Evelyn Underhill è l’autrice della prima e più importante biografia spirituale di Jacopone pubblicata a Londra nel 1919 e tradotta in italiano da Claudio e Massimo Peri per TAU Editrice, Todi, 2019. Evelyn è stata oltre che scrittrice una grande mistica e una grande leader spirituale della prima metà del ‘900 soprattutto nel mondo femminile. Per la confessione anglicana ha la stessa dignità dei santi per la Chiesa cattolica. Il 17 Giugno scorso c’è stata una conferenza  internazionale su Evelyn a Washington DC (U.S.A.)  in occasione dell’ottantesimo anniversario della sua morte. Una relazione è stata interamente dedicata all’influenza di Jacopone su questa scrittrice e mistica.

Di seguito il testo della relazione in lingua inglese :

Evelyn Underhill and Her Debt to Jacopone da Todi


Dana Greene, Dean Emerita of Emory University, co-founder of the Evelyn Underhill Association, U.S.A., author or editor of nine books, including “Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life

A presentation  given, June 17th 2021, at “A Celebration of Evelyn Underhill” www.retreathousepleshey.com , Washington DC, USA, 14-18 June 2021

The Text

It is a pleasure to be here with colleagues Todd Johnson and Jim Thrall.  Thanks too to Kathy Staudt, the president of the EUA USA ,  for organizing this panel. 

I  begin with a disclaimer.   I am not a theologian or historian of spirituality but rather  a biographer.    I mention this because one of the descriptor of  a biographer is as  detective, one who searches for every clue in order to understand a life.   I say this because it will help explain why I have chosen to speak about a great lacuna of EU life, the period after the Great War,   1918-1920.  We know little about  this time, but it  is an axial  point  in Underhill’s  life, a turning from her life as a scholar of mysticism to a vocation as  retreat leader and spiritual guide.     By 1921 she has returned to the Anglican church from which she had been estranged for many years  and she sought out the counsel of Baron F. von Hugel,  a Catholic theologian.  My  question is what brought her to make these major decisions?  Unfortunately Underhill gives us very scant information about this period of her life,  but now, on the 80th anniversary of her death, it’s time to pursue it.  To my lights, it is an important question which we need to understand.  

  Underhill  later described herself during this time as a “white-hot Neoplatonist”, “anti-institutional”  and  dominated by a “detached inwardness.”   She said this was  a time when  “I went to pieces,” and that she lived into the Neo-platonic motto to be “alone with the alone.”  That is about all we have, there are very few letters from this period.   She had been a supporter of the Great war  and  had worked in the British admiralty.  But what she called “the caldron of War”  was brutal, many died and fighting dragged on for many years.  At its end the Russian revolution commenced.       Two of her nephews were killed in the war and her best friend Ethel Barker died.  By any measure, these were grounds for if not depression then a least a sense of being lost. 

What happened during these two years which explains her decision to  reenter the Anglican church, seek out the counsel of  Baron Fredrich von Hugel, and take up a new vocation?        Underhill  had been a very successful author;   She claimed she was “professionally very prosperous and petted.”  She had  edited mystic texts and wrote on the lives of the mystics.  Her  most famous book, Mysticism, which was published in 1911 was a fat 500 page book based on 1,000 sources.   Its subtitle  explains its subject:  It is A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness.  Underhill was intent on saving the contributions of the mystics,   those she called the great pioneers of human consciousness. I’m sure Jim Thrall will say more about Underhill’s heroic sense of mysticism.       But  after the Great War the bottom  fell out of her world.  Underhill herself attributes her saving to von Hugel.   She said, somewhat hyperbolically I think, that she owed her entire spiritual life to von Hugel.  Robyn Wrigly-Carr has convincingly illustrated Underhill’s immense gratitude to her mentor.  Clearly von Hugel was  important in shaping her spiritual life, but  my question is what lead her to be open to him?  Earlier she had a testy relationship with him when he claimed in a very patriarchal manner she should hold off publication of Mysticism until he could correct her errors.   She went ahead and published the book anyway.  However,  by 1920, when she was forty-five,   she was desperate and knew she needed help. But why did she turn to him and reluctantly integrate herself back into the Anglican fold.    How do we explain these decisions?

Underhill had been  a prolific writer but in the year 1918 she published almost nothing, but gave herself over to writing a first biography of the 13th century  Franciscan and mystical poet Jacopone da Todi.  The city of Todi is in Umbrian, not far from Assisi.    This  biography, published in 1919, contained Jacopone’s  life narrative and  many of his poems or laude were translated by Underhill’s friend, Mrs. Theodore Beck. Here’s a contemporary copy of the “Jacopone Da Todi, Poet and Mystic 1228-1306, A spiritual biography with a selection from the spiritual songs.”  In 2019,  on  the 100th anniversary of  the publication of Underhill’s biography of Jacopone, the  book was translated from the English into Italian, here it is, and an international conference was held in the hill town of Todi.    

Underhill’s  biography of Jacopone  was made possible because   J. A. Herbert, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library and a friend, allowed her to use the Umbrian manuscripts housed there.       Previously Underhill had mentioned Jacopone in her book Mysticism and  she had published a chapter on Angela de Foligno, another Franciscan.  Later  she would   published several articles on Francis of Assisi  and Franciscan spirituality.  But she began with Jacopone,  immersing  herself in the life of this strange, second generation Franciscan  poet who wrote in the vernacular.   Like Francis, Jacopone was originally  a wealthy libertine who had a life crisis when his young wife died tragically. He ultimately entered the Franciscans as a lay brother and became  a leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, those  who supported reform of the order and of the papacy itself.    For this he was persecuted, imprisoned and excommunicated by  pope Boniface VIII.  Jacopone was finally released and his excommunication revoked five years later by Benedict XI. 

 In chronicling  the life of Jacopone, Underhill was introduced to  a Christocentric spirituality and a reconciliation between love of God and love of the suffering world.  Love of God meant  a life of  both suffering and of joy.         Detachment which she had sought earnestly  was now only appropriate within the context of  attachment to God.  Ultimately   her spirituality would be summed up in adoration of God,  attachment to God, and cooperation with God.  Underhill  maintained that the  experience of God always had vocational implications.  She wrote “Now the experience of God…is, I believe in the long run always a vocational experience.   It always impels to some sort of service:   always awakens an energetic love.   It never leaves the self where it found it.” In the case of Jacopone the outpouring of his love of God was expressed in  the many mystical poems he wrote in the vernacular, hence sharing his experience of suffering and joy with ordinary people.    Underhill’s biography was the first life narrative of Jacopone  in English nonetheless the poetry of Jacopone  has not been fully explored.  As Bernard McGinn has argued Jacopone da Todi is undervalued, but Underhill was one of the first to make his work and life available to the English-reading audience.

  Underhill came to see that the mystical tradition  flourished best within institutional religion and so she re-entered the Anglican church after many years.  When a friend invited her to attend a retreat in the Anglican retreat house at Pleshey  in 1922: she was heartened.   Here was work she could do, a vocation she could embrace.   She dedicated the remained of her life to  strengthening the spiritual lives of her contemporaries.  For the next decade  she took up what was called the care of souls, which she carried out through  counsel of individuals, offering retreats, and publishing those retreats making them available to others.     Remarkably, she gave a retreat for Anglican clergy published in 1926  and a  year later she offered a retreat in Canterbury Cathedral, becoming the first woman to do so.       As her friend T. S. Eliot said she was  one attuned to the great spiritual hunger of her times, one conscious of the grievous need of the contemplative element in the modern world.  Michael Ramsey, former  Archbishop of Canterbury,  attested  Underhill  did more to keep the spiritual life alive in the Anglican church in the period between the wars than anyone else.    

Initially Underhill felt unworthy to take up this vocational work.   She wrote in her diary:  “In my lucid moments, I see only too clearly that the possible end of this road is complete, unconditional self-consecration, and for this I have not the nerve, the character or the depth.   There has been some sort of mistake.  My soul is too small for it and yet it is at bottom the only thing that I really want.   It feels sometimes as if whilst still a jumble of conflicting impulses and violent faults, I were being pushed from behind toward an edge I dare not jump over.” 

Von Hugel died in January 1925 so Underhill only received his counsel for about two years.   She says she saw in this man the same “craving for God” that she found in Jacopone.  It is interesting that von Hugel’s first book on the  15th 

century mystic,   Catherine of Genoa,  showed that Jacopone da Todi had a  major influences on her.    As well,  Underhill  saw in von Hugel the same commitment to Christocentric devotion she encountered in Franciscan spirituality.   Von Hugel  urged her to work among the poor and to remain within the Anglican communion nurturing the contemplative needs of her contemporaries.  He understood that mysticism, the experience of God, needed a body, which was the church,  otherwise it became strange, vague, and led to a desire for detachment and perfectionism.   These were  precisely Underhill’s  maladies.   

It was at this time that Underhill was introduced to another Franciscan, first through correspondence and then in person.   This was Sorella Maria, who founded an ecumenical community of women in Umbria  who followed  the Primitive Rule of Francis  and lived  out commitments to  poverty, prayer and hospitality. This “Least Sister” , as Underhill called her,  personified  the ideals of the Franciscan tradition  and she  would continue to influence  Underhill’s life and work for years.  Underhill  regarded her friendship  with Sorella Maria as one of her greatest privileges. 

It was only  years later that Underhill clarified her understanding of the Franciscan tradition.   She claimed  Francis of Assisi  could not  be understood without realizing his simultaneous love of God and of the world.    As she wrote: “the real greatness of St. Francis is the same as the greatness of the Christian religion…”   For Francis,  love and suffering were one, and will and love rather than intellect were the greatest human powers.  Underhill attributed these same attributes to Francis’ disciple, Jacopone, who in his mystic poetry united the double truth of the sublime and the lowly, the simple and ordinary  with the awe-struct sense of God. 

Although Underhill’s encounters with Jacopone and Sorella Maria  provided an alternative experience to her Neo-Platonic world view,  it  was von Hugel who provided immediate counsel.   As  she found resonances of Francis and Jacopone  in von Hugel she also found commonalties between Sorella Maria and von Hugel as well.   She wrote “it was wonderful to find how exactly Maria and von Hugel agree , in spite of great differences in mind and language, in all the deep things of the spiritual life.”

So although the evidences for Underhill’s life in the period 1918 through 1920 are few,  I think it can be convincingly argued that she was prepared to move away from her Neo-Platonic  detachment to a fuller understanding of Christianity through   her encounter with the Franciscan tradition in the life and poetry of Jacopone da Todi and the  communal living of  Sorella Maria.  During the years 1918-20 it was her work on Jacopone  which awakened her and then she was sustained by her friendships with von Hugel and Sorella Maria. This axial turning from scholar of mysticism to inspirer of the contemplative lives among her contemporaries was one of great moment and importance for modern spirituality. Here the mystical and the ordinary are linked.  In this evolution of her theology Underhill moved from a theocentric spirituality to a Christocentric emphasis and I imagine Todd Johnson will take us even further into her  final  evolution of theology in the evening of her life. 

Thank you.   Greene42@gmail.com