EVELYN UNDERHILL: Mysticism to Worship

(Paper researched and prepared  for Church History 3, General Theological Seminary, Easter 2011.  Posted in remembrance of the 100 year anniversary of the publication of Worship (1911).

Evelyn Underhill:  Her Spiritual Evolution from Mysticism to Worship

Throughout her early mystical experiences Evelyn Underhill carried an ambivalent bias against institutional religion.  Even as she came to recognize her need for communal worship of the Divine, she struggled to reconcile the seemingly inherent tension between mysticism and the church.  This dichotomy played out in the dualism she experienced in the relationships between individuality and institution – spirituality and theology – consciousness and reason – organic and ontologic[1] – historic and eternal[2] – prophet and priest[3] –  individual mobility and corporate stability[4] –  Catholic and Evangelical[5] –  oblation and adoration[6] –  and in her sense of Divine immanence and transcendence.

Evelyn’s personal relationship with the Divine took shape during her earlier years of alienation from the Church and evolved[7] into a more fully lived spiritual relationship as she came to appreciate what it meant to participate in the Body of Christ.  Her progressive understanding of mysticism and the church and the necessary tension between them can be traced through her writings.  Her two major works, Mysticism (1911) and Worship (1936), serve as bookends of her lifelong spiritual journey as it relates to her synthesis of personal and communal devotion.  The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (1921) and the revised 12th edition of Mysticism (1930) mark significant midpoints.

Evelyn’s life story can thus be divided into three periods based on her evolving understanding of the complementary nature of mysticism and the church: 1) 1875-1920 “Dualism and Vitalism”; 2) 1921-1929 “Critical Realism and Christianity”; 3) 1930-1941 “Spirit and Sacrifice.”[8]

I.  1875-1920 “Dualism and Vitalism”

Evelyn Underhill, the only child of Arthur Underhill, a barrister, and his wife Lucy, was born in 1875 at the height of the influence of the Victorian era.  Soon after her birth, the family moved to London where Arthur pursued what was to be a highly successful career (He was knighted in 1922).  Early on Evelyn was educated at home and then went off to private schooling.  At the age of sixteen she was confirmed in the Church of England; a diary entry gives an insight into her religious convictions at the time:

“I believe in God and think it is better to love and help the poor people around me than to go on saying that I love an abstract spirit whom I have never seen.  If I can do both, all the better but it is best to begin with the nearest.  I do not think anything is gained by being orthodox, and a great deal of beauty and sweetness of things is lost by being bigoted and dogmatic.  If we are to see God at all it must be through nature and our fellow men.”[9]

Having returned to London she attended King’s College for Women, reading there history and botany.  In these years the Victorian era society reflected Darwinian thinking and its focus on science and natural history; the perceived disconnect between science and religion grew. Evelyn had left the Anglican Church and now took up an interest in metaphysical and philosophical issues, particularly the ancient dualistic writings of the neo-Platonic Plotinus and the writing and lectures of contemporary proponents of vitalism, Henri Bergson and Rudolf Eucken, whose ideas were focused on the human soul – the inner experience and formation of the soul interacting with the historical, cultural and social environment.

While at King’s College, she turned her attention to writing; her first short stories, articles and reviews began to be published.  In summing up her religious views of these years Evelyn later wrote:

“You see, I wasn’t brought up to religion really – except just in the formal way of course.  So when the ‘youthful crash’ arrived it caught me fair and square, and for 8 or 9 years I really believed myself to be an atheist.  Philosophy brought me round to an intelligent and irresponsible sort of theism which I enjoyed thoroughly but which did not last long.  Gradually the net closed in on me and I was driven nearer and nearer to Christianity – half of me wishing it were true and half resisting violently all the time.  In those days I used to frequent both English and Roman churches and wish I knew what their secret was.”[10]

With the transition to the Edwardian era, novels and short stories became more popular.  Drawing on her earlier travels to the Continent with her parents (especially her attraction to Italy, Renaissance art, ancient churches and Italian Catholicism) and her inclination to creative human experience and intuition, Evelyn’s writing flowed from an innate romantic spirit that pervaded the lifelong evolution of her spirituality.  An excerpt from a 1904 novel provides an insight to the tension she held between interior experience and the church:

“He came back to the church again and again: fascinated, puzzled, always without comprehension of the charm which drew him there.  Once he heard a High Mass sung, and was disappointed.  It was ornate, dazzling, but it did not impress.  He loved best the quiet moments of devotion, when the place was a home, not a court.  When love outweighed ceremonial respect, and showed itself in a familiar simplicity, tears came to his eyes, and sorrow for his dumbness to his heart.  He knew then that a beautiful reality wrapped him round and helped him; that this place where invocation of the Invisible never ceased, had an existence in Eternity not granted to the hurrying City streets.  But the music and the incense were no part of that vision; they confused the image and frightened it away.”[11]

From 1905 until 1907 Evelyn was an active member of The Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn whose tradition is traced back to the teachings of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, French transcendentalist philosopher (1743–1803).  Underhill quotes St. Martin in Mysticism:  “All mystics speak the same language and come from the same country. As against that fact, the place which they happen to occupy in the kingdom of this world matters little.”[12]

This quote refers to the dichotomy between the historic and the eternal, pointing to the reason Mysticism contains no reference to history except in so far as chronology has a bearing upon the most fascinating of all histories, the history of the spirit of man.”. . . “Mysticism avowedly deals with the individual not as he stands in relation to the civilization of his time, but as he stands in relation to truths that are timeless.”[13]

Martin and Underhill shared a great admiration for the German Lutheran philosopher Jakob Boehme (1575-1624).[14]  Martin held that the ideal society would be “a natural and spiritual theocracy, in which God would raise up men . . . who would regard themselves strictly as divine commissioners to guide the people.  All ecclesiastical organization was to disappear, giving place to a purely spiritual Christianity, based on the assertion of a faculty superior to the reason moral sense, from which we derive knowledge of God. God exists as an eternal personality, and the creation is an overflowing of the divine love, which was unable to contain itself. The human soul, the human intellect or spirit, the spirit of the universe, and the elements or matter, are the four stages of this divine emanation, man being the immediate reflection of God, and nature in turn a reflection of man. Man, however, has fallen from his high estate, and matter is one of the consequences of his fall. But divine love, united to humanity in Christ, will work the final regeneration.”[15]

Evelyn’s two-year membership in the Golden Dawn Society[16] reflects her only active participation in ritual between her early school days and her return to the Church of England in the 1920’s.

By the mid 1900’s Evelyn had become engaged to her childhood family friend, Hubert Stuart Moore.  During these years, as a result of her lingering attraction to the Roman Catholic liturgy first experienced in Italy, Evelyn frequently attended Mass and Benediction, and in February 2007 she accompanied a friend on a retreat to a French Franciscan convent.  She later described what she experienced thereafter:  “The day after I came away, a good deal shaken but unconvinced, I was ‘converted’ quite suddenly once and for all by an overpowering vision which had really no specific Christian elements, but yet convinced me that the Catholic Religion was true.  It was so tightly bound up with (Roman) Catholicism, that I had no doubt . . . that that Church was my ultimate home.  So strong is this conviction that to have any personal dealings with Anglicanism seems for me a kind of treachery.  Unfortunately I allowed myself to be persuaded to wait a year before being received . . .” [17]

The tension between the Church and Evelyn’s personal desires took on a new dimension.  When she announced her decision to join the Roman Church, her fiancé was adamantly opposed.  His objection was based on a fear that a priest confessor would stand “between him and his wife, not an atypical concern of Englishmen who were suspicious of Roman Catholicism.”[18]  The suggestion that Evelyn wait a year before joining the Roman church came from Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, her friend and spiritual counselor.[19]  Evelyn concluded that the domestic storm would blow over with time, that once settled into married life she would be able to convince Hubert of the virtues behind her “need” for the Church.  Proceeding on that assumption, she married Hubert on July 3, 1907.

Another obstacle to her plan to join the Church immediately presented itself.  Evelyn continues her account:  “. . .  meanwhile the Modernist storm broke, with the result that now, being myself ‘Modernist’ on many points, I can’t get in without suppressions and evasions to which I can’t quite bring myself.”[20]

Modernism was a popular ideological trend that attempted to syncretize the teaching and tradition of the church with personal religious experience – to interpret religious truths in accordance with one’s own conscious sensibility.  An interest in mysticism accompanied the rising popularity of Modernism; Evelyn was in the midst of research for a book on mysticism before the “Modernist storm broke.”

According to the Roman Church:  “Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely . . . to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. . . Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; . . . But how the Modernists make the transition from Agnosticism, which is a state of pure nescience, to scientific and historic Atheism, which is a doctrine of positive denial; and consequently, by what legitimate process of reasoning, starting from ignorance as to whether God has in fact intervened in the history of the human race or not, they proceed, in their explanation of this history, to ignore God altogether, as if He really had not intervened, let him answer who can. Yet it is a fixed and established principle among them that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded.”[21]

On the very day of Evelyn’s wedding, Pope Pius X issued “Lamentabili Sane: Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists,” a decree which condemned Modernism and a variety of other “evolutionary” principles applied to Roman Catholic dogma.  A related encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregis” released on September 8, 1907 characterized Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies.”[22]

Evelyn was able to “suppress” neither her personal experience of spirituality nor her intellectual Modernist principles and critical reasoning (especially in light of plans and extensive work already completed for a book on these topics).  In giving up all intentions of joining the Roman Church, she described her predicament:  “. . . I can’t accept Anglicanism instead:  it seems an integrally different thing.  So here I am, going to Mass, but entirely deprived of sacraments. . . I no more like the tone and temper of contemporary Romanism than you do: it is really horrible; but with all her muddles, she has kept her mysteries intact.  There I can touch – see – feel Reality: and – speaking for myself only – nowhere else . . . to join any other communion is simply an impossible thought.”[23]

At this point the conflict between her personal spiritual convictions and the Roman Catholic Church delayed Evelyn’s return to institutional religion for over decade.  In the meantime Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness was completed, published in 1911 and became widely respected and immensely popular.

 Mysticism (1911)

In the Preface to Mysticism Evelyn puts forward her understanding of the term “mysticism” in order to correct the common confusion of mysticism with occult philosophy and psychic phenomenalism.  Mysticism is, she writes:  “one of the most abused words in the English language, it has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics.”[24]

She seeks to restore the term:  “to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual life . . . the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood. This tendency, in great mystics, gradually captures the whole field of consciousness; it dominates their life and, in the experience called “mystic union,” attains its end. Whether that end be called the God of Christianity, the World-soul of Pantheism, the Absolute of Philosophy, the desire to attain it and the movement towards it—so long as this is a genuine life process and not an intellectual speculation—is the proper subject of mysticism. I believe this movement to represent the true line of development of the highest form of human consciousness.”[25]

Mysticism falls into two parts: the first provides a general introduction to the subject; the second entitled “The Mystic Way” is comprised of a detailed study of the development of man’s spiritual consciousness from the view of metaphysics, psychology, orthodox theology and symbolism.[26]  Early on Evelyn describes the need for preparing to understand mystics involving “a purging of the intellect”:  “We must come to this encounter with minds cleared of prejudice and convention, must deliberately break with our inveterate habit of taking the “visible world” for granted; our lazy assumption that somehow science is “real” and metaphysics is not.  We must pull down our own card houses – descent, as the mystics say, “into our nothingness” – and examine for ourselves the foundations of all possible human experience, before we are in a position to criticize the buildings of the visionaries, the poets, and the saints.  We must not begin to talk of the unreal world of these dreamers until we have discovered – if we can – a real world with which it may be compared.”[27]

Evelyn lists five characteristics of mysticism:  she states the mysticism is: 1)  a life process that is practical and active, not theoretical and passive; 2)  a spiritual activity pursued for its own sake – not for any other purpose – with intention set constantly on “the changeless One”; 3) a method of love, including both surrender and perception whose object is living and personal; 4) a development of the whole self organically propelled by its search for the transcendent; and 5) never self-seeking.[28]

Parallel to her own struggle between the inner and outer life, projected as the tension between individuality and institution, she suggests that:  “. . . it will be well to consider the two extreme forms under which both mystics and theologians have been accustomed to conceive Divine Reality:  that is to say the so-called ‘emanation-theory’[29] and ‘immanence-theory’ of the transcendental world.”[30]

In discussing transcendence and immanence in a manner that brings to mind the tension between darkness and light in the Gospel, Evelyn associates transcendence with Dionysius, the Kabalists, John of the Cross, the idea “Never forget that God is inaccessible”, and William James’ “sick soul”; transcendence “leans to pessimism.”

At the opposite pole she associates immanence with Plotinus, the Inward Light of the Quakers, the concept of the New Testament doctrine of the indwelling spirit, James’ “healthy mind” and optimism.[31]

Evelyn refers to the “magical aspect of the sacraments (“a fact which does not invalidate their claim to be the vehicles of supernatural grace.”  She sees Christian baptism as a ritual closer to “white magic” than to “the simple lustrations practiced by St. John the Baptist.”  Speaking of the “borderland between magician and priest” she states:  “The business of the Church is to appeal to the whole man, as she finds him living in the world of sense.  She would hardly be adequate to this task did she neglect the powerful weapons which the occultist has developed for his own ends.  She, who takes the simplest and most common gifts of nature and transmutes them into heavenly food, takes also every discovery which the self has made concerning its own potentialities, and turns them to her own high purposes.  Founding her external system on sacraments and symbols, on rhythmic invocations and ceremonial acts of praise, insisting on the power of the pure and self-denying will and the “magic chain” of congregational worship, she does but join hands with those Magi whose gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the first gifts that she received.  But she pays for this; sharing some of the limitations of the system which her Catholic nature has compelled her to absorb. It is true, of course, that she purges it of all its baser elements—its arrogance, its curiosity—true also that she is bound to adopt it, because it is the highest common measure which she can apply to the spirituality of that world to which she is sent. But she cannot—and her great teachers have always known that she cannot—extract finality from a method which does not really seek after ultimate things. This method may and does teach men goodness, gives them happiness and health. It can even induce in them a certain exaltation in which they become aware, at any rate for a moment, of the existence of the supernatural world—a stupendous accomplishment. But it will not of itself make them citizens of that world: give to them the freedom of Reality.”[32]

Evelyn ends the first section of Mysticism with a quote from “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower” by Coventry Patmore; it succinctly summarizes her 1911 view of personal spirituality and the role of institutional religion:  “The work of the Church in the world is not to teach the mysteries of life, so much as to persuade the soul to that arduous degree of purity at which God Himself becomes her teacher. The work of the Church ends when the knowledge of God begins.”[33]

In the second half of Mysticism, Evelyn outlines five stages in the mystical process, augmenting the three stages of the Christian tradition:[34]  1) awakening (moving from the unconscious to the conscious search for God; a hunger for God)  2) purgation (the process of becoming free of all things God wants us to be free of in order to grow in Christ)  3) illumination (the insight or sensation of God’s closeness)  4) dark night of the soul (the experience of loss of meaning or loss of a familiar way of being)  5) union (the comfort with and absorption into Divine Being)[35]

In the conclusion of Mysticism Evelyn suggests that Christ is the perfect example of a mystic who achieved divine unity by living the “mystic way”, calling into question his eternal divinity: “Christians may well remark that the psychology of Christ, as presented to us in the Gospels, is of a piece with that of the mystics. In its pain and splendour, its dual character of action and fruition, it reflects their experience upon the supernal plane of more abundant life.”[36]

Mysticism met with great popular success.  More important to Evelyn’s continuing personal spiritual evolution, however, was the attention and criticism it drew to her directly from one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians of the time, Baron Friedrich von Hügel.

Although von Hügel claimed the views of a Modernist sympathizer and early ecumenist, he was successful in maintaining his membership in the Roman Church because of his acclaim and his status as a layman.  In spite of the heretical views set forth in Mysticism, von Hügel was significantly impressed with Evelyn’s work and maintained a collegial relationship with her until she sought him out for personal spiritual direction in 1921.  His major challenges to Evelyn on the publication of Mysticism concerned her misunderstandings regarding the need for institutional religion and her faulty Christology.  Evelyn maintained a spiritual direction relaionship with Hügel until his death four years later.

The decade following the publication of Mysticism was an intensely stormy time for Evelyn. She began to respond to those who sought her our for spiritual direction, but later personal correspondence regarding her own spiritual condition at the time shows serious internal conflict mounting due to the inconsistency of her public image and personal doubt.

Published works during the decade indicate a shift in Evelyn’s thinking, notably in a turning away from Plotinian neo-Platonism and a growing toward an appreciation for institutional religion.  Three works published in 1918 point to examples of this shift:

1)  In her work on the biography of Franciscan Jacopone da Todi,[37] Evelyn was led to the Spiritual Entente, an ecumenical prayer fellowship dedicated to spreading an awareness of Christ’s presence in his Body the church.

2)  In The Essentials of Mysticism she negatively characterized Plotinus:  “for whom the ‘political virtues’ are merely preparatory to the spiritual life, and that spiritual life an exclusive system of self-culture, having as its final stage a “flight of the alone to the Alone” . . . The problem of evil is looked at, but left unsolved, a weakness which Plotinus shares with most mystical philosophers . . . Though effort and self-denial have their part in the Plotinian scheme, that transfiguration of pain which was the greatest achievement of the Gospel is beyond the scope of his philosophy.”[38]

3)  In an article on the future of mysticism which refers to the difficult period in England during and immediately following World War I, Evelyn suggests a more positive attitude regarding institutional religion:  “The lessons of the past suggest to us that such a mysticism, frequently the aftermath of periods of misery and strife such as we now endure, is more likely to arise with than without the great historic churches and faiths.  The these churches and faiths it has again and again brought its gift of fresh life, of renewed and intensified communion with the spiritual world; and through them has radiated that gift upon the world.  It is in this direction that its future may most hopefully be looked for, since divorced from all institutional expression it tends to become strange, vague, or merely sentimental.  True mysticism is the soul of religion, but, like the soul of man, it needs a body if it is to fulfill its mighty destiny.  This destiny is not merely individual; it is social – to disclose to other men of fresh realms of the spirit, the imparting of more abundant life to the race.”[39]

II.  1921-1929 “Critical Realism and Christianity”

In reflecting on the evolution of Evelyn Underhill’s spirituality at the end of WWI going forward, Archbishop Michael Ramsey said:  “So it was that Evelyn Underhill was seen from the nineteen-twenties onwards not as the exponent of mysticism or as an evolutionary philosopher, but as a doctor of the Christian Church. Perhaps the best exposition of the new trend of her thinking is found in the Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today . . .”[40]

1921 was a pivotal year in Evelyn’s due to three factors:

1)  She was invited to give the first series of lectures established by Professor Upton, making her the first woman lecturer in religion to appear on the list of the Oxford University Faculty of Theology.

2)  In preparing the Upton lectures, Evelyn returned to active membership in the Church of England.

3)  In turning to Baron Friedrich von Hügel for spiritual direction ten years after first making his acquaintance, Evelyn was ready to make a serious effort to internalize the intellectual aspects of the spiritual understanding she professed.  She began to embrace von Hügel’s concept of “critical realism”[41] in which the universe is two-tiered, but the distinction between the nature and the supernatural is fluid, no absolute as in neo-Platonism.  She moved toward the idea that Divine sacramentality is “multigraded”, Divine presence being revealed more directly through the sacraments than in nature and most clearly revealed in Christ, although she was unable to accept Christ as a sacramental foundation.[42]  Under von Hügel’s guidance, Evelyn shifted from a spirituality focusing on human ascension to God to a spirituality based on divine condescension.[43]

In a letter dated Dec. 21, 1921, Evelyn recounted her spiritual history from the time of her 1907 conversion experience which:  “put a final end to a (very uncomfortable) period of agnosticism.  This had happened before you first knew me, and I then very nearly became a Catholic but didn’t quite.  However, I went on for a long time going to Mass on Sundays as a sort of freelance and outsider; but gradually this faded out in favour of what I vainly imagined to be inwardness, and an increasing anti-institutional bias.  Then, during the war, I went to pieces as I told you . . Now I have got back, but what seems to me so strange and makes me nervous is that I should have expected to have to fight my way back inch by inch.” (Instead she reported that) “everything has been given back to me that I ever had, and more.” (This, she suspected, was the experience of Forgiveness:) – “ final and complete, reharmonizing and secure.”  (As for Christocentric devotion. she wrote:) “I can’t do it.”[44]

The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (1922)

The fifth chapter of The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today is entitled “Institutional Religion and the Life of the Spirit.”  In these pages Evelyn clearly states a new understanding of the reciprocal spiritual need of the individual for the institutional church and the institutional church for the individual.  Notable quotes summarize her dramatic evolution, a new clarity and understanding (and, perhaps, acceptance) of the necessary tension between individual and assimilated since the writing of Mysticism only a decade earlier:  “I now propose to take up this side of the subject, and try to suggest one or two lines of thought which may help us to discover the meaning and worth of such societies and institutions. For after all, some explanation is needed of these often strange symbolic systems, and often rigid mechanizations, imposed on the free responses to Eternal Reality which we found to constitute the essence of religious experience. Any one who has known even such direct communion with the Spirit as is possible to normal human nature must, if he thinks out the implications of his own experience, feel it to be inconsistent that this most universal of all acts should be associated by men with the most exclusive of all types of institution. It is only because we are so accustomed to this—taking churches for granted, even when we reject them—that we do not see how odd they really are: how curious it is that men do not set up exclusive and mutually hostile clubs full of rules and regulations to enjoy the light of the sun in particular times and fashions, but do persistently set up such exclusives clubs full of rules and regulations, so to enjoy the free Spirit of God.”

“Thus our Lord protested against Jewish formalism; many Catholic mystics, and afterwards the best of the Protestant reformers, against Roman formalism; George Fox against one type of Protestant formalism; the Oxford movement against another. This constant antagonism of church and prophet, of institutional authority and individual vision, is not only true of Christianity but of all great historical faiths.”[45]

After stating that the Church or institution gives its member 1) group-consciousness 2) religious union with contemporaries and past 3) discipline as spiritual gift and 4) culture in discoveries of the saints.  Evelyn notes what the Church cannot give:  “On the other hand the institution, since it represents the element of stability in life, does not give, and must not be expected to give, direct spiritual experience; or any onward push towards novelty, freshness of discovery and interpretation in the spiritual sphere. Its dangers and limitations will abide in a certain dislike of such freshness of discovery; the tendency to exalt the corporate and stable and discount the mobile and individual. Its natural instinct will be for exclusivism, the club-idea, conservatism and cosiness; it will, if left to itself, revel in the middle-aged atmosphere and exhibit the middle-aged point of view. . . A real Church has therefore something to give to, and something to demand from each of its members, and there is a genuine loss for man in being unchurched.”[46]

On the tension held between priest and prophet, conserving while exploring, Evelyn writes:  “We should be tolerant to its inevitable conservatism, its tendency to encourage dependence and obedience to distrust individual initiative. We should no longer expect it to provide or specially to approve novelty and freedom, to be in the van of life’s forward thrust. For this we must go not to the institution, which is the vehicle of history; but to the adventurous, forward moving soul, which is the vehicle of progress—to the prophet, not to the priest. These two great figures, the Keeper and the Revealer, which are prominent in every historical religion, represent the two halves of the fully-lived spiritual life. The progress of man depends both on conserving and on exploring: and any full incorporation of that life which will serve man’s spiritual interests now, must find place for both.”[47]

Evelyn sets out four conditions the church must meet in order to establish individual and institutional boundaries:

(1) It must give a social life that shall develop group consciousness in respect of our eternal interests and responsibilities: using for this real discipline, and the influences of liturgy and creed.

(2) Yet it must not so standardize and socialize this life as to leave no room for personal freedom in the realm of Spirit: for those “experiences of men in their solitude” which form the very heart of religion.

(3) It must not be so ring-fenced, so exclusive, so wholly conditioned by the past, that the voice of the future, that is of the prophet giving fresh expression to eternal truths, cannot clearly be heard in it; not only from within its own borders but also from outside. But

(4) On the other hand, it must not be so contemptuous of the past and its priceless symbols that it breaks with tradition, and so loses that very element of stability which it is its special province to preserve.”[48]

Evelyn uses the metaphor of clothing and sacramental symbol to allude to Mystery:  “Now here, as it seems to me, we have a great theological truth in a few words. The elusive contacts and subtle realities of the world of spirit have got to wear something, if we are to grasp them at all. Moreover, if the mass of men are to grasp them ever so little, they must wear something which is easily recognized by the human eye and human heart . . .”  [the symbols of ]  “the Lamb, the Blood and the Fire of the revivalists, the oil and water, bread and wine, of a finished Sacramentalism—all these may be regarded as the vestures placed by man, at one stage or another of his progress, on the freely-given but ineffable spiritual fact. Like other clothes, they have now become closely identified with that which wears them. And we strip them off at our own peril: for this proceeding, grateful as it may be to our intellects, may leave us face to face with a mystery which we dare not look at, and cannot grasp.” “So, cultus has done a mighty thing for humanity, in evolving and conserving the system of symbols through which the Infinite and Eternal can be in some measure expressed.”[49]

In all this, Evelyn lays out an inspired vision of the balanced interweaving of institution and individual to be lived into for the Life of the Spirit of soul and Body:  “If the religious institution is to do its real work in furthering the life of the Spirit, it must introduce a more rich variety into its methods; and thus educate souls of every type not only to be members of the group but also to grow up to the full richness of the personal life. It must offer them—as indeed Catholicism does to some extent already—both easy emotion and difficult mystery; both dramatic ceremony and ceremonial silence. It must also give to them all its hoarded knowledge of the inner life of prayer and contemplation, of the remaking of the moral nature on supernatural levels: all the gold that there is in the deposit of faith. And it must not be afraid to impart that knowledge in modern terms which all can understand. All this it can and will do if its members sufficiently desire it: which means, if those who care intensely for the life of the Spirit accept their corporate responsibilities. In the last resort, criticism of the Church, of Christian institutionalism, is really criticism of ourselves. Were we more spiritually alive, our spiritual homes would be the real nesting places of new life. That which the Church is to us is the result of all that we bring to, and ask from, history: the impact of our present and its past.”[50]

During the 1920’s Evelyn’s spiritual evolution was reflected in the expanding prestigious leadership roles and professional engagements she assumed in the life of the Church of England.

Preface to the revised 12th edition of Mysticism (1930)

By the time of the 1930 reprinting of the ever popular Mysticism, Evelyn had prepared a new Preface that points to her new insights which had evolved since the original publication nineteen years earlier.  She writes of a changed in “philosophic and theological landscape . . . with its increasing emphasis on Transcendence, its new friendliness to the concept of the Supernatural, (which) is becoming ever more favourable to the metaphysical claims of the mystics. On one hand the prompt welcome given to the work of Rudolf Otto and Karl Barth, on the other the renewed interest in Thomist philosophy, seem to indicate a growing recognition of the distinctness and independence of the Spiritual Order. . . and a revival of the creaturely sense, strongly contrasting with the temper of late nineteenth-century thought.[51]

She states that were she writing the book in the present time, she would give more emphasis to:  “(a) the concrete, richly living yet unchanging character of the Reality over against the mystic, as the first term, cause and incentive of his experience;

(b) that paradox of utter contrast yet profound relation between the Creator and the creature, God and the soul, which makes possible his development;

(c) the predominant part played in that development by the free and prevenient action of the Supernatural—in theological language, by “grace”—as against all merely evolutionary or emergent theories of spiritual transcendence.”[52]

Evelyn points to her shift from vitalism to critical realism.  In addition to speaking her newly discovered and assimilated truths, she is in essence addressing the comments of her critics, often through direct self-criticism of her own book.

She credits von Hügel’s mystical doctrine as she summarizes the currentnature of her own:  “that while mysticism is an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole content of such religion. It requires to be embodied in some degree in history, dogma and institutions if it is to reach the sense-conditioned human mind” and “that the antithesis between the religions of “authority” and of  “spirit,” the “Church” and the “mystic,” is false. Each requires the other. The “exclusive” mystic, who condemns all outward forms and rejects the support of the religious complex, is an abnormality. He inevitably tends towards pantheism, and seldom exhibits in its richness the Unitive Life. It is the “inclusive” mystic, whose freedom and originality are fed but not hampered by the spiritual tradition within which he appears, who accepts the incarnational status of the human spirit, and can “find the inward in the outward as well as the inward in the inward,” who shows us in their fullness and beauty the life-giving possibilities of the soul transfigured in God.”[53]

III.  1930-1941 “Spirit and Sacrifice”:  Worship (1936)

Having seemingly arrived at a comfortable realization of the inherent tension (spiritual and physical, experienced and practiced) between individual and institutional religion as well as an integrated incarnational theology, Evelyn arrived at a deeper understanding of the sacraments and ritual worship.

Writing her now classic work Worship as volume in the “Library of Constructive Theology”, Evelyn found herself in the company of other outstanding Christ scholars of religion including H.H. Farmer and C.H. Dodd; the general editors of the series were two well-known liberal theologians, the Anglican, W.R. Matthews and the Non-conformist H. Wheeler Robinson.

In Worship Evelyn arrives at a Eucharistic theology that is sacrificial:  “Perhaps the most significant development in human religion has been the movement of the idea of sacrifice from propitiation to love.”[54]

. . . as well as pneumatological:  “The challenge for the Western churches is the recovery of the work of the Holy Spirit which would restore the Trinitarian nature of the prayer, something the Eastern churches never lost.”[55]

In the final pages of Worship Evelyn speaks effectively and conclusively to her long journey . . . from Mysticism to Worship:  “(Christian worship) is at once fully personal and fully corporate; requiring the utmost individual action from every member of the Body, yet the giving of every small movement and act tot the great movement and act of that God’s total life, as a dancer is fully concentrated on his own action yet perfectly subordinated to the movement of the whole.  So in worship, the soul poured out in its solitude to God is yet subordinated to the great rhythm of the Divine Society, going up to the altar and offering itself for the purpose of His undeclared design.”[56]


Primary Sources

Underhill, Evelyn. “The Authority of Personal Religious Experience.” Theology, 1925. Reprinted in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy, 117-131. Albany: State Univ. of New York, 1989.

________________.  “Christian Fellowship:  Past and Present.” The Interpreter, 1924. Reprinted in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy, 103-116. Albany: State Univ. of New York, 1989.

________________.   Concerning the Inner Life. New York:  Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1926.

________________.  Essentials of Mysticism. 1918. Reprint, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003.

________________.  “The Future of Mysticism.” Everyman, 1918. Reprinted in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy, 61-66. Albany: State Univ. of New York, 1989.

________________.   Fragments From an Inner Life. Edited by Dana Greene. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1993.

________________.   Fruits of the Spirit. 2002 ed. 1942. Reprint, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1982.

________________.   The Golden Sequence: A Fourfold Study of the Spiritual Life. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1933. Accessed April 22, 2011. http://www.4shared.com/document/O12zf7gS/ Evelyn_Underhill_-_The_Golden_.html.

________________. The Grey World. London: William Heinemann, 1904. Accessed April 28, 2011. http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7106465M/The_grey_world.

________________.  Introduction to The Confessions of Jacob Boehme, by Jacob Boehme, edited by W. Scott Palmer, xiii-xxxv. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920. Accessed April 28, 2011. http://www.onread.com/reader/313668/.

________________.   The Letters of Evelyn Underhill. Edited by Charles Williams. 1943. Reprint, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1989.

________________.   The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922.   Accessed April 23, 2011. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15082/15082-h/15082-h.htm.

________________.  The Making of a Mystic:  New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill.  Edited by Carol Poston.   Urbana, IL:  Univ. of Illinois, 2010.

________________.   Mysticism (1911). 12th ed., New York: Meridian, 1955.

________________  (pseud. John Cordelier). The Spiral Way:  Being Meditations upon the Fifteen Mysteries of the Soul’s Ascend, 2nd ed. 1912. Reprint, London: Neill  & Co., Inc., 1922. Accessed April 23, 2011. http://www.mrrena.com/misc/spiral.shtml.

________________. The Spiritual Life: Four Broadcast Talks 1937. Reprint, Oxford: Mowbray, 1984.

________________.   The Ways of the Spirit. Edited by Grace Adolphsen Brame. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

________________.   Worship. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937.

Secondary Sources

Brame, Grace Adolphsen. “Continuing Incarnation : Evelyn Underhill’s Double Thread of Spirituality.” Christian Century 107, no. 31 (October 31, 1990): 997-1000. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 25, 2011).

_____________________. “Evelyn Underhill: The Integrity of Personal Interest and Individual Religious Experience.” Worship, 1994, 23-45.

_____________________. “Evelyn Underhill and Vatican II: A Comparison of the Catholic Church of her Time and Ours.” The Evelyn Underhill Association Newsletter 2 (November 1992): 1-4. Accessed April 23, 2011. http://www.evelynunderhill.org/ newsletter/EUA_1992/complete_1992_opt.pdf.

Callahan, Annice. Evelyn Underhill: Spirituality for Daily Living. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1997.

Greene, Dana. Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

Greene, Dana. “Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism.” In Christian Spirituality: The Classics, edited by Arthur Holder, 315-328. Oxford: Routledge, 2010.

Johnson, Todd E. 1998. “Anglican Writers at Century’s End : An Evelyn Underhill Primer.” Anglican Theological Review 80, no. 3: 402-413. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2011).

Loades, Ann. “Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941): Mysticism and Worship.” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 10:1 (May 2010): 57-70. Accessed April 27, 2011. doi: 10.1080/ 14742251003666461.

Pius X, Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. “Lamentabili Sane: Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists”, July 3, 1907.” Papal Encyclicals Online. Accessed April 25, 2011. http://papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm.

Pius X. “Pascendi Dominici Gregis: Encyclical on the Doctrines of the Modernists.” September 8, 1907. Accessed April 25, 2011. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x /encyclicals/

documents/ hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis_en.html.

Norwood, Percy Varney. “Worship.” Anglican Theological Review 19, no. 3 (July 1, 1937): 226-228. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 29, 2011).

Ramsey, A.M., and A.M. Allchin. Evelyn Underhill: Anglican Mystic. Oxford: SLG Press, 1996.

Ryan, Tom, S.M. “Evelyn Underhill.” Australian E Journal of Theology. Accessed April 19, 2011. http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/aejt_9/ryan.htm.

[1] In Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (1911), Pref. to the12th ed. (New York: Meridian, 1955), viii.

[2] Prominent in Evelyn Underhill, The Authority of Personal Religious Experience (Theology, 1925), in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy (Albany: State Univ. of New York, 1989).

[3] Evelyn Underhill, The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922), chapter 5, accessed April 23, 2011, http://www.gutenberg.org/ files/15082/15082-h/15082-h.htm The prophet is seen as “Revealer” and the priest as “Keeper.”

[4] Underhill, The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day, chapter 2.

[5] Noted in A.M. Allchin, Evelyn Underhill: Anglican Mystic (Oxford: SLG Press, 1996), 28.

[6] This tension led to a sacrificial Eucharistic theology arrived at in: Evelyn Underhill, Worship (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937).

[7] The enlightenment of the human race though the process of evolution played prominently in the thought of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a major French philosopher, influential especially in the first half of the 20th century; his ideas greatly influenced Underhill.  The concept of spiritual evolution is advocated by many 21st century teachers of spiritual philosophy and spiritual theology. (e.g. Fr. Thomas Keating and Ken Wilber).  Underhill wrote: “We are driven to the conclusion that if the theory of evolution is to include or explain the facts of artistic and spiritual experience – and it cannot be accepted by any serious thinker if these great tracts of consciousness remain outside its range – it must be rebuilt on a mental rather than a physical basis.” (Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (1911), 12th ed.; New York: Meridian, 1955).

[8] The designations “Dualism and Vitalism,” “Critical Realism and Christianity,” and “Spirit and Sacrifice” are those assigned by Todd Johnson.  Johnson’s designation of period according to years has been altered slightly to accommodate division according to the publication dates of the aforementioned books. Todd Johnson, “Anglican Writers at Century’s End: An Evelyn Underhill Primer” Anglican Theological Review 80 (1998): 402-413. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2011).

[9] Quotation from Underhill’s diary published in the 1958 biography of Underhill by Margaret Cropper, quoted in: Dana Greene, Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 8-9.

[10] Underhill letter of May 14, 1911 addressed to Mrs. Meyrick Heath Evelyn Underhill. The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, ed. Charles Williams (1943; repr., Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1989), 125.

[11] Evelyn Underhill, The Grey World (London: William Heinemann, 1904), 180-181, accessed April 28, 2011, http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7106465M/The_grey_world.  The use of spiritual and religious themes in fiction as an expression of the authors’ experience and beliefs is exemplified in the writing of John Henry Newman (e.g. his novel Callista, pub. 1901) and later in the novels of Susan Howatch.  Howatch has acknowledged the influence Underhill has had on her spirituality and career.  She provided an introduction to the and edition of  Evelyn Underhill, The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (reprint. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1994).

[12] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (1911), 12th ed. (New York: Meridian, 1955), xiii.

[13] Mysticism, xiii.

[14] Underhill contributed an introduction to a 1920 publication of Boehme’s Confessions (Evelyn Underhill, introduction to The Confessions of Jacob Boehme, by Jacob Boehme, ed. W. Scott Palmer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), xiii-xxxv, accessed April 28, 2011, http://www.onread.com/reader/313668/.)   In Mysticism (pg. 469) Underhill cites the influence of Boehme on Anglicans William Law and William Blake.

[15] Wikipedia, s.v. “Louis Claude de Saint-Martin,” accessed May 1, 2011, last modified February 7, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Claude_de_Saint-Martin.

[16] Other notable members of the Golden Dawn Society during these years were Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats.

[17] Underhill letter of May 14, 1911 to Mrs. Meyrick Heath.  Letters, 125-126.

[18] Greene, Artist of the Infinite Life, 27.

[19] Benson, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, had converted to Roman Catholicism and had been ordained a priest.

[20] Underhill letter of May 14, 1911 to Mrs. Meyrick Heath.  Letters, 126.

[21] Pius X, “Pascendi Dominici Gregis: Encyclical on the Doctrines of the Modernists” (September 8, 1907), section 6, accessed April 25, 2011, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/


[22] Ibid., section 39.

[23] Underhill letter of May 14, 1911 to Mrs. Meyrick Heath.  Letters, 126.

[24] Mysticism, xiv.

[25]  Ibid., xiv-xv.  In the intervening years leading to the revised 12th edition of 1930, Evelyn’s premise changed substantially.

[26] Evelyn cautions that “none who wish to obtain an idea of mysticism in its wholeness . . . can neglect to acknowledge and engage all of the aspects.”  Ibid., xii-xiii.

[27] Mysticism, 4-5.

[28] Ibid., 81-94.

[29] What we more commonly refer to as “transcendence” (J.H.)

[30] Ibid., 96-100.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Mysticism, 163-164.

[33] Ibid., 164.  Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) was an English poet and critic.  “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower” was published in 1907.

[34] The traditional stages are via purgative, via illuminative, and via unitiva.

[35] Ibid., 176-451.

[36] Mysticism, 448.

[37] Jacopone daTodi was a 13th century Italian, Franciscan friar, poet and mystic.

[38] Evelyn Underhill, Essentials of Mysticism (1918; repr., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003), 131.

[39] Evelyn Underhill, The Future of Mysticism (Everyman, 1918), in Evelyn Underhill: Modern Guide to the Ancient Quest for the Holy (Albany: State Univ. of New York, 1989), 66.

[40] From a lecture given in 1975, the centenary celebration of Underhill’s birth, published in A.M. Ramsey and A.M. Allchin, Evelyn Underhill: Anglican Mystic (Oxford: SLG Press, 1996): 11.

[41] For a more extensive discussion of critical realism, see Annice Callahan, Evelyn Underhill: Spirituality for Daily Living (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1997), 237-239.

[42] In later writing she expressed her belief in a Spirit-based sacramentality.  See comments on Worship, pg. 17 of this document.

[43] Todd Johnson, “Anglican Writers at Century’s End: An Evelyn Underhill Primer” Anglican Theological Review 80 (1998): 407-408.

[44] Evelyn Underhill, Fragments From an Inner Life, ed. Dana Greene (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1993), 108-110.

[45] Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day, chapter 5.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day, chapter 5.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day, chapter 5.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Mysticism, vii.

[52] Mysticism, viii.

[53] Mysticism, ix-x.

[54] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937), 52.

[55] Ibid., 137.

[56] Ibid., 340

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One Response to EVELYN UNDERHILL: Mysticism to Worship

  1. LEMUEL C. JONES says:

    finally, a creative synthesis of both points of view

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