Becoming What We Behold

by Chris Glaser

Daily we behold terrible and diminishing things, not just in the newspaper and on the news, but in films, television programs, books, plays, even music. Daily we also behold our “golden calves” of consumer products in ads, commercials, and our neighbor’s latest acquisition. Daily we are bombarded and distracted by e-mails, text messages, and the multiple layers of the internet. If, as in Evelyn Underhill’s estimation, we become what we behold, we are becoming a mess of noise, violence, and greed with little room for the divine, the holy, and God.

Saints are to be found in “the mess,” as Underhill suggests, but not overwhelmed by it. The reason? Saints, mystics, and everyday fellow travelers take time to be present and available to the eternal, to the inbreaking commonwealth of God, to God. Not for self-improvement, but for their own sakes. But being present to eternity, God’s hope for the world, and God herself is transformative, offering peace that passes understanding—not just for ourselves but for the world. Underhill might as well have quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “become the change you want to see in the world.”

The danger she observes is that too often those who want to change the world do so without changing ourselves. In youth I wanted to “change the world.” In adulthood I wanted to change my little part of the world, the church. Now I feel blessed if I am able to change myself! But the truth is, whatever I’ve been able to do for various causes has come to whatever extent I have spent time in God’s presence. God is a very good influence, and I wish I had spent more time with God. This is why I find mystics and the contemplative life so appealing.

Of all the mystics and spiritual guides I have encountered, mostly through reading and courses, Evelyn Underhill writes the closest to my own spiritual experience. I too am theocentric, as she was at first. I too have reservations about the attempts of theology, ethics, religion, and the church to “capture” God, as if that were even possible. I too value other religions and the multiple expressions of Christian faith.

But I too have needed spiritual guidance, spiritual community, belief systems, and liturgy and worship to better understand that God is love. And perhaps most intimately, I too believe in the “homeliness” of the spiritual experience. For me it is not ethereal, other-worldly or supernatural, but an incarnated, earthly, and embodied encounter with the sacred—yet no less profound because of that! God’s love was first embodied for me in my parents, and then multiple church “families.”

That’s why Jesus is important to me, more so than “Christ.” The homeliness of Jesus, his everyday compassion and yet need for prayer, his teachings and also his teachings on prayer, praying in our pantry or closet (remembering to “shut the door” in Underhill’s words), the simple prayer he taught his disciples, and his faith in a loving God—all suggest spiritual maturity. Yet “Christ” too is important for me, as it was for Underhill, that we as Christ and as part of Christ live redemptively for the world and as part of the Body of Christ, the church.

Rev. Chris Glaser, author and free weekly blogger of Progressive Christian Reflections.

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Other references to Evelyn Underhill in the writings of Chris Glaser.