Monday, June 15, 2009

Evelyn Underhill, Mystic


Today is the Anglican Feast Day for Evelyn Underhill. I first learned of Underhill's work when her 1911 classic "Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness" practically fell off a shelf in a bookstore into my hand.

At the time this happened, I associated the word "mysticism" with the occult, but as I was soon to learn from Underhill's book, mine was a commonly-held misconception. As Underhill explains in her classic text, mystical experience occurs when direct and immediate contact is made with the divine.

Those who have such an experience use terms to describe it that are remarkably in accord with descriptions given by other mystics in many places and over vast reaches of time. This universality of mystical experience led Underhill to conclude that there is something in the mystical experience that reveals fundamental truths about the nature of the divine and our relationship to God.

It turned out that Underhill's book came into my possession at just the time I needed to read it. While it was the first book I had ever seen on the topic of mysticism, it was certainly not the last. My bookshelves are now filled with many books on mystical experience and theology and I have become something of an amateur-scholar on the topic.

Even though Evelyn Underhill lived in a foreign land decades before I was born, I feel a closeness to her and a profound sense of gratitude for her work that introduced me to a fascinating topic that has now occupied about twenty years of my own life. So, tonight, on Evelyn's Feast Day, I will light a candle especially for her.

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