Tomorrow the Australian Church remembers Evelyn Underhill [1875-1941] English spiritual writer and pacifist.
Born at the height of the Victorian era and living into the darkest days of the second world war, her life spans the apogee and the decline of the British Empire. She was writing at a time of huge spiritual interest at home and abroad, when the church, in all its forms, was influential with governments and formative of public opinion. Her greatest work Mysticism was published in 1911 and is still in print.
Culture constantly changes. The 20th Century did great damage to the spiritual content of public discourse. The popular culture turned away from “high-mindedness” to become self absorbed and cynical. Interest in spirituality waned as the trappings of the consumer economy replaced the joys of the arts and the life of the community. The Underhill’s of this world were forgotten. But the trauma of two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fascination with technology all are passing moments. A new reality is emerging in which these events are put into perspective. They are givens in the new reality, but they are not the context in which that reality is experienced.
The context is spiritual. Without the spiritual sense of who and what we are the rest is meaningless. The spiritual writers of every age draw attention to it, interpreting again what we already know for a new age. Underhill was writing for the Edwardians. Today’s writers address the post-modernist age. The former had a sense of certainty we cannot know. For us all is contingent, provisional, tentative.
Yet Underhill spent the whole of her life searching for the core of meaning. She was looking for the God whom she knew was there, and whom she glimpsed often enough to keep in touch with. The superficial certainty of the Edwardian age did not mask the deep mystery of God, did not seduce her to think she finally knew it all. She would have understood the postmodernist angst.
We have much for which to thank the spiritual writers. From St John the evangelist, St Augustine, St Francis of Assisi, Thomas á Kempis, John Wesley and Evelyn Underhill, we have learned how to relate to the God who surrounds us, love us, and sets us free.