Evelyn Underhill

Practical Mysticism

Chapter 9: The Third Form of Contemplation

Evelun Underhill
THE HARD SEPARATION which some mystical writers insist upon making, between "natural" and "supernatural" contemplation has been on the whole productive of confusion rather than clearness: for the world "supernatural" has many unfortunate associations for the mind of the plain man.

It at once suggests to him visions and ecstasies, superstitious beliefs, ghosts, and other disagreeable interferences with the order which he calls "natural"; and inclines him to his old attitude of suspicion in respect of all mystical things.

But some word we must have, to indicate the real cleavage which exists between the second and third stages in the development of the contemplative consciousness: the real change which, if you would go further on these interior paths, must now take place in the manner of your apprehension of Reality.

Hitherto, all that you have attained has been — or at least has seemed to you — the direct result of your own hard work. A difficult self discipline, the slowly achieved control of your vagrant thoughts and desires, the steady daily practice of recollection, a diligent pushing out of your consciousness from the superficial to the fundamental, an unselfish loving attention; all this has been rewarded by the gradual broadening and deepening of your perceptions, by an initiation into the movements of a larger life.

You have been a knocker, a seeker, an asker: have beat upon the Cloud of Unknowing "with a sharp dart of longing love." A perpetual effort of the will has characterised your inner development. Your contemplation, in fact, as the specialists would say, has been "active," not "infused."

But now, having achieved an awareness — obscure and indescribable indeed, yet actual — of the enfolding presence of Reality, under those two forms which the theologians call the "immanence" and the "transcendence" of the Divine, a change is to take place in the relation between your finite human spirit and the Infinite Life in which at last it knows itself to dwell.

All that will now come to you — and much perhaps will come — will happen as it seems without effort on your own part: though really it will be the direct result of that long stress and discipline which has gone before, and has made it possible for you to feel the subtle contact of deeper realities.

It will depend also on the steady continuance — often perhaps through long periods of darkness and boredom — of that poise to which you have been trained: the stretchingout of the loving and surrendered will into the dimness and silence, the continued trustful habitation of the soul in the atmosphere of the Essential World.

You are like a traveller arrived in a new country. The journey has been a long one; and the hardships and obstacles involved in it, the effort, the perpetual conscious pressing forward, have at last come to seem the chief features of your inner life. Now, with their cessation, you feel curiously lost; as if the chief objects of your existence had been taken away.

No need to push on any further: yet, though there is no more that you can do of yourself, there is much that may and must be done to you. The place that you have come to seems strange and bewildering, for it lies far beyond the horizons of human thought. There are no familiar landmarks, nothing on which you can lay hold. You "wander to and fro," as the mystics say, "in this fathomless ground"; surrounded by silence and darkness, struggling to breathe this rarefied air.

Like those who go to live in new latitudes, you must become acclimatised. Your state, then, should now be wisely passive; in order that the great influences which surround you may take and adjust your spirit, that the unaccustomed light, which now seems to you a darkness, may clarify your eyes, and that you may be transformed from a visitor into an inhabitant of that supernal Country which St. Augustine described as "no mere vision, but a home."

You are therefore to let yourself go; to cease all conscious, anxious striving and pushing. Finding yourself in this place of darkness and quietude, this "Night of the Spirit," as St. John of the Cross has called it, you are to dwell there meekly; asking nothing, seeking nothing, but with your doors flung wide open towards God. And as you do thus, there will come to you an ever clearer certitude that this darkness enveils the goal for which you have been seeking from the first; the final Reality with which you are destined to unite, the perfect satisfaction of your most ardent and most sacred desires.

It is there, but you cannot by your efforts reach it. This realisation of your own complete impotence, of the resistance which the Transcendent — long sought and faithfully served — now seems to offer to your busy outgoing will and love, your ardour, your deliberate selfdonation, is at once the most painful and most essential phase in the training of the human soul. It brings you into that state of passive suffering which is to complete the decentralisation of your character, test the purity of your love, and perfect your education in humility.

Here, you must oppose more thoroughly than ever before the instincts and suggestions of your separate, clever, energetic self; which, hating silence and dimness, is always trying to take the methods of Martha into the domain of Mary and seldom discriminates between passivity and sloth.

Perhaps you will find, when you try to achieve this perfect selfabandonment, that a further, more drastic self-exploration, a deeper, more searching purification than that which was forced upon you by your first experience of the recollective state is needed. The last fragments of selfhood, the very desire for spiritual satisfaction — the fundamental human tendency to drag down the Simple Fact and make it ours, instead of offering ourselves to it — must be sought out and killed.

In this deep contemplation, this profound Quiet, your soul gradually becomes conscious of a constriction, a dreadful narrowness of personality; something still existing in itself, still tending to draw inwards to its own centre, and keeping it from that absolute surrender which is the only way to peace.

An attitude of perfect generosity, complete submission, willing acquiescence in anything that may happen — even in failure and death — is here your only hope: for union with Reality can only be a union of love, a glad and humble self mergence in the universal life. You must, so far as you are able, give yourself up to, "die into," melt into the Whole; abandon all efforts to lay hold of It. More, you must be willing that it should lay hold of you.

"A pure bare going forth," says Tauler, trying to describe the sensations of the self at this moment. "None," says Ruysbroeck, putting this same experience, this meek outstreaming of the bewildered spirit, into other language, "is sure of Eternal Life unless he has died with his own attributes wholly into God."

It is unlikely that agreeable emotions will accompany this utter self-surrender; for everything will now seem to be taken from you, nothing given in exchange. But if you are able to make it, a mighty transformation will result. From the transitional plane of darkness, you will be reborn into another "world," another stage of realisation: and find yourself, literally, to be other than you were before.

Ascetic writers tell us that the essence of the change now effected consists in the fact that "God's action takes the place of man's activity" — that the surrendered self "does not act, but receives." By this they mean to describe, as well as our concrete language will permit, the new and vivid consciousness which now invades the contemplative; the sense which he has of being as it were helpless in the grasp of another Power, so utterly part of him, so completely different from him — so rich and various, so transfused with life and feeling, so urgent and so alltranscending — that he can only think of it as God.

It is for this that the dimness and steadily increasing passivity of the stage of Quiet has been preparing him; and it is out of this willing quietude and everdeepening obscurity that the new experiences come.

"0 night that didst lead thus ,
0 night more lovely than the dawn of light,
0 night that broughtest us Lover to lover's sight
Lover with loved in marriage of delight "

says St. John of the Cross in the most wonderful of all mystical poems. "He who has had experience of this," says St. Teresa of the same stage of apprehension, "will understand it in some measure: but it cannot be more clearly described because what then takes place is so obscure. All I am able to say is, that the soul is represented as being close to God; and that there abide a conviction thereof so certain and strong, that it cannot possibly help believing so."

This sense, this conviction, which may be translated by the imagination into many different forms, is the substance of the greatest experiences and highest joys of the mystical saints. The intensity with which it is realised will depend upon the ardour, purity, and humility of the experiencing soul: but even those who feel it faintly are convinced by it for evermore.

In some great and generous spirits, able to endure the terrific onslaught of Reality, it may even reach a vividness by which all other things are obliterated; and the self, utterly helpless under the inundations of this transcendent lifeforce, passes into that simple state of consciousness which is called Ecstasy.

But you are not to be frightened by these special manifestations; or to suppose that here the road is barred against you. Though these great spirits have as it were a genius for Reality, a susceptibility to supernal impressions, so far beyond your own small talent that there seems no link between you: yet you have, since you are human, a capacity for the Infinite too.

With less intensity, less splendour, but with a certitude which no arguments will ever shake, this sense of the Living Fact, and of its mysterious contacts with and invasions of the human spirit, may assuredly be realised by you. This realisation — sometimes felt under the symbols of personality, sometimes under those of an impersonal but lifegiving Force, Light, Energy, or Heat — is the ruling character of the third phase of contemplation; and the reward of that meek passivity, that "busy idleness" as the mystics sometimes call it, which you have been striving to attain.

Sooner or later, if you are patient, it will come to you through the darkness: a mysterious contact, a clear certitude of intercourse and of possession — perhaps so gradual in its approach that the break, the change from the everdeepening stillness and peace of the second phase, is hardly felt by you; perhaps, if your nature be ardent and unstable, with a sudden shattering violence, in a "storm of love."

In either case, the advent of this experience is incalculable, and completely outside your own control. So far, to use St. Teresa's wellknown image, you have been watering the garden of your spirit by hand; a poor and laborious method, yet one in which there is a definite relation between effort and result. But now the wateringcan is taken from you, and you must depend upon the rain: more generous, more fruitful, than anything which your own efforts could manage, but, in its incalculable visitations, utterly beyond your control.

Here all one can say is this: that if you acquiesce in the heroic demands which the spiritual life now makes upon you, if you let yourself go, eradicate the last traces of self-interest even of the most spiritual kind, then you have established conditions under which the forces of the spiritual world can work on you, heightening your susceptibilities, deepening and purifying your attention, so that you are able to taste and feel more and more of the inexhaustible riches of Reality.

Thus dying to your own will, waiting for what is given, infused, you will presently find that a change in your apprehension has indeed taken place: and that those who said self-loss was the only way to realisation taught no pious fiction but the truth. The highest contemplative experience to which you have yet attained has seemed above all else a still awareness.

The cessation of your own striving, a resting upon and within the Absolute World — these were its main characteristics for your consciousness. But now, this Ocean of Being is no longer felt by you as an emptiness, a solitude without bourne. Suddenly you know it to be instinct with a movement and life too great for you to apprehend. You are thrilled by a mighty energy, uncontrolled by you, unsolicited by you: its higher vitality is poured into your soul.

You enter upon an experience for which all the terms of power, thought, motion, even of love, are inadequate: yet which contains within itself the only complete expression of all these things. Your strength is now literally made perfect in weakness: because of the completeness of your dependence, a fresh life is infused into you, such as your old separate existence never knew.

Moreover, to that diffused and impersonal sense of the Infinite, in which you have dipped yourself, and which swallows up and completes all the ideas your mind has ever built up with the help of the categories of time and space, is now added the consciousness of a Living Fact which includes, transcends, completes all that you mean by the categories of personality and of life.

Those ineffective, halfconscious attempts towards free action, clear apprehension, true union, which we dignify by the names of will, thought, and love are now matched by an Absolute Will, Thought, and Love; instantly recognised by the contemplating spirit as the highest reality it yet has known, and evoking in it a passionate and a humble joy.

This unmistakable experience has been achieved by the mystics of every religion; and when we read their statements, we know that all are speaking of the same thing. None who have had it have ever been able to doubt its validity. It has always become for them the central fact, by which all other realities must be tested and graduated. It has brought to them the deep consciousness of sources of abundant life now made accessible to man; of the impact of a mighty energy, gentle, passionate, self giving, creative, which they can only call Absolute Love.

Sometimes they feel this strange life moving and stirring within them. Sometimes it seems to pursue, entice, and besiege them. In every case, they are the passive objects upon which it works. It is now another Power which seeks the separated spirit and demands it; which knocks at the closed door of the narrow personality; which penetrates the contemplative consciousness through and through, speaking, stirring, compelling it; which sometimes, by its secret irresistible pressure, wins even the most recalcitrant in spite of themselves.

Sometimes this Power is felt as an impersonal force, the unifying cosmic energy, the indrawing love which gathers all things into One; sometimes as a sudden access of vitality, a light and heat, enfolding and penetrating the self and making its languid life more vivid and more real; sometimes as a personal and friendly Presence which counsels and entreats the soul.

In each case, the mystics insist again that this is God; that here under these diverse manners the soul has immediate intercourse with Him. But we must remember that when they make this declaration, they are speaking from a plane of consciousness far above the ideas and images of popular religion; and from a place which is beyond the judiciously adjusted horizon of philosophy.

They mean by the word, not a notion, however august; but an experienced Fact so vivid, that against it the so-called facts of daily life look shadowy and insecure. They say that this Fact is "immanent"; dwelling in, transfusing, and discoverable through every aspect of the universe, every movement of the game of life as you have found in the first stage of contemplation. There you may hear its melody and discern its form. And further, that It is "transcendent"; in essence exceeding and including the sum of those glimpses and contacts which we obtain by selfmergence in life, and in Its simplest manifestations above and beyond anything to which reason can attain — "the Nameless Being, of Whom nought can be said."

This you discovered to be true in the second stage. But in addition to this, they say also, that this all-pervasive, all changing, and yet changeless One, Whose melody is heard in all movement, and within Whose Being "the worlds are being told like beads," calls the human spirit to an immediate intercourse, a unity, a fruition, a divine give-and-take, for which the contradictory symbols of feeding, of touching, of marriage, of immersion, are all too poor; and which evokes in the fully conscious soul a passionate and a humble love.

"He devours us and He feeds us!" exclaims Ruysbroeck.

"Here," say St. ; Thomas Aquinas, "the soul in a wonderful and unspeakable manner both seizes and is seized upon, devours and is herself devoured, embraces and is violently embraced: and by the knot of love she unites herself with God, and is with Him as the Alone with the Alone."

The marvellous lovepoetry of mysticism, the rhapsodies which extol the spirit's Lover, Friend, Companion, Bridegroom; which describe the "deliberate speed, majestic instancy" of the Hound of Heaven chasing the separated soul, the onslaughts, demands, and caresses of this "stormy, generous, and unfathomable love" — all this is an attempt, often of course oblique and symbolic in method, to express and impart this transcendent secret, to describe that intense yet elusive state in which alone union with the living heart of Reality is possible.

"How delicately Thou teachest love to me!" cries St. John of the Cross; and here indeed we find all the ardours of all earthly lovers justified by an imperishable Objective, which reveals Itself in all things that we truly love, and beyond all these things both seeks us and compels us, "giving more than we can take and asking more than we can pay." You do not, you never will know, what this Objective is: for as Dionysius teaches, "if any one saw God and understood what he saw, then it was not God that he saw, but something that belongs to Him."

But you do know now that it exists, with an intensity which makes all other existences unreal; save in so far as they participate in this one Fact. "Some contemplate the Formless, and others meditate on Form: but the wise man knows that Brahma is beyond both."

As you yield yourself more and more completely to the impulses of this intimate yet unseizable Presence, so much the sweeter and stronger — so much the more constant and steady — will your intercourse with it become. The imperfect music of your adoration will be answered and reinforced by another music, gentle, deep, and strange; your outgoing movement, the stretching forth of your desire from yourself to something other, will be answered by a movement, a stirring, within you yet not conditioned by you. The wonder and variety of this intercourse is neverending. It includes in its sweep every phase of human love and selfdevotion, all beauty and all power, all suffering and effort, all gentleness and rapture: here found in synthesis.

Going forth into the bareness and darkness of this unwalled world of high contemplation, you there find stored for you, and at last made real, all the highest values, all the dearest and noblest experiences of the world of growth and change. You see now what it is that you have been doing in the course of your mystical development. As your narrow heart stretched to a wider sympathy with life, you have been surrendering progressively to larger and larger existences, more and more complete realities: have been learning to know them, to share their very being, through the magic of disinterested love.

First, the manifested, flowing, evolving life of multiplicity: felt by you in its wonder and wholeness, once you learned to yield yourself to its rhythms, received in simplicity the undistorted messages of sense. Then, the actual unchanging ground of life, the eternal and unconditioned Whole, transcending all succession: a world inaccessible alike to senses and intelligence, but felt — vaguely, darkly, yet intensely — by the quiet and surrendered consciousness.

But now you are solicited, whether you will or no, by a greater Reality, the final inclusive Fact, the Unmeasured Love, which "is through all things everlastingly": and yielding yourself to it, receiving and responding to its obscure yet ardent communications, you pass beyond the cosmic experience to the personal encounter, the simple yet utterly inexpressible union of the soul with its God.

And this threefold union with Reality, as your attention is focussed now on one aspect, now on another, of its rich simplicity, will be actualised by you in many different ways: for you are not to suppose that an unchanging barren ecstasy is now to characterise your inner life. Though the sense of your own dwelling within the Eternal transfuses and illuminates it, the sense of your own necessary efforts, a perpetual renewal of contact with the Spiritual World, a perpetual self-donation, shall animate it too. When the greater love overwhelms the lesser, and your small selfconsciousness is lost in the consciousness of the Whole, it will be felt as an intense stillness, a quiet fruition of Reality.

Then, your very selfhood seems to cease, as it does in all your moments of great passion; and you are "satisfied and overflowing, and with Him beyond yourself eternally fulfilled." Again, when your own necessary activity comes into the foreground, your small energetic love perpetually pressing to deeper and deeper realisation — "tasting through and through , and seeking through and through, the fathomless ground" of the Infinite and Eternal — it seems rather a perpetually renewed encounter than a final achievement.

Since you are a child of Time as well as of Eternity, such effort and satisfaction, active and passive love are both needed by you, if your whole life is to be brought into union with the inconceivably rich yet simple One in Whom these apparent opposites are harmonised. Therefore seeking and finding, work and rest, conflict and peace, feeding on God and selfimmersion in God, spiritual marriage and spiritual death — these contradictory images are all wanted, if we are to represent the changing moods of the living, growing human spirit; the diverse aspects under which it realises the simple fact of its intercourse with the Divine.

Each new stage achieved in the mystical development of the spirit has meant, not the leaving behind of the previous stages, but an adding on to them: an ever greater extension of experience, and enrichment of personality. So that the total result of this change, this steady growth of your transcendental self, is not an impoverishment of the sense-self in the supposed interests of the supersensual, but the addition to it of another life — a huge widening and deepening of the field over which your attention can play.

Sometimes the mature contemplative consciousness narrows to an intense point of feeling, in which it seems indeed "alone with the Alone": sometimes it spreads to a vast apprehension of the Universal Life, or perceives the common things of sense aflame with God. It moves easily and with no sense of incongruity for hours of close personal communion with its Friend and Lover to selfloss in the "deep yet dazzling darkness" of the Divine Abyss: or, reentering that living world of change which the first form of contemplation disclosed to it, passes beyond those discrete manifestations of Reality to realise the Whole which dwells in and inspires every part.

Thus ascending to the mysterious fruition of that Reality which is beyond image, and descending again to the loving contemplation and service of all struggling growing things, it now finds and adores everywhere — in the sky and the nest, the soul and the void — one Energetic Love which "is measureless, since it is all that exists." And of which the patient upclimb of the individual soul, the passionate outpouring of the Divine Mind, form the completing opposites.


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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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