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Enter Evelyn Underhill, Who Would Point to the Moon for Western Seekers

Enter Evelyn Underhill, Who Would Point to the Moon for Western Seekers December 6, 2016

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The wonderful Evelyn Underhill was born on this day in Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands, England, in 1875.

She would grow to become a novelist, poet, and most of all a renowned spoksperson for the mystical encounter. Me, I tend to be wary of those who use the word mysticism and the related as too often they are speaking of psychic phenomenon, things in the general area of reading auras or bending spoons. Of course, there are other meanings in that word, and Underhill is the great spokesperson for those other meanings.

Over the years she would be the author of many books. But, no doubt her magnum opus was Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, published in 1911. It is now in public domain and the link is to a complete copy of the book.

The Wikipedia article characterizes the “spirit of the book (as) romantic, engaged, and theoretical rather than historical or scientific.” It was also deeply accessible. I know in my own early years casting about for some explanation of the inner life, that this was enormously helpful. She was for me a powerful counter voice to another important theorist of universal spiritual encounter, William James.

underhill quoteMost importantly, unlike the great psychologist, she seemed to speak from actual experience. As Underhill tried to put what she had experienced together with her observations out of a deep reading into the mystical literature of the West, she offered a typology that continues to make sense to me. It is definitely not mysticism as spoon bending.

“(1) mysticism is practical, not theoretical, (2) mysticism is an entirely spiritual activity, (3) the business and method of mysticism is love, and (4) mysticism entails a definite psychological experience.” Now, I think it all needs unpacking, and she does. I don’t find I agree with everything, nor should I. But, my, she does point in a true direction.

While Underhill was deeply enchanted with the Roman church and had intimate friends and spiritual companions from within that tradition, for a number of reasons not least her husband’s antipathy to Rome, Underhill remained within the Anglican communion for her whole life. Personally, I think to the good for many.

underhill quote 2As the Wikipedia article summarizes, “More than any other person, she was responsible for introducing the forgotten authors of medieval and Catholic spirituality to a largely Protestant audience and the lives of eastern mystics to the English-speaking world.” And to more than one Western Buddhist, I’d add. The Anglican communion observes the anniversary of her death in June, 1941 as a saint’s feast. I find that totally appropriate.

She was a significant figure. A wonderful guide. If you’re not familiar with her, I encourage you to explore a little what it is she had to offer. If you are, you might go back and dip into her writings. I believe you will find it will prove useful.

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