Evensong 13th June 2021
Evelyn Underhill and our Everyday Lives
Dr Ayla Lepine
In the name of God who is Trinity and Unity. Amen.
In her book Theophanies, Evelyn Underhill wrote,
Heaven’s not a place…
No! ‘tis a dance
Where love perpetual,
Loved one to lover.
God’s intimacy responds to our fragility with love wider than the universe itself. It cannot be contained. Thankfully. It is for all, eternally. It is personal, right now.
Though we might think the term ‘spirituality’ is personal, even individualistic, real spirituality is the opposite. It’s a way of being that acknowledges and celebrates the interconnectedness of the one and the many. Among the reasons why Underhill is of great importance is because of her gift for pragmatic, clear communication about the ineffable, the numinous, and the transcendent. Her book Practical Mysticism was subtitled A Little Book for Normal People. That’s her level, because it is ours. We’re already mystics, just breathe and know that God is present without you having to do anything. Build from there. Nothing fancy, just resting in that promise as a place to start.
Underhill was a middle class Londoner who was both of her time and ahead of it. The wife of H Stuart Moore as we read on her gravestone in the churchyard, was a theologian and novelist whose wisdom broke through stained glass ceilings. This year is the centenary of her lecture at Harris Manchester College in Oxford, which made her the university’s first woman invited to lecture on religion. Underhill guided people through thresholds of divine experience simply by opening their hearts to the possibility. And, she wrote compellingly about God and what she called ‘practical mysticism’ decades before she became an Anglican. This year is the centenary of her admission into the Church of England, too. She was 46. I also can’t resist mentioning that she and her husband used to drive around in a motorcycle and sidecar on the weekends.
She was able to talk of God and worship in metaphors that leap off the page not because they’re sparkling but because they’re mundane. Escalators and commuters, chopping turnips for dinner. And also, going to a concert and being so overwhelmed that you forget you’re sitting in one of those cheap seats where your knees are squashed by the backs of the chairs in the next row. These are the places where the work of the Spirit – the work of God’s with God’s people – is always happening.
Abraham and Sarai knew this. The guests came. The message was spoken. She laughed. Her name changed. The world changed. And yet, Sarah was afraid. She denied laughing. Who would laugh at God? But she was not laughing at God. She was laughing with God. We laugh when we think something is impossible and suddenly, it is. Gabriel spoke to the Virgin Mary. Ave Maria. She asked questions. She wondered. She said yes. The world changed. Her Magnificat is full of joy because it sounds impossible and it is possible. It is. All of it. St Paul promises that, ‘hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’
Abraham and Sarai didn’t know who was with them, but they did know that hospitality makes an ordinary cake into holy ground. Diana Finning’s cake at the monthly Henderson Court service? The taste of the heavenly dance. Warm yet necessarily brief conversations with Sue Kwok when she counted countless chocolate bars and bags of pasta? A sign of God’s perpetual love. Maureen’s Pentecost messy church. The rhythms of divine love in children’s chalk and paint in the churchyard. I saw the photos. It looked amazing. You may not expect me to describe a Zoom service as heavenly. But, well, there it is. Any service is a chance for glory. The world changes. Heaven opens. And Evelyn Underhill focused on worship, fixed her eyes on heaven as she went about her ordinary life, because she knew that worship teaches us about being human whether we’re in church, in Tesco, or on the tube. These places have more in common than the need to keep wearing our masks.
Underhill was no etherealised numinous being. She was human, in the best sense, and generously shared the truth that, ‘A Christianity which is only active is not a complete Christianity.’ She empathised with and encouraged people’s instinct to dream, and believe in the dreams. This was not a form of escapism, implying that the physical world was to be avoided, but the opposite. The ordinary wasn’t contrasted with the extraordinary, but an experience of it, if eyes, heart, mind, body, were able to attend patiently and lovingly to the soul. Among her 39 books, The House of the Soul describes each person’s spiritual life as a small home with two floors. Broadly speaking, the ground floor is quotidian and the top floor is a deeper spiritual realm, but it’s all one house, completely connected, within one soul and body. She explains that there’s no point in getting fancy wallpaper for the master bedroom when what you really need is a new kitchen sink.
The Underhill reading I chose to share tonight is not designed to be an admonishment, but a challenge to greater openness within daily life. She doesn’t suggest moving out of London and never taking the tube if one wants deeper encounters with God, but that the everyday always has capacious potential for real connection, immersion even, within the sacred heart of God. Why be anxious for crumbs when we can lift our eyes to the loaf, bringing the core of the Magnificat and the grace of the Eucharist down into the Northern Line, masks on our faces, trusting that we and everyone in that carriage is cherished and nourished by God?
Underhill’s words resonate with a more recent writer, Kae Tempest. A non-binary poet, playwright and recording artist, they recently published a book titled On Connection. Here is Tempest:
‘What defines you? The very moment that you find yourself in. Let go.
Every shouted greeting, every stalling car, ever siren, every screaming kid, dog, fox, radio. All that sound out there is life and people living. Not background sound. But close up. Front and centre. See all those windows in all those buildings? Look up. There’s life in there. Put yourself away. Let go of yourself. Tune in to other people…To how that one sits on the bench with their hands clasped, looking up. To how those three standing at the crossing, playing with each other’s hair. To how that young one shifts the wight of those shopping bags and tries to keep up with their mother’s strong legs. This is it. This is the thing. This is the beautiful thing.
Here is Underhill:
So many Christians are like deaf people at a concert. They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, hear a phrase now and again. So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of the Eternal God. Yet there are plenty of things in our normal experience, which imply the existence of that world, that music, that life…It is as if a hidden directive power, personal, living, free, were…pressing us in a certain direction, and moulding us to a certain design.
Can we let God’s light into our normal experiences, meeting the Spirit on the escalator because of Christ’s presence in the sacraments? Evelyn Underhill would not ask us why we would do this. She might have said, ‘Why wouldn’t we?’ Amen.Print This Page