June 15 Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill was one of the leaders of the movement rekindling interest in mysticism in the English-speaking world, and especially among Anglicans. Her 1911 book, Mysticism, is a spiritual classic. Much more than an academic study of the topic, it invites the reader into the experience of it.

Though mysticism be indeed the living heart of all religion, this does not mean tht religion does, or can, consist of nothing but heart. The Church is a Body with head, hands, feet, flesh, and hard bones: none of them any use, it is true, if the heart does not function, but all needed for the full expression of the Christian spiritual life. This acceptance of our whole life of thought, feeling, and action, as material to be transformed and used in our life towards God, is what Baron von Huegel meant by ‘inclusive mysticism.’ It alone is truly Christian; because its philosophic basis is the doctrine of the Incarnation, with its continuance in the Church and Sacraments. Its opposite, exclusive mysticism, the attempt to ascend to the vision of God by turning away from His creatures by an unmitigated other-worldliness, is not Christian at all. It ends, says that same great theologian, in something which cannot be distinguished from mere Pantheism: or, on more popular levels, in sloppy claims to be in tune with the infinite. —quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams, p. 571


Anglican Diversity

No this isn’t another post about our current troubles. Rather, today we are talking about diversity within the historical tradition of Anglicanism.

An interesting pairing of commemorations on June 15 and June 16. Yesterday was Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), the great English spiritual writer. Today is Joseph Butler (1692-1752), theologian and Bishop of Durham. They express two very different strands in Anglicanism. Butler was one of the most important theologians of his day. An apologist, he sought to explain Christian doctrines in ways that would make sense to contemporary thinkers, especially to skeptics. The eighteenth century was dominated by Deism, which sought to develop a religion consistent with reason and with natural law. Butler saw his task as explicating the ways in which Christianity met that standard.

Evelyn Underhill was a writer and a mystic. Apparently as a child or youth she had profound experiences that she sought to understand. Eventually through the help of Baron Friedrich von Huegel, she began learning about mysticism. In 1911, she wrote Mysticism, which is one of the most important English-language works on the topic. Full of scholarly erudition, it also expresses her reflections on her own spiritual experience. Indeed, she criticizes William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience because James denies any personal leanings toward such experience.

Underhill describes the various mystical stages that culminate in “unitive life.” As she describes it: “The Mystic Way has been a progress, a growth, in love: a deliberate fostering of the inward tendency of the soul towards its source, an eradication of its disorderly tendencies to “temporal goods.” But the only proper end of love is union.”

Quoting Walter Hilton, she explains: “it is a perfect uniting and coupling together of the lover and the loved into one.”

But it is not just about the fusion of I and God: “We find as a matter of fact, when we come to study the history of the mystics, that the permanent Unitive State, or spiritual marriage, does mean for those who attain to it, above all else such an acess of creative vitality. It means man’s small derivative life invaded and enhanced by the Absolute Life: the appearance in human history of personalities and careers which seem superhuman when judged by the surface mind.” (Mysticism, pp. 428-9)

Her work still bears reading, both by the individual seeking a deeper spiritual life and by the scholar attempting to understand mysticism.

Together Butler and Underhill point to two very different approaches in Anglicanism: one the intellectual, the rational, the other the experiential. Though Underhill is probably closer to contemporary Anglican sensibilities with her careful theological and historical analysis of the spiritual life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Underhill was powerfully attracted to Catholicism and considered conversion. It may be that her husband prevented her from going over to Rome.