Characteristics of Mysticism, Part 3: Practical Spiritual Activity

Last time we looked at the difficulties mystics have expressing their experiences, and introduced the four characteristics of mysticism. In part three of our extracts from Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, she goes into more detail about the first two characteristics. Extract:

“(1) Mysticism is practical, not theoretical.

“This statement, taken alone, is not, of course, enough to identify mysticism; since it is equally true of magic, which also proposes to itself something to be done rather than something to be believed. It at once comes into collision, however, with the opinions of those who believe mysticism to be “the reaction of the born Platonist upon religion.”

“The difference between such devout philosophers and the true mystic, is the difference which George Tyrrell held to distinguish revelation from theology. Mysticism, like revelation, is final and personal. It is not merely a beautiful and suggestive diagram but experience in its most intense form. That experience, in the words of Plotinus, is the soul’s solitary adventure: “the flight of the Alone to the Alone.” It provides the material, the substance, upon which mystical philosophy cogitates; as theologians cogitate upon the revelation which forms the basis of faith.

“Hence those whom we are to accept as mystics must have received, and acted upon, intuitions of a Truth which is for them absolute. If we are to acknowledge that they “knew the doctrine” they must have “lived the life”; submitted to the interior travail of the Mystic Way, not merely have reasoned about the mystical experiences of others.

“We could not well dispense with our Christian Platonists and mystical philosophers. They are our stepping-stones to higher things; interpret to our dull minds, entangled in the sense-world, the ardent vision of those who speak to us from the dimension of Reality. But they are no more mystics than the milestones on the Dover Road are travellers to Calais.

“Sometimes their words – the wistful words of those who know but cannot be – produce mystics; as the sudden sight of a signpost pointing to the sea will rouse the spirit of adventure in a boy. Also there are many instances of true mystics, such as Eckhart, who have philosophized upon their own experiences, greatly to the advantage of the world; and others – Plotinus is the most characteristic example – of Platonic philosophers who have passed far beyond the limits of their own philosophy, and abandoned the making of diagrams for an experience, however imperfect, of the reality at which these diagrams hint. It were more accurate to reverse the epigram above stated, and say, that Platonism is the reaction of the intellectualist upon mystical truth.

“Over and over again the great mystics tell us, not how they speculated, but how they acted. To them, the transition from the life of sense to the life of spirit is a formidable undertaking, which demands effort and constancy. The paradoxical “quiet” of the contemplative is but the outward stillness essential to inward work. Their favourite symbols are those of action: battle, search, and pilgrimage.

“In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be,”

said St. John of the Cross, in his poem of the mystic quest. … “Let no one suppose,” says the “Theologia Germanica,” “that we may attain to this true light and perfect knowledge…by hearsay, or by reading and study, nor yet by high skill and great learning.” …

“Those who suppose mystical experience to be merely a pleasing consciousness of the Divine in the world, a sense of the “otherness” of things, a basking in the beams of the Uncreated Light, are only playing with Reality. True mystical achievement is the most complete and most difficult expression of life which is as yet possible to man.

“It is at once an act of love, an act of surrender, and an act of supreme perception; a trinity of experiences which meets and satisfies the three activities of the self. Religion might give us the first and metaphysics the third of these processes. Only Mysticism can offer the middle term of the series; the essential link which binds the three in one. “Secrets,” says St. Catherine of Siena, “are revealed to a friend who has become one thing with his friend and not to a servant.”

“(2) Mysticism is an entirely Spiritual Activity.

“This rule provides us with a further limitation, which of course excludes all the practisers of magic and of magical religion: even in their most exalted and least materialistic forms. As we shall see when we come to consider these persons, their object–not necessarily an illegitimate one–is to improve and elucidate the visible by help of the invisible: to use the supernormal powers of the self for the increase of power, virtue, happiness or knowledge.

“The mystic never turns back on himself in this way, or tries to combine the advantages of two worlds. At the term of his development he knows God by communion, and this direct intuition of the Absolute kills all lesser cravings. He possesses God, and needs nothing more. Though he will spend himself unceasingly for other men, become “an agent of the Eternal Goodness,” he is destitute of supersensual ambitions and craves no occult knowledge or power.

“Having his eyes set on eternity, his consciousness steeped in it, he can well afford to tolerate the entanglements of time. “His spirit,” says Tauler, “is as it were sunk and lost in the Abyss of the Deity, and loses the consciousness of all creature-distinctions. All things are gathered together in one with the divine sweetness, and the man’s being is so penetrated with the divine substance that he loses himself therein, as a drop of water is lost in a cask of strong wine. And thus the man’s spirit is so sunk in God in divine union, that he loses all sense of distinction …and there remains a secret, still union, without cloud or colour.”

“I wish not,” said St. Catherine of Genoa, “for anything that comes forth from Thee, but only for Thee, oh sweetest Love!” “Whatever share of this world,” says Rabi’a, “Thou dost bestow on me, bestow it on Thine enemies, and whatever share of the next world thou dost give me, give it to Thy friends. Thou art enough for me!

“The Soul,” says Plotinus in one of his most profound passages, “having now arrived at the desired end, and participating of Deity, will know that the Supplier of true life is then present. She will likewise then require nothing farther; for, on the contrary it will be requisite to lay aside other things, to stop in this alone, amputating everything else with which she is surrounded.”

In part four, we’ll look at the third characteristic: the business and method of mysticism is Love.


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