Monday, July 13, 2009


Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was a scholar, a mystic and a well-known spiritual guide. A little out of fashion at the present time, she deserves to be rediscovered by this generation!

When I was a child, we used to be taught to swim by lying across a chair on our stomachs and exercising our arms and legs in a corresponding way. It used a great deal of energy, but we ended just where we began and quite dry. When at last we were put into the sea and found it wet, salty, deep, and with no supporting chair beneath us, that correct series of movements were at first replaced by desperate struggles. But presently we found ourselves using the movements, or something like them, after all. But it was in a much less exact and deliberate way. We were swimming - badly perhaps, but really swimming!

Now many people try to learn prayer lying over a chair on dry land. They go through a correct routine, learning from a book, but end up quite dry and just where they began. But real prayer isn't just an exercise. It is an entrance into our inheritance which St. Catherine called the Great Pacific Ocean of God. So, to continue our image, the main point is to get into some new water. What one does in it - diving, quietly floating, swimming, going on long excursions, helping others who are learning, or, while we are small, just contentedly paddling - is of secondary importance. All the accumulated knowledge about swimming is of great interest, but, until we are actually in the water, we have no right idea what it means.

Real prayer begins with the plunge into the water. Our movements may then be quite incorrect, but they will be real. If we would look on prayer like that, as above all, an act in which we enter and give ourselves, our souls, to our true Patria, our ever-waiting inheritance, God "in whom we live and move and have our being," most of the muddles and problems connected with it would disappear. As 1 John 4 has already told us, "You are of God, little children." This is where we really belong, and if we will only plunge in, we shall find ourselves mysteriously at home.

And this strange home-like feeling kills the dread which might overcome us if we thought of the terrific and unknown depths beneath and the infinite extent of the power and mystery of he ocean into which we have plunged. As it is, a curious blend of confidence and entire abandonment keeps us, because of our very littleness, in peace and joy. So we continue with our limited powers in the limitless love in which we are held. What matters is the ocean, not the particular little movements which we make.

(In Ways of the Spirit p.236)


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