Evelyn Underhill – a very short introduction

Copyright, Greg Davidson, 2014.

An Anglican mystic, writer, retreat leader, novelist, gardener, expert yachtswoman, pacifist, journal editor, public lecturer, wife, friend, and spiritual director, Evelyn Underhill was person who influenced many and her influence continues today.  The late Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that she did more than anyone else to keep alive the spiritual life of the Church of England between the first and second world war.

As a teenager, she was aware that words could influence masses of people; it was one reason for wanting to become a writer.  Her life was not marked however by the desire for influence, but by a desire to understand and experience the relationship between God and people.  That Underhill did influence many, and still does, is the by-product of her incredible life-long quest to find what was to her, intellectually and experientially real.  In the end, Reality found her.  Throughout her life she wrote constantly and was exposed to a plethora of subjects: philosophy, poetry, Platonic beauty, modernism, theology, theories of war, economics, social ethics, the liturgy, creeds of the church and perhaps more than any other topic, mysticism and then later a specifically Christian spirituality.

Many periods in Underhill’s life reveal significant transformation in her worldview, theology and spirituality.  No change is more dramatic and important however, than the one Underhill experiences between 1921-1930.  The topic of this booklet is the transformation of Underhill’s theology and spirituality in this period.  The discovery of God’s prevenient grace transforms Underhill’s theology from anthropocentric to Christocentric.  We see this in the following ways: her understanding of the primary initiative of the spiritual life shifts from anthropocentric to theocentric; and her understanding of the Object of the spiritual life shifts from theocentric to Christocentric.  These show a spiritual theology that is transformed from human-centered to Christ-centered, by the influence of the notion of the complete given-ness of any spiritual progress, or ‘grace’.

Copyright, Greg Davidson, 2014.

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