Winter 1990, Vol.42 No. 4, pp. 341-356

Grace Adolphsen Brame:
      Evelyn Underhill and the Mastery of Time

Underhill writes that we master time when we are serene, when we choose our absolute priority, and when we live in the present.

Grace Adolphsen Brame, Ph.D. teaches Theology at Villanova University. Her doctoral dissertation was Divine Grace and Human Will in the Writing of Evelyn Underhill. She is the author of Receptive Prayer: A Christian Approach to Meditation (CBP Press: St. Louis) and has been a retreat leader for twenty years. She also is actively involved with the people and churches of the Soviet Union.

June 15, 1991 will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Evelyn Underhill, born in 1875 and destined to become one of the most outstanding and most prolific writers in the field of Christian spirituality in this century.

IN 1987, while working in the Evelyn Underhill Archives at King's College, London, I came across four notebooks, several short pieces, and a number of addresses that made me hold my breath. Apparently this was original, unpublished Underhill! But the addresses, which looked to be related, were found in different places. (It was before the days of wonderful Jane Platt who came to the archives just long enough to make order out of the motley collection of notebooks, letters, clippings, and memorabilia which Underhill had left.) Because Underhill's writing was difficult to read and frequently abbreviated, I had no time then to analyze or compare the manuscripts with her existing work. Months passed, and as I carefully typed out what Underhill had written, I realized, with great excitement that, here indeed, were four of her missing five retreats. This year Crossroad published them together under the title, The Ways of the Spirit. One of the other, smaller writings, "The Mastery of Time;' is published below.

Nowhere else does Underhill deal more with the exigencies of time than she does in this short article. She has spoken to everyone. In fact, with the proliferation of time-saving machines and therefore increasingly demanding schedules, her words may be even more pertinent today than they were when she wrote n them. She speaks to all who earnestly seek to know God's purpose for their lives while discovering how to fulfill it in twenty-four hour days that get shorter and shorter.

This is the sort of writing that one not only takes personally to heart but passes on to a "frazzled friend" or two. It is the kind of brief message that could be distributed for study during the quiet hours of a retreat. It bears reading by anyone at the turning of the year. Time: what is it for? What do we make of it? What does it make of us?

"He who believeth shall not make haste," writes Underhill, quoting First Isaiah; she then notes that people who "trust" do not "get rattled." The words that follow convict all of us who have ever been a slave to time, but she is writing at least as much to herself as to anyone else. There is even a place on the margin where two x's and her own initials have been scratched (1) as though saying to herself: "Practice what you preach!"

Underhill surely wrote this article because the mastery of time was an enormous challenge in her own life, and there is no doubt that she knew her priorities.


Most people would pale at reading Underhill's schedule. She studied and wrote in the mornings and afternoons, when time would allow, and kept up a correspondence with friends and those under her spiritual direction in the evenings. Two days a week, she visited in the slums. Her rule of life included daily periods of prayer and devotional reading. On Wednesdays and Sundays, she went to church. Childless, she kept watch over her parents, having her mother to lunch almost daily on weekdays. She "played" in her garden, and occasionally, on a weekend, she went riding in the sidecar of her husband's motorcycle. Since her husband was a barrister, she was expected to entertain and to attend numerous social functions.

As a writer Underhill produced, including the works just discovered, about forty books and retreats. In addition, she resurrected and wrote introductions to reprints of old but forgotten spiritual classics. She is credited by historian Horton Davies as being one of the three great guiding lights in spirituality in the Britain of her day, William Ralph Inge and Baron Friedrich von Hugel being the other two. He credits Underhill with reaching the widest range of readers.

For four years, beginning in the late twenties, Underhill was Religion Editor for The Spectator. In all, 350 articles came from her pen during her writing career which began about the turn of the century and ended with her death in 1941.

Underhill gave five to eight retreats each year for thirteen years. She spoke on the radio. Sometimes one could find her addressing a conference of social workers or clergy. She was, in fact, the first woman in the Church of England to give lectures for priests and the first to lead retreats. In many ways she was a groundbreaker.(2)

She was privileged, but she was not wealthy. Household assistance cost little money in those days. She had a live-in maid, another occasional maid, a cook, and a typist, her friend, Clara Smith. She admitted that she never had to boil a potato. But one wonders how she would ever have had time. Just reading her first classic, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's (3) Spiritual Consciousness, reveals an enor- mous amount of reading and critical thought about the message of saints and mystics in the history of the church.

Her motivation far outstripped her bodily strength. A petite and rather frail looking person, she suffered from asthma all her life. One of her friends told me of seeing an oxygen tank by her bed on more than one occasion. And some friends believe she died early because of the toll taken on her health by what has come to be known as her second classic, Worship, covering the nature and meaning of corporate prayer.

Time was also at a premium for her because, in addition to religion, she was interested in other things. Underhill was a many-sided person. She loved to bind books and take care of her cats. (We know she wrote letters for them!) Art was the means of her spiritual awakening, and, in her early days, she sketched many architectural details of European churches which she admired. She attended concerts and lectures when she could. She was familiar with evolutionary theory and the psychology of consciousness, and spiritual evolution fascinated her. Here and there in her work, we find references to the processes of cancer and the radiation of electrons in the universe. In the essay below she mentions the American missile program and radar.

These last comments help to date the following article about the time of the beginning of the second world war and near the year of her death. Whether she knew it or not, time, the subject of her essay, was running out for her. What did she have to say about it and about its challenges and opportunities?


"He that believeth shall not make haste." Isaiah 28:16
"He that believeth shall not make haste." That is to say, he won't get rattled or hustled; he won't let time get on top of him or dictate to him. Doesn't that speak to all of us of something which deep down we wish were true of ourselves? Time, the enemy ... How often do you hear people saying, -- how often do you hear yourself saying, "Oh, I haven't got time!" I haven't got time... No, we haven't, for time has got us, or most of us.

In this western world we have planned to master time. We think we have got it where we want it -- around our wrists or on the wall, there at our disposal by turning a radio knob or calling up on the telephone. We have invented machines to measure it with incredible accuracy. (A clock is just being imported for the American missile program -- I'm glad to say, from Britain -- claimed to be accurate to one three hundred thousand millionth of a second.) We have invented every kind of gadget to save time -- so that we can get yet more and more into the twenty-four hours. If someone were to patent an invention for condensed sleep, so as to get the effect of eight hours in two, he would probably be hailed as the greatest benefactor of humankind. Time would have received its knockout blow.

And yet, I wonder. For the net effect of all this is that we have only become more and more the slaves of time. The quiet, unhurried serenity has gone. We cannot do anything without glancing at our watch or consulting our diary; and it frightens me to think of the extent to which my whole waking routine is controlled by what is surely the most ugly of all noises that grates upon the ear at seven o'clock each morning.

If there is a symbol of our age, perhaps it is something that every factory worker does each day of their working lives -- I refer to clocking in. (Very soon probably they won't even have to do that; the clock will itself observe them by radar.) In the ancient world when a person entered a temple, each made a votive offering to a god or a goddess at the door. As twentieth century people file into their shrines, they obediently pay their due to the god that regulates their lives -- the clock. It is the clock that measures us, that silent witness that keeps our going in and our coming out and relentlessly records our every movement. That is where all our organization and machinery to free us from time, to save us time, has brought us. Never before have we had such control over things, and never before have we been so enslaved by them. And of nothing is this more true than of time.

And so we take a holiday, a vacation, to gain release from this bondage for a space, to stand back from the rush of things and breathe again. But a holiday is a respite, not a cure. The more we need holidays, the more certain it is that the disease has conquered us and not we it. More and more holidays just to get away from it all is a sure sign of a decaying civilization; it was one of the most obvious marks of the breakdown of the Roman empire. It is a symptom that we haven't learned how to live so as to re-create ourselves in our work instead of being sapped by it. A car should always be charging its battery as it runs. If it simply uses up without putting back, it has to go into dock to be recharged. It is not a sign that we are running particularly well if we are constantly needing to go into dock.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus is never recorded as taking a holiday? He retired for the purposes of his mission, not from it. He was never destroyed by his work; he was always on top of it. He moved among people as the master of every situation. He was busier than anyone; the multitudes were always at him, yet he had time, for everything and everyone. He was never hurried, or harassed, or too busy. He had complete supremacy over time; he never let it dictate to him. He talked of "my time;" "my hour." He knew exactly when the moment had come for doing something and when it had not.

And so it has been in lesser degree with those who have caught his spirit; they have time. What is this secret of unhurried souls? It is quite simply that, like Jesus, they have learned what it means to live with him who is the Lord of time, with the one who himself is never hurried or hustled or perturbed. How does it happen, why is it that a person whose life is thus rooted in God and eternity acquires this mastery over time? For two reasons:

1. Because life takes on a new simplicity. We get harassed when life gets too complicated. We become distracted and distraught as one thing after another comes crowding in upon us. We never have time for anything because we have lost the power to do one thing. One always gets the impression from Jesus that he knew at any moment what was the single thing that mattered. We always have time for what we really think is important. You may ask yourself: "Have I got time for this?" The answer is: how important is it to you? Next time you catch yourself saying, "Oh, I haven't got time for that!" remember you are giving away your priorities. It may be quite right that you haven't -- but then you shouldn't be harassed about it. What has happened when we say we have time for nothing is that there is no one thing that has an absolute priority in our lives. We do lots and lots of things; we are constantly rushing around frantically busy with this, that, and the other, taking on more and more -- very often precisely so that we won't have to stop and fare the choice which is: what are the few really important things in life?

That's the first reason why a life lived in God is a life that masters time. One can see the distractions for what they are and center down on the things that really matter. But of course this doesn't mean that Christians do less than other people. (Look at Jesus again, and think of those people -- many of the busiest you have known -- who have something of this quality.) And that leads me to the second reason for the mastery of time.

2. Those who live in God have not only got their priorities straight, they have learned that to live with God is to live always in the present, with him who is the eternal Now. We all know people who live in the past -- and we usually laugh at them -- for they are pretty harmless. But it is much easier, and much more dangerous, to live in the future. Remember how Jesus coupled mistrust of God with anxiety -- always worrying about the morrow? And that applies not only to the morrow but to the next job. The reason why we get harassed, again, is that we are always thinking of what we have still got to do rather than of what we are doing.

The secret of the busiest people who are also the calmest is that they are able to concentrate everything on the thing of the moment, without a constant sideglance at the clock or a worry whether they shouldn't rather be doing this, that, or the other instead. Not only are they able to center down upon the things that really matter, they are able to do each of them in turn. They acquire the power to do one thing, and also the power to do one thing at a time. They keep their eyes fixed on the present and don't dissipate their energies on worry about the future or on regrets about the past.

Living in the present means squarely accepting and responding to it as God's moment for you now while it is called "today" rather than wishing it were yesterday or tomorrow. There is a verse in Deuteronomy: "In the morning thou shalt say, 'Would God it were evening!' And at even thou shalt say, 'Would God it were morning!"' Haven't we all caught ourselves wishing the present away in this sort of manner? And if you do this, it will be because, as the Deuteronomist says, "Thou shalt have none assurance of thy life" -- that is, you shall have a lack of trust, trust of the Father in whose hands the times and seasons are.

A wise man has said: "Only a Christian can live wholly in the present, for to him the past is pardoned and the future is safe in God." The past is pardoned: the Christian life must be a life without regrets, without remorse. (4) If you have made a decision, and you still feel, taking it all in all, it was the right one, then don't look over your shoulder on what might have been. If it was wrong, ask for forgiveness and accept the present consequences, happily and without remorse. Nothing is more corrosive of the powers you should be using to meet the present.

God is eternally living and working in the now. He doesn't say, "Oh, if only humans hadn't gotten my purposes into such a frightful mess, I might be able to do something for them." Patiently he uses every situation, however tangled it may have gotten by human sin, and, like the potter with the plastic clay in his hands, creates out of it a wholly new moment, a fresh situation of opportunity, in which his will can be answered and his design furthered. The Christian is the person who sees every time and every situation, however dreary and repetitive, as God sees it -- afresh creation from his hand, demanding its own response in perhaps a wholly new and creative way. Under God he is free over it. He has won through to a purchase over events; he has risen with Christ.

Don't we envy people who never get flurried, who always, however busy, seem to have time for us and for what they want to do, who are always on top of the clock? I know I do, for they seem to me to possess one of the greatest liberties of our age. Well, that is not an accident in any person, nor is it merely a matter of temperament. It is a quality of saints. It comes from quiet singleness of purpose; it is given to those who have sunk roots deep into eternity, to those who have made up their minds about God and his purpose for them, who see life whole and therefore see it steadily. It is only these who rise above time and its slavery. It is "he that believeth" that "shall not make haste." (Printed by permission of the Evelyn Underhill Trust)

Three basic themes stand out in the words above. (1) We master time only when we are serene, and serenity can only be born from trust. (2) Only in choosing that which is our absolute priority and our purpose (our way of honoring that priority) can we recognize what matters most and what we intend to do about it. (3) Finally, when we claim our power to do one thing, we are living in the present, the "eternal Now" where God's dynamic creation is continually accomplished.

In two of the newly found retreats Underhill devotes a whole session to the subject of inner peace or serenity. There she testifies that "Peace is, above all things, a state of the will,... the harmony of our will with God's." It has nothing to do with heady spiritual ambition, striving to be wherever the spiritual weather is perfect. It is not "basking in the divine sunshine like comfortable pussycats." Indeed, true peace abides in both sunshine and rain, light and darkness, even joy and suffering. If our peace is based on love of God, joy may vanish, but peace remain. One of Underhills favorite prayers was from The Imitation of Christ: "If Thou wilt that I be in the light, blessed be Thou. And if Thou wilt that I be in the darkness, blessed be Thou. Light and darkness, life and death, praise ye the Lord." Merged in the holy will which gave us the cross, we find our peace. (USP 73)


There is no mistaking Underhill's priorities. One of her favorite Augustine sayings, a bit altered by her memory, puts everything in order. "God is the only Reality and we are only real insofar as we are in His order and He in us" (USL 139). She is not calling earthly realities an illusion, as some do, but she is pointing out that only one reality is eternal and therefore ultimate. For Underhill, all things of time receive their priority in relation to God. Over and over she urges us to grow in "loving God for Himself and not for our own needs" and to recognize that attention to God and God's will is the primary religious act. Indeed, Underhill bristles at what she calls "commercial spirituality" in which human beings use God rather than allowing God to use them. She laments that "the first term of religious life [is] probably the term to which present-day Christians give the least undivided attention" (UIG 111).

Surely it is because of this that Underhill wrote The End for Which We Were Made, her 1925 retreat based on a triad of three statements and questions: "The human being was created to praise, reverence, and serve the Lord." "I come from God. I belong to God. I am destined for God." "What have I done for Christ? What am I doing? What ought I to do?" (UEM 103)

Underhill writes to all of us who are driven to accomplish: "We must get rid of the pestilant, deadly notion that the amount of things we get through is the standard. The steadiness with which we radiate God is the standard" (UEM 132).


In the end, it seems to me, Underhill says that the mastery of time begins with the consecration of life, a theme threaded through all of her later works, and emphasized especially in her 1928 retreat, The Call of God. It is not will power that enables consecration, writes Underhill, but the offered will, surrendered to God's creative purposes. Our wills are "not fully used unless they are offered -- our freedom is in our abandonment to God;" she says with a simple clarity and beauty that vies with Augustine and Luther writing in the same vein (UCG 214) 5 But we are abandoned to God only if we are not looking over our shoulders in remorse for the past or looking up from our work, worrying about the future. Worry, to Underhill, is just plain "ungodly." In some of her most touching writing, Underhill notes that the Christian story begins with: "Lo, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to Thy will." It ends with: "Not my will but Thine be done" (USP 72, UCG 217).

"The saints;" says Underhill, "put God first and stuck to it." The call to them and to us has been to be the tool of God in creating a new and regenerated world (USP 87). "God's moment" is always "wholly new" and, in that sense, a fresh creation. To lose one's will to God is not only to die, but to rise in new freedom.

It is all summed up in a statement from The Call of God: "'For this I came into the world, to do the will of Him who sent me'...This is the stated purpose of Christ, His saints, and his followers" (UCG 156).

  1. Underhill's marginalia is a bit enigmatic here. She writes: "c.f. E. U." by which she may mean to compare her ideals to her life or to compare her words here with other work in which she reiterates her conviction.

  2. See Grace Adolphsen Brame, "Continuing Incarnation: The Double Thread in the Life of Evelyn Underhill," The Christian Century, October 31, 1990.

  3. Underhill, in employing non-inclusive language, was, of course a product of her time. Her quotes were from the Authorized King James' Version of the Bible. Had she lived today, I have no doubt that she would have used inclusive language whenever possible.

  4. It is at this spot that the rest of the paragraph was marked with Underhill's initials. 5. See Augustine, The Free Choice of the Will and Grace and Free Will. His understanding is that the human will is free only insofar as it is linked to God and accomplishes the greater will. In Luther's treatise on Christian liberty, known as "The Freedom of a Christian," Luther states that it is faith (trust) which is the source of liberty for the "inner man." In his exposition on Genesis 2:7, he writes that we are "as clay in the hand of a potter .... We choose nothing; we do nothing. On the contrary, we are chosen; we are prepared; we are regenerated; we receive."


Underhill, Evelyn. The Ways of the Spirit. Ed. with Intro. by Grace Adolphsen Brame. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 1990.

The following are all included in the above volume:
USP -- Sanctity: the Perfection of Love (written, 1924)
UEM -- The End for Which We Were Made (1925)
UIG -- Inner Grace and Outward Sign (1927)
UCG -- The Call of God (1928)
USL -- The Spiritual Life (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1937)

Books of Interest on Underhill's Life and Writings

THE WAYS OF THE SPIRIT. By Evelyn Underhill. Grace Adolphsen Brame, ed., New York Crossroad, 1990, 240 pages, $19.95, cloth.

During research for her doctoral dissertation, Grace Brame discovered the four previously unpublished retreats of Evelyn Underhill that constitute this volume. The retreats are treasure indeed, rich in their variety, dazzling in their literary skill, attractive because of their warmth and humor. And Grace Brame's introduction is itself a gem. In thirty-one pages, she shares with her readers a familiarity with Underhill that is, at once, joyful and profound. It is as though, fifty years after her death, Evelyn Underhill had tapped Grace Brame on the shoulder, designating her as one who would speak for her to people in our time.

Brame's introduction makes fascinating reading. Peppered with allusions to people who knew Underhill, she documents in lively fashion her discovery of these retreats and their significance. Then she discusses each retreat, offering the reader a summation of its contents, along with an appreciation of specifically what Underhill had accomplished in it. Brame is quite capable of engaging Underhill in robust dialogue. She either updates or sets the context for the latter's Victorian expressions. For example, we learn that when Underhill calls us 'naughty children in the nursery,' it is helpful to ... notice that it is because God is so magnificent that Underhill sees humans as so very insignificant or small" (21).

Brame's disagreements with Underhill are very helpful and illuminating, I thought. At one point she quotes Underhill, 'Strain is always our own fault. It is always a failure to accept ... events."' But then queries, 'Is the strain of starvation in Ethiopia, or political imprisonment by tyrannical governments, or suffering the prejudice of others the fault of the victim?' Do we sometimes add more strain when we require the acceptance of intolerable conditions from someone already burdened?" (29).

The introduction concludes with Brame's reconstruction of what a retreat directed by Evelyn Underhill was like. I loved this part. It gives a sense of the uniqueness of Underhills personality, in particular the way she was able to communicate the value of the spiritual life. The reader learns that Underhill often would precede the retreatants by as much as a day. "Already there would be Bible readings, prayers, and selected thoughts for private meditation posted where people could see them best. Sometimes there would be a picture too." (A wonderful feature of Brame's editing is that she has included these prayers, readings, and hymns at the beginning of each address.) Often, she would be the last to leave the chapel after one of her addresses (36-37).

The retreats themselves are wonderfully illuminating both of Underhill's personality and of the tradition of Christian spirituality. Although "Underhill had enormous spiritual drive, [she had] limited physical energy" ( 38). Because she had to conserve her strength, she would write only one retreat a year, then give it five to eight times. The result is that each retreat is really crafted. She has not prepared it in a rush, but has spent ample time considering her examples well, choosing colorful language, and attending to the logic of her thought. Her deep familiarity with the mystics and spiritual writers make these retreats a goldmine of information and indications for further reading.

One retreat is called "Sanctity: The Perfection of Love." It has ten addresses and was the first retreat given by Evelyn Underhill at Pleshey, her favorite retreat house. Its fourth address is entitled "Joy." I like this one in particular because it demonstrates the subtlety of Underhill's thought. She is quite capable of illuminating the spiritual experience of joy without sounding like a Pollyanna.

In Underhill's view, it is humility that makes us joyful. She tells the story of Alice in Wonderland and the mushroom: "when she ate along one side she got smaller and smaller, and when she ate along the other side, she got taller and taller ... If we want to know the meaning of joy, we must stick to the side that makes us get smaller and smaller, for.as we get tinier and tinier, everything else gets more majestic and awesome" (65).

But joy does not mean that our lives should be "perpetually easy or gay." Instead, our joy is grounded in "the way we think and feel about God, and all the various practices of our religious life." (67) Underhill objects strongly to "the professional bright woman," calling her a "dreadful thing." Joy is not any "easy heartless cheerfulness." It comes from an attitude like that of St. Francis who fully accepted the mystery of the Cross and therefore drew near to God. Or it is like Dante who "sounded the depths of sin and of suffering and endured the utmost purifications.. .at last drawing near the heart of God and gazes upon the secret of the universe, and there he finds not earnestness but laughter, not frozen awe but joy!" (69).

General Theological Seminary
New York City

EVELYN UNDERHILL: ARTIST OF THE INFINITE LIFE. By Dana Greene. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990, 179 pages, $18.95, cloth.

Next June marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Evelyn Underhill, a twentieth-century "mystic and theologian" as the Episcopal Church of America identified her in adding her to its liturgical calendar in 1988. In her biography of Underhill, Dana Greene has written the definitive life of this prolific writer, retreat director and spiritual theologian who contributed so much to the spiritual vitality of the Anglican community of her day. If Underhill is an "artist of the infinite life," Greene proves herself to be a literary and historical artist as she combines first class scholarship, deep insight into the life of her subject, and a flowing, on occasion almost poetic, writing style.

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), partially eclipsed in the decades after her death by changing theological and spiritual perspectives, has been re-emerging in her own right within the past few years. This has been evident in the re-issuance of several of her works as well as in recent conferences, books and articles about her. In an age when we are trying to retrieve voices of women from their near silence in the history of spirituality, Underhill has much to say to the contemporary reader. As Greene has suggested, Underhill"s significance lies in her unique ability to communicate in an "elegant, immediate, powerful, and accessible" style the "universal human experience of and response to the infinite."

After her death, The Times of London identified Underhill (1875-1941) as having "insight into the meaning both of the culture and the individual groping of the soul, that was unmatched by any professional teacher of her day." Self-educated in the areas of theology and spirituality, she nevertheless combined a deep appreciation of the varieties of paths to God, a scholarly drive to unearth the roots of various religious traditions, and an uncanny ability to communicate with a wide range of audiences. Underhill was not only the first woman to lecture on theology at Oxford but also the first woman to provide leadership in retreat work within the Anglican community. Two of her classic works, Mysticism (1911, 1st edition) and Worship (1936), have been in continuous print since they were issued.

Green's biography centers on Underhill's intellectual development, especially as manifested in her writings. This proves no small task when one considers the corpus of Underhill's over four hundred books, essays, articles, and reviews. Greene has integrated a careful content analysis of works written during each period of Underhill's life with painstaking research of archival materials, personal correspondence, and personal interviews of those who knew Underhill. In the process she has painted a portrait of a real woman struggling with the critical faith questions of the twentieth century.

In her short "Afterword," Greene addresses two significant questions regarding an overall evaluation of Underhill's work: in the final analysis, what was her greatest contribution as a spiritual writer; and, what impact did her gender have on her writing and perspective? Reading Greene's answers to both should be enticement enough for anyone to return to the rest of the work.

Gonzaga University
Spokane, Washington