Medicinal to the Soul: Italy and Umbria in the Life of Evelyn Underhill

By Aindrias ó hAilpin

Evelyn Underhill’s biography of Jacopone da Todi is the fruit of a relationship with Italy – and particularly Umbria – that lasted for most of Evelyn’s adult life. But not only was this a long-lasting relationship, it was also a deeply transforming one. Perhaps Evelyn was such a good biographer of Jacopone because her own life shared some features with his, although of course it was very different in most respects. He was a lawyer; she was the daughter and the wife of lawyers. Both were poets. Both were raised, nominally, as Christians but showed little interest in faith before experiencing a form of ‘conversion’ in their fourth decade. After this both were attracted to a mystical expression of faith and – perhaps because of this – both had, at times, an uneasy relationship with the institutional church.

When Evelyn first visited Italy in 1898, at the age of twenty-two, she was by her own admission either an agnostic or an atheist. But this was beginning to change. She later wrote that around this time “philosophy brought me round to an intelligent and irresponsible sort of theism which I enjoyed thoroughly but which did not last long. Gradually the net closed in on me and I was driven nearer and nearer to Christianity, half of me wishing it were true and half resisting violently.” Evelyn was deeply influenced by the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (AD 205-270), from whom she learned to see beauty and art as reflecting transcendent Beauty. This helped her to a gradual acceptance of spiritual reality and, ultimately, of God.

In Italy Evelyn was exposed to a great wealth of beautiful art and architecture – most of which was religious – and it affected her deeply. She first encountered Italian religious art in 1898 when she went to see Bernardino Luini’s frescos of the Passion of Christ in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Lugano, which is technically in Switzerland but culturally is Italian. She described the frescoes as ‘superb’ and added that “I spent all my odd minutes in that church whilst we were at Lugano”. This is all Evelyn tells us directly but in her 1904 novel The Grey World, she describes a fictional character entering a Catholic church for the first time. His sense that “there were mysteries very near” and that “it was evident that great matters happened in this building” may well reflect Evelyn’s own experience. Also in 1898 Evelyn visited Florence for the first time, viewing Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the Convent of San Marco, as well as other churches. At the end of her time in Florence she wrote that “this place has taught me more than I can tell you: a sort of gradual unconscious growing into an understanding of things”. Clearly there was more happening than simply appreciation of great art.

In the churches and art of Italy Evelyn had a profound experience of transcendent Reality, presented mainly in the forms of Catholicism. It is no wonder that in 1904 she described Italy as “the holy land of Europe – the only place left, I suppose, that is really medicinal to the soul”. When she added that “there is a type of Mind which must go there to find itself”, she was clearly speaking of herself. Dana Greene has written, “Italy changed her life; it taught her that beauty was a way to the infinite life for which she longed”.

In 1902 Evelyn came to Umbria for the first time. Over the next twenty-two years she returned many times, visiting Perugia, Assisi, Spello, Gubbio, Orvieto, Spoleto and, of course, Todi – and no doubt other towns and places of which she has left no record.  It was Assisi that had the greatest impact on her. In 1902 she wrote in her diary that “Assisi is well called La Beata for its soul is more manifest than any other city that I have ever known”. Five years later she wrote that “Assisi has a quality which distinguishes her from any other city in the world, as S. Francis has a quality which distinguishes him from all others but the King of Saints Himself”. Like many others before and since, Evelyn was quickly attracted by the figure of Francis. In 1908 she wrote “I do not believe anyone ever lived a more perfectly Christian life than he did”. Francis figures in her great work on Mysticism, perhaps more often than any other individual. She also wrote about a distinctive tradition of Franciscan mysticism, inspired by Francis himself, in which the two greatest figures were also Umbrian, Jacopone da Todi and Angela da Foligno.

Evelyn’s experiences in Italy led to a growing interest in Catholicism although arguably, the attraction was more aesthetic – perhaps even romantic – than theological. For a woman who still thought of herself, technically, as an agnostic, it is remarkable how easily she accepted and adopted the language of spirituality and devotion. By 1907, when Evelyn considered herself to have definitively ‘converted’ from agnosticism to Christianity, she was seriously contemplating becoming a Catholic. Undoubtedly, this was largely due to her experiences in Italy. Ultimately Evelyn never became a Catholic, but had no interest in joining any other church. So, while she directed her energies to the production of her great work on Mysticism, she herself remained disconnected from any Christian denomination.

Her ideas of mysticism at this point owed more to Plotinus and Neo-Platonism than to orthodox Christianity and tended towards individualism, excessive intellectualism and an other-worldly dualism. But Umbria had given her a deep attraction to Francis and Franciscan spirituality which would challenge this Neo-Platonic thinking.

The war years from 1914 to 1918 brought Evelyn to a spiritual crisis and forced her to confront both the limitations of her Neo-Platonic view of spirituality and her isolation from institutional Christianity. It was just at this point that she began work on her biography of Jacopone and this had a profound influence on her personally. Jacopone’s humanity and passion contrasted with the austere, other-worldly mysticism of Plotinus. In Jacopone “she saw the world-denying tendency of the Neo-Platonist overcome by the world-affirming orientation of the Franciscan”. Jacopone’s faithfulness to both the Catholic church and the Franciscan order, despite his struggles with both institutions, may also have been significant in the development of Evelyn’s thinking about her own relationship with institutional Christianity.

Whether coincidentally or not, another Umbrian and Franciscan connection also became very important for Evelyn at this time. Around 1919 or 1920 Evelyn came into contact with Sorella Maria of Campello, a Franciscan nun who was establishing a small and radically unusual community of women living together in the spirit of Francis. Evelyn and Sorella Maria became regular correspondents and confidantes, although they did not actually meet until 1924, at her Rifugio near Campello sul Clitunno in Umbria. Through Sorella Maria, Evelyn became part of the ‘Spiritual Entente’ an informal ecumenical network of people from different backgrounds who were committed to seeking God within their own Christian traditions and to praying for each other and for Christian unity. This was perhaps Evelyn’s first real experience of committed Christian fellowship and it may have helped her to take another decisive step in her journey. Sometime around 1920, Evelyn decided to become an active member of the Church of England – the church into which she had been born but which had never, until then, played any part in her life. Evelyn’s career changed radically after 1920. In spite of the great achievement of her work on mysticism, her more pastoral ministry in the last twenty years of her life is probably her greatest achievement and her greatest legacy.

Curiously, it seems that Italy no longer figured in her life in these final years and her final visit to Italy appears to have been in 1925. Perhaps by then Italy and Umbria had served their purpose in her life – she had learned what she needed to learn from Italy and as a result, her spirituality and her career had changed profoundly. Ironically, it is on her last visit to Umbria, in September 1924, that she finally came to Todi, to see the tomb of Jacopone. Sadly, she was unable to do this as the crypt of the church of San Fortunato was closed. She had to be content with looking at a picture of Jacopone, “very chubby and curly and holding his heart” which she described as “simply detestable”. Of Todi itself she had only a few words to say, but I will leave you with these: “We drove to Todi yesterday. What a place!”