Our Soul’s Response to God
Selections from Evelyn Underhill’s writings
Prayer is our soul’s response to God’s immense attraction, and this response begins in the activity of the will. Will and desire are the heart of the mental life turned to God. This is not mere pious reverie. As Saint Teresa says, at the beginning of our prayer life, we have to draw the living water out of the well. It is hard work. We can’t leave it to chance. God requires our communion with Him to be an act, an effort, and to cost something. Think of the trouble we give ourselves to get time to be with those whom we love. Is it not ever so much more important to make a way to commune with God?
We are spiritual creatures with the power of communion with God, breathing the air of eternity. We can’t keep this power unless we exercise it. Nor can we fully get it unless we train ourselves to it. We must accustom our attention, that wanders over all other interests, to fix itself on Him. Such deliberate attention to God is the beginning of real prayer.
The full Christian life of prayer swings to and fro between adoration and action. We must be sure that the outward swing toward God is full, generous, unhurried, brimming with joy. Many of us live exacting lives of service full of hard material problems. If we can acquire the determination that nothing shall turn us from a steady daily habit of loving adoration, our prayer will be full of loving intimacy and awe. Then we shall have the best of all helps for the maintenance of the soul’s energy and peace, and we will serve God with a quiet mind.
By contemplative prayer, I do not mean any abnormal sort of activity or experience, still less a deliberate and artificial passivity. I just mean the sort of prayer that aims at God in and for Himself and not for any of His gifts whatever, and more and more profoundly rests in Him alone: what St. Paul, that vivid realist, meant by being rooted and grounded. When I read those words, I always think of a forest tree. First of the bright and changeful tuft that shows itself to the world and produces the immense spread of boughs and branches, the succession and abundance of leaves and fruits. Then of the vast unseen system of roots, perhaps greater than the branches in strength and extent, with their tenacious attachments, their fan-like system of delicate filaments and their power of silently absorbing food. On that profound and secret life the whole growth and stability of the tree depend. It is rooted and grounded in a hidden world.
I come now to the many people who, greatly desiring the life of communion with God, find no opportunity for attention to Him in an existence which often lacks privacy and is conditioned by ceaseless household duties, exacting professional responsibilities or long hours of work. The great spiritual teachers, who are not nearly so aloof from normal life as those who do not read them suppose, have often dealt with this situation, which is not new, though it seems to press with peculiar weight upon ourselves. They all make the same answer: that what is asked of us is not necessarily a great deal of time devoted to what we regard as spiritual things, but the constant offering of our wills to God, so that the practical duties which fill most of our days can become part of His order and be given spiritual worth. So Père Grou, whose writings are among the best and most practical guides to the spiritual life that we possess, says, “We are always praying, when we are doing our duty and turning it into work for God.” He adds that among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions, and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind, so long as we link all these by intention with God….
So those who wonder where they are to begin might begin here, by trying to give spiritual quality to every detail of their everyday lives, whether those lives are filled with a constant succession of home duties, or form part of the great systems of organized industry or public service, or are devoted to intellectual or artistic ends….
Selections are from Radiance: A Spiritual Memoir of Evelyn Underhill, compiled and edited by Bernard Bangley. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004.