Project Canterbury

The Spiritual Life in War-Time

By Evelyn Underhill

London: Church Literature Association, no date.


It might well be said that the Christian spiritual life must he the same in time of war as in time of peace, since it is essentially a life of communion with the unchanging Cod. But this is not quite true: for that life has to he lived by creatures who are immersed in a world of change, and the state of this world must affect it. And, moreover, it is never lived in isolation, or for the mere comfort or improvement of our own souls; it is a life of charity, and its mark is a wide-spreading love, a deep concern for the whole family of man. So the special needs and distresses of that family--the violence, suffering, and anxiety which now poison human life--cannot be left behind by the Christian in his movement towards God; and will give a particular colour to that rhythm of adoration, intercession and communion in which the spiritual life consists. If on one hand that threefold movement does and should bring us into God's abiding presence and peace, on the other hand we are closely united with a world in torment; and it is our sacred privilege to carry that world and its sorrow with us, and submit it in our prayer to the redeeming action of God. Christians pray as members of the Body of Christ, the instrument of God's saving power and love; and only in so far as we accept this awful obligation, pray from the Cross, shall we do the work now committed to us by God. Here each of us has a direct personal responsibility; for the Praying Church is built of praying souls.

Thus at this time we need specially to emphasize the sacrificial temper of Christian spirituality; for only in so far as this is fully realized and expressed by each of her members will the Church develop her latent supernatural power, and fulfil her mission in a distracted world. A life centred on God, self-offered without condition for his purposes, and ruled by the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity, transcends in importance all outward activity; for it opens a channel for the action of the Spirit, and this is the greatest thing that we can do for our fellow-men. Such a life can only be maintained by steadfast, disciplined and self-oblivious prayer--a constant turning from the chaotic surface of life which so easily bewilders us to its unchanging deeps, and a faithful adherence to God.

There are, I think, three great characters of the spiritual life which, in a war-swept world, the Christian needs to keep in constant remembrance, seeking by all means in his power to maintain and spread them; and three great hindrances to his spiritual vigour and effectiveness.

The three characters are those which St. Paul railed the first-fruits of the Spirit: love, joy and peace. These belong to the very essence of God's Nature, and we share in them as his children. It is our business to see that they are not submerged by the rising tide of hatred, violence and despair. But only a constant adoring remembrance of the universal charity of God, overflowing all divisions and embracing all our petty loves and hates, his untouched joy redeeming our suffering, his deep tranquillity resolving our conflicts, and a steady effort to embody something of those holy realities in our prayer and life, can save us in the present crisis from sliding down into the confusions of a world that has lost contact with God. It is above all by love, joy and peace that all our worship, our intercession, our acts of penitence and self-offering should he coloured; uniting the needs of the world with these personal approaches to God, and so carrying them up into his quiet Presence.

Of the three difficulties which especially beset the spiritual life at this time, the first is the crude temptation to regard time given to prayer as a selfish withdrawal from the stress of the common life. It is easy to feel that we ought to be doing something obviously useful, when so much needs to be done. Were Christian prayer merely the solitary adventure of pious souls, there might be something in this. But it is not. It is the employment of a mighty energy given to us by God, for the purposes of God. Prayer is the substance of the Church's life. As her members, we pool our spiritual effort. The action of each one of us counts in the total action of her life: and if we fail to do our part, that total action is correspondingly reduced.

Secondly, the material side of life now presses in on us with special insistence, full of new problems, duties and searching anxieties. It fills the horizon, and intrudes on our times of prayer. The news bulletin, the ration book and many other distracting influences go with us into that secret place where we should be alone with God. A stand-up struggle with these distractions, or a desperate effort to get away from them and "mean only God," are alike useless, and merely increase strain. Nor indeed is this the Christian way of dealing with the homely facts and tensions of human life. The religion of the Incarnation forbids us to make a separation between that human life and our prayer. All these problems, duties arid anxieties, however homely, are to be brought in, sacramentalized and made part of the present texture of our spiritual experience. In and through them God comes to us and makes demands on us, arid teaches us new lessons of long-suffering, humility and abandonment. Though we may indeed, as Gerlac Petersen says, be "agitated by contrary and diverse storms, occupations, tumults and conflicts," and these seem to break up our recollection and spoil our prayer, yet they arc part of the conditions in which we are now required to maintain our communion with God.

Last, and perhaps hardest for those who feel it, the war presents the problem of suffering in its most agonizing form; and there is the danger that this may so oppress the soul that the peace and joy of God are entirely lost in contemplation of the misery of man. It is a function of Christian prayer to accept this pain freely, and neutralize its poison by uniting it to the Cross. But even this costly redemptive action must be subordinated to our primary duty--the humble and loving worship of God and remembrance of his unchanging joy and peace.


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