(This is the second in a three part sermon series on modern day mystics.)
Allow me to use the familiar Bible story of Mary and Martha to reflect on some of the writings of Evelyn Underhill. You’ll remember that this infamous story involves a visit of Jesus and his followers to the home of Mary and Martha where they are offered hospitality, something to eat and most likely a place to stay. However, as Martha is diligently caring for her guests needs, Mary simply seats herself at Jesus’ feet to absorb his teachings. Martha gets frustrated with her sister and implores Jesus to “Tell her to help me!” To which Jesus calmly replies, “Martha, Martha! You’re anxious and upset about so many things, but only a few things are necessary – really only one. Mary has chosen the better part, and she won’t be deprived of it.”
(For the full video of this message, click here.)
This scripture has been used – primarily – to extol the virtues of Mary’s dedication to Jesus. And, as we’re talking about mystics and contemplatives, too often they have become synonymous with withdrawing from the world and normal everyday life to pursue a constant, quiet, communion with the Divine. While Underhill, in what I have read, spends a great deal of time helping the reader to find the path to Oneness with the Divine, this isn’t the end of the line.
As spiritual beings we can experience unity with God, but as physical beings we are also constrained to, as she calls it, our this-world life. Being all spiritual and close with God is not a pass from living in this world. In fact, she says, it actually signs us up for more responsibility. The mystical life “is not a life of comfortable piety, or the enjoyment of the delicious sensations of the armchair mystic.” There are terms to this new awareness, and these terms tell us that we don’t get to just slide through life doing less than our best. Nor are we relieved from making difficult choices, now we have even more difficult choices to make. The spiritual life “demands… immensely generous compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, gentleness, radiant purity, self-forgetting zeal.”
It seems to me that Underhill is calling us to a balance between Mary and Martha, between all-encompassing study, prayer and worship and a life of service. Each must feed the other.
Certainly, for Underhill, the contemplative (or Mary) part of one’s spiritual life is exceedingly important. In fact, her instructions for a deeper awareness and Oneness with the Absolute echo some of the same language that we heard from Thomas Merton last week.
One of the first things we must do, she says, is change our attention, which will enable us to see a truer universe. We must learn to experience life at a sensory level, beyond the labels we assign to things – “to escape the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labeled” (Practical Mystic p. 17). When we see something or someone, we see it primarily with our minds as we jump immediately to the name (label) we’ve given it that will include our pre-judgments, analysis and critiques. This is not reality, this is an illusion we’ve created for ourselves to live in.
The mystic lives a life in which the emphasis lies on sensation rather than on thought. It is a “state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things.” It is moving beyond apprehension of thought to pure truth.
This difference in living is like the story she tells of “No-Eyes” and “Eyes”:
The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types. “No-Eyes” has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect. “Eyes” takes the walk too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step. “No-Eyes,” when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself. (A Practical Mysticism, A Little Book for Normal People, p.11)
Underhill calls us to train our faculties and our consciousness to feel and experience. This she calls ordinary contemplation.
What keeps us from experiencing the world with our senses? The mystics seem to unanimously agree. We are. She answers: “Thought, convention, self-interest. We throw a mist of thought between ourselves and the external world: and through this we discern, as in a glass darkly, that which we have arranged to see. We see it in the way in which our neighbors see it; sometimes through a pink veil, sometimes through a grey. Religion, indigestion, priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes. The prismatic colors of a fashionable school of art may stain them. Inevitably, too, we see the narrow world our windows show us, not “in itself,” but in relation to our own needs, moods, and preferences…”
Once again, we are told that union with God can only be a union of love, a “self-mergence in the universal life, a giving oneself up to, a dying into or melting into the Whole.” Unity is not something to acquire, claim or hold, but to become.
So, if we can do these things… experience with the senses and recognize the illusion that we’ve created to be our world, we have begun to open ourselves to a point where Ultimate Reality can enter in.
The practice of meditation is also essential for Underhill’s path to unity with God. She explains that this helps us to recollect who we really are. Though she knows this is not easy and admits that the first 15 minutes of meditation is like “a time of warfare which will simply convince us of how unruly our attention and will are, and how far we are from the mastery of our own souls. But sticking with it will bring us to a place where we know the real us which is distinct from the world in which we live.”
Through these practices of ordinary contemplation and meditation, slowly but surely we will experience changes. We will be moved to get rid of old habits, old ideas, old prejudices, and have less of a need for material things. Plus, she says, one’s demeanor will change. There will be a quiet certitude and trust in the Eternal Love.
And this brings us full circle to Mary and Martha. Diligently practicing and exploring our spiritual sides, meditating, letting go of judgment and ego… all of these things take time and energy. It would be great if we could sit at the feet of the Master and work on these things all day, but the reality is that we live in this world. There is dinner to make, work to do, kids to attend to, oppression to fight, the poor to care for, and the sick to visit. We can’t just sit there basking in the glow we’ve discovered. We must continue to take the growth that we experience and merge it with our “this-world” life.
In Underhill’s opinion, our goal is not to create for ourselves the comfy mystical armchair where we can sit in cozy communion with the Fire of Love (I love all the ways she describes God, by the way). No, there must be a balance between work, prayer, self-discipline and social service… a balance between contact with the “present living world of time, and due renunciation of it.”
Both Mary and Martha’s positions have value and worth, but the practical mystic seeks balance.
Contemplation is not an end in itself. It is real only when it impels you to action. By our very existence then, in unity with the Eternal Essence, we bring to each moment the love, compassion, light, beauty, intensity, justice and hope of God.
Love & Light!