MYSTICISM: The Thirst Of The Soul, with help from Evelyn Underhill

The Thirst Of The Soul, with help from Evelyn Underhill

Psalm 42:
As the hart pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when will I come and appear before God?  

Evelyn Underhill, the first woman to lecture at Oxford and the woman who gave retreats to Anglican priests, counseling them to start praying, has an expansive definition of what a mystic is.  My first post to this blog, one I wrote up quickly so that I could experiment with it in deciding how I wanted the blog to look, was a beginning to her definition of a mystic.  Here is a continuation of her thoughts about this:

So the beginning of an answer to the question, ‘What is mysticism?’ must be this: mysticism is the passionate longing of the soul for God, the unseen reality, loved, sought, and adored in himself for himself alone.  It is, to use a favorite phrase of Baron von Hugel, a ‘metaphysical thirst.’  A mystic is not a person who practices unusual forms of prayer, but a person whose life is ruled by this thirst.  He feels and responds to the overwhelming attraction of God, is sensitive to that attraction; perhaps a little in the same way as the artist is sensitive to the mysterious attraction of visible beauty, and the musician to the mysterious attraction of harmonized sound.  And as the painter comes to know a visible reality, a secret wonder revealed in form and color, which wholly escapes the casual eye, and the musician to know a reality revealed in music, of which the ordinary listener can only receive a fraction, and both are lifted by this experience to fresh levels of life, so the mystic, because of that loving and devoted attention which we call contemplation — ‘gazing into heaven with his ghostly eye,’ as one of them said — comes to know a spiritual reality to which we are deaf and blind.  He knows it, but he cannot describe it; as we know but cannot describe the atmosphere of our own country, our own home.  Its awful beauty and its living peace lie beyond the resources of our limited thought and clumsy tongues, which are adjusted to other levels of existence.

My problem with the basic application of the word, thirst, to this phenomenon is that thirst is something that is static, unmoving.  I sit in my chair, reading, and I experience thirst.  Even in its verb tense, it is intransitive, unmoving.  To thirst is to feel thirsty.

In this context, I would like to transform the verb, to thirst, into a transitive verb, a moving verb, an action verb.  For me, the action of the soul is to seek out the light of God, that is both within and without the soul, in order to feel completely bathed in the light, the love, of God.

Metaphysical thirst, then, is like a kind of magnetism in the soul: it provides us with a means of orienting ourselves toward God, pointing the way to our fulfillment and ultimate salvation.

Deep calls unto deep at the noise of your waterspouts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. 

Yet the Lord will command his loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night his song will be with me and my prayer unto the God of my life.

Our thirst for God is our awareness that something, someone is there for us, an ever drawing love and compassion for us.

We know we have satisfied this thirst, this search, when we feel our souls elate, when we know that our souls are filled with the song of the angels.  We can find this elation in prayer, in song, in worship, in writing, and in our stillness.

We quench ourselves in the light of God when we open ourselves to his love, in faith.


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