MYSTICISM: The House Of The Soul by Evelyn Underhill

The House Of The Soul by Evelyn Underhill

From: The Essentials of Mysticism and Other Essays

When Saint Paul described our mysterious human nature as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” — a created dwelling-place or sanctuary of the uncreated and invisible divine life — he was stating in the strongest possible terms a view of our status, our relation to God, which has always been present in Christianity and is indeed implicit in the Christian view of reality.  But that statement as it stands seems far too strong for most of us.  We do not feel in the very least like the temples of creative love.  We are more at ease with Saint Teresa, when she describes the soul as an “interior castle” — a roomy mansion, with various floors and apartments from the basement upwards, not all devoted to exalted uses, not always in a satisfactory state.  And when, in a more homely mood, she speaks of her own spiritual life as “becoming solid like a house,” we at last get something we can grasp.

The soul’s house, that interior dwelling-place which we all possess, for the upkeep of which we are responsible — a place in which we can meet God, or from which in a sense we can exclude God — that is not too big an idea for us.  Though no imagery drawn from the life of sense can ever be adequate to the strange and delicate contacts, tensions, demands, and benedictions of the life that lies beyond sense; though the important part of every parable is that which it fails to express; still, here is a conception which can be made to cover many of the truths that govern the interior life of prayer.

First, we are led to consider the position of the house.  However interesting and important its peculiarities may seem to the tenant, it is not as a matter of fact an unusually picturesque and interesting mansion made to an original design and set in its own grounds with no other building in sight.  Christian spirituality knows nothing of this sort of individualism.  It insists that we do not inhabit detached residences but are parts of a vast spiritual organism, that even the most hidden life is never lived for itself alone.  Our soul’s house forms part of the vast City of God.  Though it may not be an important mansion with a frontage on the main street, nevertheless it shares all the obligations and advantages belonging to the city as a whole.  It gets its water from the main, and its light from the general supply.  The way we maintain and use it must have reference to our civic responsibilities.

It is true that God creates souls in a marvelous liberty and variety.  The ideals of the building estate tell us nothing about the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is true, also, that the furnishing of our rooms and cultivation of our garden is largely left to our personal industry and good taste.  Still, in a general way, we must fall in with the city’s plan and consider, when we hang some new and startling curtains, how they will look from the street.  However intense the personal life of each soul may be, that personal life has got out of proportion if it makes us forget our municipal obligations and advantages; for our true significance is more than personal, it is bound up with the fact of our status as members of a supernatural society.  So into all the affairs of the little house there should enter a certain sense of the city, and beyond this of the infinite world in which the city stands: some awestruck memory of our double situation, at once so homely and so mysterious.  We must each maintain unimpaired our unique relation with God, yet without forgetting our intimate contact with the rest of the city, or the mesh of invisible life which binds all the inhabitants in one.

For it is on the unchanging life of God, as on a rock, that the whole city is founded.  That august and cherishing Spirit is the atmosphere which bathes it, and fills each room of every little house — quickening, feeding, and sustaining.  He is the one reality which makes us real, and, equally, the other houses too.  “If I am not in Thee,” said Saint Augustine, “then I am not at all.”  We are often urged to think of the spiritual life as a personal adventure, a ceaseless hustle forward, with all its meaning condensed in the “perfection” of the last state.  But though progress, or rather growth, is truly in it, such growth in so far as it is real can only arise from, and be conditioned by, a far more fundamental relation — the growing soul’s abidingness in God.

Next, what type of house does the soul live in?  It is a two-storey house.  The psychologist too often assumes that it is a one-roomed cottage with a mud floor, and never even attempts to go upstairs.  The extreme transcendentalist sometimes talks as though it were perched in the air, like the lake dwellings of our primitive ancestors, and had no ground floor at all.  A more humble attention to facts suggests that neither of these simplifications is true.  We know that we have a ground floor, a natural life biologically conditioned, with animal instincts and affinities, and that this life is very important, for it is the product of the divine creativity — its builder and maker is God.  But we know too that we have an upper floor, a supernatural life with supernatural possibilities, a capacity for God, and that this, the peculiar prerogative of human beings, is more important still.  If we try to live on one floor alone we destroy the mysterious beauty of our human vocation, so utterly a part of the fugitive and creaturely life of this planet and yet so deeply colored by eternity, so entirely one with the world of nature and yet, “in the Spirit,” a habitation of God.  “Thou madest him lower than the angels, to crown him with glory and worship.”  We are created both in time and in eternity, not truly one but truly two; and every thought, word, and act must be subdued to the dignity of that double situation in which Almighty God has placed and companions the childish spirit of humanity.

Therefore a full and wholesome spiritual life can never consist in living upstairs and forgetting to consider the ground floor and its homely uses and needs, thus ignoring the humbling fact that those upper rooms are entirely supported by it.  Nor does it consist in the constant, exasperated investigation of the shortcomings of the basement.  When Saint Teresa said that her prayer had become “solid like a house” she meant that its foundations now went down into the lowly but firm ground of human nature, the concrete actualities of the natural life, and on those solid foundations its wall rose up towards Heaven.  The strength of the house consisted in that intimate welding together of the divine and the human which she found in its perfection in the humanity of Christ.  There, in the common stuff of human life which He blessed by His presence, the saints have ever seen the homely foundations of holiness.  Since we are two-storey creatures, called to a natural and a supernatural status, both sense and spirit must be rightly maintained, kept in order, consecrated to the purposes of the city, if our full obligations are to be fulfilled.  The house is built for God, to reflect, on each level, something of His unlimited Perfection.  Downstairs, that general rightness of adjustment to all this-world obligations, which the ancients called the quality of justice, and the homely virtues of prudence, temperance, and fortitude reminding us of our creatureliness, our limitations, and so humbling and disciplining us.  Upstairs, the heavenly powers of faith, hope, and charity, tending towards the eternal, nourishing our life towards God, and having no meaning apart from God.

But the soul’s house will never be a real home unless the ground floor is as cared for and as habitable as the beautiful rooms upstairs.  We are required to live in the whole of our premises, and are responsible for the condition of the whole of our premises.  It is useless to repaper the drawing-room if what we really need is a new sink.  In that secret divine purpose which is drawing all life towards perfection, the whole house is meant to be beautiful, and ought to be beautiful, for it comes from God and was made to His design.  Christ’s soul when on Earth lived in one of these houses, had to use the same fitments, make the same arrangements do.  We cannot excuse our own failures by attributing them to the inconvenience of the premises, and the fact that some very old-fashioned bits of apparatus survive.  Most of us have inherited some ugly bits of furniture, or unfortunate family portraits which we can’t get rid of, and which prevent our rooms being quite a success.  Nevertheless the soul does not grow strong merely by enjoying its upstairs privileges and ignoring downstairs disadvantages, problems, and responsibilities, but only by tackling its real task of total transformation.  It is called to maintain a house which shall be in its completeness “a habitation of God in the Spirit,” subdued to His purpose on all levels, manifesting His glory in what we call natural life as well as in what we call spiritual life.  For humanity is the link between these two orders: truly created a little lower than the angels, yet truly crowned with glory and worship, because in this unperfected human nature the Absolute Life itself has deigned to dwell.

That means, reduced to practice, that the whole house with its manifold and degraded activities must be a house of prayer.  It does not mean keeping a Quiet Room to which we can retreat, with mystical pictures on the walls and curtains over the windows to temper the disconcerting intensity of the light, a room where we can forget the fact that there are black beetles in the kitchen, and that the range is not working very well.  Once we admit any violent contrast between the upper and lower floor, the “instinctive” and “spiritual” life, or feel a reluctance to investigate the humbling realities of the basement, our life becomes less, not more, than human and our position is unsafe.  Are we capable of the adventure of courage which inspires the great prayer of Saint Augustine: “The house of my soul is narrow; do Thou enter in and enlarge it!  It is ruinous; do Thou repair it”?  Can we risk the visitation of the mysterious power that will go through all our untidy rooms, showing up their shortcomings and their possibilities, reproving by the tranquility of order the waste and muddle of our inner life?  The mere hoarded rubbish that ought to go into the dustbin, the things that want mending and washing, the possessions we have never taken the trouble to use?  Yet this is the only condition on which human beings can participate in that fullness of life for which they are made.

The Lord’s Prayer, in which Saint Teresa said that she found the whole art of contemplation from its simple beginning to its transcendent goal, witnesses with a wonderful beauty and completeness to this two-storey character of the soul’s house, and yet its absolute unity.  It begins at the top, in the watchtower of faith, with the sublime assertion of our supernatural status — the one relation, intimate yet inconceivable, that governs all the rest — “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by Thy name.”  Whatever the downstairs muddle and tension we have to deal with, however great the difficulty of adjusting the claims of the instincts that live in the basement and the interests that clamor at the door, all these demands, all this rich and testing experience is enfolded and transfused by the cherishing, overruling life and power of God.  We are lifted clear of the psychological tangle in which the life of our spirit too often seems enmeshed, into the pure, serene light of eternity, and shown the whole various and disconcerting pageant of creation as proceeding from God and exit in only that it may glorify His name.  Childlike dependence and joyful adoration are placed together as the twin characters of the soul’s relation to God.

Thence, step by step, this prayer brings us downstairs, goes with us through the whole house, bringing the supernatural into the natural, blessing and sanctifying, cleansing and rectifying every aspect of the home.  “Thy Kingdom come!” Hope — trustful expectation.  “Thy will be done!”  Charity — the loving union of our wills with the Infinite Will.  Then the ground floor: “Give us this day” — that food from beyond ourselves which nourishes and sustains our life.  Forgive all our little failures and excesses, neutralize the corroding power of our conflicts, disharmonies, rebellions, sins.  We can’t deal with them alone.  Teach us, as towards our fellow citizens, to share that generous tolerance of God.  Lead us not into situations where we are tried beyond our strength, but meet us on the battlefield of personality, and protect the weakness of the adolescent spirit against the downward pull of the inhabitants of the lower floor.

And then, the reason of all this, bringing together, in one supreme declaration of joy and confidence, the soul’s sense of that supporting, holy, and eternal Reality who is the Ruler and the Light of the city, and of every room in every little house.  Thine is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory.  If our interior life be subdued to the spirit of this prayer, with its total dependence on the reality of God, then the soul’s house is truly running well.  Its action is transfused by contemplation.  The door is open between the upper and the lower floors, the life of spirit and the life of sense.

“Two cities,” said Saint Augustine, “have been created by two loves: the earthly city by love of self even to contempt of God, the heavenly city by love of God even to contempt of self.  The one city glories in itself; the other city glories in the Lord.  The one city glories in its own strength; the other city says to its God, “I will love Thee, O Lord my strength.”  Perhaps there has never been a time in Christian history when that contrast has been more sharply felt than it is now — the contrast between that view of the human situation and meaning in which the emphasis falls on humanity, its vast desires and wonderful achievements, even to contempt of God, and the view in which the emphasis falls on God’s transcendent action and overruling will, even to contempt of self.  Saint Augustine saw, and still would see, humanity ever at work building those two cities, and every human soul as a potential citizen of one or the other.  And from this point of view, that which we call the “interior life” is just the home life of those who inhabit the invisible City of God, realistically taking up their municipal privileges and duties and pursuing them “even to contempt of self.”  It is the obligation and the art of keeping the premises entrusted to us in good order, having ever in view the welfare of the city as a whole.

Some souls, like some people, can be slummy anywhere.  There is always a raucous and uncontrolled voice ascending from the basement, and a pail of dirty water at the foot of the stairs.  Others can achieve in the most impossible situation a simple and beautiful life.  The good citizen must be able without reluctance to open the door at all times, not only at the weekend; must keep the windows clean and taps running properly, that the light and living water may come in.  These free gifts of the supernatural are offered to each house, and only as free gifts can they be had.  Our noisy little engine will not produce the true light, nor our most desperate digging a proper water supply.  Recognition of this fact, this entire dependence of the creature, is essential if the full benefits of our mysterious citizenship are ever to be enjoyed by us.  “I saw,” said the poet of the Apocalypse, “the holy city coming down from God out of Heaven. . . the glory of God lit it. . . the water of life proceeded out of the throne of God.”  All is the free gift of the supernatural, not the result of human growth and effort.  God’s generous and life-giving work in the world of souls ever goes before humanity’s work in God.  So the main thing about the Invisible City is not the industry and good character of the inhabitants; they do not make it shine.  It is the tranquil operation of that perpetual providence which incites and supports their small activities; the direct and childlike relation in which they stand to the city’s Ruler; the generous light and air that bathe the little houses, the unchanging rock of eternity on which their foundations stand.

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