Sacred Texts  Mysticism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911], at

I. Introductory

We are now to turn from general principles and study those principles in action: to describe the psychological process, or “Mystic Way,” by which that peculiar type of personality which is able to set up direct relations with the Absolute is usually developed. The difficulty of this description will lie in the fact that all mystics differ one from another; as all the individual objects of our perception, “living” and “not living,” do. The creative impulse in the world, so far as we are aware of it, appears upon ultimate analysis to be free and original not bound and mechanical: to express itself, in defiance of the determinists, with a certain artistic spontaneity. Man, when he picks out some point of likeness as a basis on which to arrange its productions in groups, is not discovering its methods; but merely making for his own convenience an arbitrary choice of one or two—not necessarily characteristic—qualities, which happen to appear in a certain number of different persons or things. Hence the most scientific classification is a rough-and-ready business at the best.  331

When we come to apply such classification to so delicate and elusive a series of psychological states as those which accompany the “contemplative life,” all the usual difficulties are increased. No one mystic can be discovered in whom all the observed characteristics of the transcendental consciousness are resumed, and p. 168 who can on that account be treated as typical. Mental states which are distinct and mutually exclusive in one case, exist simultaneously in another. In some, stages which have been regarded as essential are entirely omitted: in others, their order appears to be reversed. We seem at first to be confronted by a group of selves which arrive at the same end without obeying any general law.

Take, however, a number of such definitely mystical selves and make of them, so to speak, a “composite portrait”: as anthropologists do when they wish to discover the character of a race. From this portrait we may expect a type to emerge, in which all the outstanding characteristics contributed by the individual examples are present together, and minor variations are suppressed. Such a portrait will of course be conventional: but it will be useful as a standard, which can be constantly compared with, and corrected by, isolated specimens.

The first thing we notice about this composite portrait is that the typical mystic seems to move towards his goal through a series of strongly marked oscillations between “states of pleasure” and “states of pain.” The existence and succession of these states—sometimes broken and confused, sometimes crisply defined—can be traced, to a greater or less degree, in almost every case of which we possess anything like a detailed record. Gyrans gyrando radii spiritus . The soul, as it treads the ascending spiral of its road towards reality, experiences alternately the sunshine and the shade. These experiences are “constants” of the transcendental life. “The Spiritual States of the Soul are all Eternal,” said Blake, with the true mystical genius for psychology.  332

The complete series of these states—and it must not be forgotten that few individuals present them all in perfection, whilst in many instances several are blurred or appear to be completely suppressed—will be, I think, most conveniently arranged under five heads. This method of grouping means, of course, the abandonment of the time-honoured threefold division of the Mystic Way, and the apparent neglect of St. Teresa’s equally celebrated Seven Degrees of Contemplation; but I think that we shall gain more than we lose by adopting it. The groups, however, must be looked upon throughout as diagrammatic, and only as answering loosely and generally to experiences which seldom present themselves in so rigid and unmixed a form. These experiences, largely conditioned as they are by surroundings and by temperament, exhibit all the variety and spontaneity which are characteristic of life in its highest manifestations: and, like biological specimens, they lose something of their essential reality in being prepared for scientific investigation. Taken all together, they constitute phases in a p. 169 single process of growth; involving the movement of consciousness from lower to higher levels of reality, the steady remaking of character in accordance with the “independent spiritual world.” But as the study of physical life is made easier for us by an artificial division into infancy, adolescence, maturity, and old age, so a discreet indulgence of the human passion for map-making will increase our chances of understanding the nature of the Mystic Way.

Here, then, is the classification under which we shall study the phases of the mystical life.

(1) The awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. This experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense feelings of joy and exaltation.

(2) The Self, aware for the first time of Divine Beauty, realizes by contrast its own finiteness and imperfection, the manifold illusions in which it is immersed, the immense distance which separates it from the One. Its attempts to eliminate by discipline and mortification all that stands in the way of its progress towards union with God constitute Purgation: a state of pain and effort.

(3) When by Purgation the Self has become detached from the “things of sense,” and acquired those virtues which are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage,” its joyful consciousness of the Transcendent Order returns in an enhanced form. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Cave of Illusion,” it has awakened to knowledge of Reality, has struggled up the harsh and difficult path to the mouth of the cave. Now it looks upon the sun. This is Illumination: a state which includes in itself many of the stages of contemplation, “degrees of orison,” visions and adventures of the soul described by St. Teresa and other mystical writers. These form, as it were, a way within the Way: a moyen de parvenir, a training devised by experts which will strengthen and assist the mounting soul. They stand, so to speak, for education; whilst the Way proper represents organic growth. Illumination is the “contemplative state” par excellence. It forms, with the two preceding states, the “first mystic life.” Many mystics never go beyond it; and, on the other hand, many seers and artists not usually classed amongst them, have shared, to some extent, the experiences of the illuminated state. Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.

(4) In the development of the great and strenuous seekers after God, this is followed—or sometimes intermittently accompanied—by the most terrible of all the experiences of the Mystic Way: the final and complete purification of the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the “mystic pain” or “mystic death,” p. 170 by others the Purification of the Spirit or Dark Night of the Soul. The consciousness which had, in Illumination, sunned itself in the sense of the Divine Presence, now suffers under an equally intense sense of the Divine Absence: learning to dissociate the personal satisfaction of mystical vision from the reality of mystical life. As in Purgation the senses were cleansed and humbled, and the energies and interests of the Self were concentrated upon transcendental things: so now the purifying process is extended to the very centre of I-hood, the will. The human instinct for personal happiness must be killed. This is the “spiritual crucifixion” so often described by the mystics: the great desolation in which the soul seems abandoned by the Divine. The Self now surrenders itself, its individuality, and its will, completely. It desires nothing, asks nothing, is utterly passive, and is thus prepared for

(5) Union: the true goal of the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination: but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by intense certitude. To call this state, as some authorities do, by the name of Ecstasy, is inaccurate and confusing: since the term Ecstasy has long been used both by psychologists and ascetic writers to define that short and rapturous trance—a state with well-marked physical and psychical accompaniments—in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision. Ecstasies of this kind are often experienced by the mystic in Illumination, or even on his first conversion. They cannot therefore be regarded as exclusively characteristic of the Unitive Way. In some of the greatest mystics—St. Teresa is an example—the ecstatic trance seems to diminish rather than increase in frequency after the state of union has been attained: whilst others achieve the heights by a path which leaves on one side all abnormal phenomena.

Union must be looked upon as the true goal of mystical growth; that permanent establishment of life upon transcendent levels of reality, of which ecstasies give a foretaste to the soul. Intense forms of it, described by individual mystics, under symbols such as those of Mystical Marriage, Deification, or Divine Fecundity, all prove on examination to be aspects of this same experience “seen through a temperament.”

It is right, however, to state here that Oriental Mysticism insists upon a further stage beyond that of union, which stage it regards as the real goal of the spiritual life. This is the total annihilation or reabsorption of the individual soul in the Infinite. p. 171 Such an annihilation is said by the Sufis to constitute the “Eighth Stage of Progress,” in which alone they truly attain to God. Thus stated, it appears to differ little from the Buddhist’s Nirvana, and is the logical corollary of that pantheism to which the Oriental mystic always tends. Thus Jalalu d’Din:

“O, let me not exist! for Non-Existence
Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.’”  333

It is at least doubtful, however, whether the interpretation which has been put by European students upon such passages as this be correct. The language in which Al Ghazzali attempts to describe the Eighth Stage is certainly more applicable to the Unitive Life as understood by Christian contemplatives, than to the Buddhistic annihilation of personality. “The end of Sufi-ism,” he says, “is total absorption in God. This is at least the relative end to that part of their doctrine which I am free to reveal and describe. But in reality it is but the beginning of the Sufi life, for those intuitions and other things which precede it are, so to speak, but the porch by which they enter. . . . In this state some have imagined themselves to be amalgamated with God, others to be identical with Him, others again to be associated with Him: but all this is sin .”  334

The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a Dark, a Self-loss. Further it will be found that this language is often an attempt to describe the conditions of transitory perception, not those of permanent existence: the characteristics, that is to say, of the Ecstatic Trance, in which for a short time the whole self is lifted to transcendent levels, and the Absolute is apprehended by a total suspension of the surface consciousness. Hence the Divine Dark, the Nothing, is not a state of non-being to which the mystic aspires p. 172 to attain: it is rather a paradoxical description of his experience of that Undifferentiated Godhead, that Supernal Light whence he may, in his ecstasies, bring down fire from heaven to light the world.

In the mystics of the West, the highest forms of Divine Union impel the self to some sort of active, rather than of passive life: and this is now recognized by the best authorities as the true distinction between Christian and non-Christian mysticism. “The Christian mystics,” says Delacroix, “move from the Infinite to the Definite; they aspire to infinitize life and to define Infinity; they go from the conscious to the subconscious, and from the subconscious to the conscious. The obstacle in their path is not consciousness in general, but self -consciousness, the consciousness of the Ego. The Ego is the limitation, that which opposes itself to the Infinite: the states of consciousness free from self, lost in a vaster consciousness, may become modes of the Infinite, and states of the Divine Consciousness.”  335 So Starbuck: “The individual learns to transfer himself from a centre of self-activity into an organ of revelation of universal being, and to live a life of affection for and one-ness with, the larger life outside.”  336

Hence, the ideal of the great contemplatives, the end of their long education, is to become “modes of the Infinite.” Filled with an abounding sense of the Divine Life, of ultimate and adorable reality, sustaining and urging them on, they wish to communicate the revelation, the more abundant life, which they have received. Not spiritual marriage, but divine fecundity is to be their final state. In a sense St. Teresa in the Seventh Habitation, Suso when his great renunciation is made, have achieved the quest, yet there is nothing passive in the condition to which they have come. Not Galahad, but the Grail-bearer is now their type: and in their life, words or works they are impelled to exhibit that “Hidden Treasure which desires to be found.”

“You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa, “that the soul in this state [of union] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.”  337

No temperament is less slothful than the mystical one; and the “quiet” to which the mystics must school themselves in the early stages of contemplation is often the hardest of their tasks. The abandonment of bodily and intellectual activity is only p. 173 undertaken in order that they may, in the words of Plotinus, “energize enthusiastically” upon another plane. Work they must but this work may take many forms—forms which are sometimes so wholly spiritual that they are not perceptible to practical minds. Much of the misunderstanding and consequent contempt of the contemplative life comes from the narrow and superficial definition of “work” which is set up by a muscular and wage-earning community.

All records of mysticism in the West, then, are also the records of supreme human activity. Not only of “wrestlers in the spirit” but also of great organizers, such as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross; of missionaries preaching life to the spiritually dead, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, Eckhart, Suso Tauler, Fox; of philanthropists, such as St. Catherine of Genoa or St. Vincent de Paul; poets and prophets, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg, Jacopone da Todi and Blake, finally, of some immensely virile souls whose participation in the Absolute Life has seemed to force on them a national destiny. Of this St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Siena, and Saint Joan of Arc are the supreme examples. “The soul enamoured of My Truth,” said God’s voice to St. Catherine of Siena, “never ceases to serve the whole world in general.”  338

Utterly remade in the interests of Reality, exhibiting that dual condition of fruition and activity which Ruysbroeck described as the crowning stage of human evolution, the “Supreme summit of the Inner Life,”  339 all these lived, as it were, with both hands towards the finite and towards the Infinite, towards God and man. It is true that in nearly every case such “great actives” have first left the world, as a necessary condition of establishing communion with that Absolute Life which reinforced their own: for a mind distracted by the many cannot apprehend the One. Hence something equivalent to the solitude of the wilderness is an essential part of mystical education. But, having established that communion, re-ordered their inner lives upon transcendent levels—being united with their Source not merely in temporary ecstasies, but in virtue of a permanent condition of the soul, they were impelled to abandon their solitude; and resumed, in some way, their contact with the world in order to become the medium whereby that Life flowed out to other men. To go up alone into the mountain and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends. This systole-and-diastole motion of retreat as the preliminary to a return remains the true ideal of Christian Mysticism in its highest development. Those in p. 174 whom it is not found, however great in other respects they may be, must be considered as having stopped short of the final stage.

Thus St. Catherine of Siena spent three years in hermit-like seclusion in the little room which we still see in her house in the Via Benincasa, entirely cut off from the ordinary life of her family. “Within her own house,” says her legend, “she found the desert; and a solitude in the midst of people.”  340 There Catherine endured many mortifications, was visited by ecstasies and visions: passed, in fact, through the states of Purgation and Illumination, which existed in her case side by side. This life of solitude was brought to an abrupt end by the experience which is symbolized in the vision of the Mystic Marriage, and the Voice which then said to her, “Now will I wed thy soul, which shall ever be conjoined and united to Me!” Catherine, who had during her long retreat enjoyed illumination to a high degree, now entered upon the Unitive State, in which the whole of her public life was passed. Its effect was immediately noticeable. She abandoned her solitude, joined in the family life, went out into the city to serve the poor and sick, attracted and taught disciples, converted sinners, and began that career of varied and boundless activity which has made her name one of the greatest in the history of the fourteenth century. Nor does this mean that she ceased to live the sort of life which is characteristic of mystical consciousness: to experience direct contact with the Transcendental World, to gaze into “the Abyss of Love Divine.” On the contrary, her practical genius for affairs, her immense power of ruling men, drew its strength from the long series of visions and ecstasies which accompanied and supported her labours in the world. She “descended into the valley of lilies to make herself more fruitful,” says her legend.  341 The conscious vehicle of some “power not herself,” she spoke and acted with an authority which might have seemed strange enough in an uneducated daughter of the people, were it not justified by the fact that all who came into contact with her submitted to its influence.

Our business, then, is to trace from its beginning a gradual and complete change in the equilibrium of the self. It is a change whereby that self turns from the unreal world of sense in which it is normally immersed, first to apprehend, then to unite itself with Absolute Reality: finally, possessed by and wholly surrendered to this Transcendent Life, becomes a medium whereby the spiritual world is seen in a unique degree operating directly in the world of sense. In other words, we are to see the human mind advance from the mere perception of phenomena, through the p. 175 intuition—with occasional contact—of the Absolute under its aspect of Divine Transcendence, to the entire realization of, and union with, Absolute Life under its aspect of Divine Immanence.

The completed mystical life, then, is more than intuitional: it is theopathetic. In the old, frank language of the mystics, it is the deified life .

p. 176



Science seems more and more inclined to acquiesce in this judgment. See especially A. N. Whitehead: “Man and the Modern World” and “Religion in the Making.”


“Jerusalem,” pt. iii.


Quoted by R. A. Nicholson, “The Mystics of Islam,” p. 168.


Schmölders, “Les Écoles Philosophiques chez les Arabes,” p. 61.


“Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 235.


“The Psychology of Religion,” p. 147.


“El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sétimas, cap. i.


Dialogo, cap. vii.


“De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. lxxiii.


E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 15.


S. Catherine Senensis Vitae (Acta SS. Aprilis t. iii.), ii. ii. § 4.

Next: II. The Awakening of the Self