Evelyn Underhill

Yesterday in a Studland garden and the day before on a path just above the Ulwell caravan site I saw two lazy adders enjoying the sun and then silently, as they do, disappearing into the undergrowth.  One looks again and it is as if they had never been there.  It could not be said of the amazing sunset last night that lingered through the clear sky and brought a reminder of the summer ahead and hopefully many glorious sights and happy days.

Of the passing of things, today is the 80th anniversary of the death of Evelyn Underhill, a devotional writer and mystic whose works were much valued by a previous generation of priests and lay people, exploring the contemplative life with depth and seriousness.  She was one of a group of spiritual guides of the 1920s and 1930s whose detailed, quite directive and disciplined teaching appealed to a different age, with the Book of Common Prayer at its heart.  

Maybe the word, ‘analytical’ should be introduced here too.  They would be able to assess from long experience where an individual lay on the path of progress in spiritual discernment and commitment to the imitation of Christ - and their moment by moment awareness of the presence and apprehension of God.  This is a model that is even older than them, going back in this country to spiritual guides such as Walter Hilton who lived in the fourteenth century.  His best known work, The Ladder of Perfection, demonstrates in its title alone the steps that were seen through which we are drawn ever closer to the God we worship.  A careful balance in this understanding is held between personal effort and the grace of God, without which we can do nothing.  

I think I must dust off one of Evelyn Underhill’s books today at some point and dip into another age, that none the less has a good deal to teach us of patience and discipline; of old-fashioned virtues; and a reminder that what is modern is not always what is best.

John Mann