Monday, May 02, 2005

Spiritual voice (5): from Evelyn Underhill's "The Essentials of Mysticism"

[Few women in the 20th century have done more to further our understanding of the devotional life than Evelyn Underhill. She was educated at King's College for Women in London, where she spent much of her time writing and lecturing. Her enduring contribution comes from her personal insights into the devotional life. After a religious conversion at the age of 32, she practiced this devotional life with intensity. She was highly sought after as a spiritual director. Also, she became well known as a conductor of retreats at various Anglican religious centers. In this excerpt, she describes the inner mechanisms of prayer. As you will read, she writes about prayer in a very intellectual yet deep way.]

In the first place, what do we mean by prayer? Surely just this: that part of our conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. God is that spiritual reality, and we believe God to be immanent in all things: "He is not far from each one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being."

"Prayer, says Walter Hilton, "is nothing else but an ascending or getting up of the desire of the heart into God by withdrawing it from earthly thoughts." It is "ascent," says Ruysbroeck, of the Ladder of Love. In the same spirit William Law defines prayer as the "rising of the soul out of the vanity of time into the riches of eternity."

It entails, then, a going up or out from our ordinary circle of earthly interests. Prayer stretches out the tentacles of our consciousness not so much towards that Divine Life which is felt to be enshrined within the striving, changeful world of things; but rather to the "Eternal truth, true Love, and loved Eternity" wherein the world is felt to be enshrined.

The whole of a person's life consists in a series of balanced responses to this Transcendent-Immanent Reality. Because we live under two orders, we are at once a citizen of Eternity and of Time. Like a pendulum, our consciousness moves perpetually--or should move if it is healthy--between God and our neighbor, between this world and that.

The wholeness, sanity, and balance of our existence depend entirely upon the perfection of our adjustment to this double situation; on the steady alternating beat of our outward adoration, and our homeward-turning swing of charity. Now, it is the outward swing which I want to consider: the powers that may be used in it, and the best way in which these powers may be employed.

First, there are three capacities or faculties which we have under consideration--the thinking faculty, the feeling faculty, and the willing or acting faculty. These practically cover all the ways in which the self can react to other selves and other things. From the combination of these three come all the possibilities of self-expression which are open to us.

In our natural life we need to use all of them. Do we need them in our spiritual life, too? Christians are bound to answer this question in the affirmative. It is the whole person [emphasis hers] of intellect, of feeling, and of will which finds its only true objective in the Christian God.

Prayer should take up and turn towards the spiritual order all the powers of our mental, emotional, and volitional life. Prayers should be the highest exercise of these powers; for here they are directed to the only adequate object of thought, of love, and of desire. It should, as it were, life us to the top of our condition, and represent the fullest flowering of our consciousness. For here we breathe the air of the supernatural order, and attain according to our measure that communion with Reality for which we were made.

Prayer will include many different kinds of spiritual work; and also--what is too often forgotten--the priceless gift of spiritual rest. It will include many kinds of intercourse with Reality--adoration, petition, meditation, contemplation--and all the shades and varieties of these which religious writers have named and classified.

As the natural order the living creature must feed and grow, must suffer and enjoy, must get energy from the world and give it back again if it is to live a whole and healthy life. So, too, in the spiritual order. All these things--the giving and the receiving, the work and the rest--should fall within the circle of prayer.

Now, when we do anything consciously, the transition from inaction to action unfolds itself in a certain order. First, we form a concept of that which we shall do; the idea of it looms up in our minds. Second, we feel that we want to do it, or must do it. Third, we determine that we will do it. These phases may seem to be fused into one; but when we analyze the process which lies behind each conscious act, we find that this is the normal sequence of development. First we think, then we feel, then we will. This little generalization must not be pressed too hard; but it is broadly true, and gives us a starting-point to trace out the way in which the three main powers of the self act in prayer. It is important to know how they act or should act.

Prayer, as a rule, should begin with something we usually call an intellectual act, with thinking of what we are going to do. All the great writers on prayer take it as a matter of course that "meditation" comes before "oration" (or spoken prayer). Meditation is simply the art of thinking steadily and methodically about spiritual things. So, too, most modern psychologists assure us that instinctive emotion does its best work when it acts in harmony with our reasoning powers.

There are some who believe that when we turn to God we ought to leave our brains behind us. True, they will soon be left behind by necessity if we go far on the road towards God who is above all reason and all knowledge, for the Spirit swiftly overpasses these imperfect instruments. But those whose feet are still firmly planted upon earth gain nothing by anticipating this moment when reason is left behind; they will not attain the depths of prayer by the mere annihilation of their intelligence.

In saying this--in insisting that reason has a well-marked and necessary place in the soul's approach to God--I am not advocating a religious intellectualism. I am well aware that it is "by love," as the old mystic said, "God may be gotten and beheld; by thought never." It is humility and love that are essential for successful prayer. But surely it is a mistake to suppose that these qualities cannot exist side by side with an active an disciplined intelligence.

Prayer, then, begins by an intellectual adjustment: By thinking of God earnestly and humbly to the exclusion of other objects of thought, by deliberately surrendering the mind to spiritual things, by preparing the consciousness for the inflow of new life.

[Questions to think about:

*The mind, she says, should not be left out of the act of prayer, because it is the faculty that prepares the way for prayer. How has your intellect helped or hindered your prayer life?

*Underhill talks about the three faculties that we can use in our times of prayer (thinking, feeling, and willing faculties). Think of concrete examples of how these three work in our daily life.

*Underhill also stresses that although our reasoning may be limited, we do not have to leave our brains behind in the life of prayer. Do you think there is a tendency to devalue the intellect in the spiritual life?]

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