Evelyn Underhill

Practical Mysticism

Chapter 8: The Second Form of Contemplation

Evelun Underhill

AND HERE," SAYS RUYSBROECK of the self which has reached this point, "there begins a hunger and a thirst which shall never more be stilled."

In the First Form of Contemplation that self has been striving to know better its own natural plane of existence. It has stretched out the feelers of its intuitive love into the general stream of duration of which it is a part.

Breaking down the fences of personality, merging itself in a larger consciousness, it has learned to know the World of Becoming from within — as a citizen, a member of the great society of life, not merely as a spectator.

But the more deeply and completely you become immersed in and aware of this life, the greater the extension of your consciousness; the more insistently will rumours and intimations of a higher plane of experience, a closer unity and more complete synthesis, begin to besiege you.

You feel that hitherto you have received the messages of life in a series of disconnected words and notes, from which your mind constructed as best it could certain coherent sentences and tunes, laws, classifications, relations, and the rest. But now you reach out towards the ultimate sentence and melody, which exist independently of your own constructive efforts; and realise that the words and notes which so often puzzled you by displaying an intensity that exceeded the demands of your little world, only have beauty and meaning just because and in so far as you discern them to be the partial expressions of a greater whole which is still beyond your reach.

You have long been like a child tearing up the petals of flowers in order to make a mosaic on the garden path; and the results of this murderous diligence you mistook for a knowledge of the world. When the bits fitted with unusual exactitude, you called it science.

Now at last you have perceived the greater truth and loveliness of the living plant from which you broke them: have, in fact, entered into direct communion with it, "united" with its reality. But this very recognition of the living growing plant does and must entail for you a consciousness of deeper realities, which, as yet, you have not touched: of the intangible things and forces which feed and support it; of the whole universe that touches you through its life.

A mere cataloguing of all the plants — though this were far better than your old game of indexing your own poor photographs of them — will never give you access to the Unity, the Fact, whatever it may be, which manifests itself through them. To suppose that it can do so is the cardinal error of the "nature mystic": an error parallel with that of the psychologist who looks for the soul in "psychic states."

The deeper your realisation of the plant in its wonder, the more perfect your union with the world of growth and change, the quicker, the more subtle your response to its countless suggestions; so much the more acute will become your craving for Something More. You will now find and feel the Infinite and Eternal, making as it were veiled and sacramental contacts with you under these accidents — through these its ceaseless creative activities — and you will want to press through and beyond them, to a fuller realisation of, a more perfect and unmediated union with, the Substance of all That is.

With the great widening and deepening of your life that has ensued from the abolition of a narrow selfhood, your entrance into the larger consciousness of living things, there has necessarily come to you an instinctive knowledge of a final and absolute group-relation, transcending and including all lesser unions in its sweep. To this, the second stage of contemplation, in which human consciousness enters into its peculiar heritage, something within you now seems to urge you on.

If you obey this inward push, pressing forward with the "sharp dart of your longing love," forcing the point of your wilful attention further and further into the web of things, such an ever-deepening realisation, such an extension of your conscious life, will indeed become possible to you.

Nothing but your own apathy, your feeble and limited desire, limits this realisation. Here there is a strict relation between demand and supply — your achievement shall be in proportion to the greatness of your desire. The fact, and the inpressing energy of the Reality without does not vary. Only the extent to which you are able to receive it depends upon your courage and generosity, the measure in which you give yourself to its embrace.

Those minds which set a limit to their self-donation must feel as they attain it, not a sense of satisfaction but a sense of constriction. It is useless to offer your spirit a garden — even a garden inhabited by saints and angels — and pretend that it has been made free of the universe. You will not have peace until you do away with all banks and hedges, and exchange the garden for the wilderness that is unwalled; that wild strange place of silence where "lovers lose themselves."

Yet you must begin this great adventure humbly; and take, as Julian of Norwich did, the first stage of your new outwardgoing journey along the road that lies nearest at hand. When Julian looked with the eye of contemplation upon the "little thing" which revealed to her the oneness of the created universe, her deep and loving sight perceived in it successively three properties, which she expressed as well as she might under the symbols of her own theology:

"The first is that God made it; the second is that God loveth it; the third is that God keepeth it."

Here are three phases in the everwidening contemplative apprehension of Reality. Not three opinions, but three facts, for which she struggles to find words. The first is that each separate living thing, budding "like an hazel nut" upon the tree of life and there destined to mature, age, and die, is the outbirth of another power, of a creative push: that the World of Becoming in all its richness and variety is not ultimate, but formed by Something other than, and utterly transcendent to, itself.

This, of course, the religious mind invariably takes for granted: but we are concerned with immediate experience rather than faith. To feel and know those two aspects of Reality which we call "created" and "uncreated," nature and spirit — to be as sharply aware of them, as sure of them, as we are of land and sea — is to be made free of the supersensual world.

It is to stand for an instant at the Poet's side, and see that Poem of which you have deciphered separate phrases in the earlier form of contemplation. Then you were learning to read: and found in the words, the lines, the stanzas, an astonishing meaning and loveliness. But how much greater the significance of every detail would appear to you, how much more truly you would possess its life, were you acquainted with the Poem: not as a mere succession of such lines and stanzas, but as a nonsuccessional whole.

From this Julian passes to that deeper knowledge of the heart which comes from a humble and disinterested acceptance of life; that this Creation, this whole changeful natural order, with all its apparent collisions, cruelties, and waste, yet springs from an ardour, an immeasurable love, a perpetual donation, which generates it, upholds it, drives it; for "allthing hath the being by the love of God."

Blake's anguished question here receives its answer: the Mind that conceived the lamb conceived the tiger too.

Everything, says Julian in effect, whether gracious, terrible, or malignant, is enwrapped in love: and is part of a world produced, not by mechanical necessity, but by passionate desire. Therefore nothing can really be mean, nothing despicable; nothing, however perverted, irredeemable. The blasphemous otherworldliness of the false mystic who conceives of matter as an evil thing and flies from its "deceits," is corrected by this loving sight.

Hence, the more beautiful and noble a thing appears to us, the more we love it, so much the more truly do we see it: for then we perceive within it the Divine ardour surging up towards expression, and share that simplicity and purity of vision in which most saints and some poets see all things "as they are in God."

Lastly, this lovedriven world of duration — this work within which the Divine Artist passionately and patiently expresses His infinite dream under finite forms — is held in another, mightier embrace. It is "kept," says Julian.

Paradoxically, the perpetual changeful energies of love and creation which inspire it are gathered up and made complete within the unchanging fact of Being: the Eternal and Absolute, within which the world of things is set as the tree is set in the supporting earth, the enfolding air. There, finally, is the rock and refuge of the seeking consciousness wearied by the ceaseless process of the flux. There that flux exists in its wholeness, "all at once"; in a manner which we can never comprehend, but which in hours of withdrawal we may sometimes taste and feel.

It is in man's moments of contact with this, when he penetrates beyond all images, however lovely, however significant, to that ineffable awareness which the mystics call "Naked Contemplation" — since it is stripped of all the clothing with which reason and imagination drape and disguise both our devils and our gods — that the hunger and thirst of the heart is satisfied, and we receive indeed an assurance of ultimate Reality.

This assurance is not the cool conclusion of a successful argument. It is rather the seizing at last of Something which we have ever felt near us and enticing us: the unspeakably simple because completely inclusive solution of all the puzzles of life. As, then, you gave yourself to the broken-up yet actual reality of the natural world, in order that it might give itself to you, and your possession of its secret was achieved, first by surrender of selfhood, next by a diligent thrusting out of your attention, last by a union of love; so now by a repetition upon fresh levels of that same process you are to mount up to higher unions still. Held tight as it seems to you in the finite, committed to the perpetual rhythmic changes, the unceasing flux of "natural" life — compelled to pass on from state to state, to grow, to age, to die — there is yet, as you discovered in the first exercise of recollection, something in you which endures through and therefore transcends this world of change

This inhabitant, this mobile spirit, can spread and merge in tlle general consciousness, and gather itself again to one intense point of personality. It has too an innate knowledge of an instinct for another, greater rhythm, another order of Reality, as yet outside its conscious field; or as we say, a capacity for the Infinite.

This capacity, this unfulfilled craving, which the cunning mind of the practical man suppresses and disguises as best it can, is the source of all your unrest. More, it is the true origin of all your best loves and enthusiasms, the inspiring cause of your heroisms and achievements; which are but oblique and tentative efforts to still that strange hunger for some final object of devotion, some completing and elucidating vision, some total selfdonation, some great and perfect Act within which your little activity can be merged.

St. Thomas Aquinas says, that a man is only withheld from this desired vision of the Divine Essence, this discovery of the Pure Act (which indeed is everywhere pressing in on him and supporting him); by the apparent necessity which he is under of turning to bodily images, of breaking up his continuous and living intuition into conceptual scraps; in other words, because he cannot live the life of sensation without thought.

But it is not the man, it is merely his mental machinery which is under this "necessity." This it is which translates, analyses, incorporates in finite images the boundless perceptions of the spirit: passing through its prism the White Light of Reality, and shattering it to a succession of coloured rays. Therefore the man who would know the Divine Secret must unshackle himself more thoroughly than ever before from the tyranny of the imagemaking power.

As it is not by the methods of the laboratory that we learn to know life, so it is not by the methods of the intellect that we learn to know God. "For of all other creatures and their works," says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, "yea, and of the works of God's self, may a man through grace have full head of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be " gotten and holden; but by thought never.

"Gotten and holden": homely words, that suggest rather the outstretching of the hand to take something lying at your very gates, than the long outward journey or terrific ascent of the contemplative soul. Reality indeed, the mystics say, is "near and far"; far from our thoughts, but saturating and supporting our lives. Nothing would he nearer, nothing dearer, nothing sweeter, were the doors of our perception truly cleansed. You have then but to focus attention upon your own deep reality, "realise your own soul," in order to find it.

"We dwell in Him and He in us": you participate in the Eternal Order now. The vision of the Divine Essence — the participation of its own small activity in the Supernal Act — is for the spark of your soul a perpetual process. On the apex of your personality, spirit ever gazes upon Spirit, melts and merges in it: from and by this encounter its life arises and is sustained.

But you have been busy from your childhood with other matters. All the urgent affairs of "life," as you absurdly called it, have monopolised your field of consciousness. Thus all the important events of your real life, physical and spiritual — the mysterious perpetual growth of you, the knitting up of fresh bits of the universe into the unstable body which you confuse with yourself, the hum and whirr of the machine which preserves your contacts with the material world, the more delicate movements which condition your correspondences with, and growth within, the spiritual order — all these have gone on unperceived by you.

All the time you have been kept and nourished, like the "Little Thing," by an enfolding and creative love; yet of this you are less conscious than you are of the air that you breathe. Now, as in the first stage of contemplation you learned and established, as a patent and experienced fact, your fraternal relation with all the other children of God, entering into the rhythm of their existence, participating in their stress and their joy; will you not at least try to make patent this your filial relation too?

This actualisation of your true status, your place in the Eternal World, is waiting for you. It represents the next phase in your gradual achievement of Reality.

The method by which you will attain to it is strictly analogous to that by which you obtained a more vivid awareness of the natural world in which you grow and move. Here too it shall be direct intuitive contact, sensation rather than thought, which shall bring you certitude, "tasting food, not talking about it," as Bonaventure says.

Yet there is a marked difference between these two stages. In the first, the deliberate inward retreat and gathering together of your faculties which was effected by recollection, was the prelude to a new coming forth, an outflow from the narrow limits of a merely personal life to the better and truer apprehension of the created world. Now, in the second stage, the discipline and recollected attention seems to take an opposite course. It is directed towards a plane of existence with which your bodily senses have no attachments: which is not merely misrepresented by your ordinary concepts, but cannot be represented by them at all.

It must therefore sink inwards towards its own centre, "away from all that can be thought or felt," as the mystics say, "away from every image, every notion, every thing," towards that strange condition of obscurity which St. John of the Cross calls the "Night of Sense." Do this steadily, checking each vagrant instinct, each insistent thought, however "spiritual" it may seem; pressing ever more deeply inwards towards that ground, that simple and undifferentiated Being from which your diverse faculties emerge.

Presently you will find yourself, emptied and freed, in a place stripped bare of all the machinery of thought; and achieve the condition of simplicity which those same specialists call nakedness of spirit or "Wayless Love," and which they declare to be above all human images and ideas — a state of consciousness in which "all the workings of the reason fail."

Then you will observe that you have entered into an intense and vivid silence: a silence which exists in itself, through and in spite of the ceaseless noises of your normal world. Within this world of silence you seem as it were to lose yourself, "to ebb and to flow, to wander and be lost in the Imageless Ground," says Ruysbroeck, struggling to describe the sensations of the self in this, its first initiation into the "wayless world, beyond image," where "all is, yet in no wise."

Yet in spite of the darkness that enfolds you, the Cloud of Unknowing into which you have plunged, you are sure that it is well to be here. A peculiar certitude which you cannot analyse, a strange satisfaction and peace, is distilled into you. You begin to understand what the Psalmist meant, when he said, "Be still, and know." You are lost in a wilderness, a solitude, a dim strange state of which you can say nothing, since it offers no material to your imagemaking mind. But this wilderness, from one point of view so bare and desolate, from another is yet strangely homely.

In it, all your sorrowful questionings are answered without utterance; it is the All, and you are within it and part of it, and know that it is good. It calls forth the utmost adoration of which you are capable; and, mysteriously, gives love for love. You have ascended now, say the mystics, into the Freedom of the Will of God; are become part of a higher, slower duration, which carries you as it were upon its bosom and — though never perhaps before has your soul been so truly active — seems to you a stillness, a rest.

The doctrine of Ptotinus concerning a higher life of unity, a lower life of multiplicity, possible to every human spirit, will now appear to you not a fantastic theory, but a plain statement of fact, which you have verified in your own experience.

You perceive that these are the two complementary ways of apprehending and uniting with Reality — the one as a dynamic process, the other as an eternal whole. Thus understood, they do not conflict.

You know that the flow, the broken-up world of change and multiplicity, is still going on; and that you, as a creature of the time-world, are moving and growing with it. But, thanks to the development of the higher side of your consciousness, you are now lifted to a new poise; a direct participation in that simple, transcendent life "broken, yet not divided," which gives to this timeworld all its meaning and validity. And you know, without derogation from the realness of that life of flux within which you first made good your attachments to the universe, that you are also a true consistent of the greater whole; that since you are man, you are also spirit, and are living Eternal Life now, in the midst of time.

The effect of this form of contemplation, in the degree in which the ordinary man may learn to practise it, is like the sudden change of atmosphere, the shifting of values, which we experience when we pass from the busy streets into a quiet church; where a lamp burns, and a silence reigns, the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Thence is poured forth a stillness which strikes through the tumult without.

Eluding the flicker of the arclamps, thence through an upper window we may glimpse a perpetual star. The walls of the church, limiting the range of our attention, shutting out the torrent of life, with its insistent demands and appeals, make possible our apprehension of this deep eternal peace.

The character of our consciousness, intermediate between Etemity and Time, and ever ready to swing between them, makes such a device, such a concrete aid to concentration, essential to us. But the peace, the presence, is everywhere — for us, not for it, is the altar and the sanctuary required — and your deliberate, humble practice of contemplation will teach you at last to find it; outside the sheltering walls of recollection as well as within.

You will realise then what Julian meant, when she declared the ultimate property of all that was made to be that "God keepeth it": will feel the violent consciousness of an enfolding Presence, utterly transcending the fluid changeful naturelife, and incomprehensible to the intelligence which that naturelife, has developed and trained.

And as you knew the secret of that nature-life best by surrendering yourself to it, by entering its currents, and refusing to analyse or arrange: so here, by a deliberate giving of yourself to the silence, the rich "nothingness," the "Cloud," you will draw nearest to the Reality it conceals from the eye of sense. "Lovers put out the candle and draw the curtains," says Patmore, "when they wish to see the God and the Goddess: and in the higher communion, the night of thought is the light of perception."

Such an experience of Eternity, the attainment of that intuitive awareness, that meek and simple self-mergence, which the mystics call sometimes, according to its degree and special circumstances, the Quiet, the Desert of God, the Divine Dark, represents the utmost that human consciousness can do of itself towards the achievement of union with Reality.

To some it brings joy and peace, to others fear: to all a paradoxical sense of the lowliness and greatness of the soul, which now at last can measure itself by the august standards of the Infinite.

Though the trained and diligent will of the contemplative can, if control of the attention be really established, recapture this state of awareness, retreat into the Quiet again and again, yet it is of necessity a fleeting experience; for man is immersed in duration, subject to it. Its demands upon his attention can only cease with the cessation of physical life — perhaps not then.

Perpetual absorption in the Transcendent is a human impossibility, and the effort to achieve it is both unsocial and silly. But this experience, this "ascent to the Nought," changes for ever the proportions of the life that once has known it; gives to it depth and height, and prepares the way for those further experiences, that great transfiguration of existence which comes when the personal activity of the finite will gives place to the great and compelling action of another Power.


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1906 - The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary

1911 - Mysticism

1912 - Introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing

1913 - The Mystic Way

1914 - Introduction: Richard Rolle - The Fire of Love

1915 - Practical Mysticism

1915 - Introduction: Songs of Kabir

1916 - Introduction: John of Ruysbroeck

1920 - The Essentials of Mysticism, and other Essays

1922 - The Spiral Way

1922 - The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (Upton Lectures)

1926 - Concerning the Inner Life

1928 - Man and the Supernatural

1929 - The House of the Soul

1933 - The Golden Sequence

1933 - Mixed Pasture: Twelve Essays

1936 - The Spiritual Life

1943 - Introduction to the Letters of Evelyn Underhill
by Charles Williams


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