Life lessons we need right now

What we can learn from the ‘mother of souls’

When Eternity invited me to reflect upon some lessons I’ve learnt from the life and writings of Evelyn Underhill, my mind and heart were flooded! Here I share a few of those lessons to celebrate Evelyn’s legacy for International Women’s Day. But who was Evelyn Underhill, this woman who died 80 years ago, whose vocation has been described as the “motherhood of souls”?

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an English writer in Christian spirituality, publishing 39 books and hundreds of articles. She was a woman ahead of her time, leading British Anglican priests on retreat and teaching them about prayer as early as 1925! The following year, she was invited to work on a commission for deepening the spiritual lives of both clergy and laity, then in 1930, she wrote a memorandum for bishops at Lambeth – “The Way of Renewal”.

Evelyn argued that rather than simply cultivating the intellect of clergy, nurturing their souls – their personal prayer lives – is essential for spiritual renewal in the Church. She wrote, it’s impossible for priests to “evoke the spirit of adoration” in the public worship they lead if they don’t possess it themselves.[i] So Evelyn recommended devotional training in theological colleges – ushering trainee pastors into a disciplined life of prayer and spiritual reading, plus an annual retreat.

Evelyn was the first woman to lecture in theology at Oxford University, was appointed a Fellow of King’s College London, received an honorary doctorate and was a trailblazer in retreat leading in England in the 1920s and 30s. Her published letters, prayers and retreat talks are the writings that I find most spiritually nourishing. So what are a few principles from her life and writings that particularly resonate with me?

When we feel spiritual starvation, Evelyn tells us to stop and establish once more our adoring, awestruck worship of God …

Adoring God

Adoration of God is the starting point for our spiritual lives, according to Evelyn. An inner life governed by adoring prayer, rather than by petition, is the remedy for the spiritual exhaustion and lack of spiritual vitality that we so often experience. When we feel spiritual starvation, Evelyn tells us to stop and establish once more our adoring, awestruck worship of God; to focus upon God’s unconditional love for us, and open our hearts to receive that love.

Evelyn reminds us to be ‘receivers’, not just ‘transmitters’ of his grace. Receiving is primary – we need to be “carefully tuned in, sensitive to the music of Eternity. We can never adore enough!”[ii] Evelyn encourages us to begin with adoration, like the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer – Father, “revered be Your mysterious Name in my dim, fluctuating soul.”[iii]

Our dreams, thoughts and relationships need to be ‘coloured’ by this adoring reverence of God. And as we experience God’s majestic Otherness, we will naturally recognise our small size. This humble posture wakes us up from a false sense of our own self-importance. So Evelyn sees wholehearted adoration of God as the essential preparation for our participation in God’s work in the world.

And Evelyn encourages us to be part of a worshipping community that fosters adoration of God. No amount of personal prayer and reading is a substitute for immersion in the life and worship of the Church.

God-focus, not self-focus

Evelyn encourages us to make the habit of constantly shifting our eyes from ourselves to God and his action. “Enrichment of the sense of God” is the crying need of Christianity, argues Evelyn, for we are “drifting towards a religion which consciously or unconsciously keeps its eye on humanity rather than on Deity”, which stresses service, rather than awe, and that type of religion doesn’t wear well in practice when the “pain and mystery of life are most deeply felt.” [iv]

Our natural bent is self-focus and our culture (even sometimes our Christian culture!) tells us that it’s all about us. No – it’s all about God. His action in the world is primary, not ours. Evelyn encourages us to see all of life in relation to God, for a spirituality starting with the self is not only pointless but dangerous. So we cultivate an alert expectancy for God – the prime mover – who’s always coming to us, and endeavour to see the events of our everyday lives with the light of Eternity shining through.

Being constantly busy not only exhausts us, but results in a lack of vision and depth, argues Evelyn.

The ‘Communion of Saints’

Evelyn had a lived understanding of the Church as a historic family through which the Spirit acts – both visible (people we can see in the present) and invisible (the “Communion of Saints”). Evelyn reminds us of all the Christians in history – our sisters and brothers who have gone before us – many of whom were more prayerful than us moderns, and who have left profound writings about their experiences of God and God’s ways that can enrich us. And Evelyn reminds us of the “cloud of witnesses” who “surround” us, cheering us on (Hebrews 12). The Church is so much larger, richer and more vibrant than what we can see and touch in 2022!

Praying that we ‘may be one’

Evelyn was a spiritual ecumenist who fervently prayed for Church unity. She reminds us that all the flavours of Church worship are simply “chapels of various types in the one Cathedral of the Spirit”, providing shelter to the various kinds of adoring souls.[v] Despite our differences as Christians, there are large parts we can’t help sharing, and with eyes “cleansed by prayer”, we’re made able to “read the letters of the Name, wherever found, and in whatever script”.[vi] Thus Evelyn felt in sympathy with Christians of every sort – “except when they start hating one another!”[vii]

So Evelyn invites us to extend generous hospitality, kindness and spiritual understanding to all branches of the Christian Church, rather than engage in ignorant critique, ‘mud-slinging’, and competitiveness. So we ask God to unite and enable us to join together singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” Church unity is a sign of the Spirit’s work and is a reminder of Jesus’ heartfelt prayer: “that they may be one” (John 17:21, NIV).

Our current crises – the global pandemic, war in Ukraine, the Australian floods and our climate emergency – provide an opportunity for a unified, renewed fervour in prayer …

The ‘leisure of Eternity’

As well as corporate adoration of God, Evelyn was a contemplative who urges us to follow Jesus’ example of withdrawing for times alone in prayer to rest in God’s presence and be intentionally attentive, to balance and inform our work. Evelyn invites us to withdraw from the restless surface of life, so we can attend to the deep. To hear God’s whisper, we need to be waiting, looking, listening and prayerfully engaging with Scripture. Being constantly busy not only exhausts us, but results in a lack of vision and depth, argues Evelyn. People whose lives are given to the Spirit have something of the “leisure of Eternity”, she writes, for they’re not enslaved by rush and hurry.[viii] Evelyn encourages us to get rid of the idea that the amount of jobs we get through is what’s most important. Rather, the steadiness with which we radiate God is the standard.[ix]

A shift to the eternal

In 1940, during World War Two, Evelyn wrote that it’s when “everything is reeling” that we truly start to perceive God’s “over-ruling presence”, his “Majesty and Mercy”. Evelyn argues that when our earthly situation is “deteriorating” and the temporal outlook looks darkest, is often when the “great swings back of the human spirit towards the Eternal have taken place”.[x]

Perhaps our current crises – the global pandemic, war in Ukraine, the Australian floods and our climate emergency – provide an opportunity for a unified, renewed fervour in prayer; a new hope, urgency and unity as lovers of Christ, as together we participate in the hastening of God’s Kingdom, through prayer and action. Evelyn encourages us to pray for the “renewal” of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and in the whole Church, to “‘kindle our cold hearts and light up our dark minds’, showing us God’s will for the future and enabling us to do our part.”[xi] These words hold deep resonance for us today as we navigate these fragile times.

One way … today’s Church can show generosity is to welcome, encourage, and enable women today.

Gifted women whose voices need to be heard

As we remember Evelyn, a profoundly gifted woman, let’s celebrate the fact that nearly a century ago, some British men recognised that gifting and invited her to participate in the teaching of male clergy about prayer and the ways of God. As much-loved children of God, we are called to love God and love one another sacrificially, and as the Church, to shift from ‘mine’ to ‘ours’, in compassionate generosity. Perhaps one way that men (and women) in today’s Church can show generosity is to welcome, encourage, and enable women today, who are gifted, equipped, and ready to lead and teach, to be given a voice, so that they can actively contribute to the flourishing of the worldwide Church.

Robyn Wrigley-Carr is Associate Professor in Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrucis, an Australian University College, and is Adjunct Associate Professor at Charles Sturt University. She is the author of Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill (the Archbishop of York’s Advent Book for 2021), The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill (2020) and the Editor for Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book (2018).

[i]Kings College London Archive, K/PP75, 3/4/16, ‘The Way of Renewal’.
[ii] Grace Adolphsen Brame, ed., The Ways of the Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 176.
[iii] Evelyn Underhill, Abba (London: Longmans, 1960), 22.
[iv]Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life (London: Methuen and Co, 1927), 13.
[v] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (London: Nisbet & Co, 1941), xii.
[vi]Underhill, Abba, 19.
[vii]Williams, ed., Letters (London: Longmans, Greene, 1943), 126.
[viii]Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life (Manly: Centre for Christian Spirituality, Manly), 75.
[ix]Braeme, ed., The Ways, 132.
[x] Williams, ed. Letters, 292, 283.
[xi]Evelyn Underhill, The Fruits of the Spirit (London: Longmans, 1960), 71-72.