Sermon: Evelyn Underhill

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

The dictionary defines wisdom as: “The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.”  Therefore, wisdom is the intelligent application of knowledge gained through study and life.  Knowledge tells me that my tongue will stick to a metal pole when it is -16 degrees.  Wisdom tells me, “Don’t be an idiot and try it.”

When it comes to God, Proverbs 1:7 teaches us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.”  In this case, “fear,” is not defined as reading The Shining by Stephen King while you’re home alone, but is more accurately defined as reverence and awe, a recognition of who God is.  So, a rewording of the Proverb could say, “The recognition of who God is brings knowledge.”  The true wisdom that proceeds from this knowledge and is then put into practice is made evident in the life and teachings of Jesus.  As we read in the Book of Wisdom “She [Wisdom] is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”  True Wisdom, the spotless reflection of God, is Jesus.

So how do we go from knowledge of God to wisdom through Jesus?  It requires contemplation of God, and it is the deeper contemplation of God that is often referred to as mysticism.  

The word mysticism from a negative perspective is seen as a new-age hocus pocus and from a positive perspective as something that is only achieved by some of the greater Saints, such as Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross.  However, Evelyn Underhill, whom we celebrate today, teaches that the mystical life is attainable to anyone who nurtures such a life.  In The Spiritual Life, she writes, “a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God.”  She teaches that a contemplative life, a mystic’s life is available to anyone who would place God at the center and strive for a deeper understanding of Him.  Such a teaching is in line with what many others have said.  For example, in Life and Holiness, Thomas Merton writes, “The spiritual life is not a life of quiet withdrawal, a hothouse growth of artificial ascetic practices beyond the reach of people living ordinary lives. It is in the ordinary duties and labors of life that the Christian can and should develop his spiritual union with God.” (Introduction)

Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  Jesus was saying, it is not about where you worship or how you worship; instead, worship is about spiritual union with God.  Evelyn Underhill teaches that this union is available to us all, if—like anything else we want to be successful at—we dedicate ourselves and practice.  Through practice, we can gain wisdom about the things and nature of God.

Take the knowledge you have of God—God is love, faithful, merciful, etc.—and by intentionally contemplating that knowledge, allow it to draw you into greater union with Him.

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