Evelyn Underhill for the 21st century
Updated: Apr 6
"Everyday rituals and the beauty of holiness: Evelyn Underhill for the 21st century "
Ayla Lepine is the Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery. She is an art and architectural historian specialising in the intersection between the Gothic Revival and Anglicanism. Following a PhD at the Courtauld she held postdoctoral fellowships at the Courtauld and Yale. She has taught at Essex, Nottingham, King’s College London, and the V&A. Her publications include Modern Architecture and Religious Communities 1850-1970: Building the Kingdom (2018) and articles in Architectural History and British Art Studies. She is also a trustee of the UK charity Art and Christianity.
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was a Londoner, a theologian, a novelist, a spiritual director, and a mystic. Underhill’s definition of mysticism is crucial to understanding how we might be able to access this quality of spiritual depth and insight today. Underhill’s belief was that every person has the capacity for profound interconnectedness with God and with the world around us. Underhill defined mysticism as: ‘the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.’ (Practical Mysticism, p. 3) It’s a practice and a discipline as well as an inherent part of being human, made in the image of God and therefore always longing at some level for a connection with the divine. She became an Anglican in 1921, when she was in her mid-40s.
Underhill wrote 40 books, including poetry, fiction, and theology. She was an expert in medieval mysticism – particularly the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and Jan van Ruysbroeck – and she was the first woman to lead retreats for clergy at Canterbury Cathedral and the first woman to give the Upton Lectures at Oxford in 1921. She was made a Fellow of King’s College London, and she was a key figure at the retreat house at Pleshey.
Among her many publications, two stand out as particularly valuable not only because of their content, but also their context. The first, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, was published in 1914 as the First World War began. Having written it in the months prior to the war, she considered not publishing it until she realised, as she writes in the preface, that it was more important than ever to do so. Mysticism is a source of strength and clarity in ‘deep spiritual consciousness’, and a source of courage too. She wrote that it is ‘the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness of those who try to practice it…It will teach them to see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness…it will confer on them an unconquerable hope.’
The second book that makes particularly strong links between everyday life, mysticism, and prayer is one of the last books Underhill wrote before she died. It too was published in the midst of traumatic conflict, at the beginning of the Second World War. Like Practical Mysticism, it’s short, accessible, and intended for the general public rather than expert theologians or scholars. Its insights are a wonderful accompaniment to Lent and Passiontide, whether read independently or as a group. Abba: Meditations Based on the Lord’s Prayer begins by reminding readers that ‘prayer is the substance of eternal life’.
Excerpts from Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1914)
(Available online: https://archive.org/details/PracticalMysticism)
Some great emotion, some devastating visitation of beauty, love or pain lifts us to another level of consciousness; and we are aware for a moment of the difference between the neat collection of discrete objects and experiences which we call the world, and the height the depth the breadth of that living growing changing fact, of which thought, life and energy are a part and in which we live and move and have our being. Then we realised that our whole life is enmeshed in great and living forces; terrible because unknown. Even the power which lurks in every coal scuttle, shines in the electric lamp, pants in the motor omnibus declares itself in the ineffable wonders of reproduction and growth, is supersensual. We do but perceive its results. The more sacred plane of life and energy which seems to be manifested in the forces we call spiritual and emotional - in love, anguish, ecstasy, and adoration - is hidden from us too. Symptoms and appearances are all that our intellects can discern: sudden irresistible inroads from it, all that our hearts can apprehend. The material for an intenser life, a wider sharper consciousness, a more profound understanding of our own existence, lies at our gates. But we are separated from it, we cannot assimilate it; except in abnormal moments, we hardly know that it is there.
You willingly spend time and money over that narrowing and sharpening of attention which you call a business, a legal education, the acquirement of a scientific method. But this new undertaking will involve the development and the training of the layer of your consciousness which has lain fallow in the past. The acquirement of a method you have never used before. It is reasonable, even reassuring, that hard work and discipline should be needed for this: that it should demand of you if not the renunciation of the cloister at least the virtues of the golf course. The education of the mystical sense begins in self simplification. The feeling, willing, seeing self is to move from the various and the analytic, to the simple and the synthetic: a sentence which may cause hard breathing and mopping of the brows on the part of the practical man. Yet it is to you practical man reading these pages as you rush through the tube to your practical work of rearranging unimportant fragments of your universe that this message so needed by your time or rather, by your want of time, is addressed. To you, unconscious analyst so busy reading the advertisements upon the carriage wall that you hardly observed the stages of your unceasing flight: so anxiously acquisitive of the crumbs that you never lift your eyes to the loaf. The essence of mystical contemplation is summed in these two experiences: union with the flux of life, and union with the whole in which all lesser realities are subsumed, and these experiences are well within your reach.
Concentration, recollection, a profound self-criticism, the stilling of his busy surface-intellect, his restless emotions of enmity and desire, the voluntary achievement of an attitude of disinterested love – by these strange paths the practical man has now been led, in order that he may know by communion something of the greater Life in which he is immersed and which he has so long and so successfully ignored. He has managed in his own small way something equivalent to those drastic purifications, those searching readjustments, which are undertaken by the heroic seekers for Reality; the arts whereby they defeat the tyranny of ‘the I, the Me, the Mine’ and achieve the freedom of a wider life.
When you put aside your preconceived ideas, your self-centred scale of values, and let intuition have its way with you, you open up by this act new levels of the world. Such an opening-up is the most practical of all activities; for then and then only will your diurnal existence, and the natural scene in which that existence is set, begin to give up to you its richness and meaning. Its paradoxes and inequalities will be disclosed as true constituents of its beauty, an inconceivable splendour will be shaken out from its dingiest folds. Then, and only then, escaping the single version of the selfish, you will begin to guess all that your senses were meant to be.
Excerpts from Abba: Meditations Based on the Lord’s Prayer (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1940)
(Available online: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/underhill/meditations.shtml)
[If] we consider the seven clauses of the Lord’s Prayer, we shall find here the link which binds them all together; so that they become seven moments in a single act of communion, seven doors opening upon “the world that is unwalled.” For these seven clauses represent seven fundamental characters of the one indivisible relation between the spirit of man and the Eternal God; they are seven lessons in prayer, forming together a complete direction for the conduct of our inner life. We begin to realize this, when we consider each separately, and see something of what each of them involves.
(1) Our Father which art in heaven: the sublime invocation which establishes our status before God, not merely as His creatures and slaves but as His children. We are the sons and daughters of the Eternal Perfect, inheritors of the Abiding; we have in us the spark of absolute life.
(2) Hallowed be Thy Name: selfless adoration, awestruck worship as the ruling temper of our life and all we do.
(3) Thy Kingdom come: devoted and eager co-operation with His transforming and redeeming action; the defeat of evil and the triumph of love as the first object of our prayer.
(4) Thy Will be done: active self-abandonment to the mysterious purposes and methods of God, and complete subordination to His design, as the perpetual disposition of the soul.
(5) Give us this day our daily bread: confident dependence on God for all the necessities of life. “Without thee I cannot live.”
(6) And forgive us our trespasses, our debts—the too much and the too little—the major types of disharmony with love: the prayer of filial penitence.
(7) Lead us not into temptation: the acknowledgment of our creaturely weakness and trust in His prevenient care.
And then the great affirmation which embraces and justifies our faith, hope and charity: “Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory.” We ask this of you, for only you can do it: no lesser power, no lesser love, will suffice.
If the transforming power of religion is to be felt, its discipline must be accepted, its price paid in every department of life; and it is only when the soul is awakened to the reality and call of God, known at every point of its multiple experience, that it is willing to pay the price and accept the discipline. Worship is a primary means of this awakening.
It follows once more that whole-hearted adoration is the only real preparation for right action: action which develops within the Divine atmosphere, and is in harmony with the eternal purposes of God. The Bible is full of illustrations of this truth, from the call of Isaiah to the Annunciation. First the awestruck recognition of God: and then, the doing of His Will. We cannot discern His Eternal Purpose, even as it affects our tiny lives, opportunities and choices, except with the eyes of disinterested and worshipping love. The hallowing of the Name is therefore the essential condition without which it is not possible to work for the Kingdom or recognize the pressure of the Will. So the first imperative of the life of prayer is that which the humanist finds so hard to understand. We are to turn our backs upon earth, and learn how to deal with its sins and its needs by looking steadfastly up to heaven.
Yet the life of prayer is incomplete if it stops here, in the realm of aspiration. Costly action as well as delighted fervour must form part of it. Like all else in the spiritual life of animal man, it must have its sacramental expression. Heroic sacrifice, peaceful suffering, patient and inconspicuous devotion to uncongenial tasks, the steady fight against sin, ugliness, squalor, and disease, the cleansing of national thought and increase of brotherhood among men: all this is a true part of the hallowing of the Name. It is our response to the impact of Perfection, our active recognition of the claim of God. Awe alone is sterile. But when it is married to sacrificial love, the fruits of the Spirit begin to appear; and the hallowing of the Name and the working for the Kingdom are seen to be two sides of one reality—the response of the creature to the demand of Love.
Glory is the final word of religion, as joy is its final state. The sparks and trickles of the Supernatural which come to us, the hints received through beauty and through sacrifice, the mysterious visitations and pressures of grace reaching us through the conflicts, rebellions and torments of the natural world—all these are earnests of a Perfection, a Wholeness yet unseen: as the small range of sound and colour revealed by the senses witness to the unseen colour and unheard music of a Reality which lies beyond their narrow span. All within the created order points beyond itself, to the uncreated Kingdom, Power and Glory. No life, no intelligence reaches perfection; yet in each there is a promise of the Perfect. Each comes up to its limit, and in so doing testifies to that which lies beyond it; the unlimited splendour of the Abiding, the Glory of the living God. So too the creature’s prayer comes up to its limit, and ends upon a word, a reality, which we can neither define nor apprehend.
Further reading and listening:
By Evelyn Underhill -
The Grey World, 1904
The Column of Dust, 1909
Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness, 1911
The Mystery of Sacrifice. A study on the liturgy, 1938
The Letters of Evelyn Underhill (edited by Charles Williams), 1943
Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book (edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr), 2018
About Evelyn Underhill –
Hampstead Parish Church Evelyn Underhill Conference, 2019 (lectures by Jane Shaw, Julie Gittoes, Ann Loades, Earl Collins)
My Favourite Mystic: Jane Shaw on Evelyn Underhill, April 2021
Stephen Burns, Bryan Cones, and James Tengatenga, Twentieth-Century Anglican Theologians from Evelyn Underhill to Esther Mombo, 2021
(Chapter on Underhill by Julie Gittoes)
Dana Greene, Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life, 1990
Ann Loades, Evelyn Underhill, 1997
Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, eds., Anglican Women Novelists, 2019
(Chapter on Evelyn Underhill by Ann Loades)
Jane Shaw, Pioneers of Modern Spirituality, 2017
Robyn Wrigley-Carr, The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill, 2020
Robyn Wrigley-Carr, Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill, 2021