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

Infinite Love says: “Pull up a chair. Join me. Let’s dig in.”

George HerbertGeorge Herbert was a vicar in the Church of England as well as one of the most beloved poets of the 17th century. The monasteries on England were no more, but it is clear that neither all-out devotion to God nor mystical experience had disappeared. Herbert wrote many poems expressing a deep, affective devotion and an imagination awakened to God’s infinite love as found in Jesus.

The following poem is one of his best.  It assumes knowledge of the New Testament’s simple teaching, “God is love.”  With connotations of the communion rite, it describes our hesitancy to accept the grace of God. “Can I really join You, be with You, without becoming perfect first, without having earned the right?”

The poem had a momentous effect on the 20th century philosopher and social activist  Simone Weil, as we will see in the next installment.

Love III

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                             Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here:”
                             Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
                             “My dear, then I will serve”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat:”
                             So  I did sit and eat.

Quotation marks added to clarify who's speaking. 

“Whatever struggles you have, transfer them to Me”

Sorry, fans, for the longest delay ever!  Travels, new jobs, new schools, hurricanes, bees, sin.

Another from our series by John Amos Komensky. The pilgrim responds to Jesus’ welcoming words. He tells Jesus he will do whatever Jesus asks, to be nothing, so that Jesus will be everything.

Chapter 39

Their Betrothal

Jesus replies,

I accept this from you, my son.  Hold to this, become, call yourself, and remain my own. Mine, indeed, you were and are from all eternity, but you did not know it. I have long prepared for you that happiness to which I will now lead you; but you did not understand what I was doing. I have led you to yourself through strange paths and by round-about ways; you did not know this, nor what I, the ruler of all my chosen ones, intended. Neither did you perceive by what means I worked on you. But I was everywhere with you, and therefore somewhat guided you through these crooked paths, that I might at last bring you even closer to me.  Neither the world, your guides, nor even Solomon could teach you. There is no way that they could enrich you, content you, satisfy the desires of your heart, because they didn’t have what you were searching for. But I will teach you everything, enrich you, and content you.

“This only I demand of you: that whatever you have seen in the world, and whatever struggles you have witnessed among people, you should transfer it to me, and lay the burden of it on me. This as long as you live, shall be your work and your task; of that which men seek there in the world, but don’t find—that is, peace and joy—I will give you in abundance.”

From Komensky’s The Labyrinth of the World.  As with many of our selections this one is taken from The Protestant Mystics, selected and edited by Anne Fremantle, with an introduction by W. H. Auden. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964. I have modernized some of the syntax and vocabulary for contemporary readers.

How to Find What You Have Always Wanted

Continuing from the previous installment and the vision of the 17th-century Moravian educator and bishop John Amos Komensky. Recall that shortly before these mystical experiences Komensky lost his wife and children while fleeing war. We can be sure that, as Frank Laubach expressed it, Komensky had “the heart of his heart cut by suffering.”  This passage continues his vision of Jesus Christ.

…Then He, seeing me overwhelmed with joy, spoke further to me: “Where, then, have you been, my son? Why have you tarried so long?  By what path have you come? What have you sought in the world? Joy! Where could you see it but in God; 

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and where could you seek God, but in His own temple, and what is the temple of the living God, but the living temple that He Himself has fashioned—your own heart? I saw, my son, that you went astray, but I want to see it no longer. I have brought you to your own self. I have led you into yourself. For here have I chosen my palace and my dwelling. If you want to dwell with me here, you will find here what you have vainly sought on earth:  rest, comfort, glory, and abundance of all things. This I promise you, my son, that you will not be deceived here as you were there in the world.” 

Christ’s words to Komensky confirm a concept often repeated in the New Testament letters, “Christ in you” (e.g., Col. 1:17). And it confirms many Old Testament verses too. That is because it may well be said that the entire aim of God as recounted in the Bible is to once again bring human beings into fellowship with Himself as it wasand perhaps even better than it wasbefore the Fall. 

As with many of our selections this one is taken from The Protestant Mystics, selected and edited by Anne Fremantle, with an introduction by W. H. Auden. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964. I have modernized some of the syntax and vocabulary for contemporary readers.
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Christ Appears to the Pilgrim

This selection from John Amos Komensky follows on the previous installment, where you can read about his interesting life. 

The Labyrinth of the World, Chapter XXXVIII

The Pilgrim receives Christ as his guest

(Our Illumination comes from on High.)

Behold, a clear light appeared on high, and raising my eyes towards it, I see the window above me full of brightness, and from out of that brightness there appeared One, in aspect, indeed, similar to a man, but in His splendor truly God. His countenance shone exceedingly, yet could human eyes gaze at it, for it didn’t cause terror; rather it had a loveliness such as I had never seen in the world. He then—kindness itself, friendliness itself—addressed me in these most sweet words:

(Wherein the Source of all Light and all Joy lies)

2. “Welcome, welcome, my son and dear brother.” And having said these words, He embraced me, and kissed me kindly. There came from him the most delightful scent, and I was seized by such unspeakable delight that tears flowed from my eyes, and I didn’t know how to respond to so unexpected a greeting. I could only sigh deeply and gaze at Him, feeling meek.

(to be continued)

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–Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-5, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

As with many of our selections this one is taken from The Protestant Mystics, selected and edited by Anne Fremantle, with an introduction by W. H. Auden. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964. I have modernized some of the syntax and vocabulary for contemporary readers.

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 is 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 (instead of 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!”

Accord and discord

Continuing with Frank Laubach’s amazing letters home, introduced a couple of installments ago. 

March 23, 1930

….An hour of any day may be made perfect by merely choosing. It is perfect if one looks toward God that entire hour, waiting for His leadership all through the hour and trying hard to do every tiny thing exactly as God wishes it done, as perfectly as possible. No emotions are necessary. 

April 18, 1930

I have tasted a thrill in fellowship with God which has made anything discordant with God disgusting. This afternoon the possession of God has caught me up with such sheer joy that I thought I never had known anything like it. God was so close and so amazingly lovely that I felt like melting all over with a strange blissful contentment. Having had this experience, which comes to me now several times a week, the thrill of filth repels me, for I know its power to drag me from God. And after an hour of close friendship with God my soul feels clean, as new fallen snow.