In 1926 Evelyn Underhill wrote a little book called Concerning the Inner Life. It consists of three addresses that she delivered to clergy. She has as her epigraph a quote by a Dutch mystic called Gerlac Petersen who died in November 18th 1411:
‘In Whom we know and see all things, and by Whom we learn ever to simplify and unify our multiplicities and occupations, and our outward actions; by looking beyond and through all our works, however great and divine they may appear.’
Here from the 15th century is the awareness of what we might call now the danger of taking life just as what appears on the surface. Here Petersen sees that knowledge of the inner life has a way of casting aside what appears great and divine and how with the help of the grace of God we may then simplify and become more coherent about what we do and who we are.
When Evelyn Underhill talks of the inner life it is a way of leading her retreatants away from the external view of life towards what she calls ‘the relation of the individual soul with God’ and ‘the deepening and expansion of the spiritual sense’ for her this is ‘the heart of personal religion’. Underhill sees that the problems of the personal spiritual life are of the most transcendence importance. There needs to be nourishment and what she calls fostering and feeding of the inner life. As an aside, in the diocese where I currently worship (and I think nationally in the C of E) the focus is once again on evangelisation and mission – this is about numbers rather than nourishment of souls, about the outer rather than the inner. All the stress is on service and not on the search for the numinous. Yet with constant activity there can be no renewal of spiritual resources. This is about fostering the Mary part and letting Martha stew for a bit in the kitchen…
Clearly something similar was happening in 1926 because Underhill appreciates how the clergy can lose sight of the art of the founder of the Society of Friends George Fox of ‘seeing all things in the Universal Light’ because of the demands made upon them. But all of us involved in religion need to enrich our sense of God. I’ve been told that Rowan Williams recently said that when the church looks at itself nothing much happens instead the church needs to look to God.
Evelyn Underhill goes further by saying that there is a need to develop the spiritual sense so that the inner supernatural environment is more real and solid than the natural environment. She seems to be talking about a deep and serious attachment to God where one can feel guided not by one’s own will in prayer and work but by a deeper force – what she calls the Creative Spirit. The spiritual life can only gain in richness and intensity by deep connection and of course once again this involves moving beyond the conscious surface level down to the hidden and unconscious. It’s only really there that there can be any authentic meeting with God or as she puts it ‘that unchanging Real…that changeless God.’
She writes: There you are moving through life; immersed in the world of succession and change, constantly claimed by the little serial duties and interests of your career, and yet ringed round by the solemn horizon of eternity, informed by its invisible powers.’