The Professor’s House

by John C. Kimball

This novel by Willa Cather is a successful example of Evelyn Underhill’s assumption that the spiritual life is available to every human being. Underhill assumes and demonstrates that the spiritual life is part of our human nature, just as physiology and psychology are part of all human life.

At the outbreak of World War I, Evelyn Underhill published Practical Mysticism because she believed that practical mysticism was the very activity needed most in a time of “struggle and endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long continuous effort.” Whether national or personal, there are always such times, and so always the very activity needed most.

Underhill then defines her subject: “Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is here invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the world. Thus he may become aware of the universe that the spiritual artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This amount of mystical perception—this ‘ordinary contemplation,’ as the specialists call it, is possible to all men: without it, they are not wholly alive. It is a natural human activity.” (Practical Mysticism, p. 11)

I do not know and I doubt if anyone can know positively if Cather read Evelyn Underhill, but The Professor’s House is, I believe, a clear demonstration of Underhill’s ideas.

Underhill does not set her definition within the realm of religion, scripture, or any traditional practice of religion: mystic life can be expressed in a secular mind, and in a secular world because, “it is a natural human activity.”

Professor Godfrey St. Peter, the man of the story, is carefully described as a totally secular-minded person. He reveals his ignorance of the New Testament by not even knowing the Magnificat, the well-known Song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55, despite being a cultured man and a professor of history. Cather never suggests that he goes to any Church or has any traditional belief system. He knows nothing of revelation or scripture. Cather seems to be eager to discredit common assumptions that mysticism or any kind of religious or spiritual consciousness depends on these basic elements of religion. Making emphasis by contrast, Cather even has one character who is practicing Baptist behave selfishly and jealousy. She seems to be insisting on a secular attitude.

The growth of the professor’s spiritual life, the “training of his latent faculties” is, however secular he is, the whole purpose of the story. In Mysticism Underhill says, “the mystic life involves…its capture of the field of consciousness; and the “conversion” or rearrangement of his feeling, thought and will—his character—about this new center of life.” (p. 68)

All the choices that the Professor makes are the rearrangements of his “feeling, thought and will.” The first basic rearrangement he makes is his choice to continue to use the third floor study in his old house. The family had built a new, relatively luxurious house that had ample room for his study, but he chose to rent his old study at extra expense. That choice also meant a certain abandonment of his wife and daughters and their lives, a “rearrangement of his feelings,” even “a new centre of his life.”

This crucial choice is therefore the title of the novel. It is literally crucial: a crossing of ways, and a cross he is eager to take up.

His field of consciousness is also undergoing a basic change. He pleads with the family seamstress, with whom he shared the study, to keep in the old study the dress forms that she used. It seems he began to prefer the symbols of his family rather than their actual presence and behavior. The seamstress also seems to be the rare counselor that he turns to: It was she who taught him Magnificat, and it was she who would have a vital role in his life. Underhill writes, “the destiny of the self depends on the partner the will selects.” (Mysticism, p. 69). The educated professor chose the unlettered seamstress as his spiritual partner.

In Mysticism, Underhill gives another definition. (The mystic life): “is active and practical…an organic life process, which the whole self does: not an intellectual opinion. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way improving the visible universe. It draws the whole being homeward. It is an enhanced life, the remaking of character and the liberation of a new form of consciousness.”

Professor St. John could be expected to express many emotions, but Cather is silent about all of them. He could express grief for the early and tragic death of Tom Outland. He could express some regret concerning his daughter Rosamund’s excessive spending on her new home. He could express loneliness for his wife’s lack of understanding of his needs. She chides him for sharing his thoughts with a student, and she doesn’t understand why he doesn’t want to go to France. Professor St. John is not interested in improving his visible universe; he accepts it the way it is. His tragic experience is the door to his “new center of life.”

Despite his tragic experience, I do not feel sorry for him, but instead I am drawn to him as he grows and changes. Grief or anger do not even occur to him or to me. The aim of his life is transcendental; he goes beyond the question of tragedy.

The spiritual goal or desire of Godfrey St. Peter is perhaps achieved in his solitary days at the beach when the family was in France. He could have gone with them, and visited old friends, but he chose to spend the summer alone in his house and at the beach.

There are four of us in this story: the professor, Willa Cather, Evelyn Underhill, and myself. I hope that others will find themselves in this story and be moved to become practical mystics.