Evelyn Underhill – Demystifying Mysticism

I’ve begun reading some of the works of Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican writer on mysticism, a novelist, a metaphysical poet, and a student of Baron Friedrich von Hügel. Early in the Twentieth Century she wrote many books on mysticism, some of which go a long way to demystify it (if you’ll pardon the pun).

In the first chapter of Mystics of the Church she gives a useful description of the words “mystic” and “mystical”:

“Mystic” and “mysticism” are words which meet us constantly in all books that deal with religious experience; and indeed in many books which do not treat of religion at all. They are generally so vaguely and loosely used that they convey no precise meaning to our minds. and have now come to be perhaps the most ambigous terms in the whole vocabulary of religion. Any vague sense of spiritual things, any sort of symbolism, any hazy allegorical painting, any poetry which deals with the soul – worse than that, all sorts of superstitions and magical practices – may be, and often are, decribed as “mystical”. A word so generalized seems almost to have lost its meaning; and indeed, not one of these uses of “Mysticism” is correct, though the persons to whom they are applied may in some instances be mystics.

Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or expereince of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centred, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which he regards as first-hand personal knowledge. In Greek religion, from which the word comes to us, the myste were those initiates of the “mysteries” who were believed to have received the vision of the god, and with it a new and higher life. When the Christian Church adopted this term it adopted, too, this its original meaning. The Christian mystic therefore is one for whom God and Christ are not merely objects of belief, but living facts experimentally known at first-hand; and mysticism for him becomes, in so far as he responds to its demands, a life based on this conscious communion with God. It is found in experience that this communion, in all its various forms and degrees, is always a communion of love; and, in its perfection, so intimate and all-pervading that the word “union” describes it best. When St. Augustine said, “My life shall be a real life, being wholly full of Thee,” he described in these words the ideal of a true Christian mysticism.

So, there is nothing too esoteric here, nor magical, nor superstitious – just Christians desiring to be filled with God and to know him intimately – which is exactly what I find held out to me in the Gospels and the letters of the early church!

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