The Mystical Turn

The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw
Dean of Grace Cathedral
San Francisco

BBC Radio 3 – The Essay – 16 to 20 May 2011

Producer: Ian Willox
Executive Producer: Alan Hall

The late 20th and early 21st century have witnessed a decline in churchgoing with an increased scepticism about institutional religion. At the same time, there has – paradoxically – been an increased desire for spirituality – for God “outside” religion. This is usually regarded as a post Second World War trend, but in this week’s Essay series,
Dr Jane Shaw explores the late 19th and early 20th century roots of this phenomenon – in what she calls the “mystical turn”.

Programme 1: WR Inge

Dr Jane Shaw examines the role of the “gloomy Dean” – Anglican priest and academic WR Inge. His book, Christian Mysticism – published in 1899 after Inge had spoken on the subject at Oxford University’s prestigious Bampton Lectures the previous year – had a profound influence on Christian thought and practice, and gave rise to a deluge of books on the subject, the most famous being William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism.

Programme 2: William James

Dr Jane Shaw evaluates the enduring influence of American psychologist and philosopher William James’s book on personal spirituality, The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Harvard professor William James, elder brother of the novelist Henry James, believed that humans have a religious propensity, a natural leaning towards religion. In his Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature – first given as the 1902 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh – James documented numerous events which he believed illustrated his thesis. James’s goal was to show the universality of religious experience, and its validity. In doing so, he unearthed the deep current of spiritual seeking that ran through America and Britain at the time and produced a book which still resonates with readers today.

Programme 3: Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism

Dr Jane Shaw explores the appeal of Evelyn Underhill’s bestselling book, Mysticism, first published one hundred years ago.  Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, was a major contribution to the revival of interest in mysticism in the early 20th century, and has been republished many times. For years on the margins of the established Church, Evelyn Underhill was attuned to the spiritual longing of the times. But in contrast to WR Inge – the Oxford don and later Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral – whose book, Christian Mysticism, had triggered a revival of interest in mysticism at the end of the 19th century, Underhill took mysticism out of the realm of the purely intellectual and into the practical. Her emphasis was on prayer, meditation and personal ascetism. For her, the mystic way was a largely individual endeavour and it was open to everyone.

Programme 4: Adela Curtis

Dr Jane Shaw explores the life and writings of the little-known, but charismatic, English mystic Adela Curtis.  Mystic, vegetarian, bookseller, sewage expert and much more besides, Adela Curtis was a remarkable woman. Born in 1864, she lived to the age of 96. After running a restaurant and bookshop in Kensington in the early years of the 20th century, she went on to found her own religious order for women – the Order of Silence – in Coldash, near Newbury in Berkshire. Members were celibate, vegetarian and contemplative, but the Order was not aligned with any particular church.  In 1921, aged 57, Adela Curtis then retired to live near Burton Bradstock in Dorset. But her followers visited with such frequency that a new community was formed. Each member of the community lived in a simple hut surrounded by a small piece of land for cultivation. The women wove their own robes from undyed silk or cotton – resulting in their being dubbed the ‘White Ladies’ – by the locals. Visitors came from far and wide and Aldous Huxley thought Adela Curtis, who died in 1960, one of the greatest living mystics.

Programme 5: Kandinsky and Contemporaries

Concluding the series, The Mystical Turn, Dr Jane Shaw explores the relationship between spirituality and mysticism in the work of Russian artist Kandinsky and his contemporaries.  Artists – as well as devout Christians and seekers on the edge of institutional religion – sought a path to union with the divine. Kandinsky’s manifesto on the relationship between spirituality and art – The Art of Spiritual Harmony (later retitled Concerning the Spiritual in Art) – was first published in English in 1914 (it had originally been published in German in 1912). Kandinsky believed that art belonged to the spiritual realm, that form and colour were central, and that there was a link between so-called “primitive art” and the spiritual. He was not alone. His views were echoed in the art of his contemporaries: in the paintings of the Post-impressionists; in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had its premiere in Paris in 1913; and in The New Science of Colour by New York poet, Beatrice Irwin.

The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw, historian and priest, is Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  Before moving to San Francisco in 2010, she  was Dean of Divinity and Fellow of New College, Oxford where she taught history and theology.  Her latest book, Octavia, Daughter of God – The Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers, is published in June by Jonathan Cape.  Her previous books include Miracles in Enlightenment England (Yale 2006). She writes on religious matters for press and radio, and speaks and lectures widely in Britain and the USA.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 16th, 2011 at 12:01 am and is filed under Broadcast, Our work. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. I find this really interesting. Have just read Richard Holloway’s A little history of religion. My step-father Kenneth Bowden was a conscientious objector in the WW2 and worked for a time in Adela Curtis’s community at Burton Bradstock – before embarking on a 7-year Jungian analysis with a fierce female psychoanalyst!
    I will look out for this book Octavia…

    Comment by simon bowden on 2 November 2017 at 9:33 pm

  2. Many thanks for getting in touch. Here is a link to Jane Shaw’s Octavia in case you are interested in acquiring a copy:

    Comment by chrome on 14 November 2017 at 1:09 pm

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