In the summer I spend a lot of time outdoors; my morning prayer time moves out onto the patio, where I love to admire the green-ness all around me, and listen to the birdsong, which tends to take precedence, in my attention, over the beltway noise. It's also a chance to return to a practice of "morning reading"in spirituality and theology, which tends to fall away during the academic year. I've been rereading Evelyn Underhill's The Mystics of the Church -- not her big book on Mysticism, but her smaller book, written in 1921, which focuses on the mainstream of mysticism in Christianity and shows how these people who pursue, according to their own temperaments, their yearning for God, wind up enriching the corporate life of the church. Underhill is great for debunking the general view of the mystic as someone lost in his/her own little world and would be deeply skeptical of contemporary claims that one can be "spiritual but not religious."
Underhill's reflections on Teresa of Avila, in her chapter on "Spanish Mysticism," shows me clearly how much Teresa was a spiritual mother/grandmother for Underhill. What she admires in this ardent, deeply emotional mystic is the way that Teresa grew into the mystic life -- recognizing (and teaching her spiritual sisters) that the fruit of the ecstatic spiritual union that she experienced is work, work for the spreading and deepening of God's will for the world. For Teresa that happened through her administrative work, reforming her order and founding new convents and teaching new groups of sisters. And in her writing, especially her Life, written at her directors' request, and her later classics, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle (clearly a favorite of Underhill's, who offers her own version in a little book called The House of the Soul). Underhill, living four centuries later, seems to have experienced this same call to channel profound experience of God's presence and call into an incredibly busy life of teaching, retreat work and writing. Though neither Underhill or Teresa had children to raise, I realize that I last read this chapter on Teresa when I was in the thick of childrearing, and found it encouraging to see how they both saw spiritual and practical life as connected and bearing fruit in ordinary experience. It is interesting to see this again, from a new stage of family life (when I actually have time to sit on the patio on a summer morning and read Evelyn Underhill!)
For both of these women, it wasn't ever about "how busy they were," though their lives were incredibly busy and drawn in many different directions, but about what God might want in the situations where they found themselves, and how their gifts for prayer and contemplation might be "for" God's purposes.
I have always been drawn to Underhill, because of her preaching and modeling of a "practical mysticism." It is interesting to see how she sees Teresa -- often caricatured as an ecstatic out of touch with life -- as the pattern of a healthily developing spiritual life, and as an example of how that life bears fruit, through discipline as well as through giftedness.
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.