Love. God then comes as a Light, a soft purifying Fire into the Soul, and changes all the wanting, hungering, empty, restless, self-tormenting properties of the Natural Life into a sweetness of rest and peace. This is called in Scripture the “new birth.” Thus the same thing - the same Fire, is a cause of torment or of joy according to the conditions under which it is. Man, who is a microcosm of the whole Universe, is a mingling of light and darkness. His anguish comes from his Soul’s imprisonment in darkness (as a mere raging fire) and continues until it can break forth and unite itself with that whence it came and to which it belongs.

Behmen says “The Eternal Darkness of the Soul is Hell, viz.: an aching source of anguish, which is called the Anger of God, but the Eternal Light in the Soul is the Kingdom of Heaven, where the fiery anguish of darkness is turned into joy. For the same nature of anguish, which, in the Darkness, is a cause of sadness, is, in the Light, a cause of the outward and stirring joy.... The Fire is painful and consuming, but the Light is yielding, friendly, powerful and delightful, a sweet and amiable Joy.”

Pure delight, with no trace of doubt or fear, hope or regret, is the sign of the presence of Love or Light. So again, Behmen says: “The Fire in the Light is a fire of Love, but the Fire in the Darkness is a fire of Anguish, and is painful, irksome, and full of contrariety.” The end to which all things tend is the final separation of light from darkness; the “last day” means this; but the present world is a perpetual mixture of light and darkness, good and evil, joy and anguish. So, the Cross of Jesus is at once the highest embodiment of Love and Hate.

It is remarkable that in this doctrine of light and darkness Behmen was nearly followed by one who had not, I suppose, ever heard of him, reading as he did little of anything but the Bible, who worked on the Scriptures with his own powerful and earnest insight, the Christian hero, Charles Gordon. In his little book called “Reflections in Palestine” written in that one year, 1883, of unbroken repose from action spent in the Holy Land, just before his final service at Khartoom, Gordon dwells upon the repetition, as he calls it, both in the individual soul, and in the world’s history of four processes constantly recurring, a state of darkness, a light breaking forth through darkness, a division of light from darkness or gathering together of light, a re-dispersion of light into darkness, and then a renewal of the four processes, ever upon an ascending level of good, directed towards the final elimination of all light from the darkness.

Fire must have fuel, something on which to feed. It must feed or perish. But the magic Fire-spirit, the Soul, cannot perish because it is an eternal Essence. Therefore, it must either feed; or hunger. It desires spiritual essence or “virtue” to allay its raging hunger. But, during the space that it is embodied in this nature, it can feed either on the Divine Spirit, or upon the Spirit of this World. “Hence,” says Behmen, “we may understand the cause of that infinite variety which is in the Wills and Actions of Men.” For of whatsoever the Soul eateth, and wherewith its Fire-life becometh kindled; “according to that the Soul’s life is led and governed.” You become like to that which you eat. If the Soul breaks forth out of its Nature-self and enters into “God’s Love-fire,” it eats of the Divine Essence (the substance or flesh of Christ) and it is to this that Jesus Christ referred when he spoke of feeding upon his body, and when he spoke of the true bread from heaven “which giveth life to the World” (John vi. 33), of which he that eateth shall “live forever” (John vi. 58), or the “living water,” whereof whosoever drinketh “shall never thirst,” but it shall be to him “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John iv. 13, 14). This feeding is in no way metaphorical but as real and actual as physical feeding.

Behmen says, “The Essence of that Life eateth the Flesh of Christ and drinketh His Blood.... Now if the Soul eat of this sweet, holy and heavenly food, then it kindleth itself with the great Love in the name and power of Jesus, whence its fire of anguish becometh a great triumph of joy and glory”. (2)

Behmen held that man lives at once in three worlds, firstly in the outward visible elementary world of space and time (where man “is the Time and in the Time;”) secondly, the “Eternal Dark World, Hell, the centre of Eternal Nature, whence is generated the Soul-fire, that source of anguish, and thirdly, in the Eternal Light World, Heaven, the Divine habitation.” The same processes of feeding and life take place in the three Worlds, so that physical feeding is a kind of outside sheath of spiritual feeding.

If the Soul accustoms itself to feed in this life upon the heavenly food (that panem de coelo omne delectamentum in se habentem) it gradually itself becomes of quite heavenly substance, purged from darkness, and, when the natural life falls off at death, stands in heaven, where indeed it already is. But, if the Soul feeds upon the Spirit and Things of this World, then, when by reason of death, it can no longer feed upon them, it is left in the condition of mere “aching Desire,” or eternal unsatisfied Hunger, working in a void, in perpetual anguish. Thus, Heaven and Hell are not places, but conditions of the Soul. So, Milton, who had no doubt studied the translation of Behmen made in his own time, writes:

“The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

They are in this life everywhere commingled, but when this life falls away, the Soul remains in that of the two states into which it has in this life brought itself. The Soul, after death, remains either as a satisfied Desire, that is, a Desire no longer but a Joy, or as an aching Desire. The Persian says:

Heaven is the vision of fulfilled Desire And Hell the shadow of a Soul on fire.

Behmen says, Heaven is fulfilled desire; Hell is a Soul on fire, no mere vision or shadow.

Heaven and Hell are within us, since our souls are portions of the universe of things, in every part of which Heaven and Hell are commingled. The gates of Heaven within us were shut in Adam, but the Power of God, Christ in Jesus, broke open by his passion “the closed gates of Paradise,” that is, the gates of our “inward heavenly humanity,” and now the wayfarer can, if he will, pass through. We do not spiritually live by a reasoning process, or acceptance of doctrines by the understanding, but by the action of the Desire in feeding upon the Spirit of Love, a process of laying hold, drawing in, and assimilating. True prayer is like feeding, or still more, perhaps, like the unconscious drawing in of the air: it should be as constant. By it is introduced the heavenly life from without to nourish the like heavenly life contained in the seed within. If a man thus rightly feeds, then, in him, the hellish life and passions, portions of the powers of darkness, “our creatures” as Behmen says, will be killed by starvation, wanting their appropriate food. On the other hand, a man can feed these also from without with their appropriate food by misdirected desire, thereby starving the heavenly life in the Soul.

Thus, the essence of Behmen’s teaching as to the Soul incarnate in Man and revealed by his body, is that it is an eternal Being, and that it is a source of joy or anguish according as it is, or is not, purified or tranquillised by communion with the Centre of Light, or the Fountain of Life. He does not contemplate, as some Eastern teachers perhaps do, the annihilation of the Will of the Soul by a kind of higher spiritual suicide; its existence is to him the very condition of good no less than of evil; he contemplates its liberation from the dark, contracted, self-prison, its purification, and entrance into the full heaven-life. This magical soul-fire, like visible fire, can rage and destroy, or it can serve as the means and ground of all good. Here is the foundation both of good and evil, in man as in all things.

To understand this better, one must consider the cosmic teaching lying behind the rich profusion of images, often inconsistent and clashing, in which Jacob Behmen embodies his Vision.

Man has fallen into Nature. But Nature itself, apart from and unfilled by the Divine Light, is a self-torment, a mere Want, a Desire, a Hunger. The true distinction between God and Nature is that God is an Universal All, while Nature is an Universal Want, viz: to be filled by God. Physical attraction is nothing but the outer sheath of this universal desire. Nature filled by God is Heaven or fulfilled Desire. (3) Without God it is Hell, mere Desire. Heaven is the Presence of God: Hell, his Absence. It is as true to say that Heaven is in God, as to say that God is in Heaven.