Choice comments from Evelyn Underhill:If God were small enough to be understood, God would not be big enough to be worshipped.As the genuine religious impulse becomes dominant, adoration more and more takes charge. “I come to seek God because I need Him,” may be an adequate formula for prayer. “I come to adore His splendor and fling myself and all that I have at His feet,” is the only possible formula for worship.For a lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us everydayThe spiritual life of individuals has to be extended both vertically to God and horizontally to other souls; and the more it grows in both directions, the less merely individual and therefore more truly personal it will become.Every minute you are thinking of evil, you might have been thinking of good instead. Refuse to pander to a morbid interest in your misdeeds. Pick yourself up, be sorry, shake yourself, and go on again.On every level of life, from housework to heights of prayer, in all judgment and efforts to get things done, hurry and impatience are sure marks of the amateur.The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers.
Feast of Evelyn Underhill
Back in the day, I used to do a lot of traveling to meet with congregations and clergy groups. It’s been a big part of my work and I miss it. When I make these trips, I have a few questions I ask. One has to do with spiritual growth. I invite folks to take a look in their own spiritual rear-view mirror and remember a time in life marked by spiritual growth. With that time in mind, I then ask them to think about what was happening in that time, why the growth happened, what were that catalysts. What would you say?
The results I want to report are anecdotal. Hear them with that in mind, but invariably the most common answer I get is that growth came through some kind of crisis or challenge, hardship or suffering. In that crucible, folks got a clearer idea of what mattered, about how resources of faith could help them through tough times.
Our nation now faces three major crises at the same time. Any one of them could have thrown us for a collective loop, crises of health, economics, race relations and justice. So I’m thinking, this may be a time for real spiritual growth. I actually see some of that happening. The hunger for community deepens. Prayer life is enriched. Stories of scripture (many having to do with crisis) speak with more meaning. People of faith take action for equity. Reliance on the power of the Holy One becomes a necessity, as people recognize a need for God. In many ways, the season draws us back to the center, to the basics, to the heart of the matter.
Today is the feast day of Evelyn Underhill, who lived in England (and France) in the first half of the 20th century. She probably got most attention during the 1930’s, a time of striking economic and political challenges. As an aside, it was also during the 1930’s that Forward Movement started, in response to economic and spiritual depression, a movement focused on spiritual growth.
But back to Evelyn. A mystic, she was a person who seemed to know not only about God. She seemed to know God. That connection has drawn people of faith to her ever since. I talk about her a lot because early in my work with RenewalWorks, a colleague shared a letter Ms. Underhill wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1930’s, with her observations of the challenges facing the Church of England in her day. Her pointed comments are aimed squarely at the clergy. In my humble opinion, she could have written it last week to all of us, clergy or not.
In that letter, she said that we look to the church to give us an experience of God, mystery, holiness and prayer. We look to clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. To put it mildly, she confessed disappointment with what was being offered. She said: “In public worship they often fail to evoke the spirit of adoration because they do not possess it themselves. Hence the dreary character of many church services and the result in the increasing alienation of the laity from institutional forms.” Ouch. She goes on to remind the Archbishop (why did he need reminding?) that God is the interesting thing about religion, and that people are hungry for God. In her mind, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest. (Substitute: every person of faith).
You can read the whole letter yourself–it would be worth your while. Here’s a link to it. In a time of crisis, she saw opportunity for spiritual growth, and it had everything to do with a return to basics. I don’t know about you, but sheltering in place has helped me realize with greater clarity what is important and what is not. I sense these crises are prompting such realizations for our churches. May we never forget that God is the interesting thing about religion, and that people are hungry for God. So hungry.
What would Evelyn Underhill have to say about your spiritual life, and mine? How can the crises with which we all contend prompt our own spiritual growth? What are you learning? How are you growing? What lessons might unfold this week?
Consider this great resource for personal spiritual growth during this pandemic (when many of us find ourselves sheltering in place).
RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor. Learn more at renewalworks.org