The cult of Jacob Boehme
- January 28, 2021
- Philip Marsden
Jacob Boehme was an unlikely seventeenth-century mystic, but his visionary imaginings of the world struck a chord with followers far and wide – and his work has much to offer today.
Jacob Boehme was a shoemaker who lived in the German town of Gorlitz at the turn of the seventeenth century. He suffered from bouts of melancholy and, like everyone in those doctrinally-troubled days, was fearful for his soul. One morning, he was in his room when a shaft of sunlight struck a pewter plate. The light flashed in his eyes and something opened up in Jacob Boehme – a vision, of such scale and intensity that he saw at once through to the deepest shifts and shapes of the universe, through the clutter around him to the unity beyond, through the moment to the great plains of eternity.
Boehme did what anyone might in his position. He got up and went for a walk. On the edge of town, he pushed open a gate and stepped into the green hinterland beyond. Rather than recede, the vision deepened. Familiar shapes – trees and copses, distant hills, vaulting sky and glowing sun – revealed themselves that day as part of an essential and never-ceasing whole, forever being born, forever spinning in a series of interconnected orbits that appeared to him not visually but intuitively, and he likened them to a set of wheels, endless wheels within wheels, and the same was above him in the infinity of space as it was in the innermost reaches of his imagination – a faculty which, he now realised, was somehow god-like in its capacity to reveal. And his entire being was gripped not just by the singing truth of it all but by a peculiar, overwhelming joy.
Then it was over. It had lasted, he later reported, no more than a quarter of an hour.
Jacob Boehme carried on living as he had. He spent his days cutting leather, making shoes, and looking after a growing family. Yet hints of the vision recurred, with glimpses and reminders of what he had seen that day. As a child, he had received a little education; now he started to read more widely and think more deeply, trying to find a way to articulate what he had seen, to convey both the scale and detail of it. Twelve years passed, and he found he had produced four hundred pages of a work he called Morgenrothe im Aufgang – or Aurora. It still wasn’t finished when he lent it to a visitor. Profoundly affected by what he read, the visitor had the book copied out. In this way Boehme’s nascent truths started to circulate, infecting readers with his vision and joy. The pages also reached the hands of the town’s chief pastor, who spoke with the magistrates, and they summoned the cobbler, interrogated him, and ordered him to stop at once such dangerous and subversive writing.
Obediently, Boehme returned to his worldly tasks. But enough of the town’s open-minded burghers had read his work, and been altered by it, for them to encourage him discreetly to continue. He began to write again. Now he found it hard to stop. Over the coming years, he produced thousands of pages of labyrinthine prose. The authorities expelled him from the town. He went to Dresden, where he was received with enthusiasm.
By the time of his death in 1624, Jacob Boehme and his visionary work were known widely. In coming decades his writings spread among Europe’s growing number of dissenters. They were printed and translated. Editions were produced in Amsterdam. In England various ‘Behmenist’ groups sprang up in his name and George Fox and the Quakers drew deeply from his teaching. English adherents included the Earl of Pembroke and Peter Sterry, Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain.
Among Russia’s ever-restless souls, Boehme’s ideas found many followers. They were introduced by Quirinus Kuhlmann, an itinerant Silesian preacher and committed Behmenist. He had already published works about Boehme in Amsterdam, visited the English Behmenists, and even travelled to the Ottoman Empire to win over the Turks (without luck). In Moscow he teamed up with the leader of the German community and together they began to disseminate Boehme’s mystical revelations. They did so with such vigour and success that they soon found themselves arrested. Following torture and interrogation, they were burned at the stake in Red Square.
But seeds had been sown. Boehme’s work began to appear in Church Slavonic and Old Russian, gaining followers among the peasantry – from Ukraine to the far north and into Siberia. Behmenism influenced the rise of zealous Russian sects like the Doukhobors and Khlysty. Serious study of Boehme was required by groups of Russian Freemasons. So popular was his work in Russia that in 1815 the poet D. Dmitriev accused booksellers of only stocking books by ‘Boehme and his like’.
All over Europe, Boehme produced similar pockets of devotion. The German Romantics and Idealists dug deep into the complexities of his work. Hegel called him the ‘first German philosopher’. Some of the founders of the Enlightenment found fuel in his pages – Isaac Newton left lengthy transcriptions from Boehme in his archive, while less empirical thinkers like Goethe and Coleridge and Novalis found much to admire. Yeats was familiar with him from an early age, citing him as one of his ‘chief mystical authorities’.
It is not surprising to find William Blake among Boehme’s dedicatees – ‘a divinely-inspired man’, Blake believed. Two centuries apart, the two had a lot in common. Each was an outsider, from a modest background. Each advocated the visionary power of the imagination, having had direct experience of its untapped powers. Each drew truths not from Scripture or the learning of others but from the furnace of his own inner experience. Each saw the eternal spirit as extant everywhere, even in the tiniest of things. Boehme’s – ‘if thou conceivest a small minute Circle, as small as a grain of Mustard-seed, yet the heart of God is wholly and perfectly therein’ finds an uncanny echo in Blake’s well-known lines from the Auguries of Innocence: ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.’
Reading Jacob Boehme is a mixed experience. The jewels of poetic wisdom come thickly wrapped in dense and allusive prose. Like Blake, he had a system. His penetration of the surface of all things had revealed a place that defied description, one so unfamiliar that Boehme himself wished he could dispense with words and simply ‘impart his own soul’ to all those who wanted to share in his vision. Instead he was forced to devise a series of linked symbols, hierarchies of qualities and processes and classes of matter, each corresponding to another, each reflecting the whole in a baffling parade of sentences like this: ‘the Properties of the first Mother in the Lubet and Desire do also divide themselves in the Salnitral Flagrat of Joyfulness’.
Why should we bother? What can a late medieval mystic reveal to us now, with his attempts at universalism steeped in alchemy and astrology and unchallenged Christianity, whose explanations of the material world have long been superseded by basic physics? His was a time when earthly perceptions were expanding, when Atlantic crossings were opening up the New World, when the old geocentric cosmology was being replaced by the dizzying idea that the earth revolved around the sun (something that convinced Boehme). It was a time before the Enlightenment had lumped into view, with its shiny new conviction that the universe was mechanistic, its movements intelligible if examined correctly, reducible to a series of laws.
Boehme’s glimpse of the heart of it all revealed not a whirring machine but a ceaseless drama of opposing forces. The natural world is where that drama plays out, natural processes are the blend of those forces, and matter is the residue: ‘if there were not an everlasting Mixing,’ Boehme wrote in Signature of all Things, ‘there would be an eternal Peace in Nature.’ Pick patterns from it, find correspondences and likenesses but do not expect reasoned or complete understanding. Boehme’s own struggles to explain show how impossible that is. There is a nice parallel he himself used to describe anyone who seeks truth through pure reason, through books and learning – those people are like a peasant searching and searching for his horse without realizing that he is riding it.
At a time when we are re-assessing our view of the world around us – or rather, desperately trying to correct it, the visionary reach of Boehme has much to offer. His work is not easy, but once you relax the habit of literal comprehension, it becomes more rewarding. And perhaps its greatest reward is to convince us to try and detect what he did: the world behind the facade of this one, through constant observation, constant alertness, constant questioning.
A flash of light, a pewter plate, fifteen minutes of seeing and a lifetime of recall. Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek recounts something similar – an idle moment at a gas station when she looks up at the sunset which burns behind ‘an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and alive.’ Such moments of transcendence are, to a greater or lesser degree, available to us all. They may not produce centuries of devotees as Boehme’s did, but they are strong enough to reset subtly our place in the universe, to restore humility in an age burdened by the weight of its own power. The great paradox is that the more you focus on the particular in the world around you, the more it reveals the whole; the more you engage with the moment, the more likely is a glimpse of eternity. ‘Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow,’ writes Dillard, ‘you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.’ In Jacob Boehme’s life and work, you hear the roar of the waterfall.