Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 16

Evelyn Underhill: The Path Towards Spiritual Maturity

Jerry Root

Often enough, when the topic of Christian mysticism is raised, it draws looks of incredulity and suspicion. Some express concern that mysticism of any type smacks of New Age heresies. Unfortunately, these doubts about Christian mysticism reveal an apparent neglect—certainly ignorance—of a subject rich in Christian insight and directly related to spiritual nurture and growth. Much of the material being mined and developed by the Renovaré movement, as well as the material emerging from the topic of spiritual formation, owes a debt to the long tradition of Christian mysticism. One of the most prolific writers about mysticism was Evelyn Underhill, who did much to introduce others to this rich body of Christian literature.

Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) was arguably the clearest and most poignant author on the topic of Christian mysticism in the twentieth century. However, her early beginnings gave no indication of promise for such a vocation—except, perhaps, her love of nature, botany, and yachting.

Underhill was an only child, mostly educated at home until her university studies at King’s College for Women, in London, where she read history and botany. She traveled widely on the Continent, which certainly fed her interest in history, people, and culture. In 1907, two events marked her life: She married Hubert Stuart Moore, a barrister and friend from childhood, and she converted to Christianity.

Shortly after her conversion, in 1911, she published Mysticism; this was the work establishing her reputation in this field of study, and it set her on a course to become one of the greatest devotional writers in England for the next thirty years. It must be noted, however, that though her writings were certainly theocentric, they did not become what might be called Christocentric until she came under the spiritual direction of her mentor and friend, Baron Friedrich von Hugel.Evelyn Underhill, An Anthology of the Love of God. Lumsden Barkaway and Lucy Menzies, ed. (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1953), 18.

Underhill’s reputation as a scholar earned her the honor of becoming the first woman invited to deliver university-wide lectures at Oxford. These were the Upton Lectures given at Manchester College, Oxford, in 1921 and published as The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today in 1922. Until this time, a woman was allowed to lecture only to women; Underhill broke the gender barrier. In 1927, she became the first woman to be given a fellowship at King’s College, University of London, and in 1939, she was awarded a doctorate in divinity from Aberdeen University.

She died childless, but the investment of her life in the lives of those who were her students, whether in the classroom or through her books, lectures, spiritual direction, or ministry as a leader of spiritual retreats, left many “children” in her wake who, by her nurturing influence, became sincere followers of Christ.

This article is written to set forth Underhill’s summary of the major phases of spiritual development as she learned these from the Christian mystical tradition; it is a skeletal structure from which those interested in this tradition may then flesh out their interest through further study. Her knowledge of this subject, coupled with her clarity of style, makes her writing accessible to the lay reader. It was her desire to make this topic reachable that led her to write Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People. She was well aware that a person loved by God has the responsibility to pass on to others such instruction and encouragement that they, too, might know of God’s love for them.

01.  Preliminary Considerations

Before setting forth Underhill’s explanation of the major phases of Christian mysticism, or spiritual development, a few preliminary and definitional matters must be addressed. It is to be noted that the term, perfection, when used in the literature of Christian mysticism speaks not so much of perfection per se as it does of the process of Christian maturity. This is also true whenever the word, perfection, is used in Scripture; in reference to men and women, it speaks of maturation and is the proper understanding of the Greek word telios.

Mysticism as defined by Underhill is union with God; thus, mysticism is the science of union with God.Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1914), 3; see also 8, 15, 21, 50, 58. This clarifies that maturation—implied by perfection, in this regard—is always connected to development that occurs in direct relation to God. People in the process of trying to understand their own identity will have no success until they begin to understand who they are in relationship to God.

Sometimes, Underhill wrote of “union with Reality” when defining the mystic; this is because she understood reality to be that which was made by God and thus infused with the presence of God. However, she was no pantheist; Underhill knew that God was both present in the things he created and existent beyond his creation, that is, transcendent and above his creation. Nevertheless, union with God indicates that the creature has, by grace, adjusted the scoliosis of his or her soul to the plumb line of Reality and has sought to know the very purposes of God and seeks union with those purposes. Underhill sought to encourage men and women to aspire to that form of Christian maturity that would lead to union with God.

02.  The Process of Maturity

Underhill wrote in Mysticism that there are three great expressions of the self which only mystical truth can satisfy: the Pilgrim longing; the Lover longing; and the Ascetic-Saint longing. Evelyn Underhill, “Mysticism and Symbolism,” <em>Mysticism</em> (London: Methuen, 1911), 126–27. These longings result from the fact man is made for God, and until an individual has found God in Christ, the gnawing longing haunts him and sends him on quest for the object of this longing. For the unbeliever, spiritual development is measured by this quest.

Pilgrim Longing

The pilgrim longing is the longing that awakens in one through a deep-seated sense of alienation and displacement. It is what G. K. Chesterton called being “homesick at home.” G. K. Chesterton, The Colored Lands (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1938), 233–238. Augustine explained, “We are pilgrims in our own land.” Abraham, we are told, went out from Ur of the Chaldeans, for he was “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”Hebrews 11:10. The Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to those who were aliens and sojourners.1 Peter 1:1; 2:11. There seems to be embedded in human experience a sense that we do not quite fit in here on this earth. It is a longing that, properly attended to, leads one to look out from oneself to something beyond this world to fulfill this yearning of the heart.

Lover Longing

Lover longing is often awakened through the experience of first love; such was the case with Dante when he discovered Beatrice for the first time on the streets of Florence; he called the experience “la vita nuova” (the new life). The longing, though awakened by a human relationship, cannot be sustained by such a relationship. Human loves, as fulfilling as they may be, cannot fulfill this particular longing. Those who expect their earthly beloved to do for them what only God can do for them will project disappointment on this same beloved when the earthly love cannot satisfy a love which is ultimately meant for God.

If you have ever felt lonely, what might this mean? Hunger indicates the capacity for food; thirst the capacity for drink, so loneliness indicates that humans are by nature social beings. The fact that communication is a human trait also indicates that we are made for community. But there is an experience that may indicate a desire for a relationship that transcends mere human companionship. This is the loneliness one experiences even when surrounded by a crowd, or a loneliness that sometimes occurs while living under the same roof with others, family or friends who care for us but still cannot satisfy this particular longing. While this second type of loneliness does not prove anything definitive, it may, nevertheless, indicate that we are made for a relationship no mere human relationship can satisfy.

Ascetic-Saint Longing

The ascetic-saint longing is a reminder that each of us has a deep sense of our own brokenness and an ache to have the pieces put back together. Nobody is very life-skilled. Each of us lives beneath the level of our own convictions. Furthermore, we may sense the failures in others while being blind to similar failures in ourselves. Nevertheless, the time comes, when we begin to see those things in ourselves we have so quickly disdained in others, to recognize what is contemptible within, sets us on the quest to discover what may restore us and make us whole. The ascetics of old, in an attempt to contemplate their own deficiencies, would take to the wilderness, to hermitages, or to monasteries in the hope of discovering the power of God to heal this brokenness. Transformation followed as these contemplatives discovered the mending grace of God. These ascetics then became spiritual guides for others, mentoring them in these healing processes. Some, in light of their spiritual guidance, called them saints.

The Dialectic of Desire

All of life sets us on a course where we go through a process C. S. Lewis described in <em>The Pilgrim’s Regress</em> as “the dialectic of Desire.” Awakening desires seek to tether themselves to some object that, in the end, proves incapable of satisfying the desire. These disappointing experiences may also testify to the grace of God. He gives gifts to woo us to himself, but these gifts cannot replace him. James 1:17 (NASB) says, “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

While the gift is mutable, the Giver is not. Hearts set on such mutabilities will be broken. God’s gifts, in this way, remain true to him; their true nature sets the recipient on a quest once again for what can truly satisfy. In “The Hound of Heaven,” Francis Thompson called this quality “traitorous trueness.” When we give idolatrous devotion to the gifts, they betray us and let us down. In that moment of their traitorousness to us, they remain true to the Giver, who has awakened our devotion by the gift, and by the gift’s falseness directs us to himself, that in him alone ultimate satisfaction may be found.

Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”C. S Lewis, <em>Mere Christianity.</em> (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), 108. In God alone is found the true home for the pilgrim longing, true love for the lover longing, and forgiveness and nurture for the ascetic-saint longing.


The recognition that our deepest longings cannot be satisfied by any created thing awakens desire for the transcendent, but this desiring is not specifically Christian. Underhill clarifies that all religions have their mystics, those who testify to a hunger and thirst for God. It is understandable that this should be so, for God made us for himself. He made us as worshiping beings. If we will not worship him, we will worship something in his place. This is evidenced by the fact all societies have their mystics, and all cultures have their religions.

The Christian mystic, however, is marked by the uniqueness of Christianity, found in the Incarnation. Underhill distinguishes mere religious mysticism and longing, what she calls exclusive mysticism, from inclusive mysticism, which is Christian. Exclusive mysticism, “the attempt to ascend to the vision of God by turning away from His creatures by unmitigated other worldliness, is not Christian at all.” It “cannot be distinguished from pantheism.”Evelyn Underhill, <em>Collected Papers.</em> Lucy Menzies, ed. (London: Longmans, Green &amp; Co, 1946), 116. Inclusive mysticism, on the other hand, has discovered satisfaction knowing that God, in Christ, has come in the Incarnation. This “alone,” writes Underhill, “is truly Christian; because its philosophic basis is the doctrine of the Incarnation, with its continuance in the Church and the Sacraments.”Underhill, <em>Collected Papers,<em> 116.</em></em>

God comes in time and place to demonstrate his love, to forgive sins, and to provide the promise of his presence forever. Inclusive mysticism recognizes God’s grace to include others and reconcile them to him; furthermore, the believer now unites with God’s purpose in a mission to encourage others to experience union with God as well.

It must be understood that the Incarnation is at the center of Christian mystical spirituality, for in Christ the longings of the soul find their proper object, and in Christ one begins the process of the spiritual maturity that leads to union with God.

Scale of Perfection

The maturity of the Christian in the way of union with God is highlighted in what is called the Scale of Perfection. Underhill is explicit in saying that the Scale of Perfection is derived from Isaiah’s vision of God as outlined in Isaiah 6.Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church (Cambridge: James and Clarke, 1975), 32–33. The prophet defines himself as he stands in relation to God. It is true that we tend to define ourselves by how we perceive that others see us. But when we look to others in the hope of making sense of ourselves, we are disappointed, for we are looking to those who are at least as insecure as we are. We can gain a proper understanding of who we are only when we grasp how God sees us, and he loves us and forgives us. Knowing his love and forgiveness allows us to look honestly at ourselves so that we might adjust our lives to Reality; that is, we might mature according to the truth of God as he reveals it by his love.

Isaiah passed through three phases of self-definition. As he looked at God, he first discovered God’s holiness, by which Isaiah recognized his own contrasting sinfulness; this is the phase in mystical tradition known as the Purgative. Isaiah continued to gaze at God and discovered God’s willingness to forgive and cleanse sin, a testimony to his love and grace; this is known as the Illuminative. At this point the prophet could not divert his eyes from the unutterable and ineffable love of God and thus discovered the heart of God for the world; Isaiah naturally volunteered himself for service for God in the world; this phase is known as the Unitive.

Underhill writes, “Truth cannot be summed up in a formula nor life reduced to a system.”Underhill, Collected Papers, 27. Certainly this is true, for reality is complex; nevertheless, it is possible to give a true, though tentative, description of the way things are. The truths known do not have to be disregarded while acquiring deepening understanding, any more than the interior rings of a tree must be rejected because the tree adds new rings. Underhill clarifies that “the mystic way . . . describes in general terms the way in which the soul of the mystic usually develops.”Underhill, The Mystics of the Church, 26.


Underhill wrote in her journal, “I am fundamentally a beast; but a beast who can’t stop loving God.”Evelyn Underhill, Fragments from an Inner Life. Dana Green, ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1993), 64. She saw her own depravity, and in this seeing, Underhill embraced the purgative way, which speaks of human failure and deficiency; that is, it speaks of the sinful condition of man. Every Bible character could have introduced himself or herself in some kind of recovery group; the same must also be true of the mystics. They were strange and idiosyncratic. This does not become a problem unless the particularities are swollen out of proportion, distract from the work God calls each to do in his time and place, and thereby distract from the vocation of Divine service. Sin, among many other things, is a distraction. The one called to serve God must become aware of his or her liabilities. The way of purgation is the way of such awareness, and it is to be discovered in the presence of God’s self-revelation. To define oneself before the holiness of God leads to repentance, confession, and tears.


The holiness of God gives way to the repentant by expanding to include a vision of the love of God and the ways of grace. Anne Lamott observed that the Japanese have a proverb that asks, “What sound does rain make?” The answer is, it makes no sound unless it hits something: an umbrella, a hat, a puddle. Lamott speaks of this in the context of a word about the grace of God, the implication being that grace also makes no sound until it hits something: some struggle of the heart, some broken relationship, some unfulfilled longing.Anne Lamott, <em>All New People.</em> (Washington D.C: Counterpoint, 1989), 37. The way of illumination begins in the joy of discovering that though God is holy, and though all men and women of flesh are sinful, God, knowing all our failures, still willingly loves and forgives all who come to him in Christ. He is full of mercy and grace, and true believers must define themselves by this grace. This is a happy state, but it is not yet a fully mature state.


God is purposive; he grants visions of his glory with designs on those who respond to him. God seeks for those who will unite with his purposes in the world and extend the message of his love and grace to others. Once again, this feature unique to Christianity—the Incarnation—is manifest and multiplied. While the days of the historic Incarnation, Christ’s coming in the flesh, ceased with the Ascension, the advent of the Incarnation of the Holy Spirit has begun. God the Holy Spirit is fulfilling the promise of Christ. The Church has not been orphaned. Another Helper has come, and the Church does participate with God. She is doing greater works: greater by the sheer number of people now involved in God’s purpose and plan to communicate his love and forgiveness to others, as well as in doing acts of mercy in the world, and greater by virtue of the fact weak vessels infused by the Spirit of God himself do his work while the Holy Spirit incarnates himself through the Body of Christ, the Church.

03.  Conclusion

This process of spiritual development found in the Scale of Perfection has many other, similar descriptions within the mystical tradition. Some have referred to the three-stage process as the beginner (purgative), the proficient (illuminative), and the perfect, or mature (unitive).Underhill, The Mystics of the Church, 26. The English mystic, Richard Rolle, used the terms heat (purgative), sweetness (illuminative), and song (unitive) to speak of this maturing process.Underhill, The Mystics of the Church, 117. Others wrote of betrothal (purgative), marriage (illuminative), and conception (unitive). Perhaps even the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity can best be understood in this way: faith is required in the experience of the purgative; hope is awakened by the love and promise of God; and charity is received and now passed on to others in the unitive service of Christ.

However this process of spiritual maturity is to be understood, Underhill is a great guide for those who want to know and grow deeper in Christ. Illumined by the love of God, she was unafraid to look at her deficiencies and embrace purgation with honesty and confession. Furthermore, with courage, she faced the challenges of uniting with God in the service of others. Underhill’s practice authenticates her ministry as a spiritual guide for her readers.

04.  Note from the author

If Christian maturity is union with God and his purposes—that is, service to God and others—what might hinder this union? Have you tethered your longing for place to a location other than heaven; your longing for love to someone other than God; your longing to fix what is broken to that which deadens the pain rather than to the one who can heal the wound? In a purgative moment, confess the idolatry of looking for God in all the wrong ways. In an illuminative moment, refresh your heart in the forgiveness of Christ and his perfect love that casts out fear. In a unitive moment, offer yourself anew to the service of Christ.

05.  About the Author

Jerry Root serves as the associate director of the Institute of Strategic Evangelism. In this role he heads up Wheaton College’s Campus Evangelism Initiatives to make “a lifestyle of evangelism” part of what it means to be a whole and effective Christian at Wheaton College. Jerry also teaches evangelism courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.