bobby1933 (bobby1933) wrote,

Common Sense Mysticism: A Review of Underhill's Practical Mysticism (X)



And here the practical man, who has been strangely silent during the
last stages of our discourse, shakes himself like a terrier which has
achieved dry land again after a bath; and asks once more, with a
certain explosive violence, his dear old question, "What is the use of
all this?"

"You have introduced me," he says further, "to some curious states of
consciousness, interesting enough in their way; and to a lot of
peculiar emotions, many of which are no doubt most valuable to poets
and so on. But it is all so remote from daily life. How is it going to
fit in with ordinary existence? How, above all, is it all going to help

Well, put upon its lowest plane, this new way of attending to
life--this deepening and widening of outlook--may at least be as
helpful to you as many things to which you have unhesitatingly
consecrated much time and diligence in the past: your long journeys to
new countries, for instance, or long hours spent in acquiring new
"facts," relabelling old experiences, gaining skill in new arts and
games. These, it is true, were quite worth the effort expended on them:
for they gave you, in exchange for your labour and attention, a fresh
view of certain fragmentary things, a new point of contact with the
rich world of possibilities, a tiny enlargement of your universe in one
direction or another. Your love and patient study of nature, art,
science, politics, business--even of sport--repaid you thus. But I have
offered you, in exchange for a meek and industrious attention to
another aspect of the world, hitherto somewhat neglected by you, an
enlargement which shall include and transcend all these; and be
conditioned only by the perfection of your generosity, courage, and

Nor are you to suppose that this enlargement will be limited to certain
new spiritual perceptions, which the art of contemplation has made
possible for you: that it will merely draw the curtain from a window
out of which you have never looked. This new wide world is not to be
for you something seen, but something lived in: and you--since man is a
creature of responses--will insensibly change under its influence,
growing up into a more perfect conformity with it. Living in this
atmosphere of Reality, you will, in fact, yourself become more real.
Hence, if you accept in a spirit of trust the suggestions which have
been made to you--and I acknowledge that here at the beginning an
attitude of faith is essential--and if you practise with diligence the
arts which I have described: then, sooner or later, you will inevitably
find yourself deeply and permanently changed by them--will perceive
that you have become a "new man." Not merely have you acquired new
powers of perception and new ideas of Reality; but a quiet and complete
transformation, a strengthening and maturing of your personality has
taken place.

You are still, it is true, living the ordinary life of the body. You
are immersed in the stream of duration; a part of the human, the
social, the national group. The emotions, instincts, needs, of that
group affect you. Your changing scrap of vitality contributes to its
corporate life; and contributes the more effectively since a new,
intuitive sympathy has now made its interests your own. Because of that
corporate life, transfusing you, giving to you and taking from
you--conditioning, you as it does in countless oblique and unapparent
ways--you are still compelled to react to many suggestions which you
are no longer able to respect: controlled, to the last moment of your
bodily existence and perhaps afterwards, by habit, custom, the good old
average way of misunderstanding the world. To this extent, the
crowd-spirit has you in its grasp.

Yet in spite of all this, you are now released from that crowd's
tyrannically overwhelming consciousness as you never were before. You
feel yourself now a separate vivid entity, a real, whole man: dependent
on the Whole, and gladly so dependent, yet within that Whole a free
self-governing thing. Perhaps you always fancied that your will was
free--that you were actually, as you sometimes said, the "captain of
your soul." If so, this was merely one amongst the many illusions which
supported your old, enslaved career. As a matter of fact, you were
driven along a road, unaware of anything that lay beyond the hedges,
pressed on every side by other members of the flock; getting perhaps a
certain satisfaction out of the deep warm stir of the collective life,
but ignorant of your destination, and with your personal initiative
limited to the snatching of grass as you went along, the pushing of
your way to the softer side of the track. These operations made up
together that which you called Success. But now, because you have
achieved a certain power of gathering yourself together, perceiving
yourself as a person, a spirit, and observing your relation with these
other individual lives--because too, hearing now and again the
mysterious piping of the Shepherd, you realise your own perpetual
forward movement and that of the flock, in its relation to that living
guide--you have a far deeper, truer knowledge than ever before both of
the general and the individual existence; and so are able to handle
life with a surer hand.

Do not suppose from this that your new career is to be perpetually
supported by agreeable spiritual contacts, or occupy itself in the mild
contemplation of the great world through which you move. True, it is
said of the Shepherd that he carries the lambs in his bosom: but the
sheep are expected to walk, and put up with the inequalities of the
road, the bunts and blunders of the flock. It is to vigour rather than
to comfort that you are called. Since the transcendental aspect of your
being has been brought into focus you are now raised out of the mere
push-forward, the blind passage through time of the flock, into a
position of creative responsibility. You are aware of personal
correspondences with the Shepherd. You correspond, too, with a larger,
deeper, broader world. The sky and the hedges, the wide lands through
which you are moving, the corporate character and meaning of the group
to which you belong--all these are now within the circle of your
consciousness; and each little event, each separate demand or
invitation which comes to you is now seen in a truer proportion,
because you bring to it your awareness of the Whole. Your journey
ceases to be an automatic progress, and takes on some of the characters
of a free act: for "things" are now under you, you are no longer under

You will hardly deny that this is a practical gain: that this widening
and deepening of the range over which your powers of perception work
makes you more of a man than you were before, and thus adds to rather
than subtracts from your total practical efficiency. It is indeed only
when he reaches these levels, and feels within himself this creative
freedom--this full actualisation of himself--on the one hand: on the
other hand the sense of a world-order, a love and energy on which he
depends and with whose interests he is now at one, that man becomes
fully human, capable of living the real life of Eternity in the midst
of the world of time.

And what, when you have come to it, do you suppose to be your own
function in this vast twofold scheme? Is it for nothing, do you think,
that you are thus a meeting-place of two orders? Surely it is your
business, so far as you may, to express in action something of the real
character of that universe within which you now know yourself to live?
Artists, aware of a more vivid and more beautiful world than other men,
are always driven by their love and enthusiasm to try and express,
bring into direct manifestation, those deeper significances of form,
sound, rhythm, which they have been able to apprehend: and, doing this,
they taste deeper and deeper truths, make ever closer unions with the
Real. For them, the duty of creation is tightly bound up with the gift
of love. In their passionate outflowing to the universe which offers
itself under one of its many aspects to their adoration, that
other-worldly fruition of beauty is always followed, balanced,
completed, by a this-world impulse to creation: a desire to fix within
the time-order, and share with other men, the vision by which they were
possessed. Each one, thus bringing new aspects of beauty, new ways of
seeing and hearing within the reach of the race, does something to
amend the sorry universe of common sense, the more hideous universe of
greed, and redeem his fellows from their old, slack servitude to a
lower range of significances. It is in action, then, that these find
their truest and safest point of insertion into the living, active
world of Reality: in sharing and furthering its work of manifestation
they know its secrets best. For them contemplation and action are not
opposites, but two interdependent forms of a life that is one--a life
that rushes out to a passionate communion with the true and beautiful,
only that it may draw from this direct experience of Reality a new
intensity wherewith to handle the world of things; and remake it, or at
least some little bit of it, "nearer to the heart's desire."

Again, the great mystics tell us that the "vision of God in His own
light"--the direct contact of the soul's substance with the
Absolute--to which awful experience you drew as near as the quality of
your spirit would permit in the third degree of contemplation, is the
prelude, not to a further revelation of the eternal order given to you,
but to an utter change, a vivid life springing up within you, which
they sometimes call the "transforming union" or the "birth of the Son
in the soul." By this they mean that the spark of spiritual stuff, that
high special power or character of human nature, by which you first
desired, then tended to, then achieved contact with Reality, is as it
were fertilised by this profound communion with its origin; becomes
strong and vigorous, invades and transmutes the whole personality, and
makes of it, not a "dreamy mystic" but an active and impassioned
servant of the Eternal Wisdom.

So that when these full-grown, fully vital mystics try to tell us about
the life they have achieved, it is always an intensely active life that
they describe. They say, not that they "dwell in restful fruition,"
though the deep and joyous knowledge of this, perhaps too the perpetual
longing for an utter self-loss in it, is always possessed by them--but
that they "go up and down the ladder of contemplation." They stretch up
towards the Point, the unique Reality to which all the intricate and
many-coloured lines of life flow, and in which they are merged; and
rush out towards those various lives in a passion of active love and
service. This double activity, this swinging between rest and
work--this alone, they say, is truly the life of man; because this
alone represents on human levels something of that inexhaustibly rich
yet simple life, "ever active yet ever at rest," which they find in
God. When he gets to this, then man has indeed actualised his union
with Reality; because then he is a part of the perpetual creative act,
the eternal generation of the Divine thought and love. Therefore
contemplation, even at its highest, dearest, and most intimate, is not
to be for you an end in itself. It shall only be truly yours when it
impels you to action: when the double movement of Transcendent Love,
drawing inwards to unity and fruition, and rushing out again to
creative acts, is realised in you. You are to be a living, ardent tool
with which the Supreme Artist works: one of the instruments of His
self-manifestation, the perpetual process by which His Reality is
brought into concrete expression.

Now the expression of vision, of reality, of beauty, at an artist's
hands--the creation of new life in all forms--has two factors: the
living moulding creative spirit, and the material in which it works.
Between these two there is inevitably a difference of tension. The
material is at best inert, and merely patient of the informing idea; at
worst, directly recalcitrant to it. Hence, according to the balance of
these two factors, the amount of resistance offered by stuff to tool, a
greater or less energy must be expended, greater or less perfection of
result will be achieved. You, accepting the wide deep universe of the
mystic, and the responsibilities that go with it, have by this act
taken sides once for all with creative spirit: with the higher tension,
the unrelaxed effort, the passion for a better, intenser, and more
significant life. The adoration to which you are vowed is not an affair
of red hassocks and authorised hymn books; but a burning and consuming
fire. You will find, then, that the world, going its own gait, busily
occupied with its own system of correspondences--yielding to every gust
of passion, intent on the satisfaction of greed, the struggle for
comfort or for power--will oppose your new eagerness; perhaps with
violence, but more probably with the exasperating calmness of a heavy
animal which refuses to get up. If your new life is worth anything, it
will flame to sharper power when it strikes against this dogged
inertness of things: for you need resistances on which to act. "The
road to a Yea lies through a Nay," and righteous warfare is the only
way to a living and a lasting peace.

Further, you will observe more and more clearly, that the stuff of your
external world, the method and machinery of the common life, is not
merely passively but actively inconsistent with your sharp interior
vision of truth. The heavy animal is diseased as well as indolent. All
man's perverse ways of seeing his universe, all the perverse and
hideous acts which have sprung from them--these have set up reactions,
have produced deep disorders in the world of things. Man is free, and
holds the keys of hell as well as the keys of heaven. Within the
love-driven universe which you have learned to see as a whole, you will
therefore find egotism, rebellion, meanness, brutality, squalor: the
work of separated selves whose energies are set athwart the stream. But
every aspect of life, however falsely imagined, can still be "saved,"
turned to the purposes of Reality: for "all-thing hath the being by the
love of God." Its oppositions are no part of its realness; and
therefore they can be overcome. Is there not here, then, abundance of
practical work for you to do; work which is the direct outcome of your
mystical experience? Are there not here, as the French proverb has it,
plenty of cats for you to comb? And isn't it just here, in the new
foothold it gives you, the new clear vision and certitude--in its
noble, serious, and invulnerable faith--that mysticism is "useful";
even for the most scientific of social reformers, the most belligerent
of politicians, the least sentimental of philanthropists?

To "bring Eternity into Time," the "invisible into concrete
expression"; to "be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a
man"--these are the plainly expressed desires of all the great mystics.
One and all, they demand earnest and deliberate action, the insertion
of the purified and ardent will into the world of things. The mystics
are artists; and the stuff in which they work is most often human life.
They want to heal the disharmony between the actual and the real: and
since, in the white-hot radiance of that faith, hope, and charity which
burns in them, they discern such a reconciliation to be possible, they
are able to work for it with a singleness of purpose and an invincible
optimism denied to other men. This was the instinct which drove St.
Francis of Assisi to the practical experience of that poverty which he
recognised as the highest wisdom; St. Catherine of Siena from
contemplation to politics; Joan of Arc to the salvation of France; St.
Teresa to the formation of an ideal religious family; Fox to the
proclaiming of a world-religion in which all men should be guided by
the Inner Light; Florence Nightingale to battle with officials, vermin,
dirt, and disease in the soldiers' hospitals; Octavia Hill to make in
London slums something a little nearer "the shadows of the angels'
houses" than that which the practical landlord usually provides.

All these have felt sure that a great part in the drama of creation has
been given to the free spirit of man: that bit by bit, through and by
him, the scattered worlds of love and thought and action shall be
realised again as one. It is for those who have found the thread on
which those worlds are strung, to bring this knowledge out of the
hiddenness; to use it, as the old alchemists declared that they could
use their tincture, to transmute all baser metals into gold.

So here is your vocation set out: a vocation so various in its
opportunities, that you can hardly fail to find something to do. It is
your business to actualise within the world of time and space--perhaps
by great endeavours in the field of heroic action, perhaps only by
small ones in field and market, tram and tube, office and drawing-room,
in the perpetual give-and-take of the common life--that more real life,
that holy creative energy, which this world manifests as a whole but
indifferently. You shall work for mercy, order, beauty, significance:
shall mend where you find things broken, make where you find the need.
"Adoro te devote, latens Deitas," said St. Thomas in his great mystical
hymn: and the practical side of that adoration consists in the bringing
of the Real Presence from its hiddenness, and exhibiting it before the
eyes of other men. Hitherto you have not been very active in this
matter: yet it is the purpose for which you exist, and your
contemplative consciousness, if you educate it, will soon make this
fact clear to you. The teeming life of nature has yielded up to your
loving attention many sacramental images of Reality: seen in the light
of charity, it is far more sacred and significant than you supposed.
What about your life? Is that a theophany too? "Each oak doth cry I
AM," says Vaughan. Do you proclaim by your existence the grandeur, the
beauty, the intensity, the living wonder of that Eternal Reality within
which, at this moment, you stand? Do your hours of contemplation and of
action harmonise?

If they did harmonise--if everybody's did--then, by these individual
adjustments the complete group-consciousness of humanity would be
changed, brought back into conformity with the Transcendent; and the
spiritual world would be actualised within the temporal order at last.
Then, that world of false imagination, senseless conflicts, and sham
values, into which our children are now born, would be annihilated. The
whole race, not merely a few of its noblest, most clearsighted spirits,
would be "in union with God"; and men, transfused by His light and
heat, direct and willing agents of His Pure Activity, would achieve
that completeness of life which the mystics dare to call "deification."
This is the substance of that redemption of the world, which all
religions proclaim or demand: the consummation which is crudely
imagined in the Apocalyptic dreams of the prophets and seers. It is the
true incarnation of the Divine Wisdom: and you must learn to see with
Paul the pains and disorders of creation--your own pains, efforts, and
difficulties too--as incidents in the travail of that royal birth.
Patriots have sometimes been asked to "think imperially." Mystics are
asked to think celestially; and this, not when considering the things
usually called spiritual, but when dealing with the concrete accidents,
the evil and sadness, the cruelty, failure, and degeneration of life.

So, what is being offered to you is not merely a choice amongst new
states of consciousness, new emotional experiences--though these are
indeed involved in it--but, above all else, a larger and intenser life,
a career, a total consecration to the interests of the Real. This life
shall not be abstract and dreamy, made up, as some imagine, of
negations. It shall be violently practical and affirmative; giving
scope for a limitless activity of will, heart, and mind working within
the rhythms of the Divine Idea. It shall cost much, making perpetual
demands on your loyalty, trust, and self-sacrifice: proving now the
need and the worth of that training in renunciation which was forced on
you at the beginning of your interior life. It shall be both deep and
wide, embracing in its span all those aspects of Reality which the
gradual extension of your contemplative powers has disclosed to you:
making "the inner and outer worlds to be indivisibly One." And because
the emphasis is now for ever shifted from the accidents to the
substance of life, it will matter little where and how this career is
actualised--whether in convent or factory, study or battlefield,
multitude or solitude, sickness or strength. These fluctuations of
circumstance will no longer dominate you, since "it is Love that payeth
for all."

Yet by all this it is not meant that the opening up of the universe,
the vivid consciousness of a living Reality and your relation with it,
which came to you in contemplation, will necessarily be a constant or a
governable feature of your experience. Even under the most favourable
circumstances, you shall and must move easily and frequently between
that spiritual fruition and active work in the world of men. Often
enough it will slip from you utterly; often your most diligent effort
will fail to recapture it, and only its fragrance will remain. The more
intense those contacts have been, the more terrible will be your hunger
and desolation when they are thus withdrawn: for increase of
susceptibility means more pain as well as more pleasure, as every
artist knows. But you will find in all that happens to you, all that
opposes and grieves you--even in those inevitable hours of darkness
when the doors of true perception seem to close, and the cruel tangles
of the world are all that you can discern--an inward sense of security
which will never cease. All the waves that buffet you about, shaking
sometimes the strongest faith and hope, are yet parts and aspects of
one Ocean. Did they wreck you utterly, that Ocean would receive you;
and there you would find, overwhelming and transfusing you, the
unfathomable Substance of all life and joy. Whether you realise it in
its personal or impersonal manifestation, the universe is now friendly
to you; and as he is a suspicious and unworthy lover who asks every day
for renewed demonstrations of love, so you do not demand from it
perpetual reassurances. It is enough, that once it showed you its
heart. A link of love now binds you to it for evermore: in spite of
derelictions, in spite of darkness and suffering, your will is
harmonised with the Will that informs the Whole.

We said, at the beginning of this discussion, that mysticism was the
art of union with Reality: that it was, above all else, a Science of
Love. Hence, the condition to which it looks forward and towards which
the soul of the contemplative has been stretching out, is a condition
of being, not of seeing. As the bodily senses have been produced under
pressure of man's physical environment, and their true aim is not the
enhancement of his pleasure or his knowledge, but a perfecting of his
adjustment to those aspects of the natural world which concern him--so
the use and meaning of the spiritual senses are strictly practical too.
These, when developed by a suitable training, reveal to man a certain
measure of Reality: not in order that he may gaze upon it, but in order
that he may react to it, learn to live in, with, and for it; growing
and stretching into more perfect harmony with the Eternal Order, until
at last, like the blessed ones of Dante's vision, the clearness of his
flame responds to the unspeakable radiance of the Enkindling Light.


This document is from the Christian Classics Ethereal
Library at Calvin College,,
generated on demand from ThML source.


1. file:///ccel/u/underhill/practical/cache/practical.html3#iv-Page_vii
2. file:///ccel/u/underhill/practical/cache/practical.html3#v-Page_1
3. file:///ccel/u/underhill/practical/cache/practical.

I've found it difficult to complete this review.   I hope that is because the subject matter is inherently difficult to talk about.  Whatever it is, this isn't it.  I love this book, and will return to it again and again dispite itts limitations.  The book was written just over 100 years ago.  It is a pioneering effort --  Contemplation was absent from the modern world.  Helen Waddell had  not  translated the Desert Fathers, Thomas Merton was an infant,  There was no Christian Ashram movement, no centering prayer, no world-wide Christian contemplative movement, no talk of  a perennial wisdom, no interfaith movement, let alone an interspiritual movement.  Pioneers are great, but i am not fond of the risks they had to take.  I admire the Wright brothers but would not want to go up in their plane.

Underhill chose not to bring the great treasures of Eastern contemplation and  mysticism into consideration.  This is a great loss on several counts.  We need to see what a non-Christian spirituality really looks like and we need comparative analyses to separate what is essential about mysticism and contemplation from what is accidental or peripheral.

But i owe her a lot.  I have a more sympathetic view of Aquinas and am more astounded by the deppth of the spirituality opf Julian of Norwich.  And though she lacks the more explicit guidance of modern or Eastern meditative techniques, her thoughts about reality, ego, meditation, recollection, love, and will are valuable and much to the point.

She comes close to advocating, but doesn't quite endorse, contemplation as an avocation.  We must, by necessity, live as much or more in illlusion as in Reality.   I worry that, like Nancy Wood's Shaman, many mystics will  not be strong enough to live in both words, and like Leon Bloy. end by making both themselves and everybody else miserable.

The task of the contemplative, the mystic, is to bring the illusion more into conformity with Reality.  But i don't think that this task belongs to the mystic alone.  Not all positive change-agents will be mystics and not  all mystics will be activists.  Both mystics and others need to be more aware that all chane has unintended consequences, most of which tend to be negative.

Enjoy this book.  I certainly plan to.

Tags: contemplation, evelyn underhill, interspirituality, leon bloy, nancy wood, perennial philosophy, perspective, seeing, spiritual direction, spiritual practice, thomas merton, via negativa, words
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