Thursday, July 3, 2014

Evelyn Underhill on self-abandonment, the Cross, St Thomas and Sacramentality

From The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed (pp. 64-66), by Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)

The Crucifix, which is the perfect symbol of generous sacrifice, is the perfect symbol of victory too: of the love which shirks nothing and so achieves everything, the losing and the finding of life. “He was crucified, dead and buried—rose again and ascended.” With this double statement the Creed, the rule of prayer, reaches its climax, and shows us in a sentence the deepest meaning of our life: declaring in plain language that unlimited self-offering is the only path from man to God.

This means that the Thought of God, penetrating our tangled world and entering into union with our imperfect nature, saves and transforms that nature, raises it to a new level, not by power, but by the complete exercise of courageous love ; the deliberate facing of the world’s worst. And we, following the footsteps of that holy Life which reveals reality, must take the same way. “As dying and behold we live” is a literal fact for the genuine Christian. 

The release of power, the transformation of life which comes from unconditional self-abandonment, is guaranteed to us by the story of Easter and the Forty Days: its continuance in the sacraments and the saints. We too achieve all by risking all. Christianity is a triumphant heroism. The valiant obedience of the Blessed Virgin makes the Incarnation possible: the more complete and awful self-giving of the Cross makes the life-giving life of the Church and the Saints possible. The ancient Easter Sequence sums it up:

“Death and Life strove together in awful combat;
The Lord of Life, who died, living reigns.”

And yet this reign, with its strange triumphant beauty, is not manifested in any of the sensational incidents of which Apocalyptic writers had dreamed; by a sudden coming in the Clouds of Heaven, or by the shattering of our ordinary human world. Still true to the Divine method of hiddenness and humility, it comes back into that world very quietly; brought by love, and only recognized by love. It appears by preference in connection with the simple realities of everyday existence, and exercises its enlightening, pacifying, strengthening influence in and through these homely realities. Personal needs, friendly affections, become the consecrated channels of the immortal Love, which declares its victories by a quiet and tender benediction poured out on ordinary life. 

The glory of the Divine Humanity is not shown in the Temple and the Synagogue. He seeks out His nervous followers within the arena of ordinary life; meets them behind the locked doors of the Upper Room, waits for them in early morning by the lake side, walks with them on the country road, and suddenly discloses Himself in the breaking of bread. The characters of the old life which are carried through into this new and glorified life are just those which express a homely and cherishing love. It is the One who had fed the multitude, pacified the distracted, washed the dusty feet of His followers and given Himself to be their food, who now re-enters their troubled lives ; for their sake, not for His own.

For us, these scenes have an other-worldly beauty. We see them bathed in the supernatural light. But for Peter and Thomas, James and John, they happened under normal conditions of time and place. Frightened, weary and discouraged, worried about the future and remorseful about the past, for them the wonder abode in the quiet return of the Holy and Immortal who was yet the familiar and the human, to the commonplace surroundings in which they had known Him best. 

Silently disregarding their disappointing qualities, their stupidity, cowardice and lack of trust, He came back to them in a pure impetus of charity; came down to their level as one that serveth, making visible the Invisible Love, and gave the guarantees which their petty standards demanded and their narrow souls could apprehend. Thus, by this unblemished courtesy, “binding His majesty to our lowliness,” as the Byzantine liturgy says, He restored their faith, hope and charity; and gave them an example only less searching in its self-oblivious gentleness than the lesson of the washing of the feet.

Even their own fragmentary notes of what happened, or seemed to them to happen, shame and delight us by their witness to the splendour and humility of generous love. “My Lord!” says St. Thomas, seeing, touching, and measuring the Holiness so meekly shown to him in his own crude terms; and then, passing beyond that sacramental revelation to the unseen, untouched, unmeasured, uttering the word every awakened soul longs to utter—” My God! “The very heart of the Christian revelation is disclosed in that scene.

So it is that the real mark of spiritual triumph - the possession of that more lovely, more abundant life which we discern in moments of deep prayer - is not an abstraction from this world, but a return to it; a willing use of its conditions as material for the expression of love. There is nothing high-minded about Christian holiness. It is most at home in the slum, the street, the hospital ward: and the mysteries through which its gifts are distributed are themselves chosen from amongst the most homely realities of life. 

A little water, some fragments of bread, and a chalice of wine are enough to close the gap between two worlds; and give soul and senses a trembling contact with the Eternal Charity. By means of these its creatures, that touch still cleanses, and that hand still feeds. The serene, unhurried, self-imparting which began before Gethsemane continues still. Either secretly or sacramentally, every Christian is a link in the chain of perpetual penitents and perpetual communicants through which the rescuing Love reaches out to the world. Perhaps there is no more certain mark of a mature spirituality than the way in which those who possess it are able to enter a troubled situation and say, “Peace,” or turn from the exercise of heroic love to meet the humblest needs of men.


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