EVELYN UNDERHILL: Christianity Proclaims the Value of the Individual

From Worship, Chapter IX: The Principles of Personal Worship

The “praying church” is built of praying souls; and all that has been said of the fundamentally social character of Christian worship, as expressed in the common liturgic action of the church, and of the status of the individual soul as an organic part of this corporate life, must not be allowed to obscure this complementary truth.  Christianity proclaims, more clearly than any other religion, the value and particular vocation of the individual, his unique and direct relation to God.  Its greatest triumphs have been the individual achievements of the saints: that is, persons whose lives of worship have made them tools of God.  Already in the teaching and practice of Christ, the central importance of personal, indeed of solitary prayer, the free, loving, disciplined, and single-minded waiting of the soul on God is emphasized: and each great form of Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, Evangelical and Quaker, has in its own manner and according to its particular genius, been concerned to safeguard this truth, and maintain a rightful balance between the corporate and individual life of worship.  Certainly the total life of the Body is real, indeed a personal life, transcending and enfolding that of its separate members and essential to their growth.  But the quality of this total life must depend on the extent in which each unit is open towards God, and responsive to His secret action.  Thus the corporate worship in which this life is offered to God must be for each member a vital interest, which kills a mere self-interested spirituality.  Nonetheless, and indeed because of this greater life, the production and maintenance in each unit of that realistic relation with God which makes of the human soul an instrument of adoration must be a concern of the whole: for it directly serves the church’s supreme object, the increase of the glory of God.  The church “unites only in order to sanctify, and she sanctifies only the better to adore,” (Liturgy and Society, A. G. Hebert) and no enthusiasm for corporate action must be allowed to blur this truth.

Each Christian life of prayer, then, however deeply hidden or apparently solitary in form, will affect the life of the whole Body.  By the very fact of its entrance into the sphere of worship, its action is added to that total sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in which the life of the Invisible Church consists.  As every creature from mayfly to elephant, each with its different rhythm and time-span, forms part of the single rich response of nature to the creative action of God; so each distinct life of prayer, with its particular rhythm, time-span, and capacity makes its essential contribution to that total response which is the essence of worship.  Hurried advocates of corporate religion have sometimes tended to regard such hidden and personal lives of prayer as exclusive, other-worldly, lacking in social value and open to the charge of spiritual selfishness.  But this superficial view does not bear examination.  In obeying the first and great commandment, the life of personal worship obeys the second, too.  Its influence radiates, its devoted self-offering avails for the whole.  Indeed the living quality of the great liturgic life of the community, its witness to the holy, depends in the last resort on the sacrificial lives of its members; and it is only from within such intensive lives that intercessory power — the application to particulars of the Eternal Love — seems to arise.  Hence it is that all the great masters of worship insist on the importance of the secret personal life of adoration as “the first essential for a Christian”; the only condition under which he can hope to become a channel of the Divine Charity, and cooperate in the sanctification of life.  For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by the gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purpose which is the essence of the worshipping life.

“Set apart,” says Bossuet, to one of his penitents, “a certain amount of time morning and evening, whether the mind be filled with God or not, doing so with no other object than the adoration which is the duty of His creature. Adore Him with all the capacity you have, yet without anxiety as to the degree of your success or of your love, as to whether you are concentrated on God or on yourself, whether your time is profitable or wasted.  There is no question here of stages of prayer.  We are concerned only with adoring God without any motive save that we are in duty bound to do so, without any desire save to offer adoration, or if we fail in this to accept failure with patience and humility.  The value of our prayer depends on the degree to which we die to self in offering it.  There is no place for calculations or precautions.  Strive to adore, and let that suffice.” (Jacques Bénigne Boussuet, E. K. Sanders)

If, then, on the one hand the Christian must always worship as a member of the Supernatural Society, mindful of its great interests and subordinated to its life, on the other he must also worship as the secret child of God; humbly aware of a direct and most sacred relationship with Him, and utterly abandoned to His will.  All that he does partakes of this double character.  It is part of “a chain variously intertwisted with, variously affecting, and affected by, numerous other chains and other lives”; but it also involved “another, a far deeper, a most darling and inspiring relation, each single act, each single moment joined direct to God — Himself not a chain, but one great simultaneity.” (Selected Letters, F. von Hϋgel)  Each of these aspects of the life of worship — the successive and the absolute — safeguards and completes the other; and a full and balanced Christianity needs and gives place for both.  So a living corporate worship will only be found where this double movement is present; where there is a nucleus of praying souls, maintaining direct essential contact with the Transcendent, whilst not forgetful of their social vocation as servants of the living God, and this realistic correspondence of the individual soul, its adherence of the holy, is encouraged, stabilized, and fed.  The periods of Christian decadence have always been periods when this costly interior life of personal devotion has been dim.  Revival has always come through persons for whom adoring and realistic attention to God and total self-giving to God’s purpose have been the first interests of life.  These persons it is true have become fully effective only when associated in groups: but the ultimate source of power has been the dedication of the individual heart.  The Benedictines, the Franciscans, and the Friends of God; and within more recent times the Quakers, the Methodists, and the Tractarians, all witness to this.  Indeed, Christian history is lit throughout its course by these “flames of living love.”  These facts cannot astonish us, when we consider that it is by worship alone that we have access to the holy and the real: and, that where His prevenient revelation truly breaks in upon a soul, an unconditioned personal devotion bringing all levels of life into subjection to His will is the inevitable response.  As the sacrificial passion of the artist for a realized beauty, and the communion with beauty which his self-giving achieves, open a channel by which the Absolute Beauty enters succession and is revealed to other men; so the personal passion in which the soul response to God and which lights the lamp of worship, opens a channel whereby the eternal enters time and there reveal holiness and truth.

Understood in the deepest sense personal worship is man’s return-movement of charity to the inciting charity of God (by charity is meant that love of God by which He is loved for Himself alone, and all creatures in and for Him, and which is man’s response to the divine self-giving love), and therefore organic to his spiritual life.  As it develops, it will be exercised in two directions: vertically in adoration, and horizontally in intercession, as the ancient sacrifice was at once an act of oblation and impetration, a gift made to the Unseen and a petition made on behalf of the seen.  Thus it is intimately concerned with both aspects of our double-relatedness, the eternal and the successive.  In both, not one alone, it reaches out towards the holy, as the final and sufficing object of worship and love; first in surrender to His pure being, and secondly in loving cooperation with His creative activity.  This loving cooperation is the essence of intercession; which is, when rightly understood, an act of worship directed to the glory of God.  Within the Eternal Charity all spirits are united.  We each have our place in that order, and self-giving to its saving purposes is the substance of our worshipping life.  The true intercessor offers the oblation of his imperfect love, that it may become a channel of the Absolute Love.  Here he prays from the cross.  According to the degree of his self-offering is the power of his prayer; and a part of his self-offering will be an entire willingness to work and suffer in the dark, asking for no assurance of result.  All that he does and endures, is done and endured as the adoring tool and servant of the Creative Love; and in the last result, his intercessory action is part of the movement of its will.  “Even the prayer of demand,” as Bremond has said, “is not truly prayer except in so far as it is also adoration.” (La Philosophie de la Prière, Henri Bremond)  It is those who best practice the loving adoration who will best practice the loving expansion; since dwelling in charity they dwell in God, and become effective channels of His generosity.  At their full development the two movements are merged in that one, all-inclusive act of self-giving and obedient love, which Christians find revealed in the life of Jesus and supremely expressed in the cross: the arms stretched out to embrace the world, and the eyes lifted up towards the Eternal God.

There is nothing in man’s mixed experience which cannot be brought within the radius of this willing and all-inclusive response to the demand of reality.  Thus the subtle experiences of his own inner life, witnessing more clearly with every advance in self-knowledge to the penetrating charity and mysterious action of God, holding up the footsteps of His creature, restoring the soul, challenging the mind, ever delicately working within life, must evoke an answering movement of gratitude and awe: and in the demands of the world without, its call upon his pity and service, he will again hear the voice of charity inviting his devotedness by means of its creatures’ needs.  Some ascetic effort, too, must enter into any individual worship worthy of the name; expressing the soul’s deliberate choice of God, and loving renunciation of all that hinders total self-giving to God — the act of will which throws the human spirit with its preferences and desires at His feet.  Even disciplines which in themselves are childish, acquire in this context a certain nobility; and humbling failures occasioned by the greatness of the aim and fragility of the creature become, when rightly accepted, a true part of that creature’s self-oblation.

For the life of personal worship — that is to say the increasingly adoring relation to the holy — is grounded in two qualities: humility and charity.  Humility is or should be what man feels about himself over against God.  Charity is or should be what that same creature feels about God standing over against himself, and ever more and more penetrating and possessing his life, till at last that life shall become “so far transformed and perfected in the Fire of Love, that not only is it united with this Fire, but has become one living flame within it.” (The Living Flame of Love, Saint John of the Cross)  These characters are inseparable; they rise and fall together in the soul, and are the only valid index of the worth of its worship.  Their presence means that this worship has introduced it into the world of supernatural realities; however dimly, crudely, or uncertainly these realities may be conceived.  Humility in its beginning arises from negative contrast; man’s sense of his own faults and imperfection, his nothingness over against God.  But at its height it is caused by positive contrast: the supreme love, worth, and beauty of God in Himself, His perfection striking upon the soul.  Charity in its beginning is the creature’s response to the divine attraction; and in its fulfillment rises to that unconditioned act of pure love which is the very substance of the supernatural life.

Thus the personal life of worship involves on the human side an utter self-abandonment of the creature to God, as the existent of all existents and doer of all that is done — a total Godward reference of will and act and desire, purging egotism and quickening charity — and on the divine side, the ever-increasing action of the Creative Love, breaking in, possessing, and molding the soul.  Each worshipping movement of that soul, whether expressed under the formula of devotion or of service — each “act of the will wrought in charity,” as Saint John of the Cross says — increases its capacity for God; and so contributes to that total transfiguration of life, that redemption of the world, which is the Christian goal.  Nor is this ideal intended only to apply to “advanced souls,” or persons of mystical capacity.  It is, on the contrary, the essence of the Christian spiritual life as plainly taught in the New Testament, especially in the Epistle to the Romans and the First Epistle of Saint John.

The living core of individual worship, then, is a loving dedication of the will; but a dedication which is itself the result of, and the response to, God’s prevenient act and pressure.  Thus we come to realize our true position, as units in a vast spiritual economy; each with a degree of freedom, and each with its own part to play, but all vivified and sustained by the charity which is God.  “Our prayer,” says Von Hϋgel, “will certainly gain in depth and aliveness, if we thus continually think of God as the true inspirer of our most original-seeming thoughts and wishes, whensoever these are good and fruitful — as Him who secretly initiates what He openly crowns.” (Essays and Addresses, Series II)

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