Evelyn Underhill vs. Nicholas of Myra

In the last battle of the week, influential 2oth-century writer Evelyn Underhill squares off against Nicholas of Myra. You wanted to know how "Santa Claus" would fare in Lent Madness? Well, here's your chance to vote for or against St. Nick.

Regarding, yesterdays smackdown between Catherine of Siena and Emma of Hawaii, all we can say is "wow." With Catherine holding a slight lead throughout much of the day, Queen Emma came storming back to defeat Catherine 60% to 40% in heavy voting (over 2,000 votes cast). As the sun started to wane on the East Coast of the United States and rise over the Pacific Ocean, Emma's numbers slowly started to increase. Once the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii sent out a plea on Emma's behalf via their e-news, the Queen dowager never looked back, again highlighting the importance of rallying your friends and considering voting blocs to promote your favorite saints. Madness indeed!

We do hope you'll take the necessary precautions this weekend to ward off any lingering effects of LMW (Lent Madness Withdrawal). If you're feeling isolated, lonely, and depressed, you can always check in with our Facebook fan page, where the conversation never stops (and we just topped 1,500 'likes'). If you're on Twitter, you can always find people to chat with by using our hashtag #LentMadness. And if you missed this week's Monday Madness video, Tim and Scott discuss LMW remedies among other timely Lent Madness news. Finally, since Scott seems to fly anywhere at the drop of a biretta, I'm sure he'd be happy to make a personal pastoral call if you're feeling particularly lost.

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was a writer, theologian, mystic, spiritual director, and pacifist, who arguably did more than anyone else to illuminate mystical experience and claim it as one not reserved for the spiritual elite. She spoke with some authority, not being among the spiritual elite herself, but a lay woman setting forth what she herself discovered.

Born in 1875 to a prominent barrister and his wife, Underhill was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England but had no formal religious training. She married a childhood friend, Hubert Stuart Moore, a barrister, and lived a typical Edwardian life for a woman of her class, including charitable work and regular trips to the Continent. Less typically, she wrote 39 books and more than 350 articles (both under her maiden name and under the pseudonym, John Cordelier), presented programmes (as they say) on the Spiritual Life on the BBC, and became a prominent spiritual director and retreat leader. She became the first woman to lecture at an Oxford college on theology and the first woman allowed to lecture to Church of England clergy.

Her tea-sipping librarian appearance belied her gifts as a powerhouse of spiritual thought, and as someone who understood both the blessing and the danger of standing in God’s presence. In a letter, she gently suggested to former Golden Halo winner C.S. Lewis that “perhaps…your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.”

Her works were some of the most widely read resources on spirituality throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Her great work, Mysticism, written in 1911, is still a standard in the field. Some of her other notable works include Practical Mysticism (1914), The Spiritual Life (1936), and Worship (1937).

Collect for Evelyn Underhill: O God, Origin, Sustainer, and End of all your creatures: Grant that your Church, taught by your servant Evelyn Underhill, guarded evermore by your power, and guided by your Spirit into the light of truth, may continually offer to you all glory and thanksgiving, and attain with your saints to the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have promised us by our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- Laura Toepfer

Nicholas has become a marketing legend ever since his image appeared in Coca-Cola ads beginning in 1931. The image of a rotund, bearded man in fur trimmed scarlet clothing also owes a great deal to Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). But who was the real man behind the modern Kris Kringle?

Little is known about Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, which is in modern day Turkey. That his heart was full of generosity is not in doubt, making him a fine progenitor for Santa Claus. In the most famous story about Nicholas, the bishop secretly supplied the dowries for the three daughters of a poor man. One version of the story says that he tossed bags of coins into their stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. (You can see where that one went.) When the poor man confronted the bishop and thanked him for his generosity, Nicholas gave all the glory to God.

While most of his generous exploits are shrouded in obscurity between legend and fact, we do know for certain that, during the persecution led by Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was tortured and imprisoned. But he was released when Constantine took the throne and decriminalized Christianity. It is possible that Nicholas was present during the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, during which the Nicene Creed was composed. Nicholas was canonized in the sixth century. Legend has it that Italian merchants stole his body in the eleventh century and removed it to Bari, Italy. From there, Nicholas’ fame spread throughout the western Church, indirectly leading to the Santa Claus we know today.

Collect for Nicholas of Myra: Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Adam Thomas


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86 comments on “Evelyn Underhill vs. Nicholas of Myra”

  1. Easier choice for me today. It has to be Evelyn. I love her practical mysticism: "As to your Lent - no physical hardships beyond what normal life provides, but take each of these as serenely and gratefully as you can and make of them your humble offering to God. Don't reduce sleep. Don't get up in the cold. Practise more diligently the art of turning to God with some glance or phrase of love or trust at all spare moments of the day."

  2. I admire Underhill's writing -- Mysticism was formative for me. But what really got my vote was the photo -- those are amazing shoes!

  3. You put Santa Claus up against Evelyn Underhill ... Lord, what a match! I have to go with Ms. Underhill, as much as I admire the good bishop.

  4. What is more mystical than St. Nicholas making his way around the world delivering gifts to children in one night? He makes his way into their home and never gets arrested. He brings joy and happiness to children as he gives freely of the gifts God gave him. If you don't believe, he won't come visit you.....

  5. Oh, dear! Another toughie! In my youth, the Cathedral of St John the Divine hosted an acting troupe that put on 3 mystery plays about St Nicholas. Seeing medieval plays in a (new) Gothic cathedral was quite the experience. Patron Saint of Thieves, Sailors, Children, and even Jews (those medieval folks had someone for everyone). And he's got one of the best collects!
    But here we've also got a sort of modern and less-crazy-to-us Catherine of Siena, a woman speaking spiritual truth to religious power in an era, still, when women were supposed to be quiet and let the men run everything (into the ground). (btw, people freaked by Catherine's vow of chastity at 7 -- you find me a seven-year-old in the Middle Ages who *wasn't* aware of the sex-act. No one had separate bedrooms in those days, and they weren't Victorian prudes.) And Ms Underhill's wonderful remark to C.S. Lewis!
    Today's vote will require more thought. And agony.

  6. What a tough choice. I have valued the lessons of both these fine people, but I am going for the practical; be generous: give of yourself, give of your treasure, give of your time to the poor, to the outcast, embody the feast of the Incarnation at all times.

  7. Torture and imprisonment trumps writing and lecturing every time. The modern saints have had their moment. Nicholas endures for a reason. He has my vote.

  8. This is not a fair contest without mention of the pickled boys! I know of no other saint who was able to restore to life three chopped-up and pickled boys from a pickle barrel, much to the chagrin of the evil shop-keeper, who had wanted his deeds in this regard to remain secret. Surely this unique miracle places our beloved Saint Nicholas at the top of the heap.

  9. Ho ho ho Finally an easy on for me. First time I voted so early . All good comes to those who believe in the spirit of St. Nick. His spirit brings joy to so many children and adults that put faith in him. Come on friends and voters support our faith in the future (the children of the world) and give ST. NICK a chance.

  10. As a way of surviving the weekends without the joys and comforts of Lent Madness, Fr Tim suggested dressing as one's favorite saint for church. I can assure him and everyone that I ALWAYS dress as Evelyn Underhill....simple tweed skirts, sensible shoes.

    I first read Evelyn Underhill's writing 40 years ago and it was what convinced me to become an Episcopalian. Thank you Evelyn. You get my vote.

  11. VOte agaInst Santa Claus! You guys are wicked. However, I have to do it. Evelyn Underhill's work was just so semInal and her writing so lumInus that I just have to chOpse her over the big guy.

  12. Our current Dean considers it a crime of the first order for parents to let their children even believe in Santa Claus. Having birthed none of the little crumb-snatchers has relieved me of that potential dilemma. My saintly departed mother never forgave a neighbor's son for telling me there was no such personage as ole SC, much to her dismay as she had planned her version of his unreality, Santa's, not the boy's. EU was a real powerhouse in an era when women were tolerated and adored but not respected as intellectuals worthy of addressing the clergy....or anybody else other than their children who probably respected the switches or the nannies. Her brand of mysticism I can handle as she wasn't prone to stigmata which scare the bejeebers out of me and, thankfully, no visions, no being locked away in a cell for decades, and apparently, a decent sex life. Oh yeah, the shoes do seem to be rather spiffy, but then, her husband seemed to have made a decent living. Her advice to C.S. Lewis also made her worthy of my vote as well as understandable reading of her works. If the CofE clergy and Oxford theologians of that era even paid attention to her, that was a plus of the first order right there. You go, girl !!!

  13. My choice is Evelyn Underhill. She brings a new view of mysticism to the
    daily life of everyday people, it is a practical mysticism connecting all to the
    call of God.

  14. Santa gets my vote. I've struggled with Underhill's writings without getting much out of them. Santa has brought great joy to me, my children and grandson.

  15. the lessons of ST. Nickolas life demonstrates an ideal for all Christians to embrace...Go St. Nick!!! he gets my vote

  16. This is a toughie...(yes, Meredyth, those are GREAT shoes EU is wearing!)...but I think I'm going to have to go with Nicholas, whose faithful witness in the face of suffering, compassionate generosity, and miracles associated with his holiness and prayer still redound through the centuries. Besides, he might have had some great head-gear (that, unfortunately, does not appear in his icon)!

  17. Anyone who brings three pickled boys back to life has my vote. Nicholas all the way.

  18. This Anglican elitism has to stop somewhere! Evelyn Underhill is fabulous, yes. But let us consider the WHOLE Communion of Saints. Nicholas got turned into a modern cultural icon because he already was an icon. His memory has been preserved for centuries as a spiritual giant. The Santa Claus thing is a distraction. Coca Cola has nothing to do with his merits. Consider the effect of the dowries, giving poor young women an option for their lives. And then consider the power of that example of generosity, which endures to this stingy day.

    1. As someone very devoted to the Coca Cola Company, I am certain that they chose St. Nick for his ability to sell Coca Cola, not because he was a spiritual giant. Used and abused as he is at Christmas, St. Nick might be the patron of retail sales. The Santa Claus thing may be a distraction, but will provide a wealth of material if St. Nicholas gets into the trivia round of Lent Madness! All the same, I'm voting for Evelyn.

  19. Yes a toughie! I was all about EU (I might have those shoes) but until today I didn't know that Santa was a protector of sailors. I am the daughter of a wonderful but klutzy father who putters around on the big water. Must do more research before my vote!

  20. While I admire and have read Evelyn Underhill, have to go with Nick since I was ordained on his feast day -- always remember him with fondness.

  21. Without soft drink marketing, Nicholas wouldn't even be on the radar today. Evelyn Underhill has done so much to promote mysticism and the path of purgation; she has true crossover appeal! Her popularity is not Anglican elitism, at least according to this United methodist! Her legacy is deep contemplative prayer and rich teaching. While not his fault, Nicholas is surrounded with the taint of consumerism. Evelyn in a blowout!

  22. It was risky for Evelyn Underhill to be a pacifist in a sexist culture addicted to militarism ( as is our own culture today). As convener of the Cape Cod Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation I am thankful for her nomination and honored to vote for her.

  23. Hard to go against St. Nick. But I'm thinking he gets due recognition at other times of the year. So my vote goes to Underhill for a shot at the Golden Halo!!

  24. Given the way the early vote is going, looks like a lot of people are hoping fro nonrenewable energy sources this December. Really people? Really? To vote against St. Nick is to take this vote WAY too serious!

  25. Of course St Nick is wonderful in many ways. Putting money in children's shoes for feeding his reindeer and forcing unbelievers to say the word "saint" every year. Stories/legends abound. Bless him for all this...

    But vote for Evelyn. She made me what I am today...and I'm sure many of you as well. Her "Practical Mysticism" has never been out of print from the day it was first published. As to Anglican exceptionalism, I took a class last spring on mysticism at a Catholic Center in Saint Paul MN. It was taught by a nun. Underhill's book was the text.