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Evelyn Underhill: Foremother of Contemporary Spirituality

The Book of Wisdom promises that “In each generation wisdom passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.” In our own times we need to be on the lookout for these “friends of God and prophets” whom we will find in unlikely places.  Although they appear to serve their own times, they are then often forgotten.  Take for example the English religious writer, Evelyn Underhill, who died eighty years ago.  She was a lay, married, middle class woman who was theologically self-taught. Seemingly ordinary, Underhill became, in the words of Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the person who did more than anyone else to keep the spiritual life alive in Anglicanism in the period between the great wars.  She made her contribution to the spiritual life of her contemporaries through her writing (she authored or edited thirty-nine books and many articles), by leading retreats and by what in her day was called the care of souls.

Underhill’s most famous book, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s (sic) Spiritual Consciousness, was published in 1911 and subsequently has never been out of print.  It is a fat book of some five hundred pages which she wrote to both define mysticism and to save the contributions of the mystics over the centuries.  At the turn of the twentieth century the subject of mysticism was suspect as a phenomenon associated with visions and voices, a manifestation of the irrational.  Underhill offered another definition of the mystics as those who knew for certain the love of God.  In her little book Practical Mysticism for Normal People she insisted that this experience of the love of God was accessible to everyone and claimed that it was essential to Christianity.  In order to be vibrant, Christianity needed an intellectual component (theology), an institutional component (the church) and an experiential component (mysticism).  And who was advancing these ideas?—Not a cleric or theologian but a self-trained woman from Kensington.

Underhill insisted that this experience of the love of God had transformative implications.  She wrote: “Now the experience of God is, I believe, in the long run always a vocational experience. It always impels to some sort of service, always awakens an energetic love. It never leaves the self where it found it.”  It was at this point in 1920 that Underhill left her scholarly study of mysticism and began her new vocation developing retreats and offering what we now call spiritual direction. She would prepare a retreat and travel around England offering spiritual counsel, principally for lay women. She gave one retreat to Anglican clergy, and she was the first woman to offer a retreat in Canterbury Cathedral. During the second half of life her vocation was to encourage the spiritual life in ordinary people. In a brilliant BBC broadcast she defined the spiritual life as “a life in which all we do comes from the centre where we are anchored in God.”  And in other writing she redefined holiness: “The final test of holiness is not seeming very different from other people but being used to make other people very different; becoming the parent of new life.” In homey and accessible language she described these holy ones as those who “do not stand aside wrapped in delightful prayers and feeling pure and agreeable to God. They go right down into the mess and there, right down in the mess, they are able to radiate God because they possess God and that, above all else is the priestly work that wins and heals souls.”

Underhill believed the promise of the Book of Wisdom: there are “friends of God” among us. She offered a way to recognize them. “We most easily recognize spiritual reality,” she wrote “when it is perceived as transfiguring human character. The spiritual life is not taught, it is caught.  One gets it through contagion.”

Evelyn Underhill is a foremother of contemporary spirituality and a “friend of God and prophet” who is remembered on her feast day, June 15th, in the Episcopal, Anglican and Lutheran churches.  Long before the German theologian Karl Rahner prophesied that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he (sic) will not exist at all,” Evelyn Underhill had announced the importance of the mystical tradition of the past and its imperative for future Christians.

This year, 2021, is the 80th anniversary of the death of Evelyn Underhill. There will be an international zoom conference in her honor on various days the week of June 14th. See www.evelynunderhill.org for details.

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