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Evelyn UnderhillBarry A. Orford
(December 6th 1875 – June 15th 1941)
To write a scholarly book which has never been out of print for more than a century, and is still regarded as an indispensable study of its subject, is no small achievement, but this is the case with the book Mysticism, published in 1911 by Evelyn Underhill. Yet this classic work is only a part of its author’s remarkable achievement, both in writing and in her life.
Evelyn Underhill has a special association with St John’s Church, because she is buried in its cemetery. Her grave is still sought out by those who reverence her for who she was and the spiritual counsel she gave to many. The past twenty years have seen a marked revival of interest in her output as a Christian writer. She is studied in this country and abroad, notably in the United States. Why is this?
At first sight, she was an unlikely candidate for a student of mysticism. She was born in Wolverhampton, her father was a distinguished lawyer, and she said that she was not brought up in a religious household. After a period of agnosticism as a young woman something awakened a sense of the spiritual in her, and after her marriage (to another lawyer) she began the research which would enable her to write Mysticism. Its success was immediate, and it went through many editions during her lifetime. It also brought her into contact with the Roman Catholic lay philosopher, Baron Friedrich von Hügel – another Hampstead link, because at one point he lived in Holford Road.
After the First World War, Underhill went through a spiritual crisis and asked for von Hügel’s help. He guided her for several years until his death, helping her to a definite Incarnational Christianity and impressing upon her that the Church rests upon three pillars, the Institutional, the Intellectual and the Mystical, and none must dominate over the others. The Church of England became her home. She always recognized the problems which can hamper the institutional Church, but she came to a firm conviction of its importance because “human beings can make little real progress on a basis of vague spirituality.”
She wrote extensively on mysticism, but we must not picture her as a pale, ethereal being, caught up in cloudy fantasies of a New Age kind. She was practical and down-to-earth, with a sharp, analytical mind and a keen sense of humour. She relished foreign travel with her husband. She insisted that life directed toward God “does not involve an existence withdrawn from common duties into some rapturous religious dreamland.” As she said, “I always have my doubts about the real sanctity of saints who let the pot boil over or forget to sweep the floor.” Her Christian path was costly, yet she conveyed assurance and hope to others. She was clear that God’s ways with people are individual, and will always work through our best natural instincts. Her work was done against the background of her domestic and social duties as the wife of a London lawyer, something which has commended her writings to people today simply because they are not the thoughts of a priest or an enclosed nun.
In a quiet way, she ventured into what had been chiefly male preserves. She wrote about theology and spirituality; she lectured to the University of Oxford; she broadcast on the radio; she was a regular book reviewer. She was a pioneer in encouraging people to go on retreat, and she conducted many retreats herself, chiefly in the retreat centre at Pleshey. In addition, she conducted a huge correspondence with people who asked for her guidance. Many of her smaller books are based upon her retreat addresses.
This was the pattern of her life until the mid-1930’s. By that time her health was failing, the result of natural weakness and hard work. Perhaps she was one of those Christians in whom the life of the Spirit is so intense that it wears out the body. Yet in this later period she wrote arguably her greatest book, Worship, a study of the principles of worship as expressed in Christian traditions, Eastern and Western.
The London Blitz drove her and her husband from their house in Campden Hill Square to Hampstead, to take refuge with friends at 12, Hampstead Square, where she died on June 15th, 1941. Her funeral was at nearby Christ Church, but she was brought to St John’s for burial. The visitor to her grave will probably experience some disappointment. Her husband, who outlived her by ten years, gets top billing on the gravestone, while she is referred to only as “daughter of Sir Arthur Underhill.” Is it time for us to see how her grave can be better marked? After all, she is a writer of continuing importance, and she is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (USA).
A short piece like this cannot begin to do justice to her thought, her spirituality, her life, and the wide range of her interests. For those who wish to approach her in greater depth, the most recent biography is Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life by Dana Greene. The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, edited by Charles Williams is a fine introduction to her outlook. An excellent anthology from her writings, Given to God, edited by Delroy Oberg is not presently in print, but is available second hand.
As we give thanks to God on June 15th for the witness of Evelyn Underhill, how good it would be to explore again her teaching and the example of her life.