New Series Vol 2 No 2
THE CHRISTIAN PARAPSYCHOLOGIST
New Series Volume 2 No 2 March 2020
Editor: Dr Robert A. Gilbert
by Steven Molvarec
by Marion Browne
by James Ayton
by R. A. Gilbert
by John Wyborn
by Leslie Price, Monica Derrick, Matthew Arnold and the Editor
Papers, brief articles, reviews and editorial correspondence for publication should be submitted, in electronic or printed form, to the editor, Dr R. A. Gilbert, at 215 Clevedon Road, Tickenham, North Somerset BS21 6RX, England (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Books and periodicals for review should be sent to the editor at his postal address, above.
The Christian Parapsychologist is a publication of The Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, Office 8, The Creative Suite, Mill 3, Pleasley Vale Business Park, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, NG19 8RL.
With this issue I have completed eleven and a half years as editor of The Christian Parapsychologist, and this is my last editorial, my Swansong if you prefer. I have reached a point at which age and indifferent health, plus an awareness of passing time and the need to work diligently on three books which are languishing in various stages of completeness, all direct me to the need to retire from the editorial post.
A new editor, who will be announced formally in due course, will bring renewed vigour to the task and I am quite sure that The Christian Parapsychologist will thrive in years to come, maintaining the necessary fine balance between the psychic and spiritual elements of its contents. Bear in mind that editors of the journal come and go, but what remains constant is the presence of you – the readers.
Your input of articles, letters and reviews is essential. Without them there would be no CP; our pool of authors (whether unexpected, voluntary or merely vulnerable to brow-beating) both within and beyond the membership of the Fellowship frequently appears to have dried up, but always Mr Micawber is justified: something has turned up. However, we cannot rely on chance alone: constant pressure for creative activity by members has to be continually exerted. I know that this blunt demand is one you have heard at every Annual Conference, and I am grateful to those who have regularly submitted contributions – and who happily continue to do so – but I am all too aware that both they and I, for I shall not cease to write for the journal, also continue to age; that our energy declines however much our enthusiasm remains.
This is a problem common to journals in all fields of interest, and its solution lies in obtaining a significant increase in contributions, and contributors. We need both our established authors and new writers who come with fresh approaches to our subject matter. This is not simply in order to slaughter sacred cows and cast out established scientific and religious concepts, theories and beliefs, but to re-appraise them with fresh analyses and methodologies that enable them to be re-formulated in a manner appropriate to an increasingly digital age.
This demands not only cold print for what we publish, but also integrated words and visual images for the interactive, digital format that we must develop in parallel with the printed version of the journal. We must present our content in a meaningful and accessible manner, with a growing emphasis
on its being interactive. But with whom do we seek to interact? Our membership is shrinking, and probably our readership also, and our age profile is narrow. We need to attract younger readers and potential members, most of whom will have been reared on social media and internet web-sites – and who will thus be more familiar with dubious and uncritical sources of information (Wikipedia among them), than with standard, objective printed works. It would be patronising to suggest that we need to spoon-feed potential new readers, but we should not make any assumptions about what they have read or know in the psychic and spiritual fields. Nor can we guess what their beliefs may be until we learn this from their reaction to our work – which will be nothing at all unless we can bring them to engage with our texts. Appropriate presentation will be critical, but I am confident that this can be achieved. These are, of course, counsels of perfection for a digital world – not something to be achieved by me, but a task for my successor and for future generations of Fellowship members. Here I must return to the present reality of the material journal, and offer an overview of my personal approach to its editing during the last decade. The editor’s role is to polish the text as far as grammar, punctuation and spelling are concerned; to correct silently misquotations and errors of literary, historical and other material fact; and to excise anything libellous or abusive. It is never the business of an editor to interfere with an author’s text in judgemental terms; the ideas, arguments and conclusions are the author’s own. Have I succeeded in being such a model editor ? I like to think so, but it has not always been easy.
My editorials have tended to reflect my own viewpoint – that of a traditional, orthodox Christian, but leavened by a fair degree of tolerance and a willingness to consider critically views that are sometimes widely and wildly at variance from my own. As far as the contributions at hand have permitted, I have tried to provide in each issue a balance in the content between the psychic and the spiritual and – when required – between traditional orthodoxy (in both fields) and innovative, more avant garde contributions. I greatly regret the lack of balance in this issue – there is very little ‘psychic’ content – but if it is permissible to judge my overall performance on the basis of ‘Letters to the editor’ that have been written (and subsequently published), then readers in all of these camps have been regularly stimulated to write, and I may thus, or so I believe, claim a measure of success. And with as little intrusion as possible of myself – usually a consequence of a bare editorial cupboard when it does happen, which is my only excuse for intruding once more in my final issue.
Robert A. Gilbert
To begin with an explanation, this is not a paper on the nature of either alchemy or mysticism, although they do have a common goal. Nor is it an essay in literary criticism of alchemical and mystical texts. It is simply an introductory survey of the parallels to be drawn between the recorded experiences of the alchemist and the mystic, more especially in English poetry and poetic prose. My aim is also to encourage you to read these texts for yourselves – many of the quotations are abridged – and to seek out other examples for your own spiritual enjoyment.
What, then, do alchemy and mysticism have in common? Both of them have a theory and a practice, and both are concerned with a quest for a change of state. For the alchemist the Great Work is a search for the material transmutation of base metal into gold, by means of the Philosopher’s Stone, together with a parallel quest for the Elixir that will ensure bodily immortality (or at least a very long life). The mystic seeks spiritual transformation – a return from the prison of matter in this fallen world to our primal spiritual state in the Garden of Eden, and ultimately to Divine Union. In each case a difficult task: the mystic must still live in this world, in which the practical steps of the Mystic Way are taken; and the alchemist must be aware that he cannot divorce his work with matter from its effect upon his psycho-spiritual nature.
Here I should emphasise that most alchemical texts are couched in the language of spiritual experience and it is certain that alchemists of the 16th and 17th centuries looked upon their work as having a definite spiritual parallel. The text of ‘The Sophic Hydrolith’ (1) makes this clear:
If any of these unfortunate accidents [i.e. falling into sin during the process of purification] happen to our souls, they must be dissolved again (after the analogy of the chemical compound), by repentance, by .... holy Absolution, .... as well as by the pure heavenly milk of the Lord’s Supper; which is .... the fountain of life – which (like the mercurial water of the chemical process) is, to the unworthy and wicked, the most deadly poison, but food, drink, and a source of strength to the repentant believer. Thus he may still attain to what corresponds to the final coagulation and perfect chemical condensation, namely, to the heavenly perfection of eternal beatitude.
What remains unclear is just what such texts mean. What exactly is it that is being transmuted? Is it the ‘gross matter’, the lead of the alchemists, that the Stone turns to gold after a series of complex physical processes, or is it our inner selves, our spiritual essence, transformed by following the stages of the Mystic Way? The answer, I believe, is that both material alchemy and spiritual alchemy are parallel approaches to the same end, which is also the goal of the mystic.
The trouble is that we have no words which can adequately and unambiguously describe either path. In each case symbolic language must be used, and this is just as baffling when applied to the physical processes of alchemy as it is when describing spiritual experiences. Material alchemists have an advantage in that they are able legitimately to employ the technical language of chemistry, albeit applied in very strange ways, and they can make use of a rich store of symbolic, visual images. This does not mean, however, that we can readily understand and interpret those symbols without the aid of both dictionaries of chemistry and handbooks of symbolism.
As for the mystics – the spiritual alchemists – there is no direct language whatsoever that will serve to describe meaningfully, and even less to communicate, the nature and content of their personal experiences, however we may label them: spiritual, mystical, transcendent, or illuminative. In terms of plain language, we must rest content with labelling them as what they are: ineffable. At the least, this enables us to allow such experiences to have a meaning. And whether they are our own experiences, or those of others, reported directly or indirectly, they are a reality. They happen.
It is with this type of experience, and thus with the processes of spiritual alchemy that I am concerned, not with material alchemy. There are, however, many symbolic terms held in common, and I shall try to draw parallels between the stages of the alchemical process and the steps on the Mystic Way, but these similarities are suggested by description – they are not exact parallels of practical rules. Bear in mind also that the words I quote are largely from the work of English poets who were not alchemists, in any conscious sense, although they were, like the alchemists, striving to convey in plain language concepts and experiences that are anything but ordinary.
Everyday language can describe the material process of alchemy in terms of experimental practice, stage by stage, using both the terms of their chemical laboratories, and the visual symbols of the substances and equipment used. What those words and symbols stand for on a spiritual level requires another language that can fully explain the meaning of the process, how it is experienced and understood, and the nature of the ultimate goal. Such a language should not mystify, but should make sense to those who see and read it. Creating it can be done, as in Martin Ruland's Lexicon of Alchemy (1612), although only by the alchemists themselves.
But the common symbols remain and we can understand similar expressions and terms in spiritual texts, whether alchemical or mystical (in a broad sense), provided that we do not wrench them out of context. Their authors made use of literary devices such as simile, metaphor, parable and paradox. We must accept that the spiritual goal of mystic and alchemist is the same, and we may reasonably look for a parallel between the stages of the alchemical process and the steps of the Mystic Way. However, there is no universally accepted classification for either of these, so the two formulae below must not be taken as definitive. Here are the alchemical stages, but it is far from easy to make complete sense of them:
the first process of mystic transmutation, ... is the PURGATION of the interior being, which is the cleansing of the desires of the heart. There is the state of DISSOLUTION, in which the soul dies to itself and to the exterior world,... There is the SEPARATION of the subtle and the gross, which is performed, [by] the desire of God. There is the CONJUNCTION, which is the gathering of the interior forces, ... which is attained partially in the spiritual CONGELATION, ... This is the White Stone of the alchemical allegories. During this period the spiritual work has proceeded in the interior man, without any assistance ... In the next state, however, that of CIBATION, the soul is fed from above, and ... the whole being is sublimated, and it shines, say the Mystics, with a glittering whiteness. The two final processes are called FERMENTATION and EXALTATION. In the first, the spiritual subject, ... is augmented with the spirit of life. The second is a rectification of elements, and it is followed by the MYSTIC UNION, which is the conjunction of God and the Soul, the immersion of human in divine consciousness, ... which constitutes the bliss of Nirvana, the beatific vision, and the perfect rest in God. (2)
The steps on the Mystic Way are given simply by Evelyn Underhill, thus:
(1) Awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality
(2) Purgation: realisation of the Self's ‘finiteness and imperfection’; the attempt to remove obstacles to ‘progress towards union with God’ by ‘discipline and mortification’
(3) Illumination: awaking to knowledge of Reality and consciousness of the Transcendent Order (’ornaments of the spiritual marriage’). This is the contemplative state; and the experiences of the soul in this state (Visions etc.)
(4) Dark Night of the Soul: ‘final and complete purification of the Self’; a sense of the Divine Absence; purification of the will. Some mystics term it ‘spiritual crucifixion’
(5) Union: the ‘true goal of the mystic quest’.
As this paper is neither a catalogue of texts, nor a handbook of interpretation, I shall leave you to determine for yourselves just where each quotation may justly be placed.
We should consider next the difficulty of finding any words that can describe or convey ineffable experiences, of whatever kind. Here is a moving example, written about the death of a pet dog:
He sighs and is dead. ... Unconsciousness and death have solved everything for him.
I think of Torquil’s helplessness – how unutterable were his last feelings. To me his muteness, his dumbness, was more eloquent than all the words men have uttered down the centuries. (3)
It is no less difficult with human grief, as Alfred Tennyson found when writing of his grief at the death of his friend Hallam:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
There are also experiences of the spirit of which we not only cannot, but must not speak, as St Paul found:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 Corinthians 12: 2-4)
Even when there is no divine bar upon speech, mystics and alchemists alike struggle to find the words. A. E. Waite, a poet and an alchemist, expresses this in his poem, ‘A Song of Sound and of Silence’:
Stars seem to strive at speech and birds at rhyme,
And pregnant rumours pass at even-time,
While out on the tremendous main
The surges break and form, and break again;
We seem to wait
For ever at the opening gate
Of human and intelligible speech,
And ever still the Word is out of reach. (4)
Our inability to formulate the right words in everyday speech was accepted gladly by the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins – but the words of his poem, ‘The Habit of Perfection’ are as eloquent as any could be:
Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Here I should re-state my aims and their limitations. I am not a literary critic and my choice of quotations is designed solely to illustrate the way in which poets, prose writers and ‘literary alchemists’ have made use of literary devices in order to shape for us an understanding of states and symbols, common to alchemy and to spiritual experience in general, that would usually be considered inexpressible. I should also point out that even though most of the poets would never have considered themselves as alchemists, they use analogous terms and, on occasion, symbols drawn from alchemical practice.
Let us look at the goal and the themes of the alchemist and the mystic. The goal is transmutation, and whether material or spiritual the agent is the Philosophers’ Stone, or more simply, the Stone. The process and the goal are summed up in the cry of one early Rosicrucian: ‘Transmutemini, transmutemini de lapidibus mortuis in lapides vivos philosophicos’ (‘[Let us be] changed, changed from dead stones into living philosophical stones’). (5) This is an echo of St Peter’s words in his first Epistle: ‘You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2:5)
Perhaps the most famous description of the Stone as both the Elixir and Christ is George Herbert’s poem, ‘The Elixir’:
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean. ...
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.
The way to finding the Stone is put in another way by the German mystic, Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffler) in ‘The Philosophers’ Stone’, as one of the aphorisms in his Cherubinic Wanderer:
Travel within thyself! The Stone
Philosophers with wisest arts
Have vainly sought, cannot be found
By travelling in foreign parts.
Alchemists, too, have eulogised the Stone.
Thomas Vaughan, in his poem, ‘A Stone and the Stony Heart’, identifies it with the heart:
Lord God, this was a stone
As hard as any one
Thy laws in Nature framed.
’Tis now a springing well
And many drops can tell,
Since it by Art was framed.
My God, my heart is so;
’Tis all of flint and no
Extract of tears will yield.
Dissolve it with Thy fire,
That something may aspire
And grow up in my field. (6)
And its divine nature is explained in alchemical terms in The Hermetic Museum:
I have briefly and simply set forth to you the perfect analogy which exists between our earthly and chemical, and the true and heavenly, Stone, Jesus Christ, ... the earthly Stone is a gift from God, descending by the clemency of the Celestial Stone. ... it would be folly to attempt the study of so profound a mystery [i.e. material transmutation] without a good previous knowledge of Nature and her properties. But I also say that it is not merely difficult, but quite impossible, to prepare the Philosopher’s Stone without a true knowledge of Christ, the heavenly Corner Stone, in whom all Nature lives and moves, and has its being.
The Stone is also central to Charles Williams's novel, Many Dimensions (1931). This is the climactic transmutation in the story, when the Stone and its bearer become one, before passing into another mode of being:
He had seen the Types come together and pass through her form, colouring but never confusing it, till they had entered entirely into the Type upon her hands. But ... he saw suddenly that the great process was reversing itself. As all had flowed in, so now all began to flow out, out from the Stone, out into the hands that held it, ... he saw that body receiving the likeness of the Stone. ... what the Stone had been she now was. Along that path, offered it by one soul alone, it passed on its predestined way – one single soul and yet one not solitary. ... The Stone that had been before them was one with the Stone in which they had been ...
In other texts the Stone is described as a jewel, bought at great price, as in Jesus’ Parable:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
Angelus Silesius, in ‘What a Man would not lose, that must he be’ (The Cherubinic Wanderer), uses the Pearl to place the Kingdom of Heaven within us:
The Wise Man is that which he hath.
The precious Pearl of Paradise
Wouldst thou not lose, then must thou be
Thyself that Pearl of greatest price.
Attaining the Kingdom, or some analogous state, also involves great effort, expressed dramatically by Jacob Boehme, in his Aurora, but without use of the alchemical language that he often employed in that book and elsewhere:
And then the spirit did break through. ... when, in my resolved zeal, I gave so hard an assault, storm and onset upon God, and upon all the gates of hell, .... suddenly, after some violent storms, my spirit did break through the gates of hell, even into the inmost birth of the Godhead, and there I was embraced with love, as a bridegroom embraces his dear bride. What kind of spiritual triumph it was in the spirit I can neither write nor speak; it can only be compared with that where life is born in the midst of death, and is like the resurrection of the dead.
In quite a different manner this state of being is often perceived as a return to, or memory of, the innocence of childhood. The poet and mystic Thomas Traherne was entranced by this perception and recorded it at length (here much abbreviated) in his Centuries of Meditations:
Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child....
All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine.
Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. .... Verily they seem the greatest gifts His wisdom could bestow.... They are unattainable by book, and therefore I will teach them by experience. Pray for them earnestly: for they will make you angelical, and wholly celestial. ... (7)
Traherne supplemented all this with his poem, ‘Desire’:
For giving me Desire,
An Eager Thirst, a burning Ardent fire,
A virgin infant flame,
A Love with which into the World I came,
An Inward Hidden Heavenly Love,
Which in my soul did work and move,
And ever ever me Enflame
With restless longing, Heavenly Avarice,
That never could be satisfied,
That did incessantly a Paradise
Unknown suggest, and something undescried
Discern, and bear me to it; be
Thy Name for ever praised by me.
A similar sentiment is present in ‘The Retreat’, a poem from Silex Scintillans (1655), by Henry Vaughan (Thomas's brother):
Happy those early dayes, when I
Shin’d in my Angell-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy ought
But a white, Celestiall thought,
When yet I had not walkt above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back (at that short space,)
Gould see a glimpse of his bright-face;
When on some gilded Cloud, or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an houre,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;...
The successful quest for the Elixir, the Stone, the Kingdom, the state of being in the presence of God – and the way of attaining and maintaining it – has always been a major theme for both alchemical authors and mystical poets. For some it is the paradox of the infinite in the finite, and vice versa, as with William Blake, who wrote, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,’ and rhapsodised, in Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour ...
For Angelus Silesius it was a journey of return:
When I die into God, I once again return
There where I was eternally ere I was born.
To which Blake provides a key:
I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
(Jerusalem, ‘To the Christians’)
And when we are there, how do we perceive that ineffable eternity (if ‘when’ and ‘how’ are the right words to use), and what follows for us? There are no adequate words, but Henry Vaughan put it like this (in his poem ‘The World’):
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d, in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d. :
In another of his poems, ‘The Night’, he draws on Dionysius:
There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.
Visions of this ultimate changed state of our transmutation, or transformation, vary from poet to poet, from eye to eye. Here are the words of two Irish poets; first Edward Dowden’s poem, ‘Initiation’:
Under the flaming wings of cherubim
I moved toward that high altar. ...
How came I back to earth ? I know not how,
Nor what hands led me, nor what words were said.
Now all things are made mine, – joy, sorrow; now
I know my purpose deep, and can refrain;
I walk among the living, not the dead;
My sight is purged; I love and pity men.
Then ‘Immortality’, by George Russell (A. E.):
We must pass like smoke or live within the spirit’s fire;
For we can no more than smoke unto the flame return
If our thought has changed to dream, our will unto desire,
As smoke we vanish though the fire may burn.
Lights of infinite pity star the grey dusk of our days:
Surely here is soul: with it we have eternal breath:
In the fire of love we live, or pass by many ways,
By unnumbered ways of dream to death.
In its essence this transformed state cannot be described by any form of words; mystics and alchemists alike approach it obliquely. Thomas Vaughan admonished his readers,
that whosoever seeks the Philosopher’s Mercury in metals, of what kind soever they be, is already out of the way; for that Philosophic Mercury so much talked of is a water, and in metals water there is none; for the Sulphur hath not only congealed it there but hath withal dried it up. ... To make an end, know that the philosophers have two Mercuries or waters, the First and Second. Their first is the spirit of our antimony; and here understand me rightly. Their second is that of Mercury and Venus philosophical; and this of itself is all-sufficient. (Euphrates, 1655)
Evelyn Underhill, writing under her pseudonym of ‘John Cordelier’, summed up the attainment of the Mystical Quest in poetic prose:
The Spiral Way has reached its consummation, and we find that consummation to be one with the work of the Crucible, as it was conceived by the spiritual alchemists in the past. It is the heavenly work of Love Triumphant: energising love, which is the life of God within the heart. That Mercury of the Wise, the vital principle of growth and change, working in secret, has subdued all things to the measure of its glory: has turned the raw stuff of human nature into alchemic gold. The end of that mystic process, said the hermetic masters, is the raising of the Crowned Queen – Luna, perfected human nature, bride and mirror of the Sun – to a sharing in the splendour of her King. (8)
Even more overtly alchemical poetic prose was employed by W. B. Yeats, in his work, Rosa Alchemica (1897):
I understood the alchemical doctrine, that all beings, divided from the great deep where spirits wander, one and yet a multitude, are weary; and sympathized, in the pride of my
connoisseurship, with the consuming thirst for destruction which made the alchemist veil under his symbols of lions and dragons, of eagles and ravens, of dew and of nitre, a search for an essence which would dissolve all mortal things. I repeated to myself the ninth key of Basilius Valentinus, in which he compares the fire of the last day to the fire of the alchemist, and the world to the alchemist's furnace, and would have us know that all must be dissolved before the divine substance, material gold or immaterial ecstasy, awake. I had dissolved indeed the mortal world and lived amid immortal essences, but had obtained no miraculous ecstasy.
The last word I give to A. E. Waite. Of this state of Mystic Union he wrote – paradoxically in that it does not appear to be quite the final transmutation of the self:
There is a state beyond the images, a repose of inward being, apart from action in the mind.... The state knows not this or that. When it is entered there is no sense of beginning, middle or end, for the state is timeless. It is only on coming out therefrom that the external correspondence in event is found to be exceedingly short. ... The state is not entered and one does not come out therefrom: we are simply in it and subsequently we are not in it, but amidst a terrible experience of lost beatitude in reality.
And we then have a price to pay:
And those who enter into this state come back into the world, with the yoke of the kingdom upon them in a law of service. Then God shall give them work. Of such it is said in the Zohar that the world is sustained by the voice of little children reading the Law. And God is known of the heart. (9)
My closing comment must be a reminder that all of my quotations are of my own choosing. You will, I am sure, find it deeply rewarding to search out other examples for yourselves.
1 Printed in The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged (1678). English translation, 1893. pp. 114-115.
2 A. E. Waite, A New Light of Mysticism. Azoth; or The Star in the East. 1893, pp. 177-178.
3 Alistair Alpin MacGregor, A Last Voyage to St. Kilda (1931)
4 A. E. Waite, A Book of Mystery and Vision (1902), p. 220.
5 Joachim Fritz, Summum Bonum (1629). Often wrongly attributed to Robert Fludd.
6 Thomas Vaughan, Anthroposophia Theomagica (1650).
7 Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations. 1908 From the Third Century.
8 Evelyn Underhill (’John Cordelier’), The Spiral Way, being Meditations upon the Fifteen Mysteries of the Soul’s Ascent (1922). ‘Fifth Triumphant Mystery. The Coronation’.
9 A. E. Waite, Lamps of Western Mysticism: 'The Inward Holy of Holies' (pp. 325-326 and 329-
Transmuting the Word
Alchemy and the Spirit Within
R. A. Gilbert
In terms of ourselves, the gesso and charcoal sketch might be the patterns of our lives, which interact with the physical and they frame the rest of the composition. The sketch brings a sense of convention and solidity. The pigments and gold leaf are what might be the details of our lives, earthly and spiritual – everything that makes our individual lives what they are in all their dark and light and fullness. The pigments and gold leaf are not mere ornamentation: they have symbolic and spiritual value. They bring the icon to life, in much the way the vitality of our lives is bound up with the details. The gold leaf and the way an icon-writer applies it might remind us of the action of God’s spirit, gently breathing life into us. The anointing and blessing of the image make it holy, sets it aside from other art, brings it to life in a way that no other art is. In such a way does God bless us and desires to continue to bless us. Such is the human dignity; such is the way that God’s Spirit wants to dwell with us, in such a way that our being becomes a mediation of the Divine.
For those in a Sacramental tradition, this is the point of the Sacraments – the ordinary matter of life comes to be the very meeting place of the Holy with our lives. For other Christians, this remains the very meaning of Christ’s coming – in taking up matter, he took on our humanity and redeemed it, so that we might come to greater intimacy with God, even greater than that of Adam and Eve walking with the Creator in the Garden. God as Love Loving sought to know each of us as a Guest, Friend, Lover among us.
Provided that this is something of a convincing discussion – that as we find ourselves in the everyday noise of our lives we have separated ourselves from a fundamental aspect of our human existence – what might we be able to do
about it? Surely you have said to yourself as you have been reading: “I can’t live in desert cave!” Or “I’m not a monk!” Or “I have kids and a mortgage and a job!” Or “I don’t know how to sit still!” If we find ourselves even a little like Rilke or those three friends, with God’s grace and our efforts, we can change that. Without selling our houses to buy desert caves or giving up our spouses or children or jobs.
Setting out to find even a moment of Silence, setting out to find even a glimpse of the Divine Friend, we are not alone. Anselm of Bec and Canterbury set off on a similar journey almost a millennium ago. Let his prayer cross our
[Author’s note: This paper is not to be read as a work of formal theology, but rather as a discussion with the aim of providing an introduction to contemplation for Christians, presenting aspects of an ancient tradition in the ways it has manifested among various orders and religious currents, and of promoting the practice of prayer and contemplation. All bible verses are taken from the New International Version, and any errors, mistakes, or misconceptions are entirely mine. I must also express my thanks to my colleagues at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, especially to those who are involved in the Marquette Irenaeus Project (MIP), for which see: https://www.marquette.edu/innovation/the-explorer-challengeawardees.php. This project, generously funded by the university, is designed to study Christian contemplation, its teaching, and its effects on the entire
human person in innovative and multidisciplinary ways.]
On the Practice of Contemplation
Stephen Molvarec, SJ
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you. (1)
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my [psalter], I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’ (13)
Many, many books have been written on both of these ways of contemplation. We might find that we simply desire a lifting of our gaze to God’s regard for us, as did Ignatius. The way we practise contemplation actually does not matter. That we practise contemplation matters greatly – for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our world. It matters to a God who seeks our company, our friendship.
The prophet Malachi says that God will sit with his people like a refiner and purifier of silver (Malachi 3: 3). A common explanation of this verse turns on the idea that when silver is a molten liquid and being purified, once the impurities have been removed, the refiner will be able to see his own image in the mirror-like surface of the silver. Impurities might be our faults, as they were for the three friends. They might equally be our distractions, our repetitive thoughts, our irritation, or anger, or despair. They might be our failure to have good priorities, our failure to love. In Father Burghardt’s description of contemplation, the entire point of a contemplative practice is to help us to unlearn or undo anything that prevents our gaze from being anything other than long and loving or from being caught by anything other than what is Real. By engaging in contemplation, we commit to desiring, seeking, and finding the foundational source of our life, in much the way the third friend did.
Some fellow travellers with those three friends also told another story, about a teacher and a student:
Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you. (9)
Walter Burghardt once famously wrote, “Never have I heard contemplation more excitingly described: a long loving look at the real. Each word is crucial: real … look … long … loving.” (2) Fr Burghardt was surely aware of the Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola’s recommendation that before sitting down to pray, we might pause a moment (“for the length of an Our Father”) and look upon God gazing on us. (3) In these brief comments, the very essence of Christian contemplation is put before us, although Christian tradition provides many extensive descriptions and guides from various schools of spirituality. The question has not been so much the “what” of contemplation, but the “how” of contemplative practice – this has generated near-endless numbers of treatises on prayer, the spiritual life, and mysticism. To varying effect, have these been employed by believers since the time of Christ.
The complexity stems from the essential human problem of seeing and seeing well, as Rilke indicates in his “Wir dürfen dich nicht eigenmächtig malen” (‘We mayn’t paint you just as we please’), with his likening of images to walls that hide God from us. And we need not look to romantic poetry, however, as the gospels themselves indicate a difficulty in human optics. Jesus, in the midst of the Beatitudes, stated unequivocally, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5: 8) which is instructive when read next to Matthew 6: 22, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
Some of the first Christians intent on pursuing a contemplative life were well aware of this difficulty. One of the stories they told encapsulated the needs of our human condition and the complexities of sight, especially when it seeks a glimpse of the divinity that our hearts and souls long for:
And we take a breath and trust that God’s Spirit breathes within us, that as we seek stillness, the Spirit desires it with us, too. As we seek that point of encounter, of union, of restoration, the Spirit seeks it with us. The Spirit seeks to restore the imago dei within us, to polish it until it is the image of Christ (cf. Romans 8: 29). As we seek God’s face, as we pray, it is not ourselves, but the Spirit that acts within us (Romans 8: 23-27).
The ways that we might pray or practise contemplation are truly simple, but not easy. The practice is as follows:
We find a word or a very short phrase that represents our desire to sit with God and our invitation for God to be present with us. We find a relatively quiet time and place to sit for a few minutes. Many find a timer helpful, initially for a period of five or seven minutes, although gradually we can increase the amount of time.
With all those pre-conditions in place, we simply sit. Sometimes we sit noticing God with us; sometimes we sit waiting to notice God with us. We pay attention to our thoughts as though they were train-cars or clouds going by. That is to say that we notice them, but we remain stationary and watch them simply pass. If we notice that we begin following a thought, we simply repeat our word and return to being mutually present with God. We repeat our word and return to sitting with God as often as we need to do so. (10)
If this mode of practice proves difficult for us – perhaps we simply cannot find a time and space to sit, an alternative is to begin with repetitions of the Orthodox Jesus Prayer (“[Lord Jesus Christ], [Son of the Living God], [Have Mercy on me, a Sinner]”. We might do this as we are cooking or walking somewhere or doing anything that does not require mental attention. We can also try and coordinate the prayer with the breath, using each bracketed portion above respectively during the inhalation, a pause, and exhalation. The practice is different from the first described here, but with some dedication, it will bring about interior stillness, and a warming of the heart so that it comes to be close to God’s own heart. (11)
The point of either practice is that we find ourselves coming into God’s presence – which always and everywhere surrounds us but we fail to notice. Sometimes this is lovely with great light and clarity. Sometimes it is mysterious and unclear. At moments like these latter, Rilke is a good companion:
One story that circulated […] tells of three friends who had a reputation for hard work. Each of the three had staked out for himself a way of life he believed faithful to the Christian Gospel. The first one took to heart Jesus’ beatitude ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and chose to spend his life reconciling those who fought one another. The second adopted as his life’s work the care of the sick. The third went out to the desert to live a life of prayer and stillness. The first, for his all efforts, found himself unable to make peace in a world bent on hatred and vengeance and war. Disheartened, he sought out his friend, the healer, to see if he had fared any better. But the second was equally dispirited. So the two went to the third. They told him of their own lives, how they had pursued the noble ventures of peacemaking and healing but had somehow, along the way, lost heart. They begged him to guide them, to tell them somewhere to go, something to do. The three sat in silence a while. Then the third, the desert dweller, poured water into a bowl and told them to look at the water. It lapped up against the sides, agitated, swirling and bobbing up and down. They sat a while. Then he said to them, ‘Look how still the water is now.’ When they looked down again, they saw their own faces. The water had become a mirror. And so the desert dweller said to his friends: ‘It’s that way for someone who lives among human beings. The agitations, the shake-ups, block one from seeing one’s faults; but once one becomes quiet, still, especially in the desert, then one sees one’s failings.’ (4)
But when I lean over the chasm of myself -
my God is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots
This is the ferment I grow out of.
More I don’t know, because my branches
rest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind. (12)
This story, although it probably dates from the period of the Late Roman Empire more than 1,500 years ago, displays many of our contemporary concerns – we yet live in a world that lacks peace and is in need of healing. And our agitations! When was the last time that we had a mere moment of silence, much less a vast desert retreat with days, weeks, years of stillness?
Moment upon moment upon preponderance of moments of our days are filled with mobile-phone screens, Fitbits, the quantified self, YouTube videos, memes, the twenty-four-hour news cycle … an endless, flowing stream of information about ourselves, our world, and every possible imaginable, Googleable bit of flotsam and jetsam. Our world is characterized by its very lack of the absence of noise. Silence is an unwelcome guest.
This is not a new problem. Noise, distraction, anxiety seem to have only grown throughout Modernity. Already in the mid-seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal noted the problems caused by humanity’s inability to sit alone, quietly. (5) Fast-forward nearly four centuries from Pascal and we notice that the problem of stillness and silence has not changed, but we have become all the more artful and devious at hiding behind a near-infinitude of distraction’s minutiae. Chiefly, this is because we seek distraction from two inevitable realities that all of us must encounter: mortality and God.
Silence remains difficult for us because deep within the human condition is a disconnection from the Image of God (imago dei), the Image of Christ in which all humanity was created (see Genesis 1: 27). As a result of our sin, error, distraction, blindness, we are unable to see this Image. But sometimes, in a moment of silence, of pure stillness that we might accidentally find ourselves brushing up against, we might haphazardly catch a fleeting glimpse. This never occurs exclusively by our own striving, but by divine gift alone.
The Divine Image bestowed upon us by the Creator has not been lost, but dirtied, distorted, hidden from our view. We know that it remains, however, since it is simultaneously the source of our dignity as human beings and a faint reminder of our desire for union with God. In God alone is our emptiness made plenitude. In God alone is our heart and soul brought to rest from endless seeking. In God alone are love, life, and light finally found. Any experiences of love or life or graced abundance that we experience are meant to bring us more deeply, to help us to find and restore that Image and to come to see God. (6)
It is no accident, then, that the three friends in the story retold above happened to come to a place of stillness and see their own images reflected. In coming to silence, they came to see clearly what was keeping them from encountering the God they sought in their healing, peace-making, and in all other action.
The Eastern Orthodox Icon is a good device for us to consider how the imago dei might be found and restored in us, by our efforts in cooperation with God’s grace and God’s desire to dwell with us. An icon, in Orthodox theology, is said not only to depict, but also to communicate the very reality that is contained in the image. Sometimes icons are said to be a sort of ‘window’ (7) that makes spiritually present the subject. An icon, thus, is not a mere painting and even the verb ordinarily used to describe its making is that of ‘writing’ (like the Word of God). Divine realities are seen by us, even though it is sometimes true that we see them so often that our eyes become ‘tame’ to what is being unveiled before us. The unseeing, unperceiving sight that is often our lot parallels the way that many might regard an icon – as a mere painting, a bit of kitsch to adorn a prayer corner. (8)
Materially, an icon and its individual, constitutive elements might represent us and our lives. The board might be the material fabric of our lives on earth, the foundational matrix or physical framework in which both painted image and life are laid out. The gesso is a layer of linen and a mixture of chalk and clay that is applied to the board, allowing for an even surface to apply the egg tempera pigments. On the gesso is drawn a fine charcoal sketch of the image – one that follows traditional attributes for the subject being depicted. Next, pigments, to bring the image to life, in full colour. And gold leaf, too. It is a common practice that an iconographer will breathe gently on the gold leaf to help it find its place, often in a halo. Lastly, the new icon is
anointed with oil and prayed over and blessed.
9 Saint Anselm, Proslogion, 1.
10 This form of contemplative practice is often referred to as “Centring Prayer.” Very much has been written on it, particularly by two Trappist monks, M. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. The work of Father Martin Laird, OSA, who has sought to locate this practice in the texts of the desert fathers and other early Christian writers, is invaluable for instruction and consideration of contemplation. See Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
11 Much has been written on this practice. For those beginning on this path, I recommend Mary Margaret Funk’s discussion in her Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life (New York: Continuum, 2001). For more advanced considerations, see Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), Igumen Chariton, The Art of Prayer, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), and (for the stout of heart, in four volumes) The Philokalia trans. and ed. Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979-1995). Also, I should point out that anyone embarking on an extensive practice of contemplation would benefit from a spiritual director.
12 Rilke, “Ich habe viele Brüder in Sutanen” p. 46-47.
13 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), p. 103.
1 Rainer Maria Rilke, “Wir dürfen dich nicht eigenmächtig malen” in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), p.48-9.
2 Walter Burghardt, SJ, “Contemplation: A Long Loving Look at the Real” reprinted in An Ignatian Spirituality Reader, ed. George W. Traub, SJ. (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2008), p. 91.
3 Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises, trans. George E. Ganss, SJ. (St Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1992), § 75. A useful discussion can be found in Robert R. Marsh, SJ’s “Looking at God looking at you: Ignatius’ Third Addition” in The Way, 43/4 (October 2004): 19-28.
4 This text from the Apophthegmata Patrum is provided in translation by William Harmless, SJ, in his Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), vii.
5 Pascal, Pensées, either § 139 or § 168, depending on the edition.
6 This is a partial paraphrase of various lines from Augustine’s Confessions. See Confessions, I.1, X 27. His entire text reflects a dynamic of desiring and seeking God.
7 In parallel, liturgical traditions do this in ritual. The United States Catholic Bishops’ document, Built of Living Stones, describes the liturgy itself as a window: “The sacred liturgy is a window to eternity and a glimpse of what God calls us to be.” (§ 15).
8 The theology of the icon is a topic worth exploring. See Léonide Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon trans. Anthony Gythiel and Elizabeth Meyendorff. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992); M. Francis Mannion, ‘Toward a New Era in Liturgical Architecture,’ Liturgical Ministry 6 (Fall 1997): p. 164, note 24: “The current Western liturgical fascination with the iconographic is, in my opinion, conceptually unstable. The highly subjectivist and expressive conceptions of art operative in Western Catholicism today (reflecting the wider culture) donot seem capable of incorporating – except at a superficial level – the strongly sacramental understanding of the iconic.”
These two, a teacher and a student, both were engaged in practices like the ones described here. In keeping a few simple practices, they found themselves drawn to become like God – the God whose Image they were. Or if you prefer, to become Fire. Or if you prefer, to become Love.
[Fr Stephen Molvarec is a Jesuit priest, currently based in Boston, Mass. Any correspondence, comments, inquiries, suggestions, etc. can be directed to him, care of the editor of this journal.]
The Problem of Evil
M. Scott Peck, famous for his popular work on psychotherapy entitled The Road Less Travelled, wrote a sequel to this in 1983 which is far more disturbing, called The People of the Lie. Peck became a Christian in 1980 at the age of 43, having vaguely identified with Buddhist and Islamic mysticism before that. Perhaps the act of becoming a Christian caused him to reflect more deeply on the need to confront evil, especially among the apparently virtuous. In People of the Lie Peck actually thinks evil is a form of mental illness. He says:
All adults who are mentally healthy submit themselves ... to something higher than themselves, be it God or truth or love or some other ideal. They do what God wants them to do rather than what they would desire ... They believe in what is true
rather than what they would like to be true ... What their beloved needs becomes more important to them than their own gratification. In summary ... all mentally healthy individuals submit themselves to the demands of their own conscience. Not so the evil, however. In the conflict between their guilt and their will, it is the guilt that must go and the will that must win ... The strong will - the power and authority - of Jesus radiates from the Gospels, just as Hitler’s did from Mein Kampf. But Jesus’ will was that of his Father, and Hitler’s that of his own. (1)
Peck quotes C. S. Lewis: “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan. (2) It is Peck’s view that evil people attack others (‘scapegoat’ them is his expression) instead of facing up to their own failings and also as a means of avoiding spiritual growth, which “requires the acknowledgment of one’s need to grow”. Their fault, says Peck, is that they do not hate the sinful part of themselves: “Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are increasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity ... While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good”. (3)This is why Peck calls them ‘The People of
This causes me to wonder: Is it possible that a person’s need to appear good, coupled with an unwillingness to tackle his or her own failings, draws this kind of individual to a fundamentalist approach to religion? Is it the more open and spiritually-minded who have moved on and are much more ready to examine their own consciences and tackle their own faults? At its most basic, a requirement merely to state one’s agreement with a set of beliefs (regardless of whether the implications of those beliefs are understood or not), thus automatically claiming one's ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’, is morally toxic. To maintain with absolute certainty that hell is reserved for every person on this planet - every adult and every child over a certain age (although there is a degree of vagueness about the upper age ‘safety limit’) - who does not accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour - is a hideous affront to divine justice and human reason.
A particular feature of the type of service favoured by fundamentalist churches of the ‘born again’ persuasion is the custom of lifting one’s arms up in worship and inviting the Holy Spirit in. But if such undesirable emotions as
jealousy and spite are already present in people’s hearts and remain unaddressed they risk welcoming in instead entities whose intentions are the very opposite of holy.
Furthermore, fundamentalism has given evangelism a bad name. Its pernicious message is nowadays able to reach a wider audience, particularly among the young. It streams videos of the ‘hellfire and brimstone’ variety, combining terrifying sound effects with lurid images depicting the damned descending into the everlasting flames - and all because nobody had taught these doomed youngsters, whose lives had been suddenly cut short, about Jesus.
Malice flourishes where a doctrine is ethically bankrupt. There is a strong emphasis - and not just in fundamentalist Christianity - on every human being’s sinful nature - which is quite convenient because it lets those most inclined to sin off the hook. According to this doctrine, there is nothing we can do about our innate moral depravity, but everything will be fine if we believe in Jesus because he paid the price for our sins instead. Of course many Christians will interpret substitutionary atonement in ways that appear not to conflict with the notion of a loving God. They will maintain that God sent His only Son to die for us and pay for our sins in order to demonstrate the wonderful love He has for us. But being all-powerful and all-loving and all-righteous, could God not have chosen a more compassionate and fairer way of doing so - one which permitted us to learn by our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions?
Reflecting on ‘sin’, Marcus J. Borg in Speaking Christian sees its roots as lying both in hubris - the pride that causes us to “puff ourselves up to inordinate size - attempting to become godlike”; and also in ‘sloth’, which he defines as “letting others decide your life for you”. The remedy for both, he says, “is a re-centring of the self - we need to centre ourselves in God, not in our own concerns or the lords or powers who rule this world. Centring on God is ‘the way of the LORD’, the path of return, liberation and wholeness”. (4)
Those indoctrinated in the theology of original sin and substitutionary atonement are at a disadvantage because they have, possibly from childhood, been imbued with a deep sense of unworthiness. This causes them to attempt to boost their own feelings of self-importance, or in Borg’s words ‘to become godlike’, whilst lazily submitting to ready-made creeds, thus ‘letting others decide their life for them’. But to call these all-too human weaknesses ‘evil’ in themselves would perhaps be going too far.
The evil arises when these weaknesses come to the fore within a community. Jim Purves, a Scottish Baptist minister, highlights the hazards that can affect a church in particular when, with the best of motives, it tries to pursue what he calls 'intentional community', as opposed to a church that “operates at only a superficial level, minimising interaction between the people present”. (5) He quotes Jean Vanier, founder of the first L’Arche community:
Community is a terrible place. It is the place where our limitations and our egoism are revealed to us. When we begin to live life full-time with others, we discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective or sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. (6)
How, then, does the Christian idea that human evil results from a misuse of our God-given free will help us to understand these problems? St Paul famously observed that the good he wanted to do he did not do, but instead did the evil he did not want to do. Perhaps, like the rest of us, he found it hard to resist temptation. He also knew more than most, judging by his letters, about the difficulties faced by churches.
It seems to me that God has intentionally placed us in communities, consisting often of people with different, and sometimes conflicting, temperaments, preferences, ages and abilities, as a means of bringing us to a right understanding of goodness. Virtue, by its very nature, cannot be imposed on us by force, but only learnt and tested by experience. Even Jesus had his mettle tested by a series of temptations, specially tailored to suit the nature of the work he was given to do by the Father. Abuse of the special powers granted to him, hubris, or cowardice in the face of danger, suffering and death, would have meant failure to carry out the great mission God had
reserved for him.
Why, then, in the prayer Jesus taught us, does the phrase ‘Lead us not into temptation’ appear? There is something ambivalent, even disquieting, about these words. Are we trying to avoid being tested? Or is a loving God deliberately intending to lead us into all kinds of evil temptations unless we beg Him not to?
Perhaps we should examine the problem from a different angle. I would suggest one possibility - that the thought behind the words may have been obscured in translation. The imperative mood of the Greek word translated
as ‘lead’ in both Matthew and Luke - eisenenkes - is, unlikely as it may seem, a compound form of the verb phero, sometimes used to designate a road which ‘leads’ in a certain direction. The Greeks had a different verb - ago - which English also renders as ‘lead’, and which may be employed in the context of a general ‘leading’ his troops into battle. My interpretation of this puzzling passage in the Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is as follows: In our prayers to our Father we seek His guidance and direction in every situation where we may be
called upon to make a judgement as to the right path to follow.
On the question of why evil exists at all, on the other hand, I am inclined to think that only a handful of mystics, prophets and mediums have been able to provide any compelling answers.
The Silesian cobbler Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) had a sudden revelation one Trinity Sunday that “in Yes and No all things consist”. He claimed in his subsequent writings that God is the original Unity, at once everything and nothing, but that this Unity had within itself the principle of negation (which is identified with evil). (7) Artists, writers and musicians will be all too familiar with the idea of constant trial and error in their creative pursuits - of rejecting the imperfect in their efforts to attain as closely as possible to the ideal of their imagination. This struggle is continuous.
An interesting parallel to Boehme’s vision can be found in a book entitled The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle. Famous not only for his Sherlock Holmes stories but also his spiritualist beliefs, Doyle was alleged to have 'returned' after his death via the medium Grace Cooke. In the book, his (now presumably more enlightened) spirit is quoted as saying:
We are suggesting that the powers of evil come under a cloak which hides an ultimate goodness. Being themselves negative in nature they must absorb from life ... all that needs to be cast off or discarded. But while they appear to destroy ... actually they 'transmute' ... As certainly as night follows day ... does evil balance good and good evil ... In this fashion the great cycles roll onwards through aeons of time, their eventual purpose being to help the soul of all humanity to obtain perfect balance and perfect harmony ... God contains both good and evil within Himself. (8)
More recently still, Neale Donald Walsch, in Book 3 of his Conversations with God series, quotes God as telling him:
In ultimate reality there is no such thing as good and evil. In the realm of the absolute, all there is is love. Yet in the realm of the relative you have created the experience of what you call ‘evil’ ... You wanted to experience love, not just know that love is All There Is, and you cannot experience something when there is nothing else but that. (9)
In Book 1 of the same series God claims to be ‘All Things’: “Those who believe that God is All That Is and All That is Not, are those whose understanding is correct”. (10)
To summarise, then, on the basis of the above combined testimonies: God is the Original Unity and He contains both good and evil within Himself. He is All That Is and All That is Not. Humanity is helped to attain balance and harmony and the experience (as opposed to the mere knowledge) of love through the principle of negation, which is identified with evil.
Those of us who do not happen to be mystics, psychics or prophets, on the other hand, and who are dubious about their revelations, must resign ourselves to enduring our trials as best we may, while seething over apparent injustices and questioning the very existence of God.
Christians are especially blessed, however, in having the Sermon on the Mount, the 23rd Psalm and St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 as part of our literature. With the aid of such sublime guidance we are able to renew our strength and sense of purpose, and be assured that every experience, however distressing to us as individuals, ultimately serves the Creator’s loving purpose.
1 M.S. Peck People of the Lie (Arrow Books, London 1991, pp. 87-8)
2 Ibid p. 93, quoting C.S. Lewis in Christianity and Culture, contained in Christian Reflection, ed.
Walter Hooper (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 33)
3 op. cit, pp. 82-4
4 M.J. Borg Speaking Christian (SPCK 2011, pp. 148-150)
5 J. Purves Becoming Who We Are: Re-Envisioning Christian Identity (Baptist Union of Scotland 2018, p. 47)
6 J. Vanier Community and Growth (DLT London, 1981, p. 5)
7 Chambers Biographical Dictionary ed. Magnus Magnusson (W &R Chambers Ltd. Edinburgh 1990, p.172)
8 The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle ed. Ivan Cooke (The White Eagle Publishing Trust 1975, pp. 137-8)
9 Neale Donald Walsch Conversations with God Book 3 (Hodder & Stoughton 1998, p. 176)
10 Walsch Conversations with God Book 1 (Hodder & Stoughton 1997, p. 24)
A Room for the Night
Eternity, it is said, is another night, in another room, in another Holiday Inn
Motoring alone in the Scottish Highlands, some thirty years ago, presented its difficulties in locating a single room for a casual overnight stay. Weekends proved especially fraught. To mitigate the anxiety, it seemed sensible to begin the search mid-morning.
It was a Saturday in high Summer. The hotel was set back from the road and there was ample space for parking. Inside the entrance was an oval hallway with reception rooms radiating from it. The reception desk itself faced the entrance portal.
The activity in the hall was astonishing as numbers of youngish men in smart suits darted like dragonflies across the hall from one room to another. Was there a wedding party in progress ? Taking a stand near the reception desk, it was some minutes before the eye of the receptionist spotted me and my hand luggage.
Although overworked, she responded with alacrity and led me up a flight of stairs, along a passage, and throwing open a door, indicated the vacant room. Sparing us both the usual patter, she added, over her shoulder, we should meet in the hall.
With the bag placed on the floor, I sat down on the bed to take stock. It was above my usual budget but at least there would be cotton sheets instead of the suffocating bri-nylon of the cheaper boarding houses.
Although I am conscious of atmosphere, both sunny and sad, I would not claim an abnormal sensitivity. What fell on me now left no pause for appeal. It was the terror of the fox cornered by hounds and I knew myself to be in some kind of mortal danger.
Grabbing the bag, I sped down the stairs, back to reception. Of the receptionist there was not a sign. I had no idea what I was going to say. In the five minutes away, the frenzied activity of the hall had intensified with the
suited men darting back and forth, weaving themselves around me as I stood, self-hypnotised in their midst, whilst the manic gavotte went on. Relief came when the hotel door flung open and more guests piled in, bringing a current of air which brought me round. Seeing my escape and picking up my baggage, I fled, down the steps and across to the car.
Later, on replaying the scene in my mind, I felt less than honourable towards the receptionist. Had her conduct been quite normal? The alacrity of her movements, the failure to remain in the room, the rush back to her desk? She was so overwrought, did she forget me entirely? Did she recall me several hours later and had she gone to the room expecting to find me settled? Did I become a figment of her imagination? Perhaps even the room itself had a reputation of singularity and my disappearance was an example of that? Such rooms are not unknown even in the best run establishments.
I thought too of the smart men. As there were no flowers were they preparing for a stag party with drunkenness and revelry to follow? Would I have found myself a hapless spectator and another case of the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time?
Lastly, what of the experience itself? Surely this was the dark side of nature, a spiritual attack of evil intensity. Or was there a warning in it? I fled before it and have lived to recall the tale.
Every day, Christians say the Lord's Prayer with these strange clauses: “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” One can only say ‘Amen’ to that.
Evil is a huge, abstract concept which concerns us all, more especially when we feel its consequences in its particulars.
Is the above something that readers can relate to and expound upon?
[Editor’s note: Mr Ayton also notes that his account is ‘open-ended and invites members to submit their own experiences.’ It was clearly very unsettling for him, and it certainly resonates with me, because it reminds me of an experience of my own, in which I was faced with an intangible, but very real, presence of spiritual evil.
This happened in the mid-1990s, while I was staying in Preston Hollow, a village in up-state New York, where I was valuing the library and museum of a small, autocephalous body (The Holy Orthodox Church in America). The museum material, which was only partially accessible, was kept in the basement of the church building. Entry to the steps into the basement was through a door in the lobby of the church. On descending, I felt a growing sense of something unseen, but hostile and decidedly malignant. My response was flight rather than fight and I fled the basement immediately.
There was no obvious source of this spiritual evil, but it seemed to be very localised: my sense of its presence ceased abruptly once I had passed back into the lobby. A few of the church members admitted to feeling uneasy in the basement, and showed no surprise at my reaction but neither they nor I could offer an explanation.
I am aware that both Mr Ayton’s and my experiences were subjective, but I am also sure that our responses were the right ones to make.
If any of our readers have had similar or analogous experiences, or wish to comment upon them, their contributions will be most welcome.]
The Inner Message of Islam
Much of the world’s trouble of today seems to be focused not only upon politics but on religion. We hear much about the ferocity of fundamentalism, especially within Islam which is not well understood within the UK. Less heard about is the spirituality of the Muslim faith, a lot of which resides in the ancient beliefs and practices of Sufism. As part of our programme to share spirituality and friendship with those of other faiths we arranged a meeting some years ago between the London Branch of CFPSS and members of a London Sufi group, Khidmatul Khadim (the name of the Group, which is Arabic for ‘at the service of the servant’ the servant in this case being the Sheikh who founded the School and who termed himself the Servant of God). We first read a short extract from our own 1909 translation of the Koran which had fallen open at the page that morning and which seemed appropriate: ‘God is the LIGHT of the Heavens and of the Earth. Light is like a niche in which is a lamp – the lamp contained in glass – the glass, as it were, a glistening star. From a blessed tree is it lighted, the olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would well-nigh shine out, even though fire touched it not! It is light upon light. God guideth whom He will to His light, and God setteth forth parables to men, for God knoweth all things.’ There followed a period of silent prayer. We then told our guests a little about the Fellowship and invited them to tell us about the Sufi School.
Soraya Ramjane, who is the Training Director of the School in London (and also studies Human Rights Law at University College London), then outlined the history of the foundation, which was initiated in Mauritius in the Nineteenth Century by Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba. Their founder practised love and tolerance towards Christians, despite the inevitable stresses of colonialism in the Victorian era, inviting his followers to ‘compete with Christians in their love for Christ’. Christ is perceived as the Light of God and among the greatest of the Prophets. This is the doctrine of the Sufis in general, many of whom have existed for many centuries, even pre-dating the Prophet himself. Most Sufis are Sunni rather than Shia, but their primary concern is with the purification of the self, the soul. Whilst loyal to Islam, the Sufi seeks to go deep into matters of spirituality regardless of any particular religion. This may separate them to an extent from other Muslim groups – not unlike the Churches’ Fellowship experience within some branches of Christianity.
At the Sufi School, students seek to learn how to work upon their own souls and personalities, which is hard to do unless one lives within a group. You work upon your strengths and weaknesses, not merely as an individual but also in your interaction with others in the group – especially those whom you find especially irritating or annoying. You learn to analyse why you respond in that way, and what this knowledge can teach you about yourself and your attitudes, and your sins and virtues. You learn the twelve steps to peace:
1. The historical level. Each of us is a child of our heritage. We inherit good traits and bad traits from our family, from our race and from the history of that race. We cannot deny these, but we need to learn to recognise them and where appropriate to compensate for them in our progression towards peace.
2. The parental legacy. The strengths we get from our parents and our home background, and also the weaknesses, especially if our upbringing has been interrupted or our parents delinquent. Thus plusses and the minuses have to be faced and adjustments made.
3. Action and reaction. Here the Sufi regards Reaction as negative. Violence is a re-action to the perceived wrongdoing or intemperate behaviour of others, and one is out of control. The student who has learnt Action knows how to initiate peace in response to the actions of others, and is therefore in control of a situation, not allowing the negative performance of others to dictate what happens.
4. Intelligence of the real rather than the imagined. In explaining this step, Soraya referred to the importance of the Present Moment – a theme to which Fellowship members can readily respond, especially those who have studied Dr Martin Israel’s books and sermons.
5. The power of positive thought. Another theme familiar to those who have read the many Christian works on the Power of Positive Thinking.
6. Superiority and inferiority. Keeping the ego in balance; distinguishing pride from self-respect.
7. Understanding the emotions - notably anger, sorrow and fear. Recognising how these emotions, in ourselves and in others, may colour and frustrate our aims. Learning to accept but to compensate for them.
8. Competition and co-operation. Competition can be good, but only within a contest to do good. Co-operation, conversely, may have positive aims, as with all team work, or else it can merely encourage decadence, if the ambience or circumstance is negative, as within a corrupt regime or society.
9. The power of forgiveness. This is essential to peace. If you can forgive you are empowered. If not, you are handicapped.
10. Economy by peace. Examples were given of the actions of Mahatma Gandhi and others.
11. Democracy by peace. Everyone of equal value.
12. Service to humanity.
There is a Sufi saying ‘when God loves you He tests you’, and many find the answer is to have a spiritual master or guide. A wide discussion followed in which our guests revealed that they have a clear belief in life after death (’when you die you face reality’) and they hold out the possibility of reincarnation, as and when it is the will of God. We were touched to read their entry in our Branch Register ‘It is a great pleasure for us to be amongst our brothers and sisters’. Many of those who visited us were below the age of thirty.
[This is an account of a talk given at a meeting of the London Branch of the Fellowship]
Letters to the Editor
We started the services simply to give people the opportunity to choose and sing the hymns they especially liked, and because we saw Christianity as a religion that was simple to state and understand, if not always simple to put into practice, we had hopes that our very basic format might appeal to people who did not usually come to Church. Two themes eventually emerged in the talks we included. The first of these was intended to counter the popular opinion that Christianity was no longer credible, partly by asserting that its least believable aspects were also the least fundamental, but mainly to convey a conviction that our religion, whether or not divinely inspired, is something that works. That there is a pattern discernible in events in this life such that when one sets out to do something for someone else one often receives some unexpected assistance, and that, time and again, in history and our own lives, something has to go wrong for something else, perhaps more important, to go right. This must bring us all hope through our darker hours.
Our second theme was to encourage churchgoers to think more closely about what they are required to affirm week by week as part of the Church of England liturgy in the prescribed services of our denomination, and in other Christian churches. There can be no denying that theology is man-made. Much is unexceptionable, but there are some fundamental doctrines that surely need to be queried.
In one of my talks I accused St Paul of “muddled thinking not worthy of his intellect” in applying to Jesus the image of the sacrificial lamb from the Feast of the Passover, so that his “death on the Cross was the means whereby a vengeful God had been so appeased that he had been persuaded to forgive all the sins of the whole of mankind.” In a later talk I had to apologize to St Paul, having “noticed that it wasn’t St Paul at all [who had introduced ‘the concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world’], but John the
Baptist, as recorded in John’s Gospel (Chapter 1, Verse 29) who had made such an assertion. As Jesus’ ministry was then only just about to begin, this must surely be regarded as a theological statement by the writer of that Gospel.” Jesus had indeed described himself as the Good Shepherd, who was prepared to lay down his life for his sheep, but that is rather different from allowing himself to be led to the sacrificial altar as if he were one of his own
lambs. The New Testament writers were Jewish, so we can see why they endorsed the pre-Christian concept of sacrifice to atone for sin, and applied it to the Crucifixion when this coincided with the Festival of the Passover. But do we need it today, with that image of a lamb with a tube from its heart to a chalice, which predates the proof of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey in 1628?
In this issue of CP, I enjoyed Andrew Fisher’s article on ‘Building a Church’ and was much amused by the W. C. misunderstanding with which it opened. It was especially interesting to read that the floor plan of a [basilica-style] church is modelled on a crucifix. Obvious when you think about it, but I must confess that it had never occurred to me. If the people of the Church, continuing Jesus’ work in the world after he had gone from amongst us, represent the Body of Christ, it is not unreasonable that they should gather to worship in a building that reflects the form of his body. What must seem unreasonable to any outsider, and indeed has done even in the time of St Paul (“folly to the Greeks”), is the adoption as a symbol of the Christian religion an image representing the lowest point in Jesus’ life on Earth.
As an event in history, the Crucifixion makes sense only