Evelyn Underhill (Scholar Spotlight)

Biography

Evelyn Underhill (6 December 1875 – 15 June 1941) was one of the most influential twentieth-century writers on mysticism and spirituality. Her work is largely credited with bringing mysticism to the masses, with enormously influential publications such as Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (1911) reprinted numerous times to keep up with demand. Her belief that mysticism was a spiritual path that should be open to all is best seen in the title of her 1914 work Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People. 

Underhill held a prominent position with the Anglo-Catholic community, despite an agnostic upbringing and marriage to a Protestant husband. She read history and botany at King’s College London and was eventually conferred with an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Aberdeen University. Her conversion to Catholicism was brought about both by an interest in Neoplatonic thought and wide-ranging tours of Europe visiting churches and religious sites. Her interest in mysticism was fuelled by her own personal mystical experiences, occurring mainly in her youth, which she spent decades attempting to interpret.

In the early 1920s Underhill was mentored by Friedrich von Hügel, a prominent author on mystical experience whose own work, The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in St. Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (1908), was also highly influential. After his death in 1925, she went on to achieve great feats in the pursuit of ecumenicism and reconciliation between churches. She was, for example, the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England as well as the first woman to officially conduct spiritual retreats for the Church.

Scholarship

No discussion of Underhill’s scholarship can take place without exploring the impact of her seminal work Mysticism (1911). Underhill divided the work into two parts, ‘The Mystic Fact’ and ‘The Mystic Way’. The first section attempted an ambitious survey of the different approaches to mysticism found in metaphysics, psychology and symbology, gathering theories from works written in different languages and for different audiences. Underhill did this in the belief that readers needed ‘at least the elementary facts’ in regards to the ‘subjects which are most closely connected with the study of the mystics’. The second section presented a psychological approach to mysticism in which Underhill sought to outline the different stages or process an individual underwent to achieve ‘direct relations with the Absolute’. These stages were conversion, purification, illumination, introversion and union. This psychological analysis of different ‘states’ or processes was done with the insistence that it was mankind’s calling or destiny to undertake these stages and ‘rise to the perception of Reality’. They were, in Underhill’s words, ‘an integral part of our humanity’ and the key to moving from ‘Appearance to Reality’. This was a physiological process even ‘unmystical men’ could begin to undertake; one which allowed humans to rise up above the ‘organic process of life’ and towards a ‘transcendent life’.

The work has many merits and usefully signposted to some of the issues surrounding mysticism that scholars would grapple with in the decades after its publication. The first was the issue of a definition of mysticism itself. Underhill noted in the preface to the work that it was ‘one of the most abused words in the English language’, being used in conflicting and contradicting ways by scholars claiming to work on the same subject. Such an issue has not gone away in more recent years. She also noted that it had been used as a ‘term of contempt’, something more recent work by Leigh E. Schmidt has explored in great detail. Underhill also usefully used the work to advocate a ‘return to the sources’, part of her frustration that many of the primary sources, i.e. the works of mystics themselves, were going ‘unread by those who talk much about mysticism’. Many scholars since have attempted to drive their conclusions about mysticism from the sources themselves, rather than from a pre-imposed framework or ideology.

While undoubtedly influential, scholars now recognise that some of the theories and statements presented by Underhill have not aged well. Her aversion to mysticism being associated with magic and the occult, for example, does not fit well with what we now understand about the foundational links between mysticism, magic, alchemy and the occult in many circles (see her comment in the preface that mysticism had been used as an ‘excuse for every kind of occultism’). Equally, her aversion to historical context is somewhat jarring for modern scholars. While Underhill did provide a ‘historical sketch of European mysticism’ from the time to Christ to the death of William Blake, she did so to argue that mysticism transcended history. For many historians, her comment that ‘the giving of merely historical information’ was not part of her mission would earn an indignant scoff. So too would her comment that ‘mysticism avowedly deals with the individual not as he stands in relation to the civilisation of his time, but as he stands in relation to truths that are timeless’. Her use of history was undoubtedly shaped by the Romanticism of her era, one which produced histories too focused on ‘hero worship’ or accounts which over-emphasized the continuity between historical periods. Her insistence that all mystics ‘speak the same language and come from the same country’ is a key indicator of the prevalence of such an attitude. Anyone engaging with Underhill’s work now must be aware of the limitations of her work in these areas and also the immense effort that is being expended by scholars to make mysticism an ‘acceptable’ branch of historical enquiry in reaction to the damage done by earlier statements like those by Underhill.

Other works

Practical Mysticism (1914), another important work, was written on the eve of the First World War. Underhill noted the work went to press ‘in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal, or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind’. The book itself stands as an uneasy testiment to the unfolding violence. Underhill’s preface admitted that there was likely to be a revolt from ‘superficially mystical notions which threatened to become too popular during the immediate past’, striking a tone of despondency over mankind’s mystical destiny being forsaken in light of ‘much of the human history now being poured red-hot from the cauldron of war’. Yet she insisted that because mysticism was practical and ‘everyday’, it was not simply for ‘fair weather alone’. She argued there was still much to be taken from mysticism during times of distress and disorder, even suggesting that historical periods of violence and war only served to produce an even more intense spiritual outpouring. She referenced figures such as Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale as characters who had acted under ‘mystical compulsion’ during times of unrest.

Like in Mysticism (1911), Underhill again addressed the problem of defining exactly what ‘mysticism’ was. She noted that in asking such a question an individual was likely to be approached by ‘a number of self-appointed apostles’ who would attempt to answer the question ‘in many strange and inconsistent ways’. She outlined how some would say it was simply ‘Catholic piety’, others would say it came from Eastern traditions, while others would claim ‘that Walt Whitman was a typical mystic’. Her own response to the question began by stating that each reader must ‘discover the answer for himself’, as well as suggesting that ‘Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree’. With decades of research into definitions of mysticism now behind us, scholars can perhaps smile at her acknowledgement that ‘it is not expected that the inquirer will find great comfort in this sentence when first it meets his eye’.

Underhill wrote works concerning mysticism across her entire lifetime. Some were editions of classic works, including an anthology of medieval stories and legends relating to the Virgin Mary published in 1906 and a version of the medieval classic The Cloud of Unknowing published in 1912. Others, such as The Spiral Way (1912) and The Mystic Way (1914) continued her aim of making mysticism accessible to all. Another noticeable entry, The Spiritual Life (1936), was based on a series of four talks broadcast on the BBC during the early 1930s.

Conclusion

Evelyn Underhill remains an influential authority on mysticism. Her blend of scholarly expertise and ‘jargon-free’ writing attempted to make mysticism an ‘everyday’ form of spirituality open to each individual. The popularity of her works, as well as the numerous reprints of her books, certainly suggest that she was successful in this endeavour. While Underhill brought new audiences to the study and practice of mysticism, she also embodies some characteristics of early twentieth-century scholarship that scholars now find lacking. This includes an approach that was decidedly transhistorical in outlook, dislodging individual mystics from their historical, social, political and cultural contexts. It is an approach that scholars such as Steven T. Katz have attacked vehemently. Despite this, she remains an important and influential figure in a tempestuous historiography, one that is respected and praised for her contribution to scholarship even today.