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Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911], at


Since this book first appeared, nineteen years ago, the study of mysticism—not only in England, but also in France, Germany and Italy—has been almost completely transformed. From being regarded, whether critically or favourably, as a byway of religion, it is now more and more generally accepted by theologians, philosophers and psychologists, as representing in its intensive form the essential religious experience of man. The labours of a generation of religious psychologists—following, and to some extent superseding the pioneer work of William James—have already done much to disentangle its substance from the psycho-physical accidents which often accompany mystical apprehension. Whilst we are less eager than our predecessors to dismiss all accounts of abnormal experience as the fruit of superstition or disease, no responsible student now identifies the mystic and the ecstatic; or looks upon visionary and other “extraordinary phenomena” as either guaranteeing or discrediting the witness of the mystical saints. Even the remorseless explorations and destructive criticisms of the psycho-analytic school are now seen to have effected a useful work; throwing into relief the genuine spiritual activities of the psyche, while explaining in a naturalistic sense some of their less fortunate psycho-physical accompaniments. The philosophic and theological landscape also, with its increasing emphasis on Transcendence, its new friendliness to the concept of the Supernatural, is becoming ever more favourable to the metaphysical claims of the mystics. On one hand the prompt welcome given to the work of Rudolf Otto and Karl Barth, on the other the renewed interest in Thomist philosophy, seem to indicate a growing recognition of the distinctness and independence of the Spiritual Order. and a revival p. xiv of the creaturely sense, strongly contrasting with the temper of late nineteenth-century thought.

Were I, then, now planning this book for the first time, its arguments would be differently stated. More emphasis would be given (a) to the concrete, richly living yet unchanging character of the Reality over against the mystic, as the first term, cause and incentive of his experience; (b) to that paradox of utter contrast yet profound relation between the Creator and the creature, God and the soul, which makes possible his development; (c) to the predominant part played in that development by the free and prevenient action of the Supernatural—in theological language, by “grace”—as against all merely evolutionary or emergent theories of spiritual transcendence. I feel more and more that no psychological or evolutionary treatment of man’s spiritual history can be adequate which ignores the element of “given-ness” in all genuine mystical knowledge. Though the mystic Life means organic growth, its first term must be sought in ontology; in the Vision of the Principle, as St. Gregory the Great taught long ago. For the real sanction of that life does not inhere in the fugitive experiences or even the transformed personality of the subject; but in the metaphysical Object which that subject apprehends.

Again, it now seems to me that a critical realism, which found room for the duality of our full human experience—the Eternal and the Successive, supernatural and natural reality—would provide a better philosophic background to the experience of the mystics than the vitalism which appeared, twenty years ago, to offer so promising a way of escape from scientific determinism. Determinism—more and more abandoned by its old friends the physicists—is no longer the chief enemy to such a spiritual interpretation of life as is required by the experience of the mystics. It is rather a naturalistic monism, a shallow doctrine of immanence unbalanced by any adequate sense of transcendence, which now threatens to re-model theology in a sense which leaves no room for the noblest and purest reaches of the spiritual life.

Yet in spite of the adjustments required by such a shifting at the philosophic outlook, and by nearly twenty years of further p. xv study and meditation, the final positions which seem to me to be required by the existence of mysticism remain substantially unchanged. Twenty years ago, I was already convinced that the facts of man’s spiritual experience pointed to a limited dualism; a diagram which found place for his contrasting apprehension of Absolute and Contingent, Being and Becoming, Simultaneous and Successive. Further, that these facts involved the existence in him too of a certain doubleness, a higher and lower, natural and transcendental self—something equivalent to that “Funklein” spark, or apex of the soul on which the mystics have always insisted as the instrument of their special experience. Both these opinions were then unpopular. The second, in particular, has been severely criticized by Professor Pratt and other authorities on the psychology of religion. Yet the constructive work which has since been done on the metaphysical implications of mystical experience has tended more and more to establish their necessity, at least as a basis of analysis; and they can now claim the most distinguished support.

The recovery of the concept of the Supernatural—a word which no respectable theologian of the last generation cared to use—is closely linked with the great name of Friedrich von Hügel. His persistent opposition to all merely monistic, pantheist and immanental philosophies of religion, and his insistence on the need of a “two-step diagram” of the Reality accessible to man, though little heeded in his life-time, are now bearing fruit. This re-instatement of the Transcendent, the “Wholly Other,” as the religious fact, is perhaps the most fundamental of the philosophic changes which have directly affected the study of mysticism. It thus obtains a metaphysical background which harmonizes with its greatest declarations, and supports its claim to empirical knowledge of the Truth on which all religion rests. Closely connected with the transcendence of its Object, are the twin doctrines emphasized in all Von Hügel’s work. First, that while mysticism is an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole content of such religion. It requires to be embodied in some degree in history, dogma and institutions if it is to reach the sense-conditioned human mind. Secondly, that the antithesis between the religions of “authority” and of p. xvi “spirit,” the “Church” and the “mystic,” is false. Each requires the other. The “exclusive” mystic, who condemns all outward forms and rejects the support of the religious complex, is an abnormality. He inevitably tends towards pantheism, and seldom exhibits in its richness the Unitive Life. It is the “inclusive” mystic, whose freedom and originality are fed but not hampered by the spiritual tradition within which he appears, who accepts the incarnational status of the human spirit, and can “find the inward in the outward as well as the inward in the inward,” who shows us in their fullness and beauty the life-giving possibilities of the soul transfigured in God.

Second in importance among the changes which have come over the study of mysticism, I should reckon the work done during the last decade upon the psychology of prayer and contemplation. I cannot comment here upon the highly technical discussions between experts as to the place where the line is to be drawn between “natural” and “supernatural,” “active” and “infused” operations of the soul in communion with God; or the exact distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” contemplation. But the fact that these discussions have taken place is itself significant; and requires from religious psychology the acknowledgement of a genuine two-foldness in human nature—the difference in kind between Animus the surface-self and Anima the transcendental self, in touch with supernatural realities. Here, the most important work has been done in France; and especially by the Abbé Bremond, whose “Prière et Poésie” and “Introduction a la Philosophie de la Prière”—based on a vast acquaintance with mystical literature—mark, I believe, the beginning of a new understanding of the character of contemplation. The Thomist philosophy of Maritain, and the psychological researches of Maréchal, tend to support this developing view of the mystical experience, even in its elementary forms, as an activity of the transcendental self; genuinely supernatural, yet not necessarily involving any abnormal manifestations, and linked by the ascending “degrees of prayer” with the subject’s “ordinary” religious life. This disentangling of the substance of mysticism from the psycho-physical accidents of trance, ecstasy, vision and other abnormal phenomena which often p. xvii accompany it, and its vindication as something which gives the self a genuine knowledge of transcendental Reality—with its accompanying demonstration of the soberness and sanity of the greatest contemplative saints—is the last of the beneficent changes which have transformed our study of the mystics. In this country it is identified with the work of two Benedictine scholars; Abbot Chapman of Downside and Dom Cuthbert Butler, whose “Western Mysticism” is a masterly exhibition of the religious and psychological normality of the Christian contemplative life, as developed by its noblest representatives.

Since this book was written, our knowledge of the mystics has been much extended by the appearance of critical texts of many writings which had only been known to us in garbled versions; or in translations made with an eye to edification rather than accuracy. Thus the publication of the authentic revelations of Angela of Foligno—one of the most interesting discoveries of recent years—has disclosed the unsuspected splendour of her mystical experience. The critical texts of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross which are now available amend previous versions in many important respects. We have reliable editions of Tauler and Ruysbroeck; of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and of Walter Hilton’s works. The renewed interest in seventeenth-century mysticism, due in part to the Abbé Bremond’s great work, has resulted in the publication of many of its documents. So too the literary, social and historical links between the mystics, the influence of environment, the great part played by forgotten spiritual movements and inarticulate saints, are beginning to be better understood. Advantage has been taken of these facts in preparing the present edition. All quotations from the mystics have been revised by comparison with the best available texts. The increased size of the historical appendix and bibliography is some indication of the mass of fresh material which is now at the disposal of students; material which must be examined with truth-loving patience, with sympathy, and above all with humility, by those who desire to make valid additions to our knowledge of the conditions under which the human spirit has communion with God.

Easter 1930 E. U.

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