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Evelyn Underhill: Seeking Moderation in One's Friendship with God
You have no more right to be extravagant over this than over any other pleasure
When I first read this letter from Evelyn Underhill1, dated February 7, 1923, I felt like it was speaking to me. It was a mirror, reflecting my struggles and aspirations in my spiritual journey. I've often found myself caught in this same tension, oscillating between moments of spiritual highs and the fear of losing them. The further I journey across the Threefold way, the more I find myself searching for middle ground. That’s what Evelyn calls us to in this letter – moderation, balance, restraint. Ultimately, she offers an invitation to rest in the "deep steadfastness of God." Toward the end, she mentions a suggestion offered by one of “the wisest of saints,” this was her Spiritual Director, and one of my favorites: Baron Friedrich von Hügel.
February 7, 1923
But you MUST settle down and quiet yourself.
Your present state, if encouraged will be in the end as bad for you spiritually as physically. I know it is not easy to do. Nevertheless, it will in the nature of things come about gradually ... If you allow rapture or vehemence to have its way too much, you risk a violent reaction to dryness, whereas if you act prudently you will keep the deep steady permanent peace, in the long run more precious and more fruitful than the dazzling light.
But you won't do it by direct struggle – did you ever quiet a baby, or your dog, or any other excited bit of life, by direct struggle?
You will do it, please, by steadily, gradually and quietly turning your thoughts and prayers not so much to the overwhelming joy and wonder, as to the deep steadfastness of God, get gently accustomed to it, at home with it, rest in it.
Let your night prayers be rather short, very quiet, more or less on a set form, not too "mental" and in the line of feeling of Psalm 23.
Let yourself sink down into God's Love in complete dependence, and even though the light does seem to rush in on you … remember you have no more right to be extravagant over this than over any other pleasure or craving. It is true you can and probably will find a balance in which you will live in a quiet spirit of prayer, able at all leisure moments – and in the middle of your work – to turn simply and gently to God.
But this will come only when all vehemence is eliminated.
Consider the sequence of daily acts, and your external interests as part of your service, part of God's order for you, and as having a proper claim on your undivided attention.
Take special pains now to keep up fully or develop some definite non-religious interest, e.g. your music. Work at it, consider it an obligation to do so. It is most necessary to your spiritual health; and you will very soon find that it has a steadying effect.
"Good works" won't do – it must be something you really like for its own sake. (When this prescription was given to me by the wisest of saints, I objected strongly, but lived to bless him for his insistence! Now I hand it on to you.)
For the present, go as quietly as you can about your work. Avoid strain … don't saturate yourself the whole time with mystical books. I know you do feel tremendously stimulated all round; but remember the “young presumptuous disciples” in the Cloud! Hot milk and a thoroughly foolish novel are better things for you to go to bed on just now than St. Teresa.
Remember as a general rule, running right through the spiritual life, that the more any particular aspect or exercise attracts you, the more ordered, regular, moderate should be your use of it.
Don't have any lurking fear that you will lose the light by this kind of discipline – just the opposite, you will steady and retain it.2
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was a British author and spiritual teacher who wrote extensively on the topics of mysticism and meditation. Her best known book, Mysticism, published in 1911, remains a profound and classic text. Underhill championed the contemplative life, believing that only by stilling and quietening the soul can one come to true knowledge and understanding. She once wrote: “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality.”
Underhill, Evelyn. The Letters of Evelyn Underhill. United Kingdom: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991.
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