What does your spiritual life bestow on you and how does it inspire your behavior? Evelyn Underhill, a Christian mystic of the early 20th Century, discusses how our spiritual path leads to the social involvement required by “Thy Kingdom Come.”
A Broader Spiritual Life
“The spiritual life” is a dangerously ambiguous term, indeed, it would be interesting to know what meaning any one reader at the present moment is giving to these words.
Many, I am afraid, would mean “the life of my own inside” and a further group might mean something very holy, difficult, and peculiar—a sort of honors course in personal religion – to which they did not intend to aspire.
Both these kinds of individualist—the people who think of spiritual life as something which is for themselves and about themselves, and the people who regard it as something which is not for themselves – seem to need a larger horizon, within which these interesting personal perspectives can be placed; and seen in truer proportion. Any spiritual view which focuses attention on ourselves, and puts the human creature with its small ideas and adventures in the center foreground, is dangerous till we recognize its absurdity. So at least we will try to get away from these petty notions, and make a determined effort to seek a situation within that greater spiritual landscape, which is often greater than our minds can grasp, and yet is our true inheritance – a present reality here and now, within which our real lives are now being lived.
So many Christians are like deaf people at a concert. They study the program carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the quality of the music, but only really hear a phrase now and again. So they have no notion of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of the Eternal God.
There are plenty of things in our normal experience, which imply the existence of that world, that music, that life. If, for instance, we consider the fact of prayer, the almost universal impulse to seek and appeal to a power beyond ourselves, and notice the heights in which it can rise in those who give themselves to it with courage and love—the power prayer exerts, the heroic vocations and costly sacrifices which it supports, the transformations of character which it effects – it is a mysterious characteristic of man.
So, too, all who are sensitive to beauty know the almost agonizing sense of revelation its sudden impact brings – the abrupt disclosure of the mountain summit, the wild Cherry Tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto, witnessing to another beauty beyond our five senses. And again, any mature person looking back on their own life, will be forced to recognize factors in that life, which cannot be attributed to heredity, environment, opportunity, personal initiative, or mere chance. It is as if a hidden directive power, personal, living, free, were working through circumstances and often against our intention or desire, pressing us in a certain direction, and molding us to a certain design.
Life in its fullness, the life which shall develop and use all our capacities and fulfill all our possibilities, must involve correspondence not only with our visible and ever-changing environment but also with our invisible and unchanging Spirit of all spirits, God, in whom we live and move and have our being. The significance, the greatness of humanity, consists in our ability to do this. The meaning of our life is bound up with the meaning of the universe.
When we consider our situation like that, how much the personal and practical things we deal with are enriched. It gives meaning and coherence to our scattered lives. We mostly spend those lives conjugating three verbs: to What, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plain. We are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be; and that Being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of our spiritual life. But now, with this widening of the horizon, our personal ups and downs, desires, cravings, efforts are seen as small and transitory spiritual facts, within a vast, abiding spiritual world, and lit by a steady spiritual light. And with this realization a new coherence comes into our existence, a new tranquility and release.
The Spiritual Life Gives Meaning and Direction
The people of our times are 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, and with meaning and direction comes steadiness. I do not mean by this 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 simplest details and its utmost demands, in the light of the eternal; and with that peculiar sense of ultimate security which only a hold on the eternal brings.
This, of course, is what religion is all about; this adherence to God, this confident, dependence on that which is unchanging. This view of our situation fills us with a certain awed and humble gladness.
From Internal Spirituality to External Spirituality
Even though in its earlier stages our spiritual growth may, and generally does, involve dealing with ourselves, often in a drastic way, and therefore requires personal effort and personal choice, it is also intensely social, for it is a life that is shared with all other spirits, whether in heaven or on earth. It is a truly creative spiritual life in which all are linked together in one single response to the Father of all spirits, God. Every advance made by one is made for all.
Only when we recognize this oneness and act on it, are we fully alive and taking our proper place in the universe of spirits, for life means the fullest possible give and take between the living creature and its environment. And spiritual life, which is profoundly organic, means the give and take, the willed correspondence of the little human spirit with the Infinite Spirit, here where it is. The spirit that is feeding upon Him, its growth towards perfect union with Him, its response to His attraction and subtle pressure. That growth and that response may seem to us like a movement, a journey, in which by various unexpected and often unattractive paths we are drawn almost despite ourselves – not as a result of our own overanxious struggles – to the real end of our being, the place where we are ordained to be.
For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the center, where we are anchored in God with a life soaked through and through by a sense of His reality and claim, when we are a self-giver, to the great movement of His will.
God Plans Our Spiritual Pace
It consists in being drawn, at His pace and in His way, to the place where He wants us to be, not the place we fancied for ourselves.
Some people may seem to whisk by us in their spiritual growth. But none of this really matters; what matters is the conviction that all are running toward God, and, in that journey, accompanied, supported, checked, and fed by God. Since our dependence on Him is absolute and our desire is that His will shall be done, this great desire can gradually swallow up and neutralize all our small self-centered desires. When that happens our inner and outer life becomes one single, various act of adoration and self-giving; one undivided response of the creature to the demand and pressure of Creative Love.
“Thy Kingdom Come” Requires Our Conviction
I go back to the one perfect summary of man’s Godward life and recall the Lord’s prayer. Consider how dynamic and purposeful is its character. “Thy will be done – Thy Kingdom come!” There is energy, drive, purpose in these words; and intensity of desire – for the coming of perfection into life. It is useless to utter fervent petitions for that Kingdom to be established and that Will to be done, unless we are willing to do something about it ourselves. As we walk through our town we know very well that we are not walking through the capital of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet we might be, if the conviction and action of every Christian in the city were set without any conditions or any reluctance towards this end; if there were perfect consistency, whatever it cost – and it is certain the cost would not be small – between our spiritual ideals and our social and political acts.
We are agents of the creative spirit in this world. Real advance in the spiritual life, then, means accepting this vocation with all it involves.
So now we come back to this ordinary mixed life of everyday, in which we find ourselves – the life of house and work, subway and train, newspaper and cinema, with its tangle of problems and suggestions and demands – and consider what we are to do about that; how, within its limitations, we can cooperate with the Will. It is far easier, though not very easy, to develop and preserve a spiritual outlook on life, then it is to make our everyday actions harmonize with that spiritual outlook.
This will be decisive for the way we behave as to our personal, social, and a national obligations. It will decide the papers we read, the movements we support, the kind of administrators we vote for, our attitude to social and international justice. For though we may renounce the world for ourselves, refuse the attempt to get anything out of it, we have to accept it as the sphere in which we are to cooperate with the Spirit, and try to do the Will.
Therefore, the prevalent notion that spirituality and politics have nothing to do with one another is the exact opposite of the truth. Once it is accepted in a realistic sense, the Spiritual Life has everything to do with politics. It means that certain convictions about God and the world become the moral and spiritual imperatives of our life; and this must be decisive for the way we choose to behave.
The life of this planet, and especially its human life, is a life in which something has gone wrong, and badly wrong. Every time that we see an unhappy face, an unhealthy body, hear a bitter or despairing word, we are reminded of that. The occasional dazzling flashes of pure beauty, pure goodness, pure love which show us what God wants and what He is, only throw into more vivid relief the horror of cruelty, greed, oppression, hatred, and ugliness.
Unless we put on blinders, we can hardly avoid seeing all of this. Unless we are warmly wrapped up in our own cozy ideas, and absorbed in our own interests, we surely cannot help feeling the sense of obligation, the shame of acquiescence, the call to do something about it. “Thy Kingdom come” are tremendous words which really stand for a conviction and desire. They do not mean “I quite hope that someday the Kingdom of God will be established, and peace and goodwill prevail. But at present I don’t see how it is to be managed or what I can do about it.” On the contrary, it means, or should mean, “Here am I! Send me!” – active, costly collaboration with the Spirit in whom we believe.
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Essential Writings by Evelyn Underhill