(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Evelyn Underhill begins Mysticism with the awakening of the self to a consciousness of Divine Reality. This experience, usually abrupt and well recognized, is accompanied by feelings of intense joy. She suggests that it is an intense form of “conversion” or “sanctification.” It is usually a crisis experience. She cites the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who went into the church of San Damiano to pray and, “having been smitten by unwonted visitations, found himself another man than he who had gone in.” Some people like George Fox, founder of the Quakers, however, have a more gradual experience. In awakening, the person surrenders totally to God, and a passionate love for God, for the Absolute, is born.

As Underhill says, “the business and method of Mysticism is Love.” According to “An Epistle of Discretion” (probably by the same anonymous author as The Cloud of Unknowing, first transcribed in the late fourteenth century), God “may not be known by reason, [God] may not be gotten by thought, nor concluded by understanding; but [God] may be loved and chosen with the true lovely will of thine heart.” As John of Ruysbroeck put it, “where intelligence must rest without, love and desire can enter in.”

The process of purification, purgation, begins. The soul, meeting God, realizes its sinfulness, its willfulness. Catherine of Genoa’s first response to her vision of God’s unmeasured love was “No more world! no more sin!” The first steps are contrition and repentance. According to Richard of Saint Victor, though, the “essence of purgation is self-simplification.” The perpetual process of purification has both negative and positive sides. The first is detachment, the stripping away or purging of all that is superfluous, illusionary, or distracting. It is the essence of the “evangelical counsels”: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Many, though not all, of the great mystics have been members of religious orders or have adopted monastic practices, at least during this period of their lives. Underhill defines poverty as “a breaking down of [humanity’s] inveterate habit of trying to rest in, or take seriously, things which are ’less than God’: i.e., which do not possess the character of reality.”

The more positive or active side is mortification, the changing of one’s character, the forming of new habits. It is a dying and finding new life. According to fourteenth century mystic John Tauler, “this dying has many degrees, and so has this life. A man might die a thousand deaths in one day and find at once a joyful life corresponding to each of them.” Asceticism for the mystics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Another fourteenth century mystic, Henry Suso, practiced extreme mortification for sixteen years, and then “on a certain Whitsun Day a heavenly messenger appeared to him, and ordered him in God’s name to continue no more.” He ceased at once “and threw all the instruments of his sufferings . . . into a river.” Catherine of Genoa went through a penitential period of four years, constantly haunted by a sense of sin, and then in an instant it seemed as though her sins were cast into the sea and she was free. In...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cropper, Margaret. Life of Evelyn Underhill: An Intimate Portrait of the Groundbreaking Author of “Mysticism.” 1958. With a new foreword by Dana Greene and an introduction by Emilie Griffin. Woodstock, Vt.: SkyLight Paths, 2003. A reissue of an absorbing spiritual biography by an early biographer and friend of Underhill. This detailed account of Underhill’s life remains an excellent introduction to her work.

Greene, Dana. Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life. 1990. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. Greene is well read in Underhill’s works, has done extensive research and interviews, and knew Underhill personally. Thus, this thorough biography goes beyond life facts to include Underhill’s mentors, environment, milieu, and passions. Includes a bibliography and index.

Griffin, Emilie. Introduction to Evelyn Underhill: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2003. A very well-written, authoritative, and concise summary of Underhill’s life and achievements. An excellent introduction.

Underhill, Evelyn. The Letters of Evelyn Underhill. Edited with an introduction by Charles Williams. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1989. Underhill’s letters reveal the pervasiveness of her spiritual preoccupations.