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

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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.

Undiscovered continents of spiritual living

Frank Laubach

Frank Laubach suffered intense loneliness and deprivation as a missionary among the Moslems of the southern Philippines.  He wrote letters home to his father and described his “experiment” of living every moment in the presence of God. “I determine not to get out of bed until that mind set up on the Lord is settled.”  Things began to change. By the end of his long life he was among the best known and loved men of the world. For one thing, he had been instrumental in teaching millions of people to read. 

Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic

January 29, 1930

I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt it this way before. I need something, and turn round to find it waIting for me. I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me. God takes care of all the rest. My part is to live this hour in continuous inner conversation with God and in perfect responsiveness to his will, to make this hour gloriously rich. This seems to be all I need think about. 

March 1, 1930

…Perhaps a man who has been an ordained minister since 1914 ought to be be ashamed to confess that he never before felt the joy of complete hourly, minute by minute—now what shall I call it?—more than surrender. I had that before. More than listening to God. I tried that before. I cannot find the word that will mean to you or to me what I am now experiencing. It is a will act. I compel my mind to open straight out toward God. I wait and listen with determined sensitiveness….

rainier-ridao-600681-unsplashBut why do I constantly harp upon this inner experience? Because I feel convinced that for me, and for you who read, there lie ahead undiscovered continents of spiritual living compared with which we are infants in arms. 

–Photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash

And I must witness that people outside are treating me differently. Obstacles which I once would have regarded as insurmountable are melting away like a mirage. People are becoming friendly who suspected or neglected me. I feel, I feel like one who has had his violin out of tune with the orchestra and at last is in harmony with the universe. ivan-torres-376149-unsplash

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

As for me, I never lived, I was half, dead, I was a rotting tree, until I reached the place where I wholly, with utter honesty, F Laubachresolved and re-resolved that I would find God’s will and I would do that will though every fibre in me said no, and I would win the battle in my thoughts. I do not claim success even for a day yet, not complete success all day, but some days are close to success, and every day is tingling with the joy of a glorious discovery. That thing is eternal. That thing is undefeatable. You and I shall soon blow away from our bodies. Money, praise, poverty, opposition, these make no difference, for they will all alike be forgotten in a thousand years. But this spirit which comes to a mind set upon continuous surrender, this spirit is timeless life.

From Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic.

 

“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.

Exodus 19: The Deadly Presence of Holiness

This is the type of mystical experience that leaves us in fear and trembling. This passage is the Grandaddy of that type.

mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104-wallpaperIn the middle of the desert a lone mountain rises up.  It is called Sinai. The Israelites camp at the base, and Moses climbs up. Somewhere along the way, God calls from the mountain. God tells Moses to remind the people below how God rescued them from the Egyptians to “be my own little flock….a kingdom of priests to God, a holy nation.”  The context is important. God appears with fire and thunder in the passage below, and then he gives to Moses the commandments for creating that reverent and just society: a holy nation. 

God appears once again without disguise, even the disguise of a burning bush.  This aspect of holiness that we see in Exodus 19 is unpopular or unknown these days, even despised–even among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, sometimes.  To believe someone is so different from us, so set apart (one of the meanings of “holy”), so much better than we are, may defy our democratic principles. It certainly hurts our egos.Exodus-19-21-1024x658

But unless we understand this aspect, we cannot understand how infinitely morally good God is compared to us. But when we do understand it, we also get a glimpse of how much love and humility is poured out in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  We understand why we need Jesus, why he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the end as well as the means. We understand that only a man who was God, and a God who would become a man, could bridge that awe–full gap between us and God. 

Exodus 19

Moses returned from the mountain and called together the leaders of the people and told them what the Lord had said.

They all responded in unison, “We will certainly do everything he asks of us.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

Then [God] said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in the form of a dark cloud, so that the people themselves can hear me when I talk with you, and then they will always believe you. Go down now and see that the people are ready for my visit. Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes.  Then, the day after tomorrow, I will come down upon Mount Sinai as all the people watch.  Set boundary lines the people may not pass, and tell them, ‘Beware! Do not go up into the mountain or even touch its boundaries; whoever does shall die— no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot to death with arrows, whether man or animal.’ Stay away from the mountain entirely until you hear a ram’s horn sounding one long blast; then gather at the foot of the mountain!”

So Moses went down to the people and sanctified them and they washed their clothing.

He told them, “Get ready for God’s appearance two days from now, and do not have sexual intercourse with your wives.”img_5635

On the morning of the third day there was a terrific thunder and lightning storm, and a huge cloud came down upon the mountain, and there was a long, loud blast as from a ram’s horn; and all the people trembled.  Moses led them out from the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  All Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Jehovah descended upon it in the form of fire; the smoke billowed into the sky as from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake.  As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God thundered his reply.  So the Lord came down upon the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended to God.

But the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to cross the boundaries. They must not come up here to try to see God, for if they do, many of them will die. Even the priests on duty[a] must sanctify themselves, or else I will destroy them.”