Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness
By Evelyn Underhill
Twelfth Edition
London: Methuen, 1930
Review by Carl McColman

I read Underhill’s magisterial “Mysticism” the summer after I graduated from high school, and I’ve been a student/devotee of the western contemplative tradition ever since. Underhill’s accessible if British-formal prose provides a wonderful, elegant stage on which the majesty and depth of the interior life can be celebrated. The book neatly divides 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 silly notions floating around in our society, 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. This was written in 1911, and 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 a house full of books on this topic, ranging from the scholarly (Bernard McGinn) to the popular (Thomas Merton) to the just plain silly (Keith Harary’s and Pamela Weintraub’s Mystical Experiences in 30 Days), and 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.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.