“What the world, which truly knows nothing, calls “mysticism’ is the science of ultimates,…the science of self-evident Reality, which cannot be ‘reasoned about,’ because it is the object of pure reason or perception. The Babe sucking its mother’s breast, and the Lover returning, after twenty years’ separation, to his home and food in the same bosom, are the types and princes of Mystics.”
—Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
I’ve been plowing through Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill’s seminal work on the subject. It’s deep reading for one who regards herself as having no great mind, especially when the subject itself it defined by that scariest word ‘science.’ But somehow I manage to stay afloat by hanging on to those common threads of understanding that I have intuited through personal experience.
I sit down to read, with journal and pencil in hand, mostly in the mornings but also at other times of the day. And as I read, ever so slowly, I underline what hits home and write down what bears repeating. Words like these, some of which Underhill borrows from others, but most of which are home-grown by Ms. Underhill herself:
“…we have agreed that sanity consists in sharing the hallucinations of our neighbors.”
“Feeling is the tentacle we stretch out to the world of things.”
In her discussion of spiritual rebirth…”Since the soul, according to mystic principles, can only perceive Reality in proportion as she is real, know God by becoming Godlike, it is clear that this birth is the initial necessity.”
“If you truly know how these things come to pass, ask it of grace, not of doctrine, of desire, not of intellect; of the ardours of prayer, not of the teachings of the schools…”
“Further, the study of the mystics, the keeping company however humbly with their minds, brings with it as music or poetry does–but in a far greater degree–a strange exhiliration, as if we were brought near to some mighty source of Being, were at last on the verge of the secret which all seek.”
These words, and many others like them, affirm the importance of my work toward recovering my true self. They also offer hope that my intutition and feeling, as long as it moves me to experience, may be enough gas to at least take me as far as God’s neighborhood, it not to God’s actual address. And though a beautiful mind could be helpful, I’ve learned it can actually prove a hindrance where the thinker only thinks and never does.
It’s been eleven years since my own spiritual rebirth–which was instigated by my going on the weekend retreat known as “Walk to Emmaus”. I was agitated and disoriented afterwards–as the realization hit home that most of my life had not been directed toward eternity but the pursuit of worldly frass–and I quickly recognized I was in desperate need of some sort of compass to help me find ‘the man upstairs’. So, after a meeting with my then pastor, who offered me what direction he could, I sat down in the quiet of my home to ponder the subject of God. Then, quite out of nowhere, shot this thought into my head, “I wonder if it’s possible to really plug into God–to really know God and to feel His presence.”
Perhaps in an unconscious effort to answer this question, I began to read many ‘spiritual’ books, including the reading of the Bible five or six times straight through. At the same time I began to attend and then much later lead some spiriual formation classes. And as I look back on all of this activity, I see that this question out of nowhere, was somehow a compass in and of itself. The strength of the question has surely led me to one sacred dot after another which has finally lead me to this motherlode of mystical knowledge, to those ‘explorers of eternity’ who have not only posed the same question, but have answered it through personal experience. Smarter than me, they knew the answer did not lie in books but in everything that is of the world and at the same time, everything that lies wihin our deepest, truest selves.
After eleven years of groping, perhaps I am closing in on the heals of the secret, though I now see that while I have a mystical bent, I mostly likely am not a mystic at heart, at least in the truest sense of Underhill’s words. For the “true explorers of eternity” set out on their spiritiual journey for only one reason: Love. Listen to the invitation she issues:
“Give yourself, then, to this divine and infinite life, this mysterious Cosmic activity in which you are immersed, of which you are born. Trust it. Let it surge in on you. Cast off, as the mystics are always begging you to do, the fetters of senses, the “remora of desire”; and making your interest identical with those of the All, rise to freedom, to that spontaneous, creative life which, inherent in every individual self, is our share of the life of the Universe. You are yourself vital–a free centre of energy–did you but know it. You can move to higher level, to greater reality, truer self-fulfillment, if you will. Though you be, as Plato said, like an oyster in your shell, you can open that shell to the living waters without, draw from the “Immortal Vitality.” Thus only by contact with the real–shall you know reality.”
Her words are enough to make one weep.