Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

Posts Tagged "Evelyn Underhill":

Duvet Days And The Heavenly Vision: Evelyn Underhill

duvet dayOne Needful Thing

I read the other day the story of a brownie who lived in a wood. He had a little wheelbarrow, and passed his time in a very moral and useful manner picking up slugs and snails. Yet there was something lacking in his life.

The King of the world passed through that wood very early every morning, and made all things beautiful and new, but the brownie had never seen him. He longed to, but something prevented it. He had one cherished possession, a lovely little green blanket which had fallen out of the fairy queen’s chariot and which he had not been able to help keeping for himself. It was very cold in the wood at night, but the blanket kept him so warm and cosy that he never woke up to see the King of the world.

And one day there came to him a shepherd who looked deep into the soul of the brownie and said to him: ‘Haven’t you seen the King of the world?’ And the brownie said, ‘No – I do want to, but somehow I can’t manage it.’ Then the shepherd replied: ‘But I seem to see something in your soul that keeps you from the vision; something that looks rather like a blanket.’

And at that a terrible fight began in the heart of the brownie, a battle between wanting to go on being warm and comfortable in his blanket and longing to see the King of the world.

Perhaps…the ultimate choice which lies before us may turn out to be the brownie’s choice between the heavenly vision and the blanket.

OK, I cheated. Evelyn Underhill does not mention the word duvet, you are right. But if I put up a picture of a brownie and a blanket, would you have read the post? ;>)

The extract is from a conference paper delivered by her in about April 1924, and anthologised in ‘Invincible Spirits: A thousand years of spiritual writings‘ chosen by Felicity Leng.

The House Of The Soul: Evelyn Underhill


What type of house does the soul live in? It is a two-storey house. The psychologist too often assumes that it is a one-roomed cottage with a mud floor; and never even attempts to go upstairs. The extreme transcendentalist sometimes talks as though it were perched in the air, like the lake dwellings of our primitive ancestors, and had no ground floor at all. A more humble attention to facts suggests that neither of those simplifications is true.

We know that we have a ground floor, a natural life biologically conditioned, with animal instincts and affinities; and that this life is very important, for it is the product of the divine creativity—its builder and maker is God.

But we know too that we have an upper floor, a supernatural life, with supernatural possibilities, a capacity for God; and that this, man’s peculiar prerogative, is more important still.

If we try to live on one floor alone, we destroy the mysterious beauty of our human vocation; so utterly a part of the fugitive and creaturely life of this planet and yet so deeply coloured by Eternity; so entirely one with the world of nature, and yet, ‘in the Spirit’, a habitation of God. ‘Thou madest him lower than the angels to crown him with glory and worship’. We are created both in Time and in Eternity, not truly one but truly two; and every thought, word and act must be subdued to the dignity of that double situation in which Almighty God has placed and companions the childish spirit of man.

Therefore a full and wholesome spiritual life can never consist in living upstairs, and forgetting to consider the ground floor and its homely uses and needs; thus ignoring the humbling fact that those upper rooms are entirely supported by it. Nor does it consist in the constant, exasperated investigation of the shortcomings of the basement.

When Saint Teresa said that her prayer had become ‘solid like a house’, she meant that its foundations now went down into the lowly but firm ground of human nature, the concrete actualities of the natural life: and on those solid foundations, its walls rose up towards heaven. The strength of the house consisted in that intimate welding together of the divine and the human, which she found in its perfection in the humanity of Christ. There, in the common stuff of human life, which He blessed by His presence, the saints have ever seen the holy foundation of holiness.

Since we are two-storey creatures, called to a natural and a supernatural status, both sense and spirit must be rightly maintained, kept in order, consecrated to the purposes of the city, if our full obligations are to be fulfilled. The house is built for God; to reflect, on each level, something of His unlimited Perfection.

Downstairs that general rightness of adjustment to all this-world obligations, which the ancients called the quality of Justice; and the homely virtues of Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude reminding us of our creatureliness, our limitations, and so humbling and disciplining us.

Upstairs, the heavenly powers of Faith, Hope and Charity; tending towards the Eternal, nourishing our life towards God, and having no meaning apart from God.

Evelyn Underhill

The House of the Soul

(extract from ‘Lent with Evelyn Underhill’)


Easter Even: The Resurrection Faith – Evelyn Underhill


I am writing to you at the moment in the Christian year when, as it were, we pause and look back on the richest cluster of such spiritual facts ever revealed to man. Paschal Time, to give its old name to the interval between Easter and Ascension, marks the end of the historical manifestation of the Word Incarnate, and the beginning of His hidden life within the Church. But the quality of that hidden life, in which as members of the Body of Christ we are all required to take part, is the quality which the historic life revealed. From the very beginning the Church has been sure that the series of events which were worked out to their inevitable end in Holy Week sum up and express the deepest secrets of the relation of God to man.

That means, of course, that Christianity can never be merely a pleasant or consoling religion. It is a stern business. It is concerned with the salvation through sacrifice and love of a world in which, as we can all see now, evil and cruelty are rampant. Its supreme symbol is the Crucifix—the total and loving self-giving of man to the redeeming purposes of God.

Because we are all the children of God we all have our part to play in His redemptive plan; and the Church consists of those loving souls who have accepted this obligation, with all that it costs. Its members are all required to live, each in their own way, through the sufferings and self-abandonment of the Cross; as the only real contribution which they can make to the redemption of the world. Christians, like their Master, must be ready to accept the worst that evil and cruelty can do to them, and vanquish it by the power of love.

For if sacrifice, total self-giving to God’s mysterious purpose, is what is asked of us, His answer to that sacrifice is the gift of power. Easter and Whitsuntide complete the Christian Mystery by showing us first our Lord Himself and then His chosen apostles possessed of a new power—the power of the Spirit—which changed every situation in which they were placed. That supernatural power is still the inheritance of every Christian and our idea of Christianity is distorted and incomplete unless we rely on it. It is this power and only this which can bring in the new Christian society of which we hear so much. We ought to pray for it; expect it and trust it; and as we do this, we shall gradually become more and more sure of it.

Evelyn Underhill

Letter to the Prayer Group, Eastertide 1941, from The Fruits of the Spirit
The illustration, Completing life’s puzzle by: Doug Burke is via Seed Resources.

I hope you have enjoyed these extracts from the writings of Evelyn Underhill, who died in 1941. If they have whetted your appetite for more, may I suggest you do not begin, as I did, by plunging into ‘Mysticism‘, which is hard going in parts if you are not yet a mystic yourself. I suggest that this anthology of her writings, Lent With Evelyn Underhill, which was first published in 1964, and edited by G P Mellick Belshaw, would be a better introduction to her work, as would one of the other anthologies.

Good Friday: The Cross And Its Demands – Evelyn Underhill


It is not the act of a good disciple,’ says Saint John of the Cross, ‘to flee from the Cross in order to enjoy the sweetness of an easy piety.’

So here above all, by the Crucifix and what it means to us, we test the quality of our discipleship. What we think about the Cross means ultimately what we think about life, for ‘seek where you will,’ says à Kempis, ‘everywhere you will find the Cross.’ And when you have found it, what are you going to do about it? That is the question: look at it with horror or with adoration?

It has been said that the whole life of Christ was a Cross. I think that saying that does grave injustice to its richness of response, to the real expansion and joy and beauty of His contacts with nature, children, friends,; the true happiness we find again in the saints nearest to Him; the hours snatched for the deep joy of prayer and communion; the outburst of rejoicing when He discerns the Father’s Will. But it was the deep happiness of the entirely self-abandoned, not the easy shallow satisfaction of those who live to express themselves and enjoy themselves; that Perfect Joy which Saint Francis rediscovered in abjection; and which was ratified on La Verna when he was caught into the supernatural order and sealed with the wounds of Christ.

There is a marked contrast between the first phase of the Ministry with its confident movement within the natural world; mending what is wrong with it, using what is right in it and sharing the social life of men, and that after the Transfiguration, the second phase, with its sense of a deepening conflict with that easy, happy world; the conviction that what is deeply wrong with it can only be mended by sacrifice; that the Suffering Servant is the one who serves His brethren best. ‘Take up  the Cross if you wish to follow Me!”

The spiritually natural life is charming, but it stops short of all that God asks of the really surrendered soul.

It was in the Passion, says Saint John of the Cross, that Christ ‘finished that supreme work which His whole life, its miracles and works of power, had not accomplished: the union and reconciliation of human nature with the life of God.’ Here we learn all that it means to acknowledge Him as our Way, our Truth and our Life. I suppose no soul of any sensitiveness can live through Holy Week without an awed and grateful sense of being incorporated in a mystery of self-giving love which yet remains far beyond our span.

Evelyn Underhill

Light of Christ 1932
The illustration is by Ib Rasmussen and is in Sakramentskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark. Crucifix over the left gallery. Via Wikimedia.

Maundy Thursday: Incarnation and Eucharist – Evelyn Underhill


For the fully Christian life is a Eucharistic life: that is, a natural life conformed to the pattern of Jesus, given in its wholeness to God, laid on His altar as a sacrifice of love, and consecrated, transformed by His inpouring life, to be used to give life and food to other souls. It will be, according to its measure and special call, adoring, declaratory, intercessory and redemptive: but always a vehicle of the Supernatural. The creative spirit of God is a redemptive and cherishing love; and it is as friends and fellow workers with the Spirit, tools of the Divine redemptive action that Christians are required to live. ‘You are the Body of Christ’, said Saint Augustine to his communicants. That is to say, in you and through you the method and work of the Incarnation must go forward. You are meant to incarnate in your lives the theme of your adoration. You are to be taken, consecrated, broken and made means of grace; vehicles of the Eternal Charity.

Thus every Christian communicant volunteers for translation into the supernatural order, and is self-offered for the supernatural purposes of God. The Liturgy leads us out towards Eternity, by way of the acts in which men express their need of God and relation to God. It commits every worshipper to the adventure of holiness, and has no meaning apart from this. In it the Church shows forth again and again her great objective; the hallowing of the whole created order and the restoration of all things in Christ. The Liturgy recapitulates all the essentials in this life of sanctification — to repent, to pray, to listen, to learn; and then to offer upon the altar of God, to intercede, to be transformed to the purposes of God, to be fed and maintained by the very life of God.

And though it is the voice of the Church, none the less in it is to be recognized the voice of each separate soul, and the care of the Praying Church for each separate soul. ‘Holy Things for the Holy!’, cries the celebrant in the earliest liturgies, as he lifts up the consecrated gifts. Not ‘Good Things for the Good’; but supernatural things for those imperfect creatures who have been baptized into the Supernatural, translated to another order — those looking towards God the Perfect and beginning to conceive of life as a response to God the Perfect; but unable without the ‘rich bread of Christ’ to actualize the state to which they are called.

Evelyn Underhill

The Mystery of Sacrifice

The illustration is Eucharist at Ely by: Julienne Jones via Seed Resources

Wednesday in Holy Week: Union With God – Evelyn Underhill


All gardeners know the importance of good root development before we force the leaves and flowers. So our life in God should be deeply rooted and grounded before we presume to expect to produce flowers and fruits; otherwise we risk shooting up into one of those lanky plants which can never do without a stick. We are constantly beset by the notion that we ought to perceive ourselves springing up quickly, like the seed on stony ground; show striking signs of spiritual growth. But perhaps we are only required to go on quietly, making root, growing nice and bushy; docile to the great slow rhythm of life.

When we see no startling marks of our own religious progress as our usefulness to God, it is well to remember the baby in the stable and the little boy in the streets of Nazareth. The very life was there present, which was to change the whole history of the human race, the rescuing action of God. At that stage there was not much to show for it; yet there is perfect continuity between the stable and the Easter garden, and the thread that unites them is the hidden Will of God. The childish prayer of Nazareth was the right preparation for the awful prayer of the Cross.

So it is that the life of the Spirit is to unfold gently and steadily within us; till at the last the full stature for which God designed us is attained. It is an organic process, a continuous Divine action; not a sudden miracle or a series of jerks. Therefore there should be no struggle, impatience, self-willed effort in our prayer and self-discipline; but rather a great flexibility, a homely ordered life, a gentle acceptance of what comes to us, and a still gentler acceptance of the fact that much we see in others is still out of our own reach.

The prayer of the growing spirit should be free, humble, simple; full of confidence and full of initiative too. The mystics constantly tell us, that the goal of this prayer and of the hidden life which shall itself become more and more of a prayer, is union with God. We meet this phrase often: far too often, for we lose the wholesome sense of its awfulness.

What does union with God mean? Not a nice feeling we enjoy in devout moments. This may or may not be a by-product of union with God; probably not. It can never be its substance. Union with God means such an entire self-giving that the whole of our human nature is transformed by God, irradiated by his absolute light, His sanctifying grace. Thus it is woven up into the organ of His creative activity, His redeeming purpose; conformed to the pattern of Christ, heart, soul, mind and strength. Each time this happens, it means that one more creature has achieved its destiny; and each soul in whom the life of the spirit is born, sets out towards that goal.

Evelyn Underhill

The School of Charity

The illustration is Miraculous draught of fishes by John Reilly via Veritasse

Tuesday In Holy Week: Evelyn Underhill on Forgiveness


There is no lesson Christ loves better to drive home, than this disconcerting fact of our common human fragility: which, when we have truly grasped it, kills resentment and puts indulgent piety in its place. Let the man, the group, the nation that is without sin cast the first stone. God’s forgiveness means the compassionate recognition of the weakness and instability of man; how often we cannot help it, how truly there is in us a ‘root and ground of sin’, an implicit rebellion against the Holy, a tendency away from love and peace. And this requires of us the constant compassionate recognition of our fellow-creatures’ instability and weakness; of the fact that they too cannot help it.

If the Christian penitent dares to ask that his many departures from the Christian norm, his impatience, gloom, self-occupation, unloving prejudices, reckless tongue, feverish desires, with all the damage they have caused to Christ’s Body, are indeed to be set aside, because—in spite of all—he longs for God and Eternal Life; then he too must set aside and forgive all that impatience, selfishness, bitter and foolish speech, sudden yieldings to base impulse in others have caused him to endure. Hardness is the one impossible thing. Harshness to others in those who ask and need the mercy of God sets up a conflict at the very heart of personality and shuts the door upon grace. And that which is true of the individual soul, is also true of the community; the penitent nation seeking the path of life must also conform to the law of charity.

This principle applied in its fullness makes a demand on our generosity which only a purified and self-oblivious love can hope to meet. For every soul that appeals for God’s forgiveness is required to move over to His side, and share the compassionate understanding, the unmeasured piety, with which he looks on human frailty and sin. So difficult is this to the proud and assertive creature, that it comes very near the end of our education in prayer. Indeed the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is so drastic and so difficult , where there is a real and deep injury to forgive, that only those living in the Spirit, in union with the Cross, can dare to base their claim on it.

Evelyn Underhill

Abba (1940)
The illustration, Detail of charred cross – Coventry Cathedral, is Forgive by: Alan M Barker via Seed Resources

Monday in Holy Week: Abasement and Adoption – Evelyn Underhill

His Spirit comes to us, as Caussade said, in ‘the sacrament of the present moment‘. Joy and pain, drudgery and delight, humiliation and consolation, tension and peace—each of these contrasting experiences reaches us fully charged with God; and does, or should, incite us to an ever more complete self-giving to God.

But each experience, as such, is neutral when seen only in natural regard. It is then merely part of that endless chain of cause and effect of which our temporal lives are made. It can only touch our deepest selves, help or hinder the growth of the spirit, in so far as we do or do not direct our wills through it in love and reverence to Him. There is only one life—the ‘spiritual’ life consists in laying hold on it in a particular way; so that action becomes charged with contemplation, and the Infinite is served in and through all finite things. The twofold experience of Spirit, as a deeply felt inward Presence and as the Ocean of reality and life, must be actualized in a twofold response of the soul: a response which is at once ‘active’ and ‘contemplative’, outgoing and indrawing, an adoring gaze on the Splendour over against us, and a humble loving movement towards the surrendered union of will and Will…

The total abasement before the transcendent Perfect is one side of the spiritual life. Adoption into the supernatural series—divine sonship, with its obligation of faithful service within the Divine order —is the other side. The Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, who veiled their faces before the unmeasured Glory, were yet part of the economy through which that Glory was poured out on the world: and the experience of reality which begins with the prophet’s awestruck vision and utter abasement before the Holy, ends on the words ‘Send me’!

The double action of the soul, standing away from the Perfect in contemplation and seeking union with it in love, and this double consciousness of the Holy as both our Home and our Father, are the characters of a fully developed Christian spirituality. But these characters are not found in their classic completeness in any one individual. We only discern their balanced splendour in the corporate life of surrendered spirits; the Communion of Saints. Not the individual mystic in his solitude, but the whole of that Mystical Body, in its ceaseless self-offering to God, is the unit of humanity in which we can find reflected the pattern of spiritual life. And as regards to the individual, the very essence of that life is contained in a docile acceptance of his own peculiar limitations and capacities, a loyal response to vocation—a response which, though it may sometimes be passive in appearance, is ever charged with the activity of God.

‘I see no difference’, said Bérulle, as he bade farewell to his brethren before setting forth upon an onerous mission, ‘between those who go and those who stay at home’. In one sense all are sent; for there is a double mission, one interior and the other exterior. And it is on the interior mission of grace, of mercy, and of charity, that I declare all to be sent.’

Evelyn Underhill

The Golden Sequence
The illustration is a seraph by Pietro Vanucci, Perugino, via Wikimedia


Palm Sunday – Cross And Church: Evelyn Underhill

Cross And Church

In his letter to the Romans, we find Saint Paul asking his converts if they realize what it means to be part of the Church. It means, he says (and we can imagine their surprise when they heard it), being received into the death of Christ —the unconditional sacrifice of the Cross — in order to walk in newness of life: transformed through self-loss into a bit of that Body which is indwelt and ruled by the Spirit of Divine Charity.

No easy application for membership, then, fulfils the demands of real Christianity. It is a crisis, a radical choice, a deep and costly change. When we judge our own lives by this standard we realize that full entrance into the Church’s real life must for most of us be a matter of growth. There are layers of our minds, both personal and corporate, still untransformed; not indwelt by Charity, resisting the action of God. There are many things that the Spirit could do through us, for the healing and redeeming of the world, if it were not for our cowardice, slackness, fastidiousness, or self-centred concentration on our own jobs.

‘Present yourselves to God as alive from the dead’, says Saint Paul; and your members — all you have, every bit of you — as instruments, tools of righteousness. That is his standard of Churchmanship. This is the kind of life into which he conceives his converters are baptized; and there is something desperately vigorous and definite about it. What he seems to envisage in the Church is a vast distributing system of the Divine Charity.

As we were slaves of ‘sin’ — that is, held tight in a life which is alien from the real purposes of God, off the track, and uses its great energies for its own ends — so that taking a new direction which is involved in becoming a Christian, means the turning over of all that energy to God’s purposes; using it for Him, co-operating with the Spirit, working within life for the redemption and hallowing of the whole world. That is what the Church is for; and the Sacraments are there for those who are prepared to pull their weight.

Evelyn Underhill

The School of Charity (1934)
The illustration is by David Perry via Seed Resources

Saturday Of The Fifth Week In Lent: Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill has been tugging at my sleeve and tells me that she will be sending us a message every day from today throughout Holy Week up until Easter Eve. Here we go:

Meekness and Temperance; Humility and Moderation

‘Though I give my body to be burned’, said Saint Paul, ‘ and have not love, I am nothing‘. I do not as a spiritual being exist. And now he gives us another and much more surprising test of spiritual vitality. Though you feel an unconquerable love, joy and peace, though you are gentle, long-suffering, good in all your personal relationships, though you are utterly faithful in your service of God — in the end the only proof that all this is truly the fruit of the Spirit, Christ in you and not just your own idea, is the presence of the last two berries in the bunch: not showy berries, not prominently placed, but absolutely decisive for the classification of the plant. Meekness and Temperance, says the Authorised Version or, as we may quite properly translate, Humility and Moderation. That means our possession of the crowning grace of creatureliness: knowing our own size and our own place, the self-oblivion and quietness with which we fit into God’s great scheme instead of having a jolly little scheme of our own, and are content to bring forth the fruit of His Spirit, according to our own measure, here and now, in space and time.

Humility and Moderation — the graces of the self-forgetful soul — we might almost expect that if we have grasped all that the Incarnation really means — God and His love, manifest not in some peculiar and supernatural spiritual manner, but in ordinary human nature. Christ, first-born of many brethren, content to be one of us, living the family life and from within His Church inviting the souls of men to share His family life. In the family circle, there is room for the childish and the imperfect and the naughty, but the uppish is always out of place.

We have got down to the bottom of the stairs now and are fairly sitting on the mat. But the proof that it is the right flight and leads up to the Divine Charity, is the radiance that pours down from the Upper Storey: the joy and peace in which the whole is bathed and which floods our whole being here in the lowest place. How right Saint Paul was to put these two fruits at the end of his list, for as a rule they are the last we acquire. At first we simply do not see the point. But the saints have always seen it. When Angela of Foligno was dying, her disciples asked for a last message and she, who had been called a Mistress of Theology and whose Visions of the Being of God are among the greatest the medieval mystics have left us, had only one thing to say to them as her farewell: ‘Make yourselves small! Make yourselves very small.’

Evelyn Underhill

The Fruits of the Spirit
Passage chosen for today in the anthology ‘Lent with Evelyn Underhill’
The illustration is the bronze panel “Humility”, on the south doors (by Andrea Pisano) of the Florence Baptistry, Italy, via Wikimedia.
We rely on donations to keep this website running.