Recently I wrote about Sorella Maria – “A Wild and Free Creature”, who founded a small Franciscan community in the heart of Umbria. While further exploring the life of this inspiring spiritual pioneer, I discovered that Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) also visited the Hermitage of Campello in 1927 (a place that we too will visit on September 20 during Journey to Places of the Higher Self). (You can read the essay Underhill wrote for The Spectator about her visit, A Franciscan Hermitage.)
According to Underhill’s biographer Dana Greene, this one-day visit was fundamental to her decision to return to active participation in the Anglican Church in which she had been baptized and confirmed. She wrote:
“Certainly nothing has ever brought me so near to the real Franciscan spirit as a few hours spent in the Vale of Spoleto with a little group of women who are trying to bring back to modern existence the homely, deeply supernatural and quite unmonastic ideal of the Primitive Rule.”
By the time Underhill paid a visit to the Hermitage, she had already published her best-selling book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. This book, published in 1911, reclaimed mysticism as part of the human condition. In her 500+ page book (with more than 1000 footnotes), she explored for the first time in a systematic and scholarly way mysticism throughout the ages and across cultures, nations, and religions. While she focused on mysticism in Christianity, she also examined Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other belief systems. She defined mysticism as:
“The expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order, whatever be the theological formula under which it is to be understood.”
Her rich work explores mysticism from the perspectives of psychology, theology, symbolism and magic (to name a few). Ultimately, she draws the conclusion that mysticism is open to everyone. Anyone can be grasped and transformed by Divine Love.
Assagioli extensively refers to Underhill’s book in his writings. While searching in his online archives, I was actually stunned by how much he appreciated her scholarship and understanding of the transcendent. Underhill saw the soul’s mystic journey as a series of five states: awakening, purification, illumination, the dark night of the soul, and union.
Assagioli’s notes that refer to Underhill mention these states, as well as many other transpersonal qualities. Here are just a few examples:
Similar notes by Assagioli in which he refers to Underhill, include these topic headings:
|Aesthetic Way||Spiritual Beauty|
Besides being a writer, theologian, mystic, and spiritual director, Underhill was also a radical pacifist in the late 1930s when Europe was seeing the rise of fascism. During the same time, Assagioli was actively participating and leading international pacifist meetings. By 1935 he was under surveillance for this activity and ultimately his pacifist stance was the reason for his arrest in 1940. Ida Palombi, who would later become his secretary and collaborator, tells how government agents would frequently “wander about, stop and look inside” Assagioli’s home in Rome while he conducted meetings. By 1939, Assagioli was under even stricter surveillance and his meetings were being recorded.
Therefore, I found it quite poignant to also find Underhill’s article “Meditation on Peace” in Assagioli’s archives, published in November 1939. He must have appreciated its message, which is timeless and remains wise today. But this message is not an easy one to swallow. Underhill insists that a true pacifist must see all of Creation as an “object of cherishing care.” All of Creation includes:
“The violent as well as the peaceful… The Government as well as the Opposition, the Sinners as well as the Saints. Some inhabitants of this crowded nursery are naughty, some stupid, some wayward, some are beginning to get good. All are immersed in the single tide of creative love which pours out from the heart of the universe and though the souls of self-abandoned men…”
Well, you might say that the “nursery” is still full of all these naughty, stupid, and wayward children, along with a few of us trying to “get good.” Thank goodness for that saving grace – the “tide of creative love” pouring out from the heart of the universe! But Underhill doesn’t let us stop and rest there. She immediately calls upon us to move higher, and the climb is not an easy one:
“We are called to renounce hostile attitudes and hostile thoughts towards even our most disconcerting fellow sinners; to feel as great a pity for those who do wrong as for their victims, to show an equal generosity to the just and to the unjust.”
These words could easily have been written by Assagioli himself. While in Regina Coeli prison and afterwards, Assagioli never renounced his captors, embodying Underhill’s call for meditative peace all his life.
When Underhill met Sorella Maria, they spent time together sitting quietly in the Umbrian woods. Underhill made the point to ask Sorella Maria, whose friendship she counted as one of her greatest privileges, about her conceptions of the spiritual life. Underhill found the response “startlingly at variance with the peaceful surroundings”:
“In tormento e travaglio servire I fratelli. In torment and with great effort, to serve your brothers and sisters.”
Perhaps this is the greatest gift of any mystic – to first recognize the profound sense of pain and need of the world and acknowledge one’s passionate desire to help it. To then maintain the love and will needed to bare the tremendous tension between one’s inner peace alongside such suffering. To quietly stand as a witness. Humbly radiate Love. Silently offer heartfelt prayer. And attempt, in whatever way possible, courageous action.
Here is another article about the relationship between Underhill and Sorella Maria: “Discovering Sister Maria” by A.M. Alchin.
Click here to read a lecture Assagioli gave at the Third Summer Session of the International Centre of Spiritual Research at Ascona, Switzerland, in August 1932, in which he extensively quotes Underhill’s work.