What is a Mystic?

This week I gave a morning chapel talk to the student body at a local Episcopal school. It had been awhile since I had been in front of a large group of discerning teens, challenged not only to say something meaningful, but also to merely keep their attention as they groggily awoke to the day. I chose to tell the story of a recent winter fat biking expedition I had undertaken in the mountains near Yellowstone. Why not try and capture their imaginations with a unique tale of adventure? The crux of my story was that, due to heavy snowfall, I had not actually completed the milage I had set out to do but had cut the trip short after making it a little less than half way. Inspired by Philippians 3:13, the lesson was that a goal is not as important as its pursuit. I quoted Hadewijch, the sixteenth-century mystic: “I swim towards the shore only to find that you have enlarged the sea ….” In our efforts to discover God we will undoubtedly find that God is more expansive, more wild, more transcendent than we had imagined—and there is joy (rather than frustration) to be experienced in this discovery. Unsurprisingly, I think I lost the kids when I made the leap from hardship in the snow to Hadewijch and esoteric theology. There were more than a few confused faces in the crowd. As a last ditch effort to recapture their attention, I asked if anyone had any questions about trip details, such as camping in the cold, or riding on five-inch-wide tires. A middle-schooler raised his hand. “What’s a mystic?” he asked. My heart warmed. They had been listening. With only few seconds to answer, the bell sounding for the next period to begin, I managed to put a few words together about pursuing union with God and discovering God both within yourself and in the world beyond. This elicited another confused look—or was it curiosity? I needed two things in that moment: more time and Evelyn Underhill.

Evelyn Underhill’s “little book,” Practical Mysticism was written in 1914, just after WWI began in earnest. In the preface she argues that despite the world’s necessary focus on “struggle and endurance” during this anxious time rather than the perceived passivity of spiritual matters, it would be a mistake to discount the value of a mystical attitude towards life. Indeed, the “special attitude” of mysticism is not otherworldly pseudoscience or a matter of the occult, but rather it is part and parcel to the maturation of humanity. One is right to be curious about mysticism—and people are. To this day, Practical Mysticism remains one of the most popular books on the subject.

Underhill defines mysticism as the “art of union with reality” (4). She likens pursuing this union to the work of an artist, laboring to disclose new levels of the world to the human race. “Reality,” Underhill notes, may also be a synonym for God. As an aside, Underhill’s writing tends to favor a theistic perspective rather than a Christocentric one. She has been criticized for this. However, it is possible that this wider focus lead to her book’s broad appeal.

With her inviting and accessible tone, Underhill invites—entices—the reader to explore this life-altering attitude, insisting that all are capable of adopting it. Rather than being reserved only for the spiritual elite, a mystical life is a calling for each of us. She begins by describing the importance of self-reflection as preparation for this new attitude. One must look critically at the world and at one’s place within it. What are our motivations? What are our desires and obsessions? How are we blindly driven and controlled by inordinate passions? Once we cultivate an awareness of this through meditative practice, and begin to make adjustments, we can then move towards the first form of contemplation. As Julian of Norwich discovers God within a hazelnut, we can begin to be surprised by God’s presence in everything around us, “from Alp to insect,” writes Underhill (37). The second form of contemplation leads one to the realization of the true depth of the divine. Rather than God existing only within the “good,” there is actually no dualism—God is equally present in the lamb and the tiger. In the third form of contemplation, God becomes the actor. At this stage one must simply be receptive to God and surrender. “The watering-can is taken from you, and you must depend on the rain: more generous, more fruitful, than anything which your own efforts could manage, but, in its incalculable visitations, utterly beyond your control” (52). Only in this letting-go can we discover the love that is God.

Underhill underscores the practicality of mysticism. The natural, irresistible response to the discovery of God’s abiding love is service-or contemplative action. The mystic cannot help but, as an artist, work to show the world a deeper reality. Even (especially) in the depression and fear of war, the mystical attitude gives “renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not—as some suppose—a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants” (2). So, then, what is a mystic? According to Underhill, quite simply, an artist. Moved deeply by their expansive view of reality, the artist cannot help but attempt to covey that transformative perspective to the rest of the world.

Underhill, Evelyn. Three Books on Mysticism 1. Practical Mysticism 2. Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness 3. The Essentials of Mysticism. The Best Books Publishing, 2017..

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