Lent With Evelyn Underhill

evelyn-underhill

Every year members of our parish have written daily Lenten meditations for the benefit of members of the parish who are seeking to travel with others and go deeper into their own prayer and meditation during this holy season.  This year, given the varieties of time, life, and space we each inhabit, we have not produced a Lenten meditation booklet.  As a consolation, I am going to post excerpts from Evelyn Underhill on this page, and share them via Facebook with the parish and friends.  Last year we received a tremendous gift from one of our past members, Terry Coutre, who was an Underhill scholar and regularly visited the Underhill conference in England for years.  She donated her library of Underhill’s writings to our Cathedral, and some of us have been reading and re-reading favorites over the past  year.  This little Lenten project is a small show of thanks for the gift the Coutre family has made to those of us who still find life in these writings.

Blessings and Godspeed,

Alston Johnson

 

LENT WITH EVELYN UNDERHILL

Preface to the Second Edition

Looking back over twenty-five years since this little book of readings from the writings of Evelyn Underhill was published, I believe her lasting achievement remains her contribution to a renewed interest in the Christian mystical tradition. During her life the influence of the Roman Catholic lay-theologian Friedrich von Hügel was considerable. Nowhere is that clearer than in the distinction he made between exclusive and inclusive mysticism. It took time in her spiritual journey to advance from the experience of an exclusive mysticism of the kind described by the Neo-Platonist philosopher, Plotinus, as “the flight of the alone to the Alone,” with its search for private religious experience, to an inclusive mysticism that emphasized community. She grew in her spiritual formation to appreciate a mysticism that included sacraments— especially the Eucharist— and which focused on the incarnation of Christ, the reality of evil, the encounter with suffering, and the institutional life of the Church. Evelyn Underhill sprinkled her writings with appropriate quotations from the saints and mystics. She wrote from the perspective of one living in two worlds, the visible and the invisible. Consequently she regarded the human being as “amphibious”— belonging to this world here and now and the other world beyond space and time. The analogy of a house with its upper and lower stories appealed to her as expressive of the connection between earth and heaven. Given her attraction to the mystical tradition it is understandable why she liked the analogy of a fish in the sea. The fish swims in the ocean but does not create it, neither does not create it, neither does the Christian at prayer create the life of prayer but enters into it and is invigorated by it. For her the milieu of prayer encompassed the personal experience of the individual and the corporate experience of the Church. In all this we see the influence of von Hügel, who criticized individualistic, private, religious experience, separated from others, from community, from this world, and from the reality of evil and suffering. Those who succumbed to such spirituality von Hugel called “detached;” he dubbed them “D’s!” In Colossians 1: 15 and following, Paul writes that Jesus is the “first-born of all creation,” and head of the Church. Mystics have always been attracted to the Cosmic Christ of Paul’s letters. That was true for Evelyn Underhill, as it was for another twentieth century mystic, Teilhard de Chardin, who would have applauded her words found in her book, Mysticism: The Incarnation, which is for popular Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and early life of Christ, is for the mystic not only this but also a perpetual cosmic and personal process. It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, and pure character of God, of which the one historical life dramatized the essential constituents. As I have returned to the writings of Evelyn Underhill for enrichment, there have been times when in spite of keeping in mind the historical setting in which she wrote— England just prior to World War I through the inter-war period— I have been uncomfortable with certain dualisms of thought. Her frequent use of “supernatural,” God as “objective reality,” priority given to adoration in prayer, her favorite two-storied house analogy, patriarchal imagery, and quaint illustrations that often seem dated can be a problem. But these troubling areas are more than compensated and usually transcended by her constant incarnational spirituality, her celebration of creation, her view of discipleship as pilgrimage and growth in Christ, her belief in worship as response to God’s loving search for us, and her focus on community— in short, by her inclusive mysticism. Drawing us into deeper levels of understanding, Evelyn Underhill’s writings cultivate a contemplative approach to God and creation. With her aesthetic sensibility she writes of the presence of God everywhere, even in the most insignificant encounter or thing. And finally, in a Johannine spirit she calls us to open our eyes, to see! It is fitting then that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church now sets aside June 15 as the day to commemorate “Evelyn Underhill, Theologian and Mystic.”

 

G. P. MELLICK BELSHAW

Belshaw, G.P. Mellick. Lent With Evelyn Underhill (Kindle Locations 52-55). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

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