Sunday, November 17, 2013

Artist of the Infinite Life


The 'Artist...' is the subtitle of Dana Greene's concise, illuminating and moving biography of Evelyn Underhill. Underhill was one of a number of key figures at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth who restored an understanding of 'mysticism' to the Christian West and to the wider culture. The self taught (if generously supported) Underhill was at the popular end of this trajectory (and accordingly has been earnestly criticised by later scholarship). The irony being that many of her books remain in print, eagerly read, for their insight and passion and will be so long after the snappy (if partially justified) academics have long since been forgotten!

Greene traces Underhill's trajectory from advocate of an individualistic mysticism with a radically transcendent focus, rooted in what she found to be universal in her sources of study, to a more incarnate view of mysticism, conditioned by history and culture and where the fruit of inner transformation can be seen to flow outwards in manifest charity. It was a journey that saw her move from a position of agnosticism towards the importance of religious institutions, an agnosticism that prevented her from becoming a Catholic, much as she was drawn to the beauty of its liturgy and the realities of its prayer life, to being a 'borderland' Anglican. She recognised, with the help of her director, Baron von Hugel, that mysticism is the core vivifying reality of Christianity but it needs to be 'earthed' and be allowed to fertilise both in the adoration of worship and in the communal life of being with and for one another.

It was a realisation that drew her to her final public position in support of 'pacifism' - that if God's love in the world is to mean anything, it must mean a universal charity, a love that reconciles rather than separates, a love for all that can only be broken by violence.

A powerful theme that runs through the book is that there is never an easy equation between 'holiness' and 'wholeness'. A life lived in the Spirit, which Underhill's undoubtedly was, does not guarantee 'well-being'. She was plagued by doubt both of the validity of her experience and her sense of self-worth. Being holy does not 'fix' brokenness - though it can help you bear it and draw you on through it, you may need a different kind of care of souls than the one offered in spiritual direction or from spiritual practice if you are to find psychological healing and peace. However, out of and through your brokenness, you can heal others and Underhill was a gifted director and retreat giver (and indeed the whole lively tradition of retreat going in the Anglican tradition owes her a great debt).

I was reminded of the Abbe Huvelin, Baron von Hugel's saintly director, whose death revealed a notebook he had kept in which many of the entries showed a searing sense of unworthiness and emptiness. Here was a man who has been a channel of grace for many, guiding souls with an extraordinary instinct for people's diverse needs, who, himself, felt utterly bereft of wholeness at a psychological level yet who remained wholly present to God.

Underhill was an artist, in Greene's perception, because she held out a sense of the visionary splendour to which each and every person is called and is evolving towards, in a way that enabled people to be caught up by it and respond to its alluring beauty and rightness in their everyday worlds. She may not herself have been a 'mystic exemplar' but her radical empathy with those who were in history and in the present made her a gifted communicator of the life that by being wholly focused on God, paradoxically, could be wholly focused on the life of our neighbours.

P.S. One moment of wonder is that Greene's biography is only 150 pages long. Modern biographers please take note. You can give a wonderful account of the life and thought of a person without drowning your reader in extraneous detail. So, for example, we learn of Evelyn Underhill's visits to Italy and their importance to her life and thinking without ever having to 'suffer' a blow by blow account of any actual visit! Bliss!

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