When I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, I had a very unsettling dream about the end of the world. Perhaps that in itself is not so surprising, as my world was coming to an end in that I had just left the comfort and security of secondary education and was about to strike off on my own, living away from home for the first time. Consciously I was only excited about going to college, but there was plenty enough anxiety gurgling just below the threshold of my normal awareness to power a nightmare of truly apocalyptic proportions.
The imagery of the dream came straight out of evangelical Christian end-time anticipation: stars falling out of the sky, a sense of foreboding chaos, darkness at mid-day. But other elements did not immediately come out of that milieu: a deep silence that descended over the town where I lived, and a final, terrifying sense of my entire being dissolving as the fabric of reality dissolved around me. No wonder I awoke with a racing heart.
In my dream, as I panicked I asked my friend Larry (my companion throughout the dream) to find me a Bible. He found a book and offered it to me: the Bhagavid-Gita. Impatiently, I knocked it away, demanding that I only wanted the scripture of Christianity. I guess my love for interfaith spirituality did not withstand the stress of dreaming about the end of the world (It would be interesting for my mind to replay that tape now, almost 30 years later, to see if I would be more comfortable with a sacred text other than my own).
I shared this scary dream with David, the former organist at my church with whom I had maintained a friendship. He was a Unitarian who only played at a Lutheran Church because he loved music and needed the money; he had no use for Christian theology in general or Lutheran theology in particular. However, upon hearing about my dream he recommended a Christian book to me — what turned out to be the single most life-changing book recommendation anyone has ever made to me (at least, thus far). He lent me a paperback copy of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, and suggested that this might give me some insight into what was roiling within my unconscious.
The rest is history. Not only did that book help me make sense of my scary apocalyptic dream, but it also gave me a context for a much happier spiritual experience I had undergone two and a half years earlier, and — best of all — it opened up the entire world of orthodox and catholic Christian mysticism to me, a world that had never been mentioned in my Lutheran church education (for years I thought this was because Lutheranism is inimical to mysticism. As denominations go, it is among the most anti-mystical, but I have since learned that pretty much every mainline church does a terrible job at teaching mysticism at the parish level). Discerning readers of this website/blog will note that the banner I’ve created for the website is derived from the Dutton paperback edition of Mysticism (click here to see the original cover), and of course, Mysticism remains the lead book on my Mystical Library booklist. Arguably, I would never had become a student of the inner life, a practitioner of contemplative prayer, a Catholic, or the author of this blog and website, had I not read this wonderful book.
So why am I writing about all this?
Well, I’m following up to an earlier post in which I discuss Anne Lamott’s advice to writers that they write the book they wish they could have read. Now, I think in the summer of 1979, Underhill’s Mysticism was actually the perfect book for me to read. Scholarly without being dense or inaccessible, and poetic in its own charmingly stuffy Edwardian-era style, it appealed to my bookish side as a work of intellectual substance and merit, yet its subject matter opened up for me the profound and vast world of historical spirituality: a world that transcended the limitations of modernist rationality, only without the regressive anti-intellectualism that I had come to distrust in fundamentalism and occultism (this was before the concept of the “new age” had caught on, at least in my world). So Evelyn Underhill introduced me to Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing, to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, to Meister Eckhart and Catherine of Genoa, to Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius — and even more importantly, gave me the basic outline of their common themes and recurring patterns of the spiritual experience of these great heroes of the Christian mysteries. Years later, when I would read Ken Wilber’s theories of creating a validity claim for spiritual experience by looking for the patterns and consistencies in the experiences of many different contemplatives and visionaries, it all made perfect sense to me, for this was precisely the methodology Underhill had used 85 years earlier to flesh out her in-depth study of the Christian path to unitive consciousness.
So Underhill gave me much in her book: an introduction to an entire tradition, insights into the contours of that tradition’s core wisdom, and a roster of the most important voices within that tradition. The one thing she didn’t do is give me much in the way of simple, practical, and sequential direction for embarking on my own exploration of the Christian mysteries.
Of course, other books have attempted to do this, books I have gone on to read since first encountering Christian mysticism in Underhill’s book. But I have yet to read a “how-to” book on Christian spirituality that I would consider as valuable as Mysticism, even though it is lacking in its practical instruction.
So. The book I wish I could read: a simple, practical, and sequential step-by-step manual on how to embark on the path of Christian mysticism in our day. With as much depth, erudition, and command of the tradition as Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism.
In other words: take my one of my own books — The Aspiring Mystic — and revise it, not only by making it more user-friendly and substantive but also by adding plenty of background material on the history and core teachings of the tradition.
There. That’s the book I wish I could have read, way back in 1979. Actually, it sounds like a book I’d still enjoy reading today.