Characteristics of Mysticism, Part 2: Ineffable Reality and Symbolism

Last time we looked at the differences between mysticism and magic, as explained by Evelyn Underhill in Mysticism. In part two, we continue the extracts with a look at why mystics have such trouble expressing their experiences in words, and introduce the four characteristics of mysticism. Extract:

“The greatest mystics, – Ruysbroeck, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa herself in her later stages – distinguish clearly between the ineffable Reality which they perceive and the image under which they describe it. Again and again they tell us with Dionysius and Eckhart, that the Object of their contemplation “hath no image”: or with St. John of the Cross that “the soul can never attain to the height of the divine union, so far as it is possible in this life, through the medium of any forms or figures.” Therefore the attempt which has sometimes been made to identify mysticism with such forms and figures – with visions, voices, “supernatural favours” and other abnormal phenomena – is clearly wrong. …

“The mystic, as a rule, cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some side-long way, some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader, and convey, as all poetic language does, something beyond its surface sense. Hence the large part which is played in all mystical writings by symbolism and imagery; and also by that rhythmic and exalted language which induces in sensitive persons something of the languid ecstasy of dream. …

“All kinds of symbolic language come naturally to the articulate mystic, who is often a literary artist as well: so naturally, that he sometimes forgets to explain that his utterance is but symbolic – a desperate attempt to translate the truth of that world into the beauty of this. It is here that mysticism joins hands with music and poetry: had this fact always been recognized by its critics, they would have been saved from many regrettable and some ludicrous misconceptions.

“Symbol – the clothing which the spiritual borrows from the material plane – is a form of artistic expression. That is to say, it is not literal but suggestive: though the artist who uses it may sometimes lose sight of this distinction. Hence the persons who imagine that the “Spiritual Marriage” of St. Catherine or St. Teresa veils a perverted sexuality, that the vision of the Sacred Heart involved an incredible anatomical experience, or that the divine inebriation of the Sufis is the apotheosis of drunkenness, do but advertise their ignorance of the mechanism of the arts: like the lady who thought that Blake must be mad because he said that he had touched the sky with his finger.

“Further, the study of the mystics, the keeping company however humbly with their minds, brings with it as music or poetry does–but in a far greater degree – a strange exhilaration, as if we were brought near to some mighty source of Being, were at last on the verge of the secret which all seek. The symbols displayed, the actual words employed, when we analyse them, are not enough to account for such effect. It is rather that these messages from the waking transcendental self of another, stir our own deeper selves in their sleep. It were hardly an extravagance to say, that those writings which are the outcome of true and first-hand mystical experience may be known by this power of imparting to the reader the sense of exalted and extended life.

“All mystics,” says Saint-Martin, “speak the same language, for they come from the same country.” The deep undying life within us came from that country too: and it recognizes the accents of home, though it cannot always understand what they would say.

“Now, returning to our original undertaking, that of defining if we can the characteristics of true mysticism, I think that we have already reached a point at which William James’s celebrated “four marks” of the mystic state, Ineffability, Noetic Quality, Transiency, and Passivity, will fail to satisfy us. In their place I propose to set out, illustrate and, I hope, justify four other rules or notes which may be applied as tests to any given case which claims to take rank amongst the mystics.

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.

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 realization 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; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called “ecstasy,” but is better named the Unitive State.

“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.

“The movement of the mystic consciousness towards this consummation, is not merely the sudden admission to an overwhelming vision of Truth: though such dazzling glimpses may from time to time be vouchsafed to the soul. It is rather an ordered movement towards ever higher levels of reality, ever closer identification with the Infinite. …

“The history of mysticism is the history of the demonstration of this law upon the plane of reality.”


In part three, we’ll explore the first two characteristics of mysticism as a practical spiritual activity.

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