By Dana Greene
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 descriptors 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 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. But after the Great War the bottom fell out of her world. Underhill herself attributes her saving to von Hügel. She said, somewhat hyperbolically I think, that she owed her entire spiritual life to von Hügel. Robyn Wrigly-Carr has convincingly illustrated Underhill’s immense gratitude to her mentor. Clearly von Hügel 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. Underhill produced “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 and presented at an international conference 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 making his poetry accessible to Anglophones. 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 Hügel 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 Hügel’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 Hügel the same commitment to Christocentric devotion she encountered in Franciscan spirituality. Von Hügel 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, founder of 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 Hügel who provided immediate counsel. As she found resonances of Francis and Jacopone in von Hügel she also found commonalties between him and Sorella Maria. She wrote “it was wonderful to find how exactly Maria and von Hügel 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 Hügel 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 and in this evolution of her theology, Underhill moved from a theocentric spirituality to a Christocentric emphasis.
Dana Greene is dean emerita of Oxford College of Emory University and author of a biography of Underhill and editor of two volumes of Underhill’s writings. This paper was delivered at the 2021 celebration of Underhill’s death.