Crossing Over to God’s Side: Evelyn Underhill and the Problem of Security

by Stephanie Ford

On June 15, 1941, the British spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill, fragile from debilitating asthma, succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Meanwhile, a youthful World War II raged outside—her fellow Brits engaged in the feverish struggle to stop the spread of German domination. For Underhill, however, the question of security had been settled long before bombs damaged her beloved home city of London. Some years earlier, the Anglican spiritual guide had gone against the grain of national loyalties: she had become a pacifist. Persuaded by contemplation on the meaning of the cross, Underhill had in her own words, “crossed over to God’s side.” She became convinced that the law of charity alone sufficed.

What were the sources of Underhill’s conversion to a security in love, unfettered by the gut-wrenching fear that must have welled up in anyone who endured the German blitz of the small island country? I was asking this question while working on a dissertation about the prolific spiritual writer, having been struck by Underhill’s complete change of heart from her pro-war stance during World War I.

Born in 1875, the only child of well-to-do, nominally Anglican parents, Evelyn Underhill’s early life lacked spiritual nurture. Yet, even as a teenager, Underhill showed spiritual sparks, fanned into flame in young adulthood through Christian art and architecture as well as the writings of Christian mystics. By her early thirties, her conversion had deepened dramatically. Underhill’s pen flowed copiously in novels, poetry, and then scholarly books on mysticism. She was passionate about the spiritual life, lifting the voice of the mystic up amid early-twentieth-century exultation in scientific progress. Early on, she distrusted the promises of expedient materialism.

Still, my own question about Underhill’s transformation on the issue of war did not become urgent until I watched the Twin Towers plunge to the ground in New York City. That September, as a new professor at a Quaker seminary, I was deeply stirred by the peace witness boldly declared all around me. Of course, I agreed—retaliation would never repair the wounds suffered by the innocent. But I tried to be honest with myself about the issue of safety. I didn’t live or work in the Big Apple. Would I have had the courage to stand as a pacifist after watching the towers implode? I wanted to know how it was that Underhill could surrender her own security to an uncompromising pacifism.

Of course, Jesus was always challenging his hearers on questions of security. He urged a rich young ruler to sell his possessions and follow him. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers to invest everything in a mysterious intangible called the Realm of God. Moreover, he illustrated this complete reversal of values in parables like a shepherd’s leaving ninety-nine sheep safely tucked in for the night in order to search for the one that was lost. And certainly his disciples were eager to try on this new way of life in faith; they abandoned their nets and followed the itinerant preacher. But believing takes ongoing attentiveness, as Peter would discover. Longing to walk out on the water at Jesus’ bidding, Peter began in earnest but was soon overwhelmed by the treacherous instabilities of wind and water and sank.

In 1914 Underhill was just at the point of publishing her fifth book, Practical Mysticism, when World War I broke out. She was convinced that the mystic could and must speak to the gravity of the hour—to prepare the human spirit for conflict and to enable the soul to find the “eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness.”1 In her preface, she referred to Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale, heroines of war times past who had acted “under mystical compulsion.” In a poem “England and the Soldier” written a year or so later, Underhill waxed sentimental, depicting village streets at dusk, fragrant autumn gardens, and the familiar sounds of home—all part of the maternal “peace of England” waiting to gather in her returning sons, alive or dead.2 In lofty tones, the poet promised the soldier that he was “never alone,” that England shared his wounds.

But in 1917 the author’s inkwell ran dry. It was the same year in which two of her cousins, sons of her widowed aunt, were killed in action. Underhill would later tell her spiritual director that she had “fallen to pieces” during the war. Indeed, the fate of her cousins was felt in almost every British family, as one million men were killed—many of whom rotted on the battlefields of France, never returning to the mystical solace of the English soil Underhill so eloquently pictured. A deep psychic depression descended over Europe, and the menace of another large-scale war simmered below the surface.

No longer could Underhill support the lone mystic’s triumph of spirit over matter. In a 1921 article Underhill wrote, “We are not closed systems, but part of the texture of the universe; and, equally with it, channels of the power that inspires.”3 Becoming active again in the Anglican church of her childhood, and blessed by the spiritual guidance of the noted and wise Friedrich von Hügel, her heart turned to the body of Christ as a potential vessel of transforming love in the world. During the 1920s and 30s, Underhill led numerous retreats, gave talks, and directed more of her writing to lay readers.

She became alarmed at the spiritually empty, spotty attempts at charity in the church. Nevertheless, she also worried that a theology of “social Christianity” might hinder a deeper surrender to the Spirit if concern for material well-being overshadowed the priority of Christ. Drawing upon the spiritual writings of the sixteenth-century French cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, Underhill interpreted his three-part paradigm of adoration, communion, and action for a new generation. Adoration, she explained, begins in awe, the natural response that rises up within us during worship. Yet the adoration of God is never just a private enjoyment. Not only does it inspire communities into corporate worship, but it also teaches us through its many “hints and intimations” about the nature of God’s kingdom. Through worship, the heart may be realigned, redirected. From this place of awe, our inner securities begin to shift. God becomes “the one real Fact,” and our first desire becomes one of living in that truth. We “pass away from our preoccupations and sink down into the soul’s ground,” which is our grounding in God.4

Communion, as Underhill articulated it, flows naturally from adoration. From this posture of humble amazement, our souls are opened to the “purifying action of the Spirit,” which “increases our capacity for God.”5 We now sense God’s presence in our very being; we can discover the guidance of the Spirit in the moment and thus discern what is real from what is false. “Dimly, yet quite truly, we begin to be conscious of a steady supple pressure…a loving peaceful joy in the great purposes of the Spirit, swamping all personal anxiety.”6 Only from secure grounding in the Spirit can our desire be translated into right action.

Now while Underhill was not in favor of sitting on the sofa waiting passively for God’s reign to manifest on earth, she was also convinced that prayer was a powerful tool of cooperation with God. “For all real prayer,” Underhill wrote, “is part of the Divine action. It is, as Saint Paul says, Spirit that prays in us; and through and in this prayer exerts a transforming influence upon the created world.”7 Through intercessory prayer, we might participate in opening a channel through which healing, insight, strength, and energy may flow—work beyond the grasp of our conscious mind. Boldly, Underhill declared, the praying soul aids God in bringing on earth the kingdom that Jesus revealed in his living and in his dying.

From her writings, we know that even as early as 1933, the spiritual foundation for Underhill’s pacifist stance was firmly in place. Yet, for many Christians who were inclined toward pacifism after the First World War, fears at the rising tide of Hitler’s militarism evaporated such vision. When the threat reached England’s shore, a British pacifist response became unthinkable.

Yet Underhill held unflinching conviction that absolute pacifism was the only legitimate response of the Christian to war. In “A Meditation on Peace,” an essay from 1939, Underhill declares, “Peace [is] bought at a great price; the peace of the Cross, of absolute acceptance, utter abandonment to God, a peace inseparable from sacrifice. The true pacifist is a redeemer, and must accept with joy the redeemer’s lot.”8 Because her very consciousness had been reformed by her meditation on Christ, Underhill could now perceive militarism from its underside, the same underside that a poor, radical rabbi in the first century was able to see.

So what gives one faith to refuse the use of violence when faced with unprovoked attack, military overthrow, or certain death? If asked such a question, Underhill likely would have responded that only a Spirit-driven love can enable a person to choose absolute pacifism. “For,” Underhill explains, “it is only when the secret thrust of our whole being is thus re-ordered by God and set towards God, that peace is established.”8 Such a path requires abandonment to divine oversight: “Here then the soul’s attitude must be undemanding and all-accepting: content to receive [the] Spirit’s revelation through earthly forms and figures, to gaze on the Cross and know that it offers us a truth we cannot fathom.”9 Underhill was convinced that God’s way, a way of nonviolence would ultimately bring spiritual transformation to our world. Trusting in transcendence, Underhill argued from the side of eternity: that the ultimate power of charity may even compel us to take an action that seems quite impractical and personally dangerous.

According to Underhill, such self-donation to divine charity does not weaken us; rather it enables our tiny souls to participate in God’s larger story of redemption. Our calling as Christ-bearers is not passivity but rather an energetic submission to the way of the Spirit—praying for, instead of battling, one’s enemies and publishing the ways of peace abroad. Underhill’s confidence in this invisible web of transformation was security in the knowledge of God’s infinite love for the world.

The sensitive Underhill had not missed the devastating lessons of the First World War, but neither was she blind to the hazards inherent in a nonviolent response. Underhill admitted that pacifism “was not expedient for getting results…[but],” she explains, “no other ordering of our existence can produce the best results.”10 She was clear. Pacifism entails facing the “apparent defeat of the Cross,” which the Johannine Christ surrendered to with hope, saying to his followers, “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”11 Identity in Christ empowers the pacifist to call the church to dis-identify with the military state and any hegemony of violence.

In these years of living with Underhill’s story and alongside my Quaker companions, I have been persuaded to invest my security in nonviolent resistance. This is not an easy shift; nor am I finished with it. Underhill did not face questions regarding an ethical response to genocide, for example. I wonder what I would do if my home were plundered or my child victimized. To choose the path of nonviolent resistance, I must continually turn towards the voice of Jesus, knowing that I am certainly not immune to the distractions of turbulent winds and water.

Yet I remember well the clarity and security I felt when I first read these poignant words that Underhill composed in 1940, as war raged around her. I turn to them often.

The pacifist is the one who has crossed over to God’s side and stands by the Cross, which is at once the supreme expression of that charity and the pattern of unblemished trust in the Unseen. Thence, with the eyes of prayer, he sees all life in supernatural regard; and knows that, though our present social order may crash in the furies of a total war and the darkness of Calvary may close down on the historic scene, the one thing that matters is the faithfulness of the creature to its own fragmentary apprehensions of the law of charity.12

Reprinted from Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life September/October 2006, Vol. XXI, No. 5. Copyright 2006 by Upper Room Ministries. Used by permission. For information about ordering Weavings call 1-800-925-6847.

1 Evelyn Underhill, Preface to Practical Mysticism (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1915), xi.
2 Evelyn Underhill, “England and the Soldier,” in Theophanies (London: J. M. Dent, 1916), 108–109.
3 “Sources of Power in Human Life,” in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy, ed. with introduction by Dana Greene (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).
4 Evelyn Underhill, The Golden Sequence (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1933), 166–67.
5 Ibid., 170.
6 Ibid., 171.
7 Ibid., 183.
8 Ibid., 201.
9 Underhill, The Golden Sequence, 123.
10 Evelyn Underhill, “Postcript” to Way of Peace, ed. Percy Harrell (London: James Clark, 1940), 187–92. Reprinted in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy, 206.
11 Ibid., 206–7.
12 Ibid., 206.