Reviewed by Carl McColman
March 12, 2018
Evelyn Underhill, Ordinary Mystic
It’s no secret that I consider Evelyn Underhill one of the most important Christian mystics of the twentieth century.
She’s nowhere near as well-known as Thomas Merton or Simone Weil or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but her contribution to Christian spirituality is as great as each of those more renowned figures. Evelyn Underhill’s biographer Dana Greene has called her an Artist of the Infinite Life. For Underhill, Christian mysticism is shaped by two key characteristics: artistry and ordinariness.
She recognized that one of the essential features of the contemplative life is beauty: we are drawn to God not only because God is good, and true, but also because God is beautiful.
If God’s truth inspires philosophy and God’s goodness inspires ethics, then God’s beauty inspires art — and mysticism, therefore, is an adventure into reality (truth), holiness (goodness) and glory (beauty). A true mystic is a true theologian, a true saint, and a true artist — an artist of the inner life.
But if all that sounds rarefied, Underhill also was one of the first important figures to champion the humility, ordinariness, and indeed “normalcy” of the mystical life. I still chuckle over the subtitle of one of her best books, Practical Mysticism — “A Little Book for Normal People.” She worked hard to dispel the notion that mysticism only belonged to the super-holy, the super-religious, the super-pious. On the contrary, the contemplative life is the ordinary state for Christian maturity.
In this sense she anticipated by over a half a century Karl Rahner’s famous warning: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Underhill provides the hopeful alternative to Rahner’s challenge: Yes, we are all called to be mystics — and it is a life that is within our grasp, for it is meant even for “normal” people like you.
If you’re new to Evelyn Underhill, you might wonder where to begin with reader her books. She was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 books in her lifetime with various reissues, collections, and other editions of her work appearing ever since. What’s the best book (or books) to start with?
So today I’d like to recommend my three favorite anthologies — collections of the best writings by Evelyn Underhill. Any one of these serves as a marvelous introduction to her writing and shows how she is a key figure in twentieth century spirituality. Unfortunately, all three of them are out of print as of 2018 — but used copies can easily be found on Amazon, Ebay, or other sources. I’ve linked the title of each book to its page on Amazon, in case you feel inspired to go shopping.
Evelyn Underhill died in 1941, and only a dozen years would pass before the first anthology of her writings was published: An Anthology of the Love of God. Edited by a Scottish bishop along with one of Underhill’s close friends, the selections in this volume include some of Underhill’s poetry, along with a generous array of excerpts from her prose works, all organized around the central theme of Divine Love. “All her books are variations of this central theme,” writes Bishop Lumsden Barkway in his introduction to the volume.
Over the course of the book we see just how nuanced was Underhill’s understanding of Divine Love. Beginning with “the nature of our love,” subsequent sections explore the love of God, the love of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit; the church and the sacraments as fountains of love; the mystics as exponents of love; prayer as the expression of love, and holiness, penitence, discipline and service as the manifestations.
About a decade later came the publication of The Evelyn Underhill Reader, published in the USA by Abingdon Press. This collection features some helpful introductory material, including a brief biography of Underhill and a list of all her book published during her lifetime and over the first few years following her death.
The anthology itself is arranged topically: the first section deals with Mysticism, followed by sections on the Virtues, Spiritual Disciplines, Prayer, and Christ, Church, and Sacraments. What I like about this anthology is that many of the selections are lengthy, really providing a good snapshot of the author’s mind at work.
A more recent collection is Radiance: A Spiritual Memoir, published by Paraclete Press in 2004. This book offers a more chronological approach to Underhill’s writing, arranged from “Early Writings” to “Applied Spirituality” to “Understanding Mysticism” to “Mature Insight.” In keeping with its theme of “memoir,” this book offers the most intimate glimpse into Underhill not only as a writer but as a woman of faith, drawing selections not only from her published work but also from her letters and her journals.
So whether you want to understand Evelyn Underhill in the light of one unifying theme, or several topics that were central to her work, or in the light of her own life journey, these three anthologies offer three different but complementary approaches to her work. Get them and read them all. And then you’ll be ready to start tackling her many books themselves, one by one.
Carl McColman is a Lay Cistercian and a prolific author and blogger on Patheos.