Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ON THE EVE OF EVELYN UNDERHILL’S FEAST DAY

Today is the Feast Day of Evelyn Underhill, Anglican writer and mystic often described as someone who, in the first five decades of the 20th century, was one of the most widely read authors on prayer and the spiritual life in the world. I’ve conducted several retreats featuring Evelyn’s work, and ‘though some readers may call my ruminations outdated, I continue to quote her in sermons and read her works monthly.

Evelyn Underhill loved to attend and, later, to conduct retreats at Pleshey House in the village of Pleshey in England, a place now known as “The Retreat House,” where Evelyn made her first retreat in 1921. Later, it became the spot where she conducted her first retreat during Lent, 1924. She became the best known retreat director of her time and described Pleshey (her favorite retreat house) as a place “soaked in love and prayer.”

Every summer, as part of my commitment as an Associate of St. Mary’s Convent at Sewanee, I attend the silent retreat, and this year I fortuitously noticed that Evelyn Underhill’s feast day occurs this day before the retreat begins. So I began reading The Fruits of the Spirit again, Evelyn’s notable work first published in the 1940’s. A memoir of Evelyn Underhill by Lucy Menzies, one of the frequent retreatants during Evelyn’s lifetime, includes the guru of retreat master’s thoughts about how to prepare for a retreat. Evelyn writes a recipe for recovering “spiritual poise,” as she calls it — she says that we don’t go to retreats to gain spiritual information but for spiritual food and air — to wait on God and renew our strength not for our own selves but for the sake of the world.

That one sentence set me straight about the real reason for retreat. Evelyn says that anyone can retire into a quiet place and have a thoroughly unquiet time in it—but that isn’t making a retreat. “Shut the door,” she says. “Nearly every one 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 the door,’ and he meant Shut.” A retreat, Evelyn emphasizes, isn’t self exploration, but communion with God so that afterwards you’re more powerful interceding for others and experience such self loss in Him that your wounds will be healed by new contact with his life and love. In other words, if you follow her counsel for a good retreat, you may return to “ordinary time” and move about in the world emanating a bit more humility and charity. I don’t need to remind anyone of how much we need the latter two qualities nowadays.

Evelyn reminds us that there are three points in which we can respond to God’s creative will for us: 1) our prayer; 2) our work or service, the middle point between our action toward and with God; and 3) our action toward men.  The entire chapter on “Preparation” in The Fruits of the Spirit could be handed out to every retreatant who enters this “thin place” that is St. Mary’s of Sewanee, or any retreat space, and major transformation would result, I think. That transformation is not only the objective of retreats but the answer to all that is burdensome to us when we finally tune into the world again – an acknowledgement that the spiritual growth of humans has to do with the “creaturely status of man and thus the gathering of man into communion with God.”  

On this day, Evelyn reminds us that all must be subdued to the law of charity, and that all must be colored by the joy and peace of our spiritual inheritance carried through with patience, faithfulness and humility.

Pardon the “preach,” but on second thought, just order a copy of The Fruits of the Spirit and sit with it a spell.


P.S. That battered-looking copy of The Fruits of the Spirit that appears above has survived 53 years and was given to me by my godmother Dora on the occasion of my first visit to Blacksburg, Virginia to be with her and godfather Markham. It came directly from one of her shopping trips in London and resulted in my return to the Anglican fold after a 12-year hiatus in church attendance.




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