The Spirituality of Risk

by Donyelle C. McCray, Ph.D.


Delivered at the Underhill Quiet Day
June 18, 2016

I. The Soft White Bed

I’m often curious about how teachers like Evelyn Underhill spend their leisure time. Somehow it gives me a much-needed window into the personality. I was intrigued when I learned she enjoyed trips to Spain and Italy. Fondness for travel suggests something expansive about her. The fact that she liked the Norwegian mountains said something hardy about her. It helped me even more to learn that she liked sailing. That pointed to an adventurous streak – an interesting complement to an inner life characterized by doubts and insecurity. But I was really blown away when I discovered that during the 1920s, she and her husband Hubert owned a motorcycle with sidecar. They would ride out into the countryside in it together for fun. The idea of Evelyn Underhill barreling through the countryside in the sidecar of a motorcycle (or, who knows, it was the 1920s, driving a motorcycle with Hubert in the sidecar)! Either way, the idea of it affirmed once again, that she was a woman who knew something about spiritual life and its risks. When I learned of Underhill the biker, it gave a new edge to a line of hers I’d read before, “The art of life is learned only in the living—lookers-on know nothing of the game.”1 She is a spiritual mother to many of us in this room precisely because she was a woman who felt God beckoning her to swim in freedom. A healthy respect for risk appears as a thread through various dimensions of her work—especially letters, retreats, stories, and essays. What if today we imagined her driving the motorcycle and ourselves in the sidecar? It seems a fitting posture for thinking about risk and the claim it makes on our spiritual lives.

First, what do we mean by risk? It helps to start with the negative in this case. Risk is not synonymous with drama or shock. Underhill does not celebrate daredevils or incite people to take self-absorbed risks that glorify their own power. In Underhill’s work, it is more helpful to think of risk as an occasion of real, not contrived danger, and as a divine invitation to rely entirely upon God, to abandon oneself to divine purposes that may or may not be understood.2 Risk is the process by which we discover the boundary lines of our discipleship and face those demands that seem to be beyond our spiritual resources.

Often the spiritual task is not letting things go but holding them lightly—and this task is a difficult one whether what we are trying to hold lightly is a situation, a possession, an agenda, or the opinion of another. Underhill sees risk as an occasion that teaches us the difference between being truly courageous or merely heroic, moments when we come to see that improvisation is holy work. The stickiest part about risk is the sense that some response is required of us, the inability to sit still indefinitely. And risks are fitted to our unique temperaments and to the current architecture of our lives. They are, in an uncomfortable way, ours, the kind of thing that crawls into one’s lap that one must either pet or send meowing to the floor. Either way, the decision parallels what Underhill calls a “widening arc of consciousness.”3 She explains it another way in Life as Prayer:

For genuine prayer in all its degrees, from the most naive to the most transcendental, opens up human personality to the all-penetrating Divine activity.  Progress in prayer, whatever its apparent form, consists in the development of this its essential character.  It places our souls at the disposal of the immanent Spirit.  In other words, it promotes abandonment to God; and this in order that the souls’s separate activity may more and more be invaded, transfigured, and at last superseded by the unmeasured Divine action. In Pauline language, maturity of soul is to be gauged by the extent in which the Spirit ‘prays in us.’4

While there are some exceptions, the Spirit tends to beckon us out of bed and into loving action in the world. This call to get out of bed can be especially hard for those who make an idol out of comfort. Underhill does not see God, whom she likes to call the “Absolute,” catering to human comfort. In “The Authority of Personal Religious Experience” she brings this point home:

Some months ago a lady was introduced to me who opened the conversation in these terms: ‘My dear Miss Underhill, I do so want to tell you that I always keep your dear books on a table by my bed; and I don’t know whether it is your dear books, or whether it is my soft white bed, but directly I lie down and I do have the most wonderful illuminations of the Absolute!5 . . . Had the lady . . . felt compelled to reduce the hours which she spent in that soft white bed; better still, had she been hauled out of it to kneel on the hard floor; then we might have felt more certitude about the authority of her visions of the Absolute . . . The person whose experience we may consider authoritative is one for whom vision and surrender are one thing, and a dynamic thing—the person who is forced to exclaim, ‘Send me!’ . . . Vision without love-impelled action should always be held suspect.”6

We might think of the soft white bed as a symbol for a spirituality that has comfort as its chief objective. With this distortion, the vision of Christian life veers toward romanticism. The issue is complex because prayer may be the only source of comfort some of us know—a true source of comfort, that is, not a surrogate comfort, like alcohol or consumerism. Now it isn’t that Underhill sees no place for the soft white bed or for balance and rest; she does. It’s just that the bed is not the telos. The Soft White Bed has an almost magical allure for contemplatives who are enamored by the safety God offers.

At its worst, The Soft White Bed entices us to put ourselves on God’s throne, to pad ourselves from the reality of being human, to obscure our creaturely nature, and resist dependence on God. On our weariest days, the Soft White Bed looks up at us and asks, “Is there anything better than me? Am I not the point of Christian life?” There is grace in risk if through it we discover that comfort is not the point, if we discover that we are not God and lose any residual desire to be God. There is grace in risk if it somehow exposes our yearning for control and yields an openness to simply be in God’s care on God’s terms. Such awareness equips us to be people who live life rather than manage it or at least know the difference.

And in dethroning the Soft White Bed, Christian practice might have something meaningful and substantive to offer to those persons whose “backs are against the wall,” people who, in the words of Howard Thurman, “need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity.”7 These are the people who spend their lives providing luxuries for others though never sharing in that luxury themselves. People of prayer are not seduced by the power of the bed — an idea Underhill emphasizes repeatedly:

The fully-developed mystical consciousness is not passive, but dynamic and apostolic in type. . . its last and most perfect stage is not a peaceful “divine union” but a “divine fecundity,” the attainment of a state of creative vitality, in which it gives “more abundant life” to the world.8

Or elsewhere,

A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it. In so far as you have given your lives to God, you have offered yourselves, without conditions, as transmitters of His saving and enabling love.9

She imagines the saints as those who go “down into the mess,” whose holiness is not tantamount to tidiness but full engagement in God’s creative action.10 And yet, from personal experience, Underhill knows that this kind of self-offering feels impossible at times.

Just as her retreat ministry is beginning to blossom, she describes a period when she feels summoned beyond her powers, to the edge of her knowing. In a 1921 letter to her spiritual director she writes:

In my lucid moments I see only too clearly that the only possible end of this road is complete unconditional self-consecration and for this I have not the nerve, the character, or the depth. There has been some sort of mistake. My soul is too small for it and yet it is the only thing at bottom that I really want. It feels sometimes as if, whilst still a jumble of conflicting impulses and violent faults, I were being pushed from behind toward an edge I dare not jump over.11

Part of the fear is in becoming more of who she already is—and more of who God wants her to be. Part of the fear is in embracing dimensions of herself that she has not yet learned to trust. The strength to persevere does not come in success but in the experience of being borne up during the process. In Christ she finds an anchor, one who shows that it is possible to face the uncertainty that comes with offering ourselves to God.

Later, in a retreat, Underhill presents Christ as the model for facing risk:

“Look at the curve that includes the Upper Room, Gethsemane, Calvary, Easter and the forty days of radiant self-imparting. How is that curve in line with your own soul’s growth? Your idea of your own future? Your vocation? How much courage is mixed with your Christian joy?”12

* * *

Let us enter the silence with a prayer by Walter Brueggemann:

We confess you to be the God who calls,
who wills,
who summons,
who has concrete intentions
for your creation,
and addresses human agents
who do your will.
We imagine ourselves called by you. . .
Yet a strange lot:
called but cowardly,
obedient but self-indulgent,
devoted to you, but otherwise preoccupied.
In our strange mix an answering and refusing,
We give thanks for your call.
We pray this day,
for ourselves, fresh vision;
for our friends, great courage,
for [sisters and brothers]13
in places more dangerous than ours,
deep freedom.
As we seek to answer your call, may we be haunted
by your large purposes,
We pray in the name of the utterly called Jesus. Amen.

II. Dare We Worship?

Evelyn Underhill refused to domesticate the human-divine encounter. She saw risk as an inherent dimension of our relationship to God. Repeatedly, she describes worship as the occasion when, knowingly or not, we brush up against the Holy One. This element of surprise emerges in her own life as well. Consider a 1924 journal entry:

“This morning in prayer suddenly I was compelled to say: take all my powers from me rather than ever let me use them again for my own advantage. When I’d said it, some strange and quite unseizable movement happened in my soul—I knew I had made a real vow, a more crucial act of dedication than ever before and shall be taken at my word.”14

Her vow arises in what seemed to be a fairly routine moment of contemplation (if contemplation can ever be routine). Desire flames up out of nowhere. And that is the risk of worship, that we will be swimming along and suddenly find ourselves smitten. The risk is particularly high in adoring prayer when we turn away from ourselves long enough to marvel at the God and glimpse the grandeur of the Creator’s work. In the time that we have left, I will raise up three of the riskier dimensions of worship. I invite you to hear them as holy invitations.

The Risk of Humility

The first risk is the risk of humility or self-oblivion, turning away from oneself. This turning away is hard because God created us as fascinating beings and gave us lives—things to do, talents to share and develop, insecurities to hide! Dare we turn away from ourselves? For many, this invitation is hard spiritual work because it requires stepping away from the mirror and sometimes from a pattern of seeing ourselves through the eyes of others.

Evelyn Underhill’s chief spiritual distraction was Evelyn Underhill. Self-examination and confession had limited value in her prayer life because she was so distracted by her own shortcomings. It was more helpful to “keep on trying to look at Christ,” and pray in a manner that enabled her to get “smaller and smaller,” thereby gaining a “deep and clear sense of the all penetrating Presence of God.”15

Some people might bristle at Underhill’s emphasis on becoming “smaller and smaller” and fear that this posture fosters docility, or complicity in her own gender oppression.16 I believe she survives feminist critique because she still honors the full dignity of the human person. For Underhill, stepping away from the mirror as necessary to venture forward as an engaged participant in the world rather than a self-absorbed spectator. God seeks to co-create with us, using our particular giftings and idiosyncrasies to pour love and light and music into the world alongside us. The risk is in giving up one’s role as lead singer in exchange for a duet (or maybe a quartet). One might think of the Holy Spirit’s work as gently convincing us that the duet is the better option. And, on those occasions when we do cooperate with God’s purposes, the Spirit helps us shake off any self-consciousness that would inhibit the song.

Risk of Adoration

The second risk is the risk of adoration or marveling at God. This is the risk of dwelling in awe. One thing that genuinely worried Underhill was the paltry role of awe in institutional religion. Christianity without awe was “shallow religiousness:”

We are drifting toward a religion which consciously or unconsciously keeps its eye on humanity rather than on Deity, which lays all the stress on service, and hardly any of the stress on awe and that is the type of religion, which in practice does not wear well. . . It does not lead to sanctity: and sanctity after all is the religious goal.17

Part of what doesn’t wear well here is the tidiness, the lack of any sense of risk or any notion that God might reroute the course of our lives. Underhill believed God might whisper to us just as God spoke to Francis as he gazed at the San Damiano cross. So, she advises us to attend to God and devote ourselves to adoring union with God.

In these encouragements I hear echoes of a spiritual friend of hers, Julian of Norwich. Julian also speaks of attention or “marveling” before God. In medieval mysticism, marveling meant taking on the same spiritual posture as the Virgin Mary who was believed to be lost in adoration at the Annunciation. This posture was one marked by heightened receptivity to the divine. Rather than thinking in visual terms, it’s best to think in terms of tactility, of being enveloped by God, or, in Julian’s words, discovering Christ to be “oure clothing, that for love wrappeth us and windeth us, halseth us and all becloseth us, hangeth about us for tender love, that he may never leeve us.”18 In adoration God swaddles us in love. Julian also uses womb imagery to make a similar point, saying, “We are beclosed in the fader, and we are beclosed in the son, and we are beclosed in the holy gost, and the fader is beclosed in us, the son is beclosed in us, and the holy gost is beclosed in us.”19 Utterly enveloped by God, we discover a mysterious feeling of safety, akin to the eternal security that emboldened the saints.20 Adoration steadily enlarged their conception of God’s presence21 and fostered unusual vitality in their lives.22

Risk of Community

Worship carries a third risk, the risk of community or kinship. Prayer knits souls together and this connection carries a degree of risk. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz says that making room in our lives for others requires giving up a degree of control, “adding new, unpredictable complications” to an “already complex life. . . for we cannot tell those we love when to need us.”23

Whether communal or solitary, prayer is the means by which the soul makes itself available to others. In prayer we cradle the concerns that burden others and invite God to make demands of us on their behalf. On the whole this knitting together is a beautiful thing. Practically though, it means we are bound up with personalities very different from our own, and also put in regular contact with the temperamental, the cranky, and those who, in Underhill’s words, “always ask for a cup of cold water at the wrong time.”24 She says this tongue-in-cheek but she lives through two world wars and witnesses a time of unprecedented violence and estrangement. While her horrors differ from the horror of the mass murders in Orlando, and the cumulative effects of the many mass shootings that preceded it, Underhill’s invitation to kinship is not naïve. She is driven by a strong belief that God’s will for human beings is loving kinship. And the absurdity of that vision testifies to its divinity.

Through worship Underhill comes to see herself as “so closely linked with others” that she became “a cell in a boundless living web through which redeeming work can be done.”25 She certainly has supernatural kinship in mind, but it’s all the more miraculous when we consider how hard it was for her to find deep intimacy. Underhill and her mother had very different personalities and priorities and there was also a degree of reserve in her relationship with her father despite close and regular contact. She had no siblings. Her marriage to Hubert was warm and stable but there was no Antony & Cleopatra in it, no Heloise and Abelard. Evelyn and Hubert had an enduring friendship that seemed to benefit from time apart, and there was a good amount of time spent apart. All this to say Underhill’s yearning for intimacy was great and the bonds she made with friends and her spiritual directors were critical to her thriving. I wonder if the deep kinship she finds in worship is sometimes a balm for what she did not find in her relationships, not a surrogate for what needed to happen in the woefully-imperfect realm of human relationships, but a place where she found the strength to do the hard work of reaching out to others again and again.

[R]eal spiritual work taxes to the utmost the limited powers of the natural creature.  It is using them on a fresh level, subjecting them to fresh strains.  And this means that our preparation for it, if we are beginners, our maintenance in a fit condition for it if we are mature, is an important part of our religious life.  It will not be managed merely by suitable reading, church attendance, prayer circles or anything of that kind; but only by faithful personal attention to God, constant and adoring recourse to Him, confident humble communion with Him.26

Is the risk of human intimacy part of the strain she speaks of? A challenge that won’t be “managed merely by suitable reading, church attendance” and the like but “only by faithful personal attention to God. . .constant and adoring recourse to Him?”

Human relationships do not tell the whole story of kinship. God also invites kinship with the creation. And as a gardener, Underhill had a special appreciation for the risks and rewards of this union. In fact, all three invitations of worship, the invitation to humility, to marvel, and to kinship with creation, flow together in a piece she wrote early in her life, a story entitled, “A Green Mass,” published in Horlick’s magazine in 1904, as she is still coming to voice as a writer. I’ll share just a selected portion here before we go back into silence:

When the message came to me, I went down to the river, and took a boat that I knew of, and went up the stream towards the hills. I went past the wharves of the ships and past the water-meadows. A fresh breeze was with me, brining traders up from the sea, and fishing-boats in from the estuary banks. But I went past all these, and past the towns, very far up the river.

It was after many hours that I came to place I looked for. At the end of a long reach between moorland banks, where the heather blazed more fiercely because the twilight time was near at hand, I saw two black and rounded headlands that stood out from opposite shores. They nearly met, I thought, in mid-stream. But a narrow water-gate was between them; it went thread-like into the heart of hidden country. With that gate I passed abruptly from the wide and serviceable river into another land.

I was in a valley of the hills, filled to the brim with a very quiet and glassy water that mirrored all day the hills, the woods, the infinite sky. It was a place of entire silence. . . Far away at the end, the hills approached one another, as if for another and an inner water-gate.

Through that inner gate also I went, and so to a second hidden valley of water, greater and more silent than the first. I am sure the serenity of that place was very seldom broken, so quiet and stately was the quality of its life. It was plain that the writhing trees which peopled the first valley of approach were of another nation than these keepers of the inner court. It ran before me, a very long and shining lake. Its steep converging banks met at a far away point in the heart of the land. And its margins, too, were hid by the trees; the dark and solemn trees that stood bowed like wise women seeking a lost secret in the glassy waters, and the trees that stood beyond them on the higher ground, close set in tiers and all very attent. Their hooded heads seemed instinct with some antique and sylvan wisdom. I fancied deep eyes bent on me as I passed. I had come a long way from the breezy river and the ships.

Now before me were more trees, and these again different; for the green hooded people went not beyond the precincts, but gave way to a severer majesty. A hill of firs, grey and pinnacled, stood at the end of the valley of water. Their fretted crowns climbed mysteriously into the heavens, tall and dim against the sky: a stronghold of some intangible chivalry. Then I knew that I had come nearly to the end of my journey: that I had gone deep into the immemorial country of the woods. . . Then I looked up, and saw the trees crowding circle-wise about me, one behind the other, dense and massy. I became aware of all the forest pressing steadily and anxiously towards this place. But invisible hands kept them back from the ground that I stood upon, as if that spot were too sacred for actual life. I had come to the Amphitheatre of the Woods. I stood back like the rest; and, with all the forest, waited.

Now it seemed that the blazing sky took on a peculiar glory. Scents rose from the dusky grounds as of herbs, more precious than the poor mint that grew there, crushed till their essence was poured out upon the air. And an altar was set in the amphitheatre, and before it the fireless smoke of incense went up and one, of whom I may not speak, came, and stood by that altar. But no Confiteor was audibly spoken, and no Introit was sung; for these with whom I worshipped do by their act of living confess Him in beauty every hour of the day, standing always in His presence. . .

And I turned and saw them all assembled to the sacrifice. Yes! And not the great presences of the forest only; the deep-eyed elementals and the wild and airy fauns who watch us from the thicket; but all the humble furry timid creatures, the smallest and simplest of the children of God; flying and creeping things that live securely hidden in the branches; burrowing things held warm in the bosom of the earth. All the population of the woods had come to do honor to the rite. These were silent; but far away behind the trees, one sang – a wordless Gloria full of wild fervours, a passionate invocation of the Light of the Word.”27

The story goes on a bit longer but Underhill has already made both her argument and her invitation: Forget yourself, press into the holy thicket, you’ll find good company there.

Donyelle McCray is Assistant Professor of Homiletics, Yale Divinity School.


1 Dana Greene, Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life (New York: Crossroads, 1990), 77.

2 Evelyn Underhill, The Ways of the Spirit, ed. Grace Adolphsen Brame (New York: Crossroads, 1990), 231.

3 Evelyn Underhill, Life as Prayer and Other Writings of Evelyn Underhill, ed. Lucy Menzies (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing), 51-52; Greene, Artist of the Infinite Life, 91.

4 Ibid., 84-85.

5 Evelyn Underhill, “The Authority of Personal Religious Experience,” Theology, January (1925): 8.

6 Ibid., 13.

7 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Nashville: Abingdon, 1949; Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 11.

8 Evelyn Underhill, “St. Paul & the Mystic Way: A Psychological Study,” The Contemporary Review, June (1911), 695.

9 Underhill, Life as Prayer, 55.

10 Underhill, The House of the Soul and Concerning the Inner Life (London: Methuen, 1947; Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1984), 151.

11 Greene, Artist of the Infinite Life, 78.

12 Underhill, Ways of the Spirit, 161.

13 Original reads “theological students.” From Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: The Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 35.

14 Greene, Artist of the Infinite Life, 89.

15 Ibid., 88

16 Ibid., 88

17 Ibid., 113-114.

18 Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love, edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2006), 139.

19 Ibid., 297.

20 Evelyn Underhill, “St. Paul & the Mystic Way,” 695.

21 Underhill, The House of the Soul and Concerning the Inner Life, 105.

22 Underhill, “St. Paul & the Mystic Way,” 696.

23 “Ladies Home Journal,” Series 3, Box 1, Folder 2. Ada-María Isasi-Díaz Papers, Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, The Burke Library (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY.

24 Underhill, Ways of the Spirit, 171.

25 Greene, Artist of the Infinite Life, 89.

26 Underhill, Life as Prayer, 62.

27 “A Green Mass,” Series 1.10, Folder 15, The Dana Greene Research Collection on Evelyn Underhill, Evelyn Underhill Collection at Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA