One of my favorite anecdotes from Assagioli’s time in prison is when his prison money was running out. He wrote in intimate detail about this experience in his book Freedom in Jail, under the chapter “An Incident and a ‘Test’”.
From the time of his arrest, Assagioli’s wife Nella was making sure that there was enough money in his prison account to warrant his receiving special treatment. In 1940, Regina Coeli prisoners could buy a more comfortable, private cell and more varied and higher quality food.
Paid cells came “furnished” with a bed instead of a cot, a real mattress instead of a straw mattress, better linens, two pillows, a small writing table, and a wash basin. Non-paying prisoners received one meal a day consisting of bread (“as heavy as a brick and as hard as a stone”) and minestrone soup (“that sticks in your throat and doesn’t really go down”). Meanwhile, paying prisoners were offered a varied menu — pasta with anchovies on Monday, veal on Thursday, and fish on Friday. They could also choose from jams, butter, chocolate, biscotti, and fruit — even bananas.
Assagioli writes how he was living a “peaceful but intense life” when one day he was told that his prison fund was running out. Once it was exhausted, he would have to eat the common prison food and move into a cell with other men. This news came as a surprise. With some investigation, he soon learned that while his account had plenty of money, as a political prisoner, he needed special permission from Police Headquarters to access the funds.
There was nothing he could do but wait and hope for the best. Despite this practical understanding, Assagioli describes his being psychologically tested on both accounts – concerning the food and concerning the private cell.
Assagioli watched with interest as he struggled with these two tests. Never particularly attached to food, he nevertheless felt a surge of “physical instinctual panic” which kept him emotionally preoccupied. But perhaps the more difficult challenge was concerning his “freedom”, that is, his “privilege of solitude and privacy” that came with living alone in his jail cell.
Assagioli writes how through “clear reasoning” he was able to succeed in freeing himself from these two preoccupations. After all, many thousands throughout Italy at the time were living on a similar meager diet. This roused in him a sense of shame, which helped him to realize the human value of sharing the experience of “poverty” with others. With regard to sharing a cell with other men, he came to understand that the experience would allow him to actively help others. Once he surpassed, on an inner spiritual level, these two tests, he was able to serenely pursue his deep inner exercises, readings and usual activities in jail.
Then the day arrived when only 25 cents remained in his account. Assagioli was ready (and willing!) to move the next day, but at the last minute the necessary permit arrived from Police Headquarters. Assagioli noted two opposite responses occurred simultaneously inside him upon hearing of this news: 1) an instinctual sense of relief and 2) a feeling of disappointment of being deprived of the experience of helping the other prisoners.
I suppose I love this story because it resonates with my own experience. A number of times I have run low of money, and each instance has actively thrown me into a spiritual test. (Or crisis!?) Clear reasoning has often helped me to release my worries. But more often Faith in what I was hoping and trying to achieve has propelled me forward. The money always seems to appear — but always at the very last minute and in a mysterious way.
For example, when my husband and I needed to make an offer on our house in Umbria, we were short €2000. Where could we possibly dig up that money? We believed in what we were doing. We knew in our hearts that we were making the right spiritual choice. Therefore, we did not despair, but instead turned to prayer. Two days later, a client of mine in China sent me an email. She had just been awarded a grant that allowed her to hire a professional to edit her scientific papers. Would I mind receiving the money now and editing the papers next year? The amount of the grant was exactly €2000.
Years after his time in prison, Assagioli wrote an essay “Money and the Spiritual Life.” In his essay, he recognizes that “the thought of money strikes a deep, intense chord within us.” He points out:
“What emerges [when we deal with money] is a turgid gush of mixed [emotions] … of fear, desire, greed and attachment – along with feelings of guilt, envy and resentment.”
Assagioli’s advice is to:
“First free ourselves from the tendency to place too much value on money.
Secondly, tackle the real problem: our relationship with material things in general.”
I like to think that he was remembering his time in prison when he wrote these words.
We can actually use our money (or lack of it) to grow spiritually. Money (and the lack of it) helps us to understand our attitudes, mindsets, and conduct, either individually or collectively, around our inner (in)certainties, fears and hopes for the future, and ability to empathize with others. Next time money feels scare (or plentiful), consciously observe how you are relating to it through your material possessions and/or gift giving. As Saint Benedict wrote “listen with the ear of your heart.” And then with humor and imagination, see how money, or the lack of it, is talking to you.
 Ugolini, L. (1970). Regina Coeli: Dieci Mesi di Carcere Fascista 1940-1941 [Regina Coeli: Ten Months in a Fascist Jail 1940-1941]. Milano: Casa Editrice Ceschina, pp. 48, 60, 103-106.