June 15 2021, marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Evelyn Underhill. She was a remarkable woman, particularly in the life of the Church. A woman ‘of her time’ -and yet ahead of her time, Evelyn Underhill is a woman who, we believe, speaks into our current context with both challenge and encouragement.
Outwardly, she was simply a middle class married woman supporting her lawyer husband and taking advantages of the culture of Edwardian society. However, beneath this exterior, was a woman with a passion for God and a deep commitment not only to her own faith journey but to encouraging others to be ‘soaked with the Spirit.’
That encouragement came through her ministry of conducting retreats for lay people but also for male clergy – almost unheard of for a lay woman of her time! It came through her ministry of spiritual direction often through letters written to individuals and to groups.
In the first five decades of the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill was, perhaps, one of the most widely read writers on prayer and the spiritual life. The first woman ever invited to give a series of lectures in religion at Oxford, she was a fellow of Kings College, London, and in 1938 received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Aberdeen University. But it was as a retreat director and spiritual guide that she became best known and loved.
Evelyn made her first retreat at Pleshey during Ascensiontide in 1921, and conducted her first retreat here during Lent in 1924. For the next decade or so she was, arguably, the most distinguished Retreat Conductor of that time. She loved the Retreat House at Pleshey (the Chelmsford Diocesan Retreat House) which, she wrote after her first retreat here, ‘seems soaked in love and prayer,’ and many of her retreats each year were conducted here.
A prolific writer, many first editions of Evelyn’s work can be viewed at the Retreat House, and today there is a great resurgence of interest in her work and teaching on spirituality. Evelyn may take credit for establishing the place of retreats in the spirituality of the Anglican church in this country, and still today, many people come here from all over the world to see the place she loved, breathe the prayer-filled air she breathed, and, per-haps, sense her presence still in the great communion of saints which is so important to our past and our future.
Still loved and honoured at Pleshey, we are forever indebted to Evelyn, and it is, in part, because of her that today we have a space where we may step into eternity and encounter God.
This is a link to a programme of events celebrating Evelyn Underhill at Pleshey from 14-18 June Underhill-UK-Edition-2.pdf (retreathousepleshey.com)
Alone with God
An excerpt from ‘The Fruits of The Spirit’ by Evelyn Underhill.
We all know pretty well why we come into Retreat; we come to seek the opportunity of being alone with God and attending to God in order that we may do His will better in our everyday lives. We have come to live for a few days the life of prayer and deepen our contact with the spiritual realities on which our lives depend – to recover, if we can, our spiritual poise. We do not come for spiritual information, but for spiritual food and air – to wait on the Lord and renew our strength – not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world.
Now Christ, who so seldom gave detailed instruction about anything, did give some detailed instruction of that withdrawal, that recollection which is the essential condition of real prayer, real communion with God.
“When you pray, go into a room by yourself – and shut the door.” I think we can almost see the smile with which He said those three words, and those three words define what we have to try to do. Anyone can retire into a quiet place and have a thoroughly unquiet time in it – but that is not making a Retreat! It is the shutting of the door, which makes the whole difference between a true Retreat and a worried religious weekend.
Shut the door. It is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Nearly everyone pulls it to and leaves it slightly ajar so that a whistling draught comes in from the outer world, with reminders of all the worries, interests, conflicts, joys and sorrows of daily life. But Christ said shut and He meant shut. A complete barrier deliberately set up, with you on one side alone with God and everything else without exception on the other side. The voice of God is very gentle; we cannot hear it if we let other voices compete. It is no use at all to enter that room, that inner sanctuary, clutching the daily paper, the reports of all the societies you support, your engagement book and a large bundle of personal correspondence. All these must be left outside.
The object of Retreat is not intercession or self-exploration, but such communion with Him as shall afterwards make you more powerful in intercession; such self loss in Him as shall heal your wounds by new contact with His life and love.