Commemoration of Evelyn Underhill, mystic
Psalm 37:3-6, 32-33
Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. -- Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism
Mysticism is defined as a union with the transcendent or the ultimate reality of God, something people like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, William Law, Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underwood experienced and understood. To be joined with God, to be possessed completely by God, even if for a short period of time, marked them and changed them like a match changes a candle from a pile of wax to a source of light.
I guess I generally think of mystics as people with pious expressions, eyes cast upward as if to catch a glimpse of an angel's wing or a holy vision and with some sort of aura that kind of identifies them as something out of the ordinary. Maybe my view of mystics comes from seeing too many paintings, icons or holy cards, but that's how they all seem to be portrayed. What's easy to forget when I see them or read their words is that they are/were real human beings in many ways no different than a lot of people. It was their connectedness and response to God that separated them from the rest of us who don't get it, don't have it or don't know it can be part of our own lives.
Underhill was very much a part of the world of her time first as a daughter and then as a wife. There was, however, a growing contemplative side to her that led her to become a very popular retreat leader and respected writer as well as a mystic. Incorporating psychology with spirituality, her books have been read and re-read for the past century as authoritative resources on mysticism and the contemplative life not necessarily lived inside the cloister. Mysticism, written in 1911, is still considered one of the classics, if not the greatest, books on the subject. Looking at photographs of her, there are no eyes raised to heaven, no halo, no prayerfully-posed hands, just an image of a woman of her time, dressed as expected of one of her station in life, and with an honest, straight-forward gaze that seems able to see what is clearly in front of her eyes but also something greater beyond that. I wonder what it would have been like to have been a participant in one of the many spiritual retreats she directed. Luckily, some of those retreats have been captured on paper and are available for reading and study.
Being a mystic isn't something that you just wake up one morning and decide to be. I don't think any mystic in history has ever really done that or even said they wanted to be a mystic when they grew up. Julian of Norwich, one of the church's favorite mystics, had her visions during a serious illness. Others have received them after periods of prayer, fasting, even physical penance. Some can be somewhat embarrassing to onlookers such as when Margery Kempe's copious bouts of weeping broke out as she contemplated the Eucharist, Jesus on the cross and any number of holy incidents and locations.
Mysticism is as much discipline as desire; it is a state that God chooses to bestow but one which the person must do some ground work first. One of the first steppingstones is the development of the contemplative life, one where prayer and study are balanced with work and action whether the person is cloistered in a convent or monastery or quietly living a contemplative life in the middle of a noisy and busy world. Not every contemplative will become a mystic, but every mystic will have roots of contemplation in their souls.
I'm pretty sure I've met an honest-to-God mystic in the guise of a Russian Orthodox priest who, to my eyes anyway, seemed to glow from within and it seemed I could almost see that God's finger very firmly planted on the top of his head. There was no sign that said "Meet the Mystic" but there was definitely a sense of meeting the reality of God through the experience. I may have had a very brief mystical experience myself although the realist in me says it was probably a short circuit or a momentary blockage of a blood vessel or maybe even a performance high (I was singing at the time). But maybe it was something else, something more -- holy? With both experiences though I've felt God's immediate presence and often wish I were given more like them. Perhaps I have been but without being in tune enough to recognize them.
I think that's what Underhill's mysticism is about -- learning to recognize the mystery and to feel oneself totally joined in heart, mind and purpose with the Divine. That's something anybody can do, even me. If I'm willing to put some effort into it by learning to be more contemplative, more prayerful and maybe more alert to glimpses of angels' wings or feelings of transcendence then maybe, just maybe, one day I could be a mystic too.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 15, 2013, under the title "Evelyn Underhill, mystic."