Jottings: Evelyn Underhill’s Prayerbook

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“bring…the books, and above all the parchments”—2 Timothy 4.13 [the Bible]

June 15 is the commemoration of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) [1], a remarkable figure in twentieth-century Christianity. She is best known for her quite different books Mysticism (1911) and Worship (1936), between which she had a Christian conversion experience that led her to focus her thinking and prayer much more christologically. Over time she moved from some dabbling in the occult to traditional and institutionalised Christianity.

Underhill was a pioneer in many ways: among the very first women in Britain to graduate in theology from university, the first woman to teach theology in an English university, the first women to teach the clergy of the Church of England, the first woman to be given an honorary doctorate in theology in a British context—and so on. She also gave unprecedented momentum to the retreat movement, becoming a highly revered retreat leader and spiritual guide. As Ann Loades notes as the very first point in her book Evelyn Underhill (London: Fount, 1997), Underhill’s achievements were all the more remarkable given that she had no institutional or ecclesial base from which to do her work. 

A “new” publication of Evelyn Underhill has just emerged this year, from the hand of Robyn Wrigley-Carr, who now teaches at the (Pentecostal) AlphaCrucis college in Sydney, Australia. Robyn did her own doctoral work (at St. Andrew’s, Scotland) on Underhill’s spiritual director, Baron von Hugel, and it was while visiting Pleshey, the retreat house in Essex where Evelyn Underhill gave many retreats, that Robyn unearthed a handwritten book with a homemade cover  that turned out to be Underhill’s own. It was a book of prayers which Underhill had written out by hand, coded and ordered in her own way, and sourced from prayer books across a wide range of —and in a couple of cases, beyond— Christian traditions. Underhill used this personal book of treasured prayer herself and with those she led on retreat. Extraordinarily, a second such book then turned up—sent to Robyn from Canada by someone who had found it in an op-shop! So Robyn has drawn the two handwritten books together and compiled them in a beautifully produced new book: Robyn Wrigley-Carr, ed., Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book (London: SPCK, 2018). I’ve been using it in my morning devotions.

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An interpretation of 2 Tim. 4.13 beloved of many Anglicans (and popularised by seventeenth century bishop of St. David’s, George Bull) has been that in that verse (pseudo-) Paul was asking for both his books (perhaps the scriptures, and authoritative sources) as well as his own jottings on the books (the “parchments”), in which he made the books his own—his margin notes, side notes, grace notes, as it were...

Evelyn Underhill’s personal prayer book is such a set of “jottings”—gathering as it does fragments scavenged from sources far and wide. And now, in the age of digital technology which enables prayer books from around the world to turn up instantly on any seeker’s desk, Underhill’s prayer book project can be a model for any person, prayer group, or parish. Given Andrew McGowen’s contention [2] that daily prayer, as a “central but neglected” Anglican tradition, “could yet be fundamental in the next stages of rassourcement and of aggiornamento”—that is, both returning to sources and bringing up to date of the tradition—maybe more parishes, prayer groups and persons should make a “new” prayer for their own contexts?

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EVELYN UNDERHILL’S PRAYERBOOK: https://spckpublishing.co.uk/evelyn-underhill-s-prayer-book-952

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[1] https://standingcommissiononliturgyandmusic.org/2011/06/15/june-15-evelyn-underhill-1941/
[2] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-anglican-studies/article/modern-anglican-liturgy-after-fifty-years/54FC8B71D7B7F048424F4CE91D37A0DE
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