Evelyn Underhill: Guidance for Modern Seekers
by Kathy Staudt
The annual Day of Reflection in honor of Evelyn Underhill was held at Washington National Cathedral on June 12, 1999. This year’s theme was “Evelyn Underhill: A guide for modern seekers.” Underhill’s writing career shows her as a modern thinker trying to make sense of Christian mysticism in the context of modern, popular spiritualities. Her writings, especially the meditations on peace done late in her life, provided the background of the gathering on June 12, which was, as always, primarily a day for prayer and quiet. We offered a choice of two kinds of programs. For those desiring to learn more about Underhill’s life and writings, Faye Campbell led a lively discussion group at the Deanery. For those seeking a day of quiet and meditation, Kathy Staudt offered guided meditations in Resurrection Chapel. Lunch was shared in silence, and participants enjoyed the peace and clarity that comes as a group gathered for meditation becomes more centered and quieted together. We closed by sharing Eucharist in Resurrection Chapel, with the Rev. Elly Sparks Brown as celebrant.
Next year’s Day of Reflection will be held on June 17, 2000. Please feel free to contact Kathy Staudt for further information, at 9309 Greyrock Rd., Silver Spring, MD 20910; e-mail: email@example.com
“The Underhill pilgrimage remains one of the most significant experiences of my life.”
“So many times…I’ve thought of how fortunate I was to be a part of it.”
Encouraged by these responses to last summer’s pilgrimage, we will embark again, June 14-29, 2000, on a journey to the places that inspired Evelyn Underhill and caused her to write: “Italy—the holy land of Europe—the only place left, I suppose, that is really medicinal to the soul…There is a type of Mind which must go there to find itself.” (Letters)
Using Underhill’s travel journals and other writings, we will explore the towns and countryside of Tuscany and Umbria, focusing on insights she derived from the works of art and the sense of holiness in these places. As Underhill did, we will then take our experiences of Italy to the London neighborhood of Kensington, where she lived and wrote. Finally, in some quiet days at her beloved House of Retreat at Pleshey near Chelmsford in Essex, we will begin to integrate our travel experiences with our own ordinary lives. Dana Greene will provide leadership, information, and insights all along the way. The Rev. Lindsay Spendlove from Pleshey will accompany us on the journey. Donna Osthaus will serve as our experienced guide to the art of Italy.
For more information, contact Donna Osthaus, The Pilgrim’s Guide, 7481 Huntsman Blvd. #105, Springfield, VA 22153.
News and Notes:
December 2000 is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Evelyn Underhill. Plan now to commemorate her work in some way.
Amazon.com lists forty-six entries for books by and on Underhill!
Sister Annice Callahan, RSCJ, led a Lenten Series on Underhill at St. Brigit’s Parish in San Diego. Her Evelyn Underhill: Spirituality for Daily Living was reviewed in Anglican Theological Review, Spring 1999. For a discounted price, write her at Dept. of Theology & Religious Studies, U of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Pk, San Diego, CA 92110.
Ellen Leonard’s Creative Tension: The Spirituality of Friedrich von Hugel, U of Scranton Press, 1997, treats von Hugel’s relationship with Evelyn Underhill.
“A Service of Lessons and Music Celebrating the Life and Work of Evelyn Underhill” was given at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, with an address by the Rev. Bruce W. B. Jenneker. The text of the service was in the July/August 1999 Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians.
The Rev. Gerald Loweth, a graduate student at Toronto School of Theology, is writing a doctoral dissertation on “Social Concerns and the Spiritual Life in the Writings of Evelyn Underhill.”
Dr. Carol Poston, English Department, Xavier University, Cincinnati, is working on a manuscript on letters of Evelyn Underhill.
Praying with Passionate Women Mystics, Martyrs and Mentors (Crossroad) by Bridget Mary Meehan includes a section on Evelyn Underhill.
Evelyn Underhill and the “rattle of teacups”
by Deborah Smith Douglas
The man was a high-ranking cleric in the Episcopal Church; he had just led a day of reflection for the parish where I worship. I thanked him for his presentation and, referring to something he had said about the spiritual life, asked him if he were familiar with the works of Evelyn Underhill. He laughed briefly, waved a well-manicured hand dismissively, and said that he had tried to read her, but “couldn’t get beyond the rattle of teacups in the background.” Since the reverend father was drinking a rather good sherry at the time, it might have behooved him not to mock the cliches of genteel Anglicanism, but this irony (which would have delighted Barbara Pym) did not occur to me at the time: I was too astounded by the depth of ignorance and prejudice revealed by his remark.
To my continuing amazement and indignation, this wrong-headed and parochial attitude is more common than I, for many years an admirer of Underhill’s clarity, probity and uncompromising integrity, would have believed possible.1 At the time, all I offered in response to the hand-waving sherry-sipping cleric was the suggestion that actually reading Underhill, instead of making careless assumptions about her, would doubtless change his mind about her value as a guide to the Christian life.
In the first place, as a purely practical matter, Underhill had little choice with regard to the bourgeois circumstances of her upbringing or her married life. She was constrained not only by social convention but by filial duty and a steely sense of Christian obedience to stay faithful and fully present in her roles of wife and daughter. The house in Campden Hill Square was undeniably the center of her world and daily round, which bound her to lunching almost daily with her mother, “going out to tea a terrible lot” as she confessed to a friend, and frequently entertaining for her prosperous solicitor husband.
There are more than occasional glimpses in her letters and diaries that she secretly chafed under the burden of this narrow life, but she did indeed bloom where she was planted: her home was the center of her ministry as well as of her social life, and the circumference of that circle was in fact remarkably broad. Her prodigious professional literary output and speaking schedule, as well as her rigorous spiritual and charitable self-discipline, would put many a high-ranking cleric to shame.
St. Paul would surely have approved her ability to preach the gospel under all circumstances: if God had placed her in Kensington, if the people who sought her guidance were wealthy gentlewomen, then to those gentlewomen she would minister; and she did. She ministered to them with considerable asperity when necessary too; for instance, there is an audible knuckle-rap in her remark to one correspondent: “All the prayer in the world will not get you into a state in which you will always have nice times.”2 Of another she demanded, “Where had your sense of proportion got to, when you thought you had not time for your morning prayers?”3 Another correspondent was firmly reminded, “The object of your salvation is God’s glory, not your happiness.”4 It seems the Kensington ladies were a pretty resilient bunch, accustomed to a director who pulled no punches. I wonder how the derisive sherry-sipping cleric would fare with such an eagle-eyed, tough-minded director?
Whenever the short leash of her life allowed it, Underhill traveled abroad, eagerly and widely, not only making the conventional grand tour of the capitals of Europe, and not only making strong-willed pilgrimage to many holy places in Italy and France, but also enthusiastically doing strenuous hill-walking and glacier-climbing among the Swiss Alps—a more ambitious undertaking than might be thought likely for a mere rattler of teacups.
Underhill also, on the recommendation of her own director, the formidable Baron von Hugel, spent two afternoons a week among the poor of London, visiting and assisting eight indigent families. With characteristic humility she confessed to him that she had been “starving for something of the kind.”5 With characteristic generosity and fidelity, she kept visiting those poor families all her life, until ill health made it physically impossible.
In a final irony, far from being a champion of the cozy or cultivated, Evelyn Underhill was an advocate for “wildness” in the constellation of spiritual values. She politely but clearly took the bluff Christian apologist C.S. Lewis to task for too “tame” a view of redeemed nature, in his chapter on animals in The Problem of Pain. She criticized his view (that only domesticated nature is somehow acceptable to God) as “a bit smug and utilitarian, don’t you think?” She gently suggested to the great man that “perhaps…your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.”6
The sound in the background here is surely not the ladylike rattle of teacups but the ring of tempered steel on steel in a courteous joust between peers—a gentlemanly bit of combat in which, it might interest the derisive cleric to know, the blow for the large, wild view of God was struck by the lady.
And I stand by that response: I am convinced that anyone who takes the time to read Underhill’s work carefully cannot help but be impressed by her wisdom and strength, a clear-eyed grasp of Christian vocation and identity that far transcends any presumed narrowness of focus or audience, despite the undeniable privilege of her upper-class Kensington circumstances. But as I have pondered the teacup-rattling bias against her, several more points occur to me.
First, I wonder what the derisive gentleman prefers to hear in the background of his spiritual reading: the rattle of sabers? the clash of ignorant nocturnal armies? the roar of the crowd? As someone once pointed out, one can scarcely open the pages of the New Testament without hearing the clatter of dishes, so central to the gospel is the sharing of table fellowship. Is it an unexamined reverse snobbery or a remnant of the muscular Christianity of earlier decades to imply that only workingmen’s beer glasses be allowed as emblems of companionable eating and drinking? No women allowed?
Beyond the implicit objection to Underhill as no more than a gently-bred spiritual advisor to pious Edwardian ladies, lie more troubling depths of misogyny and hypocrisy. There is more than a whiff here of disdain for whatever is perceived to be merely feminine and therefore trivial and insignificant. Furthermore, one detects a scornful pretense that the patronage of wealthy matrons and widows has not been essential to the work of the church since Mary Magdalene and the other women ministered to Jesus and the disciples out of their own means. I suspect that there are more than a few women, generous with their money and time, in the congregations of the Underhill-scorning clergy who would be most interested in the revelation of such an attitude to devout tea-drinking ladies.
However, all these observations simply reflect the prejudices of those who are contemptuous of Evelyn Underhill without troubling to read her, revealing a great deal about themselves without managing to say anything meaningful about her. There remains to consider the simple inaccuracy and injustice of the rattling-teacup charge.
In the last analysis, the heart of the matter is not whether or not Evelyn Underhill presided over tea tables—she unquestionably did. The real gift of her life and witness is the sheer strength of her faith, the remarkable extent to which she radiated the love of God. “Her writings opened a new world,” declared Lucy Menzies, her lifelong friend, and for years the Warden of the Retreat House at Pleshey. “No one else ever made me conscious of God as she did.”7
Another of her friends recalled after Underhill’s death, “It was in October 1937 that I met her first—invited to tea with her in her Campden Hill Square house. She had just had one of her bad illnesses…looking so fragile as though ‘a puff of wind might blow her away’ might be literally true in her case, but light simply streamed from her face illuminated with a radiant smile. One could not but feel…that one was in the presence of the extension of the Mystery of our Lord’s Transfiguration in one of the members of His Mystical Body. It told one not only of herself, but more of God and of the Mystical Body than all her work put together.”8
In the light of that sort of legacy, quibbles about teacups are reduced to a mere heap of broken crockery.
1 See e.g. Dana Greene, referencing U. Holmes, What is Anglicanism? (Morehouse-Barlow, 1982), p. 69, In Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life (Crossroad, 1990), p. 147.
2 The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, ed. with an intro. by Charles Williams (Longmans, Green and Co., 1944), p. 72.
3 Letters, p. 91
4 Letters, p. 96
5 Margaret Cropper, Life of Evelyn Underhill (Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 88
6 Letters, p. 302
7 Lumsden Barkway. “Lucy Menzies: a Memoir,” in M. Cropper, Life of Evelyn Underhill, p. xvii
8 Quoted by Charles Williams in his introduction to Letters, p. 37
by Evelyn Underhill
I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
Not borne on morning wings
Of majesty, but I have set My Feet
Amidst the delicate and bladed wheat
That springs triumphant in the furrowed sod.
There do I dwell, in weakness and in power;
Not broken or divided, saith our God!
In your strait garden plot I come to flower:
About your porch My Vine
Meek, fruitful, doth entwine;
Waits, at the threshold, Love’s appointed hour.
I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
Yea! on the glancing wings
Of eager birds, the softly pattering feet
Of furred and gentle beasts, I come to meet
Your hard and wayward heart. In brown bright eyes
That peep from out the brake, I stand confest.
On every nest
Where feathery Patience is content to brood
And leaves her pleasure for the high emprize
There doth My Godhead rest.
I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
My starry wings
I do forsake,
Love’s highway of humility to take:
Meekly I fit my stature to your need.
In beggar’s part
About your gates I shall not cease to plead—
As man, to speak with man—
Till by such art
I shall achieve My Immemorial Plan,
Pass the low lintel of the human heart.
Tribute to Lady Laura
by Grace Adolphsen Brame
With great thanksgiving for the life of Lady Laura Eastaugh, we note the day of her death: May 9, 1999. Those who sent out the notice of her passing said that she died peacefully, the day following the Feast of Mother Julian of Norwich.
Gracious and kind, “Lovely Lady” is how I always referred to her. She was the wife of Bishop Cyril Eastaugh of London and was the person who assumed responsibility for the Evelyn Underhill Prayer Group after both Evelyn Underhill and Agatha Norman died. Lady Laura led a number of retreats in the Evelyn Underhill tradition and considered it to be one of her greatest opportunities for ministry. On those occasions only, she wore the cross that Underhill had worn for retreats and, since it was passed on to her, it was kept as a cherished possession.
Lady Laura and her husband, the bishop, had once lived at the top of the square where Evelyn Underhill resided with her husband, Hubert Stuart Moore, throughout her adult life. Thus, they were neighbors. One day, talking about what Underhill had meant to her, I asked Lady Laura to tell me of an instance that was particularly meaningful. She replied: “I told Evelyn once that I was concerned because I didn’t really understand the Holy Spirit, and she looked at me lovingly and said gently: ‘The Holy Spirit is simply God inside you.’ Those words have meant a great deal to me ever since.”
God truly was inside dear Lady Laura. Every one of us who went hunting people and information connected with the life of Evelyn Underhill was grateful for her hospitality and guidance. I dedicated The Ways of the Spirit to her for good reason. She put me in touch with Agatha Norman, showed me old letters and mementos, and gathered the remaining members of the Prayer Group at her home at Blackmoor to share memories and to explain uniquely British or Underhill terms, which she had used in the retreats I was editing.
Bishop Eastaugh predeceased Lady Laura, while living in Surrey at Blackmoor, a country estate that had been inherited by Lady Laura’s nephew, Andrew. It was a home they loved and for which they were deeply grateful. From time to time, we spoke of the bishop; of her daughter Laura Inoue; and a granddaughter, living in Tokyo; as well as her son, a priest of the Anglican Church.
A requiem mass was sung at her funeral on May 31 at St. Matthew’s Church, Blackmoor. At her request, gifts may be sent in her memory to Crisis, a charity for the homeless. Such gifts are to be mailed in care of Mr. Tony Brown, Funeral Director, New Cut, Saxmundham, Suffolk, IP17 1DJ, England.
Our thanks to God for one who so gently lived the life of the Spirit and followed its ways.
Evelyn Underhill Associates recently deceased include:
Lady Laura Estaugh
The Rev. Boone Porter