Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Great Reality


Evelyn Underhill was a British Catholic writer of mystical topics from the turn of the twentieth century to her death in the 1940s.  She was extremely popular for a time, becoming the most widely read modern mystic writing for popular audiences.

Her 1915 book, Practical Mysticism, is a case in point.  Geared toward a general audience, Underhill set about to show that mystical contemplation is an active pursuit, not a monastic calling which takes men and women out of society. 

Yet Underhill performs some very standard mystic moves.  She sets forth a program of contemplation to enable a person to move beyond their ego, their common perceptions of reality, and toward a wider, grander vision.   

She does not view the goal of mysticism as the merger of the person with God, but with something she calls Reality.  It is the goal of both dropping the individual ego and its concerns, cleansing the perceptions of the human mind, and enabling a person to have a clearer, wider vision of the nature of the universe.

In this sense, she is very much a precursor to more New Age versions of mysticism.  She combines Christian ideas of mystical thinking (especially the medieval The Cloud of Unknowing) with post-Kantian philosophy.  This is far less dry than it sounds.  Underhill provides a very compelling, rich and loving account of the mystical pursuit.   

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