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