Anyone interested in mysticism may sooner or later face questions like this: what does it mean to have an experience of God? What is the nature of such experience?
When I was studying journalism in school, I learned that a good reporter seeks to ask some or all of these simply questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? So when I began to work on the articles for this website — for exploring the mystical life — it only seemed reasonable to begin with those same six questions.
This essay originally appeared in Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (1911). As that book is now in the public domain, and as this article is an excellent best brief summary of Christian mysticism, at least through the 18th century (with some consideration of non-Christian mystics as well), I’m publishing it here for the benefit of the readers of this site.
“I’m spiritual but not religious.” It’s an increasingly common way for people to identify their relationship to spirituality (as a system for personal growth) and religion (as an institution that requires membership, conformity, and submission).
So instead of the heart of contemplation being thought or cogitation, in a spiritual sense, contemplation is wordless prayer.
It’s not about thought — in fact, contemplation takes us to a place beyond thought.
I know two elderly monks at the local monastery near where I live, both of whom have reputations as “real mystics.” Indeed, I would agree with this assessment — they both strike me as genuine contemplatives, true living mystics. But they are very different from one another in some key ways.
Contemplative and mystical spirituality often is comfortable, perhaps even prefers, positive and creative interaction between differing faiths. I think the reason for this is simple: contemplative spirituality tends to cultivate a sense of love and compassion, and looks to find the presence of God in all things.
Like so many great writers, Merton’s influence and legacy has only grown after his death. Nearly forty years later, most if not all of his books remain in print, and he is widely regarded as the unofficial founder of the Centering Prayer movement as well as of serious interfaith dialogue between contemplatives of different religious traditions.