Friday, February 22, 2013

T.S. Eliot and Mysticism

This is the third in a series of short essays that I plan to write and post on this blog about
T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays will also be something of a supplement to my 2009 book The Making of T.S. Eliot, which tracks the poet's intellectual and spiritual development through 1930.  As with any serious study, this is a work in progress -- so your feedback is very welcome!
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
I confess that I’ve always felt drawn to mysticism, ever since I first read Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.  I love the idea that everything may be connected on some level beyond rational understanding.  I suppose you could say I have faith in that idea.  I recognize that I can no more prove it than a devout Trinitarian can prove that Jesus is the Son of God, but I try to live my life based on the assumption that it’s true.  At the very least, this proves that I am temperamentally inclined toward mysticism.

So, apparently, was T.S. Eliot.  During his Harvard days, he made a self-directed study of the lives of saints and mystics, and became well acquainted with Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 book Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, and with William Ralph Inge’s 1905 book Studies of the English Mystics.  I have already written about Underhill’s influence, but I hadn’t read Inge’s work until earlier this week.  He takes a much more objective approach to the subject.  

Underhill’s study is methodical -- she breaks down the “Mystic Way” into five stages, beginning with an Awakening of consciousness, followed by Purgation, Illumination, the Dark Night of the Soul, and finally Union with the Absolute.  (To my mind, these could be stages in what William James and B.H. Streeter refer to as a “calling.”)  Underhill is particularly fond of Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross and Dame Julian of Norwich, believing that they offer the “best map” for getting beyond analytical thinking to a “richer, more real, if less orderly, experience” of God (Underhill 48, 104). 

Inge seems to be more interested in “the mystical state” than in mysticism as any kind of religious scheme, which means that he’s pretty broad in his understanding and presentation of mysticism.  In addition to Christian mystics like Dame Julian of Norwich and Walter Hilton, he devotes chapters to English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Robert Browning.   This suggests that he doesn’t make much of a distinction between “religious vision” and the artist’s “flash of insight.”  Both, he writes, are “essentially unselfish” (Inge 20).  And both, in his estimation, can be revelatory.

The essence of mysticism, as I understand it, lies in the possibility of immediate experience of God.  Inge explains the mystical experience as “the unveiling of some Divine truth which we could not have discovered for ourselves, but which, when it is shown to us by others to whom God has spoken, we can recognise as Divine.”  He qualifies his definition by adding, “There can be no revelation which is purely external; such a communication would be partly unnoticed, and partly misunderstood” (Inge 2-3).  In other words, a mystical experience takes place when something inside us overlaps with something outside us.  If we are not seeking something external, revelation is impossible.  If something outside of us is not seeking us, revelation is impossible.  Inge goes on to say that no writer or teacher can make this connection for us, because words can only contribute to an intellectual understanding.  The mystical experience, he writes, is something beyond intellect: “Those only can understand the mind of a prophet or saint who can supply what is lacking in his words from their own hearts” (Inge 4).

The trouble with this explanation, in my mind and possibly in Eliot’s, is the suggestion that the heart -- or, more to the point, the emotions -- makes up for what the intellect lacks.   I grew up in the land of born-again evangelicals and Pentecostals, and my personal observations have made me a bit cynical about the idea of an immediate experience of God.  To my mind, the proof of any true experience of God lies in the actions of the experiencer… and I have seen that it is possible for  people who make dramatic claims about being “born again” to overlook the basic teachings of Jesus.  That leads me to believe that they’re no closer to God than a moral atheist.

I must admit that I find the idea of an immediate experience of God to be extremely compelling.  In terms of personal temperament, I like the idea that the spirit world is so close.  While I may not subscribe to the idea as presented by Southern American evangelicals or Pentecostals, I like the idea as it’s presented in other, more intellectual contexts -- particularly traditions which suggest that skepticism and doubt are vital components of faith.   For me, there can be no God without mystery.  God must remain essentially unknown, or else the word “God” cannot apply.   Mysticism, in its most traditional sense, represents this embrace of the unknown -- or, more to the point, the unknowable.  But just as the word “God” inevitably simplifies the reality that it is meant to represent, so “mysticism” can be simplified to mean a dangerous form of anti-intellectualism.  With that in mind, Inge writes:

I am not altogether holding a brief for mysticism.  It is a type of religion which no one would wish to see in possession of the whole field, and which is very liable to perversions.  It cannot be an accident that it has been generally treated as the religion of pure feeling, as opposed to ethical theism on the one side, and to intellectual systems, such as absolute idealism, on the other.  I have tried to show that the moral sense and the speculative faculty both have their mystical states, and that both types have, in point of fact, contributed to the literature and hagiology of mysticism.  But, in spite of this, the trend of mysticism in the direction of pure feeling has been so marked, that the name is not likely to be readily given to piety of another type (Inge 26).

As best I can tell, Inge is an advocate for moderation.  Intellect without feeling falls short of the ideal.  So does feeling without intellect.

Eliot picked up this truth much earlier in his life, from the teachings of his grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot.  In his 1881 book Early Religious Education Considered as a Divinely Appointed Way to the Regenerate Life, he writes of “regeneration” as “a real and radical change of the heart and life of which the Scripture speaks” (Eliot 3-4).  Although he acknowledges that this sometimes takes the form of a “sudden, miraculous conversion,” he notes his skepticism about such immediate “regeneration”:

There is but one sense in which sudden conversion is possible, which is, that a beginning may be, and often is, abruptly or suddenly made.  The thoughtless man may be unexpectedly brought to reflect, and the sinner to repent.  There may be, and not unfrequently is, a turning-point of character, - a epoch which is the beginning of a new era in the life.  In this sense, no one will dispute the fact; but we must remember that, after the direction of life is changed, the whole progress of life is to be accomplished.  Nor do we teach miraculous conversion, except in the sense which belongs to God’s providential dealing with us, and to the unseen, unobserved influences of God’s spirit, which work together with our spirits, and in accordance with the laws of our own minds.  Upon this divine help, which is at once natural and supernatural, we are always dependent.  But we cannot separate it, as a miraculous interference, from our own thoughts and affections, our own aspirations and prayers (Eliot 7-8).

In my mind (and possibly T.S. Eliot’s), “sudden conversion” is not unlike the first stage of Evelyn Underhill’s mysticism.  It is an awakening, the beginning of a long and difficult journey.   “Regeneration” is not merely a gift; it requires a tremendous effort on our part.  The newly awakened person must meet God halfway, so to speak.  I think T.S. Eliot was just beginning to formulate this belief during his Harvard years, and was probably still formulating it in 1914 when he wrote about a “turning” in his earliest Waste Land fragments.   He was doing the work he needed to do, based on his own personal temperament, in order to move forward -- but he had not yet surrendered to the notion of an external force that could meet him halfway, even though he seems to have had a quasi-mystical experience as early as 1910.  Inge’s book planted the idea that such an experience might be only a means to an end:

God lends us a portion of His eternal life, that we may at length make it our own.  But it can only become our own by passing for a while quite out of the sphere of immediate perception.  Feeling must pass into will.  In so passing it does not cease to be feeling, but becomes conscious of itself as feeling.  And Will, when it becomes conscious of itself as will, passes into intelligence, without ceasing to be will.  The reconciling principle between will and intelligence or knowledge is love (Inge 29).

Even before he encountered Inge’s work, T.S. Eliot was most likely well aware of his grandfather’s insistence that the right kind of love (“a change of heart”) transforms a person completely:

It substitutes the principle of right for that of expediency.  It makes the will of God our law, instead of our own changing desires, or the customs of the world.  Instead of selfishness and self-seeking, whatever form they may take, it teaches self-denial, and, it may be, self-sacrifice.  It requires us to live for others, not only by separate acts of kindness, but by going out to do good, and by making the ordinary occupations of life the means of usefulness.  It teaches us to regard everything in this world chiefly with a view to its uses in the formation of that higher, spiritual life, which begins here, to be perfected in heaven.  It goes, therefore, to the depths of the soul, and changes the purpose of its existence.  It changes the meaning of life and the end to be accomplished.  It requires the change of our ruling affections, and by infusing a new spirit into everything done, it effectually changes the whole conduct and conversation.  Even that which seems to be the same, such as the common routine of life, is really changed, because its purpose and meaning are changed (Eliot 13-14).

WGE said that, once the awakening happens, the complete change requires “only time for its working.”  For the time being, T.S. Eliot was yearning for a particular kind of love, while searching for undeniable “proof” and possibly waiting for a sign.  In a 1920 essay on Dante, he writes:

The mystical experience is supposed to be valueable [sic] because it is a pleasant state of unique intensity.  But the true mystic is not satisfied merely by feeling…

The lasting influence of true mysticism is apparent in Eliot’s ultimate poetic statement, FourQuartets, which repeatedly references the works of St. John of the Cross and Dame Julian of Norwich.  As Eliot scholar Jewel Spears Brooker has pointed out, the poet adopted Julian as a “significant spiritual mentor,” and incorporated her mystic visions into East Coker, when he speaks of God as the still point of the turning world, and in Little Gidding, when he quotes her soothing message from Christ as a final summation:

            All shall be well, and
            All manner of thing shall be well

There is more, of course, but for now mysticism is a tentative step toward spiritual regeneration.


Brooker, Jewel Spears.  “’All shalle be wele:’ T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding and Julian of Norwich’s Showings.” Explorations: The Twentieth Century.  
Eliot, T.S.  “Dante.”  The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays.  Mineola: Dover, 1998. 

Eliot, William Greenleaf.   Early Religious Education Considered as a Divinely Appointed Way to the Regenerate Life.  5th Edition.  Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1881.

Inge, William Ralph.  Studies of the English Mystics: St. Margaret’s Lectures, 1905.  London: John Murray, 1907.

Underhill, Evelyn.  Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness.  New York: New American Library, 1974.


  1. Thanks again, Joe, for an excellent introduction to mysticism by comparing Inge and Underhill. By the way, my wife especially wants to thank you since Julian of Norwich is one of the most important spiritual influences in her life.)As I was reading your essay, a moment in Graham Greene's life leaped into my mind's eye. When he was in his early teens, he was wandering in a field outside his public school, where his father was the headmaster. In the background, Greene could hear the concert that was taking place inside the school...the music was Mendelssohn. There--in the distance--he saw this beautiful rabbit. Greene later wrote he knew that was the night he first saw God. It wasn't an intellectual certainty...nor was it an emotional conversion. That night, that music, that rabbit...they all represented tentative leadings for Greene. God was sharing something that night with Graham. Thanks, Joe!

  2. Thank you for writing, Paul. I can relate to Greene's experience, because I have had two or three similar experiences in my life. I would not call my experiences "mystical," because to me there was nothing unnatural about them. Such moments are distinguished only by heightened awareness, intense and fleeting. Sometimes that's all it takes to change patterns of thought and being. The moment passes in the blink of an eye, but stays with you forever.

    1. That is beautiful, Joe. You inspired me to share one of my moments. I was standing outside my apartment house...waiting for a ride. It had snowed the day before, and everything was so very peaceful. The wind was blowing the snow past me, and suddenly I swear Time slowed down...and I heard this: "It's going to be all right." For whatever reason, I believed it. Thanks again.

  3. I remember a similar experience a few years ago, when I was deep in Valley of Fire State Park. I had gone to see the sunrise on the red rocks, and there was no one else around. I happened upon a tall, flat rock that was covered with petroglyphs. As soon as I saw them, the wind abruptly stopped. For a few moments, I couldn't hear ANYTHING. I remember thinking that time had stopped, not just where I was standing but everywhere. It was a truly singular experience.

  4. Anonymous2/28/2013

    Obviously, I have a bias, but there is nothing quite like the desert southwest to fill one with a sense of peace. Especially those places you were visiting, Joe.

    Terri Wilson

  5. Terri - I agree with you completely. Have you ever read a book called "The Desert" by John C. Van Dyke? I think you might appreciate it...

    1. Anonymous3/04/2013

      I'll add it to my ever-growing list of books to read.