Evelyn Underhill’s Guidelines For a Sane Spiritual Life

by Mary Brian Durkin, OP

Evelyn Underhill is recognized as one of Great Britain’s outstanding religious writers. Her books, lectures, retreat conferences, and letters of spiritual advice offer insights into ways to develop and maintain a sane spiritual life. In these works, often in homey and humorous ways, Underhill shows how the natural and supernatural life are compatible and can be fully integrated by anyone willing to make the effort. “You don’t have to be peculiar to find God,” she insists, “but you do have to make a willed commitment to make Him the center of your life, all aspects of it!” (House of the Soul, p. 90).

Adoration and charity must be paramount, she states: “Adoration is caring for God above all else. Charity is the outward swing of prayer toward all the world…embracing and caring for all worldly interests in God’s name.” (Ways of the Spirit, p. 142). Charity, Underhill insists, makes us a tool, a supple instrument reaching out, working, caring, healing, ministering selflessly in whatever ways the Lord directs us. Only by our loving, generous self giving, first in the prayer of adoration and then by our dedicated actions, will his redeeming work in this world be accomplished.

Insisting that a truly spiritual life must be founded on prayer, Underhill advocates setting aside a specific time, preferably in the morning, for adoration, spiritual reading, and meditation. “Old fashioned practices,” she admits, “but it’s the only way!” (Mixed Pasture, p. 72). So many people don’t understand that this regime of prayer, time alone with God, is the spiritual food that sustains and nourishes, she told an advisee: “They only do it when “they feel in the mood” or “when they can.” Once you’ve started, never give up this practice, despite discouragements or ups and downs (Letters, p. 71).

She counseled a friend:

“Try to arrange things so that you can have a reasonable bit of quiet every day and do not be scrupulous and think it selfish to make a decided struggle for this. You are obeying God’s call and giving Him the opportunity to teach you what He wants you to know, and so make you more useful to Him and to other souls. (Ibid, p. 141).

Like Teresa of Avila, Underhill advocated simplicity and flexibility in prayer. Don’t be held down to any set plan or model; follow a style that suits you; change when you think it wise, she advised. A simple rule or regime of prayer, to be followed whether one is in the mood or not gives backbone to one’s spiritual life, as nothing else can, she counseled: “If you fall later into a state in which you cannot, without strain, practice meditation or mental prayer, you can spend the time in spiritual reading, only try always to keep the time intact and not use it for other things.” (Ibid, p. 312).

To an advisee who complained bitterly that she had to earn her own living doing “stupid typing” and hence had little time to spend in prayer, Underhill replied that the long train ride from Beckenham Hill to the city offered ample time for prayer, providing it was not spent “reading the rags.”

Underhill believed that beginners in the early stages of developing their prayer life often placed too much emphasis on feelings and not enough on will. She chided an advisee: “If by losing the spirit of prayer, you mean losing the heavenly sensations of deep devotion, I am afraid that does not matter a scrap.” (Ibid, p. 103). She advised another to make an act of willed attention to God, to stop fussing over the lack of emotional feelings: “The will is what matters—as long as you have that, you are safe.” (Ibid, pp. 147-148).

In another letter, she underlined this entire sentence: “Never forget that the key to the situation lies in the will and not in the imagination.” (Ibid, p. 82). To truly develop a spiritual life requires self-discipline and will power. To emphasize this point, Underhill quotes St. John of the Cross: “The whole wisdom of the Saints consists in directing the will vigorously toward God.” She then adds, “The way that is done by ordinary people like ourselves is by aiming at Him in all circumstances of life.” (Mount of Purification,  p. 8).

Underhill’s admonitions are succinct, practical, and understandable: “The direction and constancy of the will is what really matters, and intellect and feeling are only important insofar as they contribute to that.” (Letters, p. 67); “Remember God is acting on your soul all the time, whether you have spiritual sensations or not.” (Ibid, p. 184).

Although adamant about the necessity of maintaining a regime of personal prayer despite bouts of aridity and spiritual flatness, Underhill also insists that this fixed period of private prayer is not the only time of union with God; every bit of work, every thought and action, done for God and in His name, is a prayer:

“Never let yourself think that because God has given you many things to do for Him…pressing routine jobs, a life full up with duties and demands of a very practical sort—that all these need separate you from communion with Him. God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament; however unexpected its outward form may be receive Him in every sight and sound, joy, pain, opportunity and sacrifice.” (Life as Prayer, p. 186).

Though certainly not a new concept, Underhill frequently stressed the sacramental value of the finite and temporal in mundane activities and the importance of seeing or finding God in everyday life. She wrote to an advisee:

“Take the present situation as it is and try to deal with what it brings you, in a spirit of generosity and love. God is much in the difficult home problems as in the times of quiet and prayer, isn’t He? Try especially to do His will there, deliberately seek opportunities for kindness, sympathy, and patience.” (Letters, p. 137).

Underhill advised one facing a difficult situation that by increasing her prayer time to an hour at least, then she should be able “to handle the situation even though just now the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ may take a rather knobbly sort of form. Still God is in it—and it is there that you have to find a way of responding to Him and receiving Him.” (Ibid, p. 258). Repeating Teresa’s dictum that the aim of the spiritual life is “Work, work, work,” Underhill reminds retreatants that usually this means just doing one’s job, enduring the drudgery, monotony, yes, even the meanness of it all, for Christ’s sake. Your prayer of adoration and your outward swing to others by dedicated, disciplined service, graced by creative initiative, courage, gentleness, and compassion, indicate a requisite balance has been achieved. To minister to others requires the virtue of patience which Underhill defines in down-to-earth terms:

“Patience toward God is the quiet acceptance of life, bit by bit from his hand. Patience toward others is bearing evenly all that is uneven in character, prejudice, and habits…It is meeting with equal countenance the nasty and sunny sides of the human person…It is equanimity toward the people who offend our taste…who ask for a cup of cold water at the wrong time, the stupid, the querulous, the obstinate. Each of us can fill up more blanks for ourselves!” (Ways of the Spirit, p. 170).

There is only one way to learn patience, Underhill asserts, and that is to study the life of Jesus Christ. Ponder his actions: his compassion for the sick, the marginalized, the hungry and weary, the troubled and bereaved. He never criticized one person, except the self-righteous. He overlooked rough, uncouth manners; forgave his tormentors; and found joy in doing his Father’s will, even on the Cross.

She writes: “In my relations with my father which are difficult and where I’m often met by coolness and indifference, I am constantly tempted to be cold and indifferent in my turn and feel it more and more difficult to be or feel loving or anything but a stranger. Yet I know that this too is a test if I could take it rightly.

“As towards my husband, I often fail to show interest in his affairs and amusements, not rousing myself to respond when I’m tired or concerned with other things, forgetting he is very patient with me and our difference in outlook must be just as trying for him.” (Fragments From An Inner Life, p. 94).

Underhill’s journal entries and excerpts from letters to her spiritual advisors reveal that she “lived” the advice she gave to others. Admonishing herself to use the “domestic bits” of life as means to mortify impatience, uncharitableness, sensitivity to slights, she resolves, despite familial friction, to preserve an interior spirit of tranquil joy: “There is no place in my soul, no corner of my character, where God is not.” (Ibid, p. 86).

Another entry in Fragements reveals that of her types of active service for Christ: direct teaching, books, and lectures, and also the direction of souls—she considered the latter to be of more importance. Her followers today would not dispute that evaluation; her influence is widespread and growing. Her pithy, practical advice on ways to balance and unify a contemplative and active life continues to inspire many on their spiritual journeys.

Excerpted from Spiritual Life (Winter 1997), pp. 236-43