Underhill on Worship  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was one of the 20th century's leading writers on mysticism. Her 1911 book of the same title remains a classic. After a long spiritual pilgrimage she became a prominent laywoman in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, itself no mean feat. She was the first woman to lead clergy retreats in the C of E.

On her feastday today I include an excerpt from Worship, one of her lesser-known works that nevertheless still has lots of relevance (orig 1936; Crossroad 1985). The excerpt is from pp 60-61.

The character of worship is always decided by the worshipper's conception of God and his relation to God: that is to say, whatever its ritual expression may be, it always has a theological basis. Though the cultus may not tally at every point with the creed, since it often carries along many traditional and even primitive elements which have long ceased to bear their original meaning, in general the relation between the two is close; and only the believer, acting from within that cultus and conforming to its ritual pattern, can truly appreciate the meaning or the spiritual value of those devotional words and acts by means of which his worship is expressed. All this is eminently true of Christianity. In the bewildering variety, and even the apparent contradictions, of its many practices, from the extreme of liturgic ceremonialism to the extreme of silent or informal prayer, and from a close dependence on sacramental acts to their entire rejection, Christian worship is yet always conditioned by Christian belief; and especially belief about the Nature and Action of God, as summed up in the great dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Though the awestruck movement of the soul over against the surrounding mystery, and intimate devotion to the historic Person of Christ, in Whom that mystery draws near to men, both enter into it, its emphasis does not, or should not, be on either of these completing opposites of our spiritual experience. Its true secret is hidden between them, and is at one and the same time a personal communion and a metaphysical thirst.

Perhaps we come as near to that secret as human language permits, if we define Christian worship as the total adoring response of man to the one Eternal God self-revealed in time. This adoring response is full of contrast and variety; and has a span which stretches from the wordless commerce of the contemplative soul with "that which has no image" to the most naive expressions of popular belief. Profoundly historical, it accepts, carries along, and transforms to its own purpose the devotional language and methods of antiquity; and no one will understand it who does not keep this fact in mind. Yet on the other hand it possesses an inherent freshness and power of adaptation, which again and again accepts new embodiments for its worship of unchanging Truth. Its possibilities, indeed, are too rich to be fully explored by any one worshipper or any one group of worshippers; for it is at once thoroughly personal and thoroughly corporate in character, and in its expression can use many contrasting devotional methods--spontaneous and liturgical, symbolic and spiritual, sacrificial and contemplative--and embody these in the most ornate or the most austere of ritual forms. But careful study will discover a certain character which conditions and gives inward unity and significance to all these different, and even superficially conflicting, expressions of the Christian spirit of worship: and this character is neither ethical nor mystical, institutional nor personal, but doctrinal.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 15, 2009 at Monday, June 15, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



This woman was the Agatha Christie of spirituality; no wonder your church is shrinking away to nothing, if this is a "saint" of yours.

May 21, 2011 at 4:47 PM

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