"They [Christian saints] do not stand aside wrapped in delightful prayers and feeling pure and agreeable to God. They go right down into the mess; and there, right down in the mess, they are able to radiate God because they possess Him."
As a long-standing Christian, I thought I had the definitions of things like faith, hope, love and prayer pretty well understood - in principle if not in practice. Evelyn Underhill manages to describe them in ways I'd never come across before. She writes with imagination, clarity, and a fearsomely large knowledge of her subject. She also opens up wide vistas across the spiritual life, but gives very concrete and practical steps in how to achieve the same view.
Concerning the Inner Life contains three chapters written to parish priests, to encourage them to build up their prayer life and connection with God. The House of the Soul is for a more general readership. It uses the metaphor of a house to explore the ways in which Christians can live and pray, so as to become closer to God.
What are the main themes of this book?
The overarching theme of both books is Underhill's conception of prayer: that it is, above all, the means of deepening our union with God in love, in order to share that love with the world around us. She talks about the importance of ordering our whole life so as to increase and maintain a true vision of God.
In Inner Life, the focus is on the particular concerns of the priest, who has to convey a sense of God to his parishioners, yet, as a professional Christian, may struggle to find time and mental space for his own prayers.
House of the Soul imagines the human soul as having a "natural" downstairs, and a "spiritual" upstairs, which both need tending in order to live a full life. Each chapter covers a virtue - prudence, temperance and fortitude for downstairs; faith, hope and charity for upstairs - and explains how each one helps to make our house a dwelling place for God.
What did you like about the book?
I loved the way Underhill encourages her readers to gain a vision of God. The first chapter of Inner Life is full of phrases like: "as clear and rich and deep as you are able to get it"; "wide-open, loving, selfless adoration"; "glorious and spacious thoughts of Him". There is such a sense of beauty and largeness and wonder.
This comes through in House, too, especially the chapter on faith. She describes faith as being like a tower room, to which you can climb and look out through two windows. One gives glimpses of "the unspeakable splendour of the Eternal" before which the soul kneels in adoration. The other looks out over the everyday world, but seen from "the angle of faith" which recognises "God self-disclosed in and with us". Sometimes both windows are shuttered, but in the darkness you may find a greater recognition of the Presence who is always close by.
Not only is this unlike any description of faith I have yet come across, it is intensely visual. I can imagine that staircase, that small room, and that feeling of simply absorbing the view.
What did you find difficult?
As the quote which heads this post suggests, Underhill is firm that contemplation is not just for our own benefit. If our prayers only serve to make us feel good and holy, we are getting something wrong. A deeper spiritual life must result in a greater love for, and service to, other people. Spiritual self-cultivation, she says, is "a horrible idea for any soul". "The only question asked... will be, 'Have you loved well?'"
I find in myself a terrible tendency to spiritual self-cultivation. It's all too easy to turn my efforts towards devising a lovely list of books to read, buying pretty little pictures, and writing out beautiful prayers. Getting out into "the mess" and asking myself what actually helps me to love better, though, is much harder. So that part of Underhill's writing was a big challenge to me.
Did you learn something new?
Yes. Definitely. When I read what she had to say about prayer, I thought, "Why did no one tell me this before?" Evangelicalism tends to focus on praying for something. Prayer almost becomes work; you pray in order to make something happen, or because it's a good discipline, like doing press-ups.
Evelyn Underhill says that prayer is to "form in you an ever-deepening communion with God... which you can carry right through the external tasks of your day" and to "expand our spirits, to feed and quicken our awareness of the wonder and delightfulness of God". It almost sounds like an entirely different thing - and something which could be life-giving and interesting, not merely a dry duty to be performed.
This aspect of prayer isn't completely absent from evangelical theology, of course; but it's amazing how a truth can gain a whole new light, when seen from a different viewpoint. I imagine many people feel the same way when they read Richard Rohr, who also stands in the contemplative tradition. He didn't do it for me at all, but Evelyn Underhill did.
Will you do something differently?
Underhill mentions aspiratory prayers, which she defines as: "the frequent and attentive use of little phrases of love and worship". The Psalms are good places to find these, she suggests, as well as books such as The Imitation of Christ. So if you notice me muttering under my breath, it might be because I'm trying to form a new habit of aspiratory prayer (unless I'm saying, "tuna and cheese panini, jacket with beans," in which case I'm just doing the cooking at my cafe!)
What is one thing you will remember?
These two books are peppered with comments like, "The great Ruysbroeck said..." or, "The saintly Evangelical, David Brainerd," which generally made me go, "Who?" and resort to Google. This happened so often that I ended up with a page of notes on various medieval Flemish mystics, Victorian philosophers, and saints I had never heard of. Some, like St Teresa of Avila, wrote books which may get added to my reading list in due course. Other searches led me down interesting little byways of church history and devotion.
It was good to be introduced to so many Christians across history and continents (although I did wish she'd added some footnotes to explain who they were!) Evelyn Underhill is so good at conveying the "height and width and depth" of so many things - prayer, faith, God's character, and the church through the ages. I hope some of her glorious and spacious thoughts will stay with me, too.