Saturday Ramble: Do you know Evelyn Underhill?
Alas, hardly anyone does nowadays, so your ignorance is forgiven.
This year is the 70th anniversary of her death, which means few of us are old enough to have known her personally. The occasional assiduous scholar might recognise the name through her books, which are still available if you know where to look. Otherwise, she has entered the realm of darkness. An undeserved fate.
Some years ago I wrote an essay on Evelyn Underhill and recently reused it in a book*. Time for a third outing, I think:
An almost perfect example of the Indian term, a “householder-mystic” is Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), author of Mysticism (1911), Practical Mysticism (1914), Worship (1936) and dozens of literary pieces of many kinds.
She was at first a Neoplatonist, and even flirted with the occult Golden Dawn, which was more famous for its personnel — W.B. Yeats, Arthur Waite, Arthur Machen, Aleister Crowley — than its mysticism.
Despite being brought up as an Anglican, her early Christian leanings were to Rome and the Romantic. Resisting the former, she eventually settled for a committed role in the Church of England as a lay retreat director and, to many people, a sage.
Although Evelyn had a large number of critics, especially among theologians, she largely stuck to her guns throughout her life, and only became “respectable” towards the end following a natural process of evolution and maturity. She was rarely knocked off course by the back-biting and jealousy which any literary success, of which she had plenty, often brings in its wake. Fiercely honest with herself, in later years she was described as serene and “giving off light” as she entered a room, a description which jars somewhat with the occasionally anguished contents of her notebooks and private correspondence.
Her life was fairly typical of an upper-middle class woman in the Edwardian era. She enjoyed a comfortable house in London, with servants to take care of her domestic needs, and could easily have taken the path of least resistance and dissolved into an agreeable round of social calls and charity work. That she escaped this snare, is tribute either to her demons or, more likely, to a call from the spirit which impelled her to work in the mystical field.
Said Lord Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury: “I think that in the twenties and thirties there were few, if indeed any, in the Church of England who did more to help people to grasp the priority of prayer in the Christian life and the place of the contemplative within it.”
Evelyn’s mystical experiences are not well documented in her writings or general correspondence, and she admits to a use of imagination when describing the later stages of contemplative practice. One can assume however, that such a driving, all-absorbing passion for the mystical in life was not an accident, and has behind it a corpus of experiential knowledge which guided her path. The letters to her early spiritual director, Baron von Hugel, are the best source of information about her personal spiritual life. The following (quoted by J.R. Armstrong) gives a taste of her attitudes:
Probably I ought to tell you this. Last October, one day when I was praying, quite suddenly a voice seemed to speak to me — with tremendous staccato sharpness & clearness. It only said one short thing; first in Latin & then in English! Please don’t think I’m going in for psychic automatisms or horrors of that sort. It never happened since & I don’t want it to. Of course, I know all about the psychological aspect & am not ‘hallucinated’. All the same, I simply cannot believe that there was not something deeper, more real, not me at all, behind. The effect was terrific. Sort of nailed me to the floor for half an hour, which went in a flash. I felt definitively called-out & settled once for all — that any falling back or leaving off after that will be an unpardonable treason. This sense has persisted. … A terrible, overwhelming suspicion that after all my whole ‘spiritual experience’ may only be subjective. There are times (of course when one has got it) when it seems incredible these things could happen to me, considering where I have been.”
Her notebook continues the theme: “Such lights as one gets are now different in type: All overwhelming in their emotional result: quite independent of ‘sensible devotion’, more quiet, calm, expansive, like intellectual intuitions yet not quite that either. Thus yesterday I saw & felt how it actually is, that we are in Christ & He in us — the interpenetration of Spirit — & all of us merged together in him actually, & so fitly described as his body. The way to full intercessory power must I think be along this path …
And again: “… the Spirit of Christ came right into my soul — as it were transfusing it in every part. How could I imagine this? I was not excited but deeply happy & awed. So intimate all-penetrating, humbling. Lasted a very little time. Far closer than even the best communions.”
In her book Mysticism, she demonstrates a clear understanding of the processes of nirvanic experience, as is show here: “… by a deliberate inattention to the messages of the senses, such as that which is induced by contemplation, the mystic brings the ground of the soul, the seat of ‘Transcendental Feeling’, within the area of consciousness: making it amenable to the activity of the will. The contemplative subject, becoming unaware of his usual and largely fictitious ‘external world’, another and more substantial set of perceptions, which never have their chance under normal conditions, rise to the surface. Sometimes these unite with the normal reasoning faculties. More often, they supersede them. Some such exchange, such as ‘losing to find’, appears to be necessary, if man’s transcendental powers are to have their full chance.”
These experiences and ideas are difficult to interpret because of Evelyn’s basic character and way of expression, although one of the events described sounds remarkably like the Prayer of Quiet (in Catholic nomenclature) — often called the divine light. Another seems similar to the next stage of progress: seeing into the nature of reality.
Hers was an essentially romantic temperament and, on the face of it, the incidents described do have an emotional frisson which tends to suggest a strong psychic rather than purely spiritual component. However, her intellectual honesty made her wary of drawing too flamboyant a conclusion from them. At some point in the correspondence she outlined three reasons for not dismissing them out of hand:
1. That they were given, rather than earned, and were quite unexpected.
2. “Overwhelming sense of certitude, objective reality & obligation.”
3. “That I have never tried to either obtain or retain them, & know any such effort would be useless.”
Her mysticism was empirical rather than academic, received not striven for, and theocentric. One feels she was not, deep down, a total Christian in the sense of exclusivity, although she quite plainly admired many aspects of Christianity, especially the liturgical side of High Anglicanism and the Roman Church. She listed four characteristics of mystical consciousness:
1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion [This has a lot in common with the work of her illustrious contemporary, Carl Jung].
2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. The mystic brushes aside that universe, even in its supernormal manifestations. Though he does not, as his enemies declare, neglect his duty to the many, his heart is always set upon the changeless One.
3. This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of love; never an object of exploration. It draws his whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart.
4. Living union with this One — which is the term of his adventure — is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realisation of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. Though these must be present, they are not enough. It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process — the so-called Mystic Way — entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness …”
Taken overall, Evelyn’s life was a splendid one from an unlikely quarter. Her “big” book, which made her famous, Mysticism, has lasted well, even though its prose style seems now rather arch and slightly theosophical. It remains required reading for those of us interested in the subject. A 1993 reprinting of the 12th edition is now available. A Kindle version for the eReader, or Kindle for PC, is available from Amazon for the princely sum of £1.45. Was there ever such a bargain?
Her last major work, Worship, written when her health was failing fast, is an extraordinary achievement of scholarship (never her best side), and a suitable valedictory gift from a fine mystical contemplative who understood that our immortality really is staring us in the face.
* John Evans is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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