Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A 20th Century Seeker of Wisdom

For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.Though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the man who lives with wisdom. For she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail...She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.” (Wisdom 7:24-8:1)

Evelyn Underhill, an English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist, became one of the most widely read writers on religion and spiritual practice, parti-cularly Christian mysticism, in the first half of the 20th century. She was born into a comfortable upper-middle class London family in 1875, the only, and possibly unwanted, child of a barrister and his wife. The Underhills, members of the Church of England, had Evelyn baptized as an infant, but they were Christian only in the most superficial sense.

Evelyn was schooled in the home until she was 13, when she entered a boarding school. While there she was confirmed in the Church of England at age 16. Her college education was a scant one year at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College, London. She cared little for theology at that time, but was self-taught in philosophy, delving into the writings of Saint Augustine and Plotinus.

Evelyn learned a great deal about Christianity through her annual trips to Italy and France with her mother. There she fell in love with the art and spirit of the medieval world: a decidedly Catholic world. Her travels had a profound and lasting impact on her beliefs in general, but specifically upon her understanding of symbols and sacraments, and her love for things “spiritual”. Her exposure to medieval Christianity coincided with a growing cultural renaissance in the study of mysticism and spirituality: an age when works on the psychology of religion were complemented by the discovery and recovery of many classics of Christian spirituality.

In her mid-twenties Evelyn became involved with a religious group, called “The Golden Dawn”, which dabbled in magic and mysticism. She belonged to this group for about two years, long enough to savor the taste of religious ritual and corporate prayer. A significant religious experience in her early life occurred at the French Franciscan Convent of St. Mary of the Angels in Southampton, where Evelyn and her best friend had gone on retreat. She was so taken with the spiritual atmosphere of the Convent that she cut her retreat short, fearing, as she put it, “a hasty conversion to Catholicism”.

At the time, Evelyn was engaged to be married to a childhood friend, Hubert Stewart Moore, a barrister, who, like her parents, was at best indifferent to religion. He wasn’t pleased by Evelyn’s attraction to Roman Catholicism, so she planned to delay joining the Catholic Church until after her wedding. By that time, however, Pope Pius X had issued a papal decree condemning modern biblical and theological studies, the very things which Evelyn appreciated and advocated. So her religious experiences were reduced to attending Catholic Mass with her best friend, but being denied Holy Communion.

Like so many of her generation, Underhill turned from organized religion to interior personal religious experience. Her classic book, Mysticism, describes this inward turn in some detail. No other book of its type at that time met with such success. It’s an optimistic work, which outlines the spiritual life as a human ascent to God through a path known as ‘the Mystic Way”.

By 1920 the First World War and the death of her best friend had deflated Evelyn’s positive view of humanity. Her keen mind and her ability for languages were easily recognizable by this time. She wrote books on mysticism, novels, and books of poetry. She also served in military intelligence during the War as a translator. Still, her spiritual life was in need of direction, and for this she turned to Baron Friedrich von Hügel, a Roman Catholic layman. Von Hügel served as Evelyn’s spiritual guide and mentor from 1921 to 1925, the last years of his life. From him she learned that God’s grace is the starting point in one’s spiritual life. He helped her develop a much-deepened appreciation of the Sacraments, and to understand the necessity of the Church in one’s spiritual life, and this marked a turning point in her life. She re-entered the Church of England in 1921. She quickly became involved in various Church commissions, and was the first woman to deliver a theology lecture at Oxford. She also received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Aberdeen College. She began leading retreats for clergy and lay people all over England, and was soon acclaimed as a retreat conductor and spiritual guide.

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’“ (John 4:19-24)

Evelyn Underhill’s understanding of the mystery of faith is perhaps best expressed in her later book, Worship (1936): "Worship, in all its grades and kinds, is the response of the creature to the eternal: nor need we limit this definition to the human sphere. There is a sense in which we may think of the whole life of the universe, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, as an act of worship, glorifying its Origin, Sustainer, and End. Only in some such context, indeed, can we begin to understand the emergence and growth of the spirit of worship in men and women or the influence which it exerts upon their concrete activities...It is possible to regard worship as one of the greatest of humanity's mistakes: a form taken by the fantasy-life, the desperate effort of bewildered creatures to come to terms with the surrounding mystery. Or it may be accepted as the most profound of man's responses to reality; and more than this, the organ of his divine knowledge and the earnest of eternal life..." (From Celebrating the Saints, Canterbury Press, p. 198)

Her theology, though far more orthodox than it had been when she wrote Mysticism, was still unique. While she saw Jesus as central to the Christian faith, the emphasis of her own teachings was on the Holy Spirit, whom she identified as the spirit of self-sacrificial love. For her, to be a Christian was to be filled with God’s Spirit to such an extent that one gave one’s entire life to serve God. This led her to become a convinced pacifist toward the end of her life: a very unpopular position to hold in England during World War II! Further, Evelyn saw the Holy Spirit as the central actor in one’s prayer life. This teaching allowed her to emphasize the similarities among various Christian traditions in their common goal of offering to God a sacrifice of thanks and praise.

Evelyn Underhill died on June 15, 1941, after suffering for many years with physical pain and ill health. At the time of her death she was given the fitting title of “Spiritual Director to her Generation”.

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