Evelyn Underhill

Practical Mysticism


Evelun Underhill This little book, written during the last months of peace, goes to press in the first weeks of the great war. Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal, or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book which deals with that which is called the "contemplative" attitude to existence is wholly out of place.

So obvious, indeed, is this point of view that I had at first thought of postponing its publication. On the one hand, it seems as though the dreams of a spiritual renaissance, which promised so fairly but a little time ago, had perished in the sudden explosion of brute force.

On the other hand, the thoughts of the English race are now turned, and rightly, towards the most concrete forms of action — struggle and endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long continued effort — rather than towards the passive attitude of self-surrender which is all the practice of mysticism seems at first to demand.

Moreover, that deep conviction of the dependence of all human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of the Divine Spirit within the human soul, which lies at the root of a mystical concept of life, is hard indeed to reconcile with much of the human history now being poured red-hot from the cauldron of war. For all these reasons we are likely during the present crisis to witness a revolt from these superficially mystical notions which threatened to become too popular during the immediate past.

Yet the title deliberately chosen for this book — that of "Practical" Mysticism — means nothing if the attitude and discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles for which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duies of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything. On the contrary, if the experiences on which it is based have indeed the transcendant value for humanity which the mystics claim for them — if they reveal to us a world of higher truth and greater reality than the world of concrete happenings in which we seem to be immersed — then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time. It is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them.

[This is an area of debate in which EU and I diverge somewhat. It is my contention that the forces of destruction and those that oppose them are both part of a dualistic view of the world, of good versus evil, which mystical experience as I understand it transcends. EU herself in later life became a notable advocate for pacifism, a stance which in the wake of WWII rendered her unfashionable and out of public favour for nearly fifty years after her death. DCW]

We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who,possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not — as some suppose — a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit from the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgement on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed. Perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the two women who have left the deepest mark upon the military history of France and England — Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale — both acted under mystical compulsion. So, too, did one of the noblest of modern soldiers, General Gordon. Their national value was directly connected with their deep spiritual consciousness: their intensely practical energies were the flowers of a contemplative life.

We are often told, that in the critical periods of history it is the national soul which counts: that "where there is no vision, the people perish." No nation is truly defeated which retains its spiritual self-possession. No natioon is truly victorious which does not emerge with soul unstained. If this be so, it becomes a part of true patriotism to keep the spiritual life, both of the individual citizen and of the social group, active and vigorous, its vision of realities unsullied by the tangles interests and passions of the time. This is a task in which all may do their part. The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man's life and until he has realised it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers, It is therefore the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness of those who try to practise it. It will help them to enter more completely than ever before into the life of the group to which they belong. It will teach them to see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness. It will educate them in a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism; it will confer on them an unconquerable hope; and assure them that still, even in the hour of greatest desolation, "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."

As a contribution, them, to these purposes, this little book is now published. It is addressed neither to the learned nor to the devout, who are already in possession of a wide literature dealing from many points of view with the experiences and philosophy of the mystics. Such readers are warned that they will find here nothing but the re-statement of elementary and familiar propositions, and invitations to a discipline immemorially old. Far from presuming to instruct those to whom first-hand information is both accessible and palatable, I write only for the larger class which. repelled by the formidable appearance of more elaborate works on the subject, would yet like to know what is meant by mysticism, and what it has to offer to the average man: how it helps to solve his problems, how it harmonises with the duties and ideals of his active life.

[It is one of our abiding myths that mysticism should be personally or socially valuable in some concrete way. Otherwise what "good" is it? Indeed.

At the house of Simon the Leper, a woman poured over Jesus an expensive unguent, and was rebuked by the disciples for her action, for the unguent might have been sold for a considerable sum and the proceeds devoted to the practical needs of the poor in the community. But Jesus supported her. "The poor ye have always with you...but me ye have not always."

Judas, the group's treasurer, was so exasperated that he lost all patience with Jesus, and went out shortly afterwards and betrayed him to the authorities.

In Judas and Jesus we see the two faces of Christianity, seeking the presence of "good" and seeking the presence of God.

The woman with the spikenard had recognised herself to be in the presence of God and honoured that presence.

One of the chief objections that the Roman Catholic Church voiced in respect of the "heretic" Quietists was that they valued the presence of God in its own right. It was not necessary to manifest this experience as good works, it was not necessary to lead armies against the English, or found monastic orders, or put the government and the world to rights. In fact, as they recognised, it was often downright counter-productive.

These early spiritual hippies understood quite clearly that they were to seek first the kingdom of God and that the rest would follow. Surely there would be good works to do, and the poor to succour, for as Jesus reminded his disciples, the poor are always with us. He also reminded them of his own imminent departure.

Joel Goldsmith, founder of The Infinite Way movement, is one modern teacher who was adamant that seeking the kingdom of God came first. His students were admonished over and again that they were under no circumstances to first set about fighting evil or poverty or sickness however worthy the fight might seem.

Their task was to realise, to make real, the presence of God, to learn to recognise that Christ presence in themselves and in others and allow it to manifest in their behaviour and in their surroundings. They responded to the presence of God, not to the demands of so-called duty. Period. Full stop. End of story. DCW]

For this reason I presuppose in my readers no knowledge whatever of the subject, either upon the philosophic, religious, or historical side. Nor, since I wish my appeal to be general, do I urge the special claim of any one theological system, any one metaphysical school. I have merely attempted to put the view of the universe and man's place in it which is common to all mystics in plain and untechnical language; and to suggest the practical conditions under which ordinary persons may participate in their experience. therfore the abnormal states of consciousness which sometime appear in connection with mystical genius are not discussed: my business being confined to the description of a faculty which all men possess in greater or less degree.

The reality and importance of this faculty are considered in the first three chapters. In the fourth and fifth is described the preliminary training of attention necessary for its use; in the sixth, the general self-discipline and attitude towards life which it involves. The seventh, eighth and ninth chapters treat in an elementary way of the three great forms of contemplation, and in the tenth, the practical value of the life in which they have been actualised is examined. Those kind enough to attempt the perusal of the book are begged to read the first section with some attention before passing to the latter part.


September 12, 1914

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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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