We grow best …not by direct and anxious conflict with our difficulties and bad qualities, but by turning to and gazing at the love, joy, peace of the saints, accepting their standards, setting our wills and desires that way.
Concerning the Inner Life (Underhill, p 51)
First of two addresses on Evelyn Underhill & St Benedict
Church of the Resurrection at Mt Macedon, All Souls Day, 2019
In the preface to his recent book, Luminaries - Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way, Rowan Williams writes about how one person's story can change another person's life. He goes on to offer the stories of luminary figures who have influenced his own thinking and being. These are the ‘stories and writings that themselves set out to decipher the world and the attempt to illuminate it.’ These figures, and their stories, may also help us make sense of God. This may be a startling process.
Jesus himself used narrative to unveil truth. In telling stories, throughout the New Testament, it’s as if Jesus is saying: ‘At the end of this story you will not be where you were at the beginning.’ The parables in particular, ‘push us towards getting away from the cliches which we imprison ourselves, towards taking us into another world, or several other worlds, where we don’t yet know the end of our story and where the categories and conventions we’ve been taking for granted don’t automatically apply.’ (Luminaries px)
The stories of saints lives are each unique but they all point us back again and again to the one story told in different ways and from different perspectives in the New Testament: Jesus. And this draws us, as do the writings of Evelyn Underhill, St Benedict and many other figures of light as well, to the foot of the cross. And from here, even further onward toward a nameless silence. For us, to decipher the stories of the saints’ lives as they in turn deciphered and attempted to illumine their world, is to be broken free and know the world afresh from new perspectives, to acknowledge that we don’t yet know the end of our own story.
At first these two saints, Evelyn Underhill and St Benedict, both recognised in our Anglican Church Calendar, would seem to be the stories of two very unlikely persons to sit side by side. They exist far apart in time and space. One, born at the end of the Victorian Era in 1875, the other died in the Early Middle Ages 547CE. One, a woman, grew up in London, an upper middle class privileged life, educated, married and enjoyed frequent trips to the continent. The other, a man, born 1300 years earlier, in Rome, also of good family and education, but as a young man chose to live a hermit life in the foothills and then in a cave above Subiaco. Eventually, through an unintentional gathering of followers, he was persuaded to become an abbot then later found a monastery at Cassino, a town halfway between Naples and Rome.
‘The Saints have nothing to hide; they can be viewed from any angle.’ WH Auden in his poem In Praise of Limestone, tells us that saints reveal the infinite ways people can connect with God. In our own deciphering the lives of the saints, we witness the relaxed freedom to be oneself. This means not trying to be something we are not; nor ‘strain after something which is inaccessible.’ (Concerning the Inner Life, p 71). St Benedict and Evelyn Underhill radiate a light about what it means to live with a sense of ‘having nothing to hide.’ There is a sense that what is in shadow can, with patience and in time, slowly grow out into the light.
They both lived in their own historical times of great uncertainty and change; both knew the harrowing effects of violence, the terror that people and nations could inflict. But their own deciphering about God was not haphazard, their illuminations not coincidental - the same God sang to and in each of them. In turn they were both formative in changing the lives of those around them.
They each came to realise that by means of a deep solitary prayer life, we are as human beings, are created not alone and existential, but in relationship - our primary relationship being in and with God.
And this God, who sang to them, is the very same God who sings to and in us, within our own hearts and our communities, and in the world today. This is the God we name, Love.
There are four points of intersection between these two saints which I am here offering in these two addresses. I’m sure there’s more, but here’s four broad strokes attempting to show something of their narrative which sought to make sense of the world and in turn, helps us in making sense of God.
1. Our relationship in and with God always starts from the place of the heart.
Evelyn Underhill is most well known today for her two major works: Mysticism (1911) and Worship (1939), both which still remain in print today. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend either of these works as the place to begin to read her or understand her life. They are books to be studied, rather than sat with in meditation.
It helps to decode the word mysticism, itself. This word can sit uneasily for some Christians today. But for Underhill its meaning was very plain and had nothing in it to cause alarm. For her the mystic is the person who experiences the God’s love and this experience then informs their spiritual way of life.
Drawing on other religious writers of her contemporary age - William James, Rudolph Otto, Charles Williams - she variously assigned to God, terms such as the Eternal, or the Infinite, or Changeless One, or the Absolute, or the Real, or Love. These words would have been in current use during her day. A person’s experience of God enables them to see Truth more clearly and they able to move with suffering in such a way that their lives and the lives of others become more creative, even flourish. The mystic’s life centres on adoring God, and from this well of God’s love, comes a capacity to share the love of God throughout the world with others, under varying circumstances.
And here is our first insight. Underhill maintained that mysticism is a ‘science'; but unlike our own understanding of science today in the 21st century, it not only gives the domain of ‘feeling’ a legitimate place in this field, but finds it essential. Mysticism is a science of the heart. To be in relationship with God is to start from the place of the heart. She writes:
‘In the sphere of religion it is now acknowledged that the “God known of the heart” gives a better account of the character of our spiritual experience than “God guessed at by the brain”…. that the loving intuition is more …… trustworthy than the dialect proof…’ For her, ‘The heart, eager and restless, goes out into the unknown, and brings home, literally and actually, “fresh food for thought.” Hence those who “feel to think” are likely to possess a richer, more real, if less orderly, experience than those who “think to feel.” ( Mysticism, p 48-49).
The heart then, is that touching stone or that ground within us as another much earlier mystic, Meister Eckhart called it. This inner ground is a place to be trusted; an inner place to go back to and to be honoured for its wisdom and teaching. The heart is the place we connect into during our times of prayer, meditation, in stillness and silence. We may need tools - mantras, images, Gospel stories - to gently lead us here. The heart space is a place of paradox and mystery. For some it has no ground, as another great uncanonised saint, Thomas Merton has said, here in prayer:
'A door opens in the centre of our being and we fall through immense depths, which although they are infinite are still accessible to us… All eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact.’ (New Seeds of Contemplation, p 227).
This is the heart space.
2. Our hearts and minds need to remain open: our perception expansive and inclusive.
Evelyn Underhill was born in 1875 and died in 1941. Her life moved through a number of different periods history: the Victorian and Edwardian eras, First World War right up to the beginning of the Second World War. To live through this rich period of changing moods in history gives us a clue, I think, to our second insight: the importance of remaining open, of cultivating a heart that is expansive and inclusive.
In her younger years Underhill was educated privately at home and then became a boarder at school. In 1893, she attended the then recently opened Ladies wing at Kings College London. She studied botany, languages, art and history. She read philosophy (via which she later in a letter to a friend claimed was how she came to God) and poetry. She thought of her herself then as a Neoplatonist.
Throughout her life, Evelyn Underhill kept her heart and mind open to fresh ideas and new possibilities. She took her cue here from the lives of the saints. She writes:
Their personal influence still radiates, centuries after they have left the earth, reminding us of the infinite variety of ways in which the Spirit of God acts on people through people, and reminding us too of our own awful personal responsibility in this matter. The saints are the great experimental Christians, who because of their unreserved self-dedication, have made the great discoveries about God; and, as we read their lives and works, they will impart to us just so much of these discoveries as we are able to bear. Indeed, as we grow more and more, the saints tell us more and more: disclosing at each fresh reading secrets that we did not suspect. Their books are the work of specialist, from whom we can humbly learn more of God and our our own souls. (Concerning the Inner Life, p 55-56)
Born English middle upper class and nominally Church of England, she came to consider herself an agnostic and at the turn of the 20th century she became very influenced by a movement called modernism. The influence of this movement continued for the rest of her life.
In 1907, Underhill had a conversion experience and decided to become a Roman Catholic because of its sacramental emphasis. Her writing, even at this stage in her early novels, always centred on this pursuit of truth; she researched and wrestled with ideas about how to bring modern science, psychology, philosophical thinking into Christianity. However, one of the two main reasons she never converted was because of a Papal Encyclical which condemned Modernist teaching. It wasn’t until after the First World War that she chose to become Anglican; she needed a sense of community around her. In particular she was drawn to Anglo-Catholicism and in the 1920s, her work, became much more focussed on personal prayer and vocation. During this period she led retreats and gave many addresses to different denominational Christian groups: Methodists, Baptists and Quakers. Underhill emphasised that the mystic path is open to all; but ‘achieved by the few whose lives were open to transformation by that which they loved.’ (Evelyn Underhill by Dana Greene p 51).
It was her own guidance by a vision of the Holy Spirit that is expansive and inclusive, I think, which enabled her at the beginning of the Second World War to enjoin her small prayer group to pray especially for the change of heart of Hitler and Mussolini. All people are made in the image of God. The call for non-violence and peace was and is a call for all of us.
3. Place ourselves at the doorway between the invisible and the visible; attached detachment.
Although Underhill emphasised the spiritual journey of the heart in God, she was always a very grounded and practical woman. After writing Mysticism, a shorter work, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, quickly followed in 1914. She emphasised that mystics not become overly introspective. All spiritual inclinations are most energised and transformative when realised in human living.
During the First World War Evelyn Underhill undertook social work and naval intelligence; she prepared and translated guide books. From a young age she was a competent yachtswoman. She always knew that she was socially privileged, and accepted her own place in respectable English society. She was a dutiful daughter and later respectable wife who acquiesced to its attendant social responsibilities. She never questioned gendering God as ‘He’, and writing ‘man’ meaning ‘person,’ or ‘he’ meaning both ‘he and she.’ There were certain givens in her life which she simply accepted.
Later, in the early 1920s, to her spiritual director, Baron Von Hugel, she confessed to inwardly ‘falling to pieces’ during the war years. During this period however, as she began to deepen in her own prayer life with the wise and gentle witness of another, she began to discover a more finely balanced place between her inner life and her outer action. It was a period of finding congruity between being active, engaged in the world and in personal relationships, and yet open to hearing God, who to all intents and purposes appeared invisible in the world. Von Hugel encouraged Underhill to practice what he called ‘attachment with detachment.’ And it was in part due to this practice, I think, that she began to hold herself with more maturity in that very difficult space, the doorway position between the visible and invisible.
The practice of ‘attachment with detachment,’ as I sense its meaning, is a recognition that you can feel close and intimate with another, but also develop a sufficiency of space between oneself and the other. It’s an encouragement to inhabit the gap between presence with, yet also holding back from. There’s a turning towards the visible, be it a person or thing, yet also keeping something aslant in one’s vision towards the Infinite.
By this practice a love is slowly cultivated that sets free the other; gives space for the another person to be who they are. It acknowledges another persons relationship in God, as well as honouring our own.
4. All of this is premised on a life of prayer. Develop patterns or habits of the heart.
From the 1920s prayer and vocation become the main subject of Underhill’s teaching and writing for the rest of her life. Worship and prayer, Underhill believed was essential, and something the church at that time was in danger of losing. Abp Michael Ramsey later said it was Evelyn Underhill who kept the church going during the period between the wars.
In her book, Concerning the Inner Life, Evelyn Underhill, based on her addresses to Anglican Clergy on retreat at Pleshey in 1926, she makes four useful points about prayer life.
Firstly, our souls need a regular practice of prayer life. Like all relationships, we need to find time and places of rest, of retreat, meditation if we are to grow. In these quiet spaces we both receive and transmit grace and gratitude. We ponder the mystery of God. We give ourselves permission to ask hard questions. Here too, we can contemplate God’s transcendence - awe at the night sky filled with stars - as well as immanence - the memory of the love of God revealed in the smile of a stranger - in creation. This need for space and rest, solitude is essential food for right orientation in God. This is downtime to deal with ourselves, and tend to God.
Secondly, different temperaments will pray differently. Some people will be more attracted to the changeless and spaceless Presence of God; some will need words or phrases; some familiar prayers, some by leaning into the Gospel stories. ‘We grow by feeding and not by forcing; and should be content in the main to nourish ourselves on the food that we can digest and quietly leave the other kinds for those that they appeal.’ However, we should not totally disregard the ‘totality of the whole.’ She writes, if we are ‘strongly drawn to the concept of the Eternal and Infinite Spirit’ and pray only this way, we risk becoming too ‘thin, abstract and inhuman’ loosing that the sacramental integration with the senses; or if we are more drawn to Christ centred devotion, we can lose ‘depth and awe because the object of its worship has lost sight of the horizon of Eternity.’
Thirdly, our prayer life needs the nourishment of spiritual reading: ‘Proper feeding of our own spiritual life must include rightful use of spiritual reading.’ This of course, means scripture. But, interestingly, for Underhill, spiritual reading is ‘second only to prayer as a developer and support of the inner life.’ Cultivate or be cultivated in your relationship with God first, then read. Without the orientation of right relationship, even Scripture is in danger of being misread.
She encourages reading about the canonised and uncanonised saints. For here is ‘not only information but communion…with the great souls of the past…’ And then we, she says, ‘… discover these people to be in origin…..very much like ourselves. They are people who are devoted to the same service, handicapped by the very same difficulties…’
Fourthly, and finally, she writes about distraction and dryness:
‘our ‘mental machinery …is often rebellious and hard to adjust. It is on much more intimate terms with our sensory and motor reactions than it is with our spiritual desires and beliefs. It has a tendency, produced by long habit, to respond easily to every stimulus from the outside world.’ (Concerning the Inner Life, pp 45-65)
There are within us all sorts of distractions causing us to lack attention or find no interest in what we pray about. There are also constant involuntary thoughts and images. For Underhill we can educate these distractions by identifying and witnessing them, then choosing a prayer to say: for example a vocal prayer, which gives no information to God, but ‘give(s) to us that temper of mind in which we can approach Him.’ Learning short prayers or mantras can be very helpful here. Our bodies too can play a part, kneeling or physical rituals can ‘put us in the mood’ to approach God.
And finally, Evelyn Underhill gives us some very wise advise.
Every person with a developed life of prayer she tells us experiences periods of dryness. She recommends, here move with the ‘dictates of grace and common sense.’ ‘Accept the situation quietly…don’t aggravate it..’ And here we need to practice gentleness and patience with ourselves. (Concerning the Inner Life pp 65-66)
In one of her letters to a friend (Letters, 1923: 313), Evelyn Underhill wrote:
‘…avoid strain. …….go along gently, look after your body, don’t saturate yourself the whole time with mystical books. …..Hot milk and a throughly foolish novel are better things for you to go to bed on just now than St Teresa.’
Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way
By Rowan Williams
Concerning the Inner Life
By Evelyn Underhill Oneworld Publications, 1995
This is a good introduction to contemplating what the spiritual life means for Evelyn Underhill.
Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life
By Dana Greene ,
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990
This is a very good biographical starting point in understanding the life of Evelyn Underhill.
New Seeds of Contemplation
By Thomas Merton
New Directions Press, 1962
The Letters of Evelyn Underhill
Ed and introduced by Charles Williams
Longmans, Green & Co, 1944