This is a celebration of 31 stories about men and women who risked crossing
religious boundaries to help heal the world.
HERE IS THE 16th OF OUR 31 STORIES THIS YEAR:
“You don’t have to be peculiar to find God.”
The writings of Evelyn Underhill dominated discussions about spiritual life in the first half of the 20th Century. Her book “Mysticism,” published in 1911, was unmatched in publishing success for over forty years. Born in England in 1875, she had mystical experiences in her childhood. These experiences prompted a life-long journey of spiritual exploration, research, writing and discovery. She was an agnostic early on, raised in a non-religious family. Eventually her spiritual quest drew her to the Anglican Church, particularly the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church.
Though she never earned a doctoral degree herself, she became the first woman to lecture clergy in the Church of England and then received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Aberdeen University. She was a frequent lecturer at English colleges and universities, often the first woman to do so in some settings.
Besides her scholarly work on mysticism and her writings about spirituality, she was a novelist and a poet. In her novels she explored the connections between the world of the spirit and our ordinary experiences, seeing their inseparability and the way divine radiance can bathe our reality. She especially taught that ordinary people could open themselves up to the divine, something that drew so many of those ordinary people to her writings. She wrote, “You don’t have to be peculiar to find God.”
As she studied mysticism Underhill entered into a special collaboration with the Indian Hindu mystic Rabindranath Tagore (at right). They not only worked together as scholars, but Underhill opened herself to learn from the mystical traditions and practices of a teacher from another religion, while maintaining strongly her own Christian spirituality.
Together Underhill and Tagore studied the Muslim mystical poet Kabir. Tagore translated 100 Poems of Kabir into English while Underhill wrote an extensive introduction. Underhill wrote to Tagore afterward, “This is the first time I have had the privilege of being with one who is a Master in the things I care so much about but know so little of as yet; and I understand now something of what your writers mean when they insist on the necessity and value of the personal teacher and the fact that he gives something which the learner cannot get in any other way. It has been like hearing the language of which I barely know the alphabet, spoken perfectly.”
In her last major work Underhill turned for mysticism to the experience of corporate worship. Her book “Worship” described, analyzed and explored the basic characteristics of worship such as ritual, symbol, sacrifice and sacrament. As with mysticism, she remained rooted in her Christian faith, but she was able to explore worship within the various traditions of Christianity such as Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism. She also studied worship within Judaism, learning from another tradition to shed light on her own.
For Underhill spiritual life begins with the love of God. Everything follows from that, including how we relate to others. For her the love of neighbor is a corollary of the love of God, not its equivalent. So out of her deep mystical relationship with God, she engaged the world in love, including people of other faiths who had things to teach her.
CARE TO READ MORE?
A MORE DETAILED BIOGRAPHY: Fans of Underhill have developed a fairly extensive Wikipedia page about her life and work.
READ HER OWN WORDS: A great choice is the collection available from Amazon, linked in the box at right. Some of her books also are now free to download in plain-text versions online. Here’s one online source to download the text of “Mysticism.”
EXPLORE FURTHER: There is a non-profit Evelyn Underhill Association that continues to promote her work.
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(Originally published at http://www.ReadTheSpirit.com/)