Text Box: Life of a Mystic – Brian O’Neill, editor


Like William James, Evelyn Underhill stands at the beginning of the twentieth century as one of the few great Western writers willing and able to discuss psychology, spirituality and mysticism. Unlike James, she comes at the subject pure and square from within the field of mysticism whilst James views mysticism with a rather more ambivalent eye. 

In an almost tongue in cheek approach to the definition of mysticism, she writes that the inquirer will be left baffled if they seek a definition—

“He will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease, that it means having visions, performing conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being “in tune with the infinite”. He will discover it emancipates him from all dogmas—sometimes from all morality—and that at the same time it is very superstitious. One expert tells him it is simply ‘Catholic piety’, another that Walt Whitman was a typical mystic, a third assures him that all mysticism comes from the East, and supports his statement by an appeal to the mango trick. At the end of a prolonged course of lectures, sermons, tea-parties, and talks with earnest persons, the inquirer is still heard saying—too often in tones of exasperation— ‘What is mysticism?’”

Her own definition is profoundly simple.

“Here is the definition: Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in a greater or lesser degree; or who aims at or believes in such attainment”.

 (Underhill, 1914, pages 22-23)

She describes the psychology of her time as either destructive in reducing religious and mystical experience to unconscious repressed desires, or apologetic by saying this is God speaking to man in the subconscious. Psychologists, eager for morbid phenomena, are quick, she says, to see St. Paul as an epileptic and St. Theresa as the patron saint of hysterics and to find room for almost all mystics in the various departments of the pathological museum.

Her major classic on mysticism is called Mysticism: A Study in the nature and development of Man’s spiritual consciousness, and is encyclopaedic in scope. The appendix is worth reading by itself and is entitled “A Historical Sketch of European Mysticism from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Death of Blake”.

For someone to complete this extensive integration of mysticism and psychology at the turn of the twentieth century is clearly worthy of great note. Not many of the writers who followed have greatly improved on her ability to extend psychology to the study of the soul—and not just the unconscious, which later happens with Jung and Assagioli. She, like Swedenborg, is a pioneer in the psychology of the holy—with an integrated focus of soul, mind and body. 

Underhill’s more sophisticated text, which is paradoxically profoundly simple in contrast to the encyclopaedic nature of Mysticism, is her work titled Practical Mysticism, which appears four year after Mysticism. This is a more mature book “written during the last months of peace, goes to press in the first weeks of the great war”.

Defining mysticism as the “art of union with reality”, she describes the processes by which this occurs. Reminiscent of Martin Buber, she describes how we live in a world of things, of “Its”, which is echoed in our very language. Happy to ‘understand’ this world of things we shy away from the mystery and live in a world of labels. Yet now and again some great beauty or pain lifts us to another experience of reality, another state of consciousness:

“Eternity is with, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way. It needs industry and goodwill if we would make that transition: for the process involves a veritable spring-cleaning of the soul, a turning out and rearrangement of our mental furniture, a wide opening of closed windows, that the notes of the wild birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with wonder and freshness, and drown with their music the noise of the gramophone within”.

Practical Mysticism
Evelyn Underhill, page 40-41

Blake and St. John of the Cross use the metaphor of a dirty window and the need to clean it to better perceive and receive light. Underhill goes full out into a spring-cleaning, with the rearranging of the mental furniture to boot. 

We hear her depth of psychology in providing a stronger link between the state of being of that of Charles Tart, later termed “Ordinary Waking Consciousness” and this expansive spiritual state of Union with Reality.

As I read the term “gramophone within” I imagine not only a different era when the gramophone provided an artificial noise to substitute or duplicate reality (while still being reality), but also then think of how houses in the twentieth century began filling with other forms of technical reality replicators. 

We can imagine the time when there was the radio that the family sat around, then the TV, the computer, the DVD and compact CD player, cable and satellite, so that we now have wall-mounted flat screens with integrated systems of multiple reality replication.

Her initial metaphor of spring-cleaning is the launching pad for the rest of the book which provides a very mature and yet simple set of maps to understand psychologically the processes of change involved as the self experiences and unites with Reality. 

From preparation to meditation and Recollection, and the required self-adjustments, she then presents three forms of contemplation which build in a series to the full mystical life. This resultant life is not one of a hermit, but of a fully lived and useful life—a passionate, more intense and more significant life.

Underhill, E. (1910) Mysticism: A Study in the nature and development of Man’s spiritual consciousness. New American Library Edition 1974, New York.

Underhill, E. (1914) Practical Mysticism. Ariel Press, Columbus.

Evelyn UnderhillPractical Mysticism


Evelyn Underhill (1875 – 1941), English poet, novelist, and mystic was born in England and educated at Kings College for Women, London. In 1921, she was Upton Lecturer on the Philosophy of Religion at Manchester College, Oxford. Between 1900 and 1920, she wrote novels and light verse, but her lasting fame rests on her books she produced on the art of mysticism.