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Remember Evelyn Underhill

The Church of England remembers the life of Evelyn Underhill on 15th June. She was a spiritual writer in the early part of the last century, expressing her ideas through novels, scholarly texts and poetry. She died in 1941, disgusted with WW2, as she had become a Pacifist.

She was the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England as well as the first woman officially to conduct spiritual retreats for the Church. She was also the first woman to establish ecumenical links between churches and one of the first woman theologians to lecture in English colleges and universities.

I have come across bits of her work at various times – usually to be non-plussed by her language which seems to me hard to understand or pin down. But she clearly is reckoned to have influenced the thinking of many people.

Here are some of the bits that appeal to me:

"Worship, in all its grades and kinds, is the response of the creature to the Eternal: nor need we limit this definition to the human sphere... we may think of the whole of the Universe, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, as an act of worship." (That’s a great idea: that we join the stars and planets in worship. It’s echoed in some of the psalms. Not I guess to be taken absolutely literally.)

The life of prayer is “our whole life towards heaven.” She didn’t want to say that prayer had to be of a certain kind. I would heartily agree. Some people write books about prayer and make it seem frightfully complicated. That can’t be right. No matter what type of prayer you pray, it is communion with God and God hears the prayer .

She also wrote this:

“In so far as you have given your lives to God, you have offered yourselves, without conditions, as transmitters of His saving and enabling love: and the will and love, the emotional drive, which you thus consecrate to God’s purposes, can actually do work on supernatural levels for those for whom you are called upon to pray.” Read the bit in bold again. So many people can’t really understand how their prayers can make a difference to someone else. But if you believe in a spiritual realm then you should believe that God can work in that spiritual realm through your prayers. In the same way that we can choose to let God work through our actions (eg phoning a lonely person) so we can choose to let him work through our prayers. Prayer is about letting God’s will be done on earth.

Despite her great success as writer and communicator, and despite her general happiness in life, she sometimes felt her spiritual foundations were insecure. She felt sometimes that she wasn’t properly consecrating her life to God. She wrote: “ It feels sometimes as if, whilst still a jumble of conflicting impulses and violent faults I were being pushed from behind towards an edge I dare not jump over."

It’s nice to know that even the most spiritual people can struggle with their faith!

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