Following the Spirit and not our Feelings: Evelyn Underhill on Calling and Desire

Evelyn UnderhillJust a few days ago, I came across this extended quotation from Evelyn Underhill from her fine little book, The Spiritual Life. Underhill speaks to the interface of our calling and our desires, and the challenge our feelings can bring to truly following God’s call upon us. I had originally read these words about three years ago while on sabbatical, but reading them again was incredibly helpful for me. I hope you benefit from her words as well, regardless of where God has you stationed right now.

So those who imagine that they are called to contemplation because they are attracted by contemplation, when the common duties of existence steadily block this path, do well to realise that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Spirit.

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his hermitage on the Farne, but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he was decisively called. In all of these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognise not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this – and they are constantly happening – gradually convince us that the over-ruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.

[Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life (Atlanta: Ariel Press, 1937, reprint 2000), 23-25.]

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