Worship: A Book by the Endlessly Quotable Evelyn Underhill

Yesterday the Erewash Press published Percy Dearmer’s  Parson’s Handbook, as I mentioned in a blog piece, and we also brought out an affordable edition of a much less famous Anglican work: Evelyn Underhill’s Worship.  Underhill was a mystic and writer of the early twentieth century, who ranks as a Christian intellectual alongside figures like Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.  She is most famous for her books (and radio talks) on the subject of mysticism, which flowed from her powerful sense of the spiritual world surrounding all human life.  Her book on worship is an absorbing and enjoyable one – packed with vivid details of what it feels like to be involved in church services, but also thoughtful and even critical in its discussion of what worship is for.   Underhill sketches the nature and history of strands of worship to be found in the Christian tradition, from Biblical accounts to the early twentieth century, and from Eastern Orthodoxy to the Free Church.  Her own experiences inevitably colour her conclusions, but I found it a wonderful book, and I am pleased that we can make it more widely available.

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Underhill is also endlessly quotable, so rather than try to paraphrase her, I’ll just give you a series of quotations from Worship, in case you find you enjoy her style and her ideas. Early on in the book she gives a striking account of what worship actually is:

Worship, in all its grades and kinds, is the response of the creature to the Eternal: nor need we limit this definition to the human sphere. There is a sense in which we may think of the whole life of the Universe, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, as an act of worship, glorifying its Origin, Sustainer, and End.

 

Setting the scene she sketches the situation, and the subject, as she sees it:

Here then is Man, the half-animal, half-spiritual creature; living under the conditions of space and time, yet capable of the conscious worship of a Reality which transcends space and time. He has certain means at his disposal for the expression of this worship, this response to the ever present Spirit; and again and again he tends, at every level of development, to use these means – which indeed are forced on him by his situation, and by his own psychological characteristics. Of these, the chief are (1) Ritual, or liturgic pattern; (2) Symbol or significant image; (3) Sacrament, in the general sense of the use of visible things and deeds, not merely to signify, but also to convey invisible realities; and (4) Sacrifice, or voluntary offering – a practice too far-reaching in its importance, and too profound in its significance for brief definition here.

 

Later on she presents an intricate but inspiring description of liturgical worship, which opens up a number of aspects:

Liturgical worship shares with all ritual action the character of a work of art. Entering upon it, we leave the lower realism of daily life for the higher realism of a successive action which expresses and interprets eternal truth by the deliberate use of poetic and symbolic material. A liturgical service should therefore possess a structural unity; its general form and movement, and each of its parts, being determined by the significance of the whole. By its successive presentation of all the phases of the soul’s response to the Holy, its alternative use of history and oratory, drama and rhythm, its appeals to feeling, thought, and will, the individual is educated and gathered into the great movement of the Church. Here intellect as well as emotion has its part to play in stirring to activity the deeper levels of the soul; for liturgy, being in its nature a corporate and stylized acknowledgment of the most august realities of our experience, must be informed by disciplined thought – again in this exhibiting its likeness to great art.

 

Another striking definition comes in her discussion of the development of the Eucharistic services:

As the Church gradually came to realize all its implications, so the Eucharistic celebration grew in richness and significance; gathering up the largest possible number of spiritual insights and references – both universal and personal – and harmonizing them about its unchanging heart, Into this mould the worshipping instinct of generations has poured itself; and bit by bit there has thus been added to the Christian ritual pattern all those fundamental responses to God which are latent in the religious soul. At last, in the fully developed liturgy, the whole drama of creation and redemption – God’s loving movement toward man, and man’s response in Christ – is recapitulated; and all the implications which lay hidden in its small origins, the grain of wheat which was flung into the field of the world, are brought to maturity.

 

That idea of worship developing prompts her to a comment which is wittily wry about the idea of growing, particularly for those of us no longer in our twenties:

The Christian liturgy lives and grows; and, like other living and growing things, has not preserved unchanged the classic proportions of its youth.

 

Though she is critical at times, Underhill is concerned to use comparisons between different traditions to positive ends, even if that can be uncomfortable:

The psalms and spiritual songs recommended by St Paul – perhaps as an alternative to wilder forms of expression – the ‘revelations of the Spirit’, the ordered prayer and reading which form an ancient part of the Christian devotional life, and the solemn liturgical ‘breaking of bread’ must all contribute to that total life adoration in which humanity realizes the freely given presence of the Holy and makes its small response. It is therefore of great importance that representatives of these contrasting forms of worship should learn to regard each other with sympathy and respect, and even to practise that difficult degree of generosity, which is willing to be taught by those of whom we do not quite approve.

 

This balance between appreciation and critique makes itself felt in her discussion of the virtues, but also possible dangers, of singing:

The corporate expression of praise and thanksgiving, by ‘psalms and spiritual songs’, appears to be a universal religious instinct. To ‘sing unto the Lord a new song, sing praises lustily unto him with a good courage’, is always the impulse of a living faith: since a disinterested delight in the splendour of God is the highest and purest of our religious responses, and this naturally tends to rhythmic expression. Hence those who are concerned to defend the hymn singing habits of the Evangelical Churches have both history and psychology on their side. Here worship receives, and rightly receives, all the enhancement which music and poetry can give; and the peculiar effect of rhythmic corporate utterance, in producing corporate feeling and enhancing individual sensibility, is brought to the help of souls and the service of God. For the hymn enchants as well as informs; and here lies both its value and its danger. Whether religious feeling be embodied in great poetry or in doggerel, its corporate expression will always have a suggestive power more closely connected with sound than with sense: and along with many of the noblest expressions of the spirit of worship, some of our most cherished and least defensible devotional images and prejudices have entered our minds through the rhythm of popular hymns.

 

She finds more hope of unity in the historic emphasis placed upon the Psalms:

These, and other great utterances of the Psalmists, recited again and again as the expression of the Church’s adoring trust, have now entered so deeply into the very texture of Christian devotion that we have ceased to be aware of their range of influence. Yet it is mainly by means of the Psalms that both the historic and spiritual continuity of Christian corporate worship has been secured; and in them we have an inexhaustible storehouse of devotional material and a means of common prayer and adoration which is accepted as it stands by Christians of every type. Thus in opening the Psalter we open a door which admits us as no other can to the worship of the Universal Church; her penitence, her supplication, her invulnerable confidence, her adoring delight in the splendour of God. Here Catholic and Covenanter sing from one service book, and acknowledge themselves to be brothers under their skins

 

I was very struck by her stress on the restraint, as well as the expressive elements in liturgical worship.  I wonder whether it speaks to certain discussions in modern Christianity about worship which attempts to determine people’s feelings:

A certain restraint, a sense of style, is characteristic of all good liturgical action; for it exists to express the common worship of the family, not the fervour of the individual soul. Therefore the individual who prays from within the liturgy has to sacrifice something of his own will and feeling to the corporate movement; must submit to the ritual discipline, and lose his own prayer in that of the fellowship, if he is to ‘’understand by dancing that which is being done’. But on the other hand, there are great compensations. If his religious preferences and enthusiasms are checked, and subordinated to ‘liturgical good manners’, his reserves are respected too. The Christian liturgy, as Guardini has said, is ‘a masterly instrument which has made it possible for us to express our inner life in all its fullness and depth, without divulging our secrets. . . we can pour out our hearts, and still feel that nothing has been dragged to light which should remain hidden.’

 

Her description of the worshipping context of Jesus’ early life sounded to me rather as if the Messiah had lived in a rather Anglo-Catholic country parish somewhere in England (as no doubt Underhill intended it to!)

Jesus was born of pious country people of the strictest orthodoxy—the ‘quiet in the land’ who sought the deliverance of Israel by spiritual rather than political paths—and His religious background and education was that of the devout people of His day. It was dominated by Jerusalem and the Temple worship, and was nourished by a deep and instructed reverence for the Scriptures, and by the devotional routine of the local synagogue. Further, it was surrounded by a number of small ritual observances; which can easily be dismissed as formal or superstitious, but were really directed, like the small external pieties of the ‘good Catholic’, to the sanctifying of all the common events of everyday life, by a constant and humble remembrance of the claims of the Eternal God and His Law.

 

I could go on to copy something from almost every page of the book – but I hope that has given you a flavour of Underhill’s style, and of the way she tackles this subject.  She gathers in aspects of worship which would never have struck me as connected, and treats them in a dramatic but rigorous way.  If you want a copy, the e-book is available here.