This sermon was delivered at my home church as part of a sermon series on “The Cloud of Witnesses,” or saints in the church life. My focus was Evelyn Underhill, a 20th century Anglican mystic. I highly recommend her books for further reading!
July 3, 2016
“The Cloud of Witnesses”
Wisdom 7:24 – 8:1
[Light] is succeeded by night, but against Wisdom, evil does not prevail. In September 1914, the modern world was in the first frenzy of the outbreak of the horrific conflict that would become known as the War to End All Wars. At the Hague Conference for Peace in 1907, people from around the world declared the utter impossibility of ever going war again, while they were busy talking about how to do it properly. Now, the powers of Europe welcomed war as a way to invigorate their sissy younger generation and re-establish their pre-eminence. Young men signed up in droves; poets wrote verses like “Now God be thanked who has matched us with this Hour.” And in the middle of the calls to arms and patriotic fervor, a young woman wrote a book. That woman’s name was Evelyn Underhill, and the book was called “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People.”
If you snorted just a little after hearing that, you aren’t alone. Underhill herself acknowledged the book might be a hard sell: “Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror … a book which deals with that which is called the ‘contemplative’ attitude to existence is wholly out of place.” But, she went on to say, “…’Practical’ Mysticism—means nothing if the attitude and discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone. … On the contrary, if the experiences on which it is based have indeed the transcendent value for humanity … then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time.”
Evelyn Underhill was born in England in 1875, and in her early life was an unusually optimistic period of history. She was a pacifist, lived through the Great War and the beginning of the Second World War.
She flirted with Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, but ultimately remained a member of the Anglican Communion. She was especially notable for her insistence on the importance of lay ministry, and for her fascination with theosis, a thoroughly Orthodox idea that describes union with God.
Her writing, I think offers an answer to the question “When evil is in the world, what can I do to have Wisdom prevail?”
That’s what I struggle with when I see this passage. Nothing defiled gains entrance into Wisdom, but we live in a world where defilement is evident every day; Wisdom is a spotless mirror that shows the workings of God, but we often struggle to see God in our own lives. When I’m faced with war, massacres on our doorstep, people being drowned in overcrowded boats, or even just the homeless people I see on the side of the road day after day, I see two temptations. The first is to see the suffering as a permanent and inseparable part of our broken world, and as part of God’s plan. The world is broken, but Jesus has made us whole, and one day we’ll be in a place where sorrow and suffering are no more. The second temptation is to focus only on the practical, the next available right thing to do, without acknowledging that God is even there. Whether it’s a shooting or a broken friendship, I have to rely entirely on what I can do, because God is all that is good and lovely, and therefore is nowhere present in my grief.
Both the temptation to rely on this existence of some unseen Plan, and the temptation to rely only on what I can do are understandable–and rejected completely by the author of Wisdom. Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;…she penetrates and pervades all things. All things. Both temptations are failures of vision. As Evelyn Underhill puts it, “Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond.” We can’t possibly know God’s Plan, and because our sight is so limited, and we’ll make ourselves crazy trying to add up all of our experience to make it fit. But without recognizing a Love, and a Reality that’s far beyond anything we can understand, our actions won’t have meaning, and we’ll be working in the dark.
So, how do we avoid those temptations? Not entirely coincidentally, that is exactly what Underhill claims practical mysticism is all about. “The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it, he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers.” When we don’t put God in a box by requiring Him to stick to a plan we’ve made up, God becomes intimate and real. When we are determined to see things as they are, not as we wish they would be, we can love them as they are. That love should spur us to action to make the Perfect Love known—even in the midst of exceptional adversity.
What was true in Evelyn’s time is true in ours as well. We are more closely linked with one another than ever before: through trade, through communication, through policy; and yet we look at each other with fear. We have so much, and we’re so afraid of it being taken away. God forbid one more country acquires a nuclear weapon; or that we accept more refugees onto our shore.
But if we know Wisdom, we don’t have to be ruled by fear. When we know one another fully, we don’t have to keep up our prestige, because we know that we don’t need to put up a false face to be loved. We’re fully connected, and when one of us gains, all of us gain. When we recognize our kinship of love, and pursue that kinship, rather than the alliances that we make so that we don’t stab each other in the back, we pursue union with God. Our Christian life calls us to actions that banish that fear. By doing what our baptismal vows tell us to do–continuing in teaching and fellowship, persevering in resisting evil, proclaiming the good news by word and example, seeking and serving Christ all persons, by striving for justice and peace—we can replace that fear, that limited vision, with love.
If we can look at one another as lovingly as God looks at us, we are truly wise.