Inspiration from Evelyn Underhill

Inspiration from Evelyn Underhill

For our Lenten devotions this year, we’re reading Lent With Evelyn Underhill: Selections from her writings, edited by G.P. Mellick Belshaw. Here’s what Underhill has to say for the first Sunday in Lent devotion:

God, as Brother Giles said, is a great mountain of corn from which [hu]man[ity], like a sparrow, takes a grain of wheat: yet even that grain of wheat, which is as much as we can carry away, contains all the essentials of our life. We are to carry it carefully and eat it gratefully: remembering with awe the majesty of the mountain from which it comes.

The first thing this vast sense of God does for us, is to deliver us from the imbecilities of religious self-love and self-assurance; and sink our little souls in the great life of the race, in and upon which this One God in His mysterious independence is always working, whether we notice it or not. When that sense of His unique reality gets dim and stodgy, we must go back and begin there once more; saying with the Psalmist, ‘All my fresh springs are in thee.’ [Hu]Man[ity], said Christ, is nourished by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Not the words we expect, or persuade ourselves that we have heard; but those unexpected words He really utters, sometimes by the mouths of the most unsuitable people, sometimes through apparently unspiritual events, sometimes secretly within the soul. (pp. 22-23)

How beautiful and mysterious is the grace of God!

Brief Book Review

The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok

This summer I had the opportunity to read one of my favourite novelists, Chaim Potok. I read, by now an old novel, The Book of Lights, which like his other novels is autobiographical—Dr. Potok was, in addition to being a novelist, a rabbi and professor and U.S. army chaplain in Korea. As with his other novels, Potok touches on similar motifs: Biblical, theological and philosophical scholarship, the tension between Western secularism and traditional Judaism, the quest for communion with God, survivor guilt, suffering and grief, darkness and light, good and evil, prayer and mysticism to list a few.

In The Book of Lights, protagonist Gershon Loran, a seminarian, is a budding Kabbalist scholar inspired by his Kabbalah teacher Jakob Keter. Another seminary professor, Nathan Malkuson, scorns Gershon’s interest in Kabbalah, and tries to persuade him to pursue Talmudic studies. Gershon gets lost in the ancient and medieval Kabbalist texts, dreams dreams and sees visions. Yet, as gifted a young scholar he is, his life is full of uncertainty and doubts. His parents, on a trip to purchase real estate in Israel, were killed in the crossfire between Arabs and Jews while sitting in a café, leaving Gershon with his poverty-stricken uncle and aunt. His seminary roommate is Arthur Leiden. Arthur is not a very ambitious seminarian, and does minimal work in his courses. However, again there is irony here, since he comes from a distinguished Boston secular Jewish family. His father is the famous or infamous—depending on your worldview—theoretical physicist, Charles Leiden, who worked with scientists like Einstein to invent the atomic bomb. His mother, Elizabeth Leiden, is a distinguished professor of art history. Arthur did his undergraduate work in physics at Harvard. However, he finds darkness rather than light in physics. The legacy of his father creates much survivor’s guilt within Arthur as a consequence of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. So in a quest toward the light, Arthur agrees to attend seminary.

At the end of their seminary studies, both Gershon and Arthur serve as U.S. army chaplains overseas in Korea. Gershon seems to find his way quite well within the military milieu, gaining the trust and respect of his C.O. and the rank-and-file troops, while Arthur complains about the frugal conditions and continues to seek ways to atone for his father’s sin. I won’t indulge you in further details of the novel, except to say that there are a couple of surprising turns at the outcome—which inspire readers to reflect on the destiny of the characters as well as their own. For anyone interested in Chaim Potok and Judaism’s encounter with the contemporary world, The Book of Lights is a worthwhile read.