Anglo-Catholic writer Evelyn Underhill penned several wonderful works at the start of the 20th Century introducing Christian mysticism to the wider world. The most approachable of them is simply titled Practical Mysticism. A Little Book for Normal People. Here is here introduction to the topic.
Mysticism is the art of union with Reality.
The operations of the average human consciousness unite the self, not with things as they really are, but with images, notions, aspects of things. So complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the facts of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough “understanding,” garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which the principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof only the most digestible portions have been retained.
[The practical man] habitually mistakes his own private sensations for qualities inherent in the mysterious objects of the external world. From those few qualities of colour, size, texture, and the rest, which his mind has been able to register and classify, he makes a label which registers the sum of his own experiences. This he knows, with this he “unites”; for it is his own creature. It is neat, flat, unchanging, with edges well defined: a thing one can trust. Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels. We simply do not attempt to unite with reality.
Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is here invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the world. This mystical perception–this “ordinary contemplation,” as the specialists call it–is possible to all men: without it, they are not wholly conscious, nor wholly alive. It is a natural human activity, no more involving the great powers and sublime experiences of the mystical saints and philosophers than the ordinary enjoyment of music involves the special creative powers of the great musician.
Man dwells, under normal conditions, in a world of imagination rather than a world of facts. The relation of this universe to the world of fact is not unlike the relation between a tapestry picture and the scene which it imitates. You, practical man, are obliged to weave your image of the outer world upon the hard warp of your own mentality; which perpetually imposes its own convention, and checks the free representation of life. As a tapestry picture, however various and full of meaning, is ultimately reducible to little squares; so the world of common sense is ultimately reducible to a series of static elements conditioned by the machinery of the brain. Subtle curves, swift movement, delicate gradation, that machinery cannot represent. It leaves them out. From the countless suggestions, the tangle of many-coloured wools which the real world presents to you, you snatch one here and there. Of these you weave together those which are the most useful, the most obvious, the most often repeated: which make a tidy and coherent pattern when seen on the right side. Shut up with this symbolic picture, you soon drop into the habit of behaving to it as though it were not a representation but a thing. On it you fix your attention; with it you “unite.”
Blake was right when he said that “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”; and that psychologists, insisting on the selective action of the mind, the fact that our preconceptions govern the character of our universe, do but teach the most demonstrable of truths. What is it, then, which distinguishes the outlook of great poets and artists from the arrogant subjectivism of common sense? Innocence and humility distinguish it. These persons prejudge nothing, criticise nothing. To some extent, their attitude to the universe is that of children.
What would it mean for a soul that truly captured it; this life in which the emphasis should lie on the immediate percepts, the messages the world pours in on us, instead of on the sophisticated universe into which our clever brains transmute them? Plainly, it would mean the achievement of a new universe, a new order of reality: escape from the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labelled, and all the graded fluid facts which have no label are ignored. It would mean an innocence of eye and innocence of ear impossible for us to conceive; the impassioned contemplation of pure form, freed from all the meanings with which the mind has draped and disguised it; the recapturing of the lost mysteries of touch and fragrance, most wonderful amongst the avenues of sense. It would mean the exchanging of the neat conceptual world our thoughts build up, fenced in by the solid ramparts of the possible, for the inconceivable richness of that unwalled world from which we have subtracted it. It would mean that we should receive from every flower, not merely a beautiful image to which the label “flower” has been affixed, but the full impact of its unimaginable beauty and wonder, the direct sensation of life having communion with life:
Certainly the senses, when taken at face-value, do deceive us: yet the deception resides not so much in them, as in that conceptual world which we insist on building up from their reports, and for which we make them responsible. They deceive us less when we receive these reports uncooked and unclassified, as simple and direct experiences.
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