Your Jail Cell Reading List

jail reading listImagine being at home and the police come to arrest you without any criminal charges. You are taken to headquarters and interrogated; they ask you to describe your work. You answer by offering an elaborate and lengthy description of psychosynthesis. After you finish, the interrogator shouts, “You are a pacifist!”

You try to explain that you are not a pacifist in any political or legal way. “I don’t believe that peace can be secured by making war on war. I am deeply convinced that peace is fundamentally a psychological problem.” More questions come, but you decide to stay present to yourself and remain silent. At that point, you are handcuffed and put into solitary confinement. However, you are allowed to read.

What books do you choose?

This scenario actually happened in 1940 to Roberto Assagioli, M.D., the visionary founder of psychosynthesis, under Italy’s fascist government. He describes later in a letter to friends that he was accused of praying for peace and inviting others to join him, along with “other international crimes.” Assagioli was subsequently kept prisoner in Rome during the hot month of August and finally released through the intervention of influential friends.


Dante studying in exile, fresco painted in Orvieto around 1500 by Luca Signorelli

So what books did Assagioli read while in jail? One of the books was Paradise, the last of the three parts of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alghieri (1265-1321). A few months after his release, Luisa Lunelli, a friend of Assagioli and his wife Nella Ciapetti, remembered him “emphasizing the importance of having had hours and days available for a re-reading of the Divine Comedy and [Dante’s] minor works. The in-depth knowledge of the Poet and of the perfect symbols with which [Dante] expressed his experience had given [Roberto] excellent material for the exercises of spiritual psychosynthesis.”

For Assagioli, reading the Divine Comedy was intimately linked to his spiritual exercise, that is, the conscious use of the cathartic power of symbols – imagined, reflected upon, interpreted, and ultimately integrated. Exercises that use symbols for achieving spiritual as well as personal psychosynthesis include visualizations, inner dialogues, role models and, of course, dream-work. Therefore, I was not surprised when I came across a note like this, written by Assagioli, in his archives at the Florentine Istituto di Psicosintesi:

“Spiritual dante-esque exercises: freedom of interpretation – superconscious inspiration – Dante nevertheless was one of the most conscious artists: he made conscious use of symbolism and of multiple meanings that do not exclude each another.”

Assagioli's notes on Paradise.

Assagioli’s notes on Paradise.

What I find fascinating is that Assagioli seemed to understand that the reduction of his physical world to a mere prison cell was actually an opportunity (with the help of Dante) to expand his inner world. In fact, his own extensive notes (also at the archives in Florence) written during that sultry month, were entitled “Freedom in Jail.” He noted: “The blessing jail gave me – the realization of inner freedom.” Assagioli documented this inner freedom by noting some of his transpersonal experiences, for example:

“A sense of boundlessness, of no separation from all that is, a merging with the self of the whole. First an outgoing movement, but not towards any particular object or individual being – an overflowing or effusion in all directions, as the ways of an ever expanding sphere. A sense of universal love. Then the ability to focus the radiation (the universal love) towards some object or individual: … a compassionate love towards the inmates of my prison, … a tender love to the members of my family, a brotherly love towards my friends …”

Assagioli would later explicitly refer to Dante’s Divine Comedy as a “great symbolic and spiritual poem” and “a perfect example of personal and transpersonal psychosynthesis.” He recommends that we read it, using its symbols to interpret our own journeys through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory and beyond into the light of Paradise.

Certainly, we don’t need to get arrested before delving into this epic work! Instead we might want to begin with a good translation (like Mark Musa’s), a quiet heart, and an open and curious mind. Reading the Divine Comedy with a small group is also a powerful psychosynthesis exercise, as we not only have Dante’s symbolic language to reflect upon, but also the interpretation of his symbols by others.

Once you begin reading, you will hopefully embark on a pilgrimage with Dante into discovering your own inner freedom. After all, the poem has proven to be a mighty presence – helping to change a jail cell into a spiritual retreat and aiding one man to radiate a “psychospiritual powerhouse” of compassionate Love.


Assagioli, R. (2000). Psychosynthesis. A Collection of Basic Writings, Amherst, Massachusetts: The Synthesis Center, Inc.

den Biesen, K. & Lombard, C.A. (March 2015). “Into the Hidden Things He Led My Way…A Psychosynthesis view of Dante’s Inferno,” Psychosynthesis Quarterly, Vol 4:1, pp. 15-20.

Giovetti, P. (1995). Roberto Assagioli. La vita e l’opera del fondatore della Psicosintesi, Roma: Edizioni Mediterranee, 1995.

Lombard, C.A. (September 2012). “Meeting at the Well Spring,” Psychosynthesis Quarterly, Vol 1:3, pp. 35-43.

Schaub R. & Schaub, B. G. (1994). “Freedom in Jail: Assagioli’s Notes,” The Quest, pp. 56-57. Reprinted in the Psychosynthesis Quarterly, Vol 4:1, March 2015, pp. 30-31.

2 thoughts on “Your Jail Cell Reading List

  1. Mandy

    There is an echo here, a connection with something deeper. For me, thinking of the time that Assagioli experienced this rich knowing of the Prescence, ties in with the atrocities that many were experiencing in the Death Camps of Nazi journey. Viktor Frankl, more specifically, comes to mind. Although a very different experience, both men found deep and profound meaning from their incarceration.

    I am minded to properly read Dante’s Divine Comedy again. It has been a long time. And I wonder that age, and a fresh perspective might open my inner self to a deeper and clearer understanding of the symbolism of his work.

    Thank you. I enjoy the open, honest style of your writing.

    1. Catherine Ann Lombard Post author

      Dear Mandy, Thank you again for your thoughtful comments. You might want to take a look at the articles I co-authored about reading Dante from a psychosynthesis perspective. Go to About Catherine/Articles and you will see links to the articles there. Enjoy!


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