Over and over again—as Being and Becoming, as Eternity and Time, as Transcendence and Immanence, Reality and Appearance, the One and the Many—these two dominant ideas, demands, imperious instincts of our self will reappear; the warp and woof of our completed universe. On the one hand is our intuition of a remote, unchanging Somewhat calling us: on the other there is our longing for and as clear intuition of an intimate, adorable Somewhat, companioning our. Our true Real, our only adequate God, must be great enough to embrace this sublime paradox, to take up these apparent negations into a higher synthesis. Neither the utter transcendence of extreme Absolutism, nor the utter Immanence of the Vitalists will do. Both these, taken alone, are declared by the mystics to be incomplete. They conceive that Absolute Being who is the goal of their quest as manifesting Himself in a World of Becoming: working in it, at one with it yet though semper agens, also semper quietus. The Divine spirit which they know to be immanent in the heart and in the universe comes forth from and returns to the Transcendent One; and this division of persons in unity of substance completes the “Eternal Circle, from Goodness, through Goodness, to Goodness.”

Absolute Being and Becoming, the All and the One, are found to be alike inadequate to their definition of this discovered Real; the “triple star of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.” Speaking always from experience—the most complete experience achieved by human beings—they assure us of an Absolute which overpasses and includes the Absolute of philosophy, far transcends that Cosmic life which it fills and sustains, and is best defined in terms of Transcendent Personality; which because of its unspeakable richness and of the poverty of human speech, they have sometimes been driven to define only by negations. At once static and dynamic, above life and in it, “all love yet all law,” eternal in essence though working in time, this vision resolves the contraries which tease those who study it from without, and swallows up whilst it kindles to life all the partial interpretations of metaphysics and of science.

Here then stand the mystics. By the help of two types of philosophy, eked out by the resources of symbolic expression and suggestion, they have contrived to tell us something of their vision and claims. Confronted by that vision—that sublime intuition of eternity—we may surely ask, indeed are bound to ask, “What sense-fed self of our daily experience has contrived to slip its fetters and rise to those levels of spiritual perception on which alone such vision can be possible to us? How has it brought with the field of consciousness those deep intuitions which fringe upon Absolute Life; how developed powers by which it is enable to arrive at this amazing, this superhuman concept of the nature of Reality?” Psychology will do something, perhaps, to help us to an answer to this question; and it is her evidence which we must examine next. But for the fullest and most satisfying answer we must go to the mystics; and they reply to our questions, when we ask them in the direct and uncompromising terms of action, not in the refined and elusive periods of speculative thought.

“Come with us,” they say to the bewildered and entangled self; craving for finality and peace, and we will show you a way out that shall not only be an issue from your prison, but also a pathway to your Home. True, you are immersed, fold upon fold, in the world of Becoming; worse, you are besieged on all sides by the persistent illusions of sense. But you too are a child of the Absolute. You bear within you the earnest of your inheritance. At the apex of your spirit there is a little door, so high up that only by hard climbing can you reach it. There the Object of your craving stands and knocks; thence came those persistent messages—faint echoes from the Truth eternally hammering at your gates—which disturbed the comfortable life of sense. Come up then by this pathway, to those higher levels of reality to which, in virtue of the eternal spark in you, you belong. Leave your ignoble ease, your clever prattle, your absurd attempt to solve the apparent contradictions of a Whole too great for your useful little mind to grasp. Trust your deep instincts: use your latent powers. Appropriate that divine, creative life which is the very substance of your being. Remake yourself in its interest, if you would know its beauty and its truth. You can only behold that which you are. Only the Real can know Reality.”


Evelyn Underhill was a prolific writer who wrote on mysticism and the spiritual life lived by ordinary people. Her books include The Spiritual Life and Practical Mysticism.

Excerpted from “Mysticism and Vitalism” from Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. © 1999 Oneworld Publications.