In the 15th century a German wrote eloquently in the Dionysian tradition of the Face beyond the face. Today we articulate this in terms of the false self and the true self, but Nicolas of Cusa had a way of articulating aspects of the mystical life in moving and lyrical passages.
By any conventional measure, Nicolas of Cusa was far from ignorant, and contrary to the cultural myth of the hermetic mystic off in a cave, this figure was very much in the world. He was a theologian, philosopher, scientist, lawyer, and a Renaissance humanist.
He held high church offices, serving as papal legate, cardinal, and vicar general. He studied at several universities around Europe, rubbing shoulders with the intellectual and ecclesiastical elites, but seems to have experienced an immersive turning point in Paris, where he spent a year studying the writings of the Catalan mystic Raimund Llull.
Nicolas made contributions to science, like the measurement of the pulse, wrote extensively on the Koran and Judaism, helping pave the way for interfaith dialogue, and believed in the possibility of a plurality of worlds.
His mystical teaching touched on the encounter with God, using the icon on the wall as a guiding metaphor. Though he taught of science and mathematics as a possible access point to the divine, in his teaching on a “learned ignorance” he echoes the Eastern notion of the Beginner’s Mind as a kind of fast track to receptivity to the divine presence.
There’s this paradox here of learning to become ignorant. Modern mystics unpack this notion further, hearkening back to Christ’s invitation to become like children. There’s an emphasis that we are not to become children, or remain naïve in our worldview, but to adopt a second innocence, an experienced innocence, a learned ignorance, as we approach the divine.
Nicolas of Cusa left much of his accumulated wealth to fund a home for the aging in his home town, which continues to run to this day!
And here some quotes from this fascinating figure:
“In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled in a billion riddles – yet unveiled it is not seen until at last, above all faces we enter into a certain secret and mystical silence where there is no knowledge of a face.”
“This mist, this cloud, this darkness into which we go, transcending knowledge is the path below which your face cannot be found except veiled; but it is that very darkness which reveals your face is there, beyond all veils.”
Nicholas of Cusa Selected Writings
Matthew Fox discusses several mystics, including Nicolas of Cusa
Contemplative Light's course on the Christian Mystics Living Sacraments: The Christian Mystics & The Inner Journey to God