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To fresh levels of life

14 June 2013

The C of E commemorates Evelyn Underhill tomorrow, the date on which she died in 1941. Here are extracts from her writings


Staying in the C of E: Evelyn Underhill in 1933

Staying in the C of E: Evelyn Underhill in 1933

From "What is mysticism?" in Collected Papers:

The beginning of an answer to the question, "What is mysticism?" must be this: Mysticism is the passionate longing of the soul for God, the Unseen Reality, loved, sought and adored in Himself for Himself alone.

It is, to use a favourite phrase of Baron von Hügel, a "metaphysical thirst". A mystic is not a person who practises unusual forms of prayer, but a person whose life is ruled by this thirst. He feels and responds to the overwhelming attraction of God, is sensitive to that attraction; perhaps a little in the same way as the artist is sensitive to the mysterious attraction of visible beauty, and the musician to the mysterious attraction of harmonised sound.

And as the painter comes to know a visible reality, a secret wonder revealed in form and colour, which wholly escapes the casual eye, and the musician to know a reality revealed in music of which the or-dinary listener can only receive a fraction, and both are lifted by this experience to fresh levels of life; so the mystic, because of that loving and devoted attention which we call contemplation - "gazing into heaven with his ghostly eye", as one of them said - comes to know a spiritual reality to which we are deaf and blind.

He knows it, but he cannot describe it; as we know but cannot describe the atmosphere of our own country, our own home. Its awful beauty and its living peace lie beyond the resources of our limited thought and clumsy tongues, which are adjusted to other levels of existence.

We begin, therefore, to see why mysticism has been called the science of the love of God; and why St Augustine's great saying, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts shall find no rest save in Thee," remains the best explanation of its undying appeal. . .

For mystics, God is the fact of facts. They long for self-loss in Him, even while they know themselves eternally distinct from Him. For, intensely conscious of the contrast between His perfect and eternal Being and our imperfect changeful life, they know that only an effort and growth to ever closer union with that God, and at last a life so re-made in His order that He is all in all, can ever satisfy the soul's thirst.

From a letter of 20 March 1933:

The Church of Rome must always have a sort of attraction for those who love prayer because it does understand and emphasise worship. But the whole question of course is, not "What attracts and would help Me?" but "Where can I serve God best?" - and usually the answer to that is, "Where He has put me."

Von Hügel used to say that only a definite and continuous feeling, that it would be a sin not to move, could justify anyone changing. It is obvious that people who can pray and help others to are desperately needed in the C of E. And to leave that job because the devotional atmosphere of Rome is attractive, is simply to abandon the trenches and go back to Barracks. If all the Tractarians had imitated Newman's spiritual selfishness, English religion to-day (unless God had raised up other reformers) would be as dead as mutton!

There is a great deal still to be done and a great deal to put up with, and the diet is often none too good - but we are here to feed His sheep where we find them, not to look for comfy quarters! At least, that is my firm belief: and the life of prayer can be developed in the C of E as well as anywhere else if we really mean it.

These are edited extracts from The Practical Mystic: Evelyn Underhill and her writings, edited and introduced by Raymond Chapman (Canterbury Press, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18 - Use code CT124); 978-1-84825-128-1).

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