A reflection on Anglican writer and mystic Evelyn Underhill
This post was delivered as a sermon, June 19, 2019, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Oklahoma.
In our Gospel reading today, Christ invites us to a new journey, to go beyond our holy mountains, our temples and the trappings of this world, and to rest and worship with him in an entirely new place: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
To worship in spirit and truth we must go beyond flesh, and the lies of the flesh, to find the center of ourselves, where, to paraphrase St. Paul, Christ makes His home within us.
That centering journey was the passion and work of Evelyn Underhill, whose feast day was June 15. Underhill, who lived from 1875-1941, was a prolific writer on faith and spirituality, publishing more than 30 novels and works of theology. Like C.S. Lewis, Underhill brought a richness and earnestness to her writing that could only be gained in the intentional journey from agnosticism to devout faith in the Anglican tradition. Her 1911 work “Practical Mysticism” was perhaps her greatest contribution, calling us from the egocentric life of the world, to the Christ-centric life we find within.
Underhill’s influences read like a “Who’s Who” of pre-20th Century Christian mystics, and perhaps a Fr. John Toles reading list, including the likes of St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Thomas à Kempis, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
In “Imitation,” Thomas à Kempis describes the mystics’ inward searching for Christ: “Seek a secret place for thyself, love to dwell alone with thyself … Count the whole world as nought; seek to be alone with God before all outward things.”
That inward journey, to “be alone with God,” is reflected in St. Teresa’s “Interior Castle,” in St. John of the Cross’ journey of the soul toward union with God in “Dark Night of the Soul,” and in St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s prayers to decorate her soul with flowers, to make it a pleasant abode for Christ. Building on these influences, Underhill urges us toward “a reality that your intelligence could not comprehend.”
She calls us to clean the “grime” of self-interest, fear, and ego off the windows of our soul, so that we may see God and His creation more clearly: “The pure soul is like a lens from which all irrelevancies … have been removed.”
Through that unrestricted lens we find the center of our being – and there, we find Christ.
“At the centre there is a stillness which even you are not able to break,” Underhill writes. “There, the rhythm of your duration is one with the rhythm of the Universal Life … Turn your consciousness inward to it deliberately.”
Her words echo the simple, but eminently important, teaching of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”
That stillness that Underhill, along with the other mystics, taught us to seek, through meditation and contemplative prayer, is essential if we are to find Christ. But, this teaching goes beyond us. It goes beyond simply finding and repairing our own broken selves. It takes us to that place within, where we repair our broken ties to our siblings in Christ, and ultimately where we build God’s Kingdom.
The late Trappist monk and contemporary champion of contemplative prayer Fr. Thomas Keating teaches us the power and importance of reaching our destination, within ourselves: “If one completes the journey to one’s heart, one will find oneself in the heart of everyone else.”
Go within. Go into your center. Find Christ at the center of your true being. And there, in Christ within you, find the heart and love of every other child of God.
Let us pray.
Almighty and most merciful God, grant that by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit we may be enlightened and strengthened for your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.