The Letters of Evelyn Underhill by Evelyn Underhill; edited by Charles Williams
(Longmans, Green and Co., 1943, 343 pages)
Evelyn Underhill started her publishing career as a novelist, but she is best known for her books on Christian mysticism and spirituality written in the first half of the twentieth century. In her collected letters we are given a look into Underhill’s methods as a spiritual director and guide. Most of the letters selected are ongoing correspondences between Underhill and various people who wrote to her for advice about methods of prayer, meditation, and general spiritual direction.
I was particularly interested in this collection because it was edited by Charles Williams, who also wrote the introduction. Williams, a novelist and spiritual director himself, benefited much from Underhill’s writings, and the debt he owes to her comes out clearly in his introduction to her life and work. Though she wrote many books, Williams claims that the main part of Underhill’s vocation was not writing but to be a sort of spiritual light, an example of the possibility of communion with God through prayer and meditation. These letters reveal her shedding light on the spiritual lives of the people who sought her help.
There are a few consistent features of Underhill’s spiritual counsel. First, she insists that her correspondents combine the “passive” life of contemplation and prayer with the “active” life of charitable good works. Second, she continually discourages people from seeking mystical or ecstatic spiritual experiences – though never denying the possibility of them – and encourages them to maintain a quiet, consistent, and peaceful rule or practice of prayer. Third, she regularly suggests that private spirituality should be coupled with regular observance of the social component of spiritual practices. These letters are full of wisdom for those seeking spiritual direction, and they are informed by Underhill’s wide reading and deep knowledge of the best of the Christian mystical tradition.
The latter section of letters were written after the outbreak of World War II. Underhill was evacuated from London to the country, and her correspondence from this time is naturally full of concerns about the violence and death occurring around her. As a pacifist, the onset of war was particularly troubling for her because she believed that it spoke to her own failure and that of other European nations to uphold Christian ideals about non-violence. The letters written in these circumstances make for particularly interesting and edifying examples of how spirituality can help someone to retain a sense of peace and perspective in a time of upheaval.