Holy Communion 13th June 2021
On Evelyn Underhill
Bishop Richard Harries
Hampstead Parish Church
Sunday, June 13th
Commemorating Evelyn Underhill
The scholar priest Donald Allchin remembered meeting a retired military man who had known Hubert Stuart Moore as a sailing companion and saying to him ‘How wonderful to have known Evelyn Underhill’s husband’. The man was very puzzled by this, so Allchin explained that Hubert’s wife had been quite a well known author, to which he replied ‘Oh yes, I do believe she wrote books or something . It was a trouble to Hubert, but he was very good about it.’
This remark reveals why it is important to have a ledger stone remembering her in her own right, but also how outwardly Evelyn Underhill fitted so seamlessly into the social background into which she was born. The daughter of a distinguished lawyer and the wife of one, she entertained her husband’s legal friends with serene aplomb. As T. S. Eliot put it ‘She was a very cosy person to meet and have tea with her in her home (no 50) Campden Hill Square and was also very fond of cats’-which of course he was too.
This picture of what you might call an ordinary friendly woman has too often gone with a lofty description of her as largely self-educated. In fact she had a degree from King’s College, London and was later made a Fellow . Behind her great 1911 book on mysticism which she published at the age of 37 lay years of scholarly research which has ensured that it is still a reliable guide today more than 100 years later. She hunted out the best manuscripts and translations. She had an eye for early manuscripts. In short she was a serious scholar who wrote or edited 39 books and 350 articles or reviews. She was theological editor for The Spectator-those were the days. She showed a talent for writing from the age of 16 when she won a short story competition and her first published work was a book of humorous verse on the law followed by three novels.
But it is not for any of this that we remember her today. We honour her because for two if not three generations she was a shining beacon for the hidden, inner life of prayer-through her retreats but perhaps even more through the guidance she gave to individuals, who in their turn shaped others, she kept the stream of serious spirituality flowing in a dry disordered time. Her guidance on prayer to countless unknown individuals were indeed the mustard seed of today’s Gospel which grew into a great tree. For at least thirty years her two major books, Mysticism and Worship were on the shelves of every Anglo-Catholic priest and on a good many of the laity’s as well.
Evelyn Underhill’s own development is not fully open to us. Religion had no particular place in her home and for nine years or so she was an atheist. Like so many avant-garde artists of the time she was first drawn to the occult. Then in 1907 she had a powerful mystical experience but it was not until 1921, 13 years later and 10 years after the publication of Mysticism that after a long struggle she became an Anglican. Through the influence of Baron von Hugel she become convinced of the incarnation, the church and the sacraments. One effect of this was that whereas initially she had been entirely theocentric, without losing the sense of God as God, she became more Christocentric. Initially she wanted to become a Roman Catholic but she did not take that step, first because the Catholic Church had by then condemned the modernists, and as an honest scholar she shared modernist beliefs, and secondly she felt someone should only shift their allegiance if God was clearly calling them to do so, and she never felt this to be the case for her. So it is that we now have the spiritual pleasure of remembering her in our lectionary and asking for her prayers on June 15th. St Paul wrote in today’s first reading:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
So we now look at Evelyn Underhill in a new way, part of that new creation. She is the good news for today-one in whom the light of Christ shines brightly, an icon of Christ, and it is good that there is an icon of her at Pleshey, where she took so many retreats-and a sign of what we, with our different personalities, can become.
Her abiding lesson for Christians in general and Anglicans in particular is that the life of prayer, the mystical life if you like, is not just for a few high flyers, it is the destiny of every human being, the goal of the whole evolutionary process. We are made to grow into and deepen our communion with God in and through all the circumstances of our lives and this requires a serious spiritual attention.
She is just the kind of person very many of us would want as a spiritual director, or as some people prefer to think of it today, as someone who would accompany us on our Christian journey. If you doubt this read her letters-an early inexpensive edition edited by the Inkling Charles Williams is readily available on Amazon. In these letters she comes across as someone with a lovely sense of humour, with a keen ear for absurd remarks picked up in overheard conversations, and a no less sharp eye for the paintings and works of art she saw on the continent every summer where she took her mother for a month or more and where she imbibed the art and culture of Europe. What she writes is fresh, honest and appreciative. Looking at a scene of the Last Judgment in one church she describes ‘the intense surprise and half awakened state of the newly risen, and the bewildered inability to enjoy themselves of those who find themselves in Paradise.’ (p.12)
A fair number of these letters offer spiritual guidance-they are invariably wise, kind and salutary. She could not cope with any kind of gush. She was adamantly opposed to those simply seeking a spiritual high. She was ruthless in exposing self-centredness in all its disguises but in a way that somehow comes across without offence. She does not impose her own views, simply acting as a midwife for the person’s own development whatever it might be. Her driving passion is well summed up in a sentence at the beginning of a retreat ‘Let us pray that we may have a closer communion with our Lord’. That closer, deeper communion expressed in and through all the details of every day life was what she strove for herself, and what she tried to help others to strive for. Anything else, an intense spiritual experience, or a period in the doldrums was besides the point. What mattered, and only what mattered was a closer union, a deeper communion lived out in reality.
She herself had poor health and suffered badly from asthma but there is no hint of complaint or self-pity in her letters. She believed that though suffering is contrary to God’s will, it could be offered to him in union with all the suffering of the world.
One small detail of her life worth noting is that she was a highly skilled prize winning sailor of small boats. As myself someone who only succeeds in capsizing them I recognise in her someone who was concerned with what works, what is practical and real. As she took care not to capsize a small craft, so she took care to ensure that those she guided stayed afloat and sailing in the right direction. So she is always concerned that a person’s life should be balanced for example, and not obsessed by religion. At the same time she was concerned to tease out the habitual evasions and deceptions by which we live first of all and above all in herself. So it was that people recognised in her both in her person and through her writings, the real thing, and seeing it in her made them desire more seriously to be real themselves.
The letters are often concerned that people do not strain themselves in the cause of religion, that we are gentle with ourselves, but this is on the assumption-and there is no avoiding this-she would tell us in straight plain terms, that any serious Christian would have a rule of life that includes daily meditation and prayer. This was fundamental to her own life and the source of her influence. Closely linked with this was her repeated teaching that the spiritual life was not dependent on feelings. Whilst we should be aware of our feelings and allow for them, they were irrelevant to our desire to live close to God and do his will in all things.
A lot could be said about the relationship between Evelyn Underhill’s teaching and T.S. Eliot’s writing. Let me end by quoting some lines of Eliot which I believe she would have approved of. In ‘The Dry Salvages’ he describes some of the sublime moments we might have in life, for example when we hear music and we are the music while music lasts, and then he continues
These are only hints and guesses,
hints followed by guesses;
and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline,
thought and action.
The hint half guessed,
the gift half understood,
By Incarnation both he and she meant not just the unique incarnation of God in Christ, but that through that unique union of the Divine and the human, God can come to dwell in every human being, as we allow our lives to be open to his working in and through us. As her words quoted in the service sheet put it.
All the various forms of prayer and contemplation, or the disciplines of the spiritual life, only matter because they help deepen and purify our humble communion with this One God,
Or to use some words of Eliot again
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity,
A further union, a deeper communion.
So to Christ who takes us into that union with the Father, and the Holy Spirit who deepens our Communion, one eternal circle of love, be all glory now and for ever.Print This Page