The primacy of personal experience, anywhere can become exalted


Anywhere can become exalted – for Evelyn Underhill it was Notting Hill main road, here in 1910 

Following on from the last four personal posts, I wanted to look in further detail at the idea of the primacy of personal experience and was encouraged by the writer, theologian, and spiritual director Evelyn Underhill’s thinking on this (1875-1941). She saw personal experience as the criterion by which one knows the truth. We can be told about God, and we can learn about Jesus Christ, but unless it becomes an experience deep within us it just remains on the surface, and nothing much changes. Interestingly, Underhill only gradually began to trust her own experience absolutely, and eventually came to realise that the power and vividness of what she called “reality” was connected to increased consciousness of it.

In a letter to her first directee in the life of the spirit – incidentally written at a time when Underhill felt she was ‘in as much as a tangle as anyone else’ – she wrote to a woman correspondent about the primacy of spiritual experience and shared an example of ‘reality’:

‘The first thing I found out was exalted and indescribable beauty in the most squalid places. I still remember walking down the Notting Hill main road and observing the (extremely sordid) landscape with joy and astonishment. Even the movement of traffic had something universal and sublime in it. Of course, that does not last! But the after flavour of it does, and now and then one catches it again. When one does catch it, it is so real that to look upon it as wrong would be an unthinkable absurdity. At the same time, one sees the world at those moments so completely as “energized by the invisible” that there is no temptation to rest in mere enjoyment of the visible.’

Underhill tackles the sceptic who says that ‘what you have already found is not there at all’. Adding, ‘but their arguments will never be valid to you again’. Spiritual experiences are not illusory, contemptible or trivial, but rather it presents ‘the dim shadow of the thought of the Real’. ‘Direct spiritual experience is the only possible basis; and if you will trust yours absolutely you are safe’.

Life, she writes, ‘only attains reality in so far as it is consciously lived in the presence of God’. And she advocates deep meditation as a way of developing this consciousness. Religion in the end has little to do with reason, but is an appeal to the soul and so to mysticism. While it is the personal experience that is emphasised in the sense that it happens to the person, such spiritual experiences described by so many confirm that it is also universal – so the powerful love of God, whatever form the experience individually takes is open to all.