Evelyn Underhill’s notes from the King’s College Archives.
Most of us are familiar with writing Christmas Lists. As children we might have been encouraged by our parents to write to Santa Claus, sending him our list of desired gifts. We might have also been told that Santa Claus kept his own “list of who’s naughty and nice.” As we became adults enmeshed in the frenetic holiday craziness, our Christmas lists probably became more numerous and less imaginative – lists of things to do, presents to buy, and greeting cards to send.
Recently, with the help of my friend and colleague Georgie, I discovered that the Christian mystic and writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) also wrote a Christmas list – but a kind I had never seen before. In the archives of King’s College London, you can read three pages of her own notes which she entitled “Rule. Christmas 1921.” Her handwriting is evenly spaced and full of sensuous loops and curves. Like Assagioli, she occasionally underlines, and even double underlines words for emphasis. Underhill’s Christmas list contains her spiritual goals for leading a Christian life, to be tested and practiced by herself for six months – “quietly and steadily, with a disposition to find them true even where uncongenial.” Continue reading →
In northern Europe the days are growing shorter. Except for the oak trees with their withered sienna-brown leaves, most of the trees are bare against a bleak landscape and gray skies laden with cold, damp winds. The Dutch have a saying for this time of year: De donkere dagen voor Kerstmis. The dark days before Christmas. Indeed, every day is shorter and the nights seem to stretch out like a long, endless dream.
We are in the season of Advent, which mark the days before Christmas. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus meaning arrival. We freely use the word advent to simply mean “to come into being.” This is the time of year that we await the arrival of light when the Earth will once again begin to tilt towards our sun. The days can then slowly “come into being,” promising their full splendor of sunshine and warmth at the summer solstice. For Christians, this is the time during which they await the birth of Jesus, when the Divine comes into being. Continue reading →
Today we celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain, when the division between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. Christians celebrate November 1 as All Saint’s Day and November 2 as All Souls. To mark this numinous time of year, I would like to share a story about Kikuchi-sensei, my Japanese tea ceremony teacher. A longer version of this story was originally published in Ascent Magazine, Issue 36, Fall 2007
The morning I went to the mortuary to see Kikuchi-Sensei, a cold wind whipped around the medieval cobblestone streets of the tiny Umbrian village. She had been fighting cancer for nearly a year and had finally surrendered at the age of 79. Dressed in a pale cinnamon kimono, she appeared so tiny in the lacquered coffin, framed by wild spring flowers that her daughter had picked from their garden, Sensei’s face was strong and peaceful; her mouth, set in her soft, unlined skin, was ready to break into one of her rare, indulging smiles.
Since Sensei had refused visitors during her treatment, I had just managed to accept life without our weekly tea ceremony lessons. But looking upon her still, frail frame, I hardly felt ready to surrender her forever. As I stood by her coffin, in my heart I thanked her for all she had taught me during the years we had spent together. I felt tremendously honored to have known her. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. 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 →
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.
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: Continue reading →
The gate of the Eremo di Campello (Design by Carlotta Gentili)
One of the special Places of the Higher Self that we will visit in September is the Eremo di Campello, near the town of Trevi in Umbria, Italy. The final road up to the Hermitage is an unpaved, unmarked climb through olive groves and wooded hillsides. The feeling is desolation mixed with expectation. When we finally arrive in front of a locked wooden gate guarded by a furiously barking dog, the feeling turns to “What am I doing here?” But soon Sister Lucia appears with grand tranquility and a warm smile. She slowly walks down a long path from the Hermitage towards us and swings the gate open. “Welcome in Peace,” she says, inviting us inside. Continue reading →
As I write these words, my 93-year-old mother is dying. We are separated by an entire continent and an entire ocean, 6000 miles apart. It is a tremendous challenge to not race onto a transatlantic flight to be by her side. But I realize that our distance now is a gift, for I have no other recourse but prayer and the willful and conscious act of radiating Light and Love.
Only a month ago, we were together in sunny California where I was visiting her for three weeks. While I was there, my mom told her Hospice care worker, “I’m having such a good time with Catherine that I forget to take my pain medicine.” Continue reading →
Fresco in the Sacro Speco (‘sacred cave’) of St. Benedict in Subiaco, possibly the oldest and most faithful image of Francis.
“Pace e bene! Peace and all that is good! These words of Saint Francis (1182-1226) go beyond divisions, faiths and institutions, right to the core of our shared humanity. Today in Assisi, people are gathering to celebrate his feast day. Having chosen a life radically dedicated to transcendent values, Francis often appears in Assagioli’s writings. Assagioli would have naturally been familiar with Francis, who (along with St. Catherine of Siena) is one of the patron saints of Italy. In fact, upon meeting Assagioli, Frank Vanderlip described him as a modern day St. Francis:
“There seemed to me to burn in this man the pure flame of a love of justice and humanity… He seemed to have a calm and serene understanding of the causes of the troubles of the world and a sensible apprehension of where materialism is leading the world. He expressed such a cheerful hopefulness that a better road is at hand if the world will but take it.”