Is it possible to be a “Do It Yourself” Christian Mystic? Evelyn Underhill would say “No” — and I agree with her

Nearly all Christian mystics maintain that an essential characteristic of Christian mysticism is participation in the Body of Christ, which is to say, in the Christian community of faith. In other words, to be a Christian mystic, it is as important to be a follower of Christ as it is to be a mystic. And to be a follower of Christ means to express spirituality in a communal way.

The above statements annoy a lot of people. Sorry about that, but that’s how it rolls.

Community. If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us (Image credit: Shutterstock).

Community. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us (Image credit: Shutterstock).

Recently a reader of this blog forwarded me an email from a friend of his who criticizes some of Evelyn Underhill’s ideas in her book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. These two people, whom I’ll call “the reader” and “the friend,” were looking at a passage in Mysticism where Underhill describes two core mystical principles. I’ll post the complete email at the end of this post, but for now, here’s just the highlights.

Here are Underhill’s two principles, from Mysticismpages ix-x (Kindle location 63) :

  1. While mysticism is an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole content of such religion. It requires to be embodied in some degree in history, dogma and institutions if it is to reach the sense-conditioned human mind.
  2. The antithesis between the religions of “authority” and of “spirit,” the “Church” and the “mystic,” is false. Each requires the other.

Underhill goes on to say:

The “exclusive” mystic, who condemns all outward forms and rejects the support of the religious complex, is an abnormality. He inevitably tends towards pantheism, and seldom exhibits in its richness the Unitive Life. It is the “inclusive” mystic, whose freedom and originality are fed but not hampered by the spiritual tradition within which he appears, who accepts the incarnational status of the human spirit, and can “find the inward in the outward as well as the inward in the inward,” who shows us in their fullness and beauty the life-giving possibilities of the soul transfigured in God.

What Evelyn Underhill is doing here is very simple: she is drawing a distinction between mysticism in a generic sense, and mysticism as specifically manifested within Christianity. And Christian mysticism, at least, is a spirituality where mystics are “fed, but not hampered” by the community and tradition from which they emerge.

Put more simply: Christian mystics are formed by the Christian tradition and the Christian Church; therefore, to be a Christian mystic requires being positively and creatively engaged with Christian community.

As I have said, this annoys some people. Why? Because we live in an individualistic culture, which affects the way we think about spirituality.

My reader’s friend appears to be one of the annoyed. He accuses Underhill of “historical fettering” (that’s vague but I assume he means enslaved to the past), overly “rooted in history, dogma and institution,” and simply “very wrong.”

In a way, we Christians have only ourselves to blame for this kind of anti-communal thinking. After all, some Christians can be aggressive in trying to evangelize (convert) others. Such aggressive proselytizing always seems to come from a place that says “we have the truth, and you outsiders are simply wrong.” No wonder people outside the Church have begun to mirror this perspective back, and just dismiss the Church (and its advocates) as simply “very wrong”!

Because so much Christian rhetoric has, historically speaking, been so hostile to those outside the church, it has now become almost a “secular dogma” for non-churchgoers to see religious community as inherently flawed, limited, constraining, “fettering,” and — most damning of all — anti-mystical.

I am a blessed man. I have had the privilege to be mentored by so many creative, visionary, joyful, nondualist, interspiritual (or interspiritual-friendly) Christian contemplatives, that I know in my bones how engagement in faith community — even a community as toxic and dysfunctional as many churches are — actually enhances, rather than constrains, the authentic Christian mystic.

Back to my reader, his friend, and the quote from Evelyn Underhill. Needless to say, I agree with Underhill, although I might use more gentle language to make my point. I think accusing her of “historical fettering” or being overly “rooted in dogma” sheds no light on the strength (or weakness) of Underhill’s ideas; it is simply a reflection of the individualism that is pervasive in our society.

Now, the friend goes on to refer to a former Catholic priest who, a half a century ago, wrote a  book called A Question of Conscience in which he describes his crisis of faith which led to leaving the church. In the words of my reader’s friend, this book “shows how a faith became a system. He also describes powerfully the effects  of that system on the hope and joy of the Christian. It can be inimical to spiritual growth and often is.”

Now, I haven’t read A Question of Conscience so I can’t really comment on it, but I know well enough how many people do get hurt by religions (not just Catholicism). But the problem here is not that all religious groups thwart mystical spirituality, but that religious groups which have lost their mystical heart do precisely that.

When Catholicism or other forms of Christianity are hostile to mysticism, the solution is not to reject community, but to reform it. The solution to anti-mystical religion is not rejecting religion, but embracing truly mystical religion — religion grounded in contemplative practice, in silence, and in a joyful engagement with the God who is radical love.

But let me make a few final comments as to why I think Christian mysticism is, at its heart, communal mysticism.

  • I think it’s important to remember that Christian mysticism is a unique expression of mysticism, as authentic and as deep as any other “flavor” of mystical spirituality, but also marked by its uniquely Christian character. Engagement with community is integral to Christian mysticism. Other forms of mysticism, maybe not so much.
  • Obviously, I am a student and a writer concerned with Christian mysticism, so my work will explore mysticism with a Christian “view” in mind. But it’s disingenuous to dismiss the Christian view as limited or wrong just because it is anchored in tradition and community. That’s like saying a zebra is an inferior mammal because it’s not a horse.
  • Furthermore, other forms of mysticism — whether Buddhist, Vedantist, Advaitic, Sufi, or SBNR — all have their own unique view. Is that historical fettering? Not hardly. It is, to echo Underhill, how these mysticisms are “embodied” so that they may speak to the “sense-conditioned mind.”
  • If someone does not like the character of Christianity (and Christian mysticism is simply a contemplative expression of Christianity in toto), then do not be a Christian. But please do not criticize those of us who are Christians. Even my reader’s friend admitted that he recognized “the good hearts, kindness, spiritual wonderfulness of so many Catholics.” But apparently he couldn’t connect the dots and see that the institution he clearly disliked has been instrumental in fostering those good and kind and wonderful hearts.

In this blog post’s headline I ask the question “Is it possible to be a ‘Do-it-Yourself’ Christian mystic?” The key word here is Christian. If it’s really important to you to explore the interior worlds of silence and contemplation without being “fettered” by “history, dogma and institution,” go for it. I personally don’t think you’re going to go very deep, but that’s my opinion, and you’re free to disagree. Just don’t call yourself a Christian mystic — or, for that matter, a Buddhist mystic or a Vedantist mystic or a Sufi mystic. Because all of those kinds of mystics ground their spirituality in history, community, and established teaching, just like the Christians mystics do.


Here’s the text of the email my reader send me. I’ve redacted some personal information to preserve both his and his friend’s privacy. The italicized text is the words of his friend, and bold-type is quotes from Underhill. My commentary is interspersed.

(Beginning of the email has been redacted)

Freedom and spirituality are not dependent on being part of a tradition or organisation. One can be free in a church and outside. One can be in slavery inside a church and outside. Freedom and spirituality are a matter of consciousness. I think Evelyn is very wrong – in everyday reality we see God shining and sometimes brilliantly in those without formal membership of a religion.

Yes, sometimes God shines brilliantly in the outsider. And sometimes musicians are brilliant without any formal training. But it’s naive to look at the occasional prodigy and decide that music school is a waste of time. Likewise, Christian spirituality, expressed communally, is a “school” for service and love (as described by Saint Benedict and the early Cistercians). At its best, it’s also a school for theosis (union with God), the heart of mystical Christianity. Don’t look at the rare genius and decide that schooling is universally unnecessary — that is a prescription for the triumph of mediocrity.

Evelyn is a very good example I believe of what we might call historical fettering. Evelyn wanted to become a Roman Catholic but couldn’t accept the treatment of the Modernists under Pius X. She became a devout Anglo Catholic and a pretty orthodox one I think. I remember reading her on Quietism for my Masters and while she was no doubt a good and erudite lady she misunderstood Quietism  – probably because she saw things through orthodox glasses. This is a common phenomena. The Cure of Ars was a wonderful man of God but practiced flagellation, ate the worst food and believed that most people went to Hellfire eternally. Historical conditioning is very strong – we are all affected by it. I think Evelyn’s statements are a reflection of her High Church Anglicanism which are of course firmly rooted in history, dogma and institution.

I don’t know that anyone regards the Curé d’Ars as a mystic, and the fact that he abused asceticism is not particularly relevant to this argument (St. Benedict and Henry Suso are just two of many mystics who argue against excessive asceticism, seeing it as a violation of humility). Once again, it’s unfair to judge the church on the basis of those who are abusive. That’s like saying America is a terrible nation because you disagree with one of the political parties.

I think some errors in Evelyn’s thought are the following:
First, that while mysticism is an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole content of such religion.
But if Mysticism is Union with God and knowing our true identity what else could be the content?

Christian mysticism is actually much much more than “knowing our true identity” — that sounds like gnosticism, not mysticism. Christian mysticism is Union with Love, which is expressed not only toward God, but toward other humans as well. So it is radically grounded in service, in community, in compassion, and in care for others, especially those in need.

The “exclusive” mystic, who condemns all outward forms and rejects the support of the religious complex, is an abnormality. He inevitably tends towards pantheism, and seldom exhibits in its richness the Unitive Life.
What is the evidence for this ?  What about the great Hindu and Buddhist mystics who did this? Is their Mysticism voided then?

I think it’s fair to say that Underhill made a mistake here in not specifying that she is speaking about a specifically western (that is, Christian) expression of mysticism. But within that Christian context, her words are perfectly fair.

It is the “inclusive” mystic, whose freedom and originality are fed but not hampered by the spiritual tradition within which he appears, who accepts the incarnational status of the human spirit, and can “find the inward in the outward as well as the inward in the inward,” who shows us in their fullness and beauty the life-giving possibilities of the soul transfigured in God.
Yet the Mystics who move beyond form find God in the outer as well as the inner.

At this point I think we’re quibbling over semantics. Underhill is making a fairly strong statement for nondual consciousness. But apparently it wasn’t strong enough for my reader’s friend.

I also think Evelyn misses the point that often the official religion is the one that opposed the Spirit – Yes – Authority versus Spirit. It was the Jewish Religious leaders who rejected Jesus with their authority and tradition. It was the priests and bishops of our own faith who persecuted the Catholic mystics. Although not a mystical work, Charles Davis’s A Question of Conscience is the best book I know which shows how a faith became a system. He also describes powerfully the effects  of that system on the hope and joy of the Christian. It can be inimical to spiritual growth and often is. To tie faith and spirituality to this mediated form is – in my view – very wrong. Not when we can fly with wings freely like the Eagle into the Heart of God. 

But an eagle who does not know how to fly may as well be earth-bound; likewise, an aspiring mystic who lacks the guidance and formation of wise elders and the riches of the tradition will, at best, waste time reinventing the wheel, and is at risk for deluding him- or herself into thinking a dip into the shallow waters of self-directed spirituality is actually a meaningful transfiguration. Once again, I have no argument that institutional forms of Christianity (not just Catholicism) have at times been distressingly anti-mystical. But to throw out the communal baby with the institutional bathwater leads not to a flowering of “unfettered” mysticism, but to the banalities that we see characterizing our current secularized society.

PS – this is not to deny the good hearts, kindness, spiritual wonderfulness of so many Catholics.

The friend ends with a word of grace. I just wish he would think this through and recognize that the “spiritual wonderfulness” that he recognizes in so many Catholics comes about because of how their engagement with Christian spiritual tradition and community has formed them.


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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.