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In praise of normal mysticism

18 May 2011

Evelyn Underhill’s writings remain a vital guide to the spiritual life, says Jane Shaw

This year marks the 100th an­niversary of the publication of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, who died 70 years ago next month. Remarkably popular, it has been issued in numerous editions. In it, Underhill traced, through the works of the great writers on spirituality and prayer, the mystic path to “conscious union with a living Absolute”. The book was a great achievement: the result not only of wide and deep reading, but also of her own spiritual journey.

Underhill’s characterisation of mysticism proved attractive in three particular ways. First, she made it as much about the heart as the head: it was not merely intellectual, but a “personal passion”. Then she made it practical: it was about the love of God, and the showing of that love to one’s neighbour. She also made it accessible. The mystic way was within the grasp of anybody.

In 1914, Underhill wrote a much shorter volume, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people. Here she made it clear that mysticism was not an esoteric pastime: it was some­thing that anyone could learn, just as one might learn the law or business. The reader had to engage in an “edu­cative process: a drill”, which had five stages for developing inner stillness and purifying the senses, and would result in the person’s being trans­formed by an encounter with the divine.

Yet the mystic way, as Underhill defined it in her books from this period, was very much an individual endeavour. At no time did she men­tion churchgoing as a part of this drill. This may surprise us. We think now of Underhill as a well-established and influential Anglican laywoman, a spiritual director to many, and a prominent retreat-leader. Yet when she wrote Mysticism, she belonged to no Church.

Underhill’s own spiritual awaken­ing occurred when she was 30, in 1904-05, but she did not formally join any Church for another 17 years. Travel in Europe, especially Italy, opened up the world of Roman Catholicism to her, and she thought about joining that Church.

But her husband had reservations, and, as she hesitated, the Modernist storm broke: several priests, including George Tyrrell in England, were ex­com­municated by the Pope for their critical biblical and historical scholar­ship. As she wrote to a friend in 1911: “being myself ‘Modernist’ on many points, I can’t quite get in without sup­pressions and evasions to which I can’t quite bring myself.” She went to mass, but did not receive com­munion.

It was not until 1921, ten years after the publication of Mysticism, that Underhill finally joined the Church of England. From then until her death 20 years later, she became increasingly committed to a corporate spirituality.

The last big book she wrote was Worship in 1936. Here, she em­phasised both the transformative power of the sacraments and com­munal ritual in spiritual develop­ment. To her later spiritual directees, she admitted that she was “apt to be disagreeable on the Church question. I stood out against it myself for so long and have been so thoroughly convinced of my own error that I do not want other people to waste time in the same way.”

Part of Underhill’s appeal is that she offers seekers a way in. The letters written to her spiritual directees during the years when she belonged to no Church show her struggling, sifting, and learning; she shared her own search completely. And she con­tinued to do this. She admitted her propensity for going “off on God alone”, and her need to learn from Baron Von Hügel (her Roman Catholic spiritual director) the Christocentric, incarnational side of religion.

She emphasised the importance of working with the poor, as she en­gaged in such practical employment herself. She admitted that she had been wrong to justify the Great War, and became a pacifist in the 1930s.

Underhill was a prolific corres­pondent, and her letters are full of spiritual wisdom, common sense, and humour. To one correspondent, who tended towards asceticism, she wrote: “As to your Lent — no physical hard­ships beyond what normal life provides. . . Don’t reduce sleep. Don’t get up in the cold. . . Be specially kind with those who irritate you.”

Underhill’s other great contrib­ution to Anglican life in the interwar years was as a leader in the growing retreat movement. As she noted, while in 1913 the Church of England had one retreat house, in 1932, it had 22 diocesan houses, and more than 30 belonging to religious communities. Underhill played no small part in that growth. Her favourite was at Pleshey, in Essex.

In all her writing, her capacity for witty observation has a touch of Barbara Pym about it. Describing one retreat she led for 100 clergy wives, she wrote: “No one told me there was Mass at the cathedral, and the bell rang when I was in the bath, but I arrived, damp, just after the Gospel and found NO one connected with the Quiet Day there. . . Well then I had them from 11 to 5 in a frowsty little church, and we had ham sandwiches for lunch, being Friday.”

Practical, mystical, hard-working, and infinitely interested in God, Evelyn Underhill remains a mentor for those on a spiritual journey, whether seeker or devout Anglican.

The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

She presented four programmes about modern mysticism in the strand The Essay on BBC Radio 3 this week. They can be heard on the BBC iPlayer; the programme on Evelyn Underhill is available until 25 May.

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