Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
For the past eight years our newsletter editor Lois Sibley has contributed much to the EUA newsletter. She kept the burgeoning mailing lists, solicited copy, designed and laid out the newsletter, and then reproduced it for others to mail.
A freelance editor and proofreader, and wife, mother and grandmother, as well as caregiver for newborns who will be adopted, Lois did the newsletter in her spare time! As you read this, send up both a prayer of thanksgiving and a shout of joy for her generosity. Thank you, Lois.
Help! Help! Help!
If you have read the above, you know this little newsletter is in need of Help! Yours, that is. We need a replacement for Lois Sibley to carry on the tasks named above: maintaining the mailing list, helping drum up copy (I do this, too), designing the newsletter and sometimes running off copies.
Is there anybody out there who could help??? If so, be in touch with Dana Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1205 Wesley St., Oxford, GA 30054, Ph: (H) 770-786-6249.
If no noble soul comes forward, the newsletter will appear only in web format at www.evelynunderhill.org. We hope to remain both in print and on your screen. Help us.
— Dana Greene
Who Are We?
The Evelyn Underhill Association (EUA) promotes the study of the works of Evelyn Underhill and supports research and writing about her ideas. Days of Quiet and Reflection are held, and we are a resource through this newsletter, our website, and correspondence. Officers are: Dana Greene, president; Kathleen Staudt, vice president; Carole Crumley, secretary; and Milo Coerper, treasurer.
Membership is open to all and is free. Donations to help defray costs are appreciated and may be sent to: The Evelyn Underhill Association, c/o Milo Coerper, 7315 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, MD 20815. Changes of address should be sent to Dana Greene, 1205 Wesley St., Oxford, GA 30054.
The Synchronicity of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) and Benedictine John Main (1926-1982)
By Paul T. Harris
There is no doubt that Anglican laywoman Evelyn Underhill is one of the most widely respected twentieth-century authors and guides on prayer and the spiritual life. Today she is recognized as one of the few voices of this period to bring contemplative prayer and spirituality from the cloistered life of the monastery and academic treatises to the everyday lives of ordinary people.
In many respects she served as a teacher and guide to other late twentieth-century teachers of contemplative prayer, in particular, Benedictine monk John Main, whose teaching on prayer has spread around the world from the Benedictine monastery he founded in Montreal, Canada in 1977. His teachings are now practiced in 1300 Christian meditation groups in over sixty countries of the world and at an International Christian Meditation Centre that is located in London, England.
It is fascinating to observe the synchronicity between these two great twentieth-century spiritual guides and authors. Perhaps this is not surprising since both teachers went back to primary sources for their writings on spirituality, including scripture, Cassian and the fourth-century desert monks, The Cloud of Unknowing, and other spiritual masters through the ages.
They both provide themes, ideas, and insights on prayer and the spiritual life that supplement and dovetail as they both witness to the twentieth-century renewal in the practice of contemplative prayer. Perhaps what distinguishes John Main as a teacher of prayer is his insistence on the necessity of knowing how to pray.
Neither Evelyn Underhill nor the other great twentieth-century exponent of contemplative prayer, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), places the stress on the “how to” aspect of the daily practice of contemplative prayer that John Main does in his talks and writings. However it should be pointed out that in one instance in her Letters, Underhill does describe to a correspondent a simple exercise for the practice of contemplative prayer using the repetition of a prayer phrase.
Here are quotations from both Underhill and Main that demonstrate how close they are in their teaching on spirituality and prayer, and how they often use the same themes and terminology while at the same time speaking from their own particular experience and in their own language.
In the first quotation it is interesting to note that both spiritual guides take images from nature to illumine the life of prayer.
Nothing in all nature is so lovely and so vigorous, so perfectly at home in its environment, as a fish in the sea. Its surroundings give to it a beauty, quality, and power which is not its own. We take it out and at once a poor, limp, dull thing, fit for nothing, is gasping away its life. So the soul sunk in God, living the life of prayer, is supported, filled, transformed in beauty, by a vitality and a power which are not its own.
— From The School of Charity
The wonderful beauty of prayer is that the opening of our hearts is as natural as the opening of a flower. To let a flower open and bloom it is only necessary to let it be; so if we simply are, if we become and remain still and silent, our heart cannot but be open, the spirit cannot but pour through into our whole being. It is for this that we have been created.
— From Word into Silence
Both Underhill and Main emphasize that contemplative prayer is available to ordinary people and is not the prerogative of “specialists” such as monks in monasteries or sisters in convents:
Taste and see that the Lord is sweet. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. These are practical statements; addressed, not to specialists but to ordinary men and women…they are literally true now, or can be if we choose.
— From The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today
Now many Christians would still say at this point, ‘Very well, but this (prayer) is for Saints, for specialists in prayer,’ as if stillness and silence were not universal elements of the human spirit. This type of obstinate false humility is based on a plain unawareness of who St. Paul was writing to in Rome and Corinth and Ephesus. He was not writing to specialists, to Carmelites and Carthusians, but to husbands, wives, butchers and bakers.
— From Word Into Silence
In the following writings both authors refer to the “darkness” of contemplative prayer and the apathetic discipline of rejecting words, thoughts, and images at the time of prayer. Main, as usual, points out a “way” to enter the darkness.
The business of the contemplative then is to enter this cloud, the “good dark” as Hilton calls it…into the deliberate inhibition of discursive thought and rejection of images…The one who enters the “nothingness” or “ground of the soul” enters into the “dark,” a statement which seems simple enough until we try to realize what it means.
— From Mysticism
Learning to say your mantra, learning to say your word, leaving behind all other words, ideas, imagination and fantasies, is learning to enter into the presence of the Spirit who dwells in your own inner heart, who dwells there in love…The silence of our prayer is our opportunity to steal away into the darkness, into the night where we are filled with the light that is love.
— From Word Into Silence
John Cassian, a fourth-century desert monk, is famous for his conferences on spirituality, and Cassian’s Conferences is one of the books St. Thomas Aquinas always kept at his desk. Cassian had a special influence on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Ignatius, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis de Sales. Cassian is regarded as a master not only of the spirituality of monastic life but also of the spirituality of the early Church. Benedictine Cuthbert Butler refers to Cassian’s conference on prayer as “a treatise on prayer that has never been surpassed.” It is not surprising that both Underhill and Main rely on Cassian for insights into their own teachings.
The dialogues of John Cassian (c 350-) are one of the most important documents for the history of Christian mysticism. The first of a seven-year pilgrimage among the Egyptian monasteries, and many conversations on spiritual themes with the monks, we find in these dialogues for the first time a classified and realistic description of the successive degrees of contemplative prayer and their relation to the development of the spiritual life.
— From Mysticism
This simple, practical wisdom of the East moved westward in the monastic tradition, and entered Europe through the influence of John Cassian who was St. Benedict’s teacher of prayer. In his ninth and tenth Conferences Cassian gave to Western monasticism his teaching on prayer, which he himself had learned during his years of discipleship with the Desert Fathers. In order to move into “pure prayer” he advises us to take a short verse or word and then to cling to the constant repetition of it “ceaselessly revolving it in the heart, having got rid of all kinds of other thoughts.” He calls this the way to that “continual prayer” that answers St. Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing.”
— From Monastic Prayer and Modern Man
One of the favorite questions of those who pray contemplatively is the subject of distractions in prayer. Both Underhill and Main addressed this question time and time again:
Those who believe in prayer at all should make a practice of setting aside some time each day in which they deliberately turn from all vocal acts and petitions and, placing themselves in a meek and simple attitude, remain there quietly, and simply in the presence of God…At first thoughts, wants, and memories reach into the mind; sounds and images distract it. There is something very humiliating in the way in which meaningless interruptions capture the attention which we are trying to fix upon God. All these invitations to break the silence must be refused and the self brought back again and again to its poise of listening, of humble, hushed attentiveness.
— From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill
One of the things we discover as we start to meditate is, we discover that we are full of distractions. It is very humbling, not to say humiliating, to discover that after all our education, after all the credits we’ve clocked up, we cannot be still for a moment. Our mind wanders off at the most ridiculous levels, creating the most ridiculous fantasies, thoughts flying at every level around in our minds…Don’t try to use any energy to dispel the distraction. Simply ignore it and the way to ignore it is to repeat your (prayer) word…Meditation is the Christian version of it, it is simply launching out into the infinity of God through the Spirit who dwells in our hearts.
— From The Way of Unknowing
One final quotation from both authors addresses “progress” in prayer:
Do not entertain the notion that you ought to advance in your prayer. If you do, you will only find you have put on the brake instead of the accelerator. All real progress in spiritual things comes gently, imperceptibly and is the work of God.
— From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill
The stages of our progress in meditation will come about in their own time. God’s own time. We in fact hinder this progression by becoming too self conscious about our stage of development…you cannot approach your meditation on the basis of success. Don’t be looking for results. When you sit down to meditate each day, remember that the purpose of it is to lose all self-consciousness. Meditation, as John of the Cross described it, is a way of dispossession. This is what Christian prayer is all about. It is about being wholly open to Him, wholly with Him, wholly in harmony with Him.
— From Moment of Christ and The Heart of Creation
A cursory glance at their writings on spirituality indicates a great synchronicity between these remarkable twentieth-century teachers/authors.
Both are eager to transmit their lived experience on the importance of entering the path of prayer in response to an inner call. Both saw the spiritual journey as a return to the source of our being. Both were aware that the journey is one of silence that leads to wholeness, unity and peace.
And finally both came to a realization that prayer is a reservoir of spiritual vitality that overflows into love, compassion, and concern in our relationships with others. It is not difficult to see the light of truth, justice, and love shining through the two of them. Perhaps they reflect the “light of the world and the salt of the earth” referred to by Jesus in Matthew 5:13-14.
Paul Turner Harris lives in Ottawa, Canada; has three grown children; and is director of the John Main Centre there. A former journalist, he is author of eight books, the latest being Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Meditation (Novalis, Toronto).
Remembering Evelyn Underhill
On June 15, the day Evelyn Underhill is commemorated in both the Episcopal and Anglican churches, the EUA held its annual day of quiet reflection at the Washington National Cathedral.
The Reverend Lindsay Spendlove, a priest, chaplain, and spiritual director in the Church of England, as well as chaplain to the House of Retreat at Pleshey, led a series of meditations on the letters of Evelyn Underhill.
The day was organized by Dr. Kathleen Staudt, the Reverend Milo Coerper, and Christopher King. For a brochure on next year’s mid-June EUDay, in spring of 2003 write to Special Events, Washington National Cathedral, Mount Saint Albans, Washington DC 20016, or go to their website at www.cathedral.org/cathedral.
New and Noteworthy
The Retreat House at Pleshey has a lovely website with links to the EUA page. Please see www.chelmsforddiocesan.sageweb.co.uk. In March 2002 Canon A. M. Allchin gave a retreat there on Sorella Maria and Evelyn Underhill.
The 2002 Evelyn Underhill Lecture on Christian Spirituality was given by Wilkie Au, at Boston University.
Salisbury and Ely Cathedrals, as well as the Diocese of Leicester, all had events in June 2002 to commemorate Evelyn Underhill.
Actress Roberta Nobleman presented “A Pilgrim’s Party—An Interactive Theatre Production,” at the Adelynrood Center, Massachusetts, in June 2002, and at the Weber Center, Adrian, Michigan in February, as well as locations in New Jersey and Kentucky. In this production, Nobleman and Janet Beddoe create an imaginary encounter between Vivienne Eliot, wife of T. S. Eliot, and Evelyn Underhill. For more information, go to: email@example.com.
Dana Greene, Oxford College of Emory University, gave the Whiteside Lecture on Evelyn Underhill at the Candler School of Religion, Emory University in September 2002. Greene’s biographical entry of Underhill will appear in the new (the last one was published 125 years ago) Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
October 2002 marks the 75th anniversary of Evelyn Underhill’s retreat in Canterbury Cathedral. She was the first woman to offer a retreat there. The cathedral will commemorate this on October 21 both in the Cathedral Diary and the Music Lists. At the Eucharist and Evensong there will be special readings and prayers.
King’s College, London, has received a grant to conserve the Evelyn Underhill Collection. These conservation efforts will continue through November 2002.
Evelyn Underhill, Anglican Mystic: Essays by A. M. Ramsey and A. M. Allchin, and Eight Letters of Evelyn Underhill with an introduction by A. M. Allchin have been reissued by SLG Press, Fairacres, Oxford, U.K.
Suzanne Schleck’s lovely icon of Evelyn Underhill is available from the artist at 1401 Paterson Ave., Whiting, NJ 08759, Ph: 732-350-8362.
Peter Widmer completed his doctoral dissertation in Germany, a portion of which was on Evelyn Underhill. He is now associated with the newly formed Weltkloster Academy, a foundation established to pursue a global ethic through ecumenical dialogue. The academy, situated on Lake Constance in southern Germany, is the inspiration of Hans Kung. A description of the academy’s work can be found in English on www.weltkloster.de.
“Evelyn Underhill in Tuscany, Umbria, Kensington, and the Retreat House at Pleshey” will take place May 28-June 12, 2003. The Rev. Lindsay Spendlove, Colchester, Church of England, and Donna Osthaus, will lead the group. Contact The Pilgrim’s Guide, 7481 Huntsman Blvd., Ste. 105, Springfield, VA 22153. Ph: 703-644-1896 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
The EUA has made a donation towards the completion of the west front statues of the Guildford Cathedral, specifically the statue of Evelyn Underhill. The dedication of this statue will take place in December 2003. Those who would like to make a contribution should mail it Patricia Cousins, secretary, Guildford Cathedral, Stag Hill, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7UP, U.K.
Many of Underhill’s books have been reprinted in the last several years. See www.AllBookstore.com for sixty-six books in print on or about Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism and The Spiritual Life are both online in full text.
For example, The Vision of God by Nicholas of Cusa with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill was published by Booktree in 1999; The Gray World, Underhill’s first novel, was published by Kessinger in 1998; as was The Mystic Way: A Psychological Study of Christian Origins (1998); and the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing with an introduction by Underhill (1998).
Dover Publications brought out Mysticism in 2002; and The Life of Evelyn Underhill: An Intimate Portrait for the Ground-Breaking Author of Mysticism (a re-edition of Margaret Cropper’s 1958 edition of this first biography of Underhill) was published by Skylight Paths Publishers in September 2002 with a foreword by Dana Greene.
Orbis Books will publish a new anthology of Underhill’s work, edited by Emilie Griffin, in their Modern Spiritual Masters Series.
Finally, if you check any major search engine for Evelyn Underhill you will find more than 250 entries!!