Evelyn Underhill was a retreat leader, writer, spiritual director, and thinker of the early to mid 20th century. She was not raised in a religiously-inclined household nor did she create one with her husband. They had no children, and one of his greatest hobbies apparently was yachting, one which he shared with her father. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit thundered through her writing and her prayer, with a warm combination of self-deprecating humor and seriousness.
Evelyn Underhill wrestled mysticism like Jacob and the angel, demanding her blessing. How to understand it, how to learn from it, how to live a genuine life of the spirit. When I think about mysticism, I think about people who have dedicated themselves to some kind of holy marathon. Monastics in solemn prayer. Prophets of justice, carrying their vision for the world to the streets. Being a mystic, it seems, requires a lot of time.
What I appreciate about Evelyn Underhill is her deep belief that whether you call it mysticism or the life of the Spirit, real encounter with the living God is available to every person. Not only that, it is present to you in the lives we presently lead, with the resources we presently have. Heroics will not be necessary. Our own practices can keep the windows clean so the silent moonlight shines through, but that force of will is not the source of the moon itself. The moon shines without us. And even a dirty window still opens.
How can there be so many socks stuffed between the couch cushions?
How can we be out of pasta already?
How did the counter get so sticky?
The life of God is not suddenly going to reach us when the refrigerator is full and the house is clean. The life of God is pulsing in us and through us, the wild center of it all.
In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill writes:
Yet the situation is not as hopeless for you as it seems. … At the centre there is a stillness which even you are not able to break. There, the rhythm of your duration is one with the rhythm of the Universal Life. . . This is a practical recipe, not a pious exhortation. The thing may sound absurd to you, but you can do it if you will.Practical Mysticism (1915), p. 22
Did you hear that? You, even you, in your noisy, distracted, tired, vulnerable and crabby life, can be a mystic. You cannot break that still and holy core. It’s not just for spiritual superstars.
You can do it, if you will.
I have just turned 80 years old and cannot remember a time even as a child when I was not aware of the goodness of God, thanks to a gentle father and a believing mother. I remember Evelyn Underhill from many years ago, though I’m not sure just what I read of hers then. But funnily enough, this is the second time within a few days when her name and writings have been brought to my attention. Your commnetary on her work and a piece of her writing was beautiful. Thank you, I feel inspired to read more of her works again.