A Study in Nature and Development
of Spiritual Consciousness


Evelyn Underhill


Title: Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual
Creator(s): Underhill, Evelyn
Rights: Public Domain
CCEL Subjects: All; Mysticism; Classic; Proofed
LC Call no: BV5081 .U55
LC Subjects:

Practical theology
Practical religion. The Christian life


Since this book first appeared, nineteen years ago, the study of
mysticism—not only in England, but also in France, Germany and Italy—has
been almost completely transformed. From being regarded, whether critically
or favourably, as a byway of religion, it is now more and more generally
accepted by theologians, philosophers and psychologists, as representing in
its intensive form the essential religious experience of man. The labours of
a generation of religious psychologists—following, and to some extent
superseding the pioneer work of William James—have already done much to
disentangle its substance from the psycho-physical accidents which often
accompany mystical apprehension. Whilst we are less eager than our
predecessors to dismiss all accounts of abnormal experience as the fruit of
superstition or disease, no responsible student now identifies the mystic
and the ecstatic; or looks upon visionary and other “extraordinary
phenomena” as either guaranteeing or discrediting the witness of the
mystical saints. Even the remorseless explorations and destructive
criticisms of the psycho-analytic school are now seen to have effected a
useful work; throwing into relief the genuine spiritual activities of the
psyche, while explaining in a naturalistic sense some of their less
fortunate psycho-physical accompaniments. The philosophic and theological
landscape also, with its increasing emphasis on Transcendence, its new
friendliness to the concept of the Supernatural, is becoming ever more
favourable to the metaphysical claims of the mystics. On one hand the prompt
welcome given to the work of Rudolf Otto and Karl Barth, on the other the
renewed interest in Thomist philosophy, seem to indicate a growing
recognition of the distinctness and independence of the Spiritual Order. and
a revival of the creaturely sense, strongly contrasting with the temper of
late nineteenth-century thought.

Were I, then, now planning this book for the first time, its arguments would
be differently stated. More emphasis would be given (a) to the concrete,
richly living yet unchanging character of the Reality over against the
mystic, as the first term, cause and incentive of his experience; (b) to
that paradox of utter contrast yet profound relation between the Creator and
the creature, God and the soul, which makes possible his development; (c) to
the predominant part played in that development by the free and prevenient
action of the Supernatural—in theological language, by “grace”—as against
all merely evolutionary or emergent theories of spiritual transcendence. I
feel more and more that no psychological or evolutionary treatment of man’s
spiritual history can be adequate which ignores the element of
“given-ness” in all genuine mystical knowledge. Though the mystic Life means
organic growth, its first term must be sought in ontology; in the Vision of
the Principle, as St. Gregory the Great taught long ago. For the real
sanction of that life does not inhere in the fugitive experiences or even
the transformed personality of the subject; but in the metaphysical Object
which that subject apprehends.

Again, it now seems to me that a critical realism, which found room for the
duality of our full human experience—the Eternal and the Successive,
supernatural and natural reality—would provide a better philosophic
background to the experience of the mystics than the vitalism which
appeared, twenty years ago, to offer so promising a way of escape from
scientific determinism. Determinism—more and more abandoned by its old
friends the physicists—is no longer the chief enemy to such a spiritual
interpretation of life as is required by the experience of the mystics. It
is rather a naturalistic monism, a shallow doctrine of immanence unbalanced
by any adequate sense of transcendence, which now threatens to re-model
theology in a sense which leaves no room for the noblest and purest reaches
of the spiritual life.

Yet in spite of the adjustments required by such a shifting at the
philosophic outlook, and by nearly twenty years of further study and
meditation, the final positions which seem to me to be required by the
existence of mysticism remain substantially unchanged. Twenty years ago, I
was already convinced that the facts of man’s spiritual experience pointed
to a limited dualism; a diagram which found place for his contrasting
apprehension of Absolute and Contingent, Being and Becoming, Simultaneous
and Successive. Further, that these facts involved the existence in him too
of a certain doubleness, a higher and lower, natural and transcendental
self—something equivalent to that “Funklein” spark, or apex of the soul on
which the mystics have always insisted as the instrument of their special
experience. Both these opinions were then unpopular. The second, in
particular, has been severely criticized by Professor Pratt and other
authorities on the psychology of religion. Yet the constructive work which
has since been done on the metaphysical implications of mystical experience
has tended more and more to establish their necessity, at least as a basis
of analysis; and they can now claim the most distinguished support.

The recovery of the concept of the Supernatural—a word which no respectable
theologian of the last generation cared to use—is closely linked with the
great name of Friedrich von Hügel. His persistent opposition to all merely
monistic, pantheist and immanental philosophies of religion, and his
insistence on the need of a “two-step diagram” of the Reality accessible to
man, though little heeded in his life-time, are now bearing fruit. This
re-instatement of the Transcendent, the “Wholly Other,” as the religious
fact, is perhaps the most fundamental of the philosophic changes which have
directly affected the study of mysticism. It thus obtains a metaphysical
background which harmonizes with its greatest declarations, and supports its
claim to empirical knowledge of the Truth on which all religion rests.
Closely connected with the transcendence of its Object, are the twin
doctrines emphasized in all Von Hügel’s work. First, that while mysticism is
an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole
content of such religion. It requires to be embodied in some degree in
history, dogma and institutions if it is to reach the sense-conditioned
human mind. Secondly, that the antithesis between the religions of
“authority” and of “spirit,” the “Church” and the “mystic,” is false. Each
requires the other. The “exclusive” mystic, who condemns all outward forms
and rejects the support of the religious complex, is an abnormality. He
inevitably tends towards pantheism, and seldom exhibits in its richness the
Unitive Life. It is the “inclusive” mystic, whose freedom and originality
are fed but not hampered by the spiritual tradition within which he appears,
who accepts the incarnational status of the human spirit, and can “find the
inward in the outward as well as the inward in the inward,” who shows us in
their fullness and beauty the life-giving possibilities of the soul
transfigured in God.

Second in importance among the changes which have come over the study of
mysticism, I should reckon the work done during the last decade upon the
psychology of prayer and contemplation. I cannot comment here upon the
highly technical discussions between experts as to the place where the line
is to be drawn between “natural” and “supernatural,” “active” and
“infused” operations of the soul in communion with God; or the exact
distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” contemplation. But the
fact that these discussions have taken place is itself significant; and
requires from religious psychology the acknowledgement of a genuine
two-foldness in human nature—the difference in kind between Animus the
surface-self and Anima the transcendental self, in touch with supernatural
realities. Here, the most important work has been done in France; and
especially by the Abbé Bremond, whose “Prière et Poésie” and “Introduction a
la Philosophie de la Prière”—based on a vast acquaintance with mystical
literature—mark, I believe, the beginning of a new understanding of the
character of contemplation. The Thomist philosophy of Maritain, and the
psychological researches of Maréchal, tend to support this developing view
of the mystical experience, even in its elementary forms, as an activity of
the transcendental self; genuinely supernatural, yet not necessarily
involving any abnormal manifestations, and linked by the ascending “degrees
of prayer” with the subject’s “ordinary” religious life. This disentangling
of the substance of mysticism from the psycho-physical accidents of trance,
ecstasy, vision and other abnormal phenomena which often accompany it, and
its vindication as something which gives the self a genuine knowledge of
transcendental Reality—with its accompanying demonstration of the soberness
and sanity of the greatest contemplative saints—is the last of the
beneficent changes which have transformed our study of the mystics. In this
country it is identified with the work of two Benedictine scholars; Abbot
Chapman of Downside and Dom Cuthbert Butler, whose “Western Mysticism” is a
masterly exhibition of the religious and psychological normality of the
Christian contemplative life, as developed by its noblest representatives.

Since this book was written, our knowledge of the mystics has been much
extended by the appearance of critical texts of many writings which had only
been known to us in garbled versions; or in translations made with an eye to
edification rather than accuracy. Thus the publication of the authentic
revelations of Angela of Foligno—one of the most interesting discoveries of
recent years—has disclosed the unsuspected splendour of her mystical
experience. The critical texts of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross which
are now available amend previous versions in many important respects. We
have reliable editions of Tauler and Ruysbroeck; of “The Cloud of
Unknowing,” and of Walter Hilton’s works. The renewed interest in
seventeenth-century mysticism, due in part to the Abbé Bremond’s great work,
has resulted in the publication of many of its documents. So too the
literary, social and historical links between the mystics, the influence of
environment, the great part played by forgotten spiritual movements and
inarticulate saints, are beginning to be better understood. Advantage has
been taken of these facts in preparing the present edition. All quotations
from the mystics have been revised by comparison with the best available
texts. The increased size of the historical appendix and bibliography is
some indication of the mass of fresh material which is now at the disposal
of students; material which must be examined with truth-loving patience,
with sympathy, and above all with humility, by those who desire to make
valid additions to our knowledge of the conditions under which the human
spirit has communion with God.

Easter 1930 E. U.


This book falls naturally into two parts; each of which is really complete
in itself, though they are in a sense complementary to one another. Whilst
the second and longest part contains a somewhat detailed study of the nature
and development of man’s spiritual or mystical consciousness, the first is
intended rather to provide an introduction to the general subject of
mysticism. Exhibiting it by turns from the point of view of metaphysics,
psychology, and symbolism, it is an attempt to gather between the covers of
one volume information at present scattered amongst many monographs and
text-books written in divers tongues, and to give the student in a compact
form at least the elementary facts in regard to each of those subjects which
are most closely connected with the study of the mystics.

Those mystics, properly speaking, can only be studied in their works: works
which are for the most part left unread by those who now talk much about
mysticism. Certainly the general reader has this excuse, that the
masterpieces of mystical literature, full of strange beauties though they
be, offer considerable difficulties to those who come to them unprepared. In
the first seven chapters of this book I have tried to remove a few of these
difficulties; to provide the necessary preparation; and to exhibit the
relation in which mysticism stands to other forms of life. If, then, the
readers of this section are enabled by it to come to the encounter of
mystical literature with a greater power of sympathetic comprehension than
they previously possessed, it will have served the purpose for which it has
been composed.

It is probable that almost every such reader, according to the angle from
which he approaches the subject, will here find a good deal which seems to
him superfluous. But different types of mind will find this unnecessary
elaboration in different places. The psychologist, approaching from the
scientific standpoint, eager for morbid phenomena, has little use for
disquisitions on symbolism, religious or other. The symbolist, approaching
from the artistic standpoint, seldom admires the proceedings of psychology.
I believe, however, that none who wish to obtain an idea of mysticism in its
wholeness, as a form of life, can afford to neglect any of the aspects on
which these pages venture to touch. The metaphysician and the psychologist
are unwise if they do not consider the light thrown upon the ideas of the
mystics by their attitude towards orthodox theology. The theologian is still
more unwise if he refuse to hear the evidence of psychology. For the benefit
of those whose interest in mysticism is chiefly literary, and who may care
to be provided with a clue to the symbolic and allegorical element in the
writings of the contemplatives, a short section on those symbols of which
they most often make use has been added. Finally, the persistence amongst us
of the false opinion which confuses mysticism with occult philosophy and
psychic phenomena, has made it necessary to deal with the vital distinction
which exists between it and every form of magic.

Specialists in any of these great departments of knowledge will probably be
disgusted by the elementary and superficial manner in which their specific
sciences are here treated. But this book does not venture to address itself
to specialists. From those who are already fully conversant with the matters
touched upon, it asks the indulgence which really kindhearted adults are
always ready to extend towards the efforts of youth. Philosophers are
earnestly advised to pass over the first two chapters, and theologians to
practise the same charity in respect of the section dealing with their

The giving of merely historical information is no part of the present plan:
except in so far as chronology has a bearing upon the most fascinating of
all histories, the history of the spirit of man. Many books upon mysticism
have been based on the historical method: amongst them two such very
different works as Vaughan’s supercilious and unworthy “Hours with the
Mystics” and Dr. Inge’s scholarly Bampton lectures. It is a method which
seems to be open to some objection: since mysticism avowedly deals with the
individual not as he stands in relation to the civilization of his time, but
as he stands in relation to truths that are timeless. All mystics, said
Saint-Martin, speak the same language and come from the same country. As
against that fact, the place which they happen to occupy in the kingdom of
this world matters little. Nevertheless, those who are unfamiliar with the
history of mysticism properly so called, and to whom the names of the great
contemplatives convey no accurate suggestion of period or nationality, may
be glad to have a short statement of their order in time and distribution in
space. Also, some knowledge of the genealogy of mysticism is desirable if we
are to distinguish the original contributions of each individual from the
mass of speculation and statement which he inherits from the past. Those
entirely unacquainted with these matters may find it helpful to glance at
the Appendix before proceeding to the body of the work; since few things are
more disagreeable than the constant encounter of persons to whom we have not
been introduced.

The second part of the book, for which the first seven chapters are intended
to provide a preparation, is avowedly psychological. It is an attempt to set
out and justify a definite theory of the nature of man’s mystical
consciousness: the necessary stages of organic growth through which the
typical mystic passes, the state of equilibrium towards which he tends. Each
of these stages—and also the characteristically mystical and still largely
mysterious experiences of visions and voices, contemplation and
ecstasy—though viewed from the standpoint of psychology, is illustrated from
the lives of the mystics; and where possible in their own words. In planning
these chapters I have been considerably helped by M. Delacroix’s brilliant
“Etudes sur le Mysticisme,” though unable to accept his conclusions: and
here gladly take the opportunity of acknowledging my debt to him and also to
Baron von Hügel’s classic “Mystical Element of Religion.” This book, which
only came into my hands when my own was planned and partly written, has
since been a constant source of stimulus and encouragement.

Finally, it is perhaps well to say something as to the exact sense in which
the term “mysticism” is here understood. One of the most abused words in the
English language, it has been used in different and often mutually exclusive
senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse
for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism,
religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics. On the other
hand, it has been freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have
criticized these things. It is much to be hoped that it may be restored
sooner or later to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual

Meanwhile, those who use the term “Mysticism” are bound in self-defence to
explain what they mean by it. Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the
expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete
harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula
under which that order is understood. This tendency, in great mystics,
gradually captures the whole field of consciousness; it dominates their life
and, in the experience called “mystic union,” attains its end. Whether that
end be called the God of Christianity, the World-soul of Pantheism, the
Absolute of Philosophy, the desire to attain it and the movement towards
it—so long as this is a genuine life process and not an intellectual
speculation—is the proper subject of mysticism. I believe this movement to
represent the true line of development of the highest form of human

It is a pleasant duty to offer my heartiest thanks to the many kind friends
and fellow students, of all shades of opinion, who have given me their help
and encouragement. Amongst those to whom my heaviest debt of gratitude is
due are Mr. W. Scott Palmer, for much valuable, generous, and painstaking
assistance, particularly in respect of the chapter upon Vitalism: and Miss
Margaret Robinson, who in addition to many other kind offices, has made all
the translations from Meister Eckhart and Mechthild of Magdeburg here given.

Sections of the MS. have been kindly read by the Rev. Dr. Inge, by Miss May
Sinclair, and by Miss Eleanor Gregory; from all of whom I have received much
helpful and expert advice. To Mr. Arthur Symons my thanks and those of my
readers are specially due; since it is owing to his generous permission that
I am able to make full use of his beautiful translations of the poems of St.
John of the Cross. Others who have given me much help in various directions,
and to whom most grateful acknowledgments are here offered, are Miss
Constance Jones, Miss Ethel Barker, Mr. J. A. Herbert of the British
Museum—who first brought to my notice the newly discovered “Mirror of Simple
Souls”—the Rev. Dr. Arbuthnot Nairn, Mr. A. E. Waite, and Mr. H. Stuart
Moore, F.S.A. The substance of two chapters—those upon “The Characteristics
of Mysticism” and “Mysticism and Magic”—has already appeared in the pages of
The Quest and The Fortnightly Review. These sections are here reprinted by
kind permission of their respective editors.

Feast of St. John of the Cross E. U.