ADVENT WITH EVELYN UNDERHILL: Corporate Life And Mysticism

ADVENT WITH EVELYN UNDERHILL: Corporate Life And Mysticism

From Mystics of the Church

As the life and growth of the church proceed, her corporate consciousness, enriched by all the discoveries of the saints, grows richer: so that she has more and more to give to each of her sons.  The beautiful interdependence of all Christian souls, living and dead, everything that is meant by the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints,” is here strongly illustrated, and refutes the common idea that mysticism is individualistic, and can nourish independently of history or tradition.  Thus all Christian mysticism is soaked in the language and ideas of the Bible; is perpetually taught and re-taught by Saint Paul and Saint John.  In addition to this, it reflects the special religious color of the period to which it belongs, and hands on to a later time the spiritual treasures extracted from it.  The Roman Catholic mystics of the Middle Ages have the peculiar beauties of their epoch, and frequently in their sayings remind us of the very spirit of Gothic art.  After the Reformation, another mood and attitude predominate, yet the link with the past is not really broken.  Even such one-sided mystics as the Quakers, who hold that all truth is revealed directly by the Inner Light of God in the soul, or the Quietists, who try to wait in a blank state of passivity for his message, still depend for their most characteristic notions on the deep common beliefs of Christendom concerning God and his communion with the spirit of man.

The corporate side of Christian mysticism has therefore great importance.  If we want really to understand its literature, its history, and especially its psychology, we cannot afford to neglect the influence of that great and growing body of spiritual truth on which, knowingly or not, each successive mystic feeds his soul.  In all religious experience, a large part is and must be played by that which psychologists call “apperception.”  By apperception is meant the fact that there are in all our experiences two distinct factors.  There is first the apprehension, the message, which comes to us from the outside world; secondly there are the ideas, images, and memories already present in our minds, which we involuntarily combine with the message, and by which we develop, modify, or explain it.  Now this mixture of perceptions and memories obviously takes place in all mystical experience.  The mind which the mystic brings to his encounter with God is not a blank sheet.  On the contrary, it is generally richly furnished with religious ideas and metaphors, and trained to special kinds of religious practices, all of which help him to actualize the more or less obscure apprehensions of Eternal Truth that come to him in his contemplations.  Were it not so, he could hardly tell us anything of that which he has felt and known.  Thus it is that certain symbols and phrases – for instance, the Fire of Love, the Spiritual Marriage, the Inward Light, the classic stages of the soul’s ascent – occur again and again in the writing of the mystics, and suggest to us the substantial unity of their experiences.  These phrases lead us back to the historical background within which these mystics emerge; and remind us that they are, like other Christians, members of one another, and living (though with a peculiar intensity) the life to which all Christians are called.




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