Evelyn Underhill was a prolific writer of some thirty-nine published books and more than three hundred and fifty articles and reviews who wrote about mysticism in her early years and about the spiritual life of ordinary people in her latter years (Evelyn pp).
Educated at King's College, London, Underhill converted to the Christian faith in 1907, the year she married, and began a spiritual quest that led to the Christian mystics with Catholic Friedrich von Hugel as her spiritual director until his death in 1925 (Evelyn pp).
Her first book and one of her most important, "Mysticism," was published in 1911 and in this and subsequent works, Underhill sought to find harmony between formal and orthodox Christian theology and practical spiritual experience (Evelyn pp). And in "Mystics of the Church," 1925, she reveals the spiritual history of those mystical saints Underhill considered of great importance and influence (Evelyn pp). Underhill encouraged and urged her readers to go "beyond mere spiritual curiosity and knowledge in pointing out the practicality of a deeper spiritual experience" (Evelyn pp). Before Underhill's work, most of what had been published limited the reader to historical knowledge and took an objective approach to mysticism (Evelyn pp). Aware that believers needed guidelines to appropriate for themselves the spiritual experiences of the great mystics of the past, she believed that figures such as Richard Rolle or John of the Cross could be shared by anyone, therefore mysticism could be relevant to modern day (Evelyn pp). Underhill ignited a renewed interest in men and women like Nicholas of Cusa, Walter Hilton, Teresa of Avila, as well as many others, and believed that the Christian mystics attained a high level of spiritual transformation because "they loved and attended to Him more than we do"
She believed that the Christian mystics attained a high level of spiritual transformation because "they loved and attended to Him more than we do" (Evelyn pp).
Underhill's life has often been described as having two distinct parts, namely the years before her tutelage under von Hugel and the years following his influence (Johnson pp). Describing herself in these early years as a "white-hot neoplatonist," Underhill claimed her penchants for monism and platonic dualism were overcome by von Hugel's orthodoxy influence and her acceptance of his philosophical framework known as Critical Realism that argued for a limited duality between nature and supernature (Johnson pp). Therefore according to von Hugel, "the bridge between humanity and God was the incarnate Christ" (Johnson pp). Underhill's life and thought reveals a steady progression in her theological understanding that continued far beyond von Hugel's influence and was heavily influenced by an optimistic and evolutionary perspective known as Vitalism (Johnson pp).
She used this perspective to describe the spiritual life as the mystical ascent to God through the development of one's spiritual consciousness (Johnson pp).
In "Mystics of the Church," Underhill writes,
Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God;
and a mystic is a person who has, to greater or less degree, such as a direct experience - one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge" (Underhill 1988).
According to Underhill, the great spiritual writers of Europe, such as Julian of Norwich, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Blessed Henry Suso, and many others formed a network of spiritual believers during unbelieving times (Underhill 1988). Reiterating the words of John of the Cross, Underhill writes, "In every soul, even that of the greatest sinner, God lives and substantially dwells" (Durkin pp). According to Underhill,
God is always really in the soul...but this does not mean that He always communicates to it supernatural being.
This communication is the fruit of grace and love, and all souls do not enjoy it.
Those who do, do not posses it in the same degree, since their love may be greater or less...The greater the love, the more intimate is the union" (Durkin pp).
Underhill believed as John of the Cross believed, that humans are incomplete creatures, merely half-formed, and are constantly and continually being shaped by God's pervasive presence and pressure (Durkin pp).
Underhill writes, "Don't say 'God made me,' say 'God is making me'...for the Divine Creator is still working on you" (Durkin pp). The embryonic human is half-awakened and not quite formed, like clay on which the artist is still working, and brooding over him, with "His hand on His creature's head, the strong and tender figure of the Artist-Creator," thus, like Adam, we too are partially formed and unfinished creatures (Durkin pp). John of the Cross also refers to the Artist within our souls, capable of accomplishing his handiwork only if we become receptive to his touch, for left to ourselves, according to Underhill, our accomplishments are merely natural and temporal (Durkin pp).
She writes, "Our spiritual life begins with a recognition of this humble truth, and a willing response to the Spirit, who first creates, then nurtures and stimulates us" (Durkin pp).
John of the Cross, Juan de Yepes, was a 16th century Spanish mystic and poet who founded the Discalced Carmelites. He was also a devotee and friend of Saint Teresa of Avila, whom he allowed to guide his spiritual journey.
So devoted to her reforms was he that he angered the hierarchy and was imprisoned in 1577 and subjected to physical and mental tortures. It was in his cell that Saint John wrote "Spiritual Canticle" and began working on "Songs of the Soul," poems that blend lyricism and deep mystical thought and considered among the finest creations of the Golden Age of Spanish literature.
After escaping in 1578, Saint John spent his last days struggling against his opponents and in the creation of masterly prose treatises on mystical theology, notably "The Dark Night of the Soul" and "The Ascent of Mount Carmel" (John pp).
John of the Cross taught that the practice of self-knowledge is the first requirement for advancing toward the knowledge of God, therefore, it is necessary to take the time to examine one's past and discover how the indwelling Presence has shaped their life, suggests Underhill (Durkin pp). She believes that perhaps what one would simply dismiss as a lucky coincidence is actually God's molding and the work of the Lord's nurturing grace, "his initiative, not yours" (Durkin pp). To respond to God's presence and pressures, Underhill cites John of the Cross teaching: "Absolute self-giving is the only path from the human to the Divine" and then she adds, "...by prayer also...the two are really the one" (Durkin pp).
She goes on to explain that to forma a closer union with God, one must purge oneself of all that separates him form Divine Goodness, and for most humans, "this is a lifetime process, demanding a drastic remaking of our character - getting rid first of self-love, and second, of all those foolish interests which prevent us from making God the center of our lives" (Durkin pp).
In "Spiritual Canticle," John of the Cross expressed that self-forgetfulness is on certain way to unite with God, a sentiment Underhill echoes when she writes,
Just plain self-forgetfulness is the greatest of graces...The true relation between the soul and God is the perfectly simple one of childlike dependence. Well, then, be simple, and dependent, acknowledge that you have nothing of your own, offer your life to God and trust Him with the ins and outs of your soul as well as everything else! Cultivate loving relation to Him in your daily life" (Durkin pp).
Mystics understand the selflessness that one must have to unite one's soul with God, to understand the essential wisdom of life. For true asceticism requires the cleansing and…