Five Marks of Authentic Mysticism (Underhill)

Five Marks of Authentic Mysticism (Underhill) September 5, 2009

In her introduction to Orbis Books’ Essential Writings of Evelyn Underhill, Emilie Griffin notes that Underhill delineates five marks or characteristics of authentic Christian mysticism. These are well worth considering:

  1. Christian mysticism is active and practical. Even a Carthusian hermit takes responsibility for living his contemplative life with honor, dignity, and personal integrity. Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Christian contemplatives, the life of silence is embedded in a network of community relationships and responsibilities of some form. True mysticism does not fly from such obligations, but embraces them and seeks to meet them well.
  2. Christian mysticism is spiritual and transcendental, rather than magical. The authentic mystic does not seek supernatural power for the purpose of controlling earthly circumstances, but rather seeks to surrender to the will and calling of Divine Love. By doing so, one does not abdicate the need to be engaged with the earthly dimension of life (see #1), but rather abandons all things to Divine Providence, whether “good” or “bad.” Both pleasure and suffering are held lightly and viewed in the light of eternity.
  3. Christian mysticism is centered in love. It is not centered in experience, or in shifts of consciousness, or even in miracles or healing — no matter how worthy such spiritual matters might be. For the authentic mystic, all the phenomena of mysticism is always subordinate to the essential fact and yearning for ever-unfolding intimacy and immersion into the dance of Divine love. Such love is the heart of the Trinity and the key to Divine-human relations.
  4. Union with God in authentic mysticism transforms the mystic for ever richer levels of life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says of his followers, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Mysticism is a portal into such abundant living. Like all things of God, it is never an end to itself — if it were, it would cease to be an icon and instead become an idol. Mysticism points beyond itself to the life of kenosis and theosis: self-emptying in order to participate in the Divine nature.
  5. As a result of such loving union, the authentic mystic becomes unselfish. Just as normal human moral development moves us from ego-centric to ethnocentric and finally world-centric stages of care, so the mystical life makes love of God and love of neighbor real by anchoring love of self in ever-widening circles of concern. An unselfish mystic is not contemptuous of the self, but rather loses interest in self-aggrandizement because of the deep love for and interest in others: love that is, of course, expressed in concrete, practical ways.

Let me finish this post by quoting Emilie Griffin directly, as she has so eloquently summarized how these marks of authentic mysticism transform the contemplative who truly seeks a God-centered life:

The mystic is not seeking his or her own happiness, virtue, or well-being, though by surrendering self such blessings are often heaped upon him or her. The true mystic is not looking for peak experiences or altered states of consciousness. No, the genuine mystic is on a course of radical self-forgetting, self-surrendering, and self-transcending. Thus Underhill distinguishes the authentic mystic from those who are looking for a spiritual high.

— Introduction to Essential Writings of Evelyn Underhill, p. 13f.

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  • I really love this post. The most potent Christian scripture is one of the briefest – “God is love.” The Triune God draws us to the table of Divinum Mysterium and this is the essence of contemplative spirituality. And yes, it does change us in this lifelong journey of becoming, of being formed in the image of Christ.

  • Scratchynotes

    A beautiful summary of a mystic life and what we become in following the way of Christ.

  • Louise Jeffree

    This is true, as a housewife and pregnant mum i see the truth in practicality and activity being mystical when accepted as such.
    A Jesuit I once worked with reflected on the wolves motif in the Ignatian family coat of alms – they fed the wild wolves, but if we see our emotions as these wolves, which emotions do we want more of? Which wolves ought we to feed?