June 15 – Evelyn Underhill

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Evelyn Underhill, person of prayer

Evelyn Underhill was born in England in 1875 and was the only daughter of Sir Arthur and Lady Alice Underhill. Her father was a well known barrister in London, and Evelyn was brought up in a household steeped in the law. She did not go to school, but was educated at home. After completing her secondary schooling, she attended King’s College, London. During vacations, she travelled abroad, and was greatly attracted to Catholicism, and would have become a Catholic, but was put off by the Catholic Church’s antagonistic attitude to the Modernist trend in theology at the end of the 19th century.

In 1907, she became a member of the Anglican Church, aligning herself with the High Church of England tradition. In the same year, she married Hubert Moore, a barrister. They had no children.

Prior to becoming a member of the church, she had read the writings of the famous Christian mystics – people like Teresa of Avila, Augustine of Hippo, John of the Cross, Francis of Assissi, Walter hilton, Julian of Norwich and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. She became absorbed with Christian spirituality and Christian mysticism, and felt that the average Christian knew little about this side of Christianity. She had always liked writing, so she began to write about Christian spirituality and published a guide to Christian mysticism in 1911. Other books were to follow – books on prayer and worship, and new translations of the writings of Christian mystics for the ordinary person.

Her writings attracted a great deal of interest, and she was soon in demand as a speaker and spiritual guide. She began to conduct retreats and conferences and later gave radio talks. She was very conscious of the need to to keep a balance between the spiritual and physical elements of life – the necessary combination of Mary and Martha, she put it. As a result, she spent her mornings writing, and her afternoons visiting the sick and the poor.

Her writings are refreshing. Although she writes about deep spiritual matters, she uses unaffected illustrations which are easy to identify with. She had a gift for relating what she had to say to the lives of ordinary men and women. On one occasion, she drew a parallel between a Christian’s life and a two-story house. In this house, the upstairs rooms are the spiritual rooms – decorative and beautiful; the downstairs rooms are the practical, well-used rooms representing the physical side of our natures. The house is incomplete without both sorts of rooms. We cannot retreat to the upstairs rooms and ignore the fact that the kitchen downstairs is overrun with beetles and contains a stove that doesn’t work properly.

From all accounts, Evelyn Underhill was a lively person. She loved the outdoors and was passionate about yachting. She had a fondness for pets and indulged in bookbinding for a hobby. She was greatly mourned when she died in 1941.

by Rev Ross Mackinnon