Introduction to

The Letters of Evelyn Underhill

by Charles Williams

pub Longmans, Green and Co.


Evelyn Underhill was born in the afternoon of 6 December, 1875, at Wolverhampton. Her father was Arthur — afterwards Sir Arthur — Underhill. He was a distinguished barrister and a bencher of Lincoln's Inn, son of Henry Underhill, for some time Town Clerk of Wolverhampton; her mother was Alice Lucy Ironmonger. The family home was always in London — a pleasant well-to-do home of what used to be called the Tory kind. She was educated there, except for some three years (1888 - 1891) till she was sixteen at a private school at Folkestone; afterwards in London she went to King's College for Women, where she read history and botany.

Her young experience, however, included also the sea and Europe. Her father was an enthusiastic yachtsman; he was founder and for many years Commodore of the Royal Cruising Club. In 1888 she went for her first cruise in his yacht Amoretta. The logbook which she kept records her learning to sail and to sketch. She became a good small-boat sailor — she could race "and win prizes"; she had all her life a passion for efficiency.

The family were friends with their neighbours, the Stuart Moores, whose yacht often sailed in company with the Amoretta. The Stuart Moore boys were her chief — almost her only — young companions. A letter written to her mother when she was fourteen says: "I hope you enjoyed the Nevilles' dinner-party; have they got an eligible child as a companion for me? if so, mind you let me know her." In that sense she was a lonely child — which not all only children are, for she had (it is clear) all her life a great capacity for and enjoyment of friendship. But two things began during that childhood. One was her companionship in activity with Hubert Stuart Moore, who afterwards became her husband; the other was her own personal activity of writing. She had begun this before she was sixteen, for she then won the first prize in a short-story competition organized by the magazine Hearth and Home, and she occasionally followed this story with others. It was after 1898, when she was twenty-three and living with her family in London, that in general her own friendships began. She moved, though not exclusively, in one of the "literary sets" of the day. She knew Maurice Hewlett, and at his house met Laurence Housman and Sarah Bernhardt She also became acquainted with May Sinclair — now too little recollected; for the present writer and for others of the then young her novels had a quite unusual attraction; with Arthur Machen — whose interests were, in some respects, very like her own, though in the expression of them she, turned rather to actuality and he to myth; with Mrs. Baillie Reynolds and Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Mary Cholmondeley and Evelyn Sharp, Mrs. Ernest Dowson and Mrs. Wilfrid Ward; and with Arthur Symons. But her chief friendship was with Ethel Ross Barker, and this was one of the most intimate of her life; it ended only with her friend's death in 1920.

In 1890 she had first gone to France: she wrote of it: "France is charming." But from 1898 she began a habit of going to Europe with her mother in the spring of every year — a habit which lasted until 1913. In 1898 they went to Lucerne, Lugano, Como, and Milan; and she alone went on to Florence. In 1899 she was at Florence again; in 1900 she first saw Chartres; in 1901, Assisi. In 1910 she went first to Rome. She wrote from Florence during her first (1898) visit: "Once you have found it out (what Italian painters are really trying to paint) you must love them till the end of your days"; and again: "This place has taught me more than I can tell you; it's a sort of gradual unconscious growing into an understanding of things." She was then twentytwo.

Meanwhile, in 1902, her first book had been published. It was a book of humorous verse, called A Bar-Lamb's Ballad Book. It was concerned with the law, and was no doubt written under the legal influence of her father and her future husband. Astonishingly, the book remains amusing forty years afterwards. Two quotations from it may be risked. The first is the explanation that legal heirs are

Dimly perceived through a philoprogenitive mist.
Moreover, they may not even be descendants:
They are sometimes your Maiden Aunt,
Or the Cousin that you particularly object to,
They may also be your Step-brother's Son,
Or, very occasionally, your Grandmama.

The second is from the poem on the case of Jones v. Lock, where "A father put a cheque into the hands of his son nine months old, saying, "I give this to Baby for himself,' and then took the cheque back, put it away, and shortly afterwards died. Held that there was no valid gift of the cheque to the son."

The elder children, grown adult in greed,
Cast doubts upon their parent's dying deed;
Safe in possession, little did they reck
If he had said, "This shall be Baby's cheque.'

The outraged infant thought,
"I'll go before the Court
And ask, by my next friend, for some redress."
Alas! not more, but less
Were his possessions when the suit was done,
For the defendants won.
The gift, without delivery, was not good;
No valuable consideration shown.
Such acts are ratified by this alone.
The plaintiff, much astonished, went away,
The action lost, and all the costs to pay:
And homeward riding in his little pram
Allowed his Nurse to call him "Martyred lamb!"
Refused his bottle, wailed in infant grief,
And called the judge a wicked, naughty thief.
In after life, 'tis said, he always swore
"Possession is Ten points of English Law:'

In the year (1902) in which this book appeared, she had begun work on her first novel. It was published, under the title of The Grey World, in 1904; and another, The Lost Word, begun in 1904, appeared in 1907. The third and last novel, The Column of Dust, appeared in 1908. All three had a reasonably good reception, but they are not, it must be admitted, as good as one expects them to be. The Column of Dust has a superb theme; it has possibilities of wit, terror, and sublimity. The wit is there, but hardly the terror or sublimity. The description of the working of a magical rite at the opening is good; and so, in a different way, is the other Rite of the Helpers of the Holy Souls towards the close. But though the moral of the rest of the book is not less than noble, its literary effect is less than exciting. She had not, on the whole, an imaginative style; the reason may be that her imagination moved too near to serious faith to allow itself, in her writings, much leisure.

Her other activities about this time included a partial collaboration with J. A. Herbert, Deputy Keeper of MSS. at the British Museum, in a book on illuminated MSS. Eventually, however, this was abandoned, and the book was issued under his name alone. From 1907 onwards also she was beginning work on her book Mysticism, which appeared in 1911. Among the occupations of her leisure was bookbinding, which she had taken up much earlier and in which she became extremely proficient.

There remain two dates of her personal life, both of the first importance. In 1907 she was married to Hubert Stuart Moore. Their house was at 50 Campden Hill Square, a short walk from her parents' home. In 1911 began her friendship with Friedrich von Hugel.


It is necessary to pause here. In 1911 she was married; she had published her first serious book; she knew von Hugel. She had already begun to correspond with "inquirers"; her first known letter of the kind is given among those that follow, dated 29 November, 1904, and by 1911 there had been others. Of what sort, at the age of thirty-six, was her mind?

It was said above that she knew Europe and the sea. It would be possible and even easy to make play with the sea-likeness; she might, in a careless moment, have done so herself, for she had, in her careless moments, a slight tendency towards such fancies. It may well be supposed indeed that something of her ardour and her delight enjoyed the sea as they enjoyed that other sublimer sea which the author of the Apocalypse saw stretched before the eyed creatures and the Throne. Such images, however pleasant, are literary. But the experience of Europe was not only literary but historical, and not only historical but contemporary. In 1892 she had written in a paper headed: "My Thoughts and Opinions written on the eve of my seventeenth birthday, December 5, 1892" : "I hope my mind will not grow tall to look down on things but wide to embrace all sorts of things during the coming year." Many girls at seventeen might have aspired so; some might have succeeded. What was remarkable about Evelyn Underhill was that, during the next few years, she not only "embraced" friends; she saw and "embraced" Europe. It has, in the fifty years that have since passed, become easy and indeed fashionable to talk of " the West," of "our culture," and even of " Catholic culture." It was not so easy in the first decade of those fifty years, nor did she talk of it. But she knew, at first obscurely, what it was.

It may have been partly due to the fact that she had had, as she said, no "orthodox education." It was true both in a general and in a particular sense. "I wasn't," she wrote, "brought up to religion." At home it seems to have been of no importance ; at school it was something more, for she was certainly con- firmed (11 March, 1891,, at Christ Church, Folkestone, and made her first Communion at St. Paul's, Sandgate, on Easter Sunday), and a few great names had passed across her mind. "Last Sunday we went to a lecture in the church, it was on Milton's. Paradise Lost, and was horribly uninteresting, all about dogmas and conclusions to be drawn from the poem and such stuff" (21 June, 1889). "The colporteur came to-day, and I have bought some lovely sensational moral stories for Sunday reading. Mine are called 'Run down,' 'Martin Luther,' and 'Ruth Erskine's Crosses.' Oh! please can you tell me who Spinoza was, he was mentioned in the sermon last Sunday; he seems to have been a not very nice person from what Mr. Wakefield said." In spite of these rather unfortunate instances, she does not seem, though she may not have been told many of the right things about Europe and Christendom, to have been told, too forcibly, too many of the wrong. Even so, the wrong things — meaning the merely incorrect — were in the air. She escaped them, or she threw them off. She came from England and the sea to Europe, and she did not patronize it. It was the first mark of her honour.

In the same paper of "Thoughts and Opinions" she says that her ideal woman "should have a due sense of proportion." It was perhaps something of this quality that caused her, six years later, to write of the Italian painters that they had taught her a gradual growth "into an understanding of things." She was then enjoying them as art; at that age one may enjoy religion as art; it is permissible and proper. Also, the Italian painters were meant to be enjoyed as art. But she was becoming aware that the inner diagram of that particular art — as indeed of much other — was not only art but religion. And in this art a particular, a defined, religion. She was already becoming aware of That which is called the Church.

It must be repeated that that was by no means common at the end of the nineteenth century, especially for a nature not habitually pious or docile. Her mind was, for a woman, unusually inclined to the abstract. She says herself: "Philosophy brought me round to an intelligent and irresponsible sort of theism which I enjoyed thoroughly but which did not last long. Gradually the net closed in on me. . . ." She had joined (in 1904) an occult companionship known as the Order of the G.D., and belonged to it for some years. She was not yet impressed by the person of our Lord; when she wrote of "the Christian net" she was accurate. A diagram and an energy which she certainly had not expected had appeared to her, and she already understood many things about it. She understood, for example, many saints. Most of us are, naturally, a little eclectic about the saints; the present writer, for instance, has never been able to feel much excitement about St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas More (though he does not think that creditable to him). Dr. Inge has been a little lordly about Angela of Foligno. But Evelyn Underhill quite early understood not only that they were saints but that they were different saints. She wrote intelligently not only about Francis but about Angela. She submitted herself to detail; she was, as has been said, in all things efficient.

She had seen the Catholic pattern. The Church had appeared to her. She was not, at first, prepared to yield wholly to it. In February 1907 her friend, Ethel Ross Barker, was staying at the Franciscan convent of St. Mary of the Angels in Southampten, and she went there to join her for a week-end. It was a convent of Perpetual Adoration. She noted in a diary (4 February, 1907) : `The wonderful week began." She wrote (14 May 1911): "The day after I came away (the Feast of the Purification), a good deal shaken but unconvinced, I was 'converted' quite suddenly, once and for all, by an overpowering vision which had really no specifically Christian elements, but yet convinced me that the Catholic religion was true." By Catholic there she meant the Roman. On her return to London she wrote to Robert Hugh Benson, whom she knew and had heard preach, putting her chief difficulties — difficulties of the reason — before him. He replied immediately and sympathetically; the correspondence continued, and by the beginning of April she had all but determined to make her submission.

But her way was not to be as simple as that. Something occurred which was not so much itself the hindrance as the occasion of the discovery of the real hindrance. Her engagement had been announced on 3 July, 1906, and she was to be married in 1907, and her future husband was, not unnaturally, unprepared to assent to what he regarded as an alteration in their relations. ~ He insisted that she should delay at least six months. She was unwilling to do so, but, she was convinced that it was her business to do so; that is, she was not convinced of the complete authority of the Roman Church. She made this clear to Benson. "I think," he wrote to her, "you are perfectly right to offer to wait — for your own sake as well as for his — until the thing becomes clear and established." She was married on 3 July, 1907; on the same day Benson "very gladly" said Mass for her intention; he wrote that he could see that "You are not yet certain of the Catholie position, and that the Church is notyet plain to you. That being so, let me congratulate you on your marriage, and wish you every conceivable happiness — above all, the happiness of one day receiving the full gift of Faith."

A further development in the same year greatly affected her. In September the encyclical, Pascendi gregis, of Pius X against Modernism was issued. She says: "The Modernist storm broke." It had effects in England. George Tyrrell became excommunicate; it was not clear what others would be similarly affected. Evelyn Underhill, though she had this vivid sense of the Catholic and Roman pattern, was not clear on her duty. Or rather, she was clear; the Papal Encyclical appeared to her to demand, on some points, a surrender of her intellectual honour. It is easier now to see that this need not have been so; and even to see that on the points where she was then obstinate, she eventually came to the orthodox belief. But as things were then, she was thrown, with others, into a most difficult position. She dissented, and was inflexibly called; she assented, and was inflexibly refused.

The matter on which she found difficulty was probably that discussed in von Hugel's letter to her of 26-9 De~nber, 1921: the question of the historicity of certain alleged facts. Von Hugel's discussion of this may be found in that letter (Selected Letters, edited by Bernard Holland). The immediate point, however, is not the intellectual controversy, but the effect on Evelyn Underhill of the position in which she found herself. She was between two impossibilities; say rather, she found herself face to face with an Impossibility — something that oould not be, and yet was. She wrote in 1911: "I cannot accept Anglicanism instead; it seems an entirely different thing. So here I am, going to Mass and so on, but entirely deprived of the sacraments" (14 May, 1911). And again: "It is all wrong, but at present I do not know what else to do." Nor, in fact, does one. One is apparently left to live alone with an Impossibility. It is imperative, and in the end possible, to believe that the Impossibility does its own impossible work; to believe so, in whatever form the crisis takes, is of the substance of faith; especially if we add to it Kierkegaard's phrase that, in any resolution of the crisis, so far as the human spirit is concerned, "before God man is always in the wrong." That is not, by itself, the complete truth; we should bave to add to it the opposite and complementary phrase that, also before God, man is always in the right; but the other is the more important for our own sense of any resolution. The only rightness there is in the Impossible itself — " to whom be glory in the Church for ever through Christ Jesus."

But before the resolution of the crisis, whatever that may be; it is necessary to live with that Impossibility. One may be united with it by faith — that is blessed. But one is also united with it by another, more painful, methad. The Impossibility, however we write about it, is not impossible only in a high and abstract intellectual sense, but in a low and deadly. It is the details of the Impossibility that press home — the sordid, the comic, the agonizing. "I asked Him," wrote Leon Bloy (Letters to his Fiancee), "to let me suffer for my friends and for Him both in body and soul. But I had envisaged noble and pure suffering which, as I now see, would only bave been another form of joy. I had never dreamed of this infernal suffering that He has sent me." It is in the non-relation of human life to any decency that the human heart finds its — exile? not exile, for it has then no proper sense of its home. All it knows is that everything is ' "most contrary to its disposition." It weeps without hope; grudges without charity; it brags against others with a beguiling plausibility; it hides itself from others in a pride of spiritual derision; the thing it cannot bear is naked love — nor till it can bear it can it find it, nor till it can find it can it bear it. This is the inward Impossibility, which remains no less impossible because the mind tries to sweeten it to something other than itself perhaps even with every kind of literary delicacy, the equivalent in our day of the visions and locutions of the past. There is but one outer test of true faith —" the incessant production of good works"; there is but one inner — patience.

In this situation Evelyn Underhill turned to a study of the Way of the Spirit which is called Mysticism. She began work on a book on the subject. It was called Mysticism, but it was also called by a sub-title — A Study In the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. The portentous phrase does her some injustice; she was not like that. She was truly concerned with real things; the word "reality," though she was inclined use it, has by now a certain cheapness about it. She .wrote the Preface:

This book falls naturally into two parts ; each of which is really complete in itself, though they are in a sense complementary to one another. Whilst the second and longest part contains a somewhat detailed study of the nature and development of man's spiritual or mystical consciousness, the first is intended rather toprovide an introduction to the general subject of mysticism. Exhibiting it by turns from the point of view of metaphysics, psychology, and symbolism, it is an attempt to gather between the covers of one volume information at present scattered amongst many monographs and text-books written in divers tongues, and to give the student in a compact form at least elementary facts in regard to each of those subjects which are most closely connected with the study of the mystics.

The present writer must have read it first within a year or two of its appearance. What then remained in his mind — and still remains — was not the analysis of the relation between mysticism and magic or symbolism, and not the psychological analysis, but the authentic sayings — or rather the general sense of the authentic sayings. It was a great book precisely not because of its originality, but because of its immediate sense of authenticity. Open it now three times at random

(1) "The just man goes towards God by inward love in perpetual activity and in God in virtue of his fruitive affection in eternal rest."-Ruysbroeck.

(2) "There is none other God than He that none may know, which may not be known. No, soothly, no! Without fail, No, says she (the contemplative soul). He only is my God that none can one word of say, nor all they of Paradise one only point attain nor understand, for all the knowing that they have of Him."-The Mirror of Simple Souls.

(3) The soul "is so full of peace that though she press her flesh, her nerves, her bones, no other thing comes forth from them than peace." ST. CATHERINE oF GENOA.

These three sentences were exhibited by three random openings, and so it is with the whole book. To the reader, Evelyn Underhill, as the author, was altogether occulted by the dark or shining fierceness of the sayings she had collected. In the Preface to the twelfth edition (1930) she wrote that the first term of the mystic life must be sought "in the Vision of the Principle, as St. Gregory the Great taught long ago." It was that Vision of the Principle which these sayings illuminated and to which they pointed. But it was also that Vision of the Principle which now, for her personal life, involved the Vision of an Impossibility. She was united with it by faith alone. The book is not only a noble book on its subject; it not only witnesses continually to the authenticity of the saints; it is also one of her own "good works" and an expression of her own patience. It appeared in 1911; in the same year she wrote (I5 May, 1911): "But I cling to St. Paul. . . . Is it not amazing . . . when one can see the action of the Spirit of God; so gentle, ceaseless, inexorable, pressing you bit by bit whether you like it or not towards your home? I feel this more and more as the dominating thing — it seems so odd that everyone does not feel and notice it happening, don't you think?"

It might, however, be held that when she wrote that book, and still more obviously when she wrote Tke Mystic Way which followed it in 1913, her attention was still a little disproportioned. Given her condition at the time, it could hardly be otherwise. The existence of the Impossibility, her doubt of certain historicities, her inevitable reliance on the workings of the interior Spirit, all tended to give her work a tone, which she did not altogether mean even then, and of which she afterwards disapproved, of interior interpretation. The Christian dogmas and the Christian miracles held a hint of the symbolical — not as they must do because they mean more than we can know, but as they ought not to do because so they deny themselves. Thus in the preface to The Mystic Way she spoke of Christianity beginning "as a mystical movement of the purest kind." "The sequence of psychological states" which is the Mystic Way is a fact "attested by countless mystics of every period and creed"; "yet its primary importance for the understanding of our earliest Christian documents has been generally overlooked." The book, she says, ends "with a study of the liturgy of the Mass: the characteristic art form in which the mystical consciousness of Christendom has expressed itself." No doubt these phrases, and others like them, could be understood in an orthodox sense, but no doubt also, they would not be normally understood in any such sense. The Mystic Way is a valuable book for those who know the Faith, but she herself came to distrust and dislike it as "false doctrine" and the reason is clear. She even modified, or at least indicated a modificatibn of, Mysticism. In the preface to the twelfth edition (I930) she wrote:

Were I, now, planning this book for the first time, its arguments would be differently stated. More emphasis would be given (a) to the concrete, richly living yet unchanging character of the Reality over against the mystic, as the first term, cause and incentive of his experience; (b) to that paradox of utter contrast yet profound relation between the Creator and the creature , God and the soul, which makes possible his development; (c) to the predominant part played in that development by the free and prevenient action of the Supernatural — in theological language by "grace" — as against all merely evolutionary or emergent theories of spiritual transcendence. I feel more and more that no psychological or evolutionary treatment of man's spiritual history can be adequate which ignores the element of "given-ness" in all genuine mystical knowledge.

This change in her intellectual tendencies came, no doubt, partly from the influence of von Hugel. In a letter of thanks for The Mystic Way (13 May, 1913), he wrote that he had not read it properly, but: "I see how fine the structure of the book is and how carefully you seem to have borne in mind the all-important place and function in religion of liturgical acts, of the Sacraments, of the Visible, of History. You will remember that I was not quite [sic] about this side of the question in your Mysticism, and the able reviewer of this new book of yours in The Times seemed to me clearly insufficient on this profoundly important point. I am so very pleased too that the structure of your book proclaims the three stages of the New Testament, the Synoptics, St. Paul, the 4th Gospel."

By 1913 then she had known the first great crisis of the Impossible, and had set herself to be reconciled to it by faith and by obedience. She knew the dear intimacies of mortal existence. She knew, also, a master. Of what kind was his influence?

The letters between them do not exist. She was his friend from 1911 to 1921; in 1921 she put herself formally under his direction. He died in 1925. The only definite account of their relations is what may be deduced from a paper called Finite and Infinite: a Study of the Philosophy of Baron Friedrich von Hugel, with a further note on Von Hugel as a Spiritual Teacher. These were included in a volume called Mixed Pasture, published in 1933 They may, roughly, be analysed as follows.

She puts, first, the doctrine of "the Reality of Finites and the Reality of God" — the title of the Baron's unfinished Gifford Lectures. This involved the double set of duties — to this world and to that other. So put, it sounds easy and accepted, but in fact both the Baron and Evelyn Underhill carried this definition further and made of this "limited dualism" a kind of unity. She writes: " ' A polarity, a tension; a friction, a one thing at work in distinctly another thing' — this was for him a fundamental and inevitable character of our spiritual life." It was this sense of organism profoundly living and ,working in organism which caused him to doubt abstractions and even "pure mysticism." " 'The mystic sense flies·straight to God and thinks it finds all its delight in him alone.' But a careful examination always discovers many sensible, institutional, and historical contributions to this supposed ineffable experience."

She says of him: "I cannot but think that this intense consciousness — of the close-knit texture of the realities within which we live and move — will come to be recognized as von Hugel's ruling intuition, and one of the chief contributions made by him to religious thought." The present writer is not in a position to judge whether this is a faithful interpretation of von Hugel. But he is fairly certain that it was a centre of Evelyn Underhill's own thought and experience. She continues to quote: "We all need one another . . . souls, all souls, are deeply interconnected. The Church at its best and deepest is just that — that interdependence of all the broken and meek, all the self oblivion, all the reaching out to God and souls . . . nothing is more real than this interconnection. We can suffer for one another — no soul is saved alone and by its own efforts." Elsewhere she writes that "Baron von Hugel was fond of saying that the Church came first and the mystics afterwards" The Church is something more than the totality of the mystics. " 'L'esprit pour vous,' said Huvelin to his great pupil, 'c'est un esprit de benediction de toute creature,' and this was the spirit the Baron strove to cultivate in all his pupils in the interior life." The principle of this is God; nay, as the theologians teach, God is Himself each One working in the Others, the "co-inherence" of the Trinity; and it might be added that it was in this sense also that He made man in the image of Himself.

On one of the few occasions on which the present writer met Evelyn Underhill, she permitted herself to speak of one of his own novels which had something of this sort of theme. In it he had written of two characters: "He endured her sensitiveness , but not her sin; the substitution there, if indeed there is a substitution, is hidden in the central mystery of Christendom." It was a well-meant sentence, but she charmingly corrected it. She said something to this effect: "Oh, but the saints do — they say they do. St. Catherine said: `I will bear your sins.' " She spoke from a very great knowledge of the records of sanctity, but I should be rather more than willing to believe that she spoke from a lofty practice of sanctity and from a great understanding of the laws that govern, and the labours that are given to, sanctity.

The three elements which she finally stressed in von Hugel's work were the transcendental, the incarnational, and the institutional; all these he encouraged in his pupils and in her. She was at heart so naturally orthodox that, in a way, it even seems unnecessary. But it is possible, as was said before, that she might have over-tended to a wholly subjective understanding of the Way. In the period of her difficulty she might have come to interpret the Church and the Mysteries of the Church as purely symbolical, and the historicity of the tale as false. It might have happened; it did not. Von Hugel "had himself faced every scientific and critical difficulty, yet remained a devoted son of the Roman Catholic Church." His pupil took the lesson to heart. By 1919 (7 January) she was writing to a correspondent of "guides who seem to me rather doubtful — e.g. Molinos, as to whose aberrations I agree with Baron von Hugel, and (especially), Mrs L—, a lady whose spiritual practices were doubtless better than her declarations on the subject." But she retained, as all high disciples of high masters do, a vivid judgement of her own. She wrote (28 August, 1924) : "The Baron dosed me with Fenelon at one time, till I told him that a Perfect Gentleman giving judicious spiritual advice to Perfect Ladies was no good to me — since whe his name has not been mentioned between us ! " Not that she underrated either Fenelon or his advice; "Surtout, chere Madame, evitez les fatigues" was a maxim, at certain times, of Fenelon, of von Hugel, and of her own.

She had always had a high sense of the relation of the soul to others. In The Column of Dust she had written of the Vespers of the Dead said by the Helpers of the Holy Souls. It is worth quoting a few paragraphs :

But presently she woke from her dream, called forth by the high and urgent voice which led these poignant ceremonies. She heard it cry with a strange accent of authority — a certainty that its invocation could not be in vain — "All ye orders of Blessed Spirits!" and the congregation took it up, finished the phrase, "Pray for the faithful departed." They had gone, it seemed, beyond the limit of their first petitions. The supplication of divine omnipotence was over. Now they extended their appeal, humanized it, claimed the help of the triumphant dead in caring for their poorer kin.

"Saint Gregory-Saint Augustine-Saint Ignatius! " cried the apellant voice : and the eager chorus followed with its supreme demand, "Pray for the faithful departed." None were excused from this duty. One after another, the torch-bearers of the faith were claimed, petitioned : and with so assured an accent that instance almost expected a quiet presence to answer from beyond the radiant mist.

It went on, that roll-call of the happy dead; and with each name the reiterated, imperative, united cry for help. They called them down into this little chapel, claimed their kinship; insistent on the necessity of their suffrages, expectant of their brotherly aid. They were reminded of their humanity, these elect and shining spirits, snatched from the study, the brothel, the battlefield, the court. "You," these intent and amazing women seemed to say, "you, even more than we, should work, should plead for them. You have achieved: you have entered the Light: you are there. We do our best, but we are so far away. We lack your transcendent opportunity. Therefore we remind you of your fraternal obligations — all ye holy doctors, popes, and confessors, pray for the faithful departed."

This awareness had developed, and under von Hugel's influence had recovered that visible, that institutional, order which it might have lost. It included, to her degree, both the dead and living; it meant for her now chiefly two things — the poor and the Church. "God, Christ, and the Poor," she quoted from her master, and she attended to all. She came, at one period, to make a habit of visiting in North Kensington and spending two afternoons a week in the slums there. And she encouraged the same thing, whenever possible, among those who came to her for direction. The strange sense in which the poor, merely by being poor, are thought of as being the Body of Christ; almost as if the mere not-having made a man closer to the Incarnate than ever, in itself, could the having, seems to have been familiar to her as indeed were all the aspects of mystical thought. "We are sewing the miserable little patches we call charity and social service into the rotten garment of our corporate life. . . . Thousands of us are eating what we suppose to be the Bread of Eternal Life at our brothers' expense." When that happens, it is certainly true that "we eat and drink our own damnation." She says, in a paper read at the Copec Conference at Birmingham, 1924, that the mystics had a hard name for this kind of thing. "They called it 'adoring Christ's Head and neglecting His feet.' `Surely,' says one, `He will more thank thee and reward thee for the meek washing of His feet when they be very foul, and yield an ill savour to thee, than for all the curious painting and fair dressing thou canst make about His head by thy devout remembrances.'" She quoted in another paper, read in 1922 at the Inter-Denominational Summer School of Social Services, a great passage from Walter Hilton concerning the City of God — " it seemeth . . . six cubits and a palm of length. By six cubits are understood the perfection of a man's work; and by the palm, a litde touch of contemplation." This, she said, was the true formula — "skill and vision." "St. Teresa said that to give our Lord a perfect service Martha and Mary must combine."

Because her own business was chiefly to train young Marys, she did not forget their and our debt to the Marthas, and she was humbly and acutely aware of those unknown and harassed Marthas at the expense of whose pain we all live. Even in religion, though she wrote "unless one can stretch into one's own devotional life to make it avail for them . . . it remains more or less a spiritual luxury," she also wrote: "One comes away . . . nearer God. They give one far more than one can ever give them." Her sense of the spirit never left her blind to the bibliographical details of a book, nor did she forget this world in her attention to the other. But the other had still its own problem here, and in 1921 she solved it as best she could; she became a practising member of the Church of England.

It would be unfair to represent this as a compromise — conscious or unconscious; in fact, of course, it cannot be a compromise. It is impossible to compromise on the Church of England; her sacraments are sacraments or they are not. It is possible to believe either; it is possible to refuse decision. But it is not possible honestly to say that they will do instead of something which ought to be substituted for them. We cannot accuse Evelyn Underhill of any such dishonesty. So far therefore she must have modified her earlier position. She no longer said: "I cannot accept Anglicanism"; she did accept it. It is to be admitted that she accepted it at first without enthusiasm. She had been baptized and confirmed into that Church. But she had not been brought up in it; she had not learned from it the great dogmas nor seen by its light the illumination of her experiences. It had not been to her, as it has been to so many, "the Vision of the Principle," so that, whatever great doctors and august traditions others may acknowledge beyond it, it is still to them control and direction, origin, nourishment, and glory. Her realization of the Vision had been related to the Holy Roman Church, and, there for her the metropolitan centre of Christendom lay. The letter to Dom John Chapman (9 June, 1931) presents the facts as far as she could see them, and no-one else is likely to see them better. "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. ... The whole point to me is 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 — at least I trust and believe so." Von Hugel had gone into the matter in 1921, had said that she was only to move if God called her and "was satisfied that up to date I had not received this call." She had in her earlier days, experienced the impact of the Impossible. The only proper result of that, in any life, is to accept the working of the Impossible along such possibilities as it condescends to create. She never forgot the one, but she never refused the other. To call such obedience — whether it takes place in religion, in politics, in any love-affair, or whatever — a compromise is to underrate, in her as in others, both the fidelity and the labour. It is necessary to maintain both, as and how the Impossible decrees. This she did; it was the meaning of her submission. Her period of attention and patience had lasted for some fourteen years. The proof of her calling — or, at least, the value of it — was in her motherhood of souls.

Of the poor and the Church she had — at least, since her conversion in 1907 — always been conscious. There was, however, something else which von Hugel did for her; it is described in a letter not reprinted in the body of this volume. The sentences are so important that they ought to be quoted: the date seems to be about 1927: "Until about five years ago I had never had any personal experience of our Lord. I didn't know what it meant. I was a convinced theocentric, thought most Christocentric language and practice sentimental and superstitious and was very handy to shallow psychological explanations of it. I had, from time to time, what seemed to be vivid experiences of God, from the time of my conversion from agnosticism (about twenty years ago now). This position I thought to be that of a broadminded and intelligent Christian, but when . . . I went to the Baron (this refers to the 1921 directorate] he said I wasn't much better thar a Unitarian! Somehow by his prayers or something he compelled me to experience Christ. He never said anything more about it but I know humanly speaking he did it. It took about four months — it was like watching the sun rise very slowly — and then suddenly one knew what it was.

"Now for some time after this I remained predominantly theocentric. But for the next two or three years, and specially lately, more and more my whole religious life and experience seem to centre with increasing vividness on our Lord — that sort of quasi-involuntary prayer which springs up of itself at odd moments is always now directed to Him. I seem to have to try as it were to live more and more towards Him only — and it's all this which makes it so utterly heartbreaking when one is horrid. The New Testament which once I couldn't make much of, or meditate on, now seems full of things never noticed — all gets more and more alive and compelling and beautiful. . . . Holy Communion which at first I did simply under obedience, gets more and more wonderful too. It's in that world and atmosphere one lives."

She adds two notes on this. The first is, as might be expected, a reminder to herself that such "consolations" have a danger about them. Their best characteristic indeed is that they have, when real, not only a beauty and goodness in themselves, but also, as it were by a proper accident, an encouragement of lucidity and accuracy. Our Lord, it may be said, increases not only faith but scepticism, each in its proper relation to the other. She continues (secondly) : "This makes it so much more difficult than before to meet on their own ground the people who have arrived at a sort of all-overish theism and feel `Hindus are often nearer God than Christians,' and that there are 'other ways to Him' and so forth. . . . When they bring out all the stuff' about Christ being a World Teacher, or the parallels of the Mystery religions, the high quality of Buddhist ethics, etc., I just feel what shallow, boring, unreal twaddle it is! But feeling that doesn't win souls for God."

The operation between von Hugel and Evelyn Underhill was, of course, invited. Neither he nor she was apt to "interfere" otherwise. It would be a highly improper course for anyone to attempt to "compel" anyone into a state which they themselves refused. But, that allowed, it seems to be an example of the working of organism within organism about which she wrote in speaking of him. It is an example of what is known by the Church as the Communion of Saints — meaning those living in the Mystical Body. The result was to establish her heart and mind more and more clearly and deeply in the "sound doctrine" and high devotion which is the response of the Communion of Saints to our Lord.

Her experience developed during 1923-4. In February, 1923, she wrote: "Yesterday I saw and felt how it actually is that we are in Christ and He in us — the interpenetration of Spirit — and all of us merged together in Him actually, and so fully described as His Body. The way to full intercessory power must, I think be along this path. Quite half of what I saw slipped away from me, but the certitude remains: 'the fragrance of those desirable meats,' as St. Augustine says. Curious how keen all Saints are about food." And at Easter in the next year she noted "One comes to realize the institution of the Blessed Sacrament as the first moment and sum of the whole Passion — 'He gave Himself in either kind.' That is really the whole story; and the same demand is more and more completely made on us." The Union, after Its own manner, was authentically begun in her, and her authenticity testified to it, both by her own words and by those she copied. Thus in the same year she noted privately, from the Mirror of Simple Souls: "The soul feels no joy, for she herself is joy." Both parts of the phrase are intense.


From 1911 onwards her life consisted of religious work, either private or public, interspersed with holidays abroad as long as possible. The private work meant, in general, cases of direction; the public, her addresses, retreats, and books. Most of the letter which follow exhibit the first; a few notes on the second may be given here.

These thirty years, from 1911 until her death in 1941, are divided almost equally into two parts by the death of von Hugel in 1925. She had begun taking retreats in1924, after the experience described in the last section. But she had taken part in public religious activities before then. Thus in 1912 she had joined the Committee of the Religious Thought Society, and took a good part in its work. She had always, as long as her health permitted, to yield to the demands of her own very practical and efficient nature; if she took part in anything, it had to be an active part. Thus, during the 1914-18 period of the war, she worked in the Naval Intelligence (Africa) department in translation and the preparation of guide-books — an activity with which, as earlier with the sea, a delicate fancy might play as consistent with her other and lordlier vocation. "I am gradually finding out that most devout persons," she had written in 1913, "are docetists without knowing it, and that nothing short of complete unreality will satisfy them." In fact, the accusation is largely true, though not quite in the sense that she then meant. But spiritually, she would have asked nothing better than to be considered an efficient translator and preparer of guide-books in a time of war. She came to disapprove of The Mystic Way because she thought it, on the whole, an inaccurate guide-book; just as she also rather disliked the two little books (The Spiral Way and The Path of the Eternal Wisdom) which she published under the pseudonyin of John Cordelier because she thought the style faulty and flowery. This is a great tribute to her authenticity; she was, to the very end, prepared to purge and elucidate her literary expression. She accepted criticism with a free and disengaged heart. Not that — though it seems curious to say so — she was ever primarily a writer; she was something rather less but much better than that, as other writers will realize.

But as she was no Docetist, so she was no Manichean. She had, by nature, a vivid sense of the "reality of finites." It will be seen, from certain phrases in the following letters, what a love and interest she had. for her cats. Von Hugel had written to her (26-9 December, 1921), in one of his letters of direction: "I much like your love for your cats. I deeply love my little dog; and Abbe Huvelin was devoted to his cat. We all three can and will become all the dearer to God for this our love of our little relations, the smaller creatures of God. Again it was God incarnate, it was Jesus of Nazareth, of Gethsemane, of Calvary, and not pure Theism, that first taught this." The present writer has indeed wondered if some movement of the mind along these lines was not part of the preparation for the apprehension of our Lord previously described. Certainly her apprehension of this world must have been; when she talked of "Reality" it was not an exclusive but an inclusive Reality which she meant.

In the same way she was devoted to flowers and birds, as to all living creatures, and had a keen interest in archaeology. She and her husband often arranged their holidays with these concerns in view. Thus they went in one year to Monte Generoso for the sake of the Alpine flowers, and in other years to Drummond Castle and Malham Tarn for the sake of the English. She had a passion for mountains, though she saw a certain irrationality in her ardour — " They are only heaps of earth." But if the Omnipotence deigned so to create, why not adore the Omnipotence and (in another kind) the creation? So, and not otherwise, the single operation proceeded in her.

In 1921 she gave the Upton Lectures on Religion at Manchester College, Oxford; they were afterwards published as The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today. She was also a member of Copec and made a contribution to one of its published reports. She was now generally recognized not only as a "great Christian writer" but as a person capable of communicating spiritual initiative and power. It was inevitable therefore that she should be continually asked to give retreats, addresses, and quiet days, though it is said that on the whole she rather disapproved, of quiet days, "as being too short to produce much effect and often too little detached from ordinary life." In this, as in everything, she did not much care for the exceptional or the incidental; it was normal life, and the food of normal life, with which only she was concerned. It was for that reason that she particularly loved the Retreat House at Pleshey, because it became for her part of a great and awful normality, and certainly no Retreat House can better deserve the praise. A number of her addresses were from time to time published in book form.

Her books, on the whole, fall into two classes; one might carry on the divisions maintained above (but only so as "not to break the back of the poor phrase") and call them either translations or guide-books. The first consists of the actual translations and critical editions a·hich she brought out. Among these are her editions of Ruysbroeck (1916), of The Cloud of Unknowing (1912), and of The Scale of Perfection (1923); the books on Ruysbroeck (1915) and on Jacopone da Todi (1919); Eucharistic Prayers from the Ancient Liturgies (1939); and such other books, or parts of books, as The Mystics of the Church (1925). She is said not to have cared much for this last, and to have regarded it, more or less, as a piece of hack-work. Every writer who has had to do hack-work will sympathize. But it has, in fact, a quite particular value. One may again use the word authenticiry; it exhibits, with high intelligence, the many and various authenticities of the saints. She had — what so many religious writers have not — a real religious impartiality, a holiness of judgement, consistent with her own predilections but overruling them. Her natural efficiency may have played its part in this; it was as distasteful to her to be wrong intellectually as to be wrong morally. Taste, by itself, will not save souls, but taste may be a subsidiary instrument, and a taste for recognizing differences in souls is very useful both in recording sanctity and in encouraging sanctity. She was, in every way, revolted by jargon, and this remains true even if occasionally she herself seems to yield to it. She wrote (20 September, 1911) of an edition of the Lady Julian: "I consider his idea of editing truly beastly. 'Reaction and Nightmare' is hardly a felicitous title for her chapter about the vision of the fiend, to my thinking! Nor is `littleness of the Kosmos' a likely phrase on the lips of a fourteenth-century mystic." Nor, perhaps, on any except a Greek's or a fool's.

In this group also her journalistic work should be included; it provided, and (if it is ever possible to collect any of it) would continue to provide valuable footnotes to the "translations." She was a well-known contributor to many periodicals, and for some time Theological Editor of the Spectator. When that paper changed hands and she had to resign this post, she began work for Time and Tide. Her relations with this paper were particularly delightful to her, for she found there (as others have done) friendship and freedom; the last thing she ever wrote was a review for it She is reported to have been among the better kind of reviewers — exact to space and time.

The other class of books, "the guide-books," are those which serve as direct exhortations to the Way. Such are Practical Mysticism (1915) and The Essentials of Mysticism (1920). These titles may seem a little cheap, but the books are not so. They are, on the whole, a psychological examination of the Way. She was always very well aware of the psycho-physical dangers, both in herself and in others; it was one of the reasons why she eased her students as much as she urged them. But to know the dangers, and to remark that sometimes they should be evaded (" Surtout, chere Madame, evitez les fatigues "), does not mean to renounce heroism. She records, if without extreme enthusiasm yet with real apprehension, certain moments in the lives of the saints most difficult for some of her readers to understand, but she expects her readers to understand them. She says in the Essentials of Mysticism of Soeur Therese de l'Enfant-Jesus: "Her superiors seem at once to have perceived in her that peculiar quality of soul which is capable of sanctity, and since it is the ambition of every community to produce a saint, they addressed themselves with vigour to the stern task of educating Therese for her destiny. . . . When her health began to fail under a rule of life far beyond her strength, and the first signs of tuberculosis — that scourge of the cloister — appeared in her, the Prioress, in her ferocious zeal for souls, even refused to dispense the ailing girl from attendance at the night-office. `Une ame de cette trempe, disait-eile, ne doit pas etre traite comme une enfant, les dispenses ne sont pas faites pour elle. Laissez-la. Dieu la soutient' This drastic training did its work."

In the same way she had noted in an essay included in The Essentials of Mysticism the paragraph in which Angela of Foligno has scandalised generations :

I elected to walk on the thorny path which is the path of tribulation. So I began to put aside the fine clothing and adornments which I had, and the most delicate food, and also the covering of my head. But as yet, to do all these things was hard and shamed me, because I did not feel much love for God, and was living with my husband. So that it was a bitter thing to me when anything offensive was said or done to me; but I bore it as patiently as I could. In that time, and by God's will, there died my mother, who was a great hindrance to me in following the way of God; my husband died likewise; and in a short time there also died all my children. And because I had begun to follow the aforesaid way, and had prayed God to rid me of them, I had a great consolation of their deaths, although I also felt some grief; wherefore, because God had shown me this grace, I imagined that my heart was in the heart of God and His will and His heart in my heart

She did not altogether defend it. But neither did she obscure it. There it was, and we shall not understand the Way without understanding that.

It is worth noting these one or two extreme examples, because of the letters. These were written to many different correspondents, and (carelessly read) they might leave an impression of too great ease, of an almost over-emphasis on relaxation. Such an impression would be unfair to Evelyn Underhill. She did not, certainly, wish to take too great risks with her inquirers; she was, like von Hugel, reluctant to interfere. But also she was very clear that we ought all, and especially those upon the Way, above all upon this particular Way, to wait upon the Lord. We ought to be quick but not flurried. She is continually, delicately, insisting on this. "I know you do feel tremendously stimulated all round; but remember the 'young presumptuous disciples' in the Cloud . Hot milk and a thoroughly foolish novel are better things for you to go to bed on just now than St Teresa" (7 February, 1923). "It is not God but your too eagerly enjoying psyche which keeps you awake and tears you to bits with an over-exciting joy" (1 March 1923). "You have been relying too much on experience, and not enough on the facts of faith" (24 November,1923). "You need not have worried about penances and mortifications, need you? When the hour strikes they are there all right; and so on with everything else, only never the expected thing" (20 June, 1924). "Don't be in a hurry with your convert! It is not everyone who is equal to 'giving themselves freely' at the beginning. . . . She will probably do best on a sugar diet for a litt!e while and in due course find out for herself that it is not adequate" (31 July, 1925).

All these are from the last section of Letters, but they could be paralleled elsewhere. She was concerned to free her friends from that faintly deceptive psychic chat within themselves which so often produces spiritual cant, however unintentionally. And she had.perhaps an especial grasp of the fact that a soul may so ask for a thing that it receives, in the end, that gift and no other — and then cannot bear it. It exclaims then, and the whole universe —. we must not say the Creator — answers only: "Vous l'avez voulu, Georges Dandin!" Fortunate he who can see it so; blessed he who can use it so.

Of her own temptations little can be said. The letters in which, if at all, she exposed them do not seem now to exist. In an early MS. book of notes she had made at the age of fifteen a list of "My Faults." It runs to nineteen entries, namely : "Selfishness; pride; conceit; disorder; moral cowardice; self deceit , scepticism; thoughtlessness; revengefulness; exaggeration; want of truth; changeable; double-dealing; teasing; unkindness; disobeidience (sic); dishonourableness; profanity; idleness."

It is a pleasant thing — and yet not without its significance. Long afterwards, von Hugel said that she was inclined too "vivaciously" to attend to the state of her own soul. Her vehemence was apt to commit the same error as another person's sloth; it confused attention and destroyed reason. Her sins indeed in general seem to have chiefly derived, as one would expect, from what again von Hugel called "the vehemence and exactingness af your nature." It was she, rather than others, who suffered from this. What better? But here and there, for a moment, one can see it might have been otherwise. The single final egtism — the psychic (the word is hers) awareness of the self — was a trouble to her as to all sincere and generous souls. It exists, of course, in all hutnan beings; the only difference is between those who allow it to infect, and perhaps to corrupt, the spiritual and those who do not. This infection leads to those sins which are exposed in the great oration on love delivered by Virgil to Dante half-way up the purgatorial mountain. She, who loved Dante, would have permitted the reference.

These temptations. took, on the whole, two forms. There was sometimes a moment's spiritual envy, a transient jealousy; of these once she wrote: "Severe steps must be taken." — as, for example, when one or more of her people suddenly veered towards another teacher. She knew, as well as any of us, that our business is so to give that "by taking oneself one makes the recipient independent." The phrase is Kierkegaard's, speaking of the omnipotence of God, but all Christians who happen to be made teachers should give in this way, and Evelyn Underhill laboured to do so; that she had sometimes to labour does not derogate from the result and does in~ase her honour. She demanded from herself a Dantean courtesy of largesse in all relations. She oinoe observed of herself 'that she was apt to exhibit "a condescending attitude to family claims " which was "insincere and to my own disadvantage." , Her comment is an example of her intelligence. Many might have thought such an attitude of condescension wrong, but they might have supposed it to be only too sincere. She knew it was not so; she was pretending even while she soared. She was not to be easily deceived.

Yet, in another sense, the fear of deception lay close to her. She was apt at times, though these seem to have grown fewer as thee years went on, to be attacked by a violent emotional scepticism. Her old tendency to explain everything subjectively recurred now as a temptation to suppose everything —objective or subjective, dogma or experience — to be spiritual hallucination. She retained for long a desire for spiritual certitude, and she suffered acutely from the lack of it. The equal (or all but equal) swaying level of devotion and scepticism which is, for some souls, as much the Way as continuous simple faith is to others, was a distress to her. It is doubtful if she ever easily managed to drive those two horses together in her own life, however she was wise to instruct others. There is nothing improper in this; it is indeed but part of that great principle which was intentionally exhibited on, and unintentionally defined under, the Cross of our Lord: "Others he saved; himself he could not save." We are here talking, of course, not only of intellectual belief and intellectual doubt, but rather of that felt in the blood and in the soul — "utter and intimate unbelief." She wanted to be sure. Benson had written to her long before: "I really do not think you have enough reverence for the stupid." She was taught, in a spiritual sense, so to reverence herself.

Both these temptations, it may well be thought, are only indications of her conflict with the final psychic egotism; say, that this itself was perhaps something more, some conjoining of sacrifice with sacrifice. She wrote (in 1932): "The number of hours I've spent apparently in prayer but really raging in hell these last 18 months don't bear thinking of. Hard continuous work or people one has to talk to, are the only things that keep it off; and here, I'm a great deal alone and entirely at the mercy of furious and miserable thoughts, a large part of which I know are imaginary but for all that can't escape from. . . . I simply dare not let my mind be passive. What I mind most is that it makes one feel absolutely wicked and vile, and I don't want to be wicked. And all the books, and everything else one has always loved, are implicated, and merely make one feel sick, and so everything is spoiled and there is absolutely nothing left." Whether, before she died, she was freed "by high permission of all-ruling heaven" from such suffering, it is impossible to say. It seems likely that she was, for the preoccupation of the war brought other, and perhaps less obviously personal, pain. But here, rather than at any other point — here in relation to that great principle of grace by which we do not know what we are, what we achieve, or what we appear — may be quoted what one of her friends said of her later:

It was in October 1937 that I met her first — invited to tea with her in her Campden Hill Square house. She had just had one of her bad illnesses. The door of the room into which I was shown was directly behind the big arm-chair in which she was facing a glowing fire. As I entered she got up and turned, looking so fragile as though 'a puff of wind might blow her away' might be literally true in her case, but light simply streamed from her face illuminated with a radiant smile. . . . One could not but feel consciously there and then (not on subsequent recognition or reflection) that one was in the presence of the extension of the Mystery of our Lord's Transfigutation in one of the members of His Mystical Body. I myself never saw it repeated on any later meeting though others have probably seen the same thing at other times. It told one not only of herself, but more of God and of the Mystical Body than all her work put together."

Such an outpouring of light has been observed elsewhere — in certain great men (such as, I think, Leonardo) and by lovers in lovers. It is as if the physical flesh itself had become, or at least had seemed to become, its unfallen self; as if that Original which was seen in the Transfiguration chose at certain moments to exhibit something of its glory in its created derivations. That a phenomenon was observed in her is credible enough; it was her reward, and (after the proper heavenly manner) it was given to others.


It is not possible, in an Introduction of this kind, to speak properly of her friends. Yet not to allude to them at all would be to omit something of which she was very conscious, to which she vividly "submitted," and from which (as from her husband) she continually, under God, "derived herself." The requests for their prayers for this or the other effort which she sent in her letters, the criticism of her work which (by general testimony) she invited, show this. That great sense of exchanged derivation — that is, at bottom, of the Communion of Saints — which is the very manner of life of the Kingdom of Heaven, was always present to her. It is the root of humility. The phrase "to pray for . . ." has become (except indeed to the best practitioners) a little tainted by our spiritual poverty; it is not verbal but vital; it is our mode of being, or perhaps it would be better to say it is the carrying of our natural mode of being on into the arch-natural. She gave and took in marriage and all its high exchange of dependency; thus, except for her public duties, she kept her evenings for her husband when he retumed from his legal work; and so also, in proper degrees, she gave and took in friendship; and carried those friendships very far. They were to her part of the apprehension of the Union, and her concern for the Union lived in them, though of course not solely. They were in Catholicity, but also Catholicity showed in them.

Two relationships may be mentioned as examples — one Italian, one English. The Italian was her intimacy with Maria, the Sorella minora (or Sister Superior) of a community of followers of St. Francis. She first heard of them through other friends and presently herself visited them. She afterwards wrote of them in the Spectaror (11 February, 1928): "The head of the household and foundress, who is known as the Least Sister, came down the lane to welcome me. . . . Those who recognize her type will discover without surprise that her delicate courtesy, her serene wide-spreading love conceal a Teresian inflexibility of purose: a profound sense of the pain and need of the world, a passionate desire to help it. As we sat in the woods, I t her to tell me something of her conception of the spiritual life. She replied, in words startlingly at variance with her peaceful surroundings, 'In tormento e travaglia servire ifratelli'.

Such a phrase struck to Evelyn Underhill's heart. She quoted, in the same article, another which must have been almost as precious to her: "We receive good," Maria had written, "from the experience which each soul brings to us; from an example, from a fraternal warning, from that gaze with which we follow every creature in reverence of heart, learning to love, venerate, help and pray.

There grew up between the two women — and lasted for a good while — an exchange of this duty and desire, and therefore of power. They were both "members" (to use a too defining word) of an unorganized Confraternity which "worked in the hiddennesss," and had "no propaganda, no public reunions, no ~tt that of a common loyalty and intention and a mutual reverence and love." That intention was the achievement of the Union, in all proper degrees, after all proper methods, but especially on earth as it — now and already — is in heaven; that is, by the Union on earth, as much as may be, of the Church with her Lord; that is, by the Church visibly at unity with helself; that is, as a means, by the drawing of all professing Christians into concord and peace. Such Confraternities, from time to time , exist — so unorganized, so hidden; they may not last; they spring and cease; but invisibly one succeeds to another; they are gates in the heart for the elect, who indeed become elect partly by their own election of such opponunities. The prayer of this company was that of St. Catherine of Siena: "Come, Holy Spirit, into my heart; draw it to Thee by Thine ineffable love, and bestow on me charity with fear. Keep me, O Christ, from every evil thought. Warm me and illuminate me by Thy most sweet love, that every pain may seem light to me. My Holy Father, my sweet Lord, I pray Thee help me in my every service."

The other friendship which may be mentioned, only as an example, was English. On one of her afternoons. of visiting in the slums and all-but-slums of North Kensington, Evelyn Underhill was directed to the home of an invalid, a certain Laura Rose. In the course of their first conversation, she asked what books Mrs. Rose liked best, and was answered: "St. John of the Cross." This immediately set up a knowledgeable kinship between the two women. Evelyn carried books to the invalid and derived instruction from her; when she had to return to London from the country (she preferred the country to London — but even the great have their weaknesses!) she sometimes said "London has one advantage; it holds Laura Rose." Mrs. Rose was a contemplative by nature; she had small education, in the ordinary sense, but s~e knew her leaders. Evelyn Underhill recognized the power. In 1936, after long ill-health, Laura died. She is here recollected, not only for herself, but because her first answer is typical, as it were, of so many of Evelyn's friendships: "What do you like to read?" "St. John of the Cross."


The last period of her life was marked by two withdrawals. The first was physical and involuntary; the second, spiritual and voluntary. She suffered very much from ill-health, especially from asthma; and she was gradually compelled to give up her public speaking and taking retreats. She was peculiarly anxious not to be too tender to herself; in spite of all her good advice to others, she was herself liable to err by doing too much rather than by doing too little. Yet she thought it an error, and desired not to err. She wished to be wholly at the disposal of Lord who determined proportion as well as direction, and she had generally, so devoted, a very clear spiritual judgement on what she could and cou!d not do.

Her other withdrawal was of a more limited kind. Evelyn Underhill was never anything of an eccentric; she had in her a metropolitan spirit of the City. It will be remembered that, in 1914-18, she had taken as active a part in the war effort as was possible to her; she had spoken at meetings and worked in the Admiralty. By 1939 her views had changed; it would perhaps be more accurate to say that her power had changed. It is impossible now to contemplate the steady movement of her spirit along its clarifying purpose towards its end and not to see this as a part of that same movement. To say she had become a pacifist is a crude way of putting it, though, of course, correct. It would be truer to say that that grace which had disposed itself within her prevented her from being anything else. It does not, of course, follow that this is everybody's Way or everybody's vocation. But it is at least quite likely that it might, at any moment, be anybody's or at least any Christian's. The practical question which always has to be solved is which of the claims to such a vocation are genuine (not attributing any guiltiness of self-deception to any claimant . We do not perhaps succeed very well with our tribunals; more care might be taken with their personnel, and a certain number of practised confessors included, at least on the ground of their being among the better kind of psychoanalysts. But it is difficult to see what other course can be taken; the State has a right to share in the final decision, as the Church has a duty to share in the decision on any claim to the Religious Life. Evelyn Underhill's long life of authenticity was, in her case, the best guarantee of that authenticity. Pacifism in her was the !ast development of the Way which she had followed; it was in her and for her our Lord's chosen method. He who had seemed to her first, under veils, an Impossibility, and then, in another sense, a Possibility, now deigned, in this matter, to be something of both. For she had no doubt about her duty and no doubt about "the excellent absurdity" of her duty. She joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and she wrote for it a pamphlet, The Church and War. It is a quite uncompromising pamphlet : "On the question of war between man and man she [the Church] cannot compromise."

It might be held that, in uttering this judgement, Evelyn Underhill was again allowing some licence to her earlier faint tendency to tell the Church what it ought to believe. The Church has never been pacifist, and it has certainly never thought it was compromising by not being pacifist. It has steadily discriminated between love and submission, and enjoined the one without, in all cases, recommending the other. Such a small gibe at her would not, it may be hoped, have wholly displeased her; she was very generous. But obviously such a small gibe refers only to a hasty phrase or two in her writing. It has nothing to do with her own spiritual choice.

In the same way that argument, which ever since 1907 had at times obtruded itself, about the claims of the Church of Rome or (to put it another way) about the Catholicity of the Church of England, had faded. It seems likely that, under the influence of von Hugel, she had understood better than before the nature of the choice which might have been presented to her. "You will," he had written, "remain spiritually weak and inconsistent, if you do not, however slowly and indirectly, resolve this bit.of amiable naturalism in the ocean of the supernatural love of, and waiting upon, God." She had certainly assented to this. If she had understood it to be sin to remain in the Church of England, she would (humanly speaking) certainly have surrendered. But she not only did not so understand it; she definitely thought it her proper place. She may sometimes have said with a smile or a sigh the equivalent of: "They order these things better in Rome." But her submission was to the Catholicity of the English Church, and beyond that to the Union of Christendom. She joined the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, largely owing to the interest in the Orthodox Churches and their Liturgy which her studies for her last large book, Worship, aroused in her. She set before the text of the book a quotation from Elizabeth Waterhouse's Thoughts of a Tertiary: "All worship was to him sacred since he believed that in its most degraded forms, amang the most ignorant and foolish of worshippers, there has yet been some true seeking after the Divine, and that between these and the most glorious ritual or the highest philosophic certainty, there lies so small a space that we may believe the Saints in Paradise regard it with a smile: ' Her beliefs (mutatis mutandis) were expressed perhaps stiill better in a phrase which she took over with joy from her Roman Catholic Italian friend Maria: "The Venerable Roman Church does but preside at the Universal Agape." It was the Universal Agape to which and for she gave her life.

Worship was published in 1937. It was a good book; it was a topical book; and (universal though its subject was) it was also a highly personal book. It was "about" that to which she had all her life given herself, "about" adoration, and it was her own own devotion and her own experience which found such phrases as "Worship is summed up in sacrifice"; "The devotional and liturgical path is at once Evangelical and Eucharistic"; "This is the ordained consummation of Christian personal worship: the mystery of creation, fulfilled in the secret ground of every soul. There are fewer quotations from the saints here, though there are more from the Rites, but all have the same authenticity about them. She knew very well the point at which, as she says, "the Rule assumes a life and authority of its own." She had known something similar during those other years, long ago, in Florence. "The understanding of things" which.had begun in the Florentine pictures had entered on its greatest and, in this life, final movement. The second war opened; she was profoundly shocked and hurt, but she was not in any sense overcome, and she made herself a means of its crucial union with our Lord When she had written about the Cross, she had always meant the Cross. She had so worked that the great Ignatian phrase might have been applied to her — " her eros was crucified." Add to that one of her own quotations from Ruysbroeck: "I must rejoice without ceasing, though the world shudder at my joy." The lower eros was fastened to the cross, as far as her will could; the Divine Eros had fastened himself. She knew something of that cross on which (could it be said with belief!) they interchanged felicities. The shudder at that joy terrifies the world, but then the world has only one choice — between terror at that terror at itself. Evelyn Underhill had all her life been aware of that necessary and supernatural terror; all her war against psychic deceptions, in herself and in others, was meant to purify all towards the terror and the joy. It is credible that she knew at least the momentary presence of the joy. If the present writel has seemed, here and there, to say a little less than he might about her writing, it is because that, on the whole, was the least (though no doubt a valuable) part of her intense vocation. Her vocation was rather to be — a guide? no; say rather, in the end, a light. The light might, and certainly did, illuminate and guide, but first it merely shone. This light she was; this (she so being) communicated to her, through her obedience, her vehemence, her faith, something of the secrets of its own clarity.

The war had begun. But Evelyn Underhill's own secret wars were, it seems, ended. She might suffer, but now it was not from her own conflicts. She continued, as far as she could, to assist and instruct. A group of young women who wished to read theology had come together in London in 1939; she had been of use to them, and when on the outbreak of the war they were scattered she continued to write to them all a quarterly letter. These letters were afterwards collected in The Fruits of the Spirit (1942). In the autumn of 1939 she gave instructions on prayer to the children of the village of Washington, on the Sussex Downs, where she was then living, and conducted meetings for prayer in the church. In 1940 and during at least a part of the great air attacks at the end of that year, she was in London again. But apart from these merely outward movements, she grows secret. It would be useless and indecent here to multiply words. She continued to write a little; she continued, in her last and best activity, to pray and adore. She ingeminated "Love!" On Sunday, 15 June, 1941, she died; she is buried in the churchyard of St. John's Parish Church, Hampstead. The present writer, as it happened, was at her beloved Pleshey when the news of her death came to it. There is erected to her, in the church there, under the bell which rings always threefold in adoration of the Blessed and Glorious Trinity, a memorial plaque. She had begun by a passion for abstraction and pattern; she had learned to know the Incarnation, to adore in the Eucharist, to reverence the stupid, to love every creature. But the lettering on the plaque does not chiefly commemorate that. As if returning, by divine permission, all her gathered knowledge and growing illumination to that profound belief on which she had first set her heart, filling the diagram with richness, and exhibiting sweetness in the Strong, it takes all back into the Alone. But the Alone Itself is full of otherness. The lettering recognizes not only Its uncreated alienness from us but also our created likeness to It, when it says, quoting that lofty genius, John Donne, who smiled and moaned and was at peace to no other end: "Blessed be God that He is God, only and divinely like Himself."


1906 - The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary

1911 - Mysticism

1912 - Introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing

1913 - The Mystic Way

1914 - Introduction: Richard Rolle - The Fire of Love

1915 - Practical Mysticism

1915 - Introduction: Songs of Kabir

1916 - Introduction: John of Ruysbroeck

1920 - The Essentials of Mysticism, and other Essays

1922 - The Spiral Way

1922 - The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (Upton Lectures)

1926 - Concerning the Inner Life

1928 - Man and the Supernatural

1929 - The House of the Soul

1933 - The Golden Sequence

1933 - Mixed Pasture: Twelve Essays

1936 - The Spiritual Life

1943 - Introduction to the Letters of Evelyn Underhill
by Charles Williams


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