Thursday, December 30, 2010

What is "Mysticism"?

"What do we mean by mysticism?"

Evelyn Underhill asks this question in her book Mysticism (1911) and then proceeds to explain what exactly this means.

I reproduce below excerpts from Underhill's text.


Mysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and the mystic is the person who attains to this union, not the person who talks about it. Not to know about but to Be, is the mark of the real initiate.

The difficulty lies in determining the point at which supersensual experience ceases to be merely a practical and interesting extension of sensual experience—an enlarging, so to speak, of the boundaries of existence—and passes over into that boundless life where Subject and Object, desirous and desired, are one. No sharp line, but rather an infinite series of gradations separate the two states. Hence we must look carefully at all the pilgrims on the road; discover, if we can, the motive of their travels, the maps which they use, the luggage which they take, the end which they attain.

Now we have said that the end which the mystic sets before him is conscious union with a living Absolute. That Divine Dark, that Abyss of the Godhead, of which he sometimes speaks as the goal of his quest, is just this Absolute, the Uncreated Light in which the Universe is bathed, and which—transcending, as it does, all human powers of expression—he can only describe to us as dark. But there is—must be—contact “in an intelligible where” between every individual self and this Supreme Self, this Ultimate. In the mystic this union is conscious, personal, and complete. “He enjoys,” says St. John of the Cross, “a certain contact of the soul with the Divinity; and it is God Himself who is then felt and tasted.” More or less according to his measure, he has touched—or better, been touched by—the substantial Being of Deity, not merely its manifestation in life. This it is which distinguishes him from the best and most brilliant of other men, and makes his science, in Patmore’s words, “the science of self-evident Reality.” Gazing with him into that unsearchable ground whence the World of Becoming comes forth “eternally generated in an eternal Now,” we may see only the icy darkness of perpetual negations: but he, beyond the coincidence of opposites, looks upon the face of Perfect Love.

As genius in any of the arts is—humanly speaking—the final term of a power of which each individual possesses the rudiments, so mysticism may be looked upon as the final term, the active expression, of a power latent in the whole race: the power, that is to say, of so perceiving transcendent reality.

Few people pass through life without knowing what it is to be at least touched by this mystical feeling, Here, in this spark or “part of the soul” where the spirit, as religion says, “rests in God who made it,” is the fountain alike of the creative imagination and the mystic life. Now and again something stings it into consciousness, and man is caught up to the spiritual level, catches a glimpse of the “secret plan.” Then hints of a marvellous truth, a unity whose note is ineffable peace, shine in created things; awakening in the self a sentiment of love, adoration, and awe. Its life is enhanced, the barrier of personality is broken, man escapes the sense-world, ascends to the apex of his spirit, and enters for a brief period into the more extended life of the All.

This intuition of the Real lying at the root of the visible world and sustaining its life, is present in a modified form in the arts: perhaps it were better to say, must be present if these arts are so justify themselves as heightened forms of experience. It is this which gives to them that peculiar vitality, that strange power of communicating a poignant emotion, half torment and half joy, which baffle their more rational interpreters.

The mystic may say—is indeed bound to say—with St. Bernard, “My secret to myself.” Try how he will, his stammering and awestruck reports can hardly be understood but by those who are already in the way. But the artist cannot act thus. On him has been laid the duty of expressing something of that which he perceives. He is bound to tell his love. In his worship of Perfect Beauty faith must be balanced by works. By means of veils and symbols he must interpret his free vision, his glimpse of the burning bush, to other men. He is the mediator between his brethren and the divine, for art is the link between appearance and reality.

But we do not call every one who has these partial and artistic intuitions of reality a mystic, any more than we call every one a musician who has learnt to play the piano. The true mystic is the person in whom such powers transcend the merely artistic and visionary stage, and are exalted to the point of genius: in whom the transcendental consciousness can dominate the normal consciousness, and who has definitely surrendered himself to the embrace of Reality. As artists stand in a peculiar relation to the phenomenal world, receiving rhythms and discovering truths and beauties which are hidden from other men, so this true mystic stands in a peculiar relation to the transcendental world, there experiencing actual, but to us unimaginable tension and delight. His consciousness is transfigured in a particular way, he lives at different levels of experience from other people: and this of course means that he sees a different world, since the world as we know it is the product of certain scraps or aspects of reality acting upon a normal and untransfigured consciousness. Hence his mysticism is no isolated vision, no fugitive glimpse of reality, but a complete system of life carrying its own guarantees and obligations. As other men are immersed in and react to natural or intellectual life, so the mystic is immersed in and reacts to spiritual life. He moves towards that utter identification with its interests which he calls “Union with God.” He has been called a lonely soul. He might more properly be described as a lonely body: for his soul, peculiarly responsive, sends out and receives communications upon every side.

The earthly artist, because perception brings with it the imperative longing for expression, tries to give us in colour, sound or words a hint of his ecstasy, his glimpse of truth. Only those who have tried, know how small a fraction of his vision he can, under the most favourable circumstance, contrive to represent. The mystic, too, tries very hard to tell an unwilling world his secret. But in his case, the difficulties are enormously increased. First, there is the huge disparity between his unspeakable experience and the language which will most nearly suggest it. Next, there is the great gulf fixed between his mind and the mind of the world. His audience must be bewitched as well as addressed, caught up to something of his state, before they can be made to understand.

The mind must employ some device of the kind if its transcendental perceptions—wholly unrelated as they are to the phenomena with which intellect is able to deal—are ever to be grasped by the surface consciousness. Sometimes the symbol and the perception which it represents become fused in that consciousness; and the mystic’s experience then presents itself to him as “visions” or “voices”.

The mystic, as a rule, cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some side-long way, some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader, and convey, as all poetic language does, something beyond its surface sense. Hence the large part which is played in all mystical writings by symbolism and imagery; and also by that rhythmic and exalted language which induces in sensitive persons something of the languid ecstasy of dream. The close connection between rhythm and heightened states of consciousness is as yet little understood. Its further investigation will probably throw much light on ontological as well as psychological problems. Mystical, no less than musical and poetic perception, tends naturally—we know not why—to present itself in rhythmical periods: a feature which is also strongly marked in writings obtained in the automatic state.

All kinds of symbolic language come naturally to the articulate mystic, who is often a literary artist as well: so naturally, that he sometimes forgets to explain that his utterance is but symbolic—a desperate attempt to translate the truth of that world into the beauty of this. It is here that mysticism joins hands with music and poetry: had this fact always been recognized by its critics, they would have been saved from many regrettable and some ludicrous misconceptions. Symbol—the clothing which the spiritual borrows from the material plane—is a form of artistic expression. That is to say, it is not literal but suggestive.

Further, the study of the mystics, the keeping company however humbly with their minds, brings with it as music or poetry does—but in a far greater degree—a strange exhilaration, as if we were brought near to some mighty source of Being, were at last on the verge of the secret which all seek. The symbols displayed, the actual words employed, when we analyse them, are not enough to account for such effect. It is rather that these messages from the waking transcendental self of another, stir our own deeper selves in their sleep. It were hardly an extravagance to say, that those writings which are the outcome of true and first-hand mystical experience may be known by this power of imparting to the reader the sense of exalted and extended life.

Returning to our original undertaking, that of defining if we can the characteristics of true mysticism, I propose to set out, illustrate and, I hope, justify four rules or notes which may be applied as tests to any given case which claims to take rank amongst the mystics.

1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.

2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. The mystic brushes aside that universe, even in its supernormal manifestations. Though he does not, as his enemies declare, neglect his duty to the many, his heart is always set upon the changeless One.

3. This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of Love; never an object of exploration. It draws his whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart.

4. Living union with this One—which is the term of his adventure—is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realization of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. Though these must be present they are not enough. It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process—the so-called Mystic Way—entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called “ecstasy,” but is better named the Unitive State.

Mysticism, then, is not an opinion: it is not a philosophy. It has nothing in common with the pursuit of occult knowledge. On the one hand it is not merely the power of contemplating Eternity: on the other, it is not to be identified with any kind of religious queerness. It is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better—for this means exactly the same thing—it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute.

The movement of the mystic consciousness towards this consummation, is not merely the sudden admission to an overwhelming vision of Truth: though such dazzling glimpses may from time to time be vouchsafed to the soul. It is rather an ordered movement towards ever higher levels of reality, ever closer identification with the Infinite. “The mystic experience,” says Récéjac, “ends with the words, ‘I live, yet not I, but God in me.’ This feeling of identification, which is the term of mystical activity, has a very important significance. In its early stages the mystic consciousness feels the Absolute in opposition to the Self . . . as mystic activity goes on, it tends to abolish this opposition. . . . When it has reached its term the consciousness finds itself possessed by the sense of a Being at one and the same time greater than the Self and identical with it: great enough to be God, intimate enough to be me.”

This is that mystic union which is the only possible fulfilment of mystic love: since

“All that is not One must ever
Suffer with the wound of Absence
And whoever in Love’s city
Enters, finds but room for One
And but in One-ness, Union.”

The history of mysticism is the history of the demonstration of this law upon the plane of reality.

To sum up. Mysticism is seen to be a highly specialized form of that search for reality, for heightened and completed life, which we have found to be a constant characteristic of human consciousness. It is largely prosecuted by that “spiritual spark,” that transcendental faculty which, though the life of our life, remains below the threshold in ordinary men. Emerging from its hiddenness in the mystic, it gradually becomes the dominant factor in his life; subduing to its service, and enhancing by its saving contact with reality, those vital powers of love and will which we attribute to the heart, rather than those of mere reason and perception, which we attribute to the head. Under the spur of this love and will, the whole personality rises in the acts of contemplation and ecstasy to a level of consciousness at which it becomes aware of a new field of perception. By this awareness, by this “loving sight,” it is stimulated to a new life in accordance with the Reality which it has beheld.

Image: Solitary Tree, by Dennis Frates.


Vincent said...

O, this sounds very old-fashioned today! I mean her authoritative style, her elitism, her wordiness.

But I don’t think these defects have been transcended today by too many religious writers. In the matter of mysticism it is still very common to build pedestals almost too high for the ordinary human eye to see the figure on top. So she speaks of “that ‘spiritual spark’, that transcendental faculty which, though the life of our life, remains below the threshold in ordinary men.”

I think this elitism does a disservice to her subject, though she cannot be blamed for seeing it that way, writing in an age (before the first World War) when class hierarchies reigned, and the British Empire was top dog in the world. Theosophy was at its peak, challenging the dominance of Christianity in England amongst the chattering intellectual classes. Spiritualism was also very popular.

I guess Evelyn Underhill was trying to rescue the concept of mysticism from being corrupted on all sides.

raymond said...

I agree with Vincent's reaction. Although Underhill played a great role in realizing mysticism to be a generic phenomenon, for many of us practitioners, her tone of triumphalism is not useful. If I put myself above others, there is no way I can "become one" with them. Emptiness is the only way that works for me. As in Eckhart: "I pray God to be rid of God." And rid of every other presumption that stands in the way of the mystical experience of unconditional love.

Rama Sangye said...

Thanks for the comment Vincent. Yes, it's very much a product of that age, times are so different now. the mystic cannot be isensitive to the burnng concerns of today, poverty, inequality, the global economy, the environment etc. Yet, I thought, in essence, the description is apt. Of course, I had excerpted from her book, making it quite dense, while her writing is actually quite lyrical.

Here's another piece from that same time: