June - Barnabas, Evelyn Underhill

Saint Barnabas

Apostle, 11th June (died 61AD)

Although not named among the original twelve, Barnabas is often called an apostle because of his close links with the leaders of the early church. He is described as a Levite from Cyprus, so like Paul he came from and understood the Greek world. It seems that he sold his estate and gave the proceeds to the Church, and clearly became influential in Church leadership. He introduced Paul to the other apostles in Jerusalem and persuaded him to journey to Antioch, where they spent time helping Jewish Christians integrate with Gentile converts. He travelled extensively with Paul, together with John Mark who is thought to have been a cousin. Eventually Barnabas and Paul quarrelled, possibly because Paul thought John Mark to be unreliable, but more likely over the observance of Jewish ritual among Gentile Christians. After this Barnabas went to Cyprus, where according to tradition he was martyred in the year 61.

The Epistle of Barnabas, a tract written under that name towards the end of the first century, challenges the value of literally observing Jewish ritual laws. Although not included in the Bible canon, this work is included in full in the Codex Sinaiticus, now held in the New British Library. The Gospel of Barnabas is a medieval forgery by a convert to Islam, suggesting that Judas replaced Jesus at the crucifixion, and recording the secret teaching of Jesus as prophesying the coming of Muhammed.

Barnabas was originally called Joseph, but was renamed Barnabas by the other apostles, a name that means "Son of Encouragement", which is a rather wonderful name and aptly fits what little we know of his ministry. Since encouragement means bringing hope, he has given us in his name and work something to emulate. Bringing hope to others is surely central to the Christian gospel, and encouraging each other an important part of ministry.

Evelyn Underhill

Spiritual writer, 11th June (1875-1941)

One of the twentieth century’s significant Christian figures, Evelyn Underhill was a prolific writer on the spiritual life, a sane and encouraging spiritual director, and a promoter of the retreat movement who has been highly influential in the Anglican tradition. She was a woman whose own spiritual journey was long and painful, but who in her life mixed mysticism with common sense and has helped many to grow in faith.

Evelyn was born into a comfortable middle-class family but not, as she said, "brought up to religion". Confirmed into the Church of England at fifteen, she was into her thirties before she began to seriously explore the spiritual life. Travels abroad with her husband (she married the "boy next door") put her in touch with religious art which brought a new dimension into her life. She also began to read philosophy and poetry and was drawn to mysticism, eventually writing a major work on the subject.

She was attracted towards the Roman Catholic Church but had uncertainties (and her husband was not keen) so it was only after many years that she fully came to terms with Anglicanism, but with a feeling that God had put her there for some purpose. In her writing she emphasised a complete trust in God – "Lord help me to trust you through thick and thin". She sought to establish the uniqueness of Christianity – "in the depth of reality revealed by the cross, Christianity stands alone", but her approach to personal religious experience had much in common with other faiths, and perhaps her finest book Worship expresses a deeply ecumenical approach to liturgical worship.

A life-long socialist and at the end of her life a pacifist, she was sensitive to issues of social justice and the sufferings of the poor, often critical of the church for failing to apply religion to life in society. After suffering from asthma for many years she died in 1941, leaving a legacy of writings that are still widely read. Many will have been influenced by her down-to-earth approach to mysticism – "the mystic is called to a life more active because more contemplative than that of others". Others have responded to her positive way of looking at human frailty – "I’m sure it is for our weakness and the need of him that God loves us best". A line from one of her poems (Immanence) illustrates her focus on the practical and ordinary –

I come in the little things, saith the Lord…

Jim McLean

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th June 1998