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Articles from the newsletter

Beyond the Fringe of Speech: The Spirituality of Evelyn Underhill and Art

By M. T. Crowley
2008 Doctoral thesis, Australian Catholic University

The written works of the English religious writer, spiritual director and exponent of Christian spirituality, Evelyn Underhill (1875 – 1941), contain numerous references to visual art and church architecture. This thesis explores the influence of art on her spirituality by examining her interpretation and understanding of various works of religious art, cathedrals, churches and chapels. The controlling methodology of the thesis is within the discipline of spirituality. This hermeneutical approach, which seeks to investigate and understand the phenomena of the Christian spiritual life as experience, is structured on three processes: observation and description of the phenomena under investigation, critical analysis of the data, and constructive interpretation of its transformative and integrational character. The study presents Underhill’s early life, reading and education within the Anglican tradition as the backdrop against which … Read more

Work for the Soul: Medievalism, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Development of a Practical Spirituality in Evelyn Underhill’s Novel The Gray World

By Carla Arnell, Lake Forest College

This essay suggests that a deeper understanding of the relationship between artistry and spirituality in Evelyn Underhill’s work depends upon examining how the Arts and Crafts movement, as a vehicle for translating and modernizing idealized aspects of medieval culture, shaped Underhill’s novels and, ultimately, her unique spiritual ethos. Her fiction is everywhere marked by medievalism and, more specifically, by the Arts and Crafts movement’s distinctive reception of medieval culture. A study of Underhill’s complex response to the Arts and Crafts movement illuminates why she sees God as a tool maker and the human soul as a craftsman for whom the material things of this world –architecture, stained glass, jewelry, books – can become vehicles for making this life meaningful and for practically accessing the beauty of a divine Reality beyond. I argue, therefore, that … Read more

Mystical Concepts, Artistic Contexts

By Michael Stoeber, Regis College and the University of Toronto

Mysticism, like spirituality, is a vague word in contemporary culture, used in multiple ways in diverse settings. It can stand for anything esoteric, mysterious, otherworldly or occult-like, and is often used in reference to exceptionally strong aesthetic and religious feelings. This usage has been the norm in modern times. In 1911 Evelyn Underhill, an influential British scholar of mysticism, noted this ambiguity and described mysticism as “the science or art of the spiritual life,” suggesting this to be its older, traditional meaning.1 However, even this characterization is not very helpful in and of itself, insofar as it is a general one and does not draw a clear distinction between mysticism and other aspects of the spiritual life.

I will clarify Underhill’s more specific understandings of mysticism below. However, in … Read more

A Different Kind of Christmas List

By Catherine Ann Lombard

Most of us are familiar with writing Christmas Lists. As children we might have been encouraged by our parents to write to Santa Claus, sending him our list of desired gifts. We might have also been told that Santa Claus kept his own “list of who’s naughty and nice.” As we became adults enmeshed in the frenetic holiday craziness, our Christmas lists probably became more numerous and less imaginative – lists of things to do, presents to buy, and greeting cards to send.

Recently, with the help of my friend and colleague Georgie, I discovered that the Christian mystic and writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) also wrote a Christmas list – but a kind I had never seen before. In the archives of King’s College London, you can read three pages of her own notes which she … Read more

Medicinal to the Soul: Italy and Umbria in the Life of Evelyn Underhill

By Aindrias ó hAilpin

Evelyn Underhill’s biography of Jacopone da Todi is the fruit of a relationship with Italy – and particularly Umbria – that lasted for most of Evelyn’s adult life. But not only was this a long-lasting relationship, it was also a deeply transforming one. Perhaps Evelyn was such a good biographer of Jacopone because her own life shared some features with his, although of course it was very different in most respects. He was a lawyer; she was the daughter and the wife of lawyers. Both were poets. Both were raised, nominally, as Christians but showed little interest in faith before experiencing a form of ‘conversion’ in their fourth decade. After this both were attracted to a mystical expression of faith and – perhaps because of this – both had, at times, an uneasy relationship with the … Read more

Evelyn Underhill: Recovering Mysticism, Remembering Jacopone

By Dana Greene

In 1919 Evelyn Underhill, well-known author of “Mysticism” and many other books on this subject, published a biography of Jacopone da Todi, a thirteenth century Franciscan mystic and poet, one of the earliest to write in the vernacular and probably the author of the famous Stabat Mater Dolorosa. 2019 marks the centennial of Underhill’s publication the first and until 1980 the only biography in English of this important literary personality. Born into a noble family as Jacopo dei Benedetti he studied law and married. On the tragic death of his wife he left his profession and became a wandering ascetic and penitent. His strange behavior won him a name of derision, Jacopone. He ultimately entered the Franciscans as a lay brother who allied himself with that group within the Order who argued for greater poverty and penance. … Read more

Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis

InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove Illinois, 2005
David C. Downing

Reviewed by Ron Dart

There are a variety of portals into reading and interpreting the life and varied publications of C.S. Lewis. There has been an unfortunate tendency to equate Lewis with variations of evangelical Christianity (such a misread), but Lewis was much more a catholic Anglican. Then, there are those who argue Lewis is more of a rationalist (makes for a good Christian apologist). Or, there is Lewis the romantic or the rationalist-romantic. Is there more to Lewis, though?

There sheer beauty and strength of David C. Downing’s Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis is the way he convincingly highlights how Lewis is much more than a rationalist or romantic or some combination thereof—in short, Lewis is at core and centre a mystic. And, to the pertinent … Read more

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality

By Jane Shaw

Many people today think of themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ What riches and resources does the Anglican tradition have to offer to those who are spiritually curious but on the margins of, or outside, the church, as well as to those inside the church?

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality introduces four Anglicans who identified the ways in which people were disaffected with institutional religion across the twentieth century, and yet remained on a spiritual quest.  All four sat at the edges of the church – sometimes even outside it – at moments during their own spiritual journeys. Each called the church to an engagement with the world and a rediscovery of the depths of its own tradition. Each, in their own sphere, encouraged a revival of spirituality, and a renewal of the great Anglican heritage of prayer, … Read more

Three Evelyn Underhill Anthologies

Reviewed by Carl McColman
March 12, 2018

Evelyn Underhill, Ordinary Mystic
It’s no secret that I consider Evelyn Underhill one of the most important Christian mystics of the twentieth century.

She’s nowhere near as well-known as Thomas Merton or Simone Weil or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but her contribution to Christian spirituality is as great as each of those more renowned figures. Evelyn Underhill’s biographer Dana Greene has called her an Artist of the Infinite Life. For Underhill, Christian mysticism is shaped by two key characteristics: artistry and ordinariness.

She recognized that one of the essential features of the contemplative life is beauty: we are drawn to God not only because God is good, and true, but also because God is beautiful.

If God’s truth inspires philosophy and God’s goodness inspires ethics, then God’s beauty inspires art — and mysticism, … Read more

Reflections on the Evelyn Underhill Prayer Book

ed. Robyn Wrigley-Carr
London: SPCK, 2018

Reflections: Ann Loades

Robyn Wrigley-Carr wrote her doctoral thesis in the Divinity School, St Andrews University, having discovered there the primary location of books and other materials relating to Friedrich von Hügel, focussing on his work as a ‘spiritual director’. It was almost inevitable that she would also develop a focus on the work of Evelyn Underhill, and some familiarity with the work of Evelyn’s friend, Lucy Menzies. The latter became Evelyn Underhill’s collaborator as writer, researcher and co-‘retreat director’ at Pleshey in the Chelmsford Diocese from 1924 onwards (p.8). It is all too easy to overlook the importance of what they achieved together given the long- standing discomfort in Christian institutions about women as authoritative teachers and guides, notwithstanding the unambiguous evidence provided by the publication of Evelyn’s major work on Mysticism in … Read more