Friday, February 19, 2010


The other day, a feature writer for “The Daily Iberian” here in New Iberia, Louisiana, called me for information about the Anglican way to observe Lent. It was one of those surprise interviews. The writer hadn’t found the rector of Epiphany in his office, so he called me, Epiphany’s retired deacon.  I didn’t have all of my ducks in a row, but I managed to convey that Lent was a time to be what God wants us to be, not a time of what we want from Him. As Evelyn Underhill, a great Anglican mystic, wrote in “The Light of Christ,” “so all we do must be grounded in worship. First, lift up our eyes to the hills, then turn to our own potato field and lightly fork in the manure….”

Underhill was that kind of writer – just plain earthy. However, she put a lot of emphasis on the theology of renunciation and the evangelical counsels – Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience during the Lenten season. Evelyn lived in London during the mid-20th century and spent much of her time giving retreats – at Moreton, St. Leonard’s, Glastonbury, Canterbury, etc. However, Pleshey House was the first retreat house she knew and loved. It was a place known as “The Holy Land,” and was built on the site of a college of nine chaplains, two clerks, and two choristers, a place where the spiritual life had been lived fully. Then it became a convent and, finally, was used as the retreat house where Underhill prayed and worshipped. Pleshey was steeped in prayer and adoration.

When Evelyn held retreats at Pleshey House, she often presented reproductions of great paintings, which she placed on the porch and used to illustrate her addresses. In those addresses, she taught that retreats should be like experiences of the mountains – “a convicting and purifying message of holiness and sacrifice and love.”

However, she also held retreats in which she focused on Christian discipline and the season of Lent. Her Lenten Rule was simple, and she divided it into Bodily Comforts, Mental Comforts, Almsgiving, and Prayer. Many practices under the heading of Bodily Comforts are now dated; e.g., “reduce the use of hot water bottles,” but more of those disciplines involved reduction of excesses we’re guilty of practicing today. She listed them as cigarettes, chocolates, sweets, after dinner coffee, cocktails, sherry, bath salts, and bath powder. In other words, sensual pleasures! She advised a five minute limit on hot baths (ouch), no lounging, and suggested deliberately choosing an uncomfortable chair. “Do not linger in bed but get up at once when called,” (if you have someone to call you!) she wrote, “and no new clothes until Easter.” She also advocated giving up novel reading, films, and plays, and reading in bed. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch!! However, she added, “those who cannot relinquish any of these things for the whole of Lent might at least do so on Wednesdays and Fridays and in Holy Week.”

All of this sacrifice was followed by almsgiving and prayer. Underhill advocated that people should especially pray for peace at noon, for our enemies, and for the making of a just and Christian peace. She was definitely a woman who lived ahead of her time. Underhill became an amateur botanist, was a lover of art and architecture, and, of course, a writer of theological and spiritual books that spoke as loudly for the Anglican church as the renowned C.S. Lewis, Anglicanism’s great Christian apologist.

Evelyn Underhill was an old-fashioned girl who took her Lent seriously…but simply. Re-reading “The Light of Christ “during this holy season is a “must” for me. She wrote: “Now turn and look at ourselves, our own lives, in the light of this revelation of the Charity of God. What courage, what humility, what absolute self-giving is required of us if we are to be the channels through which that mysterious light is to be poured out on other men…” My favorite passage in her “Fruits of the Spirit,” concludes with the words: “The Fruit of the Spirit is Joy,” says St. Paul. “The rest counts as dung…”

For more reading by Evelyn Underhill, try “The Fruits of the Spirit,” “Light of Christ,” “Abba,” and “The School of Charity.” 
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