Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill’s devotional writing expressed itself in letters of direction, retreats, radio broadcasts, and books and articles. In examining these diverse materials one is struck by the importance of a few themes. In discussing the spiritual life, Underhill no longer uses the stages of the mystic way as a guide, but rather emphasizes human responsiveness to the divine by talking about three actions: adoration, adherence and cooperation. Like Cardinal de Bérulle, the seventeenth-century religious writer, and her director von Hügel, Underhill claims that the first and primary experience of God was one of awe and that adoration followed from it. Together, awe and adoration reflect the humble acknowledgment of the Transcendent, the fact of God. Worship and prayer become two primary expressions of adoration and the mean by which one participates in and experiences the life of God.

Creative and redemptive

‘Worship,’ she wrote, ‘purifies, enlightens and at least transforms, every life submitted to its influence; and this is not merely in the ethical or devotional sense. It does
all this because it wakes up and liberates that ‘seed’ of the supernatural life, in virtue of which we are spiritual beings capable of responding to that God who is Spirit; and which indeed gives to humanity a certain mysterious kinship with Him. Worship is therefore in the deepest sense creative and redemptive.’ Adoration is at the heart of prayer as well. Prayer is not so much a distinct act, but a state and condition of soul in which we receive God’s spirit, and accept our nothingness. Our prayer of adoration passes into a prayer of communion and of self-offering.

A transformed self

It is clear that Underhill believed that one of the functions of adoration, expressed in worship and prayer, is to win our will to God’s will. Here we have passed to a second response to the divine, namely adherence, an attitude of humble and grateful acceptance of God, a sense of self-opening and expectancy as well as a willingness to sacrifice with the result that we are purified and that there is a transfer of interest from self to God.

The effect of this adherence to God is a transformed self, one who works with God in the world. This final response of cooperation follows logically from adoration and adherence. Like the previous responses, it wells up out of love: ‘The spiritual life of any individual has to be extended both vertically to God and horizontally to other souls; and the more it grows in both directions, the less merely individual, and therefore the more truly personal, it will be.’ ND

Edited by Arthur Middleton