Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welcome back Bonnie Thurston: An Advent Day focused on Evelyn Underhill

Some years ago when I was in seminary, I had the eye-opening experience of reading Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), an English writer and mystic of the early 20th century. Her work focused on the presence of the Holy in a very cynical and broken age, and her writing is still very readable, relevant and alive in our own age.

Today at St. Paul's we welcome back scholar and writer Bonnie Thurston who will give a talk on Underhill to usher in our Advent observance beginning at 9 am. Please let me urge you to attend, especially if you have a difficult time with the idea of the Holy being present in everyday life. Bonnie has a way of presenting that thought-provoking and faithful to her subjext.

Evelyn Underhill (her first name is pronounced "Eve-linn") came to the faith later in life, first becoming a Roman Catholic and eventually an Anglican.

Underhill is one of the giants of 20th century Christian theology and spirituality. She brought back into the conversation a recognition of mysticism as a valid expression of the religious experience. She was the first woman to give a series of lectures at Oxford on theology. At her height, she spent the mornings writing and the afternoons serving the poor and providing spiritual direction to those she mentored.

Underhill's most important book is Mysticism, published in 1911, and it is still quite readable, though long (my copy is 519 pages). She wrote at a time when modernism had dismissed religious experience as psychologically irrational, and there was more than a whiff of class prejudice in that. Underhill was able to explain the mystical experience as an exploration of the self and God's presence deep within us and outside us:
"To say that God is Infinite is to say that He may be apprehended and described in an infinity of ways. That Circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, may be approached from every angle with a certainity of being being found." [Mysticism, p. 238]
Without Underhill, we might not have an appreciation of such medieval giants as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) or Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179. Underhill's approach is to see God in both the light and the darkness, in beauty and ugliness, seeing God as permeating all of existence. She concludes her great book on almost a poetic note:
"According to the measure of their strength and of their passion, these, the true lovers of the Absolute, have conformed here and now to the utmost tests of divine sonship, the final demands of life. They have not shrunk from the sufferings of the cross. They have faced the darkness of the tomb. Beauty and agony alike have called them: the time of the singing of birds is come. From the deeps of the dewy garden, Life - new, unquenchable, and ever lovely - comes to meet them with the dawn." [Mysticism, pgs. 45-451]
I hope you can join us today.

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