EVELYN UNDERHILL: The Mystic Goes to Church

In her book, The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today, in a chapter entitled, “Institutional Religion and the Life of the Spirit,” Evelyn Underhill approaches a very tender subject: how well does a mystic do in a church environment?

For me, this has been a very painful, sometimes tortuous conflict — wanting, needing to go to church, but finding there what one finds in church: seemingly tireless church ladies, jovial fellows discussing the replanting of the tulip beds, frazzled choir masters chasing after their brood, et al.

This question, often put in the crucial form, “Did Jesus Christ intend to form a church?” is well worth asking.  Indeed, it is of great and pressing importance to those who now have the spiritual reconstruction of society at heart.  It means, in practice: can men best be saved, regenerated, one by one, by their direct responses to the action of the Spirit; or, is the life of the Spirit best found and actualized through submission to tradition and contacts with other men — that is, in a group or church?

Or is it both?  For me, surely that would be true.

This was written almost a hundred years ago, and yet….

I think we may say without exaggeration that the general modern judgement — not, of course, the clerical or orthodox judgment — is adverse to institutionalism; at least as it now exists.  In spite of the enormous improvement which  would certainly be visible, were we to compare the average ecclesiastical attitude and average church service in this country with those of a hundred years ago, the sense that religion involves submission to the rules and discipline of a closed society — that definite spiritual gains are attached to spiritual incorporation — that church-going, formal and corporate worship, is a normal and necessary part of the routine of a good life: all this has certainly ceased to be general amongst us.

Indeed.  I have spent my lifetime feeling like my relationship with the church is an ever-revolving door — in, out, in again, out again, and then move somewhere else to start it all over.

I have found, with rare exception, that priests do not like mystics; and, as a logical response to this, I grew from a very early age to not like priests, most especially the ones who scowled at me.

I just wanted to be in church.  I just wanted to pray or meditate or float in the aweness of it all.  But no, instead there was always, always coffee to be made, ruffles to be straightened, neglected bulletins to be picked up.  Even in small groups, there was always, always a formula to be followed, a protocol to respect and adhere to.

In terms of William James’s well-known definition of religion as, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine,” such a life of the Spirit (and the majority of educated men would probably accept this description of it) seems little if at all conditioned by church membership.

I was once given the unbelievable grace of being part of a miracle of healing.  I was, of course, to study its structure, its force, its fire.  Knowing it was coming, I felt curious and anxious.  After I went through it, however, I felt flattened, dissolved, and completely undone.

God came through me and healed this woman?  There are no words, literally and forever, to describe it.

Years later, still feeling, well, a bit PTSD about it all, I went to a priest and told him my tale.  I asked for his direction in how to not only encompass this divinity, but how to study it.

He screamed at me for over an hour.  His face turned bright red.  He yelled so hard, spit came out of him.  The next day, in the receiving line after mass, he turned his back on me so that he wouldn’t have to shake hands with me.

First, then, the church.  What does a church really do for the God-desiring individual; the soul that wants to live a full, complete and real life, which has “felt in its solitude” the presence and compulsion of Eternal Reality under one or other of the forms of religious experience?

I guess I had to come to terms with the difference between the building that is the church, and the people who make up the church.  And then there are the rituals, the services, the repeated motions and words that make us feel both at home and part of the mystery that is so much greater than both the building and all the people.

I think we can say that the church or institution gives to its loyal members:

  1. Group-consciousness.
  2. Religious union, not only with its contemporaries but with the race, that is with history.  This we may regard as an extension into the past — and so an enrichment — of the group-consciousness.
  3. Discipline; and with discipline a spiritual grit which carries our fluctuating souls past and over the inevitably recurring periods of slackness, and corrects subjectivism.
  4. It gives culture, handing on the discoveries of the saints.

As an Anglican, I live in a world wherein the Episcopal Church is currently being led by a woman who has asserted, in writing and verbally, that God works through deviant sexual behavior.  I’m not making this up.  She was referring to her decision to hire a priest and to place this priest in a parish — a priest who openly admitted to having sexually molested boys as a Roman Catholic cleric.

But this is not her only gift.  She also sees her role as driving the traditional Orthodox Anglicans out of the church.

And I have to admit, she is doing a rip-roaring job of this.

The Lord and Giver of Life presses forward, and perpetually brings novelty to birth; and in so far as we are dedicated to Him, we must not make an unconditional surrender to psychic indolence, or to the pull-back of the religious past.  We may not, as Christians, accept easy emotions in the place of heroic and difficult actualizations: make external religion an excuse for dodging reality, immerse ourselves in an exquisite dream, or tolerate any real conflict between old cultus (a system or variety of religious worship) and actual living faith.  A most delicate discrimination is therefore demanded from us; the striking of a balance between the rightful conservatism of the cultus and the rightful independence of the soul.


2 Comments on EVELYN UNDERHILL: The Mystic Goes to Church

  1. For what it’s worth, from the Catholic point of view, the Church community and the Eucharist are intrinsically linked. The Eucharist draws us into the Church; the Church (indeed with the priest!) is the only way to celebrate the Eucharist. It sort of follows that no Catholic (I don’t know about a Protestant) has ever entered into mystical union with God without devotion to the Eucharist… and without the Church. So the answer sort of slowly works itself out for Catholics if we live it. =)

    (All just for what it’s worth for you!)


    • Neither Evelyn Underhill nor I am Catholic in the Roman order. Perhaps to increase your sensitivity to the subject matter, you could study your own faith tradition, beginning with the desert fathers and including, even, Thomas Merton in his last years. Thank you for your comment.


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