As the basis of my personal Lenten practice, I am using a book called Lent with Evelyn Underhill, edited by G. P. Mellick Belshaw. For those of you who don’t know who Evelyn Underhill is, she was prolific writer on the topics of mysticism, spiritual thought and practice, and worship; and a practicing spiritual director of the early 20th century. Her early major work, Mysticism (1911) remains the basic text on the topic; but her writings are numerous. The Lenten devotional has been created from the whole corpus of her work.
I can remember reading her book Mysticism during my undergraduate work in Medieval studies: I too, shared her interest in Christian mysticism, in particular the writings of apocalyptic writers such as Joachim of Fiore and the ecstatics such as St. Teresa of Avila. But years and many varying career directions separated me from all of this, until my preparation for a course I am following at the Shalem Institute brought me full circle and back to Ms. Underhill’s orbit. Thus, Lent, with Evelyn Underhill.
No sooner, however, did I start to read the introduction to this little book than my eyes and my heart landed on a new thought that is still rattling around in my brain and my soul. Just as John Bell opened my eyes to the differences between public and private worship, and the need for a church and a congregation and a congregant to understand the difference between them and to learn about both, this tiny little book introduced me to the idea ofs of exclusive and inclusive mysticism. Exclusive mysticism, or as Plotinus called it, “the flight of the alone to the Alone”, vs. an inclusive mysticism that emphasizes community.
As a musician, I am drawn to the mystical experience because so much of what I do cannot be known: I will never touch the muscles that I command to move that create the sounds that enter into the room; the direction and creation of my vocal sounds is more closely related to meditation than to a workout at the gym. But just as I had never considered the differences in practice and expectation that are the differences between public and private worship, I had never applied the public and private designation to the mystical experience.
Yesterday I had the chance to participate in what is for me one of the most mystical services of the church year: Ash Wednesday. It is a simple service; quiet music, scriptural readings, corporate readings, a brief and inspiration homily, the receiving of Ashes and a moment of private prayer, departure in silence. And within that structure, a chance to experience both ends of the mystical spectrum. I am so grateful to have a community with which to share that experience.
Well, that was the first page of Lent with Evelyn Underhill. Fasten your safety belts, everyone — 39 more readings to go.