Rector’s Reflections Friday 10th November 2023
Modern Saints facing Modern Challenges
Yesterday, I wrote about Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children. Eglantyne was born in 1876, and today, in the last of the current series of reflections, I wish to write about another inspiring woman, who was almost her exact contemporary. Her name was Evelyn Underhill.
Evelyn was born in 1875, and she was educated at King’s College, London. In her early 30s, she experienced a religious conversion, and after this she undertook an extensive study of religious experience, especially within the Christian tradition. She became a prolific writer, and her works include two classic works of theology : Mysticism (1911 ; a highly-valued work, which had reached a 13th edition by 1940); and Worship(1936). In addition to being a respected scholar and spiritual writer, Evelyn also provided spiritual advice on a one-to-one basis. She was also in much demand as a retreat-conductor. She was made a Fellow of King’s College in 1927, and died in 1941.
Evelyn lived through traumatic times : the suffering of the 1st World War, the years of the Great Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the opening years of the 2nd World War. She would have been well-aware of the challenges of her times, and not least the almost unimaginable pain and destruction which was caused when nations chose to go to war with each other. Indeed, in her later life Evelyn became a committed pacifist. But Evelyn’s response to the challenges of her times was primarily a spiritual one. She focussed her remarkable skill and insight into helping people draw closer to God, helping people to enter into a relationship with God which was meaningful and transformative. In short, Evelyn made God feel real.
Many of the saints we have considered over the last couple have been essentially doers : of course Christian men and women like Martin Luther King and Edith Cavell said their prayers and thought about God, but this did not constitute the core of their Christian discipleship. Evelyn was different : for her, the spiritual life was everything. She met the challenges of the modern world by focussing on our experience of the reality of God. Evelyn invites us all to go deeper in our relationship with God. We can so easily fill our lives with lots of busyness and well-intentioned good works, but if we are not right with God, what good is all this activity? It might well make us feel better about ourselves, but does it go to the heart of the issues facing our world? Probably not.