Teresian Wisdom in Selected Writings of Evelyn Underhill

by Mary Brian Durkin, O.P.

The following is excerpted from an article that first appeared in Spiritual Life, Spring 1995. It illustrates the extent to which Teresian wisdom permeates, supports, and enhances Underhill’s ideas of how ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, can, by selfless prayer and sanctified work, become forces for good, channels of God’s grace flowing out t improve God’s world.

What is the spiritual life? Inspired by Teresa’s analogy of the soul as an “interior castle,” a spacious mansion with various floors, rooms, and apartments—many in poor condition—Underhill expands and adapts the simile to emphasize the Teresian principle that there should be no distinction between the spiritual and the practical life. Underhill pictures the soul, not as a lofty castle, diamond bright and imposing, but as a simple two-story house; the ground floor is the natural life, biologically conditioned with animal instincts and weaknesses; the upper floor is the supernatural life with its capacity to achieve union with God. Underhill employs this analogy in The House of Soul and in subsequent writings and conferences throughout the 1930s; Teresa utilizes her analogy in her notable work The Interior Castle.

Underhill, utilizing the house imagery, warns that to lead a truly spiritual life it is impossible to live only on the second floor in a cozy “quiet room,” where one can forget the downstairs where there are “black beetles in the kitchen and the stove doesn’t burn very well.” Upstairs and downstairs—the life of the spirit and the life of the senses—must be perfectly balanced, both consecrated to God’s purposes. Charity, the fire of love of God, brings the two floors together but the fire needs careful tending. “It will only be developed and kept burning,” Underhill warns, “in a life informed by prayer—faithful, steady, mortified, self-oblivious prayer, the humble aspiration of the spirit to its Source; the very object of prayer is to increase and maintain charity, the loving friendship of the soul with God” (The House of the Soul, p. 141).

To foster a genuine prayer life, Underhill insists that we must establish a simple but exacting rule for our devotional life, time free from strain and outside distractions, a regime of quiet solitude. “Make a simple rule and stick to it,” she advised. She advocated a minimum of twenty minutes set aside daily from vocal or mental prayer, reading of Scripture or the lives and prayers of the saints, and sane self-discipline, by which she did not mean looking for crosses to bear, but prayerfully accepting the normal vicissitudes of daily life.

Although her ideas about the higher forms of contemplation mirror those of Teresa, Underhill in her spiritual direction work, particularly in letters to advisees and at retreat conferences, placed much greater emphasis on vocal and mental prayer. She discusses thoroughly the art of meditation, but even there she gave homage to Teresa, stating “Those who wish to see it described with the precision of genius, need only turn to St. Teresa’s Way of Perfection” (The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today, p. 93).

“Avoid narrow, limiting ideas of prayer,” Underhill urged, “think of prayer as all of life in communion with God…It is the life of the soul, the life in which one breathes spiritual air, feeds on spiritual food, learns spiritual things and does spiritual work” (Grace Brame, The Ways of the Spirit, p. 135). She encourages the development of one’s own personal style of prayer, following one’s own attrait (inclination). You converse differently with different friends, she pointed out, and since prayer is conversation with God, it, too, should be personal, intimate. In letters to advisees, she counseled them to be flexible in prayer: speaking, listening, thinking, sometimes just resting in communion with God. Here she mirrors Teresa’s advice to her novices: “The soul can picture itself in the presence of Christ…It has no desires and needs” (St. Teresa of Jesus, Life, Vol. 1, ch. XI, p. 71).

No type of prayer is always easy or comforting, Underhill admits. Remember that Teresa said that when we are first learning the art of prayer, we have to draw the living water, that is, God’s grace, out of the well by ourselves, an act requiring effort, courage, and discipline. In The Life of the Spirit and the Life Today, she repeats Teresa’s warning: “Nothing, sisters, is learned without a little trouble, so do for the love of God, look upon any care which you take about this as well spent” (p. 107). Prayer depends on the will but there are times, Underhill concedes, when our best efforts seem more like “grinding out spiritual sawdust.”

When prayers seem blank and deficient of love, tell God how sorry you are, she advises, and fall back on formal, vocal prayer. To an advisee suffering from aridity in prayer, Underhill urges: “Brighten up, seek other outlets, do some good works and think less of your soul.” She advises another to expand her wholesome, natural, and intelletual interests: “Don’t concentrate on the religious side of your life only. Get the necessary variety and refreshment without which religious intensity becomes stale…Religious fervor eludes us when we chase it, but creeps back unawares.” (Letters, pp. 93, 132, 175).

Underhill frequently asserts in letters and lectures that spiritual reading is second only to prayer as a support for the inner life and should be an essential element of one’s daily regimen of prayer. She recommended a thoughtful reading of the classics and the lives of the saints. The saints are specialists, she liked to point out, but specialists in a career to which all Christians are called. Noting that Teresa told her novices to always have a book handy when they started to pray or meditate, Underhill repeats the saint’s words: “The best way of knowing God is to frequent the company of his friends.”

Just as Underhill’s spiritual mentor—the eminent lay theologian, Baron von Hugel—urged her to become less theocentric and more Christ-centered, so did she urge retreatants to spend time reading about and meditating on the life of Christ, not only his Passion but his active ministry: healing, teaching, forgiving.

Underhill knew that it is easier to develop and preserve a spiritual outlook on life than it is to make everyday actions harmonize with that spiritual outlook. She makes clear that our soul’s two-story house is not an isolated, individual dwelling fenced in on a small, devotional plot on a one-way street, but is a part of the City of God in the imperfect but Eternal World.

As our lives merge into the city and its currents, we must radiate God’s love to the lovable and unlovable, an impossible task unless our lives, in Underhill’s words, “are soaked through and through by a sense of God’s reality and claim” (The Spiritual Life, p. 32), love deepened by adoration of our Creator and made visible by sanctified work.

All our efforts as ordinary people to achieve by ordinary means this extraordinary spiritual life must be accomplished, Underhill insists, not with grim determination and ferocious penance, but with enthusiasm and joyous faith. She reminds her readers that Teresa composed songs for her novices, even sang ditties about her own mystical experiences, played her little pipes and drums, and laughed at the “pussy cats,” the conservative nuns who thought it better to pray than to recreate and sing. Teresa’s horror of solemnity, reflected in her terse comment, “Lord, deliver us from silly devotions,” is echoed in Underhill’s oft-repeated words: “You don’t have to be peculiar in order to find God.”

Underhill’s teachings on the spiritual life reflect Teresa’s own thoughts, when she writes: “Love for God consists in serving him with righteousness, fortitude of soul, and humility and love” (Life, ii). Underhill knew, admired, and adapted Teresa’s psychological insights and sagacity, utilizing them time and again to enrich her own teaching.

Mary Brian Durkin, O.P. is a retired professor of English literature, Rosary College, IL, who serves as chaplain at Loyola University Medical Center, Chicago.