Evelyn Underhill: Purity and Generosity

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

“Richard of St. Victor has said, that the essence of all purification is self-simplification; the doing away of the unnecessary and unreal, the tangles and complications of consciousness: and we must remember that when these masters of the spiritual life speak of purity, they have in their minds no thin, abstract notion of a rule of conduct stripped of all colour and compounded chiefly of refusals, such as a more modern, more arid asceticism set up. Their purity is an affirmative state; something strong, clean, and crystalline, capable of a wholeness of adjustment to the wholeness of a God-inhabited world. The pure soul is like a lens from which all irrelevancies and excrescences, all the beams and motes of egotism and prejudice, have been removed; so that it may reflect a clear image of the one transcendent fact within which all others facts are held.”

Evelyn Underhill in Practical Mysticism (New York: Dutton, 1915) excerpt from Chapter Three.

Richard of St. Victor was a Medieval Scottish thinker (1110-1173) largely known through his profound writings on the spiritual life. Eveyln Underhill shares a similar strength but lived much later (1875-1941). When I explored what we must ‘remember’ in her classic work, I discovered this gem of a quote.

Let me try to break down the message that surfaces in today’s Scripture and quote with three thoughts.

Firstly, Jesus is our example of the pure life. It was rightly ordered. He was attuned to God, free of tangles and irrelevancies, and served as the lens for us to see and know God. To see Jesus was to see the Father. And the writer of Hebrews urges us to fix our eyes on Him as the Pioneer and Perfector of our faith.

Secondly, self-simplification is not about a strict rule linked to negatives and refusals but a focus on the positive or aspects of affirmative existence. Think of this person as someone who seeks God first and everything else falls into place. Purity in that light is about plodding with consistency on a path to maturity.

Thirdly, we are on this earth to serve as reflectors. Jesus was the perfect reflection of the Father. The one overarching or transcendent fact that we are here to reflect is the goodness or generosity of God. If we want to do that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, set our desires and ego aside, and attune to God. He will take care of the rest.