The Pilgrim Desires to Flee from the World

John Amos Komensky was born in 1592 in Moravia.  Well educated at several European universities, he became minister of a church at Fulneck, Moravia.  War caused him to flee to Brandeis but his wife and children died along the way.  In a hut in Brandeis he wrote the spiritual masterpiece from which our selections are taken, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.  

The wars in Europe continued to harass Komensky all his life.  He lived in Silesia, then England, where the civil war in 1642 forced him to move to Sweden.  He was appointed Moravian (Unity) Bishop of Lissa in 1648. Poland and Sweden began to fight, resulting in Komensky’s home and library being destroyed by fire.  He moved to Amsterdam. He died there and his buried at the church of the French Protestants.  Following the scholarly custom of the day, Komensky took a Latin name, Comenius, by which he is found in most historical writings.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Komensky is considered the father of modern education. He advised Protestant governments all over Europe.  He was the first to promote universal education, picture books for children written in their native tongues not Latin, and other innovations.  His life belies the notion that those who believe in heaven and hell do not focus on improving life on earth. 

This selection is one of those that is not happy and bright.  But, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the “good news” of Christ does not begin with comfort and affirmation. Hang on; our next installment continues with Komensky’s vision of Christ.

John Amos Kemensky, from The Labyrinth of the World, Chapter 26

(The Pilgrim beholds the Dying and Dead. The Bottomless Abyss beyond the World.)

3. Looking now about me, I behold the ways of the dying, of whom there were many; and I see a mournful thing–to wit, that all gave up the ghost with horror, lamentation, fear and trembling, knowing now what would befall them and whither they would go. Although I was afraid, yet wishing to ever acquire more knowledge, I walked through the rows of the dead to the limits of the world and of light. Here, where others, shutting their eyes, blindly cast forth their dead, I threw off the glasses of Falsehood, rubbed my eyes, and leaned forward as far as I dared. And I behold awful darkness and gloom, of which the mind of man can find neither the end nor the ground; and there was here naught but worms, frogs, serpents, scorpions, rottenness, stench, the smell of brimstone and pitch that overwhelmed body and soul, generally unspeakable horror. 

(The Pilgrim falls to the Ground terrified.)

4. Then My bowels quaked, my whole body trembled, and, terrified, I fell swooning to the ground, and cried mournfully: “Oh, most miserable, wretched, unhappy mankind! This then, is your last glory! This the conclusion of your many splendid deeds! This the term of your learning and much wisdom over which you glory so greatly! This the rest and repose that you crave after countless labors and struggles! This the immortality for which you ever hope! Oh, that I had never been born, never passed through the gate of life! For after the many vanities of the world, nothing but darkness and horror are my part! O God, God, God! God, if you are a God, have mercy on wretched me!”

 

 

 

“Their mind is changed and passes into lasting melody”

Another entry from Richard Rolle’s 14th century Christian classic, The Fire of Love.  A glimpse of the afterlife. There is no greater image of heavenly joy and flourishing than music. 

The Fire of Love, chapter 5

Therefore all those who are filled with love and joy, the seekers after inextinguishable heat, unite to sing in one glorious choir of rich melody; and now this company of friends has the shade of heaven to protect them against the scorching of lustful flattery and ill will. The very fervour of their sweet love ravishes them with the sight of their Beloved. Flowering through this loving flame into all virtue they rejoice in their Maker. Their mind is changed and passes into lasting melody. From now on their meditations become song. Melancholy has been driven out of the mansion of their spirit, and it now resounds with wondrous melody. The one-time torment of their soul has vanished, and now in glowing health they dwell in the heights of harmony, in the wonderful rhythm of sweet and melodious meditation. 

–Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

Someone to Meet in the Next World

One of the most astonishing accounts in modern times is Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven.  It made a splash when published in 2012, because this was a near-death experience (NDE) unlike any other.  Beforehand, Alexander was a skeptic about the after-life and about NDEs.  He was an unsentimental and successful neurosurgeon who believed, like many in the medical community, that NDEs were hallucinations created by neuro-transmitters continuing to fire in the brain when consciousness ceased.  But his own illness seemed specifically designed to undermine that theory.  He was suddenly overcome by a rare meningitis that not only placed him in a coma but shut down his brain.  All the specialists involved told his family that if he ever recovered from his coma he would be a vegetable.  After a week they were just about to “pull the plug” when he opened his eyes and began talking.  He was completely cured and no one could understand how.  But we might understand the why.  I have not finished the book yet much less rendered a decision on how kosher its theology is.  But Alexander’s life since then reminds me of Mark Helprin’s epigram to Winter’s Tale:

I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me. 

Near the beginning of his experience, Alexander finds himself flying without an aircraft over a paradisical land. Assuming it is true and not a hallucination it reminds us that mystic wonder has more to do with people than place.  And it gives a rock solid glimpse of what “higher and holier” means. 

Proof of Heaven

Someone was next to me: a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes.  She was wearing the same kind of peasant-like clothes that the people in the village down below wore. Golden-brown tresses framed her lovely face….

The girl’s outfit was simple, but its colors–powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach–had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else in the surroundings had.  She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for a few moments, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it is so far.  It was not a romantic look.  It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these…beyond all the different types of love we have down here on earth.  It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being more genuine and pure than all of them.

In the end of the book, Dr. Alexander, who was adopted as a baby, is given an old photo and discovers this girl is his birth-sister whom he never knew.

See it on Amazon

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey to the Afterlife, by Dr Eben Alexander.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.  Copyright 2012 by Dr. Eben Alexander.  All rights reserved.

A Prison, A Paradise: Time Travel

Fountains_Abbey_view_crop1_2005-08-27

Finishing up our selection from Gay Taylor’s pseudonymous memoir. Not long after the previous events, she and a friend visit the ruins of an Abbey and have one of the most astonishing experiences anyone has ever had. 

January 5th, 1948. The highlight of my visit, and one of the occasions of our lives, came on New year’s Eve. Alison and I went by a variety of buses to Ripon, and set off on a cloudy winter afternoon, in a taxi to the gates of Fountains Abbey.  I had clamoured for years to revisit it, for I had loved it as a child and had never seen it since. Fountains2-49We dismissed the taxi at the gates, walked by frost-whitened paths between silvery evergreens, then down towards the roar of the Skell [river] and the dim lovely ruins.

Repair-work was going on and scaffolding towered above the Chapel of the Nine Altars. As dusk fell, we stood together on the south side of the cloister-garth, looking north, towards the cedar and the great grass-grown walls and the tower. As as we stood silently watching, they began to change. 

fountains-abbey

A soft, silvery-amber and quite unearthly light like warm moonlight lay over them.  But there was no moon; it was not due to rise for hours yet. In utter silence—where was the roar of the Skell?—the whole ruin changed, rebuilt itself: the walls were intact, the church and the Chapel of the Nine Altars became roofed and perfect. The pinnacled tower stood out newly finished, a deeper amber than the rest. The entire structure was silver-gilt in colour, and this colour seemed to be struck out of it by the silvery light in which it was bathed. We both stood awestruck, wordless, not moving, for what seemed a long time. “There’s no scaffolding,” breathed Alison at last in a soft amazed tone. I didn’t answer, for I thought, “Why should there by scaffolding? We’re seeing it as it was about 1520, when Huby’s tower was finished, and they’ve only just removed the scaffolding.” But then I realized that we were both seeing the same thing. She said later that she had meant the scaffolding that showed above the Chapel of the Nine Altars, where (certainly from the time and place in which we now were) there was no scaffolding.

We saw no Cistercian monks, brought back no useful information whatever, we merely stood for a timeless moment, for eternities or for ten minutes, seeing Fountains as it was a few years before the Reformation.

Fountains Abbey N950001

Last night, as usual, I sat and composed myself. It was about a quarter to eleven by my very wrong clock. And almost at once, something akin to the “sun flower” came back—that indescribably sense of the inflooding, enfolding, brimful-filling of God’s burning love, and the knowledge that the material universe, the atmosphere, world, body are screens of mercy, which in our fallen state are there as a protection. That God’s love meeting only foulness would destroy and disintegrate it; that the screen is our shelter and our opportunity. But it is no more than a screen; there is no least corner of the universe where God’s love is not.

And for the first time I began to understand this strange idea: the spatial location of the Heavenly Heart. It was like “the fifth month, when the child moves.”