Our “Spiritual War-Work” in the Age of COVID-19

By Robyn Wrigley-Carr – May 10, 2020

During World War 2, the British, Anglican, mystical theologian and spiritual director, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), encouraged a small “Prayer Group” to pray for world leaders, calling it their “spiritual war-work.”[1]

Our current pandemic has often been referred to as a “war,” yet a battle against an invisible enemy that is somehow uniting us all in our common humanity—regardless of nationality, race, gender or sexuality. The language of “war” when referring to COVID-19, has caused me to reflect upon Underhill’s insights—written during our last world war—as a challenge to our Christian response to this current global health crisis.

During World War 1, Underhill contributed to the war effort through writing and translating guide-books for Naval Intelligence. But towards the end of that war, Underhill (in her words) “went to pieces.”[2] The reality of war with the death of two close cousins on the front was too much for her abstracted mysticism. By 1919, Underhill sought the spiritual nurture of Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925). Underhill tells us that “somehow by his [von Hügel’s] prayers or something,” he “compelled” her to “experience Christ … it was like watching the sun rise very slowly – and then suddenly one knew what it was.”[3] Thereafter, Underhill’s writings became Christocentric and Trinitarian, focusing upon the “spiritual life” and our response to the triune God as the Church.

In the 1930s, Underhill became a pacifist and by 1939 in World War 2, she joined the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Alongside Underhill’s writing about pacifism during this time, she also wrote letters to her “Prayer Group”—around twelve women who had asked her to teach them about prayer in the spring of 1939. Underhill taught them face-to-face in London on a couple of occasions, then with the onset of World War 2, the group was geographically scattered, so she sent each member a letter, linked to the Church’s liturgical calendar. One aspect of her encouragement of this group was that they pray for world leaders—their “spiritual war-work”.

For Underhill, prayer is “Christian love in action.”[4] Maintaining a “spirit of prayer” through “waiting on God” was viewed by Underhill as the greatest means by which these women could “help the world” during World War 2.[5] So her Prayer Group was encouraged to pray for their enemies at noon daily, asking God to have compassion on them.[6] They prayed for Hitler and Mussolini—asking the Holy Spirit to come upon both leaders “with power” and “change their hearts.”[7] And as these women prayed for their “enemies,” they were “reach[ing] out in love” to those for whom they interceded.[8] Thus, the act of praying for world leaders not only impacted the world, but was formational—changing the women. Their intercessions not only impacted decisions made on the world stage during the war, but also enlarging their hearts towards those leaders.

In this COVID-19 world crisis, Underhill reminds us that it’s not enough to simply intercede when we “feel” like it. Rather, it’s our “duty” as the worldwide Christian Church—no matter what “flavour” or “tribe” we inhabit—to continue Jesus’ work on earth, and one of the “chief ways” this happens is through the “life of prayer” of the universal Church.[9] So though Underhill emphasises the Church’s role in glorifying God through worshipful adoration, she also reminds us that we “become channels” of Jesus’ “saving love” as we intercede.[10] As we place ourselves at “God’s disposal, His Holy Spirit prays in us,” inviting us into intercession, as we lift to God the “world’s suffering, need and sin.”[11] This is one of the greatest things we can do for humanity.[12]

During this health crisis that unites the planet, all of our world leaders need our prayers now, more than ever. We see some nations closing in on themselves and a lack of cooperation with global solutions to the pandemic. For example, some are withdrawing WHO funding, withholding authentic coronavirus death statistics, or engaging in missile testing while hundreds of thousands die and economies falter. All of our world leaders need our prayers for wisdom, generosity, kindness, compassion, and in some cases, protection from themselves—their myopia and their pride. This is no time for self-interest and self- preservation, but for enlarged, compassionate hearts and clear heads.

Underhill calls us all to generosity and sacrifice. She encourages us to give up any “comforts,” making our lives “more simple and plain” as an “act of love to God.”[13] The COVID-19 crisis means we all inhabit greater financial uncertainty—particularly those who are unemployed, unable to pay their rent, mortgages, or loans. Perhaps this is a time when we are called to prayerfully consider how we might be more generous with our money and our time, as we care for others.[14] COVID-19 has brought forth some creative forms of generosity and sacrifice. For example, the British, 99-year-old veteran, Captain Tom Moore, walking laps of his back garden with his walker while raising funds for the NHS; voluntary pay-cuts for senior politicians in New Zealand, Singapore, and Ecuador—in the NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words—“showing solidarity” in her nation’s “time of need” and acknowledging the “hit” to many Kiwis.[15] Such acts of creative empathy and generosity are inspiring. How might we show compassion, love and generosity, in our own unique ways, in our shattered, fragile world?

And for those of us who still have employment, but work from home instead of travelling to the workplace, how might we most effectively use that gift of extra time? Perhaps this is a season not just for sleeping in, but also using that time for new morning rituals of prayer, or adopting the habit of praying for world leaders and peace each noon.[16] Perhaps our daily lunch break could be our reminder to pray for world unity—the sharing of ventilators and vaccine research break-throughs and protection of medics on the front line. It might also be a time to pray for the inequalities in our societies—knowing the poverty of some nations and communities with unequal access to quality healthcare makes them more vulnerable to death from the virus. And prayers of protection of first nations’ people, who tend to have worse health outcomes. We can also pray for structural change to enable better health care for all who are homeless, poor, or oppressed in our world and in our communities.

Von Hügel’s final words from his death bed were, “Caring is the greatest thing. Caring matters most …”[17] These words remind us that caring love needs to be at the core of our response to this pandemic as followers of Jesus: Caring enough to pray for our neighbour, for justice, for the disabled or those who are vulnerable with underlying health conditions. Caring enough to pray for those with mental health conditions, for women trapped in abusive relationships, for children being abused. In fact, caring enough to pray for the children of the world—who are the future. And caring enough to engage in “spiritual war-work”—praying for our world leaders—a spiritual practice I believe all Christians are called to participate in. It’s easy to read the daily news, feel dismay and simply critique our world leaders. It’s much less automatic to pray for them.

Andrea Bocelli’s “Music for Hope” in the Milan Duomo was a highlight of my Easter. In his introduction, Bocelli said, “I believe in the strength of praying together.” I similarly believe strongly that the current pandemic is an opportunity for Church unity—“spiritual ecumenism.”[18] Indeed, Bocelli’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” with footage of empty Italian cities, plus Paris, London and New York, reminds us all of our unity as Christians. Newton’s lyrics are all the more striking, knowing they were written by a former slave trader who came to faith after surviving a storm: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”[19] In this pandemic, may we all more fully experience that grace which draws us to the appropriate response of “Yirah Yahweh” (“fear of the LORD” —authentic awe and adoration), and that grace that also relieves our fears—for this is not our home. We’re all just passing through. May we all come to embody and truly live—not just talk about, not just write about—the reality of this Grace. And may our experiencing of this reality prompt us to pray that our broken world will know the peace that passes understanding and the hope and lived reality of eternity. And may we all, like Underhill, become utterly convinced of the power of prayer, so that we, as the Christian Church, can participate in what God is doing in the world, through our prayers for global leaders and global unity—our “spiritual war-work.”

Robyn Wrigley-Carr is a Senior Lecturer in Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrucis College, Australia. She also a Senior Research Fellow for 2020 at Anglican Deaconess Ministries, Sydney, Australia. 

This article is courtesy of Laidlaw College, NZ where it was first published.


[1] Evelyn Underhill. The Fruits of the Spirit Light of Christ Abba (London: Longmans, 1960), 56.

[2] MS 5552, Letter from Underhill to Friedrich von Hügel, St Andrews University Library Special Collections.

[3] Margaret Cropper, The Life of Evelyn Underhill (Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2003), 102, italics added.

[4] Evelyn Underhill. “Postscript,” In Evelyn Underhill Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy, ed. Dana Green (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), 208.

[5] Underhill, The Fruits, 50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 56.

[8] Ibid, italics added.

[9] Ibid, 52.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 48.

[14] Ibid.

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[16] Ibid, 50.

[17] Gwendolen Greene, ed., Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece (London: Dent & Sons 1929), xliii.

[18] See: https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/church-unity-one-of-many-pandemic-opportunities/ 

[19] Italics added.