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, … Read more
In 1919 Evelyn Underhill, well-known author of “Mysticism” and many other books on this subject, published a biography of Jacopone da Todi, a thirteenth century Franciscan mystic and poet, one of the earliest to write in the vernacular and probably the author of the famous Stabat Mater Dolorosa. 2019 marks the centennial of Underhill’s publication the first and until 1980 the only biography in English of this important literary personality. Born into a noble family as Jacopo dei Benedetti he studied law and married. On the tragic death of his wife he left his profession and became a wandering ascetic and penitent. His strange behavior won him a name of derision, Jacopone. He ultimately entered the Franciscans as a lay brother who allied himself with that group within the Order who argued for greater poverty and penance. … Read more
This article first appeared in SPIRITUALITY TODAY Spring 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 22-38. Used with permission.
BIOGRAPHY has power to move, inspire, and provoke. It provides a model of personal integration, and in times like our own when the sense of the world’s complexity and the loss of shared meaning cripple us, the individual attempt to make sense of life has great appeal.
The life of Evelyn Underhill1 the twentieth century British religious writer, offers us not only inspiration, but an example of a modern woman, who was not broken by confrontation with complexity and the disintegration of meaning, but in fact worked to heal that confusion and brokenness. She has particular appeal for us because she is a modern woman. I mean by that not only that she lived in our century, but that she … Read more
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) is best known for her pioneering work, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. First published in 1911, it saw twelve editions and established Underhill as the leading authority on mysticism writing in English. She was a prolific writer, authoring or editing thirty-nine books and hundreds of articles and essays. She came to the subject of mysticism with a bias against institutional religion, but later recognized the human need for participation in some collective expression of worship of the Divine. Her sympathy for the mystical tradition nuanced her understanding of what it meant to participate in the Body of Christ and was the basis for her ongoing critique of the foibles of institutional religion. Her major achievement was a life-long pursuit of the love of God and her … Read more
A little known aspect of Evelyn Underhill’s spiritual formation was that which occurred through her relationship with Sorella Maria, an Italian Franciscan.
Although greatly influenced by French spirituality and the English mystics, Underhill’s writing also illustrates her profound love of Italy and the influence of the spirituality of Francis. It was in the art and architecture of Italy in the 1890s that she came to know the life of the spirit. The Italian Sorella Maria was also an important influence on her during the difficult period immediately after World War I. We know little of the relationship between Underhill and Sorella Maria except that the former experienced profound consolation from this nun.
Apparently it was through an English woman, a Miss Turton, that Underhill first became acquainted with what was called the Confraternity of the Spiritual Entente, … Read more