THE P RTAL Evelyn Underhill by Fr Keith Robinson
ONE ANGLICAN woman who lived before the era of women’s ordination, exercised a profound ministry and influence which continues today, and is likely to continue for many years to come. I speak of Evelyn Underhill, the only child of a barrister and his wife, educated at Kings College London and privileged to have been able to travel extensively in mainland Europe.
She became very attracted
to art and the Catholic Faith out of which it had come, and wrestled throughout her life with the question of whether or not she ought to become a Catholic herself. But her parents were not sympathetic, and when she married in 1907, neither was her husband.
Eventually she committed herself
to the Anglo-catholic wing of the Church of England, when that movement was having something of a heyday, not entirely disconnected in all probability from the romantic spirit of those times.
Christian Mysticism Evelyn was a woman of many interests and great
ability, a skilful wood and metal-worker herself, with a deep appreciation of Christian history, art and liturgy, and she was particularly drawn to study the great Christian mystics - especially the fourteenth century Flemish mystical writer Jan van Ruysbroeck, on whom she was regarded as an expert.
Her own spiritual struggles and aspirations to know
God led her into an exceptionally fruitful ministry in spiritual direction. She wrote (and published) poetry, three novels and many other books on Christian Mysticism (over thirty books were published in all). In 1927 she was made a Fellow of Kings College London, and very unusually for a woman at that time, was invited to lecture in the University of Oxford.
She became a much sought-aſter spiritual director in
her own right, and a popular leader of retreats. Indeed she was a pioneer of the modern retreat movement. She founded the House of Retreat at Pleshey, near Chelmsford, in 1919. She became a well-known and
Deeply distressed by the war, she survived the
London Blitz of 1940, but died during the following year, and is buried with her husband in the extended churchyard of St John at Hampstead.
respected public speaker, and again unusually, a broadcaster of talks on the spiritual life.
Friedrich von Hugel Between 1921 and 1924 she
placed herself under the spiritual guidance of Friedrich von Hugel, a distinguished lay catholic living in England at the time. In a surviving letter dated 1931, she defended her reason for remaining an Anglican.
She wrote: “I solidly believe
in the Catholic status of the Anglican Church, as to orders and sacraments,
little as I appreciate
many of the things done among us. It seems to me a respectable suburb
of the city of God - but all the same, part of “greater London”.
I appreciate the superior food to be had nearer the
centre of things. But the whole point to me is the fact that our Lord has put me here, keeps on giving me more and more jobs to do for souls here, and has never given me orders to move. I know what the push of God is like, and should obey it if it came.”
Unmatched One can well understand her position at that date,
one with which many of us can identify. We can only conjecture what she might do if it were today! In her obituary the Times said that on the subject of theology
“she was unmatched by any of the professional teachers of her day”.
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