Spiritual desolation, wherein the mystic loses all sense of intimate support; misery that can last for months

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Faith beholds that which is: Charity loves that which is: Hope alone beholds and loves that which shall be. Faith is static; hope dynamic. Faith is a great tree; hope is the rising sap, the little, swelling bud upon the spray.


EVELYN UNDERHILL (1875-1941)

EVELYN UNDERHILL (1875-1941)


Evelyn Underhill was an English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, in particular Christian mysticism. In the English-speaking world, she was one of the most widely read writers on such matters in the first half of the 20th century.
Evelyn Underhill was a prolific writer who published 39 books and more than 350 articles and reviews. In her early years, she wrote on mysticism; in her latter years on the spiritual life as lived by ordinary people. This latter work is more accessible than the earlier writing. Perhaps the best introduction to her is Letters, edited by Charles Williams, which give an introduction to her principal ideas, her style of guidance, and her immense sense of humanity and accessibility. The Spiritual Life, an edition of her BBC broadcast, first given orally, is a clear, concise introduction to her thought. Most of Evelyn Underhill’s retreats were published, and many are still in print. A wonderful anthology of her work is Delroy Oberg’s Evelyn Underhill: Daily Readings with a Modern Mystic.

Her key early works on mysticism include Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness and Practical Mysticism.

The Marks, Experiences and Processes of Mysticism

Contemplative awareness. A “joyous apprehension of the Absolute” in contemplative, inward-oriented or introvertive realizations.24 This is typically accompanied by what Donald Evans, a Canadian philosopher and mystic, calls an “appreciative awareness” that everything is “wondrous and radiant and harmonious and good—in an ultimate sense of ‘good’ which transcends our usual dichotomy between good and evil.” So, Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century English anchoress, claims with the authority of such contemplative awareness, that “all things shall be well…You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.”25

Visionary experiences. The play of imagination in contemplative reflection. These are unusual or paranormal kinds of experiences that come in the form of images or voices in dreams, prayer or meditative repose. They might include visions of popular religious figures or narrative stories; various kinds of spiritual presences; or automatic writings. Saint Augustine influentially proposed visio as a basic mystical category and visio spiritualis (imagination) as a key medium for both mystical experience and art. Julian of Norwich’s famous “Showings” highlight especially her visions of Jesus in his passion and redemption, while Saint Hildegard of Bingen is noted especially for her thematic visions, such as the Universe, Universal Man, Motherhood, and the Choirs of Angels, which she described and interpreted in detail and which were subsequently illuminated.26

Nature mysticism or cosmic consciousness. The heightening of an outward-oriented sensory awareness, which includes a sense of unitive spirit in nature, along with a sense of one’s higher self permeating the natural world. Underhill writes, “In [William] Blake’s words ‘the doors of perception are cleansed’ so that everything appears to [humanity] as it is, infinite.” The thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure insists that all creatures possess “a refulgence of the divine exemplar,” which can transport the mystic who becomes aware of this underlying essence out of darkness into the light of God.27 So Pope Francis writes, “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.”28

Contemplative quiet. Silent, static and radically passive contemplative states of “quiet” involving the “almost complete suspension of the reflective faculties,” which have become “recollected” or gathered into the higher self. Madame Guyon, a late-seventeenth-century French authority on contemplative prayer, was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille for over seven years for her teachings on this experience. She spoke influentially of a radically passive and tranquil form of consciousness: the mystic retreats deeply inward, to rest in openness and silence in God’s enfolding and rejuvenating presence.29
According to Underhill and other writers, beyond these conditions of illuminated consciousness (the four outlined above), which are largely within the means of the mystics’ own powers and resources, are higher stages of infused contemplation and the unitive life, where the absolute is “apprehended by way of participation, not by way of observation,” in experiences that are given to the mystic through grace rather than attained via her or his own efforts. At this point, Underhill distinguishes further types of experiences:

Rapture. Abnormal trance-states of consciousness that include highly charged and fantastic ecstatic components of vitally invigorating and enlivening “joyous exaltation.” Underhill calls this unitive condition the “inebriation of the Infinite”—a “spiritual storm” that in its most extreme form can involve highly pronounced feelings of levitation and can leave the mystic extremely disoriented and distracted for days. Describing these experiences, Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote about passionately ecstatic mystical transports or forceful movements beyond oneself, realizations of numinous light, and even painful mystical affliction—an “enraptured” torment that eventually finds its compensation in renewing consolation.30

The dark night. Spiritual desolation, wherein the mystic loses all sense of intimate support, relation or unity with the spiritual reality that she or he previously enjoyed. She or he succumbs to profound feelings of inadequacy and isolation characterized by deep depression, dread, anxiety, darkness, deprivation, chaos and misery that can last for months or even years. Saint John of the Cross—a close friend of Saint Teresa of Ávila’s—who was imprisoned and brutally punished by his Carmelite brothers for his reforming work, is a primary source on this difficult dynamic. He distinguishes between trials in the purification of the senses and the harsher struggles of the dark night of the soul—where the mystic feels wholly lost and utterly abandoned by the spirit she or he had previously known in mystical rapture and communion.31 Underhill interprets this as an extreme aspect of the mystic’s ongoing struggle to renounce and overcome her or his inherent self-centredness.

Contemplative unity. Wherein the purgative features of the experience of the dark night find their transformative fruition in a spiritual unification with the absolute that is much more stable and continuous than the union that occurs in rapture. According to Underhill, the account of this experience can take two major forms, depending on the person’s theological interpretive framework: cataphatic, a personal and theistic imagery of self-fulfillment in beloved union with a divine being; or apophatic, a language of absorption in a non-personal transcendent absolute or divine essence. So Richard of Saint Victor, the thirteenth-century prior and theologian of the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, characterizes the contemplative unity in passionate, sensual terms, as a romance between Jesus and the mystic (betrothal, marriage, wedlock, and conjugal fruitfulness). In contrast, Jan van Ruusbroec, a fourteenth-century Flemish mystic, describes a dark and unconditioned “waylessness of God” that “swallows” the mystic up in an “essential unity.”32

Theopathetic life. The person in an authentic mystical union “submits to the inflow of its supernal vitality,” giving creative and individual expression to spiritual reality in her or his daily active life.33 The unitive dynamic involves a harmonious sharing of the qualities and powers of the divine. Meister Eckhart, the early-fourteenth-century German theologian, philosopher and mystic, for example, stressed the inherent creativity, compassion and justice of God, which find their unique manifestation or outflow in our world in the life and actions of people who identify with these qualities of the Godhead in a radically open and unitive fashion.34

About Evelyn Underhill’s Life

EVELYN UNDERHILL (1875-1941)

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was born at Wolverhampton on December 6, 1875, the only child of (Sir) Arthur Underhill, barrister, and a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, by his wife, Alice Lucy, younger daughter of Moses Ironmonger, justice of the peace of Wolverhampton. She was educated at home, save for three years at a private school in Folkestone, and later went to King’s College for Women, London, where she read history and botany. She also became a first-class bookbinder. During her girlhood and the greater part of her married life her holidays were spent yachting, both her father and her husband being enthusiastic yachtsmen. From 1898 to 1913 she went abroad every spring and came to know and love the artistic treasures of France and Italy.

Evelyn Underhill began writing before she was sixteen and her first publication, A Bar-Lamb’s Ballad Book, of humorous verse concerned with the law, appeared in 1902. In 1907 she married Hubert Stuart Moore, a barrister, whom she had known since childhood. They had many interests in common in country lilfe and country lore, and in a love of cats. She shared her husband’s interest in wood and metal work and made many of the designs which he carried out.

The year of her marriage witnessed her final conversion to the Christian faith, although not to Anglicanism, for her attraction was the towards Rome. But the outbreak of the modernist storm in the same year made it seem to her that the demands of Rome postulated a surrender of her intellectual honor. Through her first important book, Mysticism (1911), she made the acquaintance of Baron Friedrich von Hugel to whom “under God, ” she wrote, “I owe…my whole spiritual life.” Ten years later she formally put herself under his spiritual direction and she remained his pupil until his in 1925.

From the time of her conversion Evelyn Underhill’s life consisted of various forms of religious work. She was fond of quoting St. Teresa’s saying that “to give Our Lord a perfect service Martha and Mary must combine.” Her mornings were given to writing and her afternoons to visiting the poor and to the direction of souls. As she grew older the work of direction increased until it finally became her chief interest, but it was not until 1921 that she solved her own problem and became a practising member of the Anglican communion. In 1924 she began to conduct retreats, and a number of her books consist of these conferences. Her other publications include three novels, two books of verse, a number of works on philosophy and religion, and various editions of, and critical essays on, mystics such as Ruysbroeck and Walter Hilton. She also wrote reviews and special articles for the Spectator (of which she was for some years the theological editor), and later for Time and Tide. In 1921 she gave the Upton lectures on religion at Manchester College, Oxford, later published under the title The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (1922). While working on Worship (1936), writtten for the Library of Constructive Theology, she became deeply interested in the Greek Orthodox Church and joined the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius.

During World War I (1914-1918) Evelyn Underhill worked at the Admiralty in the naval intelligence (Africa) department, but her views changed and in 1939 she found herself a Christian pacifist. She joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and wrote for it an uncompromising pamphlet, The Church and War (1940).

In 1913 Evelyn Underhill became an honorary fellow of King’s College of Women and in 1927 fellow of King’s College; in 1939 she received the honorary degree of D.D. from the university of Aberdeen. She had a vivid, lively personality with a keen sense of humor and great lightness of touch. As befitted a good Incarnationalist she was interested in every side of life and had a passion for efficiency in everything she undertook. In her dealings with people, and especially with her pupils, she was always a little shy, having a great hatred, as she said, of “pushing souls about.” This love of souls coupled with the determination to help them to grow at God’s pace and not at their own or hers, won her the love and trust of all who went to her for help.

Evelyn Underhill died at Hampstead on June 15th, 1941. She had no children.

Writings By & About Evelyn Underhill

Fortunately, much of the writing by Evelyn Underhill is still in print and easily available. In addition to that material, there are several books detailing her life as well as providing commentary on her works. Academic journals, also carry much discussion of her observations about the mystical experience and on the Christian life.

Note: Many of the above writings are available from our bookstore. By making your purchase through the EUA bookstore you help us defray the costs of publishing the EUA newsletter, mantaining our web site, and you help support special events on the life and works of Evelyn Underhill.


The Evelyn Underhill Association.

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