Characteristics of Mysticism, Part 5: Inner Transformation

Last time we looked at the third characteristic of mystical love. In part five, we continue the extracts from Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, and explore the final characteristic: the need for selfless devotion to a profound inner transformation. Extract:

“(4) Mysticism entails a definite Psychological Experience.

“That is to say, it shows itself not merely as an attitude of mind and heart, but as a form of organic life. It is not only a theory of the intellect or a hunger, however passionate, of the heart. It involves the organizing of the whole self, conscious and unconscious, under the spur of such a hunger: a remaking of the whole character on high levels in the interests of the transcendental life. The mystics are emphatic in their statement that spiritual desires are useless unless they initiate this costly movement of the whole self towards the Real.

“Thus in the visions of Mechthild of Magdeburg, “The soul spake thus to her Desire, ‘Fare forth and see where my Love is. Say to him that I desire to love.’ So Desire sped forth, for she is quick of her nature, and came to the Empyrean and cried, ‘Great Lord, open and let me in!’ Then said the Householder of that place: ‘What means this fiery eagerness?’ Desire replied, ‘Lord I would have thee know that my lady can no longer bear to live. If Thou wouldst flow forth to her, then might she swim: but the fish cannot long exist that is left stranded on the shore.’ ‘Go back,’ said the Lord, ‘I will not let thee in unless thou bring to me that hungry soul, for it is in this alone that I take delight.'”

“… There are two distinct sides to the full mystical experience. (A) The vision or consciousness of Absolute Perfection. (B) The inward transmutation to which that Vision compels the mystic, in order that he may be to some extent worthy of that which he has beheld: may take his place within the order of Reality. He has seen the Perfect; he wants to be perfect too. The “third term,” the necessary bridge between the Absolute and the Self, can only, he feels, be moral and spiritual transcendence … for “the only means of attaining the Absolute lies in adapting ourselves to It.”

“The moral virtues are for him, then, the obligatory “ornaments of the Spiritual Marriage” as Ruysbroeck called them: though far more than their presence is needed to bring that marriage about. Unless this impulse for moral perfection be born in him, this travail of the inner life begun, he is no mystic: though he may well be a visionary, a prophet, a “mystical” poet.

“Moreover, this process of transmutation, this rebuilding of the self on higher levels, will involve the establishment within the field of consciousness, the making “central for life,” of those subconscious spiritual perceptions which are the primary material of mystical experience. The end and object of this “inward alchemy” will be the raising of the whole self to the condition in which conscious and permanent union with the Absolute takes place and man, ascending to the summit of his manhood, enters into that greater life for which he was made.

“In its journey towards this union, the subject commonly passes through certain well-marked phases, which constitute what is known as the “Mystic Way.” This statement rules out from the true mystic kingdom all merely sentimental and affective piety and visionary poetry, no less than mystical philosophy. It brings us back to our first proposition – the concrete and practical nature of the mystical act.

“More than the apprehension of God, then, more than the passion for the Absolute, is needed to make a mystic. These must be combined with an appropriate psychological make-up, with a nature capable of extraordinary concentration, an exalted moral emotion, a nervous organization of the artistic type. All these are necessary to the successful development of the mystic life process. In the experience of those mystics who have left us the records of their own lives, the successive stages of this life process are always traceable. …

“Though we may be amazed and delighted by his adventures and discoveries on the way, to him the voyage and the end are all. “The road on which we enter is a royal road which leads to heaven,” says St. Teresa. “Is it strange that the conquest of such a treasure should cost us rather dear?”

“It is one of the many indirect testimonies to the objective reality of mysticism that the stages of this road, the psychology of the spiritual ascent, as described to us by different schools of contemplatives, always present practically the same sequence of states. The “school for saints” has never found it necessary to bring its curriculum up to date.

“The psychologist finds little difficulty, for instance, in reconciling the “Degrees of Orison” described by St. Teresa – Recollection, Quiet, Union, Ecstasy, Rapt, the “Pain of God,” and the Spiritual Marriage of the soul – with the four forms of contemplation enumerated by Hugh of St. Victor, or the Sufi’s “Seven Stages” of the soul’s ascent to God, which begin in adoration and end in spiritual marriage. Though each wayfarer may choose different landmarks, it is clear from their comparison that the road is one.

“(5) As a corollary to these four rules, it is perhaps well to reiterate the statement already made, that True Mysticism is never self-seeking. It is not, as many think, the pursuit of supernatural joys; the satisfaction of a high ambition. The mystic does not enter on his quest because he desires the happiness of the Beatific Vision, the ecstasy of union with the Absolute, or any other personal reward. That noblest of all passions, the passion for perfection for Love’s sake, far outweighs the desire for transcendental satisfaction.

“O Love,” said St. Catherine of Genoa, “I do not wish to follow thee for sake of these delights, but solely from the motive of true love.” Those who do otherwise are only, in the plain words of St. John of the Cross, “spiritual gluttons”; or, in the milder metaphor here adopted, magicians of the more high-minded sort. The true mystic claims no promises and makes no demands. He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.

“He never rests in that search for God which he holds to be the fulfilment of his highest duty; yet he seeks without any certainty of success. He holds with St. Bernard that “He alone is God who can never be sought in vain: not even when He cannot be found.” With Mechthild of Magdeburg, he hears the Absolute saying in his soul, “O soul, before the world was I longed for thee: and I still long for thee, and thou for Me. Therefore, when our two desires unite, Love shall be fulfilled.”

“Like his type, the “devout lover” of romance, then, the mystic serves without hope of reward. By one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life, he obtains satisfaction because he does not seek it; completes his personality because he gives it up. “Attainment,” says Dionysius the Areopagite in words which are writ large on the annals of Christian ecstasy, “comes only by means of this sincere, spontaneous, and entire surrender of yourself and all things.” Only with the annihilation of selfhood comes the fulfilment of love. …

“Mysticism, then, is seen as the “one way out” for the awakened spirit of man; healing that human incompleteness which is the origin of our divine unrest. “I am sure,” says Eckhart, “that if a soul knew the very least of all that Being means, it would never turn away from it.” The mystics have never turned away: to do so would have seemed to them a self-destructive act. …

“A discussion of mysticism, regarded as a form of human life, will therefore include two branches. First the life process of the mystic: the remaking of his personality; the method by which his peculiar consciousness of the Absolute is attained, and faculties which have been evolved to meet the requirements of the phenomenal, are enabled to do work on the transcendental, plane. This is the “Mystic Way” in which the self passes through the states or stages of development which were codified by the Neoplatonists, and after them by the mediaeval mystics, as Purgation, Illumination, and Ecstasy.

“Secondly, the content of the mystical field of perception; the revelation under which the contemplative becomes aware of the Absolute. This will include a consideration of the so called doctrines of mysticism: the attempts of the articulate mystic to sketch for us the world into which he has looked, in language which is only adequate to the world in which the rest of us dwell.

“Here the difficult question of symbolism, and of symbolic theology, comes in: a point upon which many promising expositions of the mystics have been wrecked. It will be our business to strip off as far as may be the symbolic wrapping, and attempt a synthesis of these doctrines; to resolve the apparent contradictions of objective and subjective revelations, of the ways of negation and affirmation, emanation and immanence, surrender and deification, the Divine Dark and the Inward Light; and finally to exhibit if we can, the essential unity of that experience in which the human soul enters consciously into the Presence of God.”


Later, we’ll look at the phases of the mystical life described by Evelyn Underhill as The Mystic Way.

You can read the whole book here:

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