The Synchronicity of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) and Benedictine John Main (1926-1982)
by Paul T. Harris
There is no doubt that Anglican laywoman Evelyn Underhill is one of the most widely respected twentieth-century authors and guides on prayer and the spiritual life. Today she is recognized as one of the few voices of this period to bring contemplative prayer and spirituality from the cloistered life of the monastery and academic treatises to the everyday lives of ordinary people.
In many respects she served as a teacher and guide to other late twentieth-century teachers of contemplative prayer, in particular, Benedictine monk John Main, whose teaching on prayer has spread around the world from the Benedictine monastery he founded in Montreal, Canada in 1977. His teachings are now practiced in 1300 Christian meditation groups in over sixty countries of the world and at an International Christian Meditation Centre that is located in London, England.
It is fascinating to observe the synchronicity between these two great twentieth-century spiritual guides and authors. Perhaps this is not surprising since both teachers went back to primary sources for their writings on spirituality, including scripture, Cassian and the fourth-century desert monks, The Cloud of Unknowing, and other spiritual masters through the ages.
They both provide themes, ideas, and insights on prayer and the spiritual life that supplement and dovetail as they both witness to the twentieth-century renewal in the practice of contemplative prayer. Perhaps what distinguishes John Main as a teacher of prayer is his insistence on the necessity of knowing how to pray.
Neither Evelyn Underhill nor the other great twentieth-century exponent of contemplative prayer, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), places the stress on the “how to” aspect of the daily practice of contemplative prayer that John Main does in his talks and writings. However it should be pointed out that in one instance in her Letters, Underhill does describe to a correspondent a simple exercise for the practice of contemplative prayer using the repetition of a prayer phrase.
Here are quotations from both Underhill and Main that demonstrate how close they are in their teaching on spirituality and prayer, and how they often use the same themes and terminology while at the same time speaking from their own particular experience and in their own language.
In the first quotation it is interesting to note that both spiritual guides take images from nature to illumine the life of prayer.
Nothing in all nature is so lovely and so vigorous, so perfectly at home in its environment, as a fish in the sea. Its surroundings give to it a beauty, quality, and power which is not its own. We take it out and at once a poor, limp, dull thing, fit for nothing, is gasping away its life. So the soul sunk in God, living the life of prayer, is supported, filled, transformed in beauty, by a vitality and a power which are not its own.
— From The School of Charity
The wonderful beauty of prayer is that the opening of our hearts is as natural as the opening of a flower. To let a flower open and bloom it is only necessary to let it be; so if we simply are, if we become and remain still and silent, our heart cannot but be open, the spirit cannot but pour through into our whole being. It is for this that we have been created.
— From Word into Silence
Both Underhill and Main emphasize that contemplative prayer is available to ordinary people and is not the prerogative of “specialists” such as monks in monasteries or sisters in convents:
Taste and see that the Lord is sweet. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. These are practical statements; addressed, not to specialists but to ordinary men and women…they are literally true now, or can be if we choose.
— From The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today
Now many Christians would still say at this point, ‘Very well, but this (prayer) is for Saints, for specialists in prayer,’ as if stillness and silence were not universal elements of the human spirit. This type of obstinate false humility is based on a plain unawareness of who St. Paul was writing to in Rome and Corinth and Ephesus. He was not writing to specialists, to Carmelites and Carthusians, but to husbands, wives, butchers and bakers.
— From Word Into Silence
In the following writings both authors refer to the “darkness” of contemplative prayer and the apathetic discipline of rejecting words, thoughts, and images at the time of prayer. Main, as usual, points out a “way” to enter the darkness.
The business of the contemplative then is to enter this cloud, the “good dark” as Hilton calls it…into the deliberate inhibition of discursive thought and rejection of images…The one who enters the “nothingness” or “ground of the soul” enters into the “dark,” a statement which seems simple enough until we try to realize what it means.
— From Mysticism
Learning to say your mantra, learning to say your word, leaving behind all other words, ideas, imagination and fantasies, is learning to enter into the presence of the Spirit who dwells in your own inner heart, who dwells there in love…The silence of our prayer is our opportunity to steal away into the darkness, into the night where we are filled with the light that is love.
— From Word Into Silence
John Cassian, a fourth-century desert monk, is famous for his conferences on spirituality, and Cassian’s Conferences is one of the books St. Thomas Aquinas always kept at his desk. Cassian had a special influence on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Ignatius, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis de Sales. Cassian is regarded as a master not only of the spirituality of monastic life but also of the spirituality of the early Church. Benedictine Cuthbert Butler refers to Cassian’s conference on prayer as “a treatise on prayer that has never been surpassed.” It is not surprising that both Underhill and Main rely on Cassian for insights into their own teachings.
The dialogues of John Cassian (c 350-) are one of the most important documents for the history of Christian mysticism. The first of a seven-year pilgrimage among the Egyptian monasteries, and many conversations on spiritual themes with the monks, we find in these dialogues for the first time a classified and realistic description of the successive degrees of contemplative prayer and their relation to the development of the spiritual life.
— From Mysticism
This simple, practical wisdom of the East moved westward in the monastic tradition, and entered Europe through the influence of John Cassian who was St. Benedict’s teacher of prayer. In his ninth and tenth Conferences Cassian gave to Western monasticism his teaching on prayer, which he himself had learned during his years of discipleship with the Desert Fathers. In order to move into “pure prayer” he advises us to take a short verse or word and then to cling to the constant repetition of it “ceaselessly revolving it in the heart, having got rid of all kinds of other thoughts.” He calls this the way to that “continual prayer” that answers St. Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing.”
— From Monastic Prayer and Modern Man
One of the favorite questions of those who pray contemplatively is the subject of distractions in prayer. Both Underhill and Main addressed this question time and time again:
Those who believe in prayer at all should make a practice of setting aside some time each day in which they deliberately turn from all vocal acts and petitions and, placing themselves in a meek and simple attitude, remain there quietly, and simply in the presence of God…At first thoughts, wants, and memories reach into the mind; sounds and images distract it. There is something very humiliating in the way in which meaningless interruptions capture the attention which we are trying to fix upon God. All these invitations to break the silence must be refused and the self brought back again and again to its poise of listening, of humble, hushed attentiveness.
— From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill
One of the things we discover as we start to meditate is, we discover that we are full of distractions. It is very humbling, not to say humiliating, to discover that after all our education, after all the credits we’ve clocked up, we cannot be still for a moment. Our mind wanders off at the most ridiculous levels, creating the most ridiculous fantasies, thoughts flying at every level around in our minds…Don’t try to use any energy to dispel the distraction. Simply ignore it and the way to ignore it is to repeat your (prayer) word…Meditation is the Christian version of it, it is simply launching out into the infinity of God through the Spirit who dwells in our hearts.
— From The Way of Unknowing
One final quotation from both authors addresses “progress” in prayer:
Do not entertain the notion that you ought to advance in your prayer. If you do, you will only find you have put on the brake instead of the accelerator. All real progress in spiritual things comes gently, imperceptibly and is the work of God.
— From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill
The stages of our progress in meditation will come about in their own time. God’s own time. We in fact hinder this progression by becoming too self conscious about our stage of development…you cannot approach your meditation on the basis of success. Don’t be looking for results. When you sit down to meditate each day, remember that the purpose of it is to lose all self-consciousness. Meditation, as John of the Cross described it, is a way of dispossession. This is what Christian prayer is all about. It is about being wholly open to Him, wholly with Him, wholly in harmony with Him.
— From Moment of Christ and The Heart of Creation
A cursory glance at their writings on spirituality indicates a great synchronicity between these remarkable twentieth-century teachers/authors.
Both are eager to transmit their lived experience on the importance of entering the path of prayer in response to an inner call. Both saw the spiritual journey as a return to the source of our being. Both were aware that the journey is one of silence that leads to wholeness, unity and peace.
And finally both came to a realization that prayer is a reservoir of spiritual vitality that overflows into love, compassion, and concern in our relationships with others. It is not difficult to see the light of truth, justice, and love shining through the two of them. Perhaps they reflect the “light of the world and the salt of the earth” referred to by Jesus in Matthew 5:13-14.
Paul Turner Harris lives in Ottawa, Canada; has three grown children; and is director of the John Main Centre there. A former journalist, he is author of eight books, the latest being Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Meditation (Novalis, Toronto).