Dana Greene – Evelyn Underhill:

Recovering Mysticism, Remembering Jacopone

Conference on the Centenary of the Publication of the Spiritual Biography of Jacopone da Todi by Evelyn Underhill, Todi, May 4th, 2019, English text available at www.jacoponedatodi.com

I am delighted to be here at this conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Evelyn Underhill’s biography of  Todi’s favorite son, Jacopone, and to see realized the translation of that biography into Italian by Claudio and Massimo  Peri.  So to all the organizers of this historic event, thank you.  

I have two aspirations for my brief time with  you:   to tell you something of this remarkable English woman, Evelyn Underhill, and to explain  why she undertook writing Jacopone’s biography.  

By any estimate, Underhill was an extraordinary woman, author or editor of 39 books,  350 articles and reviews, a spiritual guide and a pioneer in the retreat movement in England beginning in the 1920s.  She was the first woman to offer a retreat for   clergy, the first to give a retreat in Canterbury Cathedral, the first to be an outside lecturer at Oxford University.   Her books sold widely,  and she was acclaimed in her own time, even though there were many who initially believed that this Evelyn must be a male because no  woman could write with such depth and intelligence.  Today her books remain in print, and  she is remembered on her death day, June 15, 1941 in the Anglican, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. There is a statue of her in the Guildford Cathedral in England.   (1. Guildford Cathedral)

Underhill’s life  was one  of privilege as the daughter  and wife of English barristers, and as a woman who lived her entire life in the lovely Kensington section of London.  (2.  Photo of plaque on her house)  She was an only child who  as a young adult made many trips to the continent, to France, but especially to Italy, visiting not only Rome but many of the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria, including Todi.  She writes to a friend in September 1924 that  Todi’s splendor gives light to the whole world.   She visited the Church and the town Piazza, but she was unable to see Jacopone’s  tomb as the crypt was locked and there was no one around to let her in.  Underhill  fell hopelessly in love with Italy, a topic which will be explored fully  by our next speaker, Dr. Andy Halpin.  Posthumously her sketches and commentaries on those travels were  published as “The Shrines and Cities of France and Italy.”  It was through beauty, especially the art, architecture and religious rituals of  Italy that Underhill  came alive to Catholicism.     This  powerful experience  brought  her to desire to convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in her early 30s. (3. Photo of young Underhill)  

This conversion was not to be for two reasons.  In 1907 Underhill, who was then  32 years old, was about to marry Hubert Stuart-Moore, a childhood friend, who was particularly anti-clerical,  and who could not bear the thought that a priest  in the confessional would stand between him and his wife.  Although Evelyn was determined to convert, she agreed to delay  “going over to Rome,” as the English would say, for a year.    During that  time she hoped to convince Hubert  to yield to her desire.    In that same year, however, the papacy issued its condemnation of Modernism, that movement which applied scientific and historical criticism to Christianity.  Because Underhill herself held Modernist ideas, she decided that she could not in all intellectual honesty become a Catholic.  From 1907 until 1920 s lived in a kind of exile outside of institutional religion  and deprived of sacraments.  This would have profound implications for her life.   

Beginning in 1901 Underhill began to write.  Over the next twenty years she produced three novels, two books of  poetry,  and many volumes exploring  the subject of mysticism.   Her  interest in mysticism  had been ignited by her travels in  Italy, her initial participation  in the occult society of the Golden Dawn,  and   friendships with others like J. A. Herbert,  Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, who shared her curiosity about  this subject.     It is no coincidence that in 1907, the year of her marriage and her delay of conversion that Underhill  began work on her most famous book, “Mysticism:  The Study of the Nature and Development of Man Spiritual Consciousness.”  It was as if this research filled the gap in her life which was now disconnected from  any kind of corporate religious expression.   

Mysticism  was a book of 500 pages based on research in 1,000 sources.  It expressed  her ardent search to explore and understand  mysticism, a  much maligned subject.      Published in 1911 the book  saw 12 editions and has never been out of print.  It  is not a theological treatise  but rather a  book about  human spiritual consciousness.  In it Underhill asserts  that the mystics reached the outer border  of human consciousness and that the experience of these  so-called   “great pioneers,”  must  not be forgotten.  In the first part of the book she defines mysticism,  setting it off from other phenomena,  and in the second part she delineates the stages of the mystic way.  In short the mystic contribution was not credal, theological,  or institutional, but experiential.  It was the mystics  who realized the deepest human longing, to behold love itself.   It was they  who had experienced the love of God and by that experience were transformed.    While admitting that many mystics reported visions and  hearing voices, those experiences were neither universal nor central.  What was central was the transforming experience of the love of God. 

For the next two decades Underhill dedicated herself to providing evidence of this mystic life which she maintained was to be found in the mystic texts.  One had to remember that in the early 20th century these texts were not readily available but rather were hidden away in archives and written in foreign languages.  After the publication of her big book she begins to make these various mystic texts available to the public.   She writes on her favorite mystic the Flemish John Ruysbroeck from whom she   borrowed the notion that mysticism implied “ a wide-spreading love of all in common.”    She writes also  on the “Mirror of Simple Souls,” on “The Cloud of Unknowing,” on Rabindranath Tagore, on Richard Rolle,  on Kabir, on Jacob Boehme.    Increasingly enamored of the Franciscans,  she writes of Angela  of Foligno,  and  in 1919 her  biography of Jacopone da Todi with Mrs. Beck’s  English translation of his poetry  appears.    Additionally,   as a portent of what would follow years later,  Underhill  published “Practical Mysticism:  A Little Book for Normal People” in 1915.   Already she was  thinking of  the idea of translating mystic insights to ordinary people.   

From 1907 onward Underhill filled her days with the study of mysticism, its nature, development and  its various expressions.    It is my suspicion that her decision to  reclaim the mystical tradition result from  her being closed out of institutional Catholicism.  This is the positive aspect of what seemed for her unbearable deprivation.  I have often wondered  what would have happened to this extraordinarily  dedicated and able woman if she had joined the Catholic church particularly during a period of intellectual rigidity.  I am afraid she might have been silenced,  and her contribution would have been minimal if anything  at all. 

The  war years of 1914-1918 were difficult for everyone.  It  was expected  that the war would be  short-lived,  but it dragged on  with great brutality on all sides.  These  years were  particularly difficult  for Underhill.  She wrote to her friend Margaret Robinson in 1917:  “The present abnormal conditions are as bad for the spiritual life as for every other kind of life. We are all finding it frightfully difficult and most of us are failing badly.”    During the war Underhill  worked in a section of the British Admiralty and continued to write,  actually producing articles in which she defended the war on mystic grounds, writing she would ultimately regret.    One of her nephews was killed in the war,  and her dearest friend, Ethel Ross Barker, died an untimely death.  There is very little extant evidence from her life during this period except for her admission that she “went to pieces.”  She had been living outside a  religious institution and had become increasingly abstract in her understanding of mysticism. Knowing that  she needed help,  probably beginning in 1919 she did two things.  She re-entered the Anglican church, the church in which she had been baptized as a child,  and she sought out a spiritual director, in this case the famous Roman Catholic theologian  Baron Friedrich von Hugel.  

As early as a 1918 she published an article “The Future of Mysticism” in which she claimed that   “True mysticism is the soul of religion, (and) like the soul of man it needs a body if it is to fulfill its mighty destiny… Divorced from all institutional expression it  (mysticism) tends to become strange, vague, or merely sentimental.”  After years of living apart from institutional religion, she returned, but not with any joy.   She might need the church, but she was not enthusiastic about her  return.   It is not exactly clear when she sought out the counsel of von Hugel although she  had interacted with him earlier when preparing her book on mysticism.  During the approximately five years they were in direct contact, Underhill became    devoted to him, maintaining that she owed her whole spiritual life to him.  Whether that statement is hyperbolic or not, it is true that von Hugel had an immense influence in her life confirming her need to live within Anglicanism and  curbing  her abstraction with  a more Christocentric devotion.  He encouraged her to  serve the poor and focus on the incarnational element of  Christianity.   It is interesting to note that  von Hugel’s major work on the mystic Catherine of Genoa, first published in 1908, acknowledged Jacopone’s influencee on this 15th century Genoese woman mystic.  Very likely Underhill read this book which would explain her inclusion of Jacopone in her book on mysticism.   In 1923, when von Hugel’s volume was reprinted, he acknowledged in his work Underhill’s biography of Jacopone.   

It is precisely at this point beginning no later than 1918  that Underhill begins to work in earnest on her biography of Jacopone.  But before I review the reasons for this writing, I would like to consider  the radical reorientation of Underhill’s life and vocation after 1920.    Underhill had the guidance of von Hugel up through 1925 when  he died.  During that five year period  Underhill began a new vocational orientation.    In 1921 she made her first retreat at the Anglican retreat house in Pleshey,  and by 1924 she offered her own retreat there.  ( 4. Retreat House)  It was not that she had given up the life of scholarship but rather she reoriented her work toward mediating the mystical tradition to ordinary people providing nurture for what came to be called the spiritual life.   This would become her form of service.  In 1925 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.”  As early as 1921 one can see this new orientation in the series of lectures she gave at Manchester College, Oxford.  In its published form, “The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today, ” Underhill suggested the need  to nurture the spiritual life  among contemporaries.  

For a period of ten years  she  would develop an annual  retreat and like a circuit rider she would deliver that retreat at five or six retreat houses throughout  England.  She found this work to be immensely life-giving to her retreatants and to herself.  These retreats would be published subsequently, including  “Concerning the Inner Life,” “House of the Soul,”  “Abba,” “School of Charity,” “Fruits of the Spirit,” and “Mount of Purification.”   Perhaps her most popular and accessible spiritual book, “The Spiritual Life”  was first delivered as  a  BBC broadcast  in 1936.    In this  she offered insights which are still apt today.  She defined the spiritual life simply and beautifully  as  “a life in which all that we do comes from the centre where we are anchored in God.”   She also describes  our modern malady and its cure.  She wrote:    “We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs:  to want, to have, and to do.   Craving, clutching, and fussing on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual—even on the religious-plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest:  forgetting that none of these verbs have an ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in the fundamental verb, to Be:  and that Being, no wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.”  (5. Mature Underhill)

There are two other aspects of Underhill’s writing which loom large at the end of her life.  One is the publication in 1936 of her last big book,  “Worship.” In  this she laid out  the elements of worship and then considered  the variety of religious expression in the western world beginning with Judaism and including Catholic and Orthodox Christianity,  Reformed Christianity and the Free churches—Quakerism and Methodism– and  Anglicanism.  “Worship” was an ecumenical volume of appreciation of these various traditions, expressions she called “chapels in the cathedral of the spirit.”  The book  was an extraordinary undertaking at a time when ecumenism was almost unheard of.  (6.  Older Underhill)

Finally as the 1930s lengthened and war loomed Evelyn Underhill, acclaimed writer and Christian, professed a pacifist view on the war.  This was a courageous stance which lost her many friends and was condemned by the Church of England.   Yet she maintained that this position followed from the admonition to love even one’s enemies.  She died in June 1941 as the blitz continued but before the full horrors of the war were known.  She  was buried in St. John’s  cemetery in Hampstead.  (7. Grave)

This is a brief summation of Underhill’s life which you will find elaborated in the handout prepared by Dr. Halpin.   What remains is to explain, as best one can, why Evelyn Underhill took up the work of writing a biography of Jacopone da Todi.  Although she  never divulges an explanation,    I think it is possible to piece together an answer.    

There were a number of  practical reasons which made her   effort possible.  Underhill was already familiar with Jacopone  having  included  brief references to him in her big book on mysticism and she was  increasingly interested in the Franciscan tradition having  written on Angela of Foligno as early as 1912.    She  was also attracted to  the genre of poetry having  published two books of  her own poems (not very good poetry I might add).   She  had friends who could help her as well.     J. A. Herbert, Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum,  had introduced her to the Umbrian manuscripts housed in the Museum’s collections, and in 1910 Dr. Giovanni Ferri, who had published a partial  edition of Jacopone’s poems in Italian,  agreed to look over the English translation of his poems  done by   Mrs. Theodore Beck.   Dr.  Edmund Gardner, who had written on Jacopone  in 1914,  agreed to offer his advice too.    Underhill already had a publisher,   J. M. Dent,  who had published six of her previous volumes, including one on Ruysbroeck which  Mrs. Beck had provided translations from the Flemish.    Finally Underhill had previously used the format of a translated mystic text  preceded by a long biographical introduction. J. M. Dent agreed to  use that same format to  illuminate the work of Jacopone.  I suspect that  the joy for Underhill  was that this research and writing would re-immerse  her in the Italy she loved. 

Everything seemed to be in place for  Underhill to  bring the contribution of this second generation Franciscan  to light.    In her preface to the biography  Underhill writes that the volume should be of interest to those attracted to mysticism, poetry and the Franciscan tradition.  In describing Jacopone she reveals her own admiration for  him.  As a lawyer, a man of the world, a poet, a reformer, a politician, and contemplative friar, she claims he is a vigorous human with ardent feelings, a keen intellect,  and although unstable and eccentric,   grounded by  love and wonder.  For her,   Jacopone  not only   embodied  the Franciscan ideals of  poverty,  penitence and  joy,  but  he  reconciled these three disparate responses to God’s love.     

Although Underhill described Jacopone as a libertine,  penitent and ecstatic, she  conceived of him  above all as   a gifted, natural poet who transmitted his  experience through  vernacular poetic form.     As such   he stood in the tradition of mediator, one who conveyed   to others the joy of the spiritual world.  Japonone, like Underhill herself, was one who stood between the overwhelming love of God, that “vision splendid,” and those who were open to receive it.  They both were  artists who transmitted  the experience of the love of God.   (8. Icon of Underhill)   

Dana Greene, Ph.D., Dean emerita Oxford College of Emory University  

May 2019, Todi Italy