The Wisdom of John of the Cross in the Writings of Evelyn Underhill

by Mary Brian Durkin, O.P.

When Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) began to study and write about the meaning of mysticism, she immersed herself in the writings of St. John of the Cross. Her monumental volume, Mysticism (1911), reveals her knowledge and appreciation of his teachings concerning mystical life. In The Mystic Way (1913), Practical Mysticism (subtitled “A Little Book for Normal People, 1914), and Mystics of the Church (1925), she continued to expound on John’s wisdom concerning ways to achieve union with the Absolute.

It was particularly in retreat conferences and in letters to advisees that Underhill utilized and with keen discernment, presented ways to develop a practical and balanced spiritual life based on the teachings of St. John of the Cross, who, she claims, is “at once the sanest of saints and the most penetrating of psychologists.” (Mysticism. London: Methuen, 1911, p. 275)

Evelyn Underhill frequently began retreat conferences with the statement that any discussion of practical ways to grow closer to God must begin with the humble recognition of the supernatural truth that he dwells permanently within each of us. In The Golden Sequence, Underhill reiterates the words of John of the Cross: “In every soul, even that of the greatest sinner, God lives and substantially dwells.” (The Golden Sequence. New York: Harper & Bros, 1960, p. 55) John distinguishes between the immanence of the Creator in all his creatures and that supernatural union which requires of each of us a willed self-giving as the price of our transformation into a suitable dwelling place for Divinity. Underhill explains: “God is always really in the soul…but this does not mean that He always communicates to it supernatural being. This communication is the fruit of grace and love, and all souls do not enjoy it. Those who do, do not possess it in the same degree, since their love may be greater or less…The greater the love, the more intimate is the union.” (The Golden Sequence, p. 56)

An important teaching of both John and Underhill is that we are half-formed, incomplete creatures, continually being shaped by God’s pervasive presence and pressure. For this reason, Underhill pleads, “Don’t say ‘God made me.’ Say ‘God is making me.’ The Divine Creator is still working on you!”

Like Adam, we too are partially formed and unfinished creatures upon whom the Divine Potter is still working. John of the Cross also refers to the Artist within our souls, able to accomplish his handiwork only if we are receptive to his touch. (The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1973, p. 318) Left to ourselves, we could only accomplish the merely natural and temporal, Underhill asserts, then adds, “Our spiritual life begins with a recognition of this humble truth, and a willing response to the Spirit, who first creates, then nurtures and stimulates us.” (The Golden Sequence, p. 67)

John of the Cross states that the practice of self-knowledge is the first requirement for advancing toward the knowledge of God. Take some time, then, to examine your past, Underhill advises. Discover how the indwelling Presence has shaped your life. You may be surprised to discover that what you dismissed as a lucky coincidence was actually God’s molding pressure; that lost job, which later opened up a more advantageous position for you; the broken relationship that forced you to recognize and correct a personal weakness; words written in anger but, fortunately, never sent. Were not these inexplicable outcomes the work of the Lord’s nurturing grace—his initiative, not yours?

If, at times, the Potter’s touch seems sharp and painful, Underhill suggests pondering John’s words: “The hand of God, so soft and gentle, is felt to be so heavy and oppressive, though merely touching it (the soul), and that, too, most mercifully; for He touches the soul, not to chastise it, but to load it with His graces.” (Mysticism, p. 399) How do you respond to the idea that God is truly present in your soul? That God’s prevenient grace and transforming touch is continually forming and molding you to his pattern? That the Divine Potter is making you, even at this moment? The realization that God’s formative presence is within you, Underhill asserts, inevitably nurtures the desire to rid yourself of faults and failings that prevent a closer union with Him.

Asked how one can learn to respond to God’s presence and pressures, Underhill cites John’s teaching: “Absolute self-giving is the only path from the human to the Divine.” She then adds, “…by prayer also. The two are really one.” She explains that to form a closer union with our Creator, we must purge ourselves of all that separates us from Divine Goodness. For most of us, this is a lifetime process, demanding a drastic remaking of our character—getting rid first of self-love; and second, of all those foolish interests which prevent us from making God the center of our lives. (Mysticism, p. 204)

Stating that the entire teaching of John is directed to perfecting the soul in charity—so that all it does, has, is, and says is transfused by its love for God—Underhill insists that prayer is the only way to achieve this goal. Prayer must become a top priority. God must come first in our lives! Of course, by prayer she does not mean a number of litanies, rosaries, the divine office, or other formal utterances. Prayer is all of life, offered with love to Absolute Love. If you truly believe that your spiritual life depends, not so much on your actions but on God’s actions within you, you will find time to be silent and still, alone with him, allowing his supernatural life and love to permeate, grow, and sustain you. (Fruits of the Spirit. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1942, p. 4)

Too many individuals, living lives of frenetic hurry and tension-filled activity, foolishly neglect the essential need: prayer. Both John and Underhill urge simplicity in prayer, but Underhill, to a greater extent than John, stressed the role of adoration: the lifting up of heart and mind to the Eternal God. We are created to praise, worship, and serve him, she states. If we neglect praise and adoration, our service counts for little. Adoration, she insists, does not mean emotional, sentimental outpourings or ecstatic, esoteric devotions. It simply restores the sense of proportion in our hectic lives. Every aspect, even the most humble, of our everyday life can become part of this adoring response. Only when our hearts are at rest in God in selfless adoration are we empowered to show his attractiveness to others.

Underhill deplored the growing practice of many devout Christians who, in order to give more time and energy to Christian social services, shortened their time of prayer, justifying this by claiming such work is in fact prayer. She insists: prayer must precede work. Take time for communion with God first: withdraw from activity, seek solitude, be silent, rest in his presence, listen to God speaking to you, and then praise him for his goodness. Follow the advice of John: “The soul must now learn to receive, to let Another act in her.” (Life as Prayer, ed. Lucy Menzies. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1991, p. 92)

Prayer, however, is only one part of our spiritual life. Underhill cautions that we cannot remain in a cozy oratory, conversing intimately with our Friend, cut off from the world. Love demands action! We do not truly love God until we are driven to seek his incarnation in the world of time. We must use, expand, and share our God-given gifts to further his work. We must emulate the saints who, Underhill wryly points out, served God, not by standing aloof, “wrapped in delightful prayers…but by going down into the mess and there, right down in the mess, they are able to radiate God because they possess Him.” (Concerning the Inner Life. London: Methuen, 1924, p. 61)

Underhill reminds retreatants that there is a work that God requires each person to do and which no one else can do. Few will be asked to make heroic sacrifices, but we are all required to serve our Creator in that situation and condition where he has placed us. There is no place where Eternal Love cannot be served, praised, and made known to others. It is up to us, as John bluntly states: “One action, one endeavor of our own is worth more than many done by others.” Underhill observes that this is true only when we give unselfish and dedicated service, accepting pain, failure, rejection, and misunderstanding, without desire for personal satisfaction, reward, or recognition. “Real charity,” says John of the Cross, “is not shown merely by tender feelings, but by strength, courage, and endurance.” (The House of the Soul. London: Methuen, 1924, p. 144)

When reminding retreatants that John of the Cross said, “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on love,” Underhill emphasized the word “evening” to reinforce once again the thought that our spiritual formation is an ongoing, lifetime process. Incomplete and unfinished, we are gradually being formed and shaped by the Divine Artist who dwells within us. Our faithful, enduring response to the Potter’s chipping and chiseling will gradually enable us to seek and find the Eternal in our everyday world of duties, demands, pressures, and pleasures. Only then will we be empowered to carry out the command of John of the Cross: “Be thou the Message and the Messenger.” (The Mystery of Sacrifice. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1991, p. 67)

Challenging but not daunting, these spiritual goals can be implemented by frequently recalling and acting upon the practical counsels pertaining to ways to grow in detachment, mortification, prayer, and service as explained by John of the Cross and Evelyn Underhill, two mystics separated by centuries but bonded by their intense desire to follow—and to help others to follow—the way of their exemplar, the Divine Artist.

Mary Brian Durkin, O.P., is retired professor of English literature, Dominican University, River Forest, Ill. She is presently engaged in research on the spirituality of Evelyn Underhill. Underhill’s poem “Trusting in Your Word, O God,” appeared in Be Not Afraid, I Am With You: Prayers for Healing, ed. Mary Brian Durkin, St. Mary’s Press, Winona, MN, 2000, a collection of traditional and original prayers addressing the needs of the ill and those who care for them.