Our lives are “extroverted to excess. Our attention is incessantly called outwards toward the multitude of details and demands …” Evelyn Underhill, 1926
Culture has been heading this direction for a long time. Perhaps this world has always been so, developing in us a call to focus outward, a pride in busyness, a tendency to give undue importance to external details.
Many of our churches follow in the same direction, calling their people towards service and events far more than prayer, contemplation, and spiritual formation. We are asked to always be ready to give and serve yet are not told how to be filled up with anything to give.
It becomes clear, when we look at the life of Jesus, that we should live a mixed life, not a single-focused life. We should live a life of prayer and service, a life of looking and working, a life of being filled up with God and spilling that life out for others.
To deepen our own spiritual lives to meet the demands of others, we must first spend time gazing at God. We need a vision, a conception, as clear and deep and lovely as we are able, of the splendor and beauty of God.
That enrichment of the sense of God is surely the crying need of our current Christianity. A shallow religiousness, the tendency to be content with a bright ethical piety wrongly called practical Christianity … seems to me to be one of the ruling defects of institutional religion at the present time.
We have not changed directions since Evelyn Underhill wrote this in 1926. We have only moved further down that path.
Stressing service rather than awe simply does not wear well. In those moments when the pain and mystery of life are deeply felt, in the moments when we fall into a dangerous spiritual exhaustion in the name of meetings the needs of others, this “shallow religiousness” falls flat.
St. Ignatius of Loyola said that “Man was created for this end – to praise, reverence, and serve the Lord his God.” Notice that two of the three things for which our souls were made are our relationship with God: adoration and awe. Unless these two pieces are in their correct place, the last of the triad, service, will not be right.
Again, it is in looking to Jesus and the pattern of his own life that we see the way in which we should walk. This mixed life of prayer and service
unites the will, the imagination, and the heart; concentrates them on one single aim. In the recollected hours of prayer and meditation you do the looking; in the active and expansive hours you do the working. (Underhill)
Our secret life of prayer, the steady orientation of our hearts to the reality of God, is what leads to the desire and ability to be Jesus’s hands and feet to those around us. Ruysbroeck, a contemplative in the Middle Ages, said that the result of a perfected life of prayer was “a widespreading love to all in common.”
It is, for certain, a grace from God to have a sense of wonder and delight in him. Like all graces, however, our ability to receive it depends mostly on the exercise of our will and desire, on our openness and giving of our time to receive it. It will not be forced upon us.
Our churches are not wrong in teaching that a life of service is good and necessary, yet service should not, cannot, come first. We must first “deepen (our) own lives, that (we) are capable of deepening the lives of others.” (Underhill)
Christ set us an example in all things, and so it is a mixed life that we are called to live, a life of prayer and service, of looking and working. We must first take the time to be filled up with a deep and clear vision of the splendor of God; only then will we have the ability to spill out our lives in love for others.