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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Evelyn Underhill: real communion with God

Here is the sermon I preached for today's lunchtime Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Pleshey Retreat House in Essex is a much loved location for many of us here at St Martin-in-the-Fields as it has been the venue in recent years for our annual silent retreat. The popularity of Pleshey as a retreat house was established by Evelyn Underhill, who is remembered by the Church today, and who was the most distinguished Retreat Conductor of her time.

Born in 1875, Evelyn Underhill was in her thirties before she began to explore religion. At first, she wrote on the mystics, most notably in her book Mysticism, published in 1911. Her spiritual journey brought her in 1921 back to the Church of England, in which she had been baptised and confirmed. From the mid-1920s, she became highly-regarded as a retreat conductor and an influential spiritual director. Of her many books, Worship, published in 1936, embodied her approach to what she saw as the mystery of faith. She died on this day in 1941.

Evelyn made her first retreat at Pleshey during Ascensiontide in 1921, and conducted her first retreat there during Lent in 1924. She loved the Retreat House at Pleshey which, she wrote after her first retreat here, 'seems soaked in love and prayer,' and many of her retreats each year were conducted here.

In her book on The Fruits of The Spirit, she writes about retreats in relation to today’s Gospel reading:

“We all know pretty well why we come into Retreat; we come to seek the opportunity of being alone with God and attending to God in order that we may do His will better in our everyday lives. We have come to live for a few days the life of prayer and deepen our contact with the spiritual realities on which our lives depend - to recover, if we can, our spiritual poise. We do not come for spiritual information, but for spiritual food and air - to wait on the Lord and renew our strength - not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world.

Now Christ, who so seldom gave detailed instruction about anything, did give some detailed instruction of that withdrawal, that recollection which is the essential condition of real prayer, real communion with God.

"When you pray, go into a room by yourself - and shut the door." I think we can almost see the smile with which He said those three words, and those three words define what we have to try to do. Anyone can retire into a quiet place and have a thoroughly unquiet time in it - but that is not making a Retreat! It is the shutting of the door, which makes the whole difference between a true Retreat and a worried religious weekend.

Shut the door. It is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Nearly everyone pulls it to and leaves it slightly ajar so that a whistling draught comes in from the outer world, with reminders of all the worries, interests, conflicts, joys and sorrows of daily life.

But Christ said shut and He meant shut. A complete barrier deliberately set up, with you on one side alone with God and everything else without exception on the other side. The voice of God is very gentle; we cannot hear it if we let other voices compete. It is no use at all to enter that room, that inner sanctuary, clutching the daily paper, the reports of all the societies you support, your engagement book and a large bundle of personal correspondence. All these must be left outside.

The object of Retreat is not intercession of self-exploration, but such communion with Him as shall afterwards make you more powerful in intercession; such self loss in Him as shall heal your wounds by new contact with His life and love.”

Evelyn Underhill was writing specifically for retreatants but Jesus’ words were not originally addressed to those on retreat. Instead, they were addressed to ordinary people going about their everyday lives, so his call to shut the door when praying was not once a year when we are on retreat but each time we pray. Likewise, seeking the opportunity of being alone with God and attending to God in order that we may do His will better in our everyday lives is not intended by Jesus as a once a year opportunity, rather as a regular experience. The distractions Evelyn Underhill notes in relation to retreats, are also with us each time we pray. We need to face them each time we pray, not just once a year on retreat. Jesus said, ‘whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ The result will be, as Evelyn Underhill wrote, ‘real communion with God.’


Victoria Williams - Holy Spirit.

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