THIS book is the story of a relationship between one spiritual director and another: the Roman Catholic Baron von Hügel and the English Anglican Evelyn Underhill.
Before I got past the foreword, I was hooked by the author’s remark that the Baron made no distinction between the spheres of theology and spirituality. I soon found more that appealed: his emphasis on intellectual freedom; the importance of “desolation” in spiritual formation; not writing books till you have something to say; or perhaps, like Socrates, not writing anything at all. Von Hügel had this much in common with the great philosopher: they both believed in the supreme importance of dialogue. Speaking, between like-minded friends, is the way to truth. There is so much about the Baron in this excellent book that I forgot I had expected to be reading principally about Evelyn Underhill herself.
Much that I read chimed with my own experience. He insisted that she needed the institution of the Church and the routine of the Sacrament, to steady her, and lead her away from obsession and scrupulosity, those enemies of the spiritual life. It is often a priest’s privilege to encourage a fellow-Christian moving from the heights of spiritual fervour into calm, steady faith. I found this in her relationship to him. I then found it in the experience of those she called her family, whom she directed, or led in retreat. (I recognised it in my own life, too.)Vandyck, LondonEvelyn Underhill, in her late fifties, in 1933
With von Hügel’s help, she embraced the beauty and sacrifice of a life of mystical prayer. She had to hold in tension the ordinary obligations owed to people whom God set in her path, while maintaining a one-to-one relationship with God. Through the Baron’s guidance, Underhill came to see the surpassing beauty of the Blessed Trinity, and taught others to find it, too. She let go of her original solipsistic religiosity and gave herself, instead, to a faith that honoured the body, and the past. It led her to Jesus as her personal Saviour, and this helped her lead others from their simple relationship with Christ into the fuller life of the triune God.
It was a mighty gift that the von Hügel was helping to form in the Church of England. Underhill commanded respect and even reverence in a time when women had no place of authority in the Church of England. She led retreats for clergy, and spoke with a Spirit-filled authority, and she was heard as such. In this she was a remarkable pioneer.
We still turn to Evelyn Underhill as an expert guide to prayer, especially mystical prayer. I finished reading this book on 15 June, the day when she is commemorated among the saints of the Church of England. She learned to pray through the guidance of Baron von Hügel. Then she passed that way of living on to other Christian people. Some of them have passed it on to us. I was left wondering, what are we doing now to pass on the art of prayer to our successors in the faith?
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill
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