In January, 2018, Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book will be published by SPCK, London. I wanted here to give you a tiny glimpse of how the Prayer Books were found, plus a taste of some of Evelyn’s prayers.
Last year, while on a research trip examining ‘echoes of von Hügel in Evelyn Underhill’, I visited The Retreat House at Pleshey (near Chelmsford, UK). While looking through some papers and books there, I stumbled upon Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book. It had been found at an Oxfam Bookshop many decades before by a Canadian priest who had posted it to Pleshey. Several Underhill scholars had assumed it had been lost decades before. As I read through the Prayer Book, I had the words of Grace Adophsen Brame echoing in my heart and mind:
…that little book of prayers which Underhill had made herself, one single copy of hand written prayers which she loved… If that is ever found, it will be a treasure.1
Recognising the ‘treasure’ I held in my hands, I copied out the Prayer Book. On a subsequent trip to check my copy with the original, a second Prayer Book of Evelyn’s also mysteriously emerged. And both copies being uncovered in the 75th anniversary of her death! This Prayer Book was the earlier of the two, so I quickly copied that one as well.
In the Prayer Books Evelyn presents her favourite prayers from writers in Christian spirituality from the 3rd to twentieth century. In the second half of the latter Prayer Book, we read many of Evelyn’s own prayers, and I’d love to give you a taste of some of them.
At times, Evelyn’s prayers are deeply passionate, heartfelt prayers. For example,
‘Let our lives run to Your embrace… and breathe the breath of Eternity. O God Supreme! Most secret and most present, most beautiful and strong. Constant yet Incomprehensible, changeless yet changing all! What can I say, my God, my Life, my Holy Joy… You are the only reality…’
At times, Evelyn’s prayers are poetic:
‘…beyond us are the hills of God, the snowfields of the Spirit, the Other Kingdom.’
Evelyn’s energy and zest shine forth in her prayers:
‘…make us ready for adventure.’
‘Guide us with your adorable wisdom.’
‘take possession of our souls. So fill… our imaginations with pictures of Your love…’
Evelyn’s dependent, humble posture is clearly evident:
‘Let us ask God to work in us those changes that He knows we need.’
‘Let us ask for closer communion with our Lord-: therefore a greater forgetting of ourselves.’
Evelyn prays about union with Christ, even at times in unique ways:
‘Within Your wounds, hide me!’
And Evelyn, the retreat leader, tries to lead the community in prayers that will comfort and restore:
‘Soothe our restlessness: say to our hearts “Peace be still.” Brood over us, within us, Spirit of perfect peace… enfolded in Your loving care.’
It’s extremely exciting to see the prayers Evelyn carefully chose and wrote for leading spiritual retreats available to a new generation of pray-ers and retreat leaders. Please spread the word about this publication. All royalties are being donated to The House of Retreat, Pleshey, where Evelyn led retreats in the 1920s and 1930s.
Dr. Robyn Wrigley-Carr is Senior Lecture in Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrusis College, Sydney, Australia. Her PhD research at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, examined Baron Friedrich von Hügel as a spiritual director.
1 Grace Adophsen Brame, The Ways of the Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 39.