Mark your calendars: February 19, 2011 is the date for the Evelyn Underhill Centennial Celebration, marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of her ground-breaking book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. The event will take place at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, and will feature keynote speaker Dana Greene, a noted Underhill scholar. I will also be there, and will speak on Underhill’s legacy.
I can’t stress enough how excited I am about this event, and how honored I am to be part of it. If there were only one book that inspired my Big Book of Christian Mysticism, it would be Underhill’s Mysticism. When I first read Underhill’s masterpiece (back in 1979), I was a spiritually confused young man just out of high school. Her wise and optimistic introduction to the world of Christian spiritual wisdom literally opened an entire new world for me. Raised as a Lutheran, my religious education included about a 1400-year gap: from the end of the New Testament to Luther’s 95 theses! Underhill opened the door to reveal the beauty and splendor of the contemplative wisdom that emerged and developed during those pre-Reformation centuries.
Thanks to Underhill, I discovered the writers and teachers who would become central to my own spiritual development: Plotinus; Pseudo-Dionysius; Meister Eckhart; John Ruysbroeck; Julian of Norwich; Walter Hilton; The Cloud of Unknowing; Teresa of Avila; John of the Cross.
Evelyn Underhill wrote some forty books, almost all of which concern various aspects of Christian mysticism and spirituality. Writing during a time when women could not be Anglican priests and had basically no educational or academic opportunities, Underhill was a true trailblazer for the voice of women as meaningful spiritual authorities in a Christian context. And while she was too humble and down-to-earth ever to claim the title of “mystic” for herself, her letters in particular reveal her to be gifted and wise as a spiritual mentor and guide.
Mysticism, her first major work and probably her most enduring masterpiece, was first published in 1911. It remains a masterpiece, although it does show its age. It was written at a time when the academic and religious establishments were even more suspicious of private spiritual experience than today, and so her writing has an unavoidably defensive or apologetic tone about it. The fact that I, nearly a century later, could write an introductory book on Christian mysticism without having to be so defensive in my tone — and, furthermore, finding such a ready and eager readership among not only churchgoing Christians but even ministers and priests from various denominations — is, I believe, possible chiefly because of the important work Underhill did in the early decades of the twentieth century to testify to mysticism’s value, importance and relevance to Christian spirituality.
So, I hope you will join me, Dana Green (with whom I am thrilled to be working), and the Atlanta Diocese’s Institute for Ministry and Theological Education on February 19. All the details are not worked out yet (I’ll post more as I know it), but the event will run from 8:30 AM to 3 PM, and will include talks by both Dr. Green and myself, breakout groups, time for lectio divina reflection on key writings of Underhill’s, and a closing Taizé service. We are setting up the schedule to foster a spiritual tone to the event — this should be more “mini-retreat” than “conference.” The chapel will be open and a labyrinth will be set up.
The registration fee will include lunch. The Cathedral bookstore will be have a table, featuring the works of Underhill, other important contemplatives (Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, etc.) and, of course, books by Dana Green and yours truly. Online registration will begin on November 1st (I’ll post a reminder on this blog when that happens), so for now, just mark your calendar… and I’ll see you on February 19th!