Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness
By Evelyn Underhill
Publisher: New York: Dutton, 1930
(12th edition, often reprinted).
ISBN: 0525470735; 978-0525470731
(Free online editions at www.sacred-texts.com and www.archive.org)
Around 1905, Evelyn Underhill, a 29-year old English writer, unexpectedly had a mystical experience. She sought a mentor who could help her understand what she had experienced. When she failed to find anyone who could give her guidance, she turned to the writings of mystics. Her quest impelled her to delve into nearly a thousand different literary sources, many unpublished, some in non-English languages. In the process she completed a 500-page book on the subject, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, published in 1911.
This work remained the most widely read book on mysticism in the English language for 35 years. Not until the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy in 1946 did another work on the subject approach the significance of Underhill’s classic. Her contribution to the understanding of mystical consciousness was lauded by many of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century, including Henri Bergson, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts and Charles Williams. Indeed, an expert on the work observed in 2011 that “at the centennial of its publication, Underhill’s magnum opus … is still used in most courses that explore the experience of God called mysticism and still attracts contemporary spiritual seekers.”
Mysticism is divided into two parts. In Part One, “The Mystic Fact,” Underhill offers a basic description of mysticism, distinguishing it from psychology, theology, magic and occultism. She defines mysticism as “the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order, whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.” She writes,
“Come with us,” [mystics] say to the bewildered and entangled self, craving for finality and peace, “and we will show you a way out that shall not only be an issue from your prison, but also a pathway to your Home… At the apex of your spirit there is a little door, so high up that only by hard climbing can you reach it. There the Object of your craving stands and knocks; thence came those persistent messages - faint echoes from the Truth eternally hammering at your gates - which disturbed the comfortable life of sense. Come up then by this pathway, to those higher levels of reality to which, in virtue of the eternal spark in you, you belong.”
More simply, she asserts that “the business and method of Mysticism is Love.”
For Underhill, mysticism is a universal phenomenon; though she bases her work primarily on the writings of medieval European Catholic mystics, she also quotes Neo-Platonist, Protestant, and Sufi mystics - for example, Plotinus, Jacob Boehme, and `Attar.’ She would later write the Introduction to Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s 1915 translation Songs of Kabir.
In Part Two, “The Mystic Way,” Underhill attempts a portrait of the typical mystic experience, presenting it as composed of five progressive stages: (1) Awakening of the Self; (2) Purification of the Self; (3) Illumination of the Self, which includes stages of Introversion, Recollection, Contemplation, and Ecstasy; (4) the Dark Night of the Soul; and (5) the Unitive Life.
Awakening of the Self refers to the individual’s entry into the mystic way, when she or he realizes that there is a Reality beyond the everyday grind. Of the struggle this awakening sets in motion Saint Augustine wrote, “I was swept up to Thee by Thy Beauty, and torn away from Thee by my own weight.” Underhill says that some people experience this awakening but go no farther. For such a one, she says “The ‘heavenly door’ … was ajar but not pushed wide. He peeped through it to the greater world beyond; but, unable to escape from the bonds of his selfhood, he did not pass through to live upon the independent spiritual plane.”
For those going farther, Purification of the Self is necessary. Underhill quotes the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila: “The road on which we enter is a royal road which leads to heaven. Is it strange that the conquest of such a treasure should cost us dear?” And she quotes the eleventh-century Sufi al-Ghazzali:
[Mystics’] science has for its object the uprooting from the soul of all violent passions, the extirpation from it of vicious desires and evil qualities; so that the heart may become detached from all that is not God, and give itself for its only occupation meditation upon the Divine Being.
Underhill explains, “We … live a sham life. We do not know ourselves; hence do not know the true character of our senses and instincts; hence attribute wrong values to their suggestions and declarations concerning our relation to the external world.”
Next comes the stage of Illumination of the Self. Underhill comments that countless mystics “have left us the record of their sojourn within.” Thirteenth-century Italian Jacopone da Todi sings, “Light without measure shines in my heart.” Thirteenth-century German Mechthild of Magdeburg speaks of “the flowing light of the Godhead.” And St. Teresa of Avila describes an “infused brightness, a light which knows no night; but rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it.” This stage of Illumination requires Introversion, Recollection and Quiet. As Meister Eckhart writes:
If a man will work an inward work, he must pour all his powers into himself as into a corner of the soul, and must hide himself from all images and forms, and then he can work. Then he must come into a forgetting and a not-knowing. He must be in a stillness and silence, where the Word may be heard.
Going deeper into contemplation is a matter of surrender. Jacob Boehme records a dialogue:
Disciple: But how shall I comprehend it?
Master: If thou goest about to comprehend it, then it will fly away from thee; but if thou dost surrender thyself wholly up to it, then it will abide with thee, andbecome the Life of thy Life, and benatural to thee.
Some mystics must pass through a fourth stage, the Dark Night of the Soul. Underhill writes, “Desolation and loneliness, abandonment by God and by man, a tendency of everything to ‘go wrong’, a profusion of unsought trials and griefs - all are here.” St. John of the Cross explains:
The more clear the light, the more does it blind the eyes of the owl, and the more we try to look at the sun the feebler grows our sight and the more our weak eyes are darkened. So the divine light of contemplation, when it beats on the soul not yet perfectly purified, fills it with spiritual darkness… Such suffering is intense when the yet unpurified soul finds itself invaded by this cleansing light.
At last the pilgrim reaches the fifth stage of Unitive Life. Fourteenth-century German Henry Suso describes the soul that “has wholly renounced itself”:
He forgets himself, he is no longer conscious of his selfhood; he disappears and loses himself in God, and becomes one spirit with Him, as a drop of water which is drowned in a great quantity of wine. For even as such a drop disappears, taking the colour and the taste of wine, so it is with those who are in full possession of blessedness. All human desires are taken from them in an indescribable manner, they are rapt from themselves, and are immersed in the Divine Will.
Meister Eckhart says that God invites and challenges us to reach this state of union with Him: “Our Lord says to every living soul, ‘I became man for you. If you do not become God for me, you do me wrong.’”
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