Evelyn Underhill



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Evelyn Underhill

Picture courtesy of Jesus Fellowship

Evelyn was a poet and novelist, as well as a pacifist and mystic. She was born into a well-educated but not particularly religious, legal family. In her childhood and youth she herself was a nominal churchgoer, being confirmed at 15. She was educated at King’s College, London. But ceased worshipping and became an agnostic. In 1907 she married Hubert Stuart Moore, and she had a profound religious experience which she afterwards referred to as her “conversion”.

Evelyn was already a novelist but now she began to study the writings of the mystics and gathered together material for her classic book, Mysticism (1911). Twenty more books followed, in which she developed her central theme - the love of God and that the way of love is the way of sacrifice.

[Sacrifice] expresses . . . the living heart of religion; the self-giving of the creature to its God. By this self-giving action, man takes his conscious part in the response of the universe to the Source of its being; and unites the small movements of his childish soul to the eternal sacrifice of the Son.

Another theme to which she kept returning was the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of spiritual depth.

The human mind’s thirst for more and more breadth has obscured the human heart’s craving for more and more depth. . . . Our interest rushes out to the furthest limits of the universe, but we seldom take a sounding of the ocean beneath our restless keels.

In the English-speaking world, she was one of the most widely read writers on such matters in the first half of the 20th century. Through her books, retreat addresses and correspondence with those seeking spiritual counsel, Evelyn Underhill helped many to understand the mystical tradition. Her advice was invariably sensible and practicable. To her, worship and the varied dimensions of the spiritual life meant beginning with God and being “drawn at His pace and in His way to the place where He wants us to be: not the place we fancied for ourselves”.

From about 1925, her writings became more focused on the Holy Spirit and she became prominent in the Anglican Church as a lay leader of spiritual retreats, a spiritual director for hundreds of individuals, guest speaker, radio lecturer, and proponent of contemplative prayer. In recognition of her capabilities, King’s College made her a fellow of the college in 1927. Evelyn was the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England, to officially conduct spiritual retreats for the Church and to establish ecumenical links between churches. She was one of the first woman theologians to lecture in English colleges and universities, which she did frequently. An award-winning bookbinder, studying with the most renowned masters of the time, schooled in the classics, well read in Western spirituality, well informed (in addition to theology) in the philosophy, psychology, and physics of her day, and was a writer and reviewer for ‘The Spectator’ magazine.

Evelyn was a true mystic, yet at all times practical and to the point. As an only child, she was devoted to her parents and, later, to her husband. She was fully engaged in the life of a barrister's daughter and wife, including the entertainment and charitable work that entailed, and pursued a daily regimen that included writing, research, worship, prayer and meditation. Her conviction that mysticism showed itself in love of others is reflected in her commitment to socialism and the plight of the poor. She not only wrote books on prayer, worship and mysticism, but produced new translations and editions of older works on the subject, thus introducing many to the classics of western mysticism. It was a fundamental axiom of hers that all of life was sacred, as that was what "incarnation" was about so her response to WWI was to become a strong pacifist towards the end of her life.

BORN: 6 December 1875, Wolverhampton, England

DIED:15 June 1941 (aged 65) London, England.