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Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book by Robyn Wrigley-Carr, editor

20 April 2018

Cally Hammond finds spiritual riches in newly transcribed notebooks

courtesy of Pleshey Retreat House Archives © Stewart McCredie

A page from Evelyn Underhill’s original Prayer Book, reproduced as the frontispiece of the SPCK edition by Robyn Wrigley-Carr

A page from Evelyn Underhill’s original Prayer Book, reproduced as the frontispiece of the SPCK edition by Robyn Wrigley-Carr

TWO notebooks in which Evelyn Underhill recorded prayers for use on retreats have surfaced after decades in obscurity; they can now be read and used by others at a modest cost. This little book keeps the structure of the original notebooks; but duplication has been avoided, and grammar has been modernised. It will appeal to those who want a manual for their own devotions, and who recognise this as an anthology crafted by a spiritual master; and those who are interested in Underhill herself, and want to treat the texts historically, to work out what they tell us about the compiler.

The brevity of the introduction and notes suggests that spirituality was more in the mind of the editor than history. Some prayers are tied to particular contexts, such as the prayer for evacuated children; yet that prayer itself, so much “of its time”, is beautiful in its direct simplicity. It could be adapted for use in any context where children are at risk.

This prayer anthology is special because it is designed for, and the fruit of, retreat leadership — in other words, for those who are going deeply into their faith within a context of private as well as public prayer. I found here prayers that I had not seen before, and that I will be glad to use; it is more than a selection of well-known items.

If there is a unifying stylistic factor in the prayers, it is a love of antithesis and balance, which lends itself to the paradoxes of faith: light/darkness, weakness/strength, dying/living, etc. This does not always work in public worship; but in a small group, with the double luxury of time and trust, such paradoxes become valuable. They were clearly fundamental to Underhill’s own spirituality, and her approach to leading retreats.

I had some quibbles with the presentation. Eschewing the archaism of “thee” and “thou” is sensible, but not when it leaves the pray-er with artificial English: “light and darkness, life and death, praise you the Lord”; or the second-person address to God slipping into the third person (this appears repeatedly): “Lord our God who dwells on high . . .” “Almighty God, who has given . . .”. It would be better to revise more completely: “praise the Lord”; “Lord our God, you dwell . . .”; “Almighty God, you have given . . .”.

The 1662 Prayer Book is among the liturgical sources cited, but some of its collects are unattributed — those for All Saints and Holy Communion among them. On the other hand, it is cited as the source of a blessing elsewhere attributed to William Temple (beginning “the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself”).

For me, the highlight of this valuable book is the reproduction (on page ii) of a page from Underhill’s original notebook, showing a prayer set out in her own handwriting, with emendations. It is a version of the prayer attributed to St Francis: “Lord, make us [and all thy people] instruments of thy healing Peace.”

The initial capital of the prayer was written in red, a large-size decorated letter, making the prayer itself an image of the divine beauty that it sought to convey and inspire. That attention to beauty and simplicity, and the readiness to fit words to particular needs instead of being constrained by them, makes the facsimile a metaphor for Underhill herself.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book
Robyn Wrigley-Carr, editor
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

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