Evelyn Underhill was an English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, in particular Christian mysticism.
In the English-speaking world, she was one of the most widely read writers on such matters in the first half of the twentieth century. No other book of its type—until the appearance in 1946 of Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy—met with success to match that of her best-known work, Mysticism, published in 1911
Underhill was born in Wolverhampton. She was a poet and novelist, as well as being a pacifist and mystic. An only child, her early mystical insights she described as "abrupt experiences of the peaceful, undifferentiated plane of reality—like the "still desert" of the mystic—in which there was no multiplicity nor need of explanation." The meaning of these experiences became a lifelong quest and source of private angst, provoking her to research and write.
Both her father and her husband were writers (on the law), London barristers and yachtsmen. She and her husband, Hubert Stuart Moore, grew up together and were married on 3 July 1907. The couple had no children. She travelled regularly within Europe, primarily Switzerland, France and Italy where she pursued her interests in art and Catholicism, visiting numerous churches and monasteries. Neither her husband (a Protestant) nor her parents shared her interest in spiritual matters.
Underhill was called simply "Mrs Moore" by many of her friends, but was not without her detractors. She was a prolific author and published over 30 books either under her maiden name, Underhill, or under the pseudonym "John Cordelier", as was the case for the 1912 book The Spiral Way. Initially an agnostic, she gradually began to acquire an interest in Neoplatonism and from there became increasingly drawn to Catholicism against the objections of her husband, becoming eventually a prominent Anglo-Catholic. Her spiritual mentor from 1921 to 1924 was Baron Friedrich von Hügel, who was appreciative of her writing, yet concerned with her focus on mysticism and encouraged her to adopt a much more Christocentric view as opposed to the theistic and intellectual one she had previously held.
She described him as "the most wonderful personality. ..so saintly, truthful, sane and tolerant" and was influenced toward more charitable, down to earth activities. After his death in 1925, her writings became more focused on the Holy Spirit and she became prominent in the Anglican Church as a lay leader of spiritual retreats, a spiritual director for hundreds of individuals, guest speaker, radio lecturer and proponent of contemplative prayer.
Underhill came of age in the Edwardian era, at the turn of the 20th century and like most of her contemporaries had a decided romantic bent. The enormous excitement in those days was mysteriously compounded of the psychic, the psychological, the occult, the mystical, the medieval, the advance of science, the apotheosis of art, the re-discovery of the feminine and an unashamedly sensuous and the most ethereally "spiritual". Anglicanism seemed to her out-of-key with this, her world. She sought the centre of life as she and many of her generation conceived it, not in the state religion, but in experience and the heart. This age of "the soul" was one of those periods when a sudden easing of social taboos brings on a great sense of personal emancipation and desire for an El Dorado despised by an older, more morose and insensitive generation.
As an only child she was devoted to her parents, and later to her husband. She was fully engaged in the life of a barrister's daughter and wife - the entertainment and charitable work that entailed - and a daily regimen that included her own writing, research, worship, prayer and meditation. It was a fundamental axiom of Evelyn Underhill, that all of life was sacred - as that was what "incarnation" was about.
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