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Continuing Incarnation: Evelyn Underhill’s Double Thread of Spirituality

by Grace Adolphsen Brame

Grace Adolphsen Brame is professor of theology at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. She recently uncovered a number of Underhill writings, including the letter published at the end, and four retreats published by Crossroad as The Ways of the Spirit. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 31, 1990 pp. 997-1000, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Of all the themes in Evelyn Underhill’s work, none is more important than "continuing incarnation": offering one’s life as the channel for God’s continuing work on earth by weaving together the inner and outer life of the spirit. For Underhill the spiritual life was a life "soaked" by a sense of God’s reality and claim, where "all we do comes from the centre in which we are anchored in God."

Underhill not only wrote on prayer and growth in God, but she continually connected the spiritual with social concerns. For example, she addressed an early conference on politics, economics and Christianity in 1924, and she advocated pacifism in the face of World War II. Throughout her adult life, she spent part of every week in the slums of London.

"We exist for nothing else," she wrote, than to be "effective servants of God, of Christ." And she was convinced that only prayer could make such an outreach possible. She saw that the way to do God’s work is for God to do it through us, and for that to happen we need to be conscious of and connected to God. Underhill called this "adhering" and referred to the Gospel of John where Christ speaks of "abiding": "Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me" (15:1)

Underhill’s spirituality was not a withdrawal from the world, nor was it unremitting service. From the time she wrote The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (based on her 1921 lectures at Oxford’s Manchester College) until she died in 1941, her most constant theme was that of bringing in the kingdom through a balanced life of prayer and action. In four recently discovered retreats published under the title The Ways of the Spirit, she writes: "What is sanctity? Just the perfection of our love, its growth toward God and others." Speaking of the truly creative person she says: "Real saints never know how much they are doing. . . . They are . . . continuing the work of incarnation through the perfect self-yielding of the soul to God, making themselves His tools, His channels of revelation to others." Writing on joy, she exults in the wonder of a God who would choose human beings for such a task, and she describes the facets of redeeming love: "Redemption does not mean you and me made safe and popped into heaven. It means that each soul, redeemed from self-interest by The revelation of Divine Love, is taken and used again for the spread of that redeeming work."

When Underhill became angry, it was against extremes, exaggeration and self-centered "commercial spirituality" that attempted to use God for its own good. She wrote repeatedly against a social gospel so exclusively concerned with the world that it considered prayer a selfish activity. She protested both extremes: "When a great truth becomes exaggerated to this extent, and is held to the exclusion of its compensating opposite, it is in a fair way to becoming a lie."

Self-centered spirituality and social service without prayer are perennial tendencies, and they seriously polarize the Christian community. As a result, the 20th century has seen numerous writings about "a new spirituality" that includes love of neighbor. In some quarters that is an important addition, but it is hardly new. Christ withdrew from the crowds not only for love of his father, but in order to serve better. There have always been Christians who saw that to deny either the world or heaven was fruitless. From Underhill’s point of view, Christians were enjoined to abide, but they were also chosen to bear fruit.

People have always misunderstood the concept of detachment, and some ascetics have taken it to such extremes that it mocks what it is supposed to glorify. Underhill is quite clear about detachment. Serving God, she says, will always require outward and inward renunciations. Following Christ entails an element of the cross. But this letting go is not a denigration of God’s world, nor should it be done for its own sake. It is appropriate and necessary, she says, to remove anything that hinders focusing everything on God and God’s will. "But that [detachment] must be combined with such attachment as enables us, with God, to try to love and save the world." Perhaps what is new in spirituality today is that more people are beginning to understand this.

Underhill did not think it was easy to become a tool in the hand of God. Perhaps because of her own spiritual struggles, she fed on the lives of the saints who had struggled before her. A woman who wrote on "The Mastery of Time" because of her own overcommitments, she was acutely aware of the problems of spiritual exhaustion. She too suffered through the changing weather of the spiritual life. And she well knew what it meant to face spiritual dryness. But she was doggedly faithful to her spiritual discipline.

Underhill was particularly sensitive to the clergy’s need for spiritual refreshment and spiritual connectedness. Her respect for them was based on an assumption not that they were superior, but rather that they had made a complete commitment to God and had a unique opportunity. In her retreat Inner Grace and Outward Sign, she says to them: "You have offered yourselves for the most sacrificial, most exacting, most Christ-like of all lives -- to be the agents of God in His work with the souls of others." She demanded authenticity from herself and from them.

The clergy heard her. She was the first woman in the Church of England to give a series of addresses to priests. Her book Concerning the Inner Life came out of that first experience at Water Millock clergy school in 1926. Collected Papers of Evelyn Underhill contains two lectures on "The Parish Priest and the Life of Prayer" first given to the Worcester Diocesan Clergy Convention. We know from Ways of the Spirit that she gave retreats to clergy and other religious professionals in 1927 and 1928.

Sometime around 1929 or 1930 Underhill wrote a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, about the inner life of the clergy. By this she meant "all that conditions the relation of the individual soul with God." She requested that the letter be read at the worldwide meeting of bishops gathered for the Lambeth Conference in 1930, the last such gathering before World War II. There is no way to know if the letter was sent or received. I found it, in handwritten form, along with previously unknown and unpublished retreats, in the Underhill archives in London. In 1988 Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie brought it to the attention of the Lambeth Conference.

Underhill’s concern in this brief message was that some clergy had become so overwhelmed by the multiplicity of their duties that they had lost their grounding in prayer; They were trying to lead their congregations in worship without themselves worshiping . Under-hill pointed out the problem and suggested a solution. One cannot help wondering what the archbishop’s response would have been to her forthright words. Under-hill no doubt was voicing the thoughts of many who were disenchanted with the church but felt powerless to change it. Her suggestion to give courses in devotional life at theological schools was unheard of at the time.

It has taken some time for seminaries to comprehend Underhill’s ideas, and many have not yet done more than present a course on prayer, monasticism or spiritual discipline once every few years. But there are others that have fully understood Underhill’s vision. Catholic institutions, of course, have never lost this focus, although emphases, in some cases, have greatly changed. Protestants are now beginning to realize what they have missed. The curriculum among the schools of the Boston Theological Institute proves an example of these new efforts. Together these schools provided 23 different courses in spirituality in the past academic year, the first one listed being "The Pastor’s Personal Spiritual Life." General Theological Seminary in New York City supports a Center for Christian Spirituality and continually provides courses that relate justice and economics to the life of prayer, discernment and stewardship. Abingdon Press has recently published Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, based on lectures regarding Catholic and Protestant spiritual traditions under the aegis of Wesley Theological Seminary and the Domincan House of Studies in Washington, D.C. In Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill College is just beginning a master’s program in holistic spirituality and spiritual direction.

There are other signs of double thread being lived out through organizations such as the Center for Action and Contemplation and Socially Concerned Contemplatives. In addition to these there has long been the prayerful outreach of the Society of Friends and the Salvation Army, efforts which Underhill never forgot.

In a recent book titled The Spark of the Soul, Terry Tastard, S.S.F., compares Evelyn Underhill, St. Francis, Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton, using the theme that "today the test of a spirituality is its ability to help us deepen both our love of God and our commitment to change the face of the earth." Tastard’s words echo those of Underhill in 1926: "Adoration is the prayer in which we turn toward . . . God Himself, for Himself, and for none of His gifts. . . . It is the prayer in which we obey the first and great commandment to love the Lord with all of the heart, soul, and mind -- with all our thought and strength -- with ALL, all, every bit. And the second commandment will only he really well done where the first has the central place."


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