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

The Mercy as Blissful as Heaven

More from Simone Weil’s remarkable Waiting on God. Weil was introduced two installments ago. 

Simone Weil

I do not need any hope or any promise to believe that God is rich in mercy. I know this wealth of his with the certainty of experience; I have touched it. What I know of it through actual contact is so far beyond my capacity of understanding and gratitude that even the promise of future bliss could add nothing to it for me; since for human intelligence the addition of two infinites is not an addition.

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Through the Lord’s Prayer to the infinite

Simone Weil was introduced in the previous post.  In this passage she continues the same letter to Father Perrin.  Not all of her statements in Waiting for God are theologically kosher.  However, she was the type of seeker and philosopher who insisted on following truth wherever it led, and who can say whether her journey in theological learning was complete when her brief life ended?  God uses and blesses imperfect vessels to do his work.  

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

From Waiting for God

Since that time I have made a practice of saying [the Lord’s Prayer] through once each morning with absolute attention.  If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.  Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse. 

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. 

At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view.  The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or third degree.  At the same time filling very part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound.  Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence. 

Afterword

In this book Simone Weil writes that she had never read any “mystical works.”  She had not, until a few months before this letter, ever prayed to God.  This passage shows that entirely on her own, she discovered a practice known to Christians since the early centuries of the church: reaching God by meditating on His word.  Such is the grace and power of our Lord. 

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. 

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; 

pics-of-jesus-hd-images-backgrounds-christs-mobile

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.

Six-winged Angels of Fire

Sorry for the delay; I’ve been traveling and far too busy lately. We return to mystical experiences of the Old Testament. After Jesus, probably the most important and poetic of all the Biblical prophets is Isaiah. But, apparently, he was not always so willing or gifted. This is the famous story of his calling to a new life. It’s a prime example of several elements: 1) the fear that acknowledges God’s holiness, 2) God’s quick forgiveness that follows this recognition, and 3) the resulting eagerness to do God’s will.  And if that process reminds you of the New Testament gospel’s effect, it is no accident. 

Isaiah, chapter 6

The year King Uzziah died I saw the Lord! He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the Temple was filled with his glory. Hovering about him were mighty, six-winged angels of fire. With two of their wings they covered their faces, with two others they covered their feet, and with two they flew. In a great antiphonal chorus they sang, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is filled with his glory.” Such singing it was! It shook the Temple to its foundations, and suddenly the entire sanctuary was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “My doom is sealed, for I am a foul-mouthed sinner, a member of a sinful, foul-mouthed race; and I have looked upon the King, the Lord of heaven’s armies.”

Then one of the mighty angels flew over to the altar and with a pair of tongs picked out a burning coal. He touched my lips with it and said, “Now you are pronounced ‘not guilty’ because this coal has touched your lips. Your sins are all forgiven.”

Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send as a messenger to my people? Who will go?”

And I said, “Lord, I’ll go! Send me.”

–Translated from Hebrew to English in The Message, Eugene Peterson.