Monthly Archives: March 2022

Evelyn Underhill’s letters of encouragement 2

Evelyn Underhill’s correspondence with the same person as discussed in the previous post continued apace, so that six months later, Evelyn is able to write that from the correspondence, she thinks that things are going well. She reassures the person to not get caught up in what the Church of England says is there during the Eucharist, or indeed what anyone else says it is about, but rather to be present to what is there. ‘Direct spiritual experience is the only possible basis; and if you will trust yours absolutely you are safe’.

A couple of months later she responds to the correspondent by saying that all she can do is tell of the things that Evelyn has found out for herself – on the chance that they might be relevant.

‘Now it seems to me that one’s life only attains reality in so far as it is consciously lived in the Presence of God … attained and clung to by a definite act of will … Once you can breathe that atmosphere, it will determine most questions … as a means of getting at this, there is the regular and systematic practice of meditation: by which of course I do not mean thinking about a pious subject but the “deep” meditation which tends to pass over into unitive prayer. You probably know that experience already … once the will is in proper control you can always enter into the silence, though often enough without finding anything (consciously) there. That I think does not matter much. What does matter is, never to give up, once you have started on the way, in spite of the horrid discouragements and ups and downs.’

Clearly this letter has a mixed response, for in the next Evelyn tells the seeker not to dwell so much on sin – too Calvinistic – ‘refuse to pander to a morbid interest in your own misdeeds. Pick yourself up, be sorry, shake yourself, and go on again’. Meditation has proved difficult, so some advice follows on how to close down the active mind. Evelyn suggests:

First of all putting oneself in an easy and natural physical position and shutting the eyes.

Secondly to have a phrase, or a truth that you can keep in the mind ‘turning it over as it were, as you might finger some precious possession’.

Thirdly by an act of will to deliberatively shut oneself off from the senses and turn oneself inwards:

 ‘… allow yourself to sink, as it were, downwards and downwards, into the profound silence and peace which is the essence of the meditative state. More you cannot do for yourself … it is the “shutting off of the senses” and what [Jacob] Boehme calls the “stopping the wheel of the imagination and ceasing from self-thinking” that is hard at first.’


Spiritual encouragement from Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill’s letters of encouragement

It seemed timely in Lent to return to Evelyn Underhill and take some extracts from her letters. Whilst her writing style is at times dated, her ideas are usually not. In this letter written on May 12 1907 she is writing to someone who is struggling to understand, accept and ‘grasp’ the Anglican faith.

Evelyn replies:

‘You say I am to consider that you are an Anglican. But – there are Anglicans and Anglicans! The question, for instance, whether you really believe in the Sacraments, as actual vehicles of the Spirit and not merely beautiful and helpful ideas, is a vital one. The keys of the Catholic position (and Anglicanism is of course a slightly diluted Catholicism) are,

A The Incarnation and

    1. A mystical continuation of the Incarnation in the Sacraments.

You see, if you can accept these things as realities for you, you have at once something to “go upon”.’


Evelyn then wonders about which dogmas the correspondent had found so repellent – adding that many are difficult and some are nothing to do with the inner life, but reminds us that a formal creed is not a faith, but is to be seen as a symbol of the faith. She sympathises with a feeling of restlessness and not being able to grasp something, but all that is better than apathy. Any struggle with faith is a way of purgation which comes before a sense of illumination. Her next advice is rather inspiring as she writes:

‘You may also take for granted, of course, that as long as you want the peace and illumination for you own sake, you will not get them. Self-surrender, an entire willingness to live in the dark, in pain, anything – this is the real secret. I think no one really finds the Great Companion till their love is of that kind that they long only to give and not to get.’

This might sound a bit masochistic but I think it’s more about living in the present moment – whatever form that may take – even if it is difficult.

She then provides a long reading list to her spiritual directee beginning with The Confessions of St Augustine and ending with Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind;

Solitude is a fount of healing …

‘Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living. Talking is often a torment for me, and I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words.’

This lovely quote by Carl Jung would be echoed by so many spiritually minded people. The space, the breadth and depth of silent time … Jung saw solitude and silence as unavoidable for everyone who seeks the essential experience – what Jung called the primordial religious experience. The true foundation for belief and faith.

The quote comes from a letter to an old acquaintance of Jung’s who was asking to stay for a few days with him to talk over ideas, But Jung citing that he was 82 and appreciated the tiredness that this brings, also explained an even stronger need which was to live in harmony with the inner demands of his old age. The journey of life at this stage is a great adventure in itself, but not one that can be talked about at great length. Jung continues:

‘What you think of as a few days of spiritual communion would be unendurable for me with anyone, even my closest friends. The rest is silence! This realization comes clearer every day, as the need to communicate dwindles.’

What is so clear to Jung is to live according to his needs and capability – and in his clarity he is able to assert himself even if disappointing the friend. No polite response or feelings of ‘should’ or ‘ought’ here – rather an authentic sense of being in tune with his inner state of mind and body. Jung offers instead a time to meet for two hours.

Aware of the difficulty of staying with silence and solitude, Jung later writes about how we endlessly need to talk about our experiences and inevitably have to fall back on making use of language that can be understandable to others and using systems of religious thought. In trying to understand experiences in deep silence, Jung reaches the same insight as did Thomas Merton about how quickly we reach a frontier. This is from Merton:

‘Inside me, I quickly come to the barrier, the limit of what I am, beyond which I cannot go by myself. It is such a narrow limit and yet for years I thought it was the universe. Now I see it is nothing. Shall I go on being content with this restriction? … Desire always what is beyond and all around you, you poor sap! Want to progress and escape and expand and be emptied and vanish into God.’

Jung experienced silence as a series of frontiers which recede one behind another presumably up to the point of death. The experience of these frontiers gradually brings the conviction that what is experienced is an endless approximation and:

‘With increasing approximation to the centre there is a corresponding depotentiation of the ego in favour of the influence of the “empty” centre …we can describe the “emptiness” of the centre as “God”. Emptiness in this sense doesn’t mean “absence” or “vacancy”, but something unknowable which is endowed with the highest intensity.’

‘Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge’

‘Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge’

This famous second quote from Carl Jung (which has been queried as whether entirely accurate) is simple but profound – after all it is so much easier to prejudge by drawing on past prejudice rather than take time out to reflect, assess, and, allow new thinking to emerge. Any change can feel like a threat.

Reading the autobiography of the German theologian Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel gives some interesting examples of this. Writing about the role of women in the Protestant church – she was a Lutheran – between 1970 and the end of the century, she explains about the development of early thinking on feminist theology and the reactions to this.

I liked the example in the section where she discusses the prejudice she met when she began to think about how difficult Christian women find it to feel accepted by God, with all their good points and their bad points. This was in 1980. The difficult thinking about feeling accepted by God meant that it was easier for many women to see themselves in a negative light, to note their errors, their faults, their unattractive characteristics. This was familiar self-judgement from years of prejudice and male domination, and interestingly the message of feminist theology that they were oppressed and victims of patriarchal structures as she writes:

‘… deformed and robbed of their selfhood, further reinforced their gloomy view. Had they never heard of the justification of the sinner? How could they be Protestant Christian women and have nothing left in them of the unconditional love of God which accepts us as we are? That is what I asked myself on the way home.’

Elizabeth M-W also experienced the same emotions amongst women theologians whom she describes as untouched by the new thinking at their deeper levels. By taking Luther’s idea that sinners are beautiful because they are loved by God, and fusing this theology with depth psychology, and feminism meant that after much thought she emerged with 3 sentences

– I am good

–  I am whole

– I am beautiful

She used these sentences as part of lectures, seminars, workshops and in a book A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey.

A number of reactions to her thinking shows how the old judging continued, and how hard people found it to really reflect on this. One response came from the male Lutheran Bishops who cast doubt on the three sentences because it left out sin. On the other side of the debate came criticism from a woman theologian who expressed her fear that the holiness of God could be violated in feminist theology by such statements. Another feminist theologian saw the statements as a definition by women who were ‘not critical’ and ‘not revisionary enough’, and were too imprisoned in ‘femininity as a value system of the nice’. She said she would rather be regarded as a monster.

For Elizabeth M-W the idea of the inclusive love of God was part of traditional male theology, but a part that had been brought back to life again and where difference between people and men and women could be enriching and not merely threatening. One where real thinking rather than judgement might take place. Forty years later it seems just as important.

‘It all depends on how you look at things and not how they are in themselves’

In the next few posts, I am going to take a few quotes from Carl Jung, and reflect on them from a psychological and/or spiritual angle.

This is the first:

‘It all depends on how you look at things and not how they are in themselves’

It’s easy to stay stuck in a particular way of thinking – perhaps especially as we age. There is a security and safety in the familiar beliefs and opinions. But sometimes there is insight and suddenly there’s a new way of looking at things – if we can be open enough to appreciate it.

In psychoanalytic work it’s usually quite hard to move away from the tradition you were trained in – it’s the same in religion, and this links partly with a sense of belonging. So, we can say: this is my group, and, I can call myself one of them – we all think the same way. However, we can be influenced into new ways of thinking by someone we respect and admire – a supervisor perhaps, or in religion an inspiring book or speaker or in both contexts through direct experience.

In this example, Anne Alvarez, a child analyst, describes how her thinking was radically changed by a new supervisor: Dr H. Sydney Klein. She describes how when he referred a little boy to her who was in despair about not being able to fly paper aeroplanes, Sydney Klein seemed to take for granted that she would see flying not as a manic defence against depression (as from her analytic tradition), but rather as a natural and desirable expression of exuberance, hope, life, and ambition. Alvarez says: ‘I was appalled – where had I got the idea that ascent to the heights should be equated with mania and remaining in the depths with gravitas and mental health?’ – the answer was from her specific training orientation.

Inspired by Sydney Klein she went to him for supervision of a 10-year-old highly disturbed boy, Richard, who had suffered early abuse and neglect and whom she had already seen for 4 years. Over these years she felt the boy had become less psychotic, but he was now intensely preoccupied with phantasies of sadistic attacks on small animals – and had begun to act on them. Colleagues linked to her training tradition had suggested this was not unusual, and she had worked following her established views on the need to put the boy in touch with his deepest hatreds, guilts and anxieties – often emphasising his destructiveness and so seemingly accusing him of being totally responsible for his painful reality.

Hearing all this Sydney Klein asked Anne Alvarez why she was persecuting the boy with such cruel interpretations,

‘He added that the child probably felt that his vulnerable infantile self was feeling very attacked by this, and that he was probably in identification with a persecutor when he was attacking small animals.’

She describes how she then stopped persecuting Richard and he began ‘to soften very quickly!’ She saw the humanity and the breadth of this change in theory and technique, and writes that she spent the next thirty years trying to understand the implications of the different focus. Anne Alvarez could now see the desperate attempts of this child to overcome and recover from early states of despair and terror, and in the last 2 years of his treatment following the influence and new thinking Richard ‘became far more collected and together and civilised’. She adds, ‘it is still painful, however, for me to read these early notes.’