In the House of Wisdom

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Continuing with C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress. John has grown up and left to pursue the vision of his Island, which filled him with immense longing. The path westward toward the Island is interrupted by something like the Grand Canyon (most likely representing sin), which no one can cross. John and his companion, Vertue, travel north and south along the canyon seeking help from several people representing different world views and ways of life, but no one understands or believes his goal is real. (Mother Kirk is the exception, but they reject her offer of guidance.) Vertue has become very sick and weak from these interactions and needs healing. And then they arrive at the house of Mr. Wisdom. Here, in allegorical form, is a defense of Longing, the desire for something this world can never satisfy.

Old Mr. Wisdom sits them down on his porch, looking west, and begins to speak.

From The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book VII, chapter 9.

“The words between you and and Reason were true. What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring. If water will not set a man at ease, then be sure it not thirst, or not thirst only, that tormented him: he wanted drunkenness to cure his dullness, or talk to cure his solitude, or the like. How, indeed, do we know our desires save by their satisfaction? When do we know them until we say, “Ah, this was what I wanted”? And if there were any desire which it was natural for man to feel but impossible for man to satisfy, would not the nature of this desire remain to him always ambiguous?

“If old tales were true, if a man without putting off humanity could indeed pass the frontiers of our country, if he could be, and yet be a man, in that fabled East and fabled West, then indeed at the moment of fruition, the raising of the cup, the assumption of the crown, the kiss of the spouse–then first, to his backward glance, the long roads of desire that he had trodden would become plain in all their winding, and when he found, he would know what it was that he had sought.

A lady named Contemplation takes John by moonlight to see the island.
Illustration by Michael Hague (c) 1981

“I am old and full of tears, and I see that you also begin to feel the sorrow that is born with us. Abandon hope: do not abandon desire. Feel no wonder that these glimpses of your Island so easily confuse themselves with viler things, and are so easily blasphemed. Above all, never try to keep them, never try to revisit the same place or time wherein the vision was accorded to you. You will pay the penalty of all who could bind down to one place or time within our country that which our country cannot contain. Have you not heard from the Steward of the sin of idolatry, and how, in their old chronicles, the manna turned to worms if any tried to hoard it? Be not greedy, be not passionate; you will but crush dead on your own breast with hot, rough hands the thing loved. But if ever you incline to doubt that the thing you long for is something real, remember what your own experience has taught you.

“Think that it is a feeling, and at once the feeling has no value. Stand sentinel at your own mind, watching for that feeling, and you will find–what shall I say?–a flutter in the heart, an image in the head, a sob in the throat: and was that your desire? You know that it was not, and that not feeling whatever will appease you, that feeling, refine it a you will, is but one more spurious claimant–spurious as the gross lusts of which the giant* speaks.

“Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember “it is” you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it….”

***

*The Spirit of the Age, Freudianism, which says spiritual longing is merely disguised sexual desire.

Afterword

Wisdom is not the lady Wisdom of the Bible; he is philosophical idealism. In the next chapter John discovers that Wisdom’s children do not adhere to his strict diet. They enjoy rich foods from other world-views and their own views are all over the map: the children of philosophical idealism include Marx, Herbert Spencer, Spinoza, Rudolf Steiner, Kant, and Bernard Bosanquet (an obscure figure to me, he was a 19th century English philosophical idealist and neo-Hegelian).

In his next session with John, Wisdom explains philosophical idealism without, of course, calling it that. The explanation is allegorical, like the rest of the novel, and terse. But those qualities may make it easier to follow if you’re unacquainted with the topic. If you are familiar with Hindu philosophy, the similarities will leap out at you.

Following these talks, Vertue is completely healed. He says he must go onward, down into the canyon bottom and then up the other side. He and John argue, for has not Wisdom told them that the other side cannot be reached, except by contemplation? To Vertue it matters not; he must go on even if he dies. Vertue is willing to abandon every scrap of creature comfort, including friendship. John decides he must follow him.

And we will find out if Mr. Wisdom was right, that our longings are real and good and must be kept alive, but their attainment is hopeless.

Grand Canyon photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

“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.