An Everyday Mystic
Evelyn Underhill is probably best known as the author of the book Mysticism, a classic exploration of mystic experience as recorded by Christian mystics throughout the centuries. However, she also has much to offer spiritual seekers in terms of inspiration and practical advice which relate clearly to modern times.
In fact, the life of Underhill herself gives encouragement and inspiration to the modern householder, both men and women, trying to balance worldly demands and duties with the duty to oneself of striving to find that spiritual core or essence within.
Evelyn Underhill lived in the early twentieth-century, leading what may seem a pretty ‘normal’, average life. She worked hard and did well in her education, coming to be one of the first women to lecture on theology in a British university, and also becoming theological editor of The Spectator magazine. Underhill married her childhood sweetheart who was not drawn, as she was, to spirituality, but equally had no objection. Unusual for the time, she was able to continue in her career as a married woman, so was balancing both work and marriage with her growing focus upon spiritual practice. She became more and more interested by the writings of Christian mystics, and it is clear from her own writing that she herself meditated daily; there is that unmistakable, inspirational turn of phrase that lights up her words.
So the reader here and now – similarly attempting to follow the advice of mystics to combine spirituality with a normal householder’s life – can see the relevance and potential help to be found from her writings. The extracts taken here are from a small volume delightfully entitled, Practical Mysticism – A Little Volume for Normal People.
Those already embarked upon a spiritual path will recognize how practical accomplished mystics are. Practicality is both an outcome and prerequisite of spiritual practice. Through their focus, mystics perceive in the blink of an eye those actions which will take them forward, and those which will not. Furthermore, through experience and practice, they see clearly how short the time is for spiritual seekers to mend their ways and progress to their goal of true understanding and awareness. Thus their advice can only be intensely practical – there is no time for doubt or shilly shallying!
Further, the title emphasizes that the volume is for “normal” people. Do we not believe that we ourselves are ‘normal’, or at least would like to think so? So often, especially in modern times, there is the prevailing, but rarely expressed view that spirituality is only for ‘abnormal’ people – for the few destined to live out their lives in retreat in a monastery or nunnery. What a relief to discover that it is fine, and ‘normal’ indeed, to have some inkling of a spiritual dimension within oneself, and to feel drawn to explore that.
Thus in many ways Underhill was ahead of her time. Through this volume she addresses ordinary people in readily accessible language, asking questions from the sceptic’s point of view. This perspective, in association with her warm empathy, will be recognized as characteris-tic of the practising mystic. Underhill examines the question of what mysticism is and explores the nature of reality, meditation, love and Christian spiritual experience. The following extracts give a flavour of the eventual heights and joys of the mystic experience:
Hitherto, all that you have attained has been – or at least seemed to you – the direct result of your own hard work. A difficult self-discipline, the slowly achieved control of your vagrant thoughts and desires, the steady daily practice of recollection, a diligent pushing out of your consciousness from the superficial to the fundamental, an unselfish loving attention; all this has been rewarded by the gradual broadening and deepening of your perceptions, by an initiation into the movements of a larger life. You have been a knocker, a seeker, an asker: have beat upon the Cloud of Unknowing “with a sharp dart of longing love.” A perpetual effort of will has characterized your inner development.
But then Underhill uses an analogy taken from Saint Teresa of Avila to explain how a change occurs – from what seems to be one’s own hard work to a helplessness, in which all is taken out of one’s hands. Saint Teresa describes how one has been watering a garden-a very time-consuming process, but with a certain result – until the watering can is taken away, and the gardener has to rely upon the rain. Underhill explains that this is
more generous, more fruitful, than anything which your own efforts could manage, but, in its incalculable visitations utterly beyond your control. Here all one can say is this: that if you acquiesce in the heroic demands which the spiritual life now makes upon you, if you let yourself go, eradicate the last traces of self-interest even of the most spiritual kind – then, you have established conditions under which the forces of the spiritual world can work on you, heightening your susceptibilities, deepening and purifying your attention, so that you are able to taste and feel more and more of the inexhaustible riches of Reality.
So with ongoing effort in one’s spiritual practice, Underhill describes how it is possible to come to a point at which seekers can truly ‘let go’ and place themselves in God’s hands, simply to experience all the joys within. She writes:
Thus dying to your own will, waiting for what is given, infused, you will presently find that a change in your apprehension has indeed taken place: that those who said self-loss was the only way to realization taught no pious fiction but the truth.
Then everything has come to fruition; everything that the seeker trusted and hoped for is indeed found to be the case – the ultimate truth and reality. There is no need to worry or even strive – the seeker is on the brink of experiencing total, unsurpassable, complete love, support and understanding. Underhill expresses it beautifully, in a way that only one with experience could:
Suddenly you know it to be instinct with a movement and life too great for you to apprehend. You are thrilled by a mighty energy, uncontrolled by you, unsolicited by you: its higher vitality is poured into your soul. You enter upon an experience for which all the terms of power, thought, motion, even of love, are inadequate: yet which contains within itself the only expression of all these things. Your strength is now made perfect in weakness: because of the completeness of your dependence, a fresh life is infused into you, such as your old separate existence never knew.
Thus the seeker, or practitioner, understands this reality by instinct and experience, rather than as a verbal concept, and this understand-ing gives new life and utter joy:
Those ineffective, half-conscious attempts towards free action, clear apprehension, true union, which we dignify by the names of will, thought and love, are now seen matched by an Absolute Will, Thought, and Love; instantly recognized by the contemplating spirit as the highest reality it has yet known, and evoking in it a passionate and humble joy.
These words give us just a taste of Underhill’s approach and wisdom, and a reminder of the delights to come – which, as a result of focus and faithful effort in meditation can be ours.
So blissful are those transcendent realms that if we once come to know of them, all of us would fly to those spiritual planes; but alas, we know them not. And they cannot be known by intellect or reason. Only through actual mystic realization can we get an insight into mystic knowledge, only through actual mystic transport and ecstasy can we have a peep into the hidden realms of transcendent reality.
Mystics realize God, know him, and enter the rare essence of his being; but describe him they cannot, for there are no suitable words.
Mysticism The Spiritual Path