by Father Richard Rohr
Sunday, August 9, 2015
This week we continue exploring the modern mystics who have had the greatest impact on my own theology and practice. Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was a prolific British writer who is best known for her book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. Through her study of the mystics and even more through her lived experiences, Underhill emphasized that the mystical state of union with God produces creative action in the world.
As she puts it, “For [mystics,] contemplation and action are not opposites, but two interdependent forms of a life that is one—a life that rushes out to a passionate communion with the true and beautiful, only that it may draw from this direct experience of Reality a new intensity wherewith to handle the world of things; and re-make it, or at least some little bit of it, ‘nearer to the heart’s desire.'”1 The mystic’s heart beats in union with God’s heart, so “the heart’s desire” is God’s desire.
Evelyn Underhill held the tension between intellect and intimacy in her longing to be holy. At first she only trusted her intellect and studied holiness methodically and empirically. She became known as the Anglican woman who awakened Protestants to the Catholic mystics. As Underhill gradually opened to the experiences of life, she was led from a disembodied, intellectual spirituality to an engaged, down-to-earth spirituality. She grew through the guidance of her spiritual director, through the suffering and devastation of World War I, and through visiting the poor and serving as a spiritual director and retreat leader.
Underhill’s growth into a more incarnational spirituality is evident even in her style of writing. Here is a selection from Mysticism, where she is actually describing—from a safe distance—what she herself most needed at the time, a “physical sense of the holy”:
The mystics find the basis of their method not in logic but in life: in the existence of a discoverable “real,” a spark of true being, within the seeking subject, which can, in that ineffable experience which they call the “act of union,” fuse itself with and thus apprehend the reality of the sought Object. In theological language, their theory of knowledge is that the spirit of man [and woman], itself essentially divine, is capable of immediate communion with God, the One Reality.2
Compare this to Underhill’s later writing where her focus turns to applying spirituality to ordinary life, thus uniting contemplation and action:
Try to arrange things so that you can have a reasonable bit of quiet every day and do not . . . think it selfish . . . You are obeying God’s call and giving Him [sic] the opportunity to teach you what He wants you to know, and so make you more useful to Him and to other souls.3
Remember God is acting on your soul all the time, whether you have spiritual sensations or not.4
Take the present situation as it is and try to deal with what it brings you, in a spirit of generosity and love. God is as much in the difficult home problems as in the times of quiet and prayer. . . Try especially to do His will there, deliberately seek opportunities for kindness, sympathy, and patience.5
Here Underhill sounds like Jean Pierre de Caussade and Thérèse of Lisieux! The contemplative, mystical path is similar across traditions and ages. It arises from humble childlikeness and leads to the same place—union with God.
Fr. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations. Center for Action and Contemplation. Used with permission. Copyright by the Center for Action and Contemplation. Readers can sign up to receive these free daily meditations at cac.org.
1 Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (E.P. Dutton & Company: 1915), Ch. 10.
2 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study In the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual
Consciousness (E.P. Dutton & Company: 1911), 24.
3 The Letters of Evelyn Underhill (Longmans, Green and Co.: 1951), 141.
4 Evelyn Underhill, The Mount of Purification (Longmans, Green and Co.: 1949), 184.
5 The Letters of Evelyn Underhill (Longmans, Green and Co.: 1951), 137.