Ivory Towers and Woolly-Heads?

A few days ago I opened an old and familiar book that was donated to the Cathedral by the late Terry Coutret, who was something of a mystic and local authority on the inner and spiritual life. She bequeathed her library of Evelyn Underhill works to our library and I have been dipping into them ever since. To say that Underhill was a genius of the interior life is an “under”-statement. Her ability to find and craft the language of the soul’s exploration toward God is remarkable at times; she gives voice to some of the subtlest movements of the conscience and heart in that exploration that I have encountered. In her book “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book For Normal People,” Underhill is distilling her life’s work into a kind of vade mecum of how to pray, and what to do when our prayers become tethered. Her chapters 7-10 give a concise road map of what prayerful recollection, meditation, and prayer can feel like for the beginner, and any one who is wondering if they might be called to such a path.

I have been fortunate through my childhood and early years to have had teachers and mentors who have pitched in, and helped me along the way. However, as a pastor and fellow-traveler with others, I know that everyone is not so fortunate. Sometimes we can feel God’s presence so acutely that we may not know how to explain the sense of urgency we feel in our souls. We can also be drawn so close to God for a season that all terrestrial pursuits lose their flavor and excitement. So that those who love and support us in life might begin to wonder about our well-being, wondering if have lost something of our “good old selves”; and if truth were told, that is exactly what is happening. We are losing one kind of grasp on terrestrial life because we are pursuing, or being pursued, by another kind of life – a life folded into God.

At times I have had to reach into the lives of folks like Underhill, Lewis, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Dame Julian, Reginald Sommerset-Ward, and others to be reminded that this daily concourse with the Good Shepherd, with something eternal amid the terrestrial, is not a fool’s errand. Occasionally there is the criticism that finding a deep stasis within for things divine can make one quite useless in terms of things worldly and practical. I remember once saying to such a critic, “Yes, God has drawn close enough to my life to make me quite useless in the eyes of those whose kingdom remains within this world.” It was said tongue-in-cheek, but with a splinter of truth.

Earlier this week as I thumbed through “Practical Mysticism” I read the preface, and I was struck by the theme and tone of Underhill’s message. She is addressing the cultivation of the interior life on the eve of WWI, and how such inner journeys might be entirely appropriate within a world situation that continually tears itself to shreds. I was inspired and encouraged in walking this path, and having made it a significant piece of my own life’s work. In sharing this Preface, my hope is that when you may come into the presence of the easy and comfortable criticism of “worldlings,” the champions of “common sense,” that you will find a hand on the side of the pool and steady yourself. Like anything worth adding to the storehouse of our minds and hearts, it is a bit long, and it is full of protein rather than carbs. I also recommend the entire work to anyone who has had enough of one world and is seeking another. Blessings and Godspeed. A.



This little book, written during the last months of peace, goes to press in the first weeks of the Great War. Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal, or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book which deals with that which is called the “contemplative” attitude to existence is wholly out of place. So obvious, indeed, is this point of view that I had at first thought of postponing its publication. On the one hand, it seems as though the dreams of a spiritual renaissance, which promised so fairly but a little time ago, had perished in the sudden explosion of brute force. On the other hand, the thoughts of the English race are now turned, and rightly, towards the most concrete forms of action—struggle and endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long-continued effort—rather than towards the passive attitude of self-surrender which is all that the practice of mysticism seems, at first sight, to demand. Moreover, that deep conviction of the dependence of all human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of the Divine Spirit within the human soul, which lies at the root of a mystical concept of life, is hard indeed to reconcile with much of the human history now being poured red-hot from the cauldron of war. For all these reasons, we are likely during the present crisis to witness a revolt from those superficially mystical notions which threatened to become too popular during the immediate past.

Yet, the title deliberately chosen for this book—that of “Practical” Mysticism—means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles for which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything. On the contrary, if the experiences on which it is based have indeed the transcendent value for humanity which the mystics claim for them—if they reveal to us a world of higher truth and greater reality than the world of concrete happenings in which we seem to be immersed—then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time. It is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not—as some suppose—a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgment on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed. Perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the two women who have left the deepest mark upon the military history of France and England—Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale—both acted under mystical compulsion. So, too, did one of the noblest of modern soldiers, General Gordon. Their national value was directly connected with their deep spiritual consciousness: their intensely practical energies were the flowers of a contemplative life.

We are often told, that in the critical periods of history it is the national soul which counts: that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” No nation is truly defeated which retains its spiritual self-possession. No nation is truly victorious which does not emerge with soul unstained. If this be so, it becomes a part of true patriotism to keep the spiritual life, both of the individual citizen and of the social group, active and vigorous; its vision of realities unsullied by the entangled interests and passions of the time. This is a task in which all may do their part. The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers. It is therefore the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness, of those who try to practice it. It will help them to enter, more completely than ever before, into the life of the group to which they belong. It will teach them to see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness. It will educate them in a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism; it will confer on them an unconquerable hope; and assure them that still, even in the hour of greatest desolation, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” As a contribution, then, to these purposes, this little book is now published. It is addressed neither to the learned nor to the devout, who are already in possession of a wide literature dealing from many points of view with the experiences and philosophy of the mystics. Such readers are warned that they will find here nothing but the re-statement of elementary and familiar propositions, and invitations to a discipline immemorially old. Far from presuming to instruct those to whom first-hand information is both accessible and palatable, I write only for the larger class which, repelled by the formidable appearance of more elaborate works on the subject, would yet like to know what is meant by mysticism, and what it has to offer to the average man: how it helps to solve his problems, how it harmonizes with the duties and ideals of his active life. For this reason, I presuppose in my readers no knowledge whatever of the subject, either upon the philosophic, religious, or historical side. Nor, since I wish my appeal to be general, do I urge the special claim of any one theological system, any one metaphysical school. I have merely attempted to put the view of the universe and man’s place in it which is common to all mystics in plain and untechnical language: and to suggest the practical conditions under which ordinary persons may participate in their experience. Therefore the abnormal states of consciousness which sometimes appear in connection with mystical genius are not discussed: my business being confined to the description of a faculty which all men possess in a greater or less degree.

The reality and importance of this faculty are considered in the first three chapters. In the fourth and fifth is described the preliminary training of attention necessary for its use; in the sixth, the general self-discipline and attitude toward life which it involves. The seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters treat in an elementary way of the three great forms of contemplation; and in the tenth, the practical value of the life in which they have been actualized is examined. Those kind enough to attempt the perusal of the book are begged to read the first sections with some attention before passing to the latter part.

E. U.

September 12, 1914.

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