Revisiting Evelyn Underhill: the Centennial Year of Mysticism

By Kathleen Staudt

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Evelyn Underhill’s groundbreaking book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Human Spiritual Consciousness. This book has been remarkable in that it has appealed both to scholars and to seekers, and it has been continuously in print for 100 years — a miracle in itself, as anyone familiar with publishing knows. Even though Mysticism is not my favorite among Underhill’s writings, I have welcomed the invitation this centennial year brings to read more widely in her work, and to appreciate again how vividly she speaks to our own time. (Most recently I’ve been involved in organizing a conference on her work, to be held at Washington National Cathedral June 3 and 4 — more information about this here.)

Mysticism is the product of the Edwardian era, when the more affluent classes, as well as clerics and academics, were interested in various aspects of the life of the spirit. Underhill herself was the author of several spiritual novels with neoplatonic world views, and spent some time with a spiritualist group known as the Golden Dawn. The interest in personal spiritual experience in her era mirrors the New Age spirituality of the 1980’s and 90’s, and also speaks to the popularity in our own time of being “spiritual but not religious.” To this audience, Underhill, largely self-educated in the area of religion, assembles here a comprehensive survey of the great Christian mystics, especially of the west, insisting at once upon their universality as “pioneers of the (human) race” and on the particularity of their Christian identity, rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation.

What is fascinating about Mysticism, and a thread through all of Underhill’s writing, is her simple insistence that spiritual experience is about God, and not (primarily) about our own internal psychology or makeup. A thoughtful and well-reasoned Christian apologist, she is unapologetic about insisting on the “reality” of God as the ground of mystical experience. In the 1920’s, following the upheaval of the Great War, she embraces to a decidedly “catholic” Anglican faith and moves into a remarkable career as a writer and lecturer on Christian spirituality, directing retreats, writing letters of directions and teaching “normal people” about the life of prayer in the modern world. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said of her that “ in the twenties and thirties there were few, if indeed, any, in the Church of England who did more to help people to grasp the priority of prayer in the Christian life and the place of the contemplative element within it.”(Preface to Christopher Armstrong’s Evelyn Underhill (1975, Eerdmans), pp. ix-x)

I find Underhill increasingly appealing as her work matures, from the Romantic celebrations of Mysticism to a focus on what her later work calls “the spiritual life,” preferring that term to “mysticism” when she discusses the life of prayer for ordinary people. Particularly infectious is her deepening appreciation for the ancient wisdom of the Christian tradition, which she sees forming the greatest of the western mystics, and whose theological heritage she finds, increasingly, in eastern orthodoxy. Though my preferences vary when it comes to Underhill’s work, at the moment I am very much taken with the series of Lenten retreat addresses on the “Christian creed” which she published in 1937 under the title The School of Charity. I led a study course on this work recently and was surprised to find how fresh and wise it is, for contemporary Christians seeking clarity about our identity and practice in the postmodern world. It presents the Creed (mainly the Nicene Creed), not as a series of propositions to be debated or assented to, but as a series of themes for prayerful exploration and contemplation.

The heart of her argument in The School of Charity offers fresh and We are created by, and in the image of, a God who relates to the world as the “Artist-Lover” — delighting in Creation and loving us and desiring us to grow into deeper and fuller companionship in the divine life. “We are Christians,” Underhill writes, bracingly, and so we accept, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the Christian account of [God’s] character. God is Love, or rather Charity; generous, out-flowing, self-giving love, Agape. When all the qualities which human thought attributes to Reality are set aside, this remains. Charity is the colour of the divine personality, the spectrum of Holiness. We believe that the tendency to give, to share, to cherish, is the mainspring of the universe, ultimate cause of all that is, and reveals the Nature of God: and therefore that when we are most generous we are most living and most real.” (10-11)

The Incarnation follows naturally from this fundamental character of God as generous love: it is out of compassion and love that God becomes one of us, taking on the “pattern” of a human life, and inviting us to make our own Christ’s life of loving service and availability, compassion, radical peacemaking, and ultimately radical self-offering. Rather than pursuing the theology of a “substitutionary” atonement, Underhill invites us to marvel at the generosity of the divine self-offering, which enters the brokenness of our human experience to share and transform it. And so the heart of our faith is the Incarnation; the Cross, the central symbol of that faith, is the inevitable outcome of the divine decision to share our human nature. In the Crucifixion, the extremes of human suffering experienced in his own humanity by the One who loves us. The suffering that we experience in our lives is given meaning and hope by the profound generosity of self-offering Love – “caritas” – “Charity,” which is the heart of the divine life, the goal of our formation in the Christian life, the ground of human transformation.

“A Christian’s belief about reality,” she writes, “is a wonderful blend of confidence and experience. On one hand it asks great faith in the invisible world that enfolds us. On the other hand it includes and embraces the hardest facts of the actual life we know, and gives them a creative quality. It is a religion which leaves nothing out (p. 51).” In her chapter on the Spirit and the Church, she insists that however incongruous it may seem, the Holy Spirit’s mission of transforming a broken world happens through us, the Church, in our ordinary, practical lives. So she writes with wry awareness:

. . . . .All this seems terribly concrete to the enthusiast for “pure spirituality”: and when we think of pews and hassocks and the Parish Magazine, we tend to rebel against the yoke of official religion, with its suggestion of formalism and even frowstiness. It seems far too stiff and institutional, too unventilated, to represent the generous and life-giving dealings of the Divine Charity with men. The chorus which exclaimed with awe and delight, “I believe in one God! Thins out a good deal when it comes to saying, “I believe in one Church!. . . . Yet there it is; the Christian sequence is God-Christ-Spirit-Church-Eternal Life. No link in this chain can be knocked out, without breaking the current of love which passes from God through his creatures back again to God. The incarnation of the Holy in this world is social. We are each to contribute our bit to it, and each to depend on the whole.” (92)

Rereading these and other works by Evelyn Underhill has invited me to recognize the excitement at the heart of Christian faith, and try to live into it more fully. Hers is a “practical mysticism”– an aliveness to the Reality of the Divine mystery that embodies itself in a way of life. Her work continues to hold wisdom for us in the Church today. It has been well worth a revisit in this centennial year of Mysticism.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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