Praying with Evelyn Underhill — and the Celtic Saints

Believe it or not, Lent is just over two weeks away.

Which means it is time to select your Lenten book for devotional reading.

Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, it’s also an ideal time for devotional reading. In The Rule of Saint Benedict we find this mandate:

During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.(RSB 48:15-16)

With this in mind, here are two recently published books, either or both of which I would recommend for your Lenten reading. If you’d like a devotional with a Celtic flavor, go for 40 Days with the Celtic Saints by David Cole. For a more general collection of prayers, check out Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr.

40 Days with the Celtic Saints

40 Days with the Celtic Saints
40 Days with the Celtic Saints

David Cole of the Celtic Community of Aidan and Hilda has written a number of wonderful books on Celtic and contemplative spirituality — and this latest offering is ideal for Lenten devotion (or, as he points out in his introduction to the book, suitable for any time of “preparation,” including Advent). The book is a simple daily devotional, with each entry introducing you to a Celtic saint, including a brief biography of the saint of the day, a relevant scripture passage, a meditation prompt, and a brief blessing.

The saints include the usual suspects: St. Brendan, St. Brigid, St. David, St. Cuthbert — along with a number of lesser known figures, with colorful names like Boisil, Cadoc, and Tysilio. Even the controversial Pelagius is included (with a thoughtful biography that suggests we should not judge Pelagius the man by Pelagianism the heresy).

Although the book simply presents these various saints in alphabetical order, a chart at the end also arranges them according to their feast day (I’m writing this on January 29, the feast day of Saint Gildas the Wise, a Welsh historian who settled in Brittany).

What I love about this book is that it not only functions as a useful daily devotional, but by the time you’ve worked through it you get a very rich introduction to the breadth and variety of the Celtic holy men and women.

Order 40 Days with the Celtic Saints

Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book

Evelyn Underhill's Prayer Book
Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book

Anyone who is at all familiar with my work knows that I simply adore Evelyn Underhill. She introduced me to Christian mysticism, and her work as a lay retreat director has been a direct inspiration for my own ministry.

So you can imagine my delight when it was announced recently that Evelyn Underhill’s two notebooks filled with her personal collection of prayers — including prayers she wrote, but also many collected from other authors throughout Christian history — had been discovered in the library of one of the retreat houses she frequented. These two handwritten notebooks were thought to be lost, much to the chagrin of Underhill scholars, for she often made reference to her prayer books in her retreat notes.

Thanks to a doctoral student, Robyn Wrigley-Carr, doing research at the Pleshey Retreat house, the notebooks finally came to light, and now for the first time they have been published, so we all can a glimpse into the kinds of prayers that Evelyn Underhill loved to share with her retreatants — and, we may assume, the kinds of prayers that shaped her own rich interior life.

And what a treasury it is! Many of the greatest lights in Christian spirituality are included in this collection: saints like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Ávila, Francis of Assisi, along with other luminaries like Eriugena, deCaussade, and John Henry Newman. But a few surprising figures show up as well, like Christina Rossetti or the Sufi poet Rabia; and even a few prayers by friends of Evelyn Underhill’s like Margaret Cropper (not to mention many unattributed prayers, which the editor suggests are probably Underhill’s own work).

Here is just one gem, from the 19th century French Jesuit mystic, Jean Nicolas Grou:

 Teach us, O God, that silent language which says all things. Teach our souls to remain silent in Your presence; that we may adore You in the depths of our being, and await all things from You, while asking of You nothing but the accomplishment of Your will. Teach us to remain quiet under Your action and produce in our souls that deep and simple prayer which says nothing and experiences everything, which specifies nothing and includes everything. Do pray in us, that our prayer may ever tend to Your glory, and our desires and intentions may not be fixed on ourselves, but wholly directed to You.

There’s much more where that came from.

I’m finding that when I read a few pages of Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book that it has the same effect on me that reciting the daily office has — in other words, it invites me to rest in that vast silent place within, even as I am praying the words of love and devotion that Underhill so carefully curated almost a century ago. It is a superb collection of prayers, and since it is only about 120 pages long, it’s perfectly suited for a Lenten devotional — read a page or two each morning and evening, and you’ll pray  your way through Lent.

Order Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book

I hope you will prayerfully consider one of these books for your Lenten reading this year — but get them both! One more tidbit from Saint Benedict, who suggested that for monks, life is a “continual Lent.” For contemplatives that means we are always invited into deeper prayer and devotion, not just during the forty days before Holy Week. So read one of these books now, and savor the other one later. They both will bless you.


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