Evelyn Underhill – Call to the Inner Life

Sometime around 1931 Evelyn Underhill wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang (1928-1942), about the inner life of the clergy. Her concern was that the multiplicity of the clergy’s duties had underhilldiminished some priests’ grounding in a life of prayer.

Underhill’s concerns are as relevant today, perhaps more so, as they were when she wrote the letter. However, we should not limit her concerns and proposals to only the clergy. They are equally applicable to the laity. The life of the Church and the life of humanity, lay or ordained, must begin within and arise out of a life of prayer.

The following are excerpts from her letter:

  • “Call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer.”
  • “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice, and that her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”
  • “A disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls.”
  • “We look to the clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. We are seldom satisfied because with a few noble exceptions they are so lacking in spiritual realism, so ignorant of the laws and experiences of the life of prayer. Their Christianity as a whole is humanitarian rather than theocentric.”
  • “God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him.”
  • “However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest. Divine renewal can only come through those whose roots are in the world of prayer.”
  • “We instantly recognize those services and sermons that are the outward expression of the priest’s interior adherence to God and the selfless love of souls.”
  • “I know that recovering the ordered interior life of prayer and meditation will be very difficult for clergy immersed increasingly in routine work. It will mean for many a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities. They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance.”


  1. Her second point, about the difficulties of the Church, could’ve been written today and are certainly just as relevant.


  2. Actually, I think it’s all relevant to the church today — perhaps more so now than ever. I do wonder, however, if the last statement you record ( They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance.” )is possible. My experience (with lay and ordained folk) is they have to come to a knowing of this importance through their own experience. They may be influenced or drawn into the interior life by another, but conviction of its importance and necessity comes from the practice itself.


  3. Reblogged this on Interrupting the Silence and commented:

    Today the Episcopal Church remembers Evelyn Underhill. The following post is from three years ago. The truth of Underhill’s words echo loudly. The Church needs more voices like hers and more lives, lay and ordained, like she describes.


  4. I read this today as I am in the process of laying aside my lay ministry as a Reader and prepare to start ordination training in September.

    It is hugely challenging, but it echoes something of which I was already becoming aware; that if my spiritual practices are not planted deep and firm, and the rhythms life-giving, then my ministry will be a dry well, that will parch those who who hunger and thirst after God. I pray that I will be rigorous in my pursuit of all that is Holy, or as it is described here “theocentric”.
    Thank you.


    1. It sounds like you are off to a good start. I think we all minister out of our own interior life. All that we are and that we do should arise from a life of deep prayer. Blessings on your studies.



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