Book Reviews

Review: Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

This week I’m reading Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness by Evelyn Underhill. This is the classic text on mysticism. It explores the subject in depth, and although Underhill focuses mostly on mystical Christianity, she also looks at Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others too.

Part 1 explains how mysticism relates to psychology, theology, symbolism, vitalism, and magic. Then Part 2 explores awakening and the purification and illumination of the self, and looks at some of the manifestations of the path, such as voices, visions, ecstasy, and the dark night of the soul. She also compares the mysticism of various historical figures.

Underhill identified four fundamental characteristics of the mystical state which must be present if you’re to claim your experience as genuinely mystical:

  • True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It’s something your whole being participates in, not just your intellect.
  • Its aims are transcendental and spiritual, not necessarily concerned with changing things in the material world. This doesn’t mean you don’t help others, but that your methods are spiritual.
  • Its focus and motivation is always Love in order to attain union with life, or the One.
  • This unity consciousness involves real psychological changes that take place through a spiritual process of liberation.

“Mysticism, then, is not an opinion: it is not a philosophy. It has nothing in common with the pursuit of occult knowledge. On the one hand it is not merely the power of contemplating Eternity; on the other, it is not to be identified with any kind of religious queerness. It is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better – for this means exactly the same thing – it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute.”

She describes the process of this path and divides the Mystic Way into five phases:

1. The awakening of the Self to the reality of the divine, which can be abrupt and accompanied by intense feelings of joy.

2. The psychological purgation of the Self as you come to realise how far from unity with the divine you are. This involves the stripping away of anything that stands between you and full realisation, often very painful. A surrender of everything attached to the ego and its desires.

3. The illumination of the Self which involves contemplation and visions of the eternal in life. There are various ways to move through this stage, and many never go beyond it. Although there are those who attain glimpses of the illuminated state, this isn’t true union. Often experienced as ecstatic joy.

4. The dark night of the soul or complete purification of the Self, sometimes called the ‘mystic death.’ This stage can be experienced along with the previous stage, alternating in cycles of illumination and purification, and can last a lifetime (pray that it doesn’t!). It’s experienced as a divine absence, a purgation or purification of the Spirit, and is a passive state. All you can do at this stage is surrender your will completely and wait…

5. Finally, union with the divine, where illumination isn’t just perceived by the Self but is one with it. This isn’t a trance state or ecstasy, as experienced in the third stage, but a state of equilibrium and peaceful joy. This is also an active state, where the mystic brings all they have learned back to the world:

“To go up alone into the mountain and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends. This systole-and-diastole motion of retreat as the preliminary to a return remains the true ideal of Christian Mysticism in its highest development. Those in whom it is not found, however great in other respects they may be, must be considered as having stopped short of the final stage.”

Despite being published over a century ago (in 1911), Mysticism is still a relevant and useful guide to those on the mystical path. You can read it free online here: Christian Classics Ethereal Library and here: Sacred Texts

“Mysticism is seen to be a highly specialised form of that search for reality, for heightened and completed life, which we have found to be a constant characteristic of human consciousness. It is largely prosecuted by that “spiritual spark,” that transcendental faculty which, though the life of our life, remains below the threshold in ordinary men. Emerging from its hiddenness in the mystic, it gradually becomes the dominant factor in his life; subduing to its service, and enhancing by its saving contact with reality, those vital powers of love and will which we attribute to the heart, rather than those of mere reason and perception, which we attribute to the head. Under the spur of this love and will, the whole personality rises in the acts of contemplation and ecstasy to a level of consciousness at which it becomes aware of a new field of perception. By this awareness, by this “loving sight,” it is stimulated to a new life in accordance with the Reality which it has beheld. So strange and exalted is this life, that it never fails to provoke either the anger or the admiration of other men. “If the great Christian mystics,” says Leuba, “could by some miracle be all brought together in the same place, each in his habitual environment, there to live according to his manner, the world would soon perceive that they constitute one of the most amazing and profound variations of which the human race has yet been witness.”

Read extracts from Mysticism on this blog:

Check out the Mysticism Bookshelf

4 thoughts on “Review: Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

  1. i’ve read this book several times. quite honestly the most eloquent and poetic and meaningful book i have ever read. it spoke to me in unfathomable ways. i have an old copy that is literally falling apart at the seems and i cherish it and take care of it like a baby.

    Liked by 2 people


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