Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness was published in 1911 and is considered a classic. The book is divided into two parts: 1) a general introduction to mysticism and 2) the necessary stages of organic growth through which the typical mystic passes”.
I tackled it. At 500+ pages, it’s dense, and while her writing is not as difficult to read as the mystics of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, her way of expressing herself is dated. Underhill is not a spare writer. I didn’t read every word. I couldn’t. In places, quotes of recognized mystics are 75% of the text. I skimmed over those.
The book is largely a defense of/argument for mysticism. Where it excels in it’s clear statement of the purpose/or result of mysticism:
“Modern psychology, in it’s doctrine of the unconscious or subliminal personality, has acknowledged this fact of a range of psychic life lying below and beyond the conscious field.”
“Certain processes, of which contemplation has been taken as a type, can so alter the state of consciousness as to permit the emergence of this deeper self; which according as it enters more or less into the conscious life, makes man more or less a mystic.”
“The mystic life, therefore, involves the emergence from deep levels of man’s transcendental self; its capture of the field of consciousness; and the ‘conversion’ or rearrangement of his feeling, thought, and will—his character—about this new centre of life.”
I agree with that. In fact, reading it gave me a lot of clarity about my own drive for practicing meditation: accessing my subconscious/unconscious to expand my ability to experience and respond to the world. I’d never really zeroed in on it quite like that before.
Initially agnostic, Underhill was an intellectual, and a prolific writer of novels and poetry. She takes a decidedly psychological approach to her analysis of mysticism. Because of the period in which the book was written, her analysis, though welcomely simplistic, is effective. She stresses that love, passion, “conation”—will stimulated by emotion—drives the mystic, “for passion rouses to activity not merely the mind, but the whole vitality of [the person].”
This is important point because mysticism is an adventure of direct experience, not an intellectual undertaking.
One of Underhills most forceful arguments is that the mystic is mistakenly perceived as passive.
“The ‘passivity’ of contemplation … is a necessary preliminary of spiritual energy: an essential clearing of the ground.”
“… the act of contemplation is for the mystic a psychic gateway; a method of going from one level of consciousness to another. In technical language it is the condition under which he shifts his ‘field of perception’ and obtains his characteristic outlook on the universe.”
From everything I’ve seen and studied in regard to the lives of mystics, contemplation infuses dynamic life.
At times, the piousness of Underhill’s writing is not appealing. The line she draws between magic and mysticism is amusing. Magic is the application of the occult for purposes of personal gain, while mysticism is wholly selfless. I can’t follow her down that road, because everyone is pursuing whatever path they are pursuing with some hope of something. While a mystic might appear, or claim, to pursue a path of selflessness, deeper analysis would reveal the fruits accruing to the mystic as a result of their devotion or practice. After all, altruism is highly admired and can be the source of endless accolades and praise, and "helping" others can make you feel good.
Underhill also makes a distinction between the artist and the mystic, which I think stems from her insistent divide between the spiritual and the material. A divide which I don’t see.
She disagrees with William James “four marks” of mysticism, for which I applaud her, and presents her own four qualities of mysticism:
1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic, life process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.
2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the the visible universe.
I disagree. For me, if you’re mysticism is not somehow manifesting on this plane of existence, it’s somewhat worthless.
3. This One [the Transcendental Reality, or the Divine, as I like to call it] is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of Love.
I disagree. I think it can be and/or.
4. Living union with this One—which is the term of [the mystic’s] adventure—is a definite state or form of enhanced life … It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process—the so-called Mystic Way—entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, from of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes called ‘ecstasy,’ but is better named the Unitive State.
I agree that some form of ultimate union is the state of equilibrium that the mystic seeks.
Underhill acknowledges that the nature of mysticism, as an individual endeavor, precludes a repeatable path. I agree. We all meander in our own way toward the Divine.
“The creative impulse in the world, so far as we are aware of it, appears upon ultimate analysis to be free and original not bound by the mechanical: to express itself, in the defiance of the determinists, with a certain artistic spontaneity.”
As I said, I didn’t read the whole book. But what I did read of Underhill’s work helped me clarify my own understandings of mysticism and validated my own path, despite some of my disagreements with her conclusions.
Tuesday, I’ll be sharing on the subject of an unlikely mystic.