Evelyn Underhill

Author, lay minister, scholar and mystic

“It is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the irritating details of outer life.” 

Evelyn Underhill 

On Saturday, June 15, the Church commemorates the life and work of one of my spiritual heroes, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941). A truly remarkable person, Underhill was a scholar, author of 39 books, author of 350 articles and letters, sought-after speaker, spiritual director, respected retreat leader, and Christian mystic. She was the first woman in England to give a lecture series at Oxford University. She was elected a Fellow at King’s College. She was awarded an honorary Doctoral Degree in Divinity from Aberdeen University. Of her, former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay said, “It was Evelyn, more than anyone else, who kept the life of prayer alive in the Church of England between the two World Wars.”

Yet for all these accomplishments, she was neither an academic nor a tenured Professor at any University. She was not a priest or ordained clergyperson of any sort. Indeed, as a woman, she could not have been at that time. She wasn’t a nun or sister associated with a religious order. She was, quite simply, a Church of England layperson and quite content to be just that. Her lack of a more formal association with institutional structures freed her from constraints that might have prevented her from the intellectual and spiritual pursuits to which she felt called. Those pursuits carried her into the very heart of God.

Her first, and perhaps most famous work, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness was published in 1911. It was an almost immediate best seller and was well read through the 20th century. Today it is considered a classic work on the subject and remains widely in print. Her passion was to bring back direct religious experience to the Church. She sought to show people that God is very real and very approachable. More than anything else, she wanted ordinary people, people like you and I, to know that we could have direct unmediated contact with God’s transformational Love. Mysticism, rather than some esoteric new-age practice, is the passionate longing of the soul to encounter the presence of God and the very real possibility of that encounter in our daily lives. 

Her later publication, Practical Mysticism (1915), is in my personal top 10 best books on spiritual life. It’s a relatively short book, less than 200 pages in length in the 1986 Ariel Press edition. In it, Underhill sets out her belief that the spiritual life is an intrinsic part of human nature and, as such, contact with the Divine is available to every person. She writes, “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality [God]. The mystic is a person who has attained that union to a greater or lesser degree, or who aims at and believes in such attainment.” 

Underhill advocates setting aside a specific time, preferably in the morning, for adoration, spiritual reading, and meditation. “Old fashioned practices,” she admits, “but it’s the only way!” from Mixed PastureTwelve Essays and Addresses” (1933). Sadly, it’s so very hard for us to understand that prayer, time alone with God, is the spiritual food that sustains and nourishes us in this life. Underhill writes, “Once you’ve started, never give up this practice, despite discouragements or ups and downs.” From the Letters of Evelyn Underhill (1959).

She counseled a friend: “Try to arrange things so that you can have a reasonable bit of quiet every day and do not be scrupulous and think it selfish to make a decided struggle for this. You are obeying God’s call and giving Him the opportunity to teach you what He wants you to know, and so make you more useful to Him and to other souls.” (Ibid,).

I commend to you the writings of this inspiring Christian whose yearning for God re-awakened the Church to its great tradition of contemplation and potential for direct union with God. That union may come to us simply enough by stopping our frenzied rush through life and becoming aware of God’s nearness to us in the now of the present moment, which is nothing less than a gift from God. 

Let me leave you with this lovely thought from Underhill:

 “God is always coming to you in the sacrament of the present moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament; however unexpected its outward form may be, receive Him in every sight and sound, joy, pain, opportunity and sacrifice. For a lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us everyday.”


-Deacon Vern