For episode 2 of my new podcast, Schola Mystica, I tell a brief story about how I first learned about Christian mysticism, beginning with a dream I had shortly after graduating from high school; a conversation with a trusted friend to try to make sense of that dream, and a book that friend recommended to me: Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness.
… or, if you’d rather just read the transcript, here it is.
A Dream and a Book
Once, I had a dream that the world was coming to an end. I had this dream in the summer right after graduating from High School, so I suppose in a very real way, my world was coming to an end — just a few weeks later, I would be leaving home to attend college. Because I was very much an introvert, needless to say I felt some trepidation over my forthcoming move.
But even if this dream was just my subconscious letting off some emotional steam — it still was pretty dramatic.
In the dream, I was hanging out with one of my best friends at the time, a fellow named Larry, and we were at the Protestant Chapel at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, where we lived. That may seem odd, but that’s the church where I was baptized.
Anyway, Larry and I were in the parking lot; it was the middle of the day, then suddenly the sky grew dark. There was a feeling of expectancy in the air, and Larry asked me if I knew what was going on.
With a sense of urgency, I replied, “I think the world is coming to an end.” By that point the sky had become so dark that we could see the stars — and one by one, they started to fall out of the sky. Just like they did at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia.
I said to Larry, “Come on, we need to head home.” We got into my car — a 1963 Corvair convertible — and drove through the midday darkness to my house, where we bounded up the stairs to my room.
By now I felt like a caged animal, and I began to pace back and forth. “I need a Bible,” I practically shouted. Larry looked around my room, and helpfully offered me a book that was on the top of my dresser.
“No, that’s not a Bible, that’s the Bhagavad Gita!” I snarled at him — and just at that point, my vision began to get blurry. “It’s okay,” I said to him, “reality is beginning to dissolve away.”
Then I woke up… and I was a little freaked out by this dream.
It was Sunday morning, so I went to church with my mom and dad, but afterward I drove over to my friend David’s house. David was about ten years older than me, and had been the organist at our church. He had long hair and a beard and listened to Jimi Hendrix and Jazz, so let’s just say he was someone I trusted more than most adults.
He put on some interesting album, like Pat Matheny’s American Garage, and then we sat down and I told him about my dream.
After I was done, he said there was a book he thought I needed to read; he went to his bookcase and gave me a copy of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. I took the book home and started to read it — I actually didn’t finish it for a couple of years — but I read enough that summer, for it to invite me into an entirely new way of seeing the world.
I had heard of mysticism before — I think in High School one of my English teachers said that the poet William Blake was a mystic, and back in those days people would describe Asian spirituality like Zen or Vedanta as “Eastern mysticism” — but in all my years of both public education and Lutheran Sunday School, no one had ever bothered to suggest to me that there is such a thing as Christian mysticism.
But Evelyn Underhill introduced me to the mystical dimension of Christian spirituality. And like Robert Frost, I took that road less traveled, and it has made all the difference.
You see, a couple of years earlier, when I was sixteen, one evening when I was at a Lutheran youth conference, I had a pretty powerful sense of God’s presence during the Saturday night communion service. Right there, in the midst of an ordinary worship service, I had a mind-expanding encounter with luminous love and brilliant light. To this day it’s not easy for me to talk about. Back then, it frankly blew me away — and there was no one I could talk to about it.
I tried to tell my pastor about it, and he said I sounded like a Pentecostal — and he did not mean it as a compliment.
Eventually I made some friends among the charismatic Christians in my high school, but they had the kind of theology that saw the devil behind every rock — which just didn’t line up with the resplendent beauty and incandescent love of the God that I had encountered.
So it wasn’t until I discovered the Christian mystics, thanks to Evelyn Underhill, that I truly learned how there is a place in Christianity for a deeply embodied, joyful, expansive spirituality of God’s intimate, loving presence — centered not just in the head, but in the heart.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having an intelligent, thoughtful, and scholarly approach to faith. In fact, when Jesus instructed us to “love God with your whole mind,” I think that’s what he meant.
Be intelligent about your faith, be honest about what you believe and what you understand — about God, and about the meaning and purpose of life. But Jesus also instructed us to love God with all our heart, our soul, and our strength. So our faith in God needs to be not only intellectually honest, but emotionally satisfying, ethically robust, and most of all, spiritually nourishing.
I think the problem with Christianity today is that too many people — and churches — settle for loving God in just one or two of these dimensions. For example, fundamentalist Christianity can be very emotionally demonstrative, but often lacks intellectual integrity.
On the other hand, I’ve been in too many faith communities where there’s an emphasis on academic rigor, but very little room for heartfelt devotion.
If we can’t even get our head and heart together, how can we ever find the path to Divine Love that challenges us to be our very best, while simultaneously fostering our soul?
Even though it’s been more than 40 years since David handed me that book, I remain convinced that the best models for this kind of holistic, integrated spirituality — that is honest, loving, compassionate, and deeply contemplative — is found in the lives and the wisdom of the great mystics.
Some of the mystics were scholars and theologians of the highest caliber. Others expressed such a deep and profound love for God that their lives shimmered with joy. Still others embodied such a profound ethic of caring for the poor or the sick that we rightfully honor them as saints.
And yet, what all the mystics have in common is this rich, embodied encounter with God. Some describe it as the presence of God in their lives, others describe it as participation in God, and others even use bold language of Union with God.
It’s a heightened consciousness, a supernal awareness, a joyful apprehension of what Evelyn Underhill called “the Real” — with a capital R.
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: reading Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism changed my life. Now, it’s an old book — I received it many years ago, and it was an old book then. So while I would recommend this book to anyone, it may not be your cup of joe.
And that’s okay. For that matter, you may not like all the mystics — there are some who leave me cold.
But if you are looking for a path of spiritual wisdom that fires on all cylinders — that combines mindfulness with devotion with integrity with a consciousness suffused with joy — then I invite you to explore the wisdom of the mystics.
Maybe their insights will change your life, too.
Featured image: Langley AFB Chapel, via Wikimedia Commons.