My Journey with Evelyn Underhill

by Kathy Staudt

For many years now the annual day of Quiet Reflection in honor of Evelyn Underhill has been an important spiritual resting-point in my life. It is always held in June, near Evelyn’s June 15 feast day. At that time of year the cathedral close is beautiful, the roses blooming in the Bishop’s garden, with quiet green places to walk and pray, and a lovely sense of “home” in the living room of Sayre House, where we meet. Even though I usually have leadership responsibilities, that June quiet day has become for me an annual time of rerooting, reconnecting to my own deepening experience of God’s presence in my life. It is a time to rest in what Evelyn Underhill somewhere calls “that deep place where the soul is at home with God.”

I first heard of Evelyn Underhill when I saw an announcement in the church bulletin for an Adult Forum that I did not attend. I was intrigued that the publicity referred to Evelyn Underhill as a “Protestant mystic” — somehow that wording (which Evelyn herself would have hated), made it seem more possible to me that a deep mystical experience of God could be integrated with something people would recognize as “normal” — a Protestant mystic seemed closer to that than a Catholic mystic might, at least at that time in my life. Later I was delighted to find that one of Evelyn Underhill’s books was called “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People”. One summer, visiting my parents in Denver, I was browsing in a bookstore called The Tattered Cover. Something moved me to see whether they had anything by Evelyn, this mysterious “Protestant mystic” of whom I’d heard a bit, and one book on the shelf leapt out at me: its title was Life as Prayer.

Life as Prayer.The book was a volume of occasional talks by Evelyn Underhill, and I read and reread two essays especially that spoke to my immediate questions. One was “The Spiritual Life of a Teacher,” an address to church school teachers that seemed to me to speak equally to the vocations of teacher and parent, two callings that I was beginning to weave together in my own life. In all of her writing, Evelyn Underhill invites people to prayer as an immersion in God’s love, an activity natural to human beings formed in God’s image, and an exciting journey. The images of prayer she offered spoke to me: “The life of prayer,” she writes, “is so great and various there is something in it for everyone. Or again, it is like that ocean of God in which St. Gregory said that elephants can swim and lambs can paddle. Even a baby can do something about it. No saint has exhausted its possibilities yet.” (175) Speaking to teachers, and I thought, also potentially to mothers and fathers also, she goes on:

In one way or another, you are required to be pupil-teachers, working for love. You must learn all the time, and give all the time; freely you have received, freely give. That is your Charter. Only do see to it that you fulfill the condition in which you can receive. The most up-to-date and efficient tap is useless unless the Living Water can come through and does come through. Never let yourselves think for one minute that because God has given you many things to do for Him, a large number of restless lambs to watch over, a great many pressing routine jobs, a life that is full up with duties and demands of a very practical sort—that all this need separate you from communion with Him. God is always coming to you in the sacrament of the present moment. Meet and receive Him then with gratitude in that sacrament; however unexpected its outward form may be. (185)

“God is always coming to you in the sacrament of the present moment.” Here and elsewhere in her writing, this voice of quiet, grounded spiritual authority was naming my experience. She was also naming the importance of staying spiritually centered as ministry in the world became more scattered and demanding. I had feared that perhaps I was odd or even a little crazy, in the intensity of my experience of God and especially in my yearning for some times of reflection and rest in the increasing busy-ness of life as full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time teacher, at church and, as opportunities grew, at the university and seminary level.

The other book on the shelf that I did not pick up — and indeed did not read until years later — was her volume Mysticism, the work for which Evelyn Underhill is best known, a classic that has been continuously in print since its publication in 1911. The word “mystic” frightened me; in many ways the experiences of the mystics, as Evelyn recorded them, did chime with some of my own experience at prayer. I was not sure what to make of this. She argued that the experience of the great mystics of all traditions is actually an experience available to all human beings in some way or another, that the greatest mystics’ experience differs from that of the rest of us “in degree, not in kind.” It has taken me many years to stop being fearful about the intensity of my own experience of God, but Evelyn has been an important companion on that journey, helping me to see that this experience participates in a long and rich human tradition, and that it is for something. It calls us to participate in some way in God’s ongoing effort to heal and redeem all that is broken and hurting in the world.

Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) is Secretary-Treasurer of the EUA and been a convener of the Evelyn Underhill Quiet Day for many years. Her article on Underhill’s Mysticism appears in the Spring 2012 volume of Spiritus.