Tuesday, December 19, 2017

EVELYN UNDERHILL’S CHRISTMAS GIFT

My friend, the poet Darrell Bourque, often closes his messages to me with a few words that provoke profound thought or the beginning lines of a poem, and they simmer in my mind until I allow myself to sit down, often at the busiest part of the day, to write about what he has provoked. Just yesterday, Darrell closed his e-mail with the words: “I am hoping for a quiet, uneventful Christmas; the baby Jesus slipping back peacefully and sublimely into our lives at midnight…” 

There it was — the invitation to shuck off unrest and the hecktivity of Christmas preparations and welcome the Incarnation of God. I re-read Darrell’s words, then went to the bookshelves, and the perfect reading for that respite from the “halls of folly”seemed to drop into my hands: Advent with Evelyn Underhill edited by Christopher L. Webber. I sat down while the lunch dishes churned in the dishwasher and treated myself to the work of Underhill, an Anglican mystic popular during the 1940’s. Underhill is an old friend, via the influence of my godmother Dora back in the 60’s, and is known as a kind of pioneer in the revival of interest in the spiritual life. A retreat master who helped people deepen their lives through prayer, meditation, reading of the mystics, and charitable acts, she had more than a few words to relate about “the baby Jesus slipping back peacefully and sublimely into our lives…”

Underhill said that Reality is being offered to us in the “simplest, homeliest way — emerging right into our ordinary life. A baby — just that.” [And isn’t that what Darrell said?] “We are not told that the Blessed Virgin Mary saw the angels or heard the Gloria in the air. Her initiation had been quite different, like a quiet voice speaking in our deepest prayer — ‘The Lord is with thee. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’ Humble self-abandonment is quite enough to give us God.’”

Well, there it is…an invitation to dismiss what Underhill calls “craving, clutching, and fussing on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual — even on the religious—plane…Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life…”

Most of these quotations are derived from Light of Christ within the cover of The Fruits of the Spirit, a worn copy of which always accompanies my moves from Louisiana to Tennessee and return, and Christopher Webber seems to have been inspired by many of the same passages I’ve marked in my falling-apart edition of this book. Underhill writes that the people of our time are variously helpless, distracted, and rebellious, “unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come, largely because they have lost this sure hold on the eternal; which gives to each life meaning and direction…I do not mean this is a mere escape from our problems and dangers, a slinking away from the actual to enjoy the eternal. I mean an acceptance and living out of the actual, in its homeliest details and its utmost demands …with that peculiar sense of ultimate security which only a hold on the eternal brings…”

A concluding comment from Underhill to which Darrell alluded in his wish to live out a quiet uneventful Christmas: “…We are required to go on quietly, making root…docile to the great slow rhythm of life. When we see no startling marks of our own religious progress or our usefulness to God, it is well to remember the baby in the stable and the little boy in the streets of Nazareth. The very life was there present, which was to change the whole history of the human race…the hidden Will of God…”

Peace and Joy to readers all.


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