The Mystic Way 13: The Unitive Life

Last time we looked at ego death in the dark night of the soul. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism to explore the true goal of the Mystic Way: Union. This isn’t the same as the earlier illumination stage, but the final stage where the mystic is one with the Absolute. So what is the Unitive Life?

“We deal here with the final triumph of the spirit, the flower of mysticism, humanity’s top note: the consummation towards which the contemplative life, with its long slow growth and costly training, has moved from the first. We look at a small but ever-growing group of heroic figures, living at transcendent levels of reality which we immersed in the poor life of illusion, cannot attain; breathing an atmosphere whose true quality we cannot even conceive. Here, then, as at so many other points in our study of the spiritual consciousness, we must rely for the greater part of our knowledge upon the direct testimony of the mystics, who alone can tell the character of that ‘more abundant life’ which they enjoy.

“Yet we are not wholly dependent on this source of information. It is the peculiarity of the Unitive Life that it is often lived, in its highest and most perfect forms, in the world, and exhibits its works before the eyes of men. As the law of our bodies is ‘earth to earth’ so, strangely enough, is the law of our souls. The spirit of man having at last come to full consciousness of reality, completes the circle of Being, and returns to fertilize those levels of existence from which it sprang.

“Hence, the enemies of mysticism, who have easily drawn a congenial moral from the ‘morbid and solitary’ lives of contemplatives in the earlier and educative stages of the Mystic Way, are here confronted very often by the disagreeable spectacle of the mystic as a pioneer of humanity, a sharply intuitive and painfully practical person: an artist, a discoverer, a religious or social reformer, a national hero, a ‘great active’ amongst the saints. By the superhuman nature of that which these persons accomplish, we can gauge something of the super-normal vitality of which they partake.

“Use have, then, these two lines of investigation open to us: first, the comparison and elucidation of that which the mystics tell us concerning their transcendent experience, secondly, the testimony which is borne by their lives to the existence within them of supernal springs of action, contact set up with deep levels of vital power. In the third place, we have such critical machinery as psychology has placed at our disposal; but this, in dealing with these giants of the spirit, must be used with peculiar caution and humility.

The Unitive Life, though so often lived in the world, is never of it. It belongs to another plane of being, moves securely upon levels unrelated to our speech, and hence eludes the measuring powers of humanity. We, from the valley, can only catch a glimpse of the true life of these elect spirits, transfigured upon the mountain. They are far away, breathing another air; we cannot reach them. Yet it is impossible to over-estimate their importance for the race. They are our ambassadors to the Absolute. They vindicate humanity’s claim to the possible and permanent attainment of Reality; bear witness to the practical qualities of the transcendental life.

“Coming first to the evidence of the mystics themselves, we find that in their attempts towards describing the Unitive Life they have recourse to two main forms of symbolic expression, both very dangerous, and liable to be misunderstood, both offering ample opportunity for harsh criticism to hostile investigators of the mystic type. We find also, as we might expect from our previous encounters with the symbols used by contemplatives and ecstatics, that these two forms of expression belong respectively to mystics of the transcendent-metaphysical and of the intimate-personal type: and that their formulae if taken alone, appear to contradict one another.

  1. The metaphysical mystic, for whom the Absolute is impersonal and transcendent, describes his final attainment of that Absolute as deification, or the utter transmutation of the self in God.
  2. The mystic for whom intimate and personal communion has been the mode under which he best apprehended Reality speaks of the consummation of this communion, its perfect and permanent form, as the Spiritual Marriage of his soul with God.

“Obviously, both these terms are but the self’s guesses concerning the intrinsic character of a state which it has felt in its wholeness rather than analysed, and bear the same relation to the ineffable realities of that state, as our clever theories concerning the nature and meaning of life bear to the vital processes of men. It is worth while to examine them but we shall not understand them till we have also examined the life which they profess to explain.

The language of “deification” and of “spiritual marriage,” then, is temperamental language, and is related to subjective experience rather than to objective fact. It describes on the one hand the mystic’s astonished recognition of a profound change effected in his own personality – the transmutation of his salt, sulphur, and mercury into Spiritual Gold – on the other, the rapturous consummation of his love. Hence by a comparison of these symbolic reconstructions, by the discovery and isolation of the common factor latent in each, we may perhaps learn something of the fundamental fact which each is trying to portray.

“Again, the mystics describe certain symptoms either as the necessary preliminaries or as the marks and fruits of the Unitive State, and these too may help us to fix its character. The chief, in fact the one essential, preliminary is that pure surrender of selfhood, or “self-naughting,” which the trials of the Dark Night tended to produce. … Only the thoroughly detached, “naughted soul” is “free,” says “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” and the Unitive State is essentially a state of free and filial participation in Eternal Life. The capital marks of the state itself are:

  1. a complete absorption in the interests of the Infinite, under whatever mode It is apprehended by the self;
  2. a consciousness of sharing Its strength, acting by Its authority, which results in a complete sense of freedom, an invulnerable serenity, and usually urges the self to some form of heroic effort or creative activity;
  3. the establishment of the self as a “power for life,” a centre of energy, an actual parent of spiritual vitality in other men.

“By assembling these symptoms and examining them, and the lives of those who exhibit them, in the light of psychology, we can surely get some news, however fragmentary, concerning the transcendent condition of being which involves these characteristic states and acts. … We will then consider the Unitive Life (1) As it appears from the standpoint of the psychologist. (2) As it is described to us by those mystics who use (a) the language of Deification, (b) that of Spiritual Marriage. (3) Finally, we will turn to those who have lived it; and try, if we can, to realize it as an organic whole.

(1) From the point of view of the pure psychologist, what do the varied phenomena of the Unitive Life, taken together, seem to represent? He would probably say that they indicate the final and successful establishment of that higher form of consciousness which has been struggling for supremacy during the whole of the Mystic Way. The deepest, richest levels of human personality have now attained to light and freedom. The self is remade, transformed, has at last unified itself; and with the cessation of stress, power has been liberated for new purposes.

“We give a philosophic content to this conception if we say further that man, in this Unitive State, by this substitution of the divine for the “primitive” self, has at last risen to true freedom, “entered on the fruition of reality.” Hence he has opened up new paths for the inflow of that Triumphing Power which is the very substance of the Real, has remade his consciousness, and in virtue of this total regeneration is “transplanted into that Universal Life, which is yet not alien but our own.” From contact set up with this Universal Life, this “Energetic Word of God, which nothing can contain” – from those deep levels of Being to which his shifting, growing personality is fully adapted at last – he draws that amazing strength, that immovable peace, that power of dealing with circumstance, which is one of the most marked characteristics of the Unitive Life.

“That secret and permanent personality of a superior type” which gave to the surface-self constant and ever more insistent intimations of its existence at every stage of the mystic’s growth – his real, eternal self – has now consciously realized its destiny, and begins at last fully to be. In the travail of the Dark Night it has conquered and invaded the last recalcitrant elements of character. It is no more limited to acts of profound perception, overpowering intuitions of the Absolute; no more dependent for its emergence on the psychic states of contemplation and ecstasy. Anima and Animus are united. The mystic has at last resolved the Stevensonian paradox; and is not truly two, but truly one.

(2) The mystic, I think, would acquiesce in these descriptions, so far as they go, but he would probably translate them into his own words and gloss them with an explanation which is beyond the power and province of psychology. He would say that his long-sought correspondence with Transcendental Reality, his union with God, has now been finally established, that his self, though intact, is wholly penetrated – as a sponge by the sea – by the Ocean of Life and Love to which he has attained.

“I live, yet not I but God in me.”

He is conscious that he is now at length cleansed of the last stains of separation, and has become, in a mysterious manner, “that which he beholds.” In the words of the Sufi poet, the mystic’s journey is now prosecuted not only to God but in God. He has entered the Eternal Order, attained here and now the state to which the Magnet of the Universe draws every living thing. Moving through periods of alternate joy and anguish, as his spiritual self woke, stretched, and was tested in the complementary fires of love and pain, he was inwardly conscious that he moved towards a definite objective. In so far as he was a great mystic, he was also conscious that this objective was no mere act of knowing, however intense, exultant, and sublime, but a condition of being, fulfilment of that love which impelled him, steadily and inexorably, to his own place.”

Next time we continue to explore Deification in Union

Image: Lisa Fotios

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