Evelyn Underhill lived a sort of double life—a traditional Edwardian woman, born in 1875, raised and educated as befitted the daughter of a prosperous family. In midlife she married a prominent barrister, becoming Mrs. Herbert Stuart Moore, and embraced the roles of hostess and charitable patroness that affluent middle class life at the turn of the 20th century required.
At the same time, she was a prodigious author and a mystic, writing over 30 books in her lifetime under her maiden name and various pseudonyms. She penned everything from novels to poetry to spiritual treatises exploring contemplative prayer, faith, and transcendence in daily life. Her three novel series The Grey World (1904), The Lost Word (1907), and The Column of Dust (1909), written under the name John Cordelier, directly influenced much later authors such as Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Series, twining together deep theological rumination, a lively sacramental theology of the world, and an engaging narrative.
In her book Worship (1936) she started with a declaration that she was no liturgical expert, and instead endeavored to show in all strains of Christian liturgy “the love that has gone to their adornment [and] the shelter they can offer to many different kinds of adoring souls.”
Her style of mysticism was intentionally of the world, rather than removed from it. Mysticism was not theoretical for Evelyn Underhill, but instead completely practical. All facets of her being lived in testimony to her belief that no aspect of life was too mundane to be sacred, as that was what “incarnation” was about.
Underhill came of age in an era obsessed with the mysteries of the occult, when it was fashionable to engage in seances and spiritualism. She instead turned her search for meaning to Anglicanism, finding in Anglo-Catholic practice, a way of bridging the romanticism of the age and the search for communion with all those who have gone before in the faith.
In this she is a powerful witness in our current age, when Christian practice is seen popularly as carrying too much baggage to be attractive. Seekers today so often look to other faith traditions or religions to fill their need for transcendence. The life and writings of Evelyn Underhill remind us of the incredible richness of our own tradition, and her books The Spiral Way, Mysticism, and The Mystic Way are classics that belong in any Anglican library.
What ordinary, mundane facets of your life feel especially sacred right now?