Saturday, May 21, 2011
also on episcopal cafe
2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Evelyn Underhill’s groundbreaking book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Human Spiritual Consciousness. This book has been remarkable in that it has appealed both to scholars and to seekers, and it has been continuously in print for 100 years -- a miracle in itself, as anyone familiar with publishing knows. Even though Mysticism is not my favorite among Underhill’s writings, I have welcomed the invitation this centennial year brings to read more widely in her work, and to appreciate again how vividly she speaks to our own time. (Most recently I’ve been involved in organizing a conference on her work, to be held at Washington National Cathedral June 3 and 4 -- more information about this here.)
Mysticism is the product of the Edwardian era, when the more affluent classes, as well as clerics and academics, were interested in various aspects of the life of the spirit. Underhill herself was the author of several spiritual novels with neoplatonic world views, and spent some time with a spiritualist group known as the Golden Dawn. The interest in personal spiritual experience in her era mirrors the New Age spirituality of the 1980’s and 90’s, and also speaks to the popularity in our own time of being “spiritual but not religious.” To this audience, Underhill, largely self-educated in the area of religion, assembles here a comprehensive survey of the great Christian mystics, especially of the west, insisting at once upon their universality as “pioneers of the (human) race” and on the particularity of their Christian identity, rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation.
What is fascinating about Mysticism, and a thread through all of Underhill’s writing, is her simple insistence that spiritual experience is about God, and not (primarily) about our own internal psychology or makeup. A thoughtful and well-reasoned Christian apologist, she is unapologetic about insisting on the “reality” of God as the ground of mystical experience. In the 1920’s, following the upheaval of the Great War, she embraces to a decidedly “catholic” Anglican faith and moves into a remarkable career as a writer and lecturer on Christian spirituality, directing retreats, writing letters of directions and teaching “normal people” about the life of prayer in the modern world. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said of her that “ in the twenties and thirties there were few, if indeed, any, in the Church of England who did more to help people to grasp the priority of prayer in the Christian life and the place of the contemplative element within it.”(Preface to Christopher Armstrong’s Evelyn Underhill (1975, Eerdmans), pp. ix-x)
I find Underhill increasingly appealing as her work matures, from the Romantic celebrations of Mysticism to a focus on what her later work calls “the spiritual life,” preferring that term to “mysticism” when she discusses the life of prayer for ordinary people. Particularly infectious is her deepening appreciation for the ancient wisdom of the Christian tradition, which she sees forming the greatest of the western mystics. Increasingly, she finds their theological heritage she finds in eastern orthodoxy. Though my preferences vary when it comes to Underhill’s work, at the moment I am very much taken with the series of Lenten retreat addresses on the “Christian creed” which she published in 1937 under the title The School of Charity. I led a study course on this work recently and was surprised to find how fresh and wise it is, for contemporary Christians seeking clarity about our identity and practice in the postmodern world. It presents the Creed (mainly the Nicene Creed), not as a series of propositions to be debated or assented to, but as a series of themes for prayerful exploration and contemplation.
The heart of her argument in The School of Charity offers fresh and We are created by, and in the image of, a God who relates to the world as the “Artist-Lover” -- delighting in Creation and loving us and desiring us to grow into deeper and fuller companionship in the divine life. “We are Christians,” Underhill writes, bracingly, "and so we accept, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the Christian account of [God’s] character. God is Love, or rather Charity; generous, out-flowing, self-giving love, Agape. When all the qualities which human thought attributes to Reality are set aside, this remains. Charity is the colour of the divine personality, the spectrum of Holiness. We believe that the tendency to give, to share, to cherish, is the mainspring of the universe, ultimate cause of all that is, and reveals the Nature of God: and therefore that when we are most generous we are most living and most real.” (10-11)
The Incarnation follows naturally from this fundamental character of God as generous love: it is out of compassion and love that God becomes one of us, taking on the “pattern” of a human life, and inviting us to make our own Christ’s life of loving service and availability, compassion, radical peacemaking, and ultimately radical self-offering. Rather than pursuing the theology of a “substitutionary” atonement(i.e. we have sinned and deserve to die, but Jesus dies in our place, thereby saving us frm God's wrath), Underhill invites us to marvel at the generosity of the divine self-offering, which enters the brokenness of our human experience to share and transform it.
And so the heart of our faith is the Incarnation; the Cross, the central symbol of that faith, is the inevitable outcome of the divine decision to share our human nature. In the Crucifixion, the extremes of human are suffering experienced in his own humanity by the One who loves us. The suffering that we experience in our lives is given meaning and hope by the profound generosity of self-offering Love - “caritas” - “Charity,” which is the heart of the divine life, the goal of our formation in the Christian life, the ground of human transformation.
“A Christian’s belief about reality,” she Underhill writes, “is a wonderful blend of confidence and experience. On one hand it asks great faith in the invisible world that enfolds us. On the other hand it includes and embraces the hardest facts of the actual life we know, and gives them a creative quality. It is a religion which leaves nothing out (p. 51).” In her chapter on the Spirit and the Church, she insists that however incongruous it may seem, the Holy Spirit’s mission of transforming a broken world happens through us, the Church, in our ordinary, practical lives. So she writes with wry awareness:
. . . . .All this seems terribly concrete to the enthusiast for “pure spirituality”: and when we think of pews and hassocks and the Parish Magazine, we tend to rebel against the yoke of official religion, with its suggestion of formalism and even frowstiness. It seems far too stiff and institutional, too unventilated, to represent the generous and life-giving dealings of the Divine Charity with men. The chorus which exclaimed with awe and delight, “I believe in one God! Thins out a good deal when it comes to saying, “I believe in one Church!. . . . Yet there it is; the Christian sequence is God-Christ-Spirit-Church-Eternal Life. No link in this chain can be knocked out, without breaking the current of love which passes from God through his creatures back again to God. The incarnation of the Holy in this world is social. We are each to contribute our bit to it, and each to depend on the whole.” (92)
Rereading these and other works by Evelyn Underhill has invited me to recognize agiain the excitement at the heart of Christian faith, and what it this faith says about the generosity of God. It makes me want to try try to live into this hope more fully. Hers is a “practical mysticism”-- an aliveness to the Reality of the Divine mystery that embodies itself in a way of life. Her work continues to hold wisdom for us in the Church today. It has been well worth a revisit in this centennial year of Mysticism.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
The rejoicing over Osama Bin Laden's death has me thinking again about how profoundly counter-cultural and radical the Christian message really is. Are we indeed called to "love our enemies" to this extent? Most of us find it very hard; but certainly it was as a Christian that I found myself troubled by the public rejoicing over the man's death. A number of emotions surfaced: compassion for those who had lost loved ones on 9/11, and for whom this event brought it all back -- some were relieved at having vengeance, some said it didn't change anything -- people my children's age were prominent among the celebrators - understandably relieved at having the enemy they have grown up with "gone." So I can't fault anyone for feeling the way they do at the man's death -- but at the same time I am praying that we will not be sucked into the folly of dancing on the grave of an enemy, as our enemies rejoiced after we were hit in September of 9/11. It leads nowhere.
I've been thinking lately about the gospel and empire (and may have more to say about this in further posts). A few months ago my husband and I were immersed in the HBO series "Rome" -- very instructive for seeing the world in which the gospel stories played out, and particularly repulsive and distressing was the way that conquered enemies were treated-- their bodies thrown out to be eaten by dogs, or paraded throug the streets in triumph, or left on crosses to die and then fall to the ground, to be left without burial rites. The Easter story, which we are living through now in our Christian liturgical observance, reminds us that it was both a political and a personal act of defiance for some of the most prominent citizens among Jesus' secret followers (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus) to ask for his body -- the body of someone who had been crucified by the Romans--and to give him a decent burial: an assertion of humanity and compassion in the face of all-too familiar human brutality.
With that story alive in my memory I was very glad of the decision of those who killed our enemy to give him a prompt and respectful Muslim burial, even at the risk that it will make it more difficult to prove that it was really him we "got." I am praying that we will not be reduced to releasing gory photographs of the dead body though I don't have a lot of hope about that. But I was heartened by that expression of human decency -- that moment of not being Rome, dancing on the graves of our enemies, but acknowledging, in death, a common humanity. Hard to sustain, but it was a moment.
As I seek to live faithfully with the unfolding story in the news, two resources from my own branch of the Christian tradition are helpful to me. One is the collect for our enemies, in the Book of Common Prayer, posted on facebook by a number of my priest-friends, for which I'm grateful. It goes like this:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We are so entangled, so complicit, in a violent culture that it is probably impossible to pray this prayer with perfect integrity, but saying the words is a start, whether we fully believe them or not. I'm grateful for a tradition that gives words to the prayers we should be praying - even when it's hard for us to do so.
I am also remembering my own post-9/11 experience, which I wrote about in the Fall 2006 issue of Weavings. My daughter at the time was a chorister at the Washington National Cathedral, and so was one of those who sang the anthem "My Shepherd will Supply my Need" at the nationally televised memorial service that was held at the Cathedral on September 14, 2011. What I remember about that service is that it started beautifully and humanly, as a gathering of remembrance and an honoring of the innocent victims of the attacks: and we have seen that same outpouring of remembrance, condolence and support with this announcement about Bin Laden's death. The anthem, based on the twenty-third psalm, reminded us that there is goodness that we can trust, even in the midst of violence and chaos. My memory is that this moment in the Cathedral service expressed the best in us at that service, which later degenerated, in my view, into a highly unsettling call for vengeance, following the president's speech, and the incongruous and deeply unsettling singing of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"at the end of the service. But the choristers' singing is the moment I want to rest with now, so I'm glad one of them has posted it on youtube. I am hoping that we (especially we who seek to follow the Way of Christ) can hold fast to our fundamental conviction that compassion and love are stronger than violence and revenge, despite what the world seems to present. And learn to live that conviction.
That is the hope that the Easter season brings. The hope I hold to. May we have the courage to live out this hope, even in violent times.