THE MAKING OF A MYSTIC
New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees
All right reserved.
THE STRUGGLE FOR spiritual clarity is nothing new, but our twenty-first century seems to be stalled in a confusing and unlit corridor on that search where, as Matthew Arnold said, "[W]e are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night." Theological certainties seem to have hardened: the many religious fundamentalisms, the surfacing of new and old debates on atheism and evolution, the intrusion of religious allegiances into political discourse, the enormous challenges to mainstream institutional religion. The individual soul sometimes hunkers down amid all the turmoil, hoping to hear the voice of the divine, only to experience silence.
People have struggled in other times with these issues. We sometimes call that struggle the path to sainthood. But one often desires a more homely model, someone who has traveled the path and chronicled it in language that can speak to our postmodern condition in contemporary language. That voice is Evelyn Underhill's. Hers was one of the few modern voices able to find the language for the otherwise ineffable, that flash of time when the transcendent penetrates the immanent.
Despite this mystic vision, nothing about Evelyn Underhill was cloistered or removed from the world or its struggles. Photographs of her show a cultivated lady who would seem only to inhabit well-to-do parlors and sit at tea tables, so it may be hard to connect her to our postmodern, jangling, technological world, what her contemporary E. M. Forster called "the world of telegrams and anger." Her photographs to the contrary, Evelyn Underhill was a true mystic, grounded in the real world. Despite her upbringing in the tepid institutional church of her time, she was given a sense of the divine through mystical encounters, always bringing that light back into her own very active communal life. In her own time she routinely advised and nurtured all kinds of people in widely varied personal circumstances, always with an ear for both heaven and earth. And her words still resonate for those spiritual seekers looking for a guide to the contemplative and mystical life in a bellicose and violent world.
Her little book, Practical Mysticism, influenced a young Frank Griswold, who later became Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, which has celebrated June 15, the day of her death, as a feast day since 2000. Many of us savored her writings on mysticism to feed our urgings for the divine after "the death of God" had been pronounced. Widely popular in England by the time of her death in 1941, Underhill's writings still enjoy widespread and frequent reprinting and excerpting into the twenty-first century. In her lifetime Underhill wrote nearly forty books (of which twenty are still in print) and over five hundred articles, as well as three novels and three volumes of poetry. Her inspirational writings appear regularly in anthologies and contemporary work on spirituality. Her two major works, Mysticism (1911) and Worship (1936), remain definitive and are still taught in theology courses. She was the first woman invited to guest-lecture on theology at Oxford University, and she served as religious editor of the prestigious London Spectator. It was she who helped invigorate the retreat movement in the Church of England between the two world wars, and, according to Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury, she did more than nearly anyone to keep the church alive in that period. And, finally, it was she who drafted some of the most powerful documents on pacifism as the Second World War loomed and threatened to destroy England.
But if she was known by her public persona, she was also known for the inspired contemplative way she lived her own full professional life. In an unpublished obituary intended for the London Times after her death, her friend T. S. Eliot had this to say about her:
I should like to supplement your admirable notice of the late E. U. (Mrs. Stuart Moore) with a word about the side of her activity which is not represented by/ preserved in her published work or known to most of her readers. She concerned herself as much with the practice as with the theory of the devotional life—her studies of the great mystics had the inspiration not primarily of the scholar or the champion of forgotten genius, but of a consciousness of the great grievous need of the contemplative element in the modern <life> world. She gave (with frail health and constant illness) herself to many, in retreats, which she conducted and in the intercourse of daily life—she was always at the disposal of all who called upon her. With a lively and humorous interest in human beings, especially the young, she was at the same time withdrawn and sociable. With shrewdness and simplicity she helped to support the spiritual life of many more than she could in her humility have been aware of aiding.
Eliot is surely speaking of himself as one of the recipients of her "shrewdness and simplicity," since he was moved to write this letter to the Times after what he considered an inadequate obituary. Even in April 1941, with the German blitzkrieg thundering around her, and on what was to be her deathbed just two months later, she is writing to Eliot to say how she enjoyed "The Dry Salvages" and looks forward to reading "Little Gidding" and "hope[s] a little later you will have time to come in and we can have another talk about these things."
What he says about the soul of the woman who looks out serenely from the photographs is best illustrated by her personal letters, for she was a prolific letter writer all her life. The letters further reveal a whole life, fully lived, or, in Underhill's own words to a correspondent, how she herself decided to "live hard with both hands, and love as much as you can." From the earliest letters she is both serious and playful, asking her "Dearest Mudgie" (her mother) in a letter, "Oh! please can you tell me who Spinoza was ..." next to descriptions of language games and pranks of a teenage girl at school. We read how her love letters to her future husband turn into travelogues that reveal how the churches and art of Italy are changing her spiritual outlook. We see the inspiring and bracing epistles that she called "the care of souls" written to people who came to her for spiritual advice. Her first biographer and long-time friend Lucy Menzies says that in her letters to her spiritual directees, Underhill was "frankly putting all she then knew at her inquirer's disposal show[ing] us where she herself was in her inner life ... reveal[ing] much of her own thought and practice."
This edition of her letters supplants that of Charles Williams published a mere two years after her death. Of course, Williams did not have access to all of her letters—nor do we—but these new letters reveal information that will rewrite our understanding of her. Contemporary women will appreciate the correspondence that reveals a professional and hardheaded businesswoman who expected due compensation for her work. It is clear that Underhill was a serious professional writer: exchanges with publishers, literary societies, and personal friends show a woman working for her bread, however spiritual the dough. This mercantile side of Underhill is briefly alluded to by Lucy Menzies in her unpublished biography, when she says that she has had "to reflect that the reason why after her marriage Evelyn worked so hard, wrote so many reviews and so on, was possibly in order to augment the household income. She was so extraordinarily generous, that I always imagined her more than well off. Now I wonder." (III.2).
Yet she is not ascetic and self-denying. She shops in Paris for hats and tea gowns, though it is clear she pays for her own wardrobe. With real artistic interest she suggests designs for jewelry made for her by her husband. Even though the two had had to delay marriage for years until Hubert was established in the legal profession, clearly her income supplemented the household nicely. At the end of her life, however, we see her giving her resources to victims of the war, places and people that she thought needed money more than she did. We must conclude that if she was not ever financially strapped, she was, at least, an excellent steward of the wealth she earned.
Other parts of the correspondence show her early development as a writer and thinker nearly innocent of any formal education: she was an autodidact to a large degree. Her father was a barrister beginning his career in Wolverhampton in 1875 when she was born to him and his wife Lucy Ironmonger. There is no feminist story here of studying Greek or overhearing her brother's tutors or getting lost in her father's well-stocked library, for there was no other child, and her father seems to have been interested only in his yacht and maritime law. The letters to her mother from school in her early teens contain no very certain promise of a distinguished career, though she is a bright student and an irreverent one at times. After her three years at the somewhat mediocre boarding school at Folkestone, the only other formal learning she undertook was a two-year stint at what was then known as the Ladies Department of The King's College London where she studied botany and refined her skill in French and Italian, all of which were to serve her well.
What the early letters do reveal, however, is hardly a pious and prayerful mystic but rather an impertinent and witty young woman, what recent critics such as Carol Gilligan call the "female resister": she is a tomboy clambering over glaciers and relishing a fast ride in an early automobile, a nurse caring for her seriously ill mother alone in Rome, a connoisseur as she discusses book binding and Arts and Crafts jewelry, and a critic as she laments her father's taste in art. It is fascinating to conjecture how a woman whose profound learning is exhibited as early as Mysticism (1911) could have emerged from a family environment where learning took second place to yachting, reading to visiting, and where the annual charity bazaar took precedence over nearly all else.
Likewise, her marriage to Hubert Stuart Moore in 1907 seemed to give her a domestic life quite unremarkable and free from intellectual strife. They were a sociable pair and shared interests in art, travel, boats, and, most important, cats. She traveled to Europe with her mother (as any dutiful daughter of that class and time would be expected to do) and lunched with her every day until her death, perhaps out of duty but also with some element of mother/daughter companionship.
The early years of her professional career were devoted to writing fiction and poetry, and she was clearly part of the literary and social movements at that early exciting time in London that produced other famous women writers. She mentions the Women Writers dinner and suffrage marches; she has begun translating medieval manuscripts about appearances of the Virgin Mary to common folk; she reads voraciously for her great scholarly task in Mysticism.
We have very few letters from the period of great trauma, the years of the Great War during which, she confessed to Baron von Hügel, the foremost Roman Catholic theologian in England at the time and later her spiritual director, that she "had gone to pieces." During this time, however, she made the acquaintance of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, and she helped him translate and introduce poems of Kabir to the British public. Perhaps by way of that acquaintance, her spiritual horizons were broadened past the medieval saints and the Western churches. That curiosity about other forms of faith and growth continued at least until she penned her second foundational book, Worship.
Meanwhile, as we read of other books being written, we see her concept of mysticism passing over quietly into a simple spiritual path, focusing usually, but not always, on the Christian faith. Even though her theological views shift somewhat over her lifetime, the centrality of the contemplative way—"the way of the spirit," as she would call it—remains. In a letter to the American Quaker Rufus Jones in 1913, she distinguishes between mystical experience and mysticism, at this point defining the latter as "a whole system of life, a description, as true as we know how to make it, of the soul's growth toward God ... [it is] a sketch of the normal evolution of the soul under the action of space." That view was tempered and refined as she began retreat work and spiritual direction herself. No letters are addressed to that director, Baron von Hügel, but his insistence on incarnational faith resonate for the rest of her life.
Nowhere does that faith come to rest in actual living more animatedly than in the body of work that makes up much of the last part of this volume. Letters to Darcie Otter, a teacher who lived near Pleshey Retreat House and who was to become a fast friend, reveal Underhill's skills as a therapist with a deeply troubled woman. Occasionally bracing, always supportive, often witty and tender, these letters form the bookends with the more complete correspondence with Marjorie Robinson before the war and demonstrate her lived faith as few things could. Her theologian friend Agatha Norman and her American acquaintance Mrs. Mabel Merrix, wife of an Episcopal clergyman, give us a glimpse of her views on politics and social issues as well. She ponders postcolonial behavior and racism in South Africa, and she comments on the pain King Edward's abdication caused the working classes. At the end of her life we get an extraordinary witness of what it was like to be quite alone and ill during the bombardment of London—confined to a single room with a pen and paper and, of course, her God.
What emerges is what she would call a "truly realistic Christian" who never confined spirituality to Christianity, who experienced God transcendentally but always insisted upon the immanent and the practical, and who saw even in the midst of the mayhem that World War II was bringing upon people the opportunity to choose peace. In these new letters one reads the sweep of her life and becomes aware of the deep intellect, the spiritual depth, and the gentle heart of this remarkable woman.
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The publication history of the Evelyn Underhill letters has important ramifications for this new edition. Following her death on June 15, 1941, Underhill's husband, Hubert Stuart Moore, and her secretary, Clara Smith, apparently organized an effort to collect materials from friends and professional colleagues. Their first choice for the editing task had been T. S. Eliot, who was then working on the last of the Four Quartets. Nearly a year after her death, in May 1942, Clara Smith wrote to Eliot about his "part suggested in the Evelyn Underhill book." She inquired, "You said, when I saw you, that you would probably want a loan of some of her own books." Eliot's response comes a month later, saying that "there is the possibility of a volume of the letters which might be classed as directional and that such a volume would have the more interest because it would consist of letters of direction addressed to women by another woman." He says, however, that he is "very doubtful about a general volume" because what is wanted is a broader palette that "would appear best in their place in a volume of Life and Letters" for which he has neither the "qualifications" nor the time.
By September 1942 the novelist Charles Williams had been engaged to produce the edition of her letters that appeared the next year. Published, as they were, so soon after her death, these letters possess an undeniable immediacy, but the passage of time shows that the original collection was hasty, incomplete, and quite heavily edited.
Charles Williams himself was feeling the pinch of the wartime economy. About to receive a master's degree at Oxford and in need of cash to buy, among other things, his academic gown, he undertook the letters with less enthusiasm for the intellectual task at hand than for the bottom line: "[T]he other Underhill 45 pounds spread before me like a golden river ..." he writes to his wife Michal on September 22, 1941. He was paid 50 pounds total, so he had been given a cash advance. A week later he writes again, saying, "Meanwhile I've read a good deal of E. U. She is very good in her way, & her letters rebuke me, as it were. A good deal of attention will do the trick—& it's really a marvelous chance to make what we need all in one."
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