By Catherine Ann Lombard
Most of us are familiar with writing Christmas Lists. As children we might have been encouraged by our parents to write to Santa Claus, sending him our list of desired gifts. We might have also been told that Santa Claus kept his own “list of who’s naughty and nice.” As we became adults enmeshed in the frenetic holiday craziness, our Christmas lists probably became more numerous and less imaginative – lists of things to do, presents to buy, and greeting cards to send.
Recently, with the help of my friend and colleague Georgie, I discovered that the Christian mystic and writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) also wrote a Christmas list – but a kind I had never seen before. In the archives of King’s College London, you can read three pages of her own notes which she entitled “Rule. Christmas 1921.” Her handwriting is evenly spaced and full of sensuous loops and curves. She occasionally underlines, and even double underlines words for emphasis. Underhill’s Christmas list contains her spiritual goals for leading a Christian life, to be tested and practiced by herself for six months – “quietly and steadily, with a disposition to find them true even where uncongenial.”
I have transcribed her Rule for you. Underhill wrote this list ten years after her best-selling book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Conscious had been published. She had just returned to practicing her Anglican faith and was starting to conduct retreats. In all likelihood, Underhill wrote the list under the guidance of her own spiritual director Baron Friedrich von Hügel, whom she said was “the most wonderful personality … so saintly, truthful, sane and tolerant.” He encouraged her to engage in more charitable, down-to-earth activities, which is evident in her list where she dedicates two days a week to working with the poor (#2 in the list) and fixes a time for “daily, deliberate prayer” (#5).
Upon studying this Rule more closely, I was impressed with a number of things. First of all, it has inspired me to write my own “Rule. Christmas 2018.” I sat down with writing paper and pen and came up with a list of items to be “dealt with”, as Underhill writes, “not by direct fighting but by gently turning to God or thoughts of serenely loving Saints.” This makes me smile as I know myself well enough. Inevitably, a part of me inside will end up kicking and screaming in protest, while another part gently and serenely turns to God and those loving Saints for help. (I hope this blog might also inspire you to write your own list.)
The second thing that I noticed is that Underhill called her list a “Rule.” Not a list of “rules” but a Rule, similarly to what is known as The Rule of Saint Benedict. When she visited Sorella Maria in Italy, she referred to the community as:
“… a little group of women who are trying to bring back to modern existence the homely, deeply supernatural and quite unmonastic ideal of the Primitive Rule.”
This use of the word “Rule” instead of “rules” seems to be a more open, discriminatory way of dealing with life as opposed to hard, fast rules that don’t allow for unforeseen conditions and our human frailty.
Finally, I would like to zoom in on just one of the items in Underhill’s list because it strikes me as particularly relevant to the Christmas message. Keep in mind that these are notes written for one, possibly two, readers only – herself and perhaps von Hügel, so her thoughts are not as fully developed as they might be otherwise.
“Keep in mind the fact that since spiritual perception without some sense of stimulation is a psychological impossibility, there is no exclusively spiritual apprehension of spiritual reality. Human and historical contacts are essential to its fullness. Entirely mystical and purely non-successive religion is a dangerous abstraction from reality.”
Further religiously, the human soul requires God’s own descent to and into it – the whole way – in human and homely forms and ways, rather than its ascent to Him. This alone gives a religion sufficiently homely and humbling. This means God manifested in history, grades of Divine self-revelation. At the apex, difference of degree issuing in difference of kind, we reach the deepest and fullest self-abasement of God as expressed in the Incarnation and the Cross. Full religion demands a temper of mind able to grasp and assimilate this.”
In this passage, Underhill longs to reinforce within her own soul the essential fact that one can only really know God through the material world. Our “soul requires God’s own descent to and into it – the whole way.” Mysticism alone “is a dangerous abstraction from reality.” For us to really touch the Divine Essence of God and our own divine being, God’s spirit must flood our lives and all that exists around us. When we strive only to ascend to God, we are left ungrounded, spiritually hungry and floating in an abstract world that denies our “homely” and vulnerable humanness.Spirit is always searching for matter. As human beings, we need stories, myth, ritual, our bodies, and matter to truly integrate and manifest our spiritual nature. We must allow God’s Light and Love to enter “to and into” our bodies and our hearts, as well as our souls.
This incarnation is essentially the Christmas story. The story of God’s descent in and into the woman called Maryam, the child called Jesus, the world called Earth. The Christmas story promises that – in the muck of the manger, in the homely and humblest of places, in the glory of all our human vulnerability and powerlessness – God does descend to and into us all.