Lent With Evelyn Underhill – Introduction
I SHALL never forget an event that took place during the early days of my first term at the General Theological Seminary, New York. My faculty adviser had made an appointment with me, and I expected a discussion about my courses. The Very Rev. Cuthbert A. Simpson, now Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, but at that time Professor of Old Testament at the Seminary, was seated at his desk as I entered his study. Prepared to give an evaluation of the progress of my studies, I was utterly surprised when he looked up and said: ‘How are your meditations coming along?’ The brief but awkward silence which followed communicated the answer clearly. ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘is there something that you could recommend to get me on the right tack?’ He thought for a moment, and replied, ‘Have you ever read anything by Evelyn Underhill? If not, why don’t you try the Mystery of Sacrifice? It was a good choice, for in that short but profound meditation on the liturgy, I was introduced to the essence of her thought. The book opened up the whole world of her writings, the pursuit of which has proved to be a continuously rewarding experience.
Evelyn Underhill died in 1941, and the list of books, essays, addresses, letters, and poems that she produced, beginning with the turn of the century, is remarkable. Her early book Mysticism remains to this day a classic in the field, and her later book Worship, published in 1936, is still widely read and appreciated. However, for me, she reaches her heights in some of her less ambitious undertakings— her shorter books, such as the School of Charity and Concerning the Inner Life— and particularly in her addresses given at retreats and in her letters. The latter reveal her love for, and frankness with, a series of friends and acquaintances. Evelyn Underhill’s thought developed from an early fascination with the mystical tradition in Christianity to a decidedly incarnational and sacramental point of view, but never at the expense of the positive contributions of Christian mysticism which she traced from the New Testament to the present. The Roman Catholic lay-theologian, Baron Friedrich von Hügel, played an important part in guiding her into a realization of the ‘given-ness’ of Christianity, especially as this is seen in the historical event of the Incarnation and the subsequent life of the institutional Church. She learned to place heavy emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the prevenience of God, so that the Christian life became for her a response to God’s self-revelation rather than a human seeking after God. Her spirituality was never subjective nor shallow, and it became increasingly more dependent upon the transcendence of God and His loving search for man’s obedience.
What could man’s attitude be other than a humble adoration?— so thought Evelyn Underhill. As Frederick Denison Maurice, the great nineteenth-century exponent of the Anglican approach, had already written: ‘The more near [the believer] is brought to God, the greater he feels the necessity for adoration and worship,’ and for her this became especially real in sacramental worship. She had nothing to do with individualistic pietism, and her religion was at one with the corporate worship of the Church. Her love for and her interest in worship stimulated her to study the historic liturgies, of which she became a most competent scholar. Nevertheless, she did not stop there with a scholarly concern for worship; she went on to emphasize that the Christian life was not only seen in belief and worship, but must be fulfilled in practice. Her addresses on the fruit of the Spirit, and her love for the poor, demonstrate her conviction that the Christian ‘way’ of commitment is not something possessed but offered.
The following selections from the writings of Evelyn Underhill are intended to be used daily during the course of a Lenten season. Many a Christian has emphasized that far greater meaning can be extracted from Holy Scripture and devotional literature when the length of time spent in reading, rather than the number of pages read, is stressed. This holds true in the use of these selections. Evelyn Underhill’s writings are filled with meat, and they can only be appreciated and digested with time and concentration.
The selections are chosen with the purpose of deepening the reader’s Lenten observance by following the thought of Evelyn Underhill, to whom many of us look as the outstanding modern Anglican writer on the ‘interior life,’ and whose prayer and understanding was so firmly rooted in the classical spiritual writers of the Christian Church. In order not to distract from the content of her thought, footnotes have been omitted, but each reading has been identified with reference to book, essay, or letter, in which it first appeared.
G. P. MELLICK BELSHAW
Belshaw, G.P. Mellick. Lent With Evelyn Underhill (Kindle Locations 56-65). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.