The Mystic Way 15: Spiritual Marriage and Joy

Last time we looked at the language of deification in the Unitive State. Here we finish the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism with the second style of language used by mystics to describe the experience of union, that of spiritual marriage, and explore the source of the mystic’s joy:

“At this point we begin to see that the language of deification, taken alone, will not suffice to describe the soul’s final experience of Reality. The personal and emotional aspect of man’s relation with his Source is also needed if that which he means by “union with God” is to be even partially expressed. Hence, even the most “transcendental” mystic is constantly compelled to fall back on the language of love in the endeavour to express the content of his metaphysical raptures, and forced in the end to acknowledge that the perfect union of Lover and Beloved cannot be suggested in the precise and arid terms of religious philosophy.

“Such arid language eludes the most dangerous aspects of “divine union,” the pantheistic on one hand, the “amoristic” on the other; but it also fails to express the most splendid side of that amazing experience. It needs some other, more personal and intimate vision to complete it, and this we shall find in the reports of those mystics of the “intimate” type to whom the Unitive Life has meant not self-loss in an Essence, but self-fulfilment in the union of heart and will.

“The extreme form of this kind of apprehension of course finds expression in the well-known and heartily abused symbolism of the Spiritual Marriage between God and the Soul, a symbolism which goes back to the Orphic Mysteries, and thence descended via the Neoplatonists into the stream of Christian tradition. But there are other and less concrete embodiments of it, wholly free from the dangers which are supposed to lurk in “erotic” imagery of this kind. Thus Jalalu ‘d Din, by the use of metaphors which are hardly human yet charged with passionate feeling, tells, no less successfully than the writer of the Song of Songs, the secret of “his union in which “heart speaks to heart.”

With Thy Sweet Soul, this soul of mine
Hath mixed as Water doth with Wine.
Who can the Wine and Water part,
Or me and Thee when we combine?
Thou art become my greater self;
Small bounds no more can me confine.
Thou hast my being taken on,
And shall not I now take on Thine?
Me Thou for ever hast affirmed
That I may ever know Thee mine
Thy Love has pierced me through and through,
Its thrill with Bone and Nerve entwine.
I rest a Flute laid on Thy lips;
A lute, I on Thy breast recline.
Breathe deep in me that I may sigh;
Yet strike my strings, and tears shall shine.”

“What the mystic here desires to tell us is that his new life is not only a free and conscious participation in the life of Eternity – a fully-established existence on real and transcendental levels – but also the conscious sharing of an inflowing personal life greater than his own; a tightening of the bonds of that companionship which has been growing in intimacy and splendour during the course of the Mystic Way. This companionship, at once the most actual and most elusive fact of human experience, is utterly beyond the resources of speech. So too are those mysteries of the communion of love, whereby the soul’s humble, active and ever-renewed self-donation becomes the occasion of her glory…

“The Mystic Way has been a progress, a growth in love, a deliberate fostering of the inward tendency of the soul towards its source, an eradication of its disorderly tendencies to “temporal goods.” But the only proper end of love is union: “a perfect uniting and coupling together of the lover and the loved into one.” It is “a unifying principle,” the philosophers say, life’s mightiest agent upon every plane.

“Moreover, just as earthly marriage is understood by the moral sense less as a satisfaction of personal desire, than as a part of the great process of life – the fusion of two selves for new purposes – so such spiritual marriage brings with it duties and obligations. With the attainment of a new order, the new infusion of vitality, comes a new responsibility, the call to effort and endurance on a new and mighty scale. It is not an act but a state. Fresh life is imparted, by which our lives are made complete; new creative powers are conferred. The self, lifted to the divine order, is to be an agent of the divine fecundity, an energizing centre, a parent of transcendental life.

“We find as a matter of fact, when we come to study the history of the mystics, that the permanent Unitive State, or spiritual marriage, does mean for those who attain to it, above all else such an access of creative vitality. It means man’s small derivative life invaded and enhanced by the Absolute Life, the appearance in human history of personalities and careers which seem superhuman when judged by the surface mind. Such activity, such a bringing forth of “the fruits of the Spirit,” may take many forms, but where it is absent, where we meet with personal satisfactions, personal visions or raptures – however sublime and spiritualized – presented as marks of the Unitive Way, ends or objects of the quest of Reality, we may be sure that we have wandered from the “strait and narrow road” which leads, not to eternal rest, but to Eternal Life. “The fourth degree of love is spiritually fruitful,” said Richard of St. Victor. Wherever we find a sterile love, a “holy passivity,” we are in the presence of quietistic heresy; not of the Unitive Life.

“When we look at the lives of the great theopathetic mystics, the true initiates of Eternity – inarticulate as these mystics often are – we find ourselves in the presence of an amazing, a superabundant vitality, of a “triumphing force” over which circumstance has no power. The incessant production of good works seems indeed to be the object of that Spirit, by Whose presence their interior castle is now filled. … We see St. Teresa, another born romantic, pass to the Unitive State after long and bitter struggles between her lower and higher personality. A chronic invalid over fifty years of age, weakened by long ill-health and the mortifications of the Purgative Way she deliberately breaks with her old career in obedience to the inward Voice, leaves her convent, and starts a new life: coursing through Spain, and reforming a great religious order in the teeth of the ecclesiastical world. Yet more amazing, St. Catherine of Siena, an illiterate daughter of the people, after a three years’ retreat consummates the mystic marriage, and emerges from the cell of self-knowledge to dominate the politics of Italy.

“This new, intense, and veritable life has other and even more vital characteristics than those which lead to “the performance of acts” or “the incessant production of good works.” It is, in an actual sense, … fertile, creative, as well as merely active. In the fourth degree of love, the soul brings forth its children. … The great unitive mystics are each of them the founders of spiritual families, centres wherefrom radiates new transcendental life. The “flowing light of the Godhead” is focussed in them, as in a lens, only that it may pass through them to spread out on every side. So, too, the great creative seers and artists are the parents, not merely of their own immediate works, but also of whole schools of art, whole groups of persons who acquire or inherit their vision of beauty or truth.

“Teresa finds the order of Mount Carmel hopelessly corrupt, its friars and nuns blind to reality, indifferent to the obligations of the cloistered life. She is moved by the Spirit to leave her convent and begin, in abject poverty, the foundation of new houses, where the most austere and exalted life of contemplation shall be led. She enters upon this task to the accompaniment of an almost universal mockery. Mysteriously, as she proceeds, novices of the spiritual life appear and cluster around her. They come into existence, one knows not how, in the least favourable of atmospheres…. They receive the infection of her abundant vitality; embrace eagerly and joyously the heroic life of the Reform. In the end, every city in Spain has within it Teresa’s spiritual children: a whole order of contemplatives, as truly born of her as if they were indeed her sons and daughters in the flesh.

“But the Unitive Life is more than the sum total of its symptoms, more than the heroic and apostolic life of the “great active”, more than the divine motherhood of new “sons and daughters of the Absolute.” These are only its outward signs, its expression in time and space. I have first laid stress upon that expression, because it is the side which all critics and some friends of the mystics persistently ignore. The contemplative’s power of living this intense and creative life within the temporal order, however, is tightly bound up with that other life in which he attains to complete communion with the Absolute Order, and submits to the inflow of its supernal vitality.

“In discussing the relation of the mystical experience to philosophy, we saw that the complete mystic consciousness, and therefore, of course, the complete mystic world, had a twofold character which could hardly be reconciled with the requirements of monism. It embraced a Reality which seems from the human standpoint at once static and dynamic, transcendent and immanent, eternal and temporal; accepted both the absolute World of Pure Being and the unresting World of Becoming as integral parts of its vision of Truth, demanding on its side a dual response. All through the Mystic Way we caught glimpses of the growth and exercise of this dual intuition of the Real. Now, the mature mystic, having come to his full stature, passed through the purifications of sense and of spirit and entered on his heritage, must and does take up as a part of that heritage not merely (a) a fruition of the Divine Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, his place within the Sempiternal Rose, nor (b) the creative activity of an agent of the Eternal Wisdom, still immersed in the River of Life, but both together – the twofold destiny of the spiritual man, called to “incarnate the Eternal in time.”

“In a deep sense it may be said of him that he now participates according to his measure in that divine-human life which mediates between man and the Eternal, and constitutes the “salvation of the world.” Therefore, though his outward heroic life of action, his divine fecundity, may seem to us the best evidence of his state, it is the inner knowledge of his mystical sonship whereby “we feel eternal life in us above all other thing,” which is for him the guarantee of absolute life. He has many ways of describing this central fact; this peculiar consciousness of his own transcendence, which coexists with, and depends on, a complete humility. Sometimes he says that whereas in the best moments of his natural life he was but the “faithful servant” of the eternal order, and in the illuminated way became its “secret friend,” he is now advanced to the final, most mysterious state of “hidden child.”

“Though the outer career of the great mystic, then, be one of superhuman industry, a long fight with evil and adversity, his real and inner life dwells securely upon the heights, in the perfect fruition which he can only suggest to us by the paradoxical symbols of ignorance and emptiness. He dominates existence because he thus transcends it: is a son of God, a member of the eternal order, shares its substantial life. …

“Those two aspects of truth which he has so clumsily classified as static and dynamic, as Being and Becoming, now find their final reconciliation within his own nature: for that nature has become conscious in all its parts, has unified itself about its highest elements. That strange, tormenting vision of a perfect peace, a joyous self-loss, annihilation in some mighty Life that overpassed his own, which haunts man throughout the whole course of his history, and finds a more or less distorted expression in all his creeds, a justification in all his ecstasies, is now traced to its source, and found to be the inevitable expression of an instinct by which he recognized, though he could not attain, the noblest part of his inheritance.

“That fruition of joy of which Ruysbroeck speaks in majestic phrases, as constituting the interior life of mystic souls immersed in the Absolute … is often realized in the secret experience of those same mystics, as the perennial possession of a childlike gaiety, an inextinguishable gladness of heart. The transfigured souls move to the measures of a “love dance” which persists in mirth without comparison, through every outward hardship and tribulation. They enjoy the high spirits peculiar to high spirituality, and shock the world by a delicate playfulness, instead of exhibiting the morose resignation which it feels to be proper to the “spiritual life.” Thus St. Catherine of Siena, though constantly suffering, “was always jocund and of a happy spirit.” When prostrate with illness she overflowed with gaiety and gladness, and “was full of laughter in the Lord, exultant and rejoicing.” Moreover, the most clear-sighted amongst the mystics declare such joy to be an implicit of Reality. Thus Dante, initiated into Paradise, sees the whole Universe laugh with delight as it glorifies God, and the awful countenance of Perfect Love adorned with smiles.

“The wheel of life has made its circle. … It has swept the soul of the mystic through periods of alternate stress and glory; tending ever to greater transcendence, greater freedom, closer contact with “the Supplier of true life.” He emerges from that long and wondrous journey to find himself in rest and in work, a little child upon the bosom of the Father. In that most dear relation all feeling, will, and thought attain their end. Here all the teasing complications of our separated selfhood are transcended. Hence the eager striving, the sharp vision, are not wanted any more. In that mysterious death of selfhood on the summits which is the medium of Eternal Life, heights meet the deeps; supreme achievement and complete humility are one.

“In a last brief vision, a glimpse as overpowering to our common minds as Dante’s final intuition of reality to his exalted and courageous soul, we see the triumphing spirit, sent out before us the best that earth can offer, stoop and strip herself of the insignia of wisdom and power. Achieving the highest, she takes the lowest place. Initiated into the atmosphere of Eternity, united with the Absolute, possessed at last of the fullness of Its life, the soul, self-naughted becomes as a little child; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”


Read the complete chapter on the Unitive Life here or read the whole of this series here: The Mystic Way

More on Mysticism: The Characteristics of Mysticism series


  1. I love this!
    //It embraced a Reality which seems from the human standpoint at once static and dynamic, transcendent and immanent, eternal and temporal; accepted both the absolute World of Pure Being and the unresting World of Becoming as integral parts of its vision of Truth, demanding on its side a dual response.//

    Makes me think of this song from Gordon Lightfoot’s 18th original album, released in 1993;

    There’s a kind of a restless feeling and it catches you off guard
    As we gaze off at the distance through the trees in my back yard
    I can feel that restless yearning of those geese as off they roam
    Then trade that for a warm bed and a place I can call home

    Liked by 1 person

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