CONTEMPLATION: The Mystic As Artist by Evelyn Underhill

The Mystic As Artist by Evelyn Underhill

From Mysticism

There is a kind of activity which is characteristic of the mystic: an education which he is called to undertake, that his consciousness of the Infinite may be stabilized, enriched, and defined.  Already once or twice we have been in the presence of this activity, have been obliged to take its influence into account: as, were we studying other artistic types, we could not leave on one side the medium in which they work.

Contemplation is the mystic’s medium.  It is an extreme form of that withdrawal of attention from the external world and total dedication of the mind which also, in various degrees and ways, conditions the creative activity of musician, painter, and poet: releasing the faculty by which he can apprehend the Good and Beautiful, enter into communion with the Real.  As “voice” or “vision” is often the way in which the mystical consciousness presents its discoveries to the surface-mind, so contemplation is the way in which it makes those discoveries, perceives the supra-sensible over against itself.  The growth of the mystic’s effective genius, therefore, is connected with his growth in this art: and that growth is largely conditioned by education.

The painter, however great his natural powers, can hardly dispense with some technical training; the musician is wise if he acquaints himself at least with the elements of counterpoint.  So too the mystic.  It is true that he sometimes seems to spring abruptly to the heights, to be caught into ecstasy without previous preparation: as a poet may startle the world by a sudden masterpiece.  But unless they be backed by discipline, these sudden and isolated flashes of inspiration will not long avail for the production of great works.  “Ordina quest’ amore, o tu che m’ami (O thou who lovest me, set my love in order)” is the imperative demand made by Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, by every aspect of Reality, upon the human soul.  Lover and philosopher, saint, artist, and scientist, must alike obey or fail.

Transcendental genius, then, obeys the laws which govern all other forms of genius, in being susceptible of culture: and, indeed, cannot develop its full powers without an educative process of some kind.  This strange art of contemplation, which the mystic tends to practice during the whole of his career – which develops step-by-step with his vision and his love – demands of the self which undertakes it the same hard dull work, the same slow training of the will, which lies behind all supreme achievement, and is the price of all true liberty.  It is the want of such training – such “super-sensual drill” – which is responsible for the mass of vague, ineffectual, and sometimes harmful mysticism which has always existed: the dilute cosmic emotion and limp spirituality which hang, as it were, on the skirts of the true seekers of the Absolute, and bring discredit upon their science.

In this, as in all the other and lesser arts which have been developed by the race, education consists largely in a humble willingness to submit to the discipline, and profit by the lessons, of the past.  Tradition runs side-by-side with experience; the past collaborates with the present.  Each new and eager soul rushing out towards the only end of Love passes on its way the landmarks left by others upon the pathway to Reality.  If it be wise it observes them: and finds in them rather helps towards attainment than hindrances to that freedom which is of the essence of the mystic act.  This act, it is true, is in the last resort a solitary experience, “the flight of the Alone to the Alone”; even though no achievement of the soul truly takes place in vacuo, or leaves the universe of souls unchanged.  At the same time, here as elsewhere, man cannot safely divorce his personal history from that of the race.  The best and truest experience does not come to the eccentric and individual pilgrim whose intuitions are his only law: but rather to him who is willing to profit by the culture of the spiritual society in which he finds himself, and submit personal intuition to the guidance afforded by the general history of the mystic type.  Those who refuse this guidance expose themselves to all the dangers which crowd about the individualist: from heresy at one end of the scale to madness at the other.  Vae Soli!  Nowhere more clearly than in the history of mysticism do we observe the essential solidarity of mankind, the penalty paid by those who will not acknowledge it.

The education which tradition has ever prescribed for the mystic, consists in the gradual development of an extraordinary faculty of concentration, a power of spiritual attention.  It is not enough that he should naturally be “aware of the Absolute,” unless he be able to contemplate it; just as the mere possession of eyesight or hearing, however acute, needs to be supplemented by trained powers of perception and reception, if we are really to appreciate – see or hear to any purpose – the masterpieces of Music or of Art.  More, Nature herself reveals little of her secret to those who only look and listen with the outward ear and eye.  The condition of all valid seeing and hearing, upon every plane of consciousness, lies not in the sharpening of the senses, but in a peculiar attitude of the whole personality: in a self-forgetting attentiveness, a profound concentration, a self-merging, which operates a real communion between the seer and the seen – in a word, in Contemplation.

Contemplation, then, in the most general sense is a power which we may – and often must – apply to the perception, not only of Divine Reality, but of anything.  It is a mental attitude under which all things give up to us the secret of their life.  All artists are of necessity in some measure contemplative.  In so far as they surrender themselves without selfish preoccupation, they see Creation from the point of view of God.  “Innocence of eye” is little else than this: and only by its means can they see truly those things which they desire to show the world.  I invite those to whom these statements seem a compound of cheap psychology and cheaper metaphysics to clear their minds of prejudice and submit this matter to an experimental test.  If they will be patient and honest – and unless they belong to that minority which is temperamentally incapable of the simplest contemplative act – they will emerge from the experiment possessed of a little new knowledge as to the nature of the relation between the human mind and the outer world.

All that is asked is that we shall look for a little time, in a special and undivided manner, at some simple, concrete, and external thing.  This object of our contemplation may be almost anything we please: a picture, a statue, a tree, a distant hillside, a growing plant, running water, little living things.  We need not, with Kant, go to the starry heavens.  “A little thing the quantity of an hazel nut” will do for us, as it did for Lady Julian long ago. (Revelations of Divine Love, cap. v)  Remember, it is a practical experiment on which we are set; not an opportunity of pretty and pantheistic meditation.

Look, then, at this thing which you have chosen.  Willfully yet tranquilly refuse the messages which countless other aspects of the world are sending; and so concentrate your whole attention on this one act of loving sight that all other objects are excluded from the conscious field.  Do not think, but as it were pour out your personality towards it: let your soul be in your eyes.  Almost at once, this new method of perception will reveal unsuspected qualities in the external world.  First, you will perceive about you a strange and deepening quietness; a slowing down of our feverish mental time.  Next, you will become aware of a heightened significance, an intensified existence in the thing at which you look.  As you, with all your consciousness, lean out towards it, an answering current will meet yours.  It seems as though the barrier between its life and your own, between subject and object, had melted away.  You are merged with it, in an act of true communion: and you know the secret of its being deeply and unforgettably, yet in a way which can never hope to express.

Seen thus, a thistle has celestial qualities: a speckled hen a touch of the sublime.  Our greater comrades, the trees, the clouds, the rivers, initiate us into mighty secrets, flame out at us “like shining from shook foil.”  The “eye which looks upon Eternity” has been given its opportunity.  We have been immersed for a moment in the “life of the All”: a deep and peaceful love united us with the substance of all things, a “Mystic Marriage” has taken place between the mind and some aspect of the external world.  Cor ad cor loquitur: Life has spoken to life, but not to the surface-intelligence.  That surface-intelligence knows only that the message was true and beautiful: no more.

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