Evelyn Underhill (1850-1941) was a British author on the subject of mysticism. Underhill is often described as an Anglo-Catholic. Although she was interested in the Catholic faith, her husband apparently resisted her conversion. Thus she technically remained a Protestant.
Her book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) is widely regarded as a Christian classic. Here Underhill revives the memory of many Christian saints in the minds of her mostly protestant readers.
She dismissed William James‘ Four Marks of Religious Experience, preferring to treat the topic in a fresh new way, loosely based on her own religious experiences as compared to those found written in Christian history. James, himself, openly admitted that he was not a mystic but, rather, an interested researcher and writer on the topic. So, by way of analogy, Underhill’s revision of James was something like an actual race car driver telling an interested onlooker that he didn’t really know what he was talking about when writing about race car driving.¹
Sincere mystics, she writes, are aware of the need for intense rational discernment and self-analysis.
Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must, they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtably “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.”²
In Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1914), published at the outbreak of WW-I, Underhill makes a distinction between meditation and contemplation. While these two terms often overlap, Underhill suggests that, for the most part, meditation may lead to more elevated forms of contemplative understanding. As Underhill puts it:
Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.³
The strength of this definition is that it’s not black and white, as so many fundamentalists and conservatives depict the world. Rather, it represents a developmental approach. One meditates to put things together, process information, and make sense of their world. But that’s not enough. One also has to reach for the highest high, which actually reaches down to us. For Christians, this is the experience of the Holy Spirit, which perhaps not all forms of meditation emphasize.
Another strength of Underhill’s approach is that she tries to normalize and remove the stigma from a discussion about mystical experience. This is ahead of its time. Today, we hear lots of talk about removing the stigma of so-called “mental illness.” But we still don’t hear much about removing the stigma around talking about mysticism. If anything, we’ve collectively gone backwards toward a kind of techno-materialism. The term “mental illness” implies a predominantly medical issue instead of one involving the entire person—physical, psychological, social and spiritual.
¹ Not that Underhill was the final authority. Her letters to the respected religious layman Friedrich von Hugel reveal her own struggles and uncertainties. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Underhill#Influences. She simply makes some good points.
² Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: The New American Library, 1955 ), p. 361. As the administrator of Earthpages, a site largely about religion and religious experience, I have come across so many people utterly convinced that they’re “special” or some kind of prophet just because they’ve had an unconventional experience or two. In some cases, it seems these folks are misguided. Over the years I’ve discovered that it’s easy to make mistakes with mysticism. Not so easy to admit it. Why? Because admitting we’ve made a mistake means we have to FEEL the underlying emotions we’ve been covering up, and which contributed to the mistake in the first place. It’s far easier for some people to go on being misguided. They don’t have to feel what hurts. And as long as they keep their erroneous ideas to themselves, they can sometimes function well enough in society to effectively mask their borderline psychological condition.
³ ___, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London: Dent, 1914), p. 46.