Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Evelyn Underhill: Steward of God's Mysteries

Evelyn Underhill was born in Wolverhampton, England on December 6, 1875. She died on this day, June 15, 1941. One of the readings appointed for this day to remember and celebrate her life comes from St. Paul's First Letter to the Church in Corinth, the fourth chapter, verses 1-5. Like St. Paul, this woman of faith was no doubt also a "servant of Christ, and steward of God's mysteries."

In her own words, from The Spiritual Life: 
The spiritual life is a dangerously ambiguous term; indeed it would be interesting to know what meaning any one reader at the present moment is giving to these three words. Many, I am afraid, would really be found to mean ‘the life of my own inside’ – and a further section to mean something very holy,  difficult, and peculiar—a sort of honours course in personal religion—to which they did not intend to aspire.
Both these kinds of individualist—the people who think of the spiritual life as something which is for themselves and about themselves, and the people who regard it as not something for themselves—seem to need a larger horizon, within which these interesting personal facts can be placed and seen in rather truer proportion. Any spiritual view which focuses attention on ourselves, and puts the human creature with its small ideas and adventures in the centre foreground, is dangerous until we recognize its absurdity. So at least we will try to get away from those petty notions… many Christians are like deaf people at a concert. They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the quality of the music, but only really hear a phrase every now and again. So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of the Eternal God.
She goes on to say that "there are plenty of things in our normal experience which imply the existence of that world, that music, that life" - including, for example, "the disclosure of the mountain summit, the wild cherry tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto…" 

As her biography in Holy Women, Holy Men rightly states, this was indeed her great contribution to spiritual literature: "her conviction that the mystical life is not only open to a saintly few, but to anyone who cares to nurture it and weave it into everyday experience."

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