Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Evelyn Underhill: Mystic

Fr. Dale Matson

“For he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6b, NASB).

June 15th is the Anglican Feast Day of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941). Perhaps the most salient comment about her in “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” is, “Evelyn Underhill’s most valuable contribution to spiritual literature must surely be her conviction that the mystical life is not only open to a saintly few, but to anyone who cares to nurture it…”

Mysticism is an important ingredient in the "Prescription Strength" Church. I find it extraordinary that a woman from the lay order of the church would instruct clergy in the Church of England in her day. By what authority did she speak? We know. She, like other mystics had an insatiable hunger for God and understood sanctification as a developmental process. Like the Kingdom of God however, it is an upside down developmental process. We don’t “Self Actualize” (Maslow) or “Individualize” (Jung).

“Underhill’s research indicates that there are two distinct thrusts or directions to the full mystic consciousness. One is the increasing consciousness or vision of God; the other is the inner transmutation of the personality, the rebuilding or the restructuring of the self on an inward and deeply all pervasive level. Neither thrust can be accomplished without the complete transcendence of the small ego centric self” ("Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics", Marsha Sinetar, 1986).

Spiritual development requires an ongoing surrender and submission to God. For the mystic there is a restlessness that cannot find rest until they find rest in God. The mystic divests himself of his own identity through ongoing conversion to Christ who is his new and authentic identity. This is different than the psychotic who cannot give up an identity that he never had to begin with.

She saw mysticism as a normal part of the Christian Church. Mysticism is not ethereal; it is the meat and potatoes of intentional spiritual development. Her lifelong attraction to the Roman Catholic Church as a repository of mystery and mysticism opposed a more rationalist and enlightened Anglican heritage that diminished the miraculous and iconography. The sensual avenues of God’s presence had become sidewalks.

Benedict Groeschel has an excellent description of Spiritual Development toward the mystical life in his book “Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development” (1993) that is in basic agreement with Underhill’s spiritual developmental stages. His stages are Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive. In the Unitive stage there is a loss of all defenses (again this is different than the psychotic who also is undefended). This final stage is quite different for the Christian than the Nirvana of a Buddhist where with the Buddhist; there is detachment from the world. “Where Underhill struck new ground was in her insistence that this state of union produced a glorious and fruitful creativeness, so that the mystic who attains this final perfectness is the most active doer - not the reclusive dreaming lover of God.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Underhill).

Our reading for this day from the book of Wisdom includes the following. “Though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (7:27).

Evelyn Underhill is one of those souls. She is an infusion of mysticism and with it, genuine feminism into His church. True feminism is meek and wise. True feminism asks for the water of life from the bridegroom Jesus Christ.

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13, NASB).


Tom Brisson said...

Fr. Dale, Do you think detachment may also play a part in Chrisitan mysticism? If yes, how does detachment fit in with an incarnational spirituality?


Dale Matson said...

I believe that Christians as they mature spiritually, are less ego defended and egocentric and more compassionate. Thomas Merton was initially a hermit monk but later became involved in the anti war movement during the Viet Nam war era. There is a detachment from our self (the one that needs applause) but engagement in the world by seeing and serving Christ in others. The self is the seed that must die that new life may come forth.

Tom Brisson said...

Merton is a terrific example of that, isn't he? I know I'm not there, but it seems as if the harder you try to detach, the harder the ego is determined to hold on...

Dale Matson said...

Yes, spiritual growth unfortunately in not the same as other domains such as physical growth and is not linear like physical growth. The Roman Catholic idea of mortification of the flesh if properly understood makes sense to me, if by "flesh" they mean our old nature.