by Dana Greene
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, a small band of women who were seekers after the presence of God. The Confraternity was founded by Sorella Maria, who at some point, after a private audience with the pope, was permitted to leave her convent to start this ecumenical group dedicated to prayer for Church unity. The six women members lived the Primitive Franciscan Rule, and each remained completely loyal to her own church, living in such a way as to convince others that Christ could be known within that church.
In 1919, at the urging of Underhill, Lucy Menzies, Underhill’s spiritual advisee, met with the Spiritual Entente while traveling in Italy. Although there are no extant letters between Underhill and Sorella Maria, Margaret Cropper, Underhill’s first biographer, claims that Underhill confided much of her pain of darkness to the nun prior to the period when she sought out Baron von Hugel as her spiritual guide.
It was during this same time, that Underhill began her work on Jacapone da Todi, a second generation follower of Francis who also held to the Primitive Rule. She published Jacapone da Todi: Poet and Mystic, 1228-1306, in 1920. Writing this book was a crucial part of her development in a period of crisis in her own life. During the next decade, she published several reviews and articles on Franciscan topics.
Underhill visited Sorella Maria and the Confraternity of the Spiritual Entente in the Fall of 1924 at their Rifugio outside Assisi. Later she wrote about that encounter: “The head of the household and foundress, who is known as the Least sister, came down the lane to welcome me…Those who recognize her type will discover without surprise that her delicate courtesy, her serene and wide-spreading love conceal a Teresian inflexibility of purpose: a profound sense of the pain and need of the world, and a passionate desire to help it. As we sat in the woods, I asked her to tell me something of her conception of the spiritual life. She replied, in words startlingly at variance with her peaceful surroundings, “In tormento e travaglia servire i fratelli.”
Sorella Maria and Evelyn Underhill were both part of an unorganized Confraternity, which worked in hiddenness and had no propaganda, no public reunions, no rule but that of a common loyalty and intention and a mutual reverence and love. Their intention was union of the Church, by showing union of all professing Christians in harmony and peace.
Although we know little of the ongoing relationship between Underhill and Sorella Maria, we do know that the latter appeared briefly in Underhill’s life at a time when she decided to recommit herself again to the church. It seems likely that Sorella Maria made some contributions to that decision. Sorella Maria’s dedication to the Franciscan themes of church unity and peace later became major themes in Underhill’s own life and work.
(Those EUA associates, men and women, interested in becoming members of a Spiritual Entente dedicated to prayer for church unity and peace should write: Spiritual Entente, c/o Dana Greene, 1209 Tulane Dr., Alexandria, VA 22307.)