devotional The message of Evelyn Underhill

Dana Greene

The mystical life is, for Underhill, the spiritual life because all true religion has a central mystical element. This does not mean that all those who lead the spiritual life have lives like those of the great mystics, but rather that the pattern of those lives is the same. She never principally associates mysticism with extraordinary phenomena — visions, voices, etc., but with the quiet movement of the heart. For the great mystic and the garden variety person, the ‘spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of His reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of His will’. This is the sum of Underhill’s thought.

A ‘quiet’ life

Evelyn Underhill’s life has been referred to as ‘quiet.’ By that it is meant that it was not dramatic in any outward sense. As the only child of a London barrister and his wife, she lived a life of material comfort. At age thirty-two, she married H. Stuart Moore, a childhood friend, who like her father had a profession in the law. They had no children, and Mrs. Moore, as she was known in private, spent her days writing. Her work was favourably received and sold well. After about 1925, when she was fifty, she turned increasingly to spiritual direction and the giving of retreats.

A torrent of writing

As the wife of a London barrister, she was expected to keep up a lively social life. But she was as well a woman of great religious intensity who expressed herself in a torrent of writing which kept up for thirty-four years. She was a writer who was acclaimed in her own times, but one who moved in no literary circle and had no disciples. She was a woman who cherished community and had many friends, but one who worked essentially alone, writing from her home without the direct support of any institution, academic or ecclesiastical. She was a director of retreats and spiritual guide to many, but she shared her own spiritual anguish with almost no one. Although devoted to both her husband and her parents, neither shared her interest in religion.

Yet this ‘quiet’ life of Evelyn Underhill ... produced some of the best religious literature of our time. If one is to discuss Underhill’s work, one must begin with Mysticism, a pioneering study of, as the subtitle indicates, the nature and development of human spiritual consciousness. It was this book which established her reputation and set the theme, whether expressed in analytical pieces, biographical essays, editions, or introductions, which would dominate her writing for more than a decade to follow. ND

From Dana Greene, Adhering to God: The Message of Evelyn Underhill for Our Times, edited by Arthur Middleton

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