The Portal May 2018 - Page 22

THE P RTAL May 2018 Page 22 Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book A review by Antonia Lynn E velyn Underhill (1875-1941) must rank as one of the key figures in any consideration of English spirituality. She appeared as one of the writers featured in the Ordinariate’s Called to be Holy Novena in 2015, and was quoted by Cardinal Nichols in his Ascension homily at Warwick Street that year. Although she grew up in a secular household, her interest in mysticism led her from agnosticism (she believed herself to be an atheist) to a deep Christian faith. She felt that her true home was the Catholic Church, but her fiancé, later her husband, was fiercely opposed to Catholicism and she remained an Anglican all her life. Underhill believed passionately that each of us has an innate longing for intimacy with God, but that this is seldom satisfied by the institutional Church. She devoted her life to helping other people explore this longing, through her books and above all her retreats. to the Book of Common Prayer. There are short biddings and longer collects: Wrigley-Carr provides some fascinating notes detailing Underhill’s corrections and alternative readings: the notebooks were very much a tool of her trade, and a work in constant progress. Those who know the chapel at Pleshey will look forward to imagining hearing these lovingly composed and collected words guiding retreatants into prayer in that beautiful setting. However, given the extraordinary story of the notebooks’ discovery and the excitement of being able to read the contents after so many years, I was disappointed to read that the editor has “modernised the language to make it more accessible to readers in the t wenty-first century”. Surely this is counter-productive in a work intended to offer a glimpse of Underhill’s spiritual life, or of what it might have been like to attend one of her retreats? Most of Underhill’s spiritual writings were based on the retreat addresses she gave each year, especially at Pleshey Retreat House in Essex. In many ways she was a pioneer of the modern retreat movement, both as a lay woman conducting retreats, and in the way she insisted on including times each day for “interviews” with all her retreatants, paving the way for the individually-guided retreat. (Like Ignatius Loyola she also allowed retreatants time each day for a siesta). So, predictably we have You and Yours instead of Thee Over the years she collected and distilled the spiritual resources she used in a pair of precious notebooks, but and Thine, even in the Lord’s Prayer (which, curiously, retains “them that trespass”). Perhaps inevitably we these were believed to be lost after her death. also end up with some grammatical clumsiness like However, in 2016 Robyn Wrigley-Carr was visiting “O God! who enlightens every person…” “Beseech” Pleshey in the course of her doctoral research, when she becomes “ask”; “vouchsafe” becomes “grant”, and so found in a suitcase an ornate leather-covered notebook on. I do wonder if anyone who would be really upset or full of writing which was sometimes hard to decipher, confused by the original wording would be interested embellished in places with red ink calligraphy and Old in exploring Underhill’s private prayer books anyway? English script. This was Underhill’s second notebook, written between 1929 and 1938. A few months later Nevertheless, this is a book worth having if you are her earlier notebook (1924-1928) reappeared. Now the at all interested in our English spiritual patrimony. It contents of both have been published for the first time in an is a book to be used, rather than read at one sitting, attractive small paperback, its patterned cover reminiscent particularly by anyone involved in leading retreats or of the flowery fabric covering her first notebook. days of recollection. It may even inspire some to keep their own prayer notebooks to add to our growing The result is an anthology of prayers, some Underhill’s heritage. own composition and the rest representing over forty Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book different authors from the third to the nineteenth edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr century, and liturgical sources from the Mozarabic Rite London: SPCK, 2018