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The Practical Mystic

The Practical Mystic: Evelyn Underhill and Her Writings
edited and introduced by Raymond Chapman
Norwich, England: Canterbury Press, 2012
233 pages
Reviewed by Ellen Stratton

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), author of 33 books and numerous articles, was not “a withdrawn and shadowy mystic but a woman who lived fully in the world and could enjoy its challenges and pleasures” (1). Her prodigious intellect coupled with inherited practical energy propelled her to pen some of the finest articulations of the path of direct and personal knowledge of God known in spiritual theology as mysticism. The Practical Mystic, edited by Raymond Chapman, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London, England, contains extracts from her many writings arranged by the themes Mysticism for All, The Spiritual Life, The Dark Night of the Soul, Shared Worship and Sacraments, Difficulties and Setbacks and Prayer. These are bracketed by a short biography of her life to begin the book and the inclusion of some of her poetry at the end.

The view of Underhill that Chapman presents is one of a woman who “never lost the sense of adventure and romance in encounter with the divine” (16). She was in his words “a practical mystic, writing prolifically and with conviction about an experience of God that is both possible and desirable, not only for the few but for any who will humbly follow the mystic way” (15). For Underhill, mysticism is the passionate longing of the soul for God, the Unseen Reality. She uses the phrase of her own spiritual director, the Austrian theologian Baron von Hugel, that mysticism is a “metaphysical thirst” and claims that a mystic is not one who practices unusual forms of prayer, but one whose life is ruled by this thirst (23).

While these definitions imply the universal nature of mystical experience, Underhill wrote from a decidedly Christo-centric point of view. She was a practicing Anglo-Catholic for whom the Christian sacraments and the liturgy of corporate worship were central to her understanding of the nature of God and constituted the right “homage paid by the soul to its origin” (177). Her writings about personal prayer are resonant with encouragement for women and men to “swing a censor before the altar of the universe,” endowing prayer with the fire of love, and with ardor and beauty (189).

God could be experienced as both transcendent and immanent, and she herself honored the pendulum swing between God’s utter distinctness on the one hand and God’s immanence in the soul on the other (93-94). “We are called to live in two directions, not one,” she wrote (76). Her British countryman Francis Thompson gave it this vision, which she was fond of repeating:

Man! swinging-wicket set
The Unseen and the Seen

With feet firmly set in the realities of the world between two destructive wars, Underhill, a vocal pacifist, wrote with joyful possibility to encourage all men and women to pursue a “conscious Godward trend” (24) with their lives.          

What I particularly like about Chapman’s presentation of Underhill is the picture we receive of her as a spiritual director and retreat leader. In her letters of spiritual direction she is a comforting friend and a wise counselor to those in her care. To one self-critical spiritual directee, Underhill cautions against disturbing a germinating seed that may be growing in darkness and advises strongly, “please at once check the habit of getting the bulb out of the dark to see how it is getting on” (113). In another letter written to someone experiencing the dark night of the soul, she tenderly consoles, “My poor lamb, I am so terribly sorry for you. Don’t struggle with prayer you can’t do. Do not be too ferocious in your exercises in detachment … and try not to be discouraged” (114-15). Addressing her concern for the political dimension of faith she urges her readers that the spiritual life is “not merely turning over the pages of an engineering magazine and enjoying the pictures, but putting on overalls and getting on with the job” (144). Now there’s a practical woman.

Filled with wisdom and substantial theological reflection, this volume is an excellent introduction to Underhill. The selections Chapman has made present a mystic who is at once a brave and a loving soul responding to the sturdy faithfulness of God without sentimentality (152).

Ellen Stratton, MDiv, is a Presbyterian minister who offers spiritual direction at the Middleton Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA.

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