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The Practical Mysticism of Evelyn Underhill

Today’s post is by Dana Greene

Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican religious writer, had a leading role in the first half of the twentieth century in reviving interest in mysticism and  translating  the insights of the great mystics for the ordinary person. Her life’s work and achievement were confirmed by her friend T. S. Eliot who hailed her as a writer attuned to the great spiritual hunger of her contemporaries, and Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who attested that she did more than anyone else to keep the spiritual life alive in Anglicanism in the interwar period.

Underhill began as scholar of mysticism publishing her ground-breaking book,Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness,in 1911; it has never been out of print for the last hundred and seventeen years. In this she laid out the stages of the mystic life and illustrated this development with quotes from the great mystics themselves. This was followed by a series of other volumes (she edited or authored thirty-nine books in all) on individual mystics, their writings, and the spiritual life.

At mid-life Underhill made a dramatic move to begin to offer the insights of the mystics to ordinary people. Acknowledging the mystics were great pioneering souls, she maintained that every person was on a spectrum with them because each was born with a capacity for God. Given this, the ordinary person could benefit from learning of the mystic life.

A lay woman without formal theological training, Underhill began to offer retreats and serve as a spiritual director. She was the first woman to guide a retreat in Canterbury Cathedral and the first to offer retreats for male clergy. These were actions unheard of in the 1920s.

For Underhill the mystics were those who knew for certain the love of God and as such became “live wires” between God’s grace and the world that needed it. The mystics’ deepened relationship with God is not verified by visions or voices but by the transformation of being which awakens an energetic life expressed in service to the world—they have a “wide-spreading love to all in common”—and by lives marked by the fruits of the spirit—humility, joy, peace and love. Offered to all, but realized by the few, this mysticism is the true soul of religion, without which religion dies.

The mystic relationship produces holiness, the final test of which is “is not seeming very different from other people, but being used to make other people very different, becoming the parent of new life.” Underhill asserted that these holy ones  “do not stand aside wrapped in delightful prayers and feeling pure and agreeable to God. They go right down into the mess; and there, right down in the mess, they are able to radiate God because they possess Him.” They “become a pure capacity for God and therefore a tool of Divine action.”

Underhill is clear about how off kilter we are. “We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual—even on the religious—plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.”

Long buried in monasteries and inaccessible to the ordinary person, the rich mystic tradition was reclaimed by Underhill and made available for her contemporaries. But she also translated that tradition into a practical mysticism for what she called “normal people.”  “The spiritual life, “ she wrote, “ is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of everyone’s life; and until we have realized it we are not complete human beings, have not entered into possession of all our powers. It is therefore the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness, of those who try to practice it.”

The 2018 Gerald May seminar, “The Compassion of the Mystics,” will feature Bernard McGinn, theologian and scholar of spirituality, on  November 9th and 10th. Learn more or register today!

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