Practical Mysticism

 12th October 2017 at St Thomas, Brampton

with Bishop Jan McFarlane, Bishop of Repton

and Bishop Jack Nicholls

Sometimes you go on a course – or a day’s workshop – or to a talk – and find that it is just what you need to hear. It resonates and reverberates at a profound level. It confirms that the way ahead might where you thought and hoped it would be.

Morley Day was such a day, not only on a personal level for myself, but I suspect, talking in breaks and over lunch, for many other people. Bishop Jan shared her passion for Evelyn Underhill, her writings, her spirituality and what she has to say to our twentieth first century church. Underhill lived from 1875 – 1941 and studied at King’s College for Women in London, reading an unlikely combination of History and Botany (this was at a time when it was most unusual for women to have a university education) converting to Christianity in 1907 the year she married. Until that point, she was an atheist but ‘Gradually the net closed in on me and I was driven nearer and nearer to Christianity, half of me wishing it was true and half resisting violently all the time’. Underhill went on to become a prolific writer on spirituality and one of 20th century’s foremost writers on Christian mysticism. She was also the first woman to lecture to the all-male clergy within the Church of England. Had she lived today, said Bishop Jan, she would have made a most amazing priest – or even a bishop.

Underhill’s most well-known work - ‘Practical Mysticism’ – A Little Book for Normal People’ asks the question - ‘What lies at the heart of an authentic spiritual life?’ Now the good thing about this day – and of Underhill’s teachings is that this doesn’t have to be a difficult question. You don’t need to have a degree in theology or wear a dog collar to have half a chance of answering it. Basically, Underhill says, we need to turn away from ourselves and be in touch with God who is Reality with a capital ‘R’. Neither do we need to attend church several times a day and faithfully say the Daily Office (although these are encouraged). Indeed, Underhill herself confessed to not being very good at intercessions. We just need to put ourselves in a place where we can receive from God – which means giving ourselves time to pray – or just be. She recognised that sometimes we may go through long periods of doubt – and that’s fine. At such times we need spiritual guides and people to talk to.

Sometimes, says Underhill, prayer can feel like hard work or a duty. Rest, she says. You are tired. Look after yourself. Eat well. Sleep.  What use are you to anyone else if you are worn out? Relax about your prayer life and about your spirituality. Have a ‘reasonable bit of quiet every day’.

If I had read these words in a new Christian publication, I would have thought that at last, someone was giving Christians permission not to be bound by rules and regulations, by requirements that because you call yourself Christian, you have to behave in a certain way. Someone was saying that it’s okay to rest in a relationship with God instead of asking us to jump through hoops and tick boxes. And yet she was writing this a hundred years ago. Her teachings feel as fresh and relevant to exhausted people, inside and outside the church, as they were in the early twentieth century.

Over ninety years ago, in 1926, Underhill wrote of the Church - ‘We are all grievously burdened with problems of administration’. And although this needs to be attended to, this will not transform the Church. Only the Reality of God, changing us and through us, the world will do that. And this can only happen through prayer.

Bishop Jan asked - ‘Do we think that people are not interested in God – inoculated as they are against the Church with all its infighting over issues such as same sex marriage and woman bishops?’ If you wander into any branch of W H Smith’s and look at the books on mindfulness you will see a vast array of colouring books and hints and tips on how to mindfully make a cup of tea. What is this if not prayer? This is searching for God! We are missing a trick here and need to make our churches places where people can find what they are looking for instead of reaching for a colouring book and some felt-tips.

So how do we do this? How do we reach those people who would never dream of walking into a church but would happily browse the shelves in Smith’s? Underhill’s response was that we must make time to pray in our own churches as much as we possibly can. We must free up our priests to pray. We must open our local churches so people can wander in and find God.

Now we are fortunate in the Cathedral in that we have a building which is open all the time - ‘The doors are open to all’ is our motto and is just as it should be. As one member of our congregation put it so eloquently in the plenary session ‘anybody and everybody can come in from the street and find a place to pray’. This is our gift to the city and to the diocese – to offer a place which is known to be open and where those seeking rest, or comfort, or quiet or reassurance can come in and find something of God.

But Underhill’s vision was that all churches all over the land should offer this. What if every church was open – all the time - offering a space where people would know they could find what they were looking for? Or as Bishop Jan said ‘They don’t need colouring books, they need Jesus’. Isn’t that the way the twentieth first century church should be heading? Okay – there are myriad reasons why people say it shouldn’t be done and it wouldn’t work – but buildings are after all, just buildings and people matter more.

‘What churches are like is going to depend on your secret life of prayer – on your steady orientation towards the reality of God…’ wrote Underhill. What she has to teach us is that it is prayer and only prayer that will make a difference.  She wanted every Christian to have this practical spirituality and so be transformative in the world - ‘Being tuned in and transmitting that to those around us.’ Or as Bishop Jan said, ‘Be prayer rather than do prayer.’

It was an inspiring day. A big thank-you must go to Bishop Jan for such an encouraging and enjoyable day which has helped many of us in our own lives of prayer and given us hope for the way ahead for the Church, and to Bishop Jack for leading us in worship and for his wise and humorous compering of the day. The last, fitting words go to him, quoting his favourite saint – St Seraphim of Sarov:

‘Have peace in your heart and thousands around you will be saved’.

Eirene Palmer


The Diocese of Derby

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