When No Money Talks

Assagiolis writing about jail

Assagioli’s writing about his time in jail.

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”)[1]. 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.

jail reading listThere 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.

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Roberto Assagioli in 1937 (Archivio Assagioli, Florence, Italy)

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.

 

Reference

[1] 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.

 

 

 

The Prodigal Daughter

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Detail from Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”.

I have always loved the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), yet at the same time, struggle with it. The story seems so male in context. A young man returns home repentant and humbled after squandering his inheritance on a life of debauchery. His father is moved with pity, and runs to welcome his son home, clasping him in his arms and kissing him.

“Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. We will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”

Meanwhile the elder son who always slaved in the fields and obeyed his father grows angry and refuses to enter the celebrations. But the father says:

“My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”

What would the story of the prodigal daughter be, and what would her return to the welcoming mother reveal? Continue reading

Snapshot of the Philosophical Library

Note that this blog is an excerpt from my published article: A Snapshot of the Philosophical Library: Florence, Italy, 1922)


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George Davis Herron in 1900.

While conducting research, I often become like Alice and Wonderland, chasing rabbits down the garden path. Most recently, I came across a fascinating book, written by George David Herron (1862-1925), an American clergyman, lecturer, and writer from Indiana. In his book The Revival of Italy, published in 1922, Herron has a beautiful passage describing Roberto Assagioli as the inspiration for the Biblioteca Filosofica. (Philosophical Library) in Florence.

A lively center of philosophical discussion, the Philosophical Library was started around 1903-1905 by those studying theosophy. Wanting to deepen their understanding of Oriental philosophy, library members loaned books, organized classes, conferences and published a bulletin.

Assagioli was one of its more frequent visitors.[1] The Philosophical Library’s intent was to create a “free university for philosophical and religious studies” where the public could come and learn more about the current cultural movements such as Pragmatism, Idealism, and Modernism in a non-academic setting. Continue reading

In Compagnia (Part II)

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Two of the youngest gnocchi makers.


August is here again, and as part of our summer break, I offer you a story I wrote about making gnocchi for our village festival. This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. To read Part I, click here. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!


I had been on my feet all morning rolling strings of dough and cutting them into bite-sized gnocchi, when someone arrived with a tray of sliced prosciutto crudo on fresh bread and thimble-sized cups of strong black coffee. Both never tasted so good!

But truly, my inspiration and energy only arose from the compagnia of the women around me. At one point, I was standing next to Eleonora, a young woman who had spent seven years in Boston and New York studying music. She started singing “Close to You” by the Carpenters and we sang together for a while, with me helping her with the lyrics. Then suddenly Adelaide threw up her arms and waved them around as she sung, and the rest of the women joined in. She then recited a short poem that she had just invented:

Chi al mare e chi al monte
A fare gnocchi, ci sono tonte
.

Some are vacationing at the beach, others in the mountain sun.
Those who make gnocchi are the stupid ones.

Continue reading

In Compagnia (Part I)

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August is here again, and this weekend I will be busy making gnocchi for our village sacra (food festival). A part of our summer break, I offer you a story I wrote about this experience.

This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!


From the day I arrived in the village, the following words seemed to follow me around:

“Do you know about the sagra dello gnocco (the gnocco festival)? The first weekend in August? Gnocchi d’oca! (Small potato dumplings in goose tomato sauce.) They  are famous all over the area! And the women always need help in the kitchen…”

I would stand in front of my new neighbor smiling and nodding, beset with the knowledge that she (it was always a she) was waiting for me to volunteer. Since 1986, the village has hosted the Gnocchi D’Oca festival the first weekend in August on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, complete with music and dancefloor in the open air. Whenever we mention the town to anyone from the surrounding area, they always start raving about the delicious gnocchi.

Continue reading

The Only Way Out is Up!

Assagioli wrote the motto of psychosynthesis as:

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Motto of Psychosynthesis: “The only way out is the way up”

During Journey to Places of the Higher Self, September 17–23, we will be doing just that… As we descend into the Frasassi Caves, some of the largest in Europe, we will have no choice… the only way out will be the way up!

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The Frasassi Caves, Italy

Assagioli often wrote about how mountain climbing can be a symbol of ascent to spiritual heights… And we promise to bring you to 1000-year-old mountaintop churches in the Apennines. But he also wrote about how caves can be a symbol for “going deeper, descending to the ‘bottom/depths’ of our being.” Don’t worry, we won’t be too long inside the Frasassi Caves, just long enough to “get ready to transform”! Not to mention the promise of a delicious picnic lunch in the Italian countryside afterwards.

Places are still available for this special Journey to Places of the Higher Self. Why not join us? If you have any questions, please contact Catherine at:

A Mystic’s Gift

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Evelyn Underhill

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:

Illuminative Way Reality
Divine Comedy Joy
Self Being
Will Intuition
Contemplation Inspiration
Aesthetic Way Spiritual Beauty
Intellectual Way Immanence
Regeneration Mystical Dialogue
Receptivity

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.

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Assagioli’s note referencing Underhill’s book Mysticism. “Illumination. A sudden, intense, joyous, perception of an immanent God of the Universe, of the divine beauty and of this ineffable splendor in which the individual is immersed.”

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.

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Entrance lane to the Hermitage of Campello

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.