Evelyn Underhill (6 December 1875 – 15 June 1941) was an English Anglo-Catholic mystic, writer, and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, in particular Christian mysticism. In the English-speaking world, she was one of the most widely read writers on such matters in the first half of the 20th century. No other book of its type—until the appearance in 1946 of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy—met with success to match that of her best-known work, Mysticism, published in 1911.
Underhill was born in Wolverhampton. She was a poet and novelist, as well as a pacifist and mystic. An only child, she described her early mystical insights as “abrupt experiences of the peaceful, undifferentiated plane of reality—like the “still desert” of the mystic—in which there was no multiplicity nor need of explanation.” The meaning of these experiences became a lifelong quest and a source of private angst, provoking her to research and write.
Both her father and her husband were writers (on the law), London barristers and yachtsmen. She and her husband, Hubert Stuart Moore, grew up together and were married on 3 July 1907. The couple had no children. She travelled regularly within Europe, primarily Switzerland, France and Italy where she pursued her interests in art and Catholicism, visiting numerous churches and monasteries. Neither her husband (a Protestant) nor her parents shared her interest in spiritual matters.
She was a prolific author and published over 30 books either under her maiden name, Underhill, or under the pseudonym “John Cordelier”, as was the case for the 1912 book The Spiral Way. Initially an agnostic, she gradually began to acquire an interest in Neoplatonism and from there became increasingly drawn to Catholicism against the objections of her husband, becoming eventually a prominent Anglo-Catholic. Her spiritual mentor from 1921 to 1924 was Baron Friedrich von Hügel, who was appreciative of her writing yet concerned with her focus on mysticism and who encouraged her to adopt a much more Christocentric view as opposed to the theistic and intellectual one she had previously held. She described him as “the most wonderful personality, so saintly, truthful, sane and tolerant” and was influenced toward more charitable, down-to-earth activities. After his death in 1925, her writings became more focused on the Holy Spirit and she became prominent in the Anglican Church as a lay leader of spiritual retreats, a spiritual director for hundreds of individuals, guest speaker, radio lecturer and proponent of contemplative prayer.
Underhill came of age in the Edwardian era, at the turn of the 20th century and like most of her contemporaries had a decided romantic bent. The enormous excitement in those days was mysteriously compounded of the psychic, the psychological, the occult, the mystical, the medieval, the advance of science, the apotheosis of art, the re-discovery of the feminine and an unashamedly sensuous and the most ethereally “spiritual”. Anglicanism seemed to her out-of-key with this, her world. She sought the centre of life as she and many of her generation conceived it, not in the state religion, but in experience and the heart. This age of “the soul” was one of those periods when a sudden easing of social taboos brings on a great sense of personal emancipation and desire for an El Dorado despised by an older, more morose and insensitive generation.
As an only child she was devoted to her parents, and later to her husband. She was fully engaged in the life of a barrister’s daughter and wife, including the entertainment and charitable work that entailed, and pursued a daily regimen that included writing, research, worship, prayer and meditation. It was a fundamental axiom of hers that all of life was sacred, as that was what “incarnation” was about.
Underhill wrote three highly unconventional though profoundly spiritual novels. Like Charles Williams and later, Susan Howatch, Underhill uses her narratives to explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual. She then uses that sacramental framework very effectively to illustrate the unfolding of a human drama. Her novels are entitled The Grey World (1904), The Lost Word (1907), and The Column of Dust (1909).
Underhill’s novels suggest that perhaps for the mystic, two worlds may be better than one. For her, mystical experience seems inseparable from some kind of enhancement of consciousness or expansion of perceptual and aesthetic horizons—to see things as they are, in their meanness and insignificance when viewed in opposition to the divine reality, but in their luminosity and grandeur when seen bathed in divine radiance. But at this stage the mystic’s mind is subject to fear and insecurity, its powers undeveloped. The first novel takes us only to this point. Further stages demand suffering, because mysticism is more than merely vision or cultivating a latent potentiality of the soul in cosy isolation. According to Underhill’s view, the subsequent pain and tension, and final loss of the private painful ego-centered life for the sake of regaining one’s true self, has little to do with the first beatific vision.
Her two later novels are built on the ideal of total self-surrender even to the apparent sacrifice of the vision itself, as necessary for the fullest possible integration of human life. This was for her the equivalent of working out within, the metaphorical intent of the life story of Jesus. One is reunited with the original vision—no longer as mere spectator but as part of it. This dimension of self-loss and resurrection is worked out in The Lost Word, but there is some doubt as to its general inevitability. In The Column of Dust, the heroine’s physical death reinforces dramatically the mystical death to which she has already surrendered to. Two lives are better than one but only on the condition that a process of painful re-integration intervenes to re-establish unity between Self and Reality.
All her characters derive their interest from the theological meaning and value which they represent and it is her ingenious handling of so much difficult symbolic material that makes her work psychologically interesting as a forerunner of such 20th-century writers as Susan Howatch, whose successful novels also embody the psychological value of religious metaphor and the traditions of Christian mysticism. Her first novel received critical acclaim, but her last was generally derided. However, her novels give remarkable insight into what we may assume was her decision to avoid what St. Augustine described as the temptation of fuga in solitudinem (“the flight into solitude”), but instead acquiescing to a loving, positive acceptance of this world. Not looking back, by this time she was already working on her magnum opus.
Underhill’s greatest book, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, was published in 1911, and is distinguished by the very qualities which make it inappropriate as a straightforward textbook. The spirit of the book is romantic, engaged, and theoretical rather than historical or scientific. Underhill has little use for theoretical explanations and the traditional religious experience, formal classifications or analysis. She dismisses William James’ pioneering study, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and his “four marks of the mystic state” (ineffability, noetic quality, transcience, and passivity). James had admitted that his own constitution shut him off almost entirely from the enjoyment of mystical states thus his treatment was purely objective. Underhill substituted (1) mysticism is practical, not theoretical, (2) mysticism is an entirely spiritual activity, (3) The business and method of mysticism is love. (4) mysticism entails a definite psychological experience. Her insistence on the psychological approach was that it was the glamorous science of the pre-war period, offering the potential key to the secrets of human advances in intelligence, creativity, and genius, and already psychological findings were being applied in theology (i.e., William Sanday’s Christologies Ancient and Modern).
She divided her subject into two parts; the first, an introduction, and the second, a detailed study of the nature and development of human consciousness. In the first section, in order to free the subject of mysticism from confusion and misapprehension, she approached it from the point of view of the psychologist, the symbolist and the theologian. To separate mysticism from its most dubious connection she included a chapter on mysticism and magic. At the time, and still today, mysticism is associated with the occult, magic, secret rites, and fanaticism, while she knew the mystics throughout history to be the world’s spiritual pioneers.
She divided her map of “the way” into five stages: the first was the “Awakening of Self.” She quotes Henry Suso (disciple of Meister Eckhart):
“That which the Servitor saw had no form neither any manner of being; yet he had of it a joy such as he might have known in the seeing of shapes and substances of all joyful things. His heart was hungry, yet satisfied, his soul was full of contentment and joy: his prayers and his hopes were fulfilled.”
Underhill tells how Suso’s description of how the abstract truth (related to each soul’s true nature and purpose), once remembered, contains the power of fulfilment became the starting point of her own path. The second stage she presents as psychological “Purgation of Self,” quoting the Theologia Germanica (14th century, anonymous) regarding the transcendence of ego (Underhill’s “little self”):
“We must cast all things from us and strip ourselves of them and refrain from claiming anything for our own.”
The third stage she titles “Illumination” and quotes William Law:
“Everything in nature, is descended out that which is eternal, and stands as a visible outbirth of it, so when we know how to separate out the grossness, death, and darkness from it, we find it in its eternal state.”
The fourth stage she describes as the “Dark Night of the Soul” (which her correspondence leads us to believe she struggled with throughout her life) where one is deprived of all that has been valuable to the lower self, and quoting Mechthild of Magdeburg:
“…since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me the gift which every dog has by nature: that of being true to Thee in my distress, when I am deprived of all consolation. This I desire more fervently than Thy heavenly Kingdom.”
And last she devotes a chapter to the unitive life, the sum of the mystic way:
“When love has carried us above all things into the Divine Dark, there we are transformed by the Eternal Word Who is the image of the Father; and as the air is penetrated by the sun, thus we receive in peace the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us, and penetrating us.” (Ruysbroech)
Where Underhill struck new ground was in her insistence that this state of union produced a glorious and fruitful creativeness, so that the mystic who attains this final perfectness is the most active doer – not the reclusive dreaming lover of God.
“We are all the kindred of the mystics. Strange and far away from us though they seem, they are not cut off from us by some impassable abyss. They belong to us; the giants, the heroes of our race. As the achievement of genius belongs not to itself only but also to the society that brought it forth; the supernal accomplishment of the mystics is ours also our guarantee of the end to which immanent love, the hidden steersman is moving us on the path toward the Real. They come back to us from an encounter with life’s most august secret, filled with amazing tidings which they can hardly tell. We, longing for some assurance, urge them to pass on their revelation, but they cannot, only fragments of the Symbolic Vision. According to their strength and passion, these lovers of the Absolute have not shrunk from the suffering. Beauty and agony have called, and have awakened a heroic response. For them the winter is over. Life new, unquenchable and lovely comes to meet them with the dawn.”
The book ends with an extremely valuable appendix, a kind of who’s who of mysticism, which shows its persistence and interconnection from century to century.
Among the mystics, Jan Van Ruysbroeck was to her the most influential and satisfying of all the medieval mystics, and she found herself very much at one with him in the years when he was working as an unknown priest in Brussels, for she herself had also a hidden side.
“His career which covers the greater part of the fourteenth century, that golden age of Christian Mysticism, seems to exhibit within the circle of a single personality, and carry up to a higher term than ever before, all the best attainments of the Middle Ages in the realm of Eternal life. The central doctrine of the Divine Fatherhood, and of the soul’s power to become the Son of God, it is this raised to the nth degree of intensity…and demonstrated with the exactitude of the mathematician, and the passion of a poet, which Ruysbroeck gives us…the ninth and tenth chapters of The Sparkling Stone the high water mark of mystical literature. Nowhere else do we find such a combination of soaring vision with the most delicate and intimate psychological analysis. The old Mystic sitting under his tree, seems here to be gazing at and reporting to us the final secrets of that Eternal World.”
One of her most significant influences and important collaborations was with the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian mystic, author, and world traveler. They published a major translation of the work of Kabir (100 Poems of Kabir, Calling Songs of Kabir) together in 1915, to which she wrote the introduction. He introduced her to the spiritual genius of India which she expressed enthusiastically in a letter:
“This is the first time I have had the privilege of being with one who is a Master in the things I care so much about but know so little of as yet: & I understand now something of what your writers mean when they insist on the necessity and value of the personal teacher and the fact that he gives something which the learner cannot get in any other way. It has been like hearing the language of which I barely know the alphabet, spoken perfectly.”
They did not keep up their correspondence in later years. Both suffered debilitating illnesses in the last year of life and died in the summer of 1941, greatly distressed by the outbreak of World War II.
Evelyn in 1921 was to all outward appearances, in an assured and enviable position. She had been asked by the University of Oxford to give the first of a new series of lectures on religion, and she was the first woman to have such an honour. She was an authority on her own subject of mysticism and respected for her research and scholarship. Her writing was in demand, and she had an interesting and notable set of friends, devoted readers, a happy marriage and affectionate and loyal parents. At the same time she felt that her foundations were insecure and that her zeal for Reality was resting on a basis that was too fragile.
By 1939, she was a member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, writing a number of important tracts expressing her anti-war sentiment. After returning to the Anglican Church, and perhaps overwhelmed by her knowledge of the achievements of the mystics and their perilous heights, her ten-year friendship with Catholic philosopher and writer Baron Friedrich von Hugel turned into one of spiritual direction. Charles Williams wrote in his introduction to her Letters: “The equal swaying level of devotion and scepticism (related to the church) which is, for some souls, as much the Way as continuous simple faith is to others, was a distress to her. She wanted to be ‘sure.'”
Writing to Von Hugel of the darkness she struggled with:
“What ought I to do?…being naturally self-indulgent and at present unfortunately professionally very prosperous and petted, nothing will get done unless I make a Rule. Neither intellectual work nor religion give me any real discipline because I have a strong attachment to both. It is useless advising anything people could notice or that would look pious. That is beyond me. In my lucid moments I see only too clearly that the only possible end of this road is complete, unconditional self-consecration, and for this I have not the nerve, the character or the depth. There has been some sort of mistake. My soul is too small for it and yet it is at bottom the only thing that I really want. It feels sometimes as if, whilst still a jumble of conflicting impulses and violent faults I were being pushed from behind towards an edge I dare not jump over.”
In a later letter of 12 July the Baron’s practical concerns for signs of strain in Evelyn’s spiritual state are expressed. His comments give insight into her struggles:
“I do not at all like this craving for absolute certainty that this or that experience of yours, is what it seems to yourself. And I am assuredly not going to declare that I am absolutely certain of the final and evidential worth of any of those experiences. They are not articles of faith. You are at times tempted to scepticism and so you long to have some, if only one direct personal experience which shall be beyond the reach of all reasonable doubt. But such an escape would possibly be a most dangerous one, and would only weaken you, or shrivel you, or puff you up. By all means believe them, if and when they humble and yet brace you, to be probably from God. But do not build your faith upon them; do not make them an end when they exist only to be a means. I am not sure that God does want a marked preponderance of this or that work or virtue in our life – that would feed still further your natural temperament, already too vehement.”
Although Underhill continued to struggle to the end, craving certainty that her beatific visions were purposeful, suffering as only a pacifist can from the devastating onslaught of World War II and the Church’s powerlessness to affect events, she may well have played a powerful part in the survival of her country through the influence of her words and the impact of her teachings on thousands regarding the power of prayer. Surviving the London Blitz of 1940, her health disintegrated further and she died in the following year. She is buried with her husband in the churchyard extension at St John-at-Hampstead in London.
More than any other person, she was responsible for introducing the forgotten authors of medieval and Catholic spirituality to a largely Protestant audience and the lives of eastern mystics to the English-speaking world. As a frequent guest on radio, her 1936 work The Spiritual Life was especially influential as transcribed from a series of broadcasts given as a sequel to those by Dom Bernard Clements on the subject of prayer. Fellow theologian Charles Williams wrote the introduction to her published Letters in 1943, which reveal much about this prodigious woman. Upon her death, The Times reported that on the subject of theology, she was “unmatched by any of the professional teachers of her day.”
Excerpts from her writings:
“The business and method of mysticism is love.”
“Mysticism is the art of union with Reality.”
“On every level of life, from housework to heights of prayer, in all judgment and efforts to get things done, hurry and impatience are sure marks of the amateur.”
“If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.”
“In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram —impersonal and unattainable—the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, alive.”
“Every minute you are thinking of evil, you might have been thinking of good instead. Refuse to pander to a morbid interest in your own misdeeds. Pick yourself up, be sorry, shake yourself, and go on again.”
“Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond; too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way. It needs industry and goodwill if we would make that transition; for the process involves a veritable spring-cleaning of the soul, a turning-out and rearrangement of our mental furniture, a wide opening of closed windows, that the notes of the wild birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with wonder and freshness, and drown with their music the noise of the gramaphone within. Those who do this, discover that they have lived in a stuffy world, whilst their inheritance was a world of morning-glory: where every tit-mouse is a celestial messenger, and every thrusting bud is charged with the full significance of life.”
“The spiritual life of individuals has to be extended both vertically to God and horizontally to other souls; and the more it grows in both directions, the less merely individual and therefore more truly personal it will become.”
“For a lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.”
“Idealism, though just in its premises, and often daring and honest in their application, is stultified by the exclusive intellectualism of its own methods: by its fatal trust in the squirrel-work of the industrious brain instead of the piercing vision of the desirous heart. It interests man, but does not involve him in its processes: does not catch him up to the new and more real life which it describes. Hence the thing that matters, the living thing, has somehow escaped it; and its observations bear the same relation to reality as the art of the anatomist does to the mystery of birth.”
“All men, at one time or another, have fallen in love with the veiled Isis whom they call Truth. With most, this has been a passing passion: they have early seen its hopelessness and turned to more practical things. But others remain all their lives the devout lovers of reality: though the manner of their love, the vision which they make to themselves of the beloved object varies enormously. Some see Truth as Dante saw Beatrice: an adorable yet intangible figure, found in this world yet revealing the next. To others she seems rather an evil but an irresistible enchantress: enticing, demanding payment and betraying her lover at the last. Some have seen her in a test tube, and some in a poet’s dream: some before the altar, others in the slime. The extreme pragmatists have even sought her in the kitchen; declaring that she may best be recognized by her utility. Last stage of all, the philosophic sceptic has comforted an unsuccessful courtship by assuring himself that his mistress is not really there.”
“Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is here invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the world. Thus he may become aware of the universe which the spiritual artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This amount of mystical perception—this “ordinary contemplation,” as the specialists call it—is possible to all men: without it, they are not wholly conscious, nor wholly alive. It is a natural human activity, no more involving the great powers and sublime experiences of the mystical saints and philosophers than the ordinary enjoyment of music involves the special creative powers of the great musician.”
“As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone—though these can find in it more poignant depths of meaning than other men—so the world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire.”
“He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.”
“Here the further question of the relation of spiritual life to public life and politics comes in. It must mean, for all who take it seriously, judging public issues from the angle of eternity, never from that of national self-interest or expediency; backing our conviction, as against party of prejudice, rejecting compromise, and voting only for those who adopt this disinterested point of view. Did we act thus, slowly but surely a body of opinion—a spiritual party, if you like—might be formed; and in the long run make its influence felt in the State. But such a programme demands much faith, hope, and charity; and courage too.”
“The art of the alchemist, whether spiritual or physical, consists in completing the work of perfection, bringing forth and making dominant, as it were, the “latent goldness” which “lies obscure” in metal or man. The ideal adept of alchemy was therefore an “auxiliary of the Eternal Goodness.” By his search for the “Noble Tincture” which should restore an imperfect world, he became a partner in the business of creation, assisting the Cosmic Plan. Thus the proper art of the Spiritual Alchemist, with whom alone we are here concerned, was the production of the spiritual and only valid tincture or Philosopher’s Stone; the mystic seed of transcendental life which should invade, tinge, and wholly transmute the imperfect self into spiritual gold. That this was no fancy of seventeenth-century allegorists, but an idea familiar to many of the oldest writers upon alchemy—whose quest was truly a spiritual search into the deepest secrets of the soul—is proved by the words which bring to an end the first part of the antique “Golden Treatise upon the Making of the Stone,” sometimes attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. “This, O Son,” says that remarkable tract, “is the Concealed Stone of Many Colours, which is born and brought forth in one colour; know this and conceal it . . . it leads from darkness into light, from this desert wilderness to a secure habitation, and from poverty and straits to a free and ample fortune.”
“When we are in good health, we all feel very real, solid, and permanent; and this is of all our illusions the most ridiculous, and also the most obviously useful from the point of view of the efficiency and preservation of the race.”
“As the genuine religious impulse becomes dominant, adoration more and more takes charge. ‘I come to seek God because I need Him’, may be an adequate formula for prayer. ‘I come to adore His splendour, and fling myself and all that I have at His feet’, is the only possible formula for worship.”
“The Incarnation, which is for traditional Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and earthly life of Christ, is for mystics of a certain type, not only this but also a perpetual Cosmic and personal process. It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, the pure character of God, of which the one historical life dramatized the essential constituents. Hence the soul, like the physical embryo, resumes in its upward progress the spiritual life-history of the race. “The one secret, the greatest of all,” says Patmore, is “the doctrine of the Incarnation, regarded not as an historical event which occurred two thousand years ago, but as an event which is renewed in the body of every one who is in the way to the fulfilment of his original destiny.”
“Art is the link between appearance and reality. All artists are of necessity in some measure contemplatives.”
“The individual is reminded that in him, no less than in the Archetypal Universe, real life must be born if real life is to be lived.”
“It is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not–as some suppose–a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants.”
Source of quotes: http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/112836.Evelyn_Underhill