Evelyn Underhill on the Creed

“”Lord,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “set my life in order; making me to know what I ought to do and do it in the way that I should.” The civilized world seems now to have reached the point at which only this prayer can save it; and the answer is already given us in the Christian creed. We talk much of reconstruction; but no one has yet dared to take the Christian’s profound beliefs about Reality as the basis of a reconditioned world. We treat them as dwellers in the plain treat the mountains. We lift up our eyes to their solemn beauty with respect; but refuse to acknowledge that plain and mountain are part of the same world. Yet the Creed is no mere academic document, no mere list of “dogmas.” It is an account of that which is; and every word it contains has a meaning at once universal, practical, and spiritual within the particular experience of each soul. It irradiates and harmonizes every level of our life, not one alone. All great spiritual literature does this to some extent; but the Creed, the condensed hand-list of those deep truths from which spiritual literature is built up, does it supremely.

Dante warned the readers of the Divine Comedy that everything in it had a fourfold meaning, and would never be understood by those who were satisfied by the surface-sense alone. This, which is indeed true of the Comedy, is far more true of the great statements of the Christian religion. They are true at every level; but only disclose their full splendour and attraction when we dare to reach out, beyond their surface beauty and their moral teaching, to God, their meaning and their end, and let their fourfold wisdom and tremendous demands penetrate and light up the deepest level of our souls.

The spiritual life is a stern choice. It is not a consoling retreat from the difficulties of existence; but an invitation to enter fully into that difficult existence, and there apply the Charity of God and bear the cost. Till we accept this truth, religion is full of puzzles for us, and its practices often unmeaning: for we do not know what it is all about. So there are few things more bracing and enlightening than a deliberate resort to these superb statements about God, the world and the soul; testing by them our attitude to those realities, and the quality and vigour of our interior life with God. For every one of them has a direct bearing on that interior life. Lex credendi, lex orandi. Our prayer and belief should fit like hand and glove; they are the inside and outside of one single correspondence with God. Since the life of prayer consists in an ever-deepening communion with a Reality beyond ourselves, which is truly there, and touches, calls, attracts us, what we believe about that Reality will rule our relation to it. We do not approach a friend and a machine in the same way. We make the first and greatest of our mistakes in religion when we begin with ourselves, our petty feelings and needs, ideas and capacities. The Creed sweeps us up past all this to God, the objective Fact, and His mysterious self-giving to us. It sets first Eternity and then History before us, as the things that truly matter in religion; and shows us a humble and adoring delight in God as the first duty of the believing soul. So there can hardly be a better inward discipline than the deliberate testing of our vague, dilute, self-occupied spirituality by this superb vision of Reality.

These great objective truths are not very fashionable among modern Christians; yet how greatly we need them, if we are to escape pettiness, individualism and emotional bias. For that mysterious inner life which glows at the heart of Christianity, which we recognize with delight whenever we meet it, and which is the source of Christian power in the world, is fed through two channels. Along one channel a certain limited knowledge of God and the things of God enters the mind; and asks of us that honest and humble thought about the mysteries of faith which is the raw material of meditation. Along the other channel God Himself comes secretly to the heart, and wakes up that desire and that sense of need which are the cause of prayer. The awestruck vision of faith and the confident movement of love are both needed, if the life of devotion is to be rich, brave and humble; equally removed from mere feeling and mere thought” (Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity, p 5-7).

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