Books have acted as rites of passage throughout my existence. Perhaps they form the backdrop to my life. Memories of my childhood are entwined with reading and literature. In the early 1960s, at the age of sixteen, I devoured the major Tolstoy novels one after another. Sat on the front step of our terraced house in Darlington I lost myself in the volumes while the men trooped home from the railway works across the road. A few years later, as the Beatles shouted and the Stones rolled, I ventured onto the London Underground and wondered at the number of people hunched over books as they travelled. With the acuity of age I realise this is because there is nothing much to look at through the windows. I have a sense that each carriage on the tube is full of worlds, floating out from the pages like giant thought-filled bubbles.
Now it is books that choose me rather than the other way round. I came across Orkney in a sale at the back of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. Two weeks later I found myself standing in Southwell Minster, a small but beautiful cathedral in Nottinghamshire. Another book seemed to slip into my hands: Practical Mysticism.
Amy Sackville, Orkney, Granta, London, 2012.
Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism, Vintage Books, New York 2003; first published in 1914; republished as a Kindle book, 2013.
We read non-fiction to fill a void in our knowledge; to be enlightened. We read novels to fill a gap in our time, to be entertained. Often, we end up deeper and wiser and enriched by both. Orkney is a beautiful, meditative novel about a ménage-à-trois: a sixty-year-old professor of English, his beautiful young wife, less than half his age, and the ageless sea. You would think the author is an old man dreaming in public but Orkney is the second novel of a young woman, the award-winning Amy Sackville.
The couple spend their honeymoon on one of the Orkney islands; a mere patch of grass and rock set in the ever-changing sea. We are introduced to the sea and its siblings: mist and wind. These are the central characters of the novel; at times in the foreground, but always in the background, described in impressionist, delineating language. The young wife has no name. She spends the days of their honeymoon standing on the shore staring at the sea. He spends his days trying to write a book. He watches her out of the window of their isolated, wood-warmed cottage with what starts as admiration and then evolves into adoration and eventually obsession; emotions intensified by the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol. It is not long before he literally worships the ground that she walks on.
There is no fixed line between the sea and the dry land, rather a shifting and swirling tide. Similarly, there is no tangible boundary between reality and fantasy in the lives of the couple. She falls in love with the ocean. Her dreams of drowning intrude into their life together like an unwelcome guest. He is obsessed with youth, at a time when he should be thinking of his mortality. The realisation that he must grow old before she does gnaws at his soul. His obsession with her leaves him unable to contemplate the notion of God or the hope to have children. Catastrophe is inevitable.
This simple tale of obsession speaks to me. Perhaps because I inhabit the borderlands between Christianity and Islam, not too far from either. Why then am I frittering away my time reading novels when I could be reading ibn Rushd or al-Ghazzali? Could it be that religion and philosophy are our starting point and must always be? After all, human nature is as it is and for many people the truth of their relationship with a chosen partner consumes the essence of their being. Fantasy is inherent in our make-up. Both phenomena are politically subversive. Jack and the Beanstalk is the first step to seeing beyond the present reality, as the likes of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were able to.
The potential to be entirely happy simply because of the person with whom you spend your time is politically subversive because it is beyond the control of those who would rule us and dictate every aspect of our behaviour – whether the rabid Tea Party fringe of the Republican Party in the US, the Ayatollahs of Iran, or the Communist governments of post-war Eastern Europe. When we are offered a higher standard of living we are patronised into gratitude. To say we don’t want any, our love is enough, is more worrying for governments than to say we desire more. Romantic love needs no brotherhood.
But it can be demanding. The professor cannot reconcile that the brightest and prettiest of his students came to his home and declared herself devoted to him. In Liverpool they would say he was ‘made up’. You could say that the male narrator is a sopping stereotype; and argue that Orkney is an eloquent feminist rant. When she is unwell, suffering horrific nightmares by night and headaches by day, he remarks on his own selflessness in taking the more burnt of two pieces of toast. He deserves everything he gets and he gets plenty. There are echoes of Bottom at the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, but for this professor one imagines there will be no shrug of the shoulders and making the best of it.
The unexpected strength of the narrative is the portrayal of the minutiae. The unforeseen everyday details that form the background to a holiday at the seaside, the pots and pans in the kitchen, the food that is and is not in the local shop, the burning of toast and the sand in the shoes. The young wife is lightly and beautifully sketched; and the surprising and devastating revelation of the complexity of her life is played out against a mundane setting. His comfort, alcohol, is very, very ordinary, at least to people of my own background. The sea is portrayed with nuance and sensitivity. I read it as a mystical meditation.
In contrast to Orkney’s absorbing narrative, Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism is a straightforward text, although, like Orkney, it does require some dedication. Evelyn Underhill, a poet, novelist, pacifist and mystic, was born in Wolverhampton in 1875 and died in 1941. She had a dominant influence on Christianity in Britain that has been erased from the state rituals in St Paul’s Cathedral or the comfortable family services in the middle class suburbs of our cities. She was part of that generation of women who flowered around the time of the First World War. Her contemporaries included Virginia Woolf, Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain. Unlike those who only write about mysticism, such as William James whose The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Underhill dismissed as an objective exercise, she was a practising mystic. Not surprisingly, she was a much sought-after speaker on mysticism and a highly regarded leader of retreats. She presided over many long weekends consisting of a small group of people living in total silence, speaking only to recite prayers and sermons. The subtitle humbly declares Practical Mysticism as ‘A little book for simple people’. Perfect for me I thought!
It was written on the eve of the First World War and published after the fighting had started. It has been republished numerous times; the latest being a digital version on Kindle. The book’s main message is that ‘we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels’; we regard labels as a viable currency and ‘ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite gradation of values which they represent’. If this dispatch had a role during Underhill’s time, it has an even bigger role now.
Technically we have here a plain English text, no long words, no poetical hints at another level of experience. No meditation on nature like Orkney. Underhill has no interest in theoretical explanations, formal classification or analysing degrees of mystical experience. For her, mysticism is a practical experience not a theoretical or metaphysical exercise. It is a spiritual activity based on love and entails deep, inner psychological involvement. In this sense, Underhill anticipated the theology of the Germany Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich and the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who argued that the ‘two world’ approach to religion was wrong and bordered on the blasphemous since it sought to exclude God from an ‘everyday’ world that He created and sustains. Auden expresses the idea perfectly in his poem ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
I cannot deny I am tempted by the invitation to the mystical that Underhill propagates. I feel an excitement akin to that I felt when in 1955 I first sat in a basement science laboratory in Darlington Grammar School and scanned the Periodic Table. But pursuing a mystical path involves leaving the world behind – doesn’t it? I am also attached to the systems we have built up in this little civilisation of ours. I like winning quizzes, finding a nice shirt and winning an argument. Underhill quietly tells me there is no need to choose, in the way that many people choose to be a life-long Republican or Democrat or make a once and for all choice between state and private education. You don’t have to be a life-long mystic – there are other things in life. Once freed from the suggestion that it is the only way, the mystical approach appeals to me. From Saturday to Tuesday we can walk the desert under stars alone with something approaching God and spend the rest of the week shouting in the House of Commons, leading a platoon of soldiers or struggling with a disruptive class of schoolchildren.
But those who wish to practice mysticism, Underhill tells us, ought to know that ‘the operations of the average human consciousness unite the self not with things as they really are but with images, notions, aspects of things’. Our prejudices pre-digest the world rendering all that we perceive homogenised; a kind of pulp fiction. To get to the essence, to experience reality, one needs to transcend the limitations of our consciousness. Consider, for example, the non-platonic love of a human being for another. At its best, it transforms the ordinary into something special but at its worst it can be utterly destructive. A safer version would be the first time you touch your baby’s cheek – a lifetime in a moment.
Underhill also asks a key question: ‘what, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall consciousness seize upon – with what aspects of the universe shall it unite?’ But the question is not answered. It cannot be answered. If we become nervous when we walk in the desert, search for land marks, seek assurances, we turn to God; but God is in all and all is in God. Life at its best is a gymnastic affair; it is a question of fine balance. It is all too easy to make God too small but there is a similar danger in making God so all-encompassing that in philosophic jargon God becomes something about which we cannot make logical statements. In the final analysis, it boils down to love. Love your neighbour as you love yourself, says the second commandment. They say that in Ireland there are a thousand shades of green. I think there are also a thousand kinds of neighbour and a thousand ways to express love. Gerard Manley Hopkins, nineteenth-century priest and poet, now rendered quite out of fashion, put it aptly:
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Both Orkney and Practical Mysticism, in their different ways, show that life is a dance of very small steps, a slight intricacy of foot leaving plenty of space for threads of the mystical.