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Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism

I read Evelyn Underhill’s magisterial study of mysticism, the summer after I graduated from high school, and I’ve been a student/devotee of the western contemplative tradition ever since.

Truly, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, first published in 1911, is a book that changed my life.

Underhill’s formal, yet accessible prose provides a wonderful, elegant stage on which the majesty and depth of the interior life can be celebrated. The book is neatly divided into two halves: the first examines mysticism from theological, psychological, and philosophical perspectives; the second takes the reader on a tour of the process of mystical growth over the lifespan, looking at such key life passages and transitions as conversion, self-purification, illumination, the “dark night,” and union.

What emerges is a developmental map for adult spiritual growth, which is a tremendous corrective to many of the unhelpful notions floating around in the Christian community, such as the idea that one single “born again” experience is all that is necessary to achieve total spiritual attainment.

What I especially love about Underhill is her evident enthusiasm and passion for her subject matter. Without ever saying it in so many words, she reveals in her writing that mysticism is more than a dry subject for disinterested study; it is a living, breathing tradition, one that demands engagement and participation from those who would explore it.

Ultimately, mysticism is not found in a book, but in the lived process of relating to the Divine. It’s ironic that this message needs to be passed down in books, and yet, Underhill’s wonderful study of the subject does just that.

Given how old this book is, naturally it, shows some marks of age; for example, the chapter on “Vitalism” refers to a philosophical fad of her day that seems almost totally irrelevant a century later. Even so, I have yet to find a single volume that provides a better, more useful, and more potentially transformative introduction to the contemplative life than this book.

There are many editions of this book available: from Image Books, from Acrophile Press, from OneWorld Publications, and a nice large-format edition from CreateSpace, among many others. The old mass market edition from Dutton is still my favorite. If you want an ebook version, get the Dover Edition for Kindle. It’s also available for Logos and Verbum, if you use either of those software applications.

 

It’s fair to say that I wrote my own book on this topic, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, as a way, at least in part, of imagining what Evelyn Underhill’s book might have been like, had she been writing it a century later. Also, in 2011, to mark the centennial of this important text, I gave a paper at a conference in Atlanta called A Book for All Time: Why Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism Still Matters (click on the link to read it).

 

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