Category Archives: wisdom

A Mystic’s Gift

Evelyn-Underhill

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.

015491 Quote in Italian on Illumination Underhill

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.

Eremo delle Allodole 2

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.

Collect Your Mind

martha-and-mary

Assagioli’s note from Freedom in Jail

In his book Freedom in Jail (now available for purchase), Assagioli referred twice to the Gospel story of Martha and Mary, and even indicated that he wanted to have an Appendix that would reflect upon it. This appendix was never written, but later his eloquent essay was: “Martha and Mary: The Active Life –The Contemplative Life.” [1]

In this blog and the next, we will take a closer look at his essay. First of all, Assagioli asks that we read this gospel story with an open mind. So let’s begin with the story:

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Wise Love and Original Sin

child-and-parents

Most of us come from a long line of motherless mothers. Women who were never mothered themselves, never learned from their own mothers how to nurture the imagination or creativity in their souls, were, basically, never encouraged to become the persons they were meant to be.

Psychically unprotected, emotionally harassed, and sometimes beaten into being good girls, many women today are still only accepted on condition that they behave well. And these scarred, scared women bare babies. They do their best to clothe and feed and care for their babies’ physical needs, but are often unable to cope with or understand the deeper spiritual longings of their children, their need to feel protected and initiated by a wise and soulful Mother.

This is what I consider to be “original sin.” The unresolved pain, emotional trauma, and childhood neglect that a person receives from his or her parents, which they receive from theirs, ad infinitum. Most of us as children, receive, sometimes violently, sometimes emotionally, most often unintentionally, the unhealed hurts that our parents received as children.

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Tuning into Spiritual Airways

PrayerflagsOn September 20th, those of us who have been touched by Roberto Assagioli’s vision are celebrating the first World Day of Psychosynthesis. The day is meant to establish a spiritual connection between everyone who is generating and working with psychosynthesis concepts and techniques. Each of us is encouraged to take time during the day to reflect on how psychosynthesis is a living, evolving idea that can be successfully applied through many formats and in various contexts.

Ultimately, psychosynthesis allows us to integrate all our human dimensions – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – into a harmonious and synthesized whole so we can fully express ourselves and live life creatively. Beyond our individual psychosynthesis, Assagioli also urges us to seek personal and spiritual synthesis within couples, groups, and even nations.

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“A Hymn to Inner Freedom”

soloFRONTERoberto Assagioli’s “prison diary” Freedom in Jail is an autobiographical account of the month he spent in prison under the fascist regime in 1940. His conclusion is entitled “A Hymn to Inner Freedom” where he writes about every man and woman’s power to inwardly free themselves.

One does not need to be incarcerated to feel imprisoned. Part of the human condition, at different points in our lives, is to find ourselves enslaved by some uncontrollable situation to which we feel bound. Freedom in Jail shows us that no matter what our condition – be it catastrophe, ill health, old age, and even pending death – we always remain free and responsible for choosing how we actively accept the situation and what attitude we take. The mystery is that these circumstances can also lead us to our Higher Self.

Think of Viktor

Assagioli’s note: “Remember Viktor Frankl. Think of all those who are in jail,…” (Archivio Assagioli, Firenze, © Istituto di Psiconsintesi).

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The Stars are Living Beings

olive tree flower

In the garden at Casa Assagioli in Florence, the olive trees are flowering and bees are humming around the acacia tree. Recently, I and ten other guests had the opportunity to spend one afternoon with Piero Ferrucci, author, philiospher, and psychosynthesis psychotherapist, asking him questions about the five years he spent with Assagioli as a student from 1969 to 1974.

After Assagioli’s death, Ferrucci was the first person to work with Assagioli’s material, and he spent two years compiling stacks of paper into what is now part of Assagioli’s  archives. Ferrucci recalled sitting at two tables in the kitchen of Assagioli’s home, surrounded by many folders. Many were in a mess. While working his way through them, Ferrucci sensed Assagioli’s presence and energy. He said that he could feel Assagioli blessing each small piece of paper, each a separate, distinct insight.

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Walking the Labyrinth of Your Soul

labyrinthgeneral

A labyrinth has often been used as a metaphor for a soul’s spiritual journey. Unlike a maze, labyrinths are usually circular in shape and have one, and only one, continuous meandering path that eventually leads to the center. This single path threads itself over the maximum amount of ground, without treading the same trail twice. There are no dead-ends, no intersections.

Labyrinths can be found in almost every religious tradition around the world. The design is mysterious and mythic, its origins unknown, yet primordial. It is an archetypical design, appearing across continents and cultures. The Hopi medicine wheel, Tibetan sand paintings, Troy dances, and the Tree of Life, found in the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbala, are all examples of labyrinths.  Even DNA, which encodes the genetic inheritance that defines our unique identity, could be viewed as a labyrinth, the double-helix strands spiraling around each other.

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