I’ve been meaning for a long time to read Evelyn Underhill, the early 20th century English mystic. Mostly, I was intrigued about there being mystics in the 20th and 21st centuries – as if this type of spirituality is restricted to more ancient times. Reading Howard Thurman in seminary cured me of that! And now Evelyn…
Although she wrote multiple books on mysticism and spirituality, I find her letters fascinating and practical. She addressed them to friends and acquaintances who sought her advice when they faced challenges in living out their faith. I tend to imagine mystics living otherworldly lives, detached from the rest of us. But Evelyn’s letters reveal that her spiritual life was pretty down-to-earth.
In April 1939, she wrote to a friend:
“Make up your mind from the first to ignore the ups and downs of the “spiritual climate.” There will be for you as for everyone sunny and cloudy days, long periods of dullness and fog, and sometimes complete darkness, to bear. Accept this with courage as part of the Christian life. Your conversion means giving yourself to God, not having nice religious feelings.”
She reminds this person that what offends you is “religious food and drink” to another.
“Beware of fastidiousness! You are highly sensitive to beauty, and whatever branch of the church you join, there will be plenty of things that offend your taste.”
In another letter, she described what we’d today call self-compassion:
“…don’t be ferocious with yourself because that is treating badly a precious (if imperfect) thing which God has made.”
As World War II was beginning and many were, as we are in our own day, distracted by fear and overwhelmed by uncertainty, she reminds us that “Christ did not come to save us from trouble but to show us how to bear trouble.”
It’s hard most of the time to see the mystical in the efforts it takes to get through the day. Work from home, school from home, masking for every venture out, planning for things that can’t be planned. When trapped in a cycle of very earthy worries, it’s hard to see the heavenly. Underhill reminds us that the heavenly is right here in the midst of the mundane – in fact, the mundane was made in love by the heavenly. As she wrote in a 1937 letter:
“Christianity does mean getting down to actual ordinary life as the medium of the Incarnation, doesn’t it, and our lessons that get sterner, not more elegant, as time goes on?”
From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill