Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Margaret Fuller's Mystical Experience

Part of What Moves Us

Based on multiple sources, particularly a letter from Margaret Fuller to Caroline Sturgis, October 22, 1840. The letter may be found at Houghton Library, Harvard University (call number MS Am 1221 (242)).

By the time Margaret Fuller was nine, she read literature in four languages, translated Virgil and Cicero, and wrote literary critiques of major European philosophic and literary texts. Each night, at the end of Margaret's grueling day of scholarship, when her father returned home from work he would enter her bedroom, awaken her by kissing her on the lips, then carry her to his study and make her recount what she had learned during the day. Reflecting on the years she endured this paternal, invasive abuse, Fuller said: "I did not go mad, as many would do, at being continually roused from my dreams. I had too much strength to be crushed, — and since I must put on the fetters, could not submit to let them impede my motions. My own world sank deep within, away from the surface of my life; in what I did and said I learned to have reference to other minds. But my true life was only the dearer that it was secluded and veiled over by a thick curtain of available intellect, and that coarse, but wearable stuff woven by the ages, — Common Sense."

Fuller's father made the nature and manner of his love for her very clear: It must be earned, as he repeatedly told her. He was tyrannical against his wife, Margarett Crane, for any infraction, and when away, threatened by letter, upon his return, to forcefully remind her of her place. Margaret read all of these letters and learned to conform to his absolute desires and expectations of her. When her younger sister died and her mother emotionally withdrew, Margaret became absolutely dependent upon her father for any show of affection. He was bitter, sarcastic, arrogant, snide and domineering. As an adult so, too, was she. But not all of her succumbed to her father, as she explained in a letter written in November 1832 to her friend James F. Clarke: "I have often told you I have two souls and they seem to roll over one another in the most incomprehensible way — All my tastes and wishes point one way and seem forced the other way."

After her father died of cholera in 1835, Fuller undertook the grueling work of uniting her two souls: her male-trained intellect and her inmost personal feelings and intuitions as a woman. She wanted to become an intelligent woman, rather than a woman with a man's mind. This union of mind and heart, body and intellect was hard won. To this end, she secluded herself away to mourn her father's death and at the same time to find her own life. She found the point of contact for her sundered soul. She said she had discovered the divine within her. For her, it was at one and the same time a mystical experience and a transformation of herself into a human rights advocate. She described what happened in her October 22, 1840 letter to her dear friend Caroline Sturgis

... I can say very little now, scarce a word that is not absolutely drawn from me at the moment. I cannot plunge into myself enough. I cannot dedicate myself sufficiently. The life that flows in upon me from so many quarters is too beautiful to be checked. I would not check a single pulsation. It all ought to be; — if caused by any apparition of the Divine in me I could bless myself like the holy Mother. ... Oh Caroline, my soul swells with the future. The past, I know it not... All the souls I ever loved are holy to me, their voices sound more and more sweet yet oh for an hour of absolute silence, dedicated, enshrined in the bosom of the One.

Yet the cross, the symbol you have chosen seems indeed the one. Daily, hourly it is laid upon me. Tremulously I feel that a wound is yet to be given. ... Oh the prophetic dread and hope and pain and joy. My Caroline, I am not yet purified. Let the lonely Vestal watch the fire till it draws her to itself and consumes this mortal part. Truly you say I have not been what I am now yet it is only transformation, not alteration. The leaf became a stem, a bud, is now in flower. Winds of heaven, dews of night, circles of time, already ye make haste to convert this flower into dead-seeming seed — yet Caroline far fairer shall it bloom again...

[I]n my deep mysterious grottoes I feared no rebuff, I shrunk from no publicity, I could not pause yet ever I sobbed and wailed over my endless motion and foamed angrily to meet the storm-winds which kept me pure...

And then something absolutely amazing happened in the midst of Fuller's account of her mystical experience. A past recollection rose to her thoughts with what she called "charm unspeakable." Fuller then described this new thought: her experience a few years earlier, of a winter night she spent attending to a neighbor who had tuberculosis and was dying from the effects of a botched abortion. That experience had taken place shortly after her own father's death. She recounted being...

in the sick chamber of a wretched girl in the last stage of a consumption. It was said she had profaned her maiden state, and that the means she took to evade the consequences of her stain had destroyed her health and placed her on this bed of death. The room was full of poverty, base thoughts, and fragments of destiny. As I raised her dying head it rested against my bosom like a clod that should never have been taken from the valley. On my soul brooded a sadness of deepest calm ... I gazed into that abyss [termed guilt] lowest in humanity of crime for the sake of sensual pleasure[.] [M]y eye was steadfast, yet above me shone a star, pale, tearful, still it shone, it was mirrored from the very blackness of the yawning gulf. Through the shadows of that night ghost-like with step unlistened for, unheard assurance came to me. O, it has ever been thus, from the darkest comes my brightness, from Chaos depths my love. I returned with the morning star. No one was with me in the house. I unlocked the door [and] went into the silent room where but late before my human father dwelt. It was the first winter of my suffering health the musings and the vigils of the night had exhausted while exalting me. The cold rosy winter dawn and then the sun. I had forgotten to wind the clock the day marked itself. I lay there, I could not resolve to give myself food. The day was unintentionally a fast. Sacredest thoughts were upon it, and I comprehended the meaning of an ascetic life. The Angel that meets the pious monk beside the bed of pestilence and low vice, that dwells with him in the ruined hut of his macerated body, hovered sweet though distant before me also. At times I read the Bible at times [poet William] Wordsworth[.] I dwelt in the thoughtful solitudes of his Excursion I wandered like his white doe... The sunset of that day was the same which will shine on my last hour here below. — Winter is coming now. I rejoice in her bareness, her pure shroud, her judgment-announcing winds. These will help me to dedicate myself, all these Winter spirits will cradle my childhood with strange and mystic song. Oh Child who would'st deem thee mine canst thou read what I cannot write. No only one soul is there that can lead me up to womanhood and baptize me to gentlest May. Is it not ready? I have strength to wait as a smooth bare tree forever, but ask no more my friends for leaves and flowers or a bird haunted bower.