Evelyn Underhill: The Hidden Life

Deborah Smith Douglas

Have you ever had the opportunity, maybe at a wedding or a folk-art festival, to observe or take part in a traditional circle dance?

From outside the circle, the dancers appear to be moving in opposite directions: those in the foreground moving to the right, those on the far side moving to the left.

Only by being part of the circle can one see and experience the unity and shared direction beneath the external appearance of opposition and contradiction.

So it is with the life of Evelyn Underhill.

Viewed from the outside, Underhill’s life can be seen as having two different patterns and trajectories, both of them partial, superficial, and misleading.

One of these errant perspectives on her life suggests that it was one of smooth unruffled professional and public success amid privileged circumstances. That view goes something like this:

Underhill enjoyed remarkable, improbable success as a writer and pioneer in the Church of England’s retreat movement (though there is an implicit asterisk among some academics: “for a woman”). She had no formal theological training or religious education, held no university degree, and lived a conventional upper-middle-class life in Kensington, complete with yachting holidays, trips abroad with her mother, a genteel social life replete with servants, cats and tea parties.

She is nevertheless, albeit sometimes reluctantly, acknowledged to have been an extraordinary scholar and linguist.

Her groundbreaking work Mysticism, published 1911, is considered a classic and has never been out of print in more than a century. Her other massive scholarly work Worship published in 1936 (twenty-five years later), remains a standard text for the study of liturgy.

She was the first woman outside lecturer in religion at Oxford, 1921, the first woman invited to give a lecture to Anglican clergy, the first woman to be included in a Church of England commission.

She was enormously influential in the Anglican retreat movement between the wars, conducting several retreats a year, usually at her beloved Pleshey, a retreat house in the Essex countryside. Her most abiding legacy remains not her scholarly works but those retreat addresses, mostly gathered, edited and published after her death by her friend and colleague Lucy Menzies.
That is one way of seeing her life from the outside of the circle.

Another way her life can be—and has been—seen from the outside, is as having an uneven, even broken trajectory, that ended in disarray.

Yes (says this perspective), Underhill enjoyed a period of remarkable, even brilliant, productivity and promise. However, her life was “punctuated by spiritual lapses, numerous conversions and unusual experiences, some of them paranormal.” (Harvey D. Egan, “Evelyn Underhill Revisited,” The Way 51/1 Jan 2012, pp 23-39)

EU might, concludes this academic, be considered a mystical scholar of some skill, but “not herself a mystic in the strict sense, [merely] a more usual ‘mystic of everyday life.”

Furthermore, after her successes and popularity in the 1920s and 30s, everything seemed to unravel at the end of her life: she strongly and publicly embraced pacifism before and during World War 2 (a wildly unpopular position that cost her reputation dearly); the asthma that had plagued her whole life became debilitating; she ended her life ill and in exile from her beloved home, in some of the darkest days of the war.

Nevertheless, we are privileged to know better than either of these careless summations of Underhill’s life imply.

Thanks almost entirely to Dana Greene, we can step inside the circle dance. Thanks to Dana’s discovery and careful reading and editing of EU’s private notebooks, published as Evelyn Underhill: Fragments from an Inner Life (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse 1993), we can see the unity of her life, the authentic pattern of her spiritual life and growth, hidden beneath both the superficial perspectives of worldly success and emotional instability.

Underhill’s real life in and toward God, her valiant struggles with depression, ill health, and a preoccupation with her own faults—her struggles and surrenders and transformations—are apparent only when we have eyes to see what is hidden beneath the superficial views of her life as either anomalous achievement or ultimate disintegration.

Her deep true life was, while she lived, “hid with Christ in God” as Paul described the life of a Christian in his letter to the Colossians.

George Herbert’s famous poem on that biblical verse embodies the meaning within itself: the text itself is hidden within, held by, embraced and contained within, the poem. Paul’s words run obliquely all the way through, literally from the first word to the last.

Colossians 3:3
George Herbert

My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The  other Hid, and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapped In flesh, & and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My  pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.

The line that is hidden unseen (without the italics) is of course integral to the whole poem.

The central image is of the sun, and its “double motion:” its transit during the day from east to west is obvious, but it disappears below our horizon at night. The sun’s other “motion,” the journey from west to east again, is hidden from our sight.

We see the sun’s transit as though from the outside of the circle dance it makes in the sky. But if we could stand inside the circle, we could see and know the whole reality of its integrated motion, its dynamic unity.

And so it is with Underhill’s deep inner life, hidden within/beneath the appearances.

That dynamic development, that profound secret transformation, is nothing less than the soul’s journey home to God. What can look from the outside, like mere pain or failure, weakness, brokenness, darkness, is an essential part of the mysterious growth of the spirit.

In Underhill’s life, this development is not entirely hidden: Todd Johnson, a seminary professor at Fuller, writing about the development of EU’s spiritual life (“Life as Prayer: the Development of Evelyn Underhill’s Spirituality” Theology: News and Notes, fall 2009) points out that there are clues in her writing that indicate the deep interior shift in her theology and prayer that occurred in the years between the publication of Mysticism in 1911 and the publication of The Spiritual Life in 1937.

In Mysticism, Underhill uses the classic 3-fold paradigm of the mystic way—purgation, illumination, and unification—but expands it to a 5-fold scheme, significantly adding a stage of conversion at the beginning and a stage of surrender between illumination and unification.

But the whole process remains in that approach essentially esoteric, philosophical and psychological, largely private and inward, otherworldly and universal rather than explicitly Christian.

The structure of the Spiritual Life published in 1937, is on the other hand both less esoteric and simpler—a 3-fold pattern of adoration, adherence, and cooperation—and deeply Christ-centered.

Based on the 17th c. French school of spirituality established by Cardinal Bérulle whom Underhill admired, this pattern begins in adoration: putting God at the center of one’s life, nothing is or could be more important.

Adherence means what it sounds like: a passionate clinging to God, a deep union. Margaret Cropper, EU’s biographer and friend, wrote a prayer that Underhill included in her own prayer book that expresses this adhering to God in strong language: “Abide in us, Lord God, that we may abide in you: LOCKED to you, spirit to Spirit in the deep mystery of God and humanity.” (Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book, edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr, London: SPCK 2018, 45)

The third stage of the spiritual life is cooperation: our whole lives offered in sacrificial love as living intercessions for the world God longs to mend and save.

I contend—and I’m hardly alone in this—that her own life did indeed follow this 3-fold path of spiritual development. Contrary to popular academic opinion, she did not just write about it; she lived it.

The question is how did that change occur in her? What moved her from the esoteric and abstract to the concrete, personal and passionate?

Many events and people prepared her for that transforming encounter with God:

The first would have to be, I believe, the so-called Great War—the war that was to end all wars, the war that would be over by Christmas—during which EU worked as a translator for the Admiralty in naval intelligence and during which, by her own admission, she “went to pieces.” (Having learned something myself about the Admiralty under Churchill’s leadership from Erik Larson’s book Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, I can see how working in naval intelligence would have shattered anyone with a conscience. In any event, she would have been prevented by the Official Secrets Act from the relief of speaking of this to anyone.)

By the end of the war she was exhausted, spent, confused: “frantic and feverish,” she wrote, experiencing “darkest depression…unbearable strain and loneliness…[when] religion itself seemed savage and unrelenting.” (quoted in Margaret Cropper, The Life of Evelyn Underhill, first published in 1958, reissued by Skylight Lives 2002, 87,88)

That crisis propelled her in 1921 to the Roman Catholic layman and spiritual director Baron Friedrich von Hügel, “to whom she owed her whole spiritual life.” His guidance led her to Pleshey, the Anglican retreat house in Essex where she made her first retreat in 1921; that experience led her back to the Church of England, from which she had exiled herself and which was to be her ecclesiastical home for the rest of her life, and the context for her ministry of retreat leading and spiritual direction.

It was also the soul-shattering experience of the war that led her, in 1919, at the invitation of Amy Turton, an English lady living in Siena, to join the Spiritual Entente, a kind of informal secret fellowship (“no meetings, no rules”) of Italian Catholic and English Anglican women bound to intercessory prayer and work for peace within an ecumenical spirit. The Entente’s founder, Sorella Maria, was a remarkable Italian Franciscan nun with whom Underhill only met face to face one time (in 1925), but who had a profound effect on Underhill’s own understanding of the spiritual life as one involving sacrifice and suffering.

It seems to me (thanks again to Dana Greene’s recovery of EU’s private notebooks) that all these forces—EU’s breakdown during the war, encountering Sorella Maria just after the war, putting herself under obedience to Baron von Hügel, making her first silent retreat at Pleshey, reconciling herself with the Church of England and finding both a home and her vocation there—came to a point of critical mass in the retreat she made at Pleshey in 1923.

Reading her entries from that retreat has given me a powerful sense of that spring week as a fulcrum—a “supported point of balance that allows for a pivotal shift.”

She wrote cryptically but lyrically that week of an experience of Christ in prayer: a visceral awareness of what she called “an edgeless penetrating love and joy,” the certainty that God was in the darkness as well as the light—a personal encounter with Christ that changed everything.

In the same retreat she wrote in her journal of two other experiences that reflect this pivotal shift within her to a deep peace and trust in God—a peace and trust—a “supported balance”—that had long eluded her, and that allowed for the healing of her wounded and restless spirit.

One entry contains a poignant insight that was definitive for her and has become important personally to me, of the way we are connected to God in our ministry of intercession:

“The Good Shepherd, leaning over to save the sheep, clings with one hand to the Rock, rescues with the other. So must we. Perhaps the secret of intercession is just this outstretching to others while we adhere to God.”
I love her early use of the word adhere… a great illustration of the kind of “clinging” that that second stage in the development of the Spiritual Life entails.

EU doesn’t say, and of course we have no way of knowing, but given the phenomenal popularity of this Victorian genre painting by Alford Usher Soord—more than 300,000 prints of it had been sold in Britain by 1916—she may well have seen it and be remembering it, there may well even have been a print of it somewhere at Pleshey.

Whether or not Underhill had this painting in mind, it is a powerful image of Jesus and the lost sheep, and of the simultaneous clinging to God and reaching to another that is indeed at the heart of intercession.

Two days later, in the same retreat, Evelyn recorded what has become one of my favorite passages in all her writing, and certainly my favorite mental image of her:

“Last night after Compline,” she wrote, “I went alone on to the roof, in great peace and acceptance though without vivid awareness—just thinking Christ too prayed like that—high up alone, out of doors at night—one comes closest to His ideal prayer…deep quiet and a kind of return to joy.”

What had been “frantic and feverish” in her is now quiet and at peace: “converted” and “surrendered” indeed.

It was some time after that quiet nighttime solitude that she included in her personal collection of prayers, this one by Rabia Basri, an 8th c. Sufi mystic, the first female Muslim saint—a prayer that breathes the same peaceful spirit of intimate love and trust: “O Lord, the stars are shining and all things take their rest; kings have shut their doors and every lover is alone with the beloved. And here I am alone with you.” (Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book, edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr, #39)

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that the spiritual life is “not about developing an individual technique for communing with the divine, but the business of becoming a means of reconciliation and healing” in the world. (Boston: Shambhala/New Seeds 2007, Where God Happens pp 32-33)

Evelyn couldn’t have said it better herself. She expressed it in active terms of great energy, explicitly electric:

“A real man or woman of prayer should be a live wire (she told a gathering of the United Free Church of Scotland in 1928), a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it. In so far as you have given your lives to God, you have offered yourself, without conditions, as transmitters of God’s saving and enabling love. And the will and love, the emotional drive which you thus consecrate to God’s purposes, can actually do work on supernatural levels for those for whom you are called upon to pray. “Life as Prayer,” in Collected Papers of Evelyn Underhill, ed. Lucy Menzies (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1946), 62

That image of an electrical current that we receive from God and transmit to another in prayer is a kind of riff on the image of the Good Shepherd: clinging to the Rock with one hand and extending the other to someone who needs a living connection to that Rock.

To be a mystic is not to cultivate levitating ecstasy, it is simply to be a person “who knows for certain the love of God,” to be someone who has had a deep encounter with God in a hidden way—and who has then been catapulted from that transforming encounter into the world as an instrument of healing and reconciliation.

Evelyn Underhill’s life was, I have suggested, “hidden” in God: but how that unseen life did shine forth and bear fruit. After that pivotal retreat in 1923, everything in her life began more and more to coalesce around that hidden core, giving power and a coherent unity to all she did. Because everything she did came “from the center, where she was anchored in God.”

She walked the mystic way she described; in the company of the great mystics she so admired, her whole life began in adoration, led to being “locked” to God in firm adherence, and ended with deep complete self-offering, cooperating with God’s purposes.

I suspect that for each of us, as well as for EU, there is a deep unity, a profound abiding in God, hidden within and beneath the surface of our ordinary lives: a movement from a turbulent, noisy, or even a shattered place to a quiet depth which in turn led to apostolic work in the world.

Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that He had said to them. It is good from time to time to give ourselves the quiet opportunity to let the Spirit do just that.

It might be rewarding to spend some time looking back over your life, with God beside you, to trace that pattern in your own experience, and thank God for it.

Mark Foley is a Carmelite priest who has written a superb little book: The Context of Holiness: Psychological and Spiritual Reflections on the life of Therese of Lisieux (DC: ICS Publishing 2008). Whether you have any interest in the “little flower” or not, the author makes a compelling case for life’s trials and sorrows being the very ground of our transforming encounters with God—not impediments to our growth but the means of it. As it was with Therese, and Mother Teresa, and I suspect all the saints, it is in the darkest places that God will find us. The spiritual life is not an encapsulated sphere, cloistered from the realities of our lives, sealed off from the dark nights and raging storms, the deep wounds and huge losses we bear. All those things are the very context of holiness, not obstacles to it. It is God who integrates all the apparent contradictions and oppositions into harmony and union.

You might want to prayerfully perform a kind of Rubin’s vase experiment, using that famous reversing-form image where one’s mind instantly processes visual information to see either a black vase or two white faces. The Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin developed this a century ago to show how we at first assume only one interpretation of the information, but also how that process can be reversed, and a less immediate “meaning” can be seen.

In this reverse-ground form image, one usually sees a dark chalice against a light ground; only later can one teach one’s mind to see instead two light profiles face to face against a dark ground.

Perhaps you can revisit in memory an experience which you assumed at the time and have ever since archived as failure or fear or sorrow, a debilitating loss—and reverse it in your mind, to see that in the very midst of that darkness, God was present (if unseen), and using the darkness as the opportunity for an encounter, face to face.

What seemed at the time to be merely a bitter cup may reveal itself in retrospect to have been the very place of resurrection as the Celtic saints might say: a time and place where God was with us.

Evelyn Underhill was clearly a person of indelible faith and profound prayer: a mystic who “knew for certain the love of God.”

And so may we be.

Even if our own lives appear from the outside of the circle to be broken or marked by contradiction, we can trust the “double motion” of unseen grace at work, unifying and directing all things.

Our lives—like Underhill’s and Saint Paul’s and George Herbert’s and all the saints’—are hid with Christ in God. Whether that is apparent to the world or not, we can rejoice in that hidden life and in the unity and purpose that underlie all appearances to the contrary.

May Evelyn Underhill companion and guide us as we too walk the mystic way, deeper into the realms of the holy, every day of our lives.

Deborah Smith Douglas
Deborah Smith Douglas

Deborah Smith Douglas is a spiritual director, writer, and Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate. This presentation was first given at the Underhill Quiet Day in June 2018.