June 15: Evelyn Underhill, mystic, 1941

Today, June 15, the Episcopal Church remembers Evelyn Underhill, mystic and writer, 1941.

To go up alone into the mountains and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends. The windows of Christ’s Mysteries split the [Light] up into many-coloured loveliness, disclose all of its hidden richness…make its beauty more accessible to us…And within  this place we too are bathed in the light transmitted by the windows, a light which is yet the very radiance of Eternity.

The only child of a prominent barrister and his wife, Evelyn Underhill was born in Wolverhampton, England, on December 6th, 1875, and grew up in London. She was educated there and in a girls’ school in Folkestone, where she was confirmed in the Church of England. She had little other formal religious training, but her spiritual curiosity was naturally lively, and she read widely, developing quite early a deep appreciation for mysticism. At sixteen, she began a lifelong devotion to writing.

In the 1890’s, Evelyn began annual visits to the European continent, and especially to Italy. There she became influenced by the paintings of the Italian masters and by the Roman Catholic Church. She spent nearly fifteen years wrestling painfully with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, but in the end she discerned that she was called to remain as an Anglican.

In 1921, Evelyn Underhill became reconciled to her Anglican roots, while remaining what she called a “Catholic Christian.” She continued with her life of reading, writing, meditation, and prayer. She had already published her first great spiritual work, Mysticism. This was followed by many other books, culminating in her most widely read and studied book, Worship (1937).

Evelyn Underhill’s most valuable contribution to spiritual literature must surely be her conviction that the mystical life is not only open to a saintly few, but to anyone who cares to nurture it and weave it into everyday experience, and also (at the time, a startling idea) that modern psychological theories and discoveries, far from hindering or negating spirituality, can actually enhance and transform it. In Mysticism, she writes:

We are, then, one and all the kindred of the mystics; and it is by dwelling upon this kinship, by interpreting—so far as we may—their great declarations in the light of our little experience, that we shall learn to understand them best. Strange and far away though they seem, they are not cut off from us by some impassable abyss. They belong to us. They are our brethren; the giants, the heroes of our race. As the achievement of genius belongs not to itself only, but also to the society that brought it forth; as theology declares that the merits of the saints avail for all; so, because of the solidarity of the human family, the supernal accomplishment of the mystics is ours also.

She died, at age 65, on June 15th, 1941.

from A Great Cloud of Witnesses (Church Publishing)

Father Paul

Father Paul

The Rev. Paul Moberly joined St. Alban’s in 2017 as Assistant Rector and in 2018 became Associate Rector. He and his husband, Gerardo, live in Annandale.

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