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Evelyn Underhill

Anglican author on mysticism

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 Evelyn Underhill
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Evelyn Underhill was one of the premiere authors on mysticism of the twentieth century.

Born in Wolverhampton, England in 1875 to barrister Sir Arthur Underhill and his wife, Evelyn was educated at home and at King's College for Women. In 1907 she married Hubert Stuart Moore, also a barrister. In that year she also underwent an experience of conversion to Christianity. Much of the rest of her life became a quest to find the meaning of her early religious experiences. Throughout the rest of her life she moved from Neoplatonist to Theist to Christocentric Christian.

The first book resulting from this interest was Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, published in 1911. This book remains the classic in its field. She later wrote numerous other book on mysticism and other topics, including Practical Mysticism, also available at the CCEL.

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For her entire life, Evelyn Underhill had struggled to explain and understand what she could only call her mystical experiences. In this work she argues that spiritual encounters do not belong exclusively to stories or to the past, but can happen to people in their everyday lives. She writes with personal passion and rigorous scholarship simultaneously, her exploration of mysticism formed by her background in Neo-Platonic philosophy and Medieval Christian spirituality. Widely read during her day, people have found her work moving and profound.

First published in 1911, Mysticism remains the classic in its field. (This is clear from its many different printings.) The Princeton Theological Review praised this book as 'brilliantly written [and] illuminated with numerous well-chosen extracts . . . used with exquisite skill.' Mysticism makes an in-depth and comprehensive exploration of mysticism. Part One examines 'The Mystic Fact,' explaining the relation of mysticism to vitalism, to psychology, to theology, to symbolism, and to magic. Part Two, 'The Mystic Way,' explores the awakening, purification, and illumination of the self; discusses voices and visions; and delves into manifestations from ecstasy and rapture to the dark night of the soul. It also contains a useful Appendix, which details the 'mysticism' of different figures in Western history. A hundred years old or so, Mysticism still remains the key secondary text on mysticism.

Practical Mysticism is a work by one of the foremost 20th century Christian mystics, Evelyn Underhill. Her book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, is the authoritative text of modern mysticism. This shorter work, Practical Mysticism, is an abridged version of Underhill's theology, and is a perfect starting point for immersion into the subject. It is written, to some extent, with non-Christians in mind, so Underhill is at her simplest here, yet her language is still poetic and enjoyable to read. Topics are addressed broadly, and Chapter 1, "What is Mysticism?" ("the art of union with reality, she says) is an enlightening place for those unfamiliar with the topic to begin. She invites the reader to become involved in mysticism, giving simple examples of how it is relevant to everyday people. Underhill was greatly influenced by mystics such as St. Teresa, Ruysbroeck, St. Augustine, and Thomas a Kempis, and examples from these writers, as well as poets like Keats and Whitman, are sprinkled throughout the book. A fine place to start before diving into her more intense works, Practical Mysticism has captivated generations of readers, and is still the premier text for the introductory study of mysticism.

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