Evelyn Underhill, one of the best loved modern writers on spirituality, is being remembered on the 100th anniversary of the publication of her book “Mysticism”. The Church Times has a wonderful profile of her work and the reach of her influence written by the new dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Jane Shaw.
For instance, Shaw details the way Underhill started off as person more focused on the idea of individual spirituality that needed no community:
“In 1914, Underhill wrote a much shorter volume, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people. Here she made it clear that mysticism was not an esoteric pastime: it was something that anyone could learn, just as one might learn the law or business. The reader had to engage in an “educative process: a drill”, which had five stages for developing inner stillness and purifying the senses, and would result in the person’s being transformed by an encounter with the divine.
Yet the mystic way, as Underhill defined it in her books from this period, was very much an individual endeavour. At no time did she mention churchgoing as a part of this drill. This may surprise us. We think now of Underhill as a well-established and influential Anglican laywoman, a spiritual director to many, and a prominent retreat-leader. Yet when she wrote Mysticism, she belonged to no Church.”
That transformation, her recognition that the belief divorced from community was fundamentally flawed, came later.
It was not until 1921, ten years after the publication of Mysticism, that Underhill finally joined the Church of England. From then until her death 20 years later, she became increasingly committed to a corporate spirituality.
The last big book she wrote was Worship in 1936. Here, she emphasised both the transformative power of the sacraments and communal ritual in spiritual development. To her later spiritual directees, she admitted that she was “apt to be disagreeable on the Church question. I stood out against it myself for so long and have been so thoroughly convinced of my own error that I do not want other people to waste time in the same way.”
And in case you missed it, Daily Episcopalian had an essay on Underhill earlier this week too by Kathleen Staudt.