Review of Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

Kant began his Critique of Pure Reason by remarking, “Daß alle unsere Erkenntnis mit der Erfahrung anfange, daran ist gar kein Zweifel” (That all our knowledge begins with experience, there can be no doubt). Religious experience is no exception, but poses a special problem: Different people can have radically divergent religious experiences, and it is typically impossible to communicate that experience to another person, or even to convince another person that you have had the experience, unless that other person has had a similar experience. If you talk to someone who has an intense religious experience, then they will assure you that the experience gave them absolutely certain knowledge of the divine; yet paradoxically, this certain knowledge cannot be directly transferred to anyone else. Other people must have the experience themselves before they can know.

Incommunicability is of course a matter of degree. If enough people share a similar religious experience, then a religious community can form around that shared experience. Many evangelical Christians find commonality in their shared conversion experience, which in its purest form is a sudden event that occurs only once in a lifetime, during which the person is overwhelmed with a sense of God’s forgiveness of sin, and is led to repent and believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Similarly, Pentecostals/charismatics share a circle of experiences, of which the best known is glossolalia (speaking in tongues).

Probably the least communicable type of religious experience is the one that goes by the name of mystical experience. Roughly speaking, a mystical experience is an extremely intense and direct encounter with the divine, which occurs during what one might term an altered state of consciousness. Though the aforementioned experiences of conversion and glossolalia could be considered mystical if they are intense enough, the Christian tradition usually reserves the term for acts of meditation and contemplation that can occur at any time during a Christian’s life.

With the exception of some monastic communities, modern Christianity has largely lost touch with the contemplative life. Some of the forms of worship associated with mystical experience survive, but in the absence of the original experience, they can lose their meaning. Church retreats nowadays are jam-packed with activities, and even personal quiet times are carefully structured with bite-sized scripture readings, inspirational anecdotes, and prayer points.

For the believer who wishes to reclaim this important but neglected aspect of the Christian faith, Evelyn Underhill is an excellent guide. Her name draws blank stares today, but she was widely read in the first half of the twentieth century. Underhill’s book Mysticism is perhaps her most famous work, but it is not so easy to read. Fortunately, Underhill also wrote Practical Mysticism, a much shorter and more readable book that is explicitly addressed to the so-called “practical man,” who professes not to understand what “mysticism” is, who harbors doubts about its relevance to his daily life, and who is skeptical of mystical claims about a deeper Reality beyond the realm of our ordinary senses. Underhill sets herself the task of demystifying mysticism, as it were, insisting that it is not the province of an elite few but the proper concern of everyone.

The education of the mystical sense begins in self-simplification. The feeling, willing, seeing self is to move from the various and the analytic to the simple and the synthetic: a sentence which may cause hard breathing and mopping of the brows on the part of the practical man. Yet it is to you, practical man, reading these pages as you rush through the tube to the practical work of rearranging unimportant fragments of your universe, that this message so needed by your time—or rather, by your want of time—is addressed. To you, unconscious analyst, so busy reading the advertisements upon the carriage wall, that you hardly observe the stages of your unceasing flight: so anxiously acquisitive of the crumbs that you never lift your eyes to the loaf. The essence of mystical contemplation is summed up in these two experiences—union with the flux of life, and union with the Whole in which all lesser realities are resumed—and these experiences are well within your reach. Though it is likely that the accusation will annoy you, you are already in fact a potential contemplative: for this act, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is proper to all men—is, indeed, the characteristic human activity.

She then guides the reader through successive stages of the mystical life, beginning with Meditation and Recollection, followed by Purgation, and finally the three Forms of Contemplation. To an audience accustomed to a diet of superficial self-help books of the Five Easy Steps to Get Anything You Want genre, the long, slow, and unstructured path that Underhill invites us to tread will seem bewildering. We are used to demanding instant results, and staying in control. Uncertainty and relinquishment frighten us. But we cannot control God, and Underhill urges us to be satisfied with nothing less than complete union with God.

Throughout the book, Underhill draws from a rich tradition of earlier writers on the mystical life: the unknown author of the medieval work The Cloud of Unknowing; John of Ruysbroeck; Plotinus; St. Teresa of Avila; St. John of the Cross; Julian of Norwich; and many others.

In the final chapter, Underhill once again returns to the impatient questions of the practical man.

And here the practical man, who has been strangely silent during the last stages of our discourse, shakes himself like a terrier which has achieved dry land again after a bath; and asks once more, with a certain explosive violence, his dear old question, “What is the use of all this?”

“You have introduced me,” he says further, “to some curious states of consciousness, interesting enough in their way; and to a lot of pecular emotions, many of which are no doubt most valuable to poets and so on. But it is all so remote from daily life. How is it going to fit in with ordinary existence? How, above all, is it all going to help me?”

Underhill replies that in fact it is those who have come to a knowledge of the true nature of Reality who are best equipped to live a meaningful and effective life.

For them contemplation and action are not opposites, but two interdependent forms of a life that is one—a life that rushes out to a passionate communion with the true and beautiful, only that it may draw from this direct experience of Reality a new intensity wherewith to handle the world of things; and remake it, or at least some little bit of it, “nearer to the heart’s desire.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that reading Practical Mysticism and following its suggestions will cause you to have a mystical experience. God cannot be manipulated in that way. Yet anyone who wishes to know God more intimately, and more certainly, would do well to take the first few steps down the path that Underhill lays out, and see where the journey leads.

Posted April 2011

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