“bring…the books, and above all the parchments”—2 Timothy 4.13 [the Bible]
June 15 is the commemoration of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) , 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.
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  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?
EVELYN UNDERHILL’S PRAYERBOOK: https://spckpublishing.co.uk/evelyn-underhill-s-prayer-book-952
I have just had the great privilege of being one of the first readers of Gail Ramshaw’s forthcoming book, Saints on Sunday: https://www.litpress.org/Products/4558 The publisher invited me to write a commendation for its cover and publicity.
Gail Ramshaw is one of my favourite theologians. Her prayers can be found in the liturgical resources of her own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, whose Evangelical Lutheran Worship of 2006 bears many marks of Gail’s influence. Her prayers are also found in Anglican, Methodist, United Church, and others’ prayer books, as well as in publications relating to the World Lutheran Federation and of the World Council of Churches. Her voice in contemporary ecumenical liturgical theology and spirituality is vivid: her “words around the fire/font/table” are some of the best ways to be invited into the heart of Christian worship. I have never witnessed a eucharistic prayer move people as much as her “Triple Praise” (found in various places, and collected into another of her recent books, Pray, Praise, and Give Thanks), and her Treasures Old and New is a brilliant way to learn to read the Bible, and one of the best gifts to preachers that I know. Ramshaw has written for children and as an albeit “minimal” feminist, always with concern with the inclusivity of prayer in Jesus’ name, for which I am grateful. Her Under the Tree of Life, her personal account of “the religion of a feminist Christian” is a wonderfully intelligent exposition of Christian doctrine. With others like Nicola Slee and Janet Morley, Gail Ramshaw's texts have taught me to pray.
Check out for yourself Ramshaw’s writings, including now Saints on Sunday, an exploration of how twenty four figures from the past might teach us to acclaim the Trinity, speak of Christ, assess emotion, revere the cross, foster ecumenism, and much more. Some of the themes here—trinitarian faith, intercession, thanks and praise, treasuring the Triduum—are classic Ramshaw, now turned in fresh ways. Some of figures on which she focuses—Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Martin Luther—are people Ramshaw has been befriending in her writing for years, and from whom she is evidently still learning. Others—Amy Carmichael, for instance—are new, and maybe surprising, inclusions. But concern for inclusion is one of the things for which we can be most grateful to Gail Ramshaw. Enjoy!
Saints on Sunday is out in August.