"Summer Saints II"
“In the beginning, there was a tree.” That could be an alternative beginning for the story of Genesis.
For even, if the heavens declare the glory of God, nevertheless our ancestral parents lost the vision of the primeval garden, and the beauty of creation. Just one tree got all their attention. The tree became, literally, all-consuming. And in gazing the one and only issue, humankind lost the vision of the big picture and lost its soul.
Since then, nothing has changed. Still humankind continues to be mired in the rut of the “one issue” of the day. Be it in the realm of social life, politics, and even science and religion, we became a “one-issue” human race.
What’s today all-consuming issue? You name it. Many years ago, it was the “Yellow/Red Peril.” Before that was “Modernism.” And even before that was one more round of the “science vs. religion” controversies.
Let me suggest that if you were to examine humanity’s social story, you will find that just one dominant issue that – time and again – derailed humankind’s efforts to build up a better future for one and all.
Regaining the big picture was our Lord and Savior’s ministry. He took upon himself the “issue” behind all issues, namely sin, so that we may regain an unobstructed vision of the goodness, kindness, and mercy of our loving God. As St Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Having said that as an introduction, let me start by highlighting the lives of two of our lesser-known saints. Saints that in their own way, who were lights to their own generation – and beyond. Brilliant lights sent by God to point us into the right direction, and to lead us away from our “single-issue” frame of mind.
Evelyn Underhill. “Although Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England, the Underhill family could be considered Christians in only the most social of terms. But steadily and tirelessly she began a journey of faith that lead her to embrace Jesus Christ in a way the left an enduring legacy – still very much up to our days!
Underhill was educated at home, except for three years at a private school. Later on, she took history and botany at King's College London. Later, she became one of the first woman theologians to lecture in English colleges and universities, which she did frequently. She was the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England and the first woman officially to conduct spiritual retreats for the Church. And, to top it off, she was an early adopter of “media”—She was probably the first woman to give religious lectures live (in the 1930s!) in the BBC radio.
Underhill was a “Scholar of the Spirit.” In her writings, Underhill shifts from the term “mysticism” that so dominated her early years as an author – as well as the religious establishment of her day – to terms such as “life of the Spirit,” “the spiritual life,” and “spirituality.”
One of her major contributions was her understanding of prayer. Underhill began by describing prayer as a broad genre rather than a single item. Prayer is not – she wrote – “‘simply’ this or that, [that would] spoil our understanding of [prayer’s] richness and variety.” Underhill does define the life of prayer as “our whole life towards heaven,” and no matter what type of prayer you pray, it is communion with God.
And here is the connection with the “one-issue” mentality. People get hung up on the form and the practice of prayer, rather than in the object of prayer, which is as she says, setting our whole life to heaven.
In her view, “the spiritual life is adoration and adherence. Adoration is the attitude which places God, and not one’s self, in the center of one’s life. Adherence is being passionately devoted to your relationship with God to the point where it takes precedence over all other things. It is, ultimately, to live every moment with the recognition that you are in the intimate presence of God.
The traditional understanding of the Temple was – and still very much is – that it was the place where the threshold between heaven and earth was as it thinnest. So, for Underhill, prayer is where the threshold of heaven and our human spirit is as it thinnest.
In her own way, Underhill, perhaps without consciously trying was someone who without pretentions lead her life in a remarkable spirit. A true saint of our days.
Adelaide Teague Case. Case was born in Missouri in 1887, but her family moved her to New York in her infancy. She attended Bryn Mawr College, worked as librarian in the Episcopal Church's headquarters, and taught at the New York Training School for Deaconesses.
She completed her Ph.D. at Columbia University and immediately began teaching at the Teachers' College there. She taught there from 1919 to 1941, becoming a professor and head of the department of religious education.
In 1941, Case left Columbia to become Professor of Christian Education at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the first woman to teach as a professor there full time. She taught at Episcopal Theological School until her death in Boston on June 19, 1948.
Baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, Adelaide Teague Case's religious faith followed a conventional pattern until she experienced a conversion experience after college. Thereafter, the living Christ became the dominant force in her life and ministry. Though she continued within the Episcopal Church, Case became a devout Anglo-Catholic, and was strongly attracted spiritually to the sacramental and liturgical life of the church.
Case believed there was a disconnect between the values of Christianity and the way it was taught to children. She wrote about, studied, and advocated for progressive education, which she saw as centered on the child instead of on the teacher.
She took some of the methods popularized by John Dewey and applied them to religious education. In other words, she was the “Maria Montessori” of Christian Education.
She advocated for an approach that applied the Bible and Christian tradition to a child's particular life and the society they lived in. As a teacher, Case had the ability to challenge students to do their most creative work. She was a genius at sensing student needs and creating a productive learning environment.
In many ways her teaching left a lasting mark in the life of the Episcopal Church. But it was not easy. Case had the courage - in her fifties - to give up a professorship at Columbia University with a very good salary and students and colleagues who appreciated her, to move to [the Episcopal Theological School in] Cambridge, Massachusetts for a much lower salary at a seminary where some of the students refused to take her classes because she was a woman.
In the Episcopal Church we learn by doing, as opposed to a rigid and academic model of teaching. This is why you will find very few expository preachers in our Church – preachers that start with Chapter 1 of a book and will continue verse by verse dissecting and teaching about all the minutiae of every-day life in Samaria two thousand years ago.
Far for me to claim that the Episcopal Church follows Jesus’ way of teaching better than other churches. But in general, like Jesus, our tradition is to teach by example and to bring the light of Christ to the script that life sets up for us.
In today’s Gospel we learn what Jesus taught his disciples to do. “Go to the lost. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously”. In other words – like their Master did – they were to ask, “What can I do for you?”
And here is the connection with my introduction and being hung up with the one-issue frame of mind. People get hung up about the way Episcopalians approach the Bible – looking at the big picture of the unyielding, unconditional, and everlasting love of God for us and letting the chips fall where they may.
Case believed that the point of practicing the Christian faith was to make a difference in the world. Her last words describe her understanding of what the Christian faith as understood in the Episcopal tradition is at its heart. “Her last words to a member of her household, spoken the night before her death, were ‘What can I do for you?’”
Underhill and Case are living examples of what God can accomplish when ordinary women and men – people like you and me – decide to take God at His word and go out on the limb of faith. And in so doing, they lived ordinary lives in an extraordinary spirit.
Thanks be to God for their ministry. May our faith be strengthened by the wisdom and spirit of these holy woman, allowing us to regain a vision of “The Big Picture.”
· Evelyn Underhill
· Adelaide Teague Case