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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 word
"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 stretching-out 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 object 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
self-donation, 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

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
self-abandonment, 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
all-transcending--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 ever-deepening obscurity that the new experiences come.

"O night that didst lead thus,

O night more lovely than the dawn of light,

O 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 life-force, 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 life-giving 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 ever-deepening 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
well-known 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 watering-can 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, half-conscious attempts
towards free action, clear apprehension, true union, which we dignify
by the names of will, thought, and love are now seen 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 this 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 self-mergence
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," says 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 love-poetry 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 out-going 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 never-ending. It includes in
its sweep every phase of human love and self-devotion, 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 self-consciousness 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 self-immersion 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-life in the supposed interests of the super-sensual, 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 from hours of close personal communion with its Friend and
Lover to self-loss in the "deep yet dazzling darkness" of the Divine
Abyss: or, re-entering 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 up-climb of the individual soul, the
passionate outpouring of the Divine Mind, form the completing

As i read the previous chapter i developed a strong feeling that i was not ready for it and that the time spaces between chapters should be exponential: that i should wait a week after reading chapter I to read chapter II, two more weels to read chapter III, another month for chapter IV, etc.  I would mull over chapter VII for eight months before moving on and chapter VIII for a year and a half; then maybe i could underrstand chapter IX.

Sometimes, in reading IX, i felt like i was reading VIII over again.  I know there has got to be a difference between the realm of Being and that which is "beyond being and non-being," but i don't think it can be expressed in any human language.  This is why intellect is a useless tool in contemplation.

I learned a lot from this book.  (There is one more chapter, but it is mostly epilogue.)  She tried valiently to produce a guide to mysticism for everybody.  She almost succeeds.  Maybe Underhill was too English, too upper middle class, too Christian and too Catholic to make it work for everybody.  Maybe, finally, anyone who tried to do this would be at a loss for words.

I will read this book again and again and perhaps come closer to what she intended the reader to "understand."  But i don't think that the "mystery" can ever be "solved;" nor should it be "solved;" and i should not want to "solve" it.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 10th, 2018 12:29 pm (UTC)
I have spent about a decade now nibbling around the edges of people's desire to skip the rich, complex story and go to the dry summary, which is what "understand" seems usually to mean....
Jan. 14th, 2018 03:50 am (UTC)
That is a great point. Some people think they would find Eternity boring and i am not sure i am not one of them. Taoist philosophy, to the extent that i "understand" it, seems to ask its followers to seek what many people would call "boredom."-- stillness, silence, emptiness, doing "not-doing."

I think that part of the "practicality" of Underhill's book is that she is not recommending contemplation as a full time occupation. She wanted people to be effective in the material world as well as serene in the Real Universe. She thinks that this can be done
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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