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Faith >

Teaching the necessity of adoring souls

Evelyn Underhill’s words remain pertinent, suggests David Bunch

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Democratising the inner life: Evelyn Underhill in the garden at the retreat house at Pleshey

Democratising the inner life: Evelyn Underhill in the garden at the retreat house at Pleshey

EVELYN Underhill (1875-1941), whose life the Church of England commemorates on 15 June, encouraged the cultivation of the spiritual life as a vocation for all. Through writing, leading retreats, and by receiving and giving spiritual direction, she helped to democratise the inner life, removing it from colonisation by experts.

She also gave leadership to numerous clergy: a good example is her pamphlet The Parish Priest and the Life of Prayer. Published in 1938, it comprised two addresses that she had given to a Worcester diocesan clergy conference.

It had three themes, which it is useful to consider at this ordination season. First, the priest should be an exemplar, praying in church not just in services, but as a regular habit. God acts through all sorts of people and circumstances, she suggested, but if those set apart for this purpose do not put prayer first, no one else is likely to do so.

Second, the priest should be an educator, using preaching to explain what individual prayer is, and how it relates to the “great spiritual action in which we take part when we join the Church’s corporate worship”.

Third, the ordained minister should be an enabler, a catalyst for encouraging individuals and groups to pray on a regular and systematic basis. Groups should form slowly, and be allowed to take on a life of their own without the priest, perhaps linking with all those who cannot come to church, but who undertake to pray with the group in their homes at an agreed time.

FOR Underhill, the primacy of prayer was never at the expense of everyday obligations. She stressed the connection between prayer and action outside it, remarking on “the unworthiness of mere cadging demands that God will do things which really lie within our own responsibility”.

Prayer was not a separate devotional activity, but that which brings “every bit of daily work and every human relationship, into harmony with God’s Will”. Nor did she neglect social action: she argued that prayer was not only communion with God, but co-operation to “become the agent and channel of a more than human love”.

Commitment to prayer is difficult, punctuated by periods of darkness and dryness, when it becomes, according to Underhill, “dead, tasteless, and unreal” and “sometimes indeed almost repugnant”. Priests, by the nature of their work, are especially vulnerable to this. Yet this, for her, was no reason for not persevering in a daily schedule of prayer, scripture reading, and meditation.

“There is always a night-shift and sooner or later we shall find ourselves serving on the night-shift,” she wrote. Prayers that give too much space to feeling and not enough to the will “put us in a very poor position”.

A sure remedy is to eschew individual and subjective preoccupations, in favour of sustenance through corporate and objective liturgy, especially daily offices and the eucharist. “We sink our small lives and small spiritual efforts in that great worshipping life, carrying on, as faithful members of that Body, through the periods of spiritual darkness as well as the periods of spiritual light.”

The imperative for a priest’s life of prayer remains, despite welcome moves to more collaborative approaches to ministry and changes in church structures.

In her pamphlet 70 years ago, Underhill foresaw the point: “New machinery, adaptations and adjustments, are not the first need of the Church of England,” she wrote, “but more devoted, adoring, sacrificial souls.” The language is quaint, but her message remains pertinent. In giving thanks for her life and work, it is a point worth pondering.

David Bunch is a retired teacher involved in community ministry and research.

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