Evelyn Underhill and other saints: sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity (20 June 2021) from Rev’d Ian Tattum

What is spirituality?

I assume you will have some ideas about this and expect that the spiritual dimension is one factor in your involvement with church. I don’t want to set about defining what the spiritual life is this morning using lots of abstract ideas. Instead, I want to approach it through personal experience and courageous lives – lives which I have found have helped me get a handle on spirituality, and which I hope will help you.

The trigger for doing something like this this morning is one of the characteristics of the Church of England which has been very prominent during the last few days: the practice of remembering on most days – not just big name saints, like St Barnabas himself – but other people who have wrestled with the big questions in life and put into words and lived in ways that have gone some way towards providing answers. This last week there has been an amazing person, or people, every day, many of whom will be unfamiliar to most of us. And yet all have been the subject of studies and books and have influenced and impacted – and this is no exaggeration – millions.

Take Wednesday for example. The 16th of June is the feast of someone who is less remembered as an actual living person than for a prayer he wrote, or to make matters even more confusing, for a bit of a prayer he wrote:

O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

This is the second half of a prayer by Richard of Chichester – a Bishop from the thirteenth century. His prayer is actually a very good place to start, as it is a prayer to Christ for guidance on the spiritual path, to seek His help in calming the storms which afflict our inner lives and assault the landscape of the world.

Evelyn Underhill, who we remembered on Tuesday, was one of the most influential members of the Church of England last century. She was a self-educated scholar and theologian who thought deeply about interiority – the inner spiritual life, which she was certain was not the preserve of monks and nuns but something every person had a duty to develop. She was one of the people who led the retreat movement, which gave ordinary people the chance to step aside from the business of life to pray and to re-connect with themselves.

As someone who spent a number of years working in a retreat house, I can testify that opportunities to do this stepping back were often more a life-line and a necessity than a luxury. Our guests sometimes came from tough parts of the inner city where they had to face heart-breaking situations and angry people every day. I can say without hesitation I witnessed people returning to the fray, the storm, restored.

But here is a flavour of Underhill’s wisdom, which I came across in a brilliant new anthology of women’s writing on nature and which I think brings it bang up to date concerning the relationship we humans have with creation. She is setting out another way of seeing and relating:

What would it mean for a soul who truly captured it; this life in which the emphasis should lie…on the messages the world pours in on us, instead of on the sophisticated universe into which our clever brains transmute them? Plainly, it would mean the achievement of a new universe, a new order of reality: escape from the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labelled, and all the graded fluid facts which have no label are ignored. It would mean…the direct sensation of life having communion with life: that the scents of ceasing rain, the voice of the trees, the deep softness of a kitten’s fur…should be in themselves profound, complete, and simple experiences…

It is interesting how, for many people, this sort of spiritual outlook is more associated with the East than, as in Evelyn Underhill’s case, the West, and in her case Hampstead out of Clapham. So, fortunately, yesterday the church remembered Sundar Singh, an extraordinary man who was born in the Punjab in 1889 to a Sikh family and was immersed in that tradition, Hinduism and Christianity. His attitude to the latter was not always so positive, as he allegedly got so annoyed with compulsory Scripture at his church school that he protested by burning a copy of the New Testament. In later life he wandered wide and far, living a simple life, like a Hindu mystic, a sadhu, but instead teaching about Christ. He mysteriously disappeared in Tibet in 1929, and it is believed that he was murdered. The thing is that his spiritual path was attractive and objectionable in equal measure. Indians of Hindu background could listen to him because he did not come to them trailing colonialist condescension, but as a humble man sharing a vision of the divine; but others, including the church authorities, thought that he was dangerously independent.  But his spirituality was perfectly aligned with that of the great early Christian saints – although with somewhat more humour:

Some people become tired at the end of ten minutes of prayer. What will they do when they have to spend Eternity in the presence of God? We must begin the habit here and become used to being with God.

And finally, on Thursday we remembered Samuel and Henrietta Barnett. Samuel was a priest in the Church of England, but it was Henrietta who seems to have been the driving force behind many of their remarkable achievements. Of which I will mention only a few.

At first glance, the Barnetts were at the other end of the scale to Evelyn Underhill. They were highly activist. Rather than stilling the inner storm, they set about trying to still the storm of poverty and the great gulf between the privileged and the poor. They set up Toynbee Hall in 1885 where successful Oxbridge students in particular could come and live and work with the poor. These students brought with them free legal skills and educational expertise but also gained an understanding of people’s struggles and made friends with people they would not normally meet. It is claimed that Pierre de Coubertin was inspired by the social mixing he experienced at Toynbee Hall to set up the Olympic Games. Clement Attlee and William Beveridge also had their ideas shaped there.

Other projects hatched by the Barnetts included the garden city movement and The Whitechapel Gallery – both initiated with the intention of liberating souls cramped by poverty and anxiety.

One of the things that makes me proud to be a member of the Church of England is the example of such people. All set themselves the same task, but went about it in diverse but equally inspiring ways. This task could be articulated by words from our collect prayer today, which in turn could inspire us.

Almighty God, you have…sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God.

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