Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold preached the homily at the morning Eucharist June 15 at General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. The text is available here:
Homily preached at the General Convention's daily Eucharist
Thursday, June 15, 2006
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Today we are invited by the church to celebrate the life and ministry of an English laywoman of the last century by the name of Evelyn Underhill. She is described in our book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts as a theologian and mystic. In the midst of our demanding schedules, when we run the constant risk of sensory overload – from heads heavy with information to weary feet – I believe it is a bit of grace that we remember today a person whose vocation was to call the church to a life of prayer and intimate companionship with Christ. To commemorate her in the communion of saints is to remind ourselves of why we are really here. We are here because we follow Jesus, and the purpose of these days is to discover more deeply and intimately what it means for each one of us to be a companion of Jesus in his continuing ministry of reconciliation, and then to make decisions about the life of the church that grow out of that companionship.
When I was 15 years old, a priest who taught at the Episcopal school I attended lent me a small book by Evelyn Underhill entitled The Light of Christ. It contained a series of retreat addresses on prayer and what it actually means to live one's life in union with Christ. Her language was clear, straightforward and – to use one of her favorite adjectives – homely: homely in the British sense of being down to earth, concrete and free of romantic abstraction. The book opened my eyes and I could see that it is the interior life which energizes and sustains a life of witness in the world.
Her words were the fruit of her prayer and her experience of God. The force of God's presence in her own life impelled her to explore the mystical tradition of the Church, which at that time was suspected of causing emotional imbalance. Without a university education or any formal training that seemingly would have equipped her for the task, Evelyn Underhill set out to write a comprehensive history of mysticism. The resulting scholarly work was extraordinarily well received and opened the way for a reappropriation of the mystical tradition in the English church and beyond.
Other books and collections of addresses followed. One small volume particularly drew my attention, largely because of its title: Practical Mysticism. The notion of mysticism being practical seems something of a contradiction. However, her point was that all Christians are called to intimacy with Christ, not because that is what we want but because it is what Christ most deeply desires. Her book contains an instructive catalogue of various popular misconceptions of the day about mysticism, including that it was about "having visions" or "wallowing in vague spiritual emotions."
Evelyn Underhill understood the mystical way as belonging to everyone, as part and parcel of the life of an ordinary Christian faced with the demands of daily life. Mysticism is primarily about relationship, about the union between God and the Christian brought about through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And, through prayer, that union is fostered and deepened.
In today's first reading Wisdom is presented to us not as a body of information but as a person: a person who imparts what she possesses in the form of relationship: We are told that "In every generation [Wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God." Knowing, rather than knowing about is the way God imparts that intimate awareness which unites all things in bonds of communion.
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that "Christ is… the wisdom of God." Therefore, it is through our relationship with Christ that we know the wisdom of God. To know Christ as wisdom involves the intimacy of relationship: "Abide in me and I in you," Jesus tells his disciples in John's gospel. "Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me."
Later in that same passage, Jesus says, "I do not call you servants any longer…I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." After the manner of Wisdom in our first reading, who passes into holy souls, a union is brought about between Jesus: the true vine, and his followers: the branches. In this same way we, through communion in the Holy Spirit, are made one with Christ who becomes our wisdom and makes us friends of God. All this involves a transformation of consciousness, a new way of seeing and being which is nothing short of what Paul calls "new creation."
In today's gospel Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the true worship of God is not confined to the mountain sacred to the Samaritans, or to Jerusalem sacred to the Jews. "The time is come and is now here," he tells her, "when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth."
We are people of signs and symbols, sacred rites, sacred places and sacred institutions. All these things root and ground us: the font where I was baptized; the altar at which I first received communion, the church in which I was ordained – these carry deep meaning. At the same time I need to keep constantly in mind that the friendship to which Christ calls me in his desire to share his life and wisdom with me is not limited to ritual or place or tradition, as sacred as these may be. The function of such things is to point beyond themselves, to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. They lead us deeper into the mystery of Christ who is our life in all its fullness.
This puts me in mind of some words of Evelyn Underhill about the Eucharist, about what we are doing here this morning at the beginning of the third legislative day of our General Convention. She writes: "It has been said there are many ways and degrees of receiving the Blessed Sacrament. It really depends on how wide we open our hearts… As Christ gives Himself to feed us, so we have to incarnate something of His all-loving, all-sacrificing soul. If we do not, then we have not really received Him. That is the Plain truth."
My dear brothers and sisters: let us not allow these days, in all their intensity, to obscure our intimate relationship with the One who is the reason we are here, the One who alone gives validity to our debates, our discernments and our decisions. Rather, may Christ be the wisdom of this Convention, and may the force and power of his friendship draw us together as friends eager to serve the world in his name.
A Spanish version of this text will be available later today.