EVELYN UNDERHILL The life of Evelyn Underhill, the twentieth century British religious writer, has particular appeal for us because she is a modern woman. Not only did she live recently, she was well-aware of the forces which shape our contemporary world, and appreciated the power and achievement of modern science and technology. She was thoroughly familiar with developments in modern psychology, and was acutely aware, as was her contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that God was absent in her time.
She was a lay woman who basically worked alone. She was the most prolific female religious writer in the English language in the early twentieth century; the first woman to lecture at Oxford; a Fellow of King's College, London; the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen; the first woman to give retreats within Anglicanism; a religious writer of the Spectator; and a widely acclaimed writer. According to Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Underhill did more than anyone else in Anglicanism to keep the spiritual life alive in the period between the wars. As the air war over Britain raged, she claimed that although Hitler was a scourge, his evil should not be met by the evil of war. Only love could overcome evil. Her spirituality led her ultimately to a position which was incomprehensible to most of her contemporaries – pacifism.
Drawn to Rome, but unable to accept its approach to Modernism, she opted for Anglo-Catholicism, but her principal concern was with personal religion rather than institutional affiliation.
Underhill assumes that we are loved, and that the purpose of life is to endure, accept, and claim that love. In the claiming we are lured closer and closer to that which loves us, and in this process we become like that which we love. Filled with God, we become like God, holy, sanctified, deified, a link between our brothers and sisters and the source of all love, that which we call God. Of great influence on her was St. John of the Cross, who wrote, “ in the end, we are judged not by our mysticism, but by our love.”
She died, aged 65, on 15th June, 1941.
O God, Origin, Sustainer, and End of all your creatures:
Grant that your Church, taught by your servant Evelyn Underhill,
guarded evermore by your power,
and guided by your Spirit into the light of truth,
may continually offer to you all glory and thanksgiving,
and attain with your saints to the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have promised us by our Saviour Jesus Christ;
who with you and the Holy Spirit
lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen
“The real Christian is always a revolutionary.
To say day by day “Thy Kingdom Come” – if these tremendous words really stand for a conviction and desire – does not mean
“I quite hope that some day the Kingdom of God will be established, and peace and goodwill prevail. But at present I don’t see how it is to be managed or what I can do about it.”
On the contrary, it means, or should mean, “Here am I! Send me!” – active, costly collaboration with the Spirit in whom we believe.”
Penetrate these murky corners
where we hide our memories
and tendencies on which we do not care to look,
but which we will not yield freely up to you,
that you may purify and transmute them.
The persistent buried grudge,
the half-acknowledged enmity
which is still smouldering,
the bitterness of that loss
we have not turned into sacrifice,
the private comfort we cling to,
the secret fear of failure
which saps our initiative
and is really inverted pride,
the pessimism which is an insult to your joy.
Lord, we bring all these to you,
and we review them
with shame and penitence
in your steadfast light.